The story of how the Feathers came to be
“It feels like my shoulders are being pulled down by something really heavy. And yet this weight is holding me up.”
These were the words that began my ‘Feathers Project’. I was nearing the end of a 6-day Positive Neuroplasticity Training with Rick Hanson. I had attended the course online from New Zealand, so the above conversation happened via Skype with another participant. We were practising Rick’s HEAL process which trains the brain to go beyond the natural negativity bias and to take in the good.
As I described my experience over the Skype connection, a very clear image came into my head: I was standing on a waka (a Māori canoe) and wearing a korowai (a Māori cloak)*.
The image held meaning for me on so many levels. A waka is symbolic of one’s life journey, and the korowai is symbolic of protection, connection and mana (a Māori concept which is hard to translate, but touches on status/dignity/respect for self and others). At the time, I was traversing choppy waters in my own life, plagued by moments of hopelessness and self doubt.
This was over 3 years ago and I have since developed a daily practice which combines the HEAL process with my visual arts and somatic therapy background. I have woven my own korowai made of about 350 paper feathers, each of which was the result of a 15 minute meditation on a time in my life when I overcame my doubts.
At first these doubt-free moments were hard to recall. I began with a few distant memories; giving birth to my children, singing in public, recovering from an argument with a colleague. I would write these memories on the spine of a feather. Down the left side I would consciously, and in an embodied way, enrich the memory of the experience. And down the right side I would describe how this experience is absorbed into my current sense of being. Later, as I ‘wove’ the feathers into the cape, I created a bank of nourishing experiences against which I can link individual difficult experiences, helping to re-code the memories and keep the balance positive.
Many of you will recognise Rick Hanson’s HEAL process here. H stands for Having the experience, E for Enriching it, A for Absorbing it, and L for Linking it. What I have done is created a visual metaphor for my own HEAL process and developed a repetitive daily art practice to keep me engaged with the project.
I now find it much easier to access and recall times of inner knowing and trust in myself. I have written feathers on all sorts of experiences; my work as an artist, a parent, a therapist, even my experiences of mountain biking, gardening or simply breathing. They have helped me to move beyond my nourishment barrier, and stand tall on my waka.
Self-doubt does still travel with me but when I am able to notice it I stop and become mindful of the korowai. Through the felt-sense imprint of the korowai’ s weight on my back I access my inner strength. The doubt, wrapped up inside the warmth of the cape, comes to know its own smallness, and gradually I come to know my own strength.
The inclusion of a visual art practice into the HEAL process has had five main benefits. I have tried to group them in terms of the aspects that Hanson himself refers to as important in maximising the creation of new neural networks. These include:
1) Duration/Repetition: The feathers have made it easier to do the repitition required to strengthen new neural networks. Working towards the creation of an artwork, the resolution of an end-product, sustained my daily HEAL practice. At some level, we are all makers and gain great satisfation from the completion of a hand-crafted object. Effort creates satisfaction and satisfaction sustains effort.
2) Multimodality: Combining mindful visual processing with the embodied felt-sense has involved different parts of my brain and helped to install and integrate the learning. The process of making the feathers, writing the words, exploring the emotions and feeling the sensations has used my head, hand, heart and hara/gut. It has been a truly multimodal process.
3) Activating and Installing: Having a visible and tangible end product has given me access to my daily practices long after they were ‘done’, meaning I can revisit them, observe common threads in their content, recall the experiences encoded within, and use their collective size and ‘weight’ as a strong tool in the Linking stage of HEAL.
4) Novelty and Salience: Using metaphor and symbolism has increased both the salience and novelty of the process. In essence the metaphor of a feather cloak, being so personal to me, has made it easier to store and recall the memories and felt-sense experiences held within the artwork.
5) Intensity of Emotion: In the absorbing or installing phase of the HEAL process, I often come back to my training as a Hakomi therapist. I use mindful somatic approaches to deepen the Absorb phase in a way that has brought about physical shifts and releases in the body. With experience, this work has the capacity to access our exiled or child parts, thereby processing and transforming core limiting beliefs. The more intensely I could allow myself to experience the feeling of Absorbing, the better the recall and greater the impact.
Ultimately the artwork has taken on a life of its own. I now use the process with clients in person and online, in particular to help resource clients and provide islands of relative safety during trauma work. During COVID-19 lockdown I am offering a simplified version for free to help people reduce stress, increase wellbeing and improve immune function.
The measure of a practice is in how likely you are to continue it. It is, afterall, something you need to do repeatedly in order to reap the rewards. The development of the HEAL process into an art practice has made the difference, for me, between a theory and an ongoing practice. I like to think of it as creating new neural networks one brush stroke at a time.
*It is important to state here that I am not of Māori descent. I arrived in New Zealand / Aotearoa 21 years ago from Scotland. I have a great respect for Māori and I am very conscious that I want to avoid cultural appropriation, but that perhaps I haven’t for which I appologise. I only do this because I want to remain true to the picture and feeling I had that afternoon of myself standing on the waka wearing the cloak. I chose to continue to work with the korowai image and explore what it means to me personally, but in a respectiful way that also deepens my understanding of Māori culture. When I work with others using this appraoch, I encourage them to find their own imagery, metaphor and visual language. So far, people have developed their own ‘feathers projects’ with metaphors and imagery that include the scales of a koi fish, the petals of a lotus, stars in a constellation, circles in a keep-sake jar, pebbles, woven baskets, leaves, butterflies and blossoms. The possibilities are endless.