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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Gillian Vellet

Edwin Rutsch & Gillian Vellet: Dialogs on Building a Culture of Empathy with Art Therapy 
  Gillian has an interdisciplinary background in dance, art education, fine art, expressive arts therapies, shamanic studies, cultural studies, art psychotherapy, biodanza dance movement, massage therapy, cranio-sacral therapy, and visceral manipulation.  Gillian's 14 years of Art Psychotherapy & counseling experience specialization: ...


Edwin Rutsch & Gillian Vellet: Dialogs on Building a Culture of Empathy with Art Therapy 



(Video Transcriptions: If you would like to take empathic action and create a transcription of this video, check the volunteers page.  The transcriptions will make it easier for other viewers to quickly see the content of this video.)

(Alexis Strauss  - thank you for this transcription).

G- Gillian Vellet, E-Edwin Rutsch

G- Have worked in this area for 14 years, began as a teacher in S. Africa, but felt the need to train further at the Tate Institute in Toronto, Canada in Art Psychotherapy, in order to facilitate the deeper healing in my art processes for people especially during the apartheid regime. Returned to S. Africa, working with diverse people altered everything for me- perceptions of relationships, empathy, etc.
How can we co-create a partnership model that’s basis is rooted in empathy- melding the complex alchemy of modern diversity?

E- How did your interest in empathy evolve from your own life to this point?

G- An important question, the seeds are sown of what we are in childhood. There’s an incredible wisdom that the innocent carries. My family moved countries frequently as a child, it was very diverse, the only way I could survive was to really understand the cultures and peoples that we were attempting over and over again to integrate with.
It was both different languages and also non-verbal communication, I learnt how with an open heart you can cross bridges and potential divides and the physical bodily boundaries that we hold can be permeable when the heart/soul is attempting to find union.

E–any specific stories?

G–so many-classes with indigenous children. I was once a mute child. Our family moved countries often. From an early age I had to learn to feel what other people and cultures felt as a way to more easily assimilate. In hindsight there was an excessive amount of change, which was traumatic but later helped me develop resiliency in the face of diversity.

G-I have just returned from South Africa where I attended a community dance workshop- Biodanza African Encounter. There are many changes afoot and healing continues in South Africa because with a history of racism the oppressor is as injured as the victim.

E–how do we build a culture of empathy through the arts?

G–I’ve bought examples today of art psychotherapy with different clients to share with you, though I can’t show you the images because of consent issues.
I fully support the use of the video you’re using, its richly educational. Animation is a great way to evolve and reconstruct empathic connection.

E–like the Jeremy Rifkin animation online. We were discussing experimenting in this way, perhaps using metaphors of empathy and the opposite, dialogues using art to explore the topic.

G–William Kentridge is a political activist/protest artist in South Africa. Art has a long history as an effective vehicle for political change, a mouthpiece for repressed emotions and feelings within the social body politic.

G–an 11-year-old boy came to see me because of his perception of stressful exclusion/bullying at school by other children. He created an image of multiple metaphors, which he turned into a narrative storyboard exploring his fear and inner conflict around repressing his authentic feelings. His process was learning to be more empathic with himself through the visual narrative/creative process of transformation. It was a complex underwater world, his metaphor transmutes as he gains more confidence and eventually makes a spiritual connection whereby he can ask for the help he needs, he has accepted/acknowledged his own differences and limitations.
Another 43-year-old female writer had a 23-year history of schizophrenia. In her first session she drew a huge vivid oak tree in full bloom with multiple branches and deep roots into the earth. It was an interesting precursor for underlying anxiety attached to a work trip whereby she’d have to be in the public eye and communicate and advocate her book.
Exploring depression/critical voices she again found self-empathy was the core value she had to creatively learn to dialogue with. She befriended the voices in the end and acknowledged that "creativity saved my life". She learned "to live through the critical voices" which over time transformed "into light, courage, peace and hope". Interestingly she commented that "I have died many deaths which took all of my life energy, but death showed me how precious life is...everyday is a time for me to harvest knowing both darkness and light we are blessed and enriched...because when it gets dark enough, you can see the stars."

E–did she use the word self-empathy?

G–no, that was my framing of it.

E–There is a lack of clarity regarding the definition of empathy, my take on it is in four steps–
1. self-empathy or self knowledge/awareness.
2. mirrored empathy, using our mirror neurons to integrate with others.

G–if there’s a resonant/meaningful connection in a meeting of two people oxytocin is released into our system, the para sympathetic body relaxes and we feel heard, listened to and respected. In that moment we solidify empathic, kinship bonds. That shared empathy is how you build community.

E–continuing my four step definition of empathy-
3.perspective taking/active empathy- a little like acting, cognitive and seeing things emotionally from other’s points of view.
4.empathic action–as we’ve connected we can take action together. The blocks to working together are removed.
The art therapy you describe relates to developing the first stage of self-empathy. Becoming mindful and then creating dialogues between different parts of ourselves and our various experiences, and that becomes an inner empathic dialogue, which can give you the oxytocin release as well! I just got that insight now.

G- do you see how you got that integration from all your previous research? And you’ve opened this in from our dialogue to probably create and open up a new neurological pathway. That’s what art psychotherapy does so effectively because it's a creative learning process, so you're constantly activating from the sensory-motor tips of the fingers as you hold and move the medium. The different materials activate neurologically in the brain-so there's a new neurological pathway and integration created each time you image and then move into verbal dialogue. Only at the end of the creative process do you dialogue with the image which represents a feeling, emotion, thought, or question: "what is this feeling?" or "what does this feeling mean for me in my life at this time?" Therefore "I want to name this feeling which helps me to own both the good and bad of this feeling."

G– another client is a female cancer survivor. Her body image pre-and post surgery is profound in her healing process, she’s having to come to terms with- ‘what does it mean for me to be empathic towards myself regarding the trauma of cancer both culturally and personally?’

E–she’s being present with the emotional pain of the illness.

G–the greater the capacity to be present with the fragile and vulnerable feelings–that will birth empathy. Empathy is not excluding discomfort, that’s where many people don’t understand it sufficiently, or minimise it. If you are suffering, I want to truly feel you’re suffering and share it with you, link with it and connect with it so that you know I value you as a human being in this moment.

E–it’s being present with and not repressing fear, alienation, loneliness and suffering within ourselves and others. And that very process of being present seems to release oxytocin or something which actually helps to ameliorate those feelings and create more of a sense of space and openness for greater creativity to happen, to problem solve.

G-feeling "presence" means I value your "worth" in that moment, and thereby I value your fundamental humanness... many of us from birth and an inner child perspective have never experienced that kind of empathy. So we carry a metaphorical emotional hole inside of us that we’re always wanting to satiate, and feel full in the nourishment which comes through attachment, that is initially the parental bonding, friendship, family, fraternity. Somehow we’re not alone and we’re all in this together. A sense of belonging to something bigger taking place on this planet.
An opening to the complexity/tapestry that underlies empathy, which is often minimised by people and not entered into at its depth. This can be entered through the metaphor and the value you attached to it. A creative, imaginative, intuitive, fundamentally right brained activity, which bridges the left brain of language ultimately–the core of it is a process of necessity, one of silence and movement interiorly into inner peace.

E–it’s like we’re biologically wired to need that connection and when we don’t get ‘seen’ from childhood, etc, (repression) then we are alienated from ourselves and others by that unseen part of us. A biological function we have that maybe was developed for human social cohesion as pack animals. Fundamental to human beings.

G–And this doesn’t ever stop or start, there are specific developmental stages. I have a 75-year-old client, the empathy development is ongoing, and it’s an eternal rebirthing process, a continuation of maturation.
The client has been a university psychologist/lecturer. He is on dialysis at the end of his life. He’s a very creative and musical man who has lost his partner. He has maintained links in his background with a spiritual community and through art therapy he moved back to a sense of communion again, gaining courage to ask for their help, since he is fearful of dying and before it happens he’s bringing change within all his relationships. The reason for this is because he explored a new core of self-love, which emerges through all of the dialoguing creative processes such as dancing, imaging, dialoguing, and voicing. The whole cycle of life becomes enriched when we engage and participate in the life process, we don’t fear it, we don’t fear death, this man is an archetype of our cultural fear of death since every session we have relates to death.

E–so you are helping to develop his ability to be present in his fear of death, to empathise with his own fear?

G–so that he doesn’t criticise himself and his fear and his feelings of vulnerability around it, it’s the same for all of us.

E–or of avoidance and alienation too?

G–in that denial you cannot grieve prior to death, which denies you dignity, you can’t have that without this opportunity to grieve all the losses we’ve experienced in our lives. You have to return to a place of self-kindness, he is learning to love himself again rather than the excessive caretaking of others, which he’s done all his life and had become imbalanced. Never receiving from others had depleted him energetically.

E–Two parts to this process?
1.Self work, self-compassion–being present with one’s own fear and vulnerability. Has a nurturing quality.
2.Then in conjunction with you as therapist, you bring your presence and empathy to the relationship to benefit him.

G–That is the most therapeutic relationship, in which we are trained. It’s the empathic connection. A presence with the other, with no judgement, otherwise an injury can be caused immediately, a disconnection. And the client no longer feels safe.

E–are there other blocks to empathy apart from judgement?

G–empathy is energy, a non-verbal body language, an electromagnetic energy field, emitting frequencies/vibrations and resonances constantly through our voice. If we aren’t aware of our own energy, we can unwittingly impact another sometimes brutally through insensitivity- lack of empathy/resonance and lack of capacity to accept what the other is showing us in that moment, which may trigger a deep, inarticulable fear in us, in that moment. If we honour that and share our mutual vulnerability you can bridge and build trust.

E–like the 75-year-old client who had been unable to share his vulnerability, he was detached?

G–many years of this pattern of disconnection is reinforced neurologically. Depression is the result. This client had suffered very much from depression and had sought many forms of psychological intervention over the years, but he hadn’t been able to shift it. Yet the creative process was able to touch his heart and make him vulnerable through seeing and feeling the creative metaphor of his own energy.

E–your movement, which I like, on this monitor is making you go in and out of focus, it’s like a creative metaphor for life!

G– I’m very kinaesthetic, that’s my inner child. For me, engagement of necessity is about expressivity. I’m an expressive arts therapist because I dance as well. I use my body to communicate sometimes when I cannot find the appropriate word to express or articulate a feeling....

E–I’m like that as well. I’m excited about working more with the animation, drawing and dialogue for empathy. Do you have any final words?

G–as we both deepen our personal connection and explore in our different ways, in our different countries this will deepen and enrich our understanding of empathy and what constitutes empathy. The magic ingredients, the specificity that is missing in the present literature–it’s difficult to find any real articulation of what we are discussing. That’s why I value what you are doing because you’re doing it in an educative way, opening it up. I’m so grateful to you for this.
There is a book that myself and many art psychotherapists internationally have put together for furthering empathy through healing. It comes out today and it’s called-
‘Art therapy and post-modernism–creative healing through a prism’. In England it is published by Jessica Kingsley and represented in Canada by the UBC press, available at Caversham bookstores.

E–it’d be great for Art psychotherapist to get together and write a book specifically about “empathy in art therapy”. To get a community dialogue going in depth and have some real activities we could do around this. For instance what is your metaphor of empathy? Mine is of a “cornucopia”–the awareness of all our internal feelings and the ability to share that with others too, each of us has their own special cornucopia.

G- my metaphor is "spring water flowing over parched land which resuscitates the life blood of the land".

E-Another exercise is to draw two separate drawings, which then have a dialogue: one represents "empathy" and the other represents "lack of empathy". Then draw a third drawing of melding and dissolving the two together. What is created through this relationship, differentiation, and synthesis? It can be very insightful.

G–it is very exciting that we are embarking on this new creative process together. I’m going to start documenting empathy specifically with all my clients now. I want to pursue this in my own writing. Thank you for bringing me this important focus and clarity.