Tag Archives: mental health

Creativity, Mental Health, and Well Being: A Case for the Bardic Arts

Creativity is the birthright of all people. When humans are young, play and creativity are central to our own development. Children don’t worry about it being ‘good’; they just make things, play with crayons, laugh, dance, and sing. They play. As children get older, school and society often discourage individual creativity and play, particularly in a culture that values economic growth above all else. The result of this has been a stifling sense of creativity, with many adults believing in the myth of talent (that you have to be good at something immediately to practice it creatively) or insisting they have no creativity.

The bardic arts are those in the druid tradition that focuses on creative works: storytelling, creative writing, fine arts, fine crafts, and any other endeavor where you are building in your creativity. The ancient bards were part of the druid community and were the storytellers and historians of their people; undergoing rigorous training and learning how to pass on the legacies and traditions of their community.  In the druid tradition today, we see any creative practice–for the good of the self, community, or unknown others–as part of the path of bardic arts.  Druids see practicing the bardic arts and cultivating creativity as a spiritual act.  Even with this positive framing, many people feel they “aren’t creative” and may be blocked.

Hence, culturally, we live in a world where a lot of people are discouraged from creating anything–and while this is starting to change due to the challenges of the last few years,  I think we have a long way to go.  Not being able to cultivate a sense of play and creativity has serious implications for our mental health and well-being.  In this post, I’ll explore some of the reasons that creativity is good for all of us, drawing upon scientific research as well as druid sensibilities.

(I’ll also point readers to my longstanding series on the bardic arts, which can be found in these articles: taking up the path of the bard part 1, part 2, and part 3; cultivating awen in your life, bardic storytelling, bardic arts and the ancestors, and visioning the future.  I’ll also point readers to my 2019 OBOD Mount Hameus lecture on the bardic arts in the druid tradition!)

Creativity, Bardic Arts, and Mental Health

The idea that creative practices are tied to mental well-being has a fairly well-established history. In the 19th century, treating mental illness with the bardic arts was standard medical practice.  This was before the age of pharmaceuticals and modern industrial treatments.  According to this study from 2016, the idea of “therapeutic mental health landscapes” was common.  People would be surrounded by gardens, beautiful trees, and landscapes, and be able to engage in a number of creative practices as therapy.  This same kind of thinking: that creative practices have therapeutic effects can be found in research on World War I soldiers, in managing anxiety disorders, in helping individuals with compassion fatigue, and in managing depression. Studies from 2012 and 2008 demonstrated that women who engage in quilting and other crafts-based activities in their leisure time have more mental well-being and general happiness than those that do not. Similar findings are true for “men’s sheds” that provide socializing and opportunities to work wood. These are just some of the hundreds of studies that demonstrate the efficacy of creative practices on well-being and mental health.

Scientific research has begun to explore the relationship between creativity and mental illness, both psychologically and genetically. This study from 2015 examined the relationship between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and creativity.  The study used a mathematical model to predict whether people who were diagnosed with mental illnesses had a higher disposition for creativity–and sure enough, they did. This led the researchers to suggest that creativity and certain mental illnesses may have the same genetic base. One study from 2003 explores divergent thinking (when people have to be creative within constraints) and makes the case that there there is a spectrum between creativity/genius and psychosis and madness/psychopathy. Thus, individuals may fall at different points on this spectrum.  Most recently, genetic research suggests that one gene, the COM-T gene, may be linked to creative thinking.  This same gene is also linked to certain forms of psychosis, such as schizophrenia. From this research, we see some link between creativity and mental illness.

In my own study of the creative arts within the druid tradition, I found that creativity helped address mental health challenges and create stability in a tumultuous world.  As part of my 2018 Mount Haemus lecture, I surveyed 266 druids worldwide about their creative practices. Many, many participants felt that their bardic arts were necessary to their functioning as human beings. It wasn’t that bardic arts was simply a hobby to them, but rather, it was a critical and integral part of their own lives and helped with their well functioning. In my survey, of those who regularly practiced bardic arts, almost half responded in this way to the question “Why do you practice the bardic arts” with a discussion about mental illness and/or health and well-being. Some of their answers included: “My creative practices are akin to my breathing.  I would be lost without them” and “I practice bardic arts to stay sane and grounded”; “Bardic arts help me navigate the difficulties of life.”  Thus, 50% of my participants used creative practices not only for self-expression but for mental balance. Some people used the bardic arts to make sense of the world itself, while others used it to help process issues relating to their personal life or broadly to 21st-century life.

A personal example offers another interesting point to this discussion. On one side of my family, we have a lot of mental illnesses. And it has been a source of some discussion over the years, as some members of the family have debilitating mental diagnoses and others of us showed no signs of mental illness. At first, it seemed random; some of us lost the mental illness lottery and others were spared. It wasn’t until I started digging into this creativity research that I had the ah-ha moment. Those of us who had dedicated creative practices had little to no struggles with mental illness; those who did not have regular battles with mental illness. Did those with mental illness not create?  Or did the lack of a creative practice allow mental illness to take root due to the lack of coping mechanisms? Or perhaps some of both?

Another piece of this puzzle involves the state of mental illness in most industrialized nations. On the rise for mental illness of pressing concern are the youngest generations: children and college-age students have much higher instances of mental illness today when compared with decades ago. Changes to the school system and the rise of the testing culture have had the creative arts stripped from the curriculum.  When funding grows tight, the arts are the first thing to go. We lock kids away in boxes, make them sit quietly and learn facts, test the hell out of them, never let them play or be outside, cut out music and art classes (with Common Core in the US, this is now even worse than before)–and we wonder why kids are depressed? Then, to have them cope with this reality, they get medicated. If children can’t play and create, of course, it is likely to cause a lot of psychological harm. What exactly does refusing them creative practices do?  When these children grow into unhappy and disgruntled adults, is it surprising?

Adults have other issues.  Most are conditioned to believe they are not creative and have no capacity for creativity that they literally engage in defeatest dialogue–“I could never do that” and “you’re so talented.”  The myth of talent, that you have to be good at something the first time you try it, has caused serious harm to many who otherwise would create.  The “I could never do that” shows a lack of understanding and willingness to experience creativity as a process–a process of learning, growth, exploration, struggle, and success.  Being creative takes only a few simple things: a willingness to do it and persevere, some basic tools and instructions, and the time to invest. And yet, for many adults in modern western culture, the idea of creating is outlandish.  I know this from firsthand experience--I’ve cultivated my own creative skills over a long time and now, that I’m a highly skilled artist, literally every time I share my work, I end up in one of these defeatest conversations.

So given all the above–how do we cultivate creativity? How can we gain the wonderful benefits of the Bardic Arts in our own lives?

Embracing Creativity and Flow for Mental Health

Let the awen flow!

Let the awen flow!

Finding ways of allowing ourselves to create–without judgment, without reservation, without blocks–can be an extremely freeing experience.  By shifting our ideas of producing a high-quality creative work (which comes with time and practice) and instead simply making the act of creating the key goal, we can start to overcome some of these challenges and reap the rewards of creative practice in our lives.

A “flow” state is a creative state where a person gets deeply immersed in their work.  In a flow state, you may lose track of time, have a deep focus on your creative activity, and often emerge from this activity feeling calm, refreshed, and grounded.  A flow state is one way that druids would describe the ‘flow of Awen’ – it is when you are deeply immersed and simply flow with your creative practice. The flow state cultivates deep calm and relaxation and has health benefits similar to meditation.

All people are capable of getting into the flow state–and we can cultivate it by setting up the right conditions for it to occur. So here are a few things we can do:

  • Create time for creativity and creative practice
  • Work to develop a base level of technical skill in what you are doing–when you are too new at a skill, you will likely not get into flow states as easily
  • SEtup any conditions that may aid you: the right tools, music, the right setting, etc.
  • Rather than forcing a particular project that you want to create, try to allow yourself to work on whatever you feel drawn to in that moment.  This particular thing has worked exceedingly well for me–it does mean I have a lot of projects ongoing, but I am always ready to make progress on one or two of them when I sit down to create.

For me, for example, I often get into it as a writer by playing instrumental music, sitting down at a set time each week, and doing some brainstorming to get me in the mood (most of my blog posts are written in the flow state, and revised at a later place).  As an artist, my requirements are a bit different.  I usually put on a familiar movie or music track (this time with words) and lock myself in my studio.  And in either case, I ask myself, what am I most excited to work on? Of course, this kind of dedicated creative practice, along with my other spiritual practices, do help me maintain my mental balance and stability, even under conditions that can be difficult.  You’ll note that with each of these, I’ve had to practice ways of getting and staying in flow states–and once I did, I had a method that “worked” for me, and therefore, allowed it to come often.

To be clear, I’m not saying that an emphasis on the creative arts is the solution to all mental illnesses. But what I am saying is that according to a lot of druids in my study, and based on some of the other factors shared above, it may offer us a buffer to stave off mental illness.  Creative practices may be one of several things we can do to protect ourselves from the debilitating and rampant mental illness that is plaguing our culture.  And we get some cool paintings, stories, or songs out of it too!

Thus, creativity can be a buffer not only for these challenging times where mental health and self-care seem to be at an all-time low, but also a buffer to help us understand, process, and experience the world. I certainly use my own artwork to do that: I paint my feelings and emotions surrounding fracking and mountaintop removal here in my home. I paint my feelings about the loss of my beehives due to colony collapse disorder.  I paint my frustration about the inability of our world’s leaders (particularly here in the US at present) to do anything substantial about climate change and mass extinction.

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing, Part VII: Self Care and Land Healing

Today’s post continues my long series in land healing (see earlier posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), and given the heaviness of the last few weeks of posts, today, I wanted to delve into how to do this healing work and to stay happy, healthy, and sane. Today, I want to explore and voice some of these mental health concerns and share strategies for coping, addressing, and action.  And so, in this post, we’ll look first at some challenges to help us frame these overall issues, including the concept of solstalgia, and then we’ll explore a wide range of ways that we can engage in self-care on these issues: Having the tools and cultivating hope, supporting our adrenals and physical bodies with plants, supporting our souls with healing retreats and escapes, daily protective workings, working with the energies of light and life, bardic acts of expression, visiting well-tended places, and talking with it and more. And so, off we go!

 

One of my favorites sycamores to sit under and heal

One of my favorites sycamores to sit under and heal

Solstalgia

There is good cause to talk about the subject of mental health and self care in regards to the work of land healing–as I shared a bit last week, research is emerging on the mental health implications of  living in a rapidly depleting and crumbling world. And that research is only scratching the surface, really, of what people who are spiritually aware of these things and deeply connected with the land really experience!

 

I recently came across a psychological theory–solstalgia–that sheds great light onto today’s subject, so I’ll share it here. Nostalgia is, in the psychological sense, what happens to people who are distant from home and long to return–this often occurs with people who were refugees or other people forced to leave their homes for various reasons (no work, etc).  Solstalgia, which was proposed by Albrecht and colleagues in 2007, is a similar phenomenon, and describes the stress and mental health issues that people face when experiencing first-hand devastation of their home lands. Through a series of focus groups, interviews, and surveys, they explored how a rural population experienced massive surface mining operations and extreme drought; people who live among and experience large-scale environmental destruction had a range of negative emotions, a disconnection to their sense of place and belonging, descriptions of extreme duress, and a strong sense of powerlessness. This “environmentally induced stress” was particularly difficult to manage because it happened in one’s home environment, every day, and escaping it meant leaving home. They described these chronic stressors as “generally not seen” by mental health professionals or researchers.  Although this term was proposed in 2007, it hasn’t gained much traction in the time since: and I think that’s a problem.  The longer that we pretend this stuff doesn’t affect us, the more problematic it becomes.

 

I find this concept really useful to explain some of what I’ve been personally experiencing since returning to PA, and I wonder how it plays out not just in the short term, but over time.  As an herbalist, I know that short-term stressors can give way to long-term adrenal fatigue, and eventually, adrenal burnout, where a person is in a chronic state of prolonged stress that causes depression, apathy, lack of energy, and general ill health.  I sometimes wonder if that’s what is going on here, when people have been living for so long in this chronically stressed state.  And I think its important to realize that even if people aren’t as aware of the specific ecological consequences, this stuff is hard to avoid seeing. These implications are there, I have found, whether or not you are awake and paying attention to what is happening.  All of us, on some level, know things are changing and each of us have to find our own way through it.  For many, its, as I wrote about two weeks ago, ignoring it and choosing not to see.  Its a self-preservation response to avoid even more stress.I think when you begin to open your eyes, however, and really confront this stuff through land healing, there’s a different kind of level of awareness that takes place.  In choosing to see, you also choose to experience.  Some of that pain and suffering, invariably, goes within is, and if we aren’t careful, gets lodged there.  And so, for the remainder of the post, let’s explore some of those self-care strategies that can really help land healers along!

 

Supporting our Adrenals and Physical Bodies

Some nice nettles!

Some nice nettles!

On the practical level much of our stress is handled through the body’s automatic nervous system; chronic stress often puts us into a long-term sympathetic nervous system state. (Really, daily life in industrialized cultures in the 21st century does that already, and adding on some of these environmental stressors just pushes it over the edge). Our adrenal glands produce hormones that help our bodies deal with stress, but over time, they weaken and are taxed. Chronic fatigue syndrome can set in if we are not careful; and so, finding ways of reducing the stress and replenishing our adrenals are of critical concern.  Reducing the stress and supporting our adrenals has a number of different aspects: we need physical rest and rejuvenation (see below); we need a healthy diet (no caffeine, lots of nutrients and leafy greens); we need to work to reduce stress when possible; and we need plant allies that can help physically and mentally help reduce stress and rejuvenate.  I have had a tremendous amount of success with these plant allies in coping with my own stress (from work, from all this stuff) and wanted to share. Here are a few of my favorite plant allies that are easy to grow, local, and abundant for adrenal support and rebuilding:

 

  • Oats / Milky Oats (Avena Sativa): Oats are a gentle, powerful herb and a fantastic restorative, particularly for stabilizing and rebuilding the nervous system. Any oats are tonic and nurturing, but milky oats are most so. Jim McDonald writes in his Nettles, Oats and You: “Regular usage builds up both the structure and function of nervous and adrenal tissue, resulting in a lasting strengthening effect. It is especially well suited to nervous exhaustion due to debilitative nervous system disorders, overwork (mental or physical), drug abuse, or trauma and should be used during nay period of prolonged stress.” Even a bowl of oatmeal can be restorative in this way–and taking oatstraw or milky oats is all the better!
  • Lemon Balm (Melissa Officinalis): Helps us recover from nervous exhaustion, insomnia, or low spirits. Has a gentle and powerful effect on the central nervous system over time.  I find lemon balm a fantastic tea for after land healing work!
  • Stinging Nettles (Urtica Dioca): Stinging nettle is a first-rate adaptogen (herb that helps us adapt to stress) that restores depleted or exhausted adrenal gland. One of the many things they do is shift our bodies from “adrenal mode” (sympathetic nervous system) to a parasympathetic nervous system state. Jim McDonald writes in Nettles, Oats, and You, “I consider it, along with Burdock, one of the most universally beneficial herbs to use as a basis for restoring and maintaining well being.”  Nettle seeds and nettle leaf should be taken consistently, long term.  Nettle seeds work a little different than the leaf–the seeds provide stable energy, while the leaf I find is more rebuilding.  Yes, they sting–use gloves when you harvest them, and as soon as you cook them even a little, they stop stinging :).  They are well worth having a patch in your garden or yard!  I have these every day as part of my stress management regimen!

 

There are many more healing plants for rebuilding the adrenals and reducing stress. Others include astralagus, ashwaghanda, schizandra, elethro root, wood betony, skullcap, ginseng, blue vervain, passionflower, holy basil, and reishi. (I’ll also mention that my sister and I are in the process of starting a herbal healing blog, so I’ll be posting much more on this subject there and will let you know when I do!).

 

Supporting our Souls: Healing Retreat Space

Another important thing that you can do is get a way from it all, to have a healing retreat and space away from everything else. This needs to be a place that is free of the damage you are seeking to heal as a land healer and from other common stressors. A small spot in a protected state forest, a small garden in your back yard, a camping retreat, a quite spot in a park–somewhere that you can go and simply enjoy being in nature, in its regenerated state.  This stuff can wear and grate on you, and you need respite from it. I think that’s part of why this concept of solstalgia is so useful to think through–the reason its so bad is that you can’t get away from it, and once you are conscious you need to do so, you can seek ways of responding.

 

Daily Protective Workings

A daily protective magical working is critical to helping you maintain your balance as a land healer or simply as a person, awake and alive, in today’s times. Most modern estoteric traditions offer some kind of protective working. The primary one that I use comes from the AODA, which is called the Sphere of Protection. I really love this ritual–it takes about 5 minutes a day, and it does a number of key things: invoking positive qualities of the elements, banishing negative qualities of the elements, connecting to the three currents, and creating a sphere of protection around the physical, etheric, and astral body.  I wrote about it more extensively for our first issue of Trilithon, which is now available freely online here.  Its a ritual that takes some time to learn; the best place to learn it is in either of John Michael Greer’s books: The Druidry Handbook or The Druid Magic Handbook.  I can give a brief synopsis of it here, however.

 

First, the Druid begins by invoking the four power (in some form: elements, dieties, archangels, etc) and physically and
energetically forming an Elemental Cross while standing facing north. Second, the Druid invokes the four elemental gateways by invoking positive qualities of the four elemental energies (Air, Fire, Water, Earth) and banishing the negative qualities of those elements in each of the four quarters.  As the druid does this, she moves through each of the quarters, drawing symbolism for each of the directions, calling in each element verbally, and using visual components.  And then she does the same thing as she banishes to drive away negativity. The Druid then invokes the remaining three gateways: the telluric current (Spirit Below), the solar current (Spirit Above), and the lunar current (Spirit Within)
using language, action, and visualization. The final part of the SOP draws upon these seven energies and circulates light in a protective sphere. This protective sphere is most typically placed around a person.

 

If the SOP doesn’t float your boat, you can do other kinds of rituals.  A good one is the Summoning or Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram (you want to alternate between summoning and banishing in order to achieve balance in your life).  Be aware that not all daily rituals that druid orders offer are protective: OBOD’s light body exercise is a rejuvenating and energizing ritual, and is extremely useful in its own right, but it is not protective in nature.  I like to use it in conjunction with the SOP or when I’m doing other kinds of work, but I don’t depend on it to keep the gunk off of me as I go throughout my daily living!

 

 

A fanatastic example of the energies of life and light--frog eggs from my parents' pond. I am so excited to meet them when they emerge!

A fantastic example of the energies of life and light–frog eggs from my parents’ pond that I saw the last time I visited them. I am so excited to meet them when they emerge!

Working with Energies of Light and Life

One of the other things that’s important to keep in mind is the balance of life and death, of light and darkness. We have both in our lives, and certainly, if you are doing land healing work (particularly the kind I talked about last week) you will see your fair share of pain and darkness. You can’t be doing the hard work of palliative care, working wit sites that will be destroyed and other forms of land healing constantly or it will fatigue you. It’s important that you go to the spaces that are abundant, and alive, and rejuvenate your energies there.  It’s important that you take frequent breaks from this work to balance your energies. I think its easy to fall into the trap of seeing everything as destroyed or damaged–and depending where you live, the balance of those things may be off–but there are always places where it isn’t so.  Even focusing on the dandelions growing up out of the sidewalk, rejuvenating compacted soil and bringing the blessings of healing medicine, is so important!

 

Embrace the magic of the spring, of the seed and of the promise of rebirth and life.  Grow some sprouts or start some seedsKeep a garden.  Bring in light into your physical home and life–open the windows, embrace the sun.  If you work with deities, make sure you work with some that focus on life and living. If you do yearly celebrations, you do all of them, and use the spring holidays for your own healing and rejuvenation.

 

Bardic Arts and Creative Expression

Of course, spending time cultivating your own creative gifts can be a source of healing energy and life–and is a critical balance for you if you are engaging in difficult healing work. I especially like to do this through my painting and ecoprinting work–I like to bring in the energies of life and light, and paint them in ways that help others embrace the energies of the earth.  I wrote about this much more extensively on my post on permaclture and self care.

 

Visiting Well-Tended and Well-Loved Natural Spaces

Me on a winter trip to Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, PA. This whimsical space is in the middle of their orchid room!

Me on a winter trip to Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, PA. This whimsical space is in the middle of their orchid room!

Another excellent balance for this more difficult land healing work is to spend time visiting places where humans are cultivating the land carefully, meaningfully, and with love.  This is another way to bring light and life back into your life and help drive away the darkness. Any small organic family farm often fits this bill, as do places like botanical gardens, nature sanctuaries, retreat centers, botanical sanctuaries, permaculure design sites, and more.  Time spent here, even a few hours, can really help you remember that lots of good people are doing good healing work in the world, and helping keep the scales balanced.

 

Talking About It with Others

Just speaking about your feelings, especially surrounding the stuff that I opened this post with, I believe is a really important part of our own healing work.  We have to, as Joanna Macy suggests, come to terms with what is happening, be able to voice our grief and pain about what we see, and find ways forward.  JMG talks about this as going through the stages of grief and working toward acceptance–and we do need to do that inner work.  I have found that talking to others about this really, really helps move me forward.  I know I’m not alone.  I know that others share my concerns, feel what I feel, and there is great release! (I think we even do some of this here, on the blog, for those that are scattered at a distance!)

 

 

 

Having the Tools in Hand and Embracing the Power of Hope

Being in the mindest of hope and having the tools is another especially important part of this self care practice.  I think that a lot of us feel powerless, disempowered, hopeless, and that is the worst thing.  That kind of thinking leads down a dark path that you do not want to walk.  Instead, I encourage you to focus on the power of hope even as you go about healing the destruction of others.  A personal example, here, might best illustrate this point.  As I frequently write on this blog, my primary way forward has been through my integration of many sustaining and regenerative practices that fall under my path of druidry: permaculture design, wildcrafting and wildtending, land healing, herbalism, ritual and celebration, inhabiting the world gently, and more. I have found that the more I focus on the good I can do, the better I feel. I think I was at my lowest with this stuff around 2008-2010, before I discovered and began practicing permaculture and herbalism.  As a druid that had been waking up and paying attention for a few years at that point, I was hit with the enormity of it all, but I had lacked the tools for change, lacked a lot of the healing approaches of any kind (physical or spiritual).  And so, instead, I kind of brooded on it, thought about it a lot, sat with it, but didn’t know what to do. I think my original edition of the Tarot of Trees book really reflects that state of mind: I wrote an introduction that was kind of demoralizing and talking about what was happening like a giant wave that nobody could stop–I was painting the trees in honor of the ones that had been cut. Consequently, when I re-released the Tarot of Trees 3rd edition eariler this year, I created a new card called “regeneration” and rewrote a good deal of the opening of the book to reflect that hope and renewed perspective. I give this example because the difference in what I wrote, and how I thought, had everything to do with the empowering tools of hope–and I found those tools through integrating my spiritual practice of druidry with the practical tools of permaculture.  I was now doing something, something that was making a difference, and that was incredibly important.  Melancholia strikes us all at times about this stuff–but its about not staying in that space that can help us keep moving forward.

 

Ultimately, a lot of what I share on this blog is  response to all of this–the power of doing something.  I talked about the implications of doing something in my post earlier this year, on making a difference, and how its the act of trying, of exerting effort, that really is key for our own growth.  It heals us, it heals our lands, and it helps, I believe, brighten our very souls. My solution to the solastalgia, to the destruction, is to do what I can to build a better today and a brighter tomorrow and to equip myself with the best tools to do so: the esoteric and spiritual practices of druidry, the knowledge and ethics of permaulcture, and a smattering of other good stuff: ecology, herbalism, natural building, playing in the mud, painting trees, community activism, and more.  I hope you’ll continue with me on this journey–because more land healing posts–and a lot of other things–are to follow!