Painting to Calm My Anxious Brain

I’m a fairly anxious person. I over think and over analyse most things. From the moral, environmental, and health implications of every snack I choose for my kids each day, to how to spend my money (with many of the same worrying implications), or how to prioritise my life.

Often even as the over thinking is stressful and building I am able to manage. But it regularly builds and becomes overwhelming. I am learning that this happens most often if there is a bigger underlying stress. In recent months and years that underlying stress has been changing and I have made progress. But there are many large life questions I have been wrestling with that are still there even as they have shifted.

These big background stresses are complicated and interconnected and are hard to keep ahold of mentally. As I talked about that with a friend recently she suggested that I draw. No rules, no limits, no specific guidelines, just draw something of my mental worries. I am terrible at drawing without judging my skills (I can’t draw stick figures usually without just feeling so ridiculous), so I chose rather to paint abstractly.

I didn’t know what to do, or what my goal was. I tried to just clear my conscious critical reactions, and move the paint brush around. I chose colours that I liked. I painted shapes and colour progressions that somehow resonated. And as I went I thought about the particular life questions that were weighing heavily that moment. When I had finished painting I did some writing – almost captioning – and that also added to the process for me. It helped to solidify the meaning of the progression of colours I had been working with.

And when I was done, my brain was calm. What had been a very tumultuous and upset mental space was calm. I didn’t have “answers” but I did have a better understanding of my own thought processes and even a better grasp on WHY those things were causing me anxiety. It had been a far more useful 20 minutes than I ever would have guessed before I began.

When I talked with my husband about it later and some of the reasons it had been helpful, he offered the idea from the Writings about ultimates. Our higher, spiritual selves are contained within out lower natural selves. And this is true of the world around us. And this way of putting my thoughts into an image outside of me is also like an ultimate of a higher thing. Ultimates can hold and contain something much bigger, and also help us to see the boundaries of that bigger thing. Those boundaries are sometimes extremely helpful to see.

This passage from Arcana Coelestia 4240 is jumping in to an explanation of the phrase “To the land of Seir” but I love the conclusion about boundaries and how the natural level holds the spiritual level:

‘To the land of Seir’ means celestial-natural good. This is clear from the meaning of ‘the land of Seir’ in the highest sense as the Lord’s celestial-natural good. The reason why ‘the land of Seir’ has this meaning is that Mount Seir formed a boundary to the land of Canaan on one side….and all boundaries such as rivers, mountains, and stretches of land represented the things that came last….Indeed these boundaries acquired their individual representations from the land of Canaan contained within them, which land represented the Lord’s heavenly kingdom, and in the highest sense His Divine Human….Things that are last, existing as boundaries, are those which are called natural, for natural things are the boundaries holding spiritual and celestial realities within them. This is so in the heavens, for the inmost or third heaven is celestial because it is governed by love to the Lord; the intermediate or second heaven is spiritual because it is governed by love towards the neighbour; and the last or first heaven is celestial- natural and spiritual-natural because it is governed by simple good, which is the last degree of order there. And the same is true with the regenerate person who is a miniature heaven.” (emphasis added)

So I pass along this exercise to you, in hopes that on a day when you don’t know what to do to get to the bottom of your anxiety, you let yourself draw or paint and put some boundaries for those bigger things to flow into. And hopefully it will provide you some of the same peace it has for me.

In Praise of Pageants

Maybe it’s all of the Halloween hype, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of dressing up in costumes and pretending that we are something or someone else. There are plenty of arguments for why Christians maybe shouldn’t celebrate Halloween. It is, after all, a patently pagan holiday that tends to glorify the macabre. But if we put aside the ghoulish parts and focus on the fun of dressing up and getting treats, then the whole affair seems innocent enough.

In lots of New Church congregations, people dress up as characters from the Word and act out the stories as part of religious services. Some do this regularly in more informal settings and some reserve such performances for Christmas and New Church Day pageants.

As a child, I loved watching people in costume act out my favorite Bible stories. Sure, it was entertaining and it was more interesting than just listening to a minister read the Word and then talk to me about it. But it was always more than added entertainment value. I think seeing these characters and stories brought to life helped make me aware of the relevance of the Word to my own life. I got to watch friends and neighbors play these familiar roles and realized that the characters in the Word were people. They were like me.

When I was older, I started to participate in religious pageants whenever I had the opportunity. There was something so powerful about not only watching these stories come to life, but to act them out myself. So far I have played a townsperson, a shepherd, an angel, Mary, and even part of the Great Red Dragon. The variety has been a lot of fun, but really what’s struck me over the years is how it makes so much sense to have real people bring these characters to life from time to time—because they are our life. Every figure and event in the Word is a part of our lives. It’s all relevant. We are all Mary and Joseph. We have all faced the Dragon and Herod and sought out the newborn Lord and Church in our lives. It’s all about us.

And what a powerful gift to remind ourselves, not just intellectually, but with our natural bodies that we all have these beloved and notorious characters living within us as we regenerate. Something inside of us wakes up when the Word is presented in ways that engage more of our senses. There is something both humanizing and uplifting in seeing another person emulate Mary in the moment she accepts the Lord’s plan for her. That’s us. Right there. In religious tableaux and even in cinematic interpretations of the Word, we get to experience these powerful moments in a familiar and visceral way. Observing and playing these parts can remind us that they are really a part of us. And there’s nothing make-believe about that. It is so deeply real.

I’ve had the privilege of directing both the Christmas and New Church Day pageants in my congregation in Toronto for the last three years. It brings me such joy to work alongside the people I attend church with and weave together living images of such powerful correspondences in the Word. It never ceases to amaze me how time and time again the congregation can see past the pretend sheep and the electric star and decades-old costumes, and still see something precious and deeply personal in these performances.

I have occasionally met with some resistance about using words like “performance” when talking about religious services. It’s as if “performing” is an inherently secular thing, done purely for entertainment value. But if you look it up, the first definition of the word, “perform,” is to “carry out, accomplish, or fulfill (an action, task, or function).” I think we can take a cue from that. These kinds of religious performances are special and important because they remind us to not just read the Word but to live it.

This article is just my musings on the importance of religious performance. I would love to hear about how any religious pageants you’ve seen or participated in have impacted your spiritual journey. Do you find pageants particularly powerful or instructive or even distracting or harmful? What’s something you’d like to see done in tableaux or pageant form that you haven’t seen yet? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading mine.

Silver Branch Arts

From the Admin: This week we have a guest article by the creators of Silver Branch Arts–a directory of New Church artists and craftsmen. Enjoy! 

It started as a small visit here and an after church conversation there. The topic was the same: craft sales were fun, inspiring and a powerful motivation to spend time creating, but was there a better way to make uniquely New Church art and handwork available year round and to a wider audience? Could we create an online way to showcase beautiful things and the people who make them?

The process began in earnest as regular meetings around plates of cookies and cups of tea. First we voted on a name for our fledgling organization: Silver Branch Arts and Handwork. A name to honor the many ways women and men create with their hearts and hands. It was derived from the memorable relation where art and statues filled the garden, a beautiful rainbow appeared on the wall and the gift of grapes with leaves of silver was Swedenborg’s parting gift.

But then the real work began! We were a bunch who didn’t know how to make an email account, how to make a webpage or make digital pictures behave the way we wanted. We called in experts and read books from the library. We learned to use Zoho Mail, WordPress and Google Docs. We wrote letters, applications and mission statements. Slowly the dream became a reality.

Silver Branch Arts features one artist each month, showcasing their work and sharing a brief biography written by the artist. These pages are then moved and contained in the Archive section of the site so past artists can be reviewed. The Directory page shows all the artists that have joined Silver Branch and gives examples of the art they create and the way to contact them for purchasing their work. The remaining pages tell the viewer of our mission and how to contact us. Our site went live in April and we have had a steady stream of new artists joining us, new followers and a increase of emails that receive our updates.

We are a small band of folks trying to honor the teachings of the New Church in art form. We hope you look at our site, consider filling out an application if you are an artist or enjoy and purchase beautiful art and handwork from around the world as a consumer.

Heather King for the Silver Branch Team

https://silverbrancharts.com/

Reflecting On Your Values

For one of my college classes this year, we were asked to complete a Life Values Inventory at http://www.lifevaluesinventory.org/. This website invites people to reflect on what they value and how they prioritize those values. They define our values as our lens, what we use in order to view ourselves and the world. For my assignment, we needed to complete the inventory and then reflect on how our particular values (our lens, our perspective) influences the way we see the field we are studying.

This was a fascinating process for me, and I found it to be very useful not only for my class but also for better understanding myself (and maybe others). Continue reading Reflecting On Your Values