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Narratives of the Unconscious: Psychosynthesis in Education

Japser Goodall describes ‘Narratives of the Unconscious’ - A Psychosynthesis inspired university project.

I have taught on the BA Illustration course at the University of Brighton for 16 years and it was through my teaching that I made the decision to train as a counsellor at the Psychosynthesis Trust. I teach mostly into the final year of the BA which focusses on self expression and self authorship; by the time they have got halfway through the second year, almost all the students have the technical ability to make artwork and the question then becomes ‘what do you want to say or explore through your work?’

The one-to-one tutorials that characterise the final year help to elucidate and explore personal themes and interests. Occasionally, if a student suffers the paralysis of perfectionism and self doubt and is thus unable to work, addressing these issues and finding a way back to confidence becomes the focus of the tutorial. These tutorials all too often serve to highlight the student’s need to access the counselling service. Their self criticism seldom stops at their work; on the contrary, their feelings about their work are a symptom of a much more pervasive self image. As you can imagine, these tutorials share much in common with a counselling session.

Over the years I have seen talented students suffer with self doubt, a perennial problem for creatives. I often wondered if there might be a way, short of sending students to the over subscribed university counselling service, to address the inner critics that were plaguing them. I have always felt that the wellbeing aspect of student experience is too divorced from the academic side; there is access to workshops and talks but students often don’t make use of these offerings because maybe they missed an email, it was on another campus or they were just too busy with work.

Ones creativity is intimately connected with ones state of mind and yet this aspect of the creative process has traditionally been left unaddressed on art and design courses; the focus is always on the work not the reasons why a student might be stuck and avoidant. I dreamed of a course that integrated an understanding of the creative process and the pitfalls of self judgement; integrating self inquiry into projects or at least delivering wellbeing workshops directly into the curriculum. It was because of this thinking that I decided to change direction in life and train as a counsellor.

Now that I have graduated, I am slowly building and testing my ideas of how self inquiry can be integrated into the academic side of an undergraduate degree. Fortunately Psychosynthesis provides abundant ideas and techniques that can be used to great effect in an educational setting. Indeed Assagioli had always intended that Psychosynthesis needn’t be limited to a therapeutic context and Diana Whitmore has written a great book on the use of Psychosynthesis in Education.

The project described in this post is a part of the ‘gestation’ and testing of my ideas and I hope goes a little way towards Assagioli’s vision of Psychosynthesis in an educational setting. It is not explicitly therapeutic in intent, rather, it is designed to introduce students to their psychic interior and the creative power of their imagination. In addition it requires inner criticism to be acknowledged and consciously bracketed in order to foster an attitude of exploration, permissiveness and play.

The project is comprised of three parts: a workshop day focussed on exploring the creativity of the mind in order to meet characters from participants’ unconscious; a second workshop focussed on puppetry and mask making so that they could bring one of these characters to life, and then a period of time for students to work alone making a film as a final outcome using the puppet or mask.

We began the first workshop sitting in a circle. Whilst this may be a familiar setup for many training in counselling and therapy, it was immediately new to my students; they were taken out of a standard configuration of teacher in front of rows of students and into a more relational and equal space. There was already a sense in which today might be different to the norm. I led a short settling meditation and then asked everyone to check in by saying a few words about how they were feeling. With each step I was attempting to help them relax into a space where they would become comfortable sharing. To continue this ‘warming up’ process, inspired by Allan Frater’s introduction to my foundation year at the Trust, I handed out Druid Animal Oracle Cards which contain beautifully illustrated images of animals, some real some fictional in varied surroundings. I told them to trust that the animal they picked would relate in some way to their life and asked them to share whatever was in their minds with a partner. Once the initial surprise and slight resistance to share was overcome, the energy of the room shifted noticeably. Many said it had been initially hard and yet it had felt good to speak openly about their lives.

I had given a specific instruction that the person listening was to remain strictly silent (something many found almost impossible to adhere to!) When sharing their experience in the wider group one astute student pointed something out; because his partner didn’t speak, and because the allotted time was not up, he found himself running out of things to say. He then sat quietly, still focussed on his animal image. Into that space further insight into his life emerged. This experience beautifully illustrates the power of silence, of leaving space for a client to sit with their experience and thoughts and to allow the creativity of the mind to bring forth deeper insight.

The idea of a workshop to exercise the ‘muscle of imagination’ came about during the post graduate diploma weekend on the use of guided imagery and symbology of the imagination. I was so struck by the vividness of my internal imagery that I knew then and there that this was something my students would really benefit from. The exercises that weekend illustrated the power of being held by a witness during a visualisation as opposed to daydreaming — when we have somebody to report our experience to, our attention can be held and our experience deepens without us flying off on distracting tangents as can often happen if we are alone.

With this in mind I asked students to partner up and, with drawing materials and lots of paper, they found themselves somewhere comfortable to sit. I asked one to take all the drawing equipment and the other to close their eyes in order to be able to go into a visualisation. The person drawing was to listen whilst the visualiser described what their imagination was creating, in this way the visualiser would be held by the drawer. Whatever they described had to be drawn as fast as possible on sheets of paper. This differs from what might be done on a training weekend or in a therapy session where the visualiser would draw their own images. There were reasons for this: firstly, the loosely guided visualisation was long and detailed with a lot of information to retain, much of which may have been forgotten if drawing was left till the end; secondly, I didn’t want them coming in and out of their process to draw, so having a person to report to and draw on their behalf would help hold and deepen their visualisation; lastly, I wanted the drawers to get out of any possibility of perfectionism or making a ‘good’ drawing — they would simply not have time. It was an experiment in spontaneity where their inner critics would hopefully have no time to jump in and judge.

I asked the visualisers to close their eyes and picture themselves in some kind of outdoor place; to look around and see what was there. What the floor was made of? What the weather was like? etc. Once they felt ready they started to describe to their partner what was being seen… the frantic drawing began! As we continued in this way I suggested a building in the distance. Once entered and its interior described, I suggested that it was inhabited by a being of some kind who had something to say to them. This was the first of their encounters with a character from their unconscious. Later there was a glade of trees and a second being, and later still a mountain plateau on which a temple stood. Inside they met a third being whom — I informed them — was very wise. The mountain and wise being will be familiar symbols to the Psychosynthesis community, relating to the higher unconscious and wisdom of the Self.

All of these places and beings I asked them to describe in detail; clothes, colour, weather, furniture, etc. Finally, when it was over and the visualiser opened their eyes, they could see what their partners had drawn for them — the room erupted in excited conversation. Many students were really surprised; they were amazed at what their own minds were capable of seeing. Most were unfamiliar with the level of intimacy with their own interior. This was exciting for me as my aim in this project was to demonstrate and exercise the power of inner vision and the creative potential of the unconscious mind which is so necessary for creative students to become more familiar with. I had not intended that it be in any way a therapeutic visualisation, more like an exercise to develop the faculty of imagination, however some reported feeling extremely calm afterwards, as if their interior had just been soothed and ordered somehow. On reflection, the very process of observing ones interior and reporting this experience to another is a form of disidentification, moving participants closer toward the non-judgemental awareness of ‘I’ which may account for the feelings of calmness some were experiencing.

During the afternoon I gave a brief talk on subpersonality theory using images of some of my own subpersonalities as examples to initiate discussion. I talked particularly about the very common inner critic subpersonality as I felt that even just having theoretical knowledge of this concept may help bring some disidentification to those that may have had a powerful critic. There is a great scene in Lord of the Rings in which Golum speaks viciously to himself, as the camera changes angle and his face moves from spiteful self-loathing to pitiful victim — critic to frightened child. It is a powerful (if somewhat exaggerated) example of a critic at its worst.

The students were then invited to answer the question ‘who are you?’ ten times and using their answers I asked them to pick one that they felt either positive or at least neutral about (an attempt to avoid anybody getting into emotional difficulty) in order to visualise this aspect of themselves and draw it. This drawing was then described and discussed in dialogue with a partner. This final exercise was probably the closest to a therapeutic use of drawing and visualisation.

By the end of the day they had been on a journey into their own imaginations and met several characters and subpersonalities along the way. These encounters were to serve as inspiration for the remainder of the project and be brought to life via puppetry and/or masks and filmed. The short film I asked them to create depicting this character could be as nonsensical and non narrative as they liked. The only request was that they consider setting, atmosphere and sound. I wanted as much permissiveness for creation as possible and told them that I did not care if their film made no sense or was of rough and ready quality, just that I wanted them to try and to allow it to be as it turned out.

In order to get them into the spirit and mechanics of puppet making I ran a second workshop with a colleague Matt Rudkin who is a performance artist and puppet maker. We began by playing drawing games to create an atmosphere of play as opposed to work. From these drawings they were asked to create a simple narrative which, in groups of 4/5 they were to turn into a ‘radio play’ with narration and oral sound effects. This was then performed to the wider group whilst we all closed our eyes and listened. In this way the students were gradually being introduced to expressing themselves to a group whilst minimising judging eyes (as they were all closed).

Later Matt demonstrated a simple puppet making technique using newspaper and masking tape and students made a form of puppet called Bunraku – a Japanese technique where a mobile puppet is controlled by three people holding the body arms and legs. Armed with this experience the students could now bring into existence one of the characters from their unconscious mind and begin to make a film.

The resultant films, I thought were wonderful. They were often very rough and ready, but the point was not to create a polished result; I felt it more important to emphasise expression over execution. I was surprised that many had seemed able to relax fears of critical judgement enough to actually express some ‘shadow’ psychological aspects of themselves. Though the student’s public personas were seemingly quiet and unassuming their expression in the films were often strange, dark and occasionally violent. This is quite often a sticking point for my students; they are often still operating from a persona that was constructed to fit within the expectations of family. I often have conversations with students who fear making work that might be perceived as transgressive, worried about one day having to show it to mum and dad. Some of these films seemed to cross that boundary. I do not wish to analyse these films here, merely to present them to you to make of what you will.

“The Final String” By Chloe Yau is a short film expressing an angry vengeful subpersonality. A woman ransacks a strip bar and murders her adulterous partner and all the strippers, ending in a triumphant pile of beheaded bodies!

“The Healing” by Thea Mallorie is a film based on the wise being that was encountered during the visualisation on top of the mountain: A small mouse dressed as the Pope! Please be aware — this film contains (very brief) gory glimpses of dead bodies.

“New Faces” By Molly Lester is a narrative questioning identity. Based on the author’s musings about subpersonalities and the stories we live our lives by, she created a film exploring how we can be our own best friend and our own worst enemy.

“The Office” By Grace Aiken is a disturbing look at stress and fear. During the visualisation exercise She saw a man in a dark basement standing, frustrated at a photocopier.

Finally “Anger Issues” By Alice Bloomfield is a clear depiction of a creatively frustrated, self sabotaging subpersonality.

Jasper is a Trust graduate who worked as a successful freelance illustrator until he turned to counselling four years ago. He began teaching illustration at the age of 28 and has been teaching on the same undergraduate course at the University of Brighton ever since. He now splits his time between teaching and running his counselling practice from his home in Brighton - www.peaceful-mind.co.uk

6 Comments

    • Mary marken
      reply

      Thank you for a very clear account of the creative process you undertook with your students. I look forward to exploring some of the films resulting; and can think of a couple of clients and others to whom article may be of interest. Best wishes. Mary

      • The Trust
        reply

        Thanks Mary

    • David Buswell
      reply

      Jasper, thank you and congratulations on such a creative application of PS.
      This underlines for me, yet again, the wonder of ps and its application outside of the counselling room. I imagine that your students had an unforgettable time doing this which will stay with them way beyond their time at the university.

    • Allan frater
      reply

      Hi Jasper, thanks for writing up your inspiring work. it is moving to read about the ripples that go through our training and out into the wider world. allan frater

    • CAROL SCOTT
      reply

      Lovely work Jasper and GREAT YOU’RE TAKING PSYCHOSYNTHESIS OUT INTO THE WORLD AND IN THIS CONTEXT.

    • Greg Donalson
      reply

      REALLY LOVELY BLOG JASPER – ITS GREAT REMINDER OF THE POWER OF VISUALISATION AND HOW THE UNCONSCIOUS FEEDS US MESSAGES. THANKS

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