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Creativity as a Therapeutic Practice

By Rich Simon We used to think that good therapy came down to unlimited positive regard, good listening skills, and sensitive probing questions; in short, patiently encouraging insight and quietly inviting forward the client’s inner self. Now, after three plus decades of research and experimentation—in somatic work, mindfulness-based approaches, attachment-oriented therapies, and neurophysiologically-informed methods—we know that the emotional experience of therapy is at least as important as the cognitive side of our work. Therapy is not an abstract exercise, but a way to help clients expand their capacity for more fully embracing life.

That’s why each year we begin the Networker Symposium with something we call Creativity Day. It’s a day in which people do yoga, dance, paint, sing, write poetry, and, this year, even immerse themselves in “the practice of joy.” But there’s very little of the usual discussion of therapy one expects at a professional gathering. While I could offer a list of good reasons for including Creativity Day in our Symposium, the real reason is because of what happened to me during grad school.

My five years as a grad student had all the excitement and unpredictability of an extended stay in a sensory deprivation tank. Mostly I felt buried under endless reading assignments, mind-numbing papers, required courses like statistics, nerve-wracking exams, all served up with big side dishes of tedium, anxiety, and exhaustion. Then one auspicious day, I saw an ad in the Washington Post for a summer workshop in improvisational theater.

Lifting my head to the scent of something alive in the dead air of my existence, I headed downtown. That summer changed my life—or, rather, gave me life. Under the inspiring tutelage of a woman called Rebecca Rice, we spent several hours twice a week using our bodies, faces, and voices in ways I’d never experienced before. We threw ourselves into different postures by doing body sculptures and exercises to music, creating “characters” that we then named, provided with biographies, and physically played out using our whole selves—body, heart, and mind.

That summer I discovered things about myself that I’d never expected. Rather than playing one role over and over—“Rich Simon, moribund graduate student” —I found in myself the tools to play and be many roles and many selves, from the sad to the wacky to the poetic to the buffoonish (my favorite, actually). For the first time since childhood, I genuinely and fully experienced myself and my life, combining a sense of my own previously unknown capacities with a sense of personal liberation that I’ve never forgotten. I think that these improv sessions were fundamental to my coming to understand what it might really be like to do successful therapy. I came to see how it could help clients, imprisoned by their own self-imposed limitations, have the kind of expansive healing experiences that could transform their whole sense of what life had to offer.

But how can clients learn to open themselves up to new experiences if their therapists haven’t done so themselves? It’s like learning to dance from somebody who never dances. Creativity Day certainly does not replace professional workshops, seminars, classes, books, journals, and so forth. But if, as is often said, the therapist’s self is the instrument of the client’s change, than that instrument needs to be capable of hitting as many resonant notes and playing as many different tunes in as many registers as possible.

Whether or not you decide to attend Creativity Day at the Symposium, my hope for you as a therapist is that you are either already able to give your clients something like what Rebecca gave to me, or that however you do it, you find your own way to help them embrace creative possibilities beyond anything hinted at in your grad school therapy texts.

Creativity Day is just one of the exciting opportunities available to you at the Networker Symposium. With four days of creating, learning, growing, networking, and connecting to experience, we’re sure you’ll find something in our vast program that appeals to your professional and personal needs.

Check out Video Highlights from last year’s Creativity Day right here.
To learn all about Symposium 2013, click here.
Get Creativity Day Workshop details here.


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6 Responses to Creativity as a Therapeutic Practice

  1. Patricia Wilson says:

    Creativity day has been my favorite and most valuable experience at the symposiums I’ve attended. I urge everyone to stretch your comfort zone to try a creativity day workshop. The hard part is picking just one!

  2. John Rushforth says:

    Dear Rich,

    I love it. Even though I won’t be at the Symposium (l live in the Boonies of north Vancouver Island Canada.) I heartily agree with the need for a little “improv theatre” in our lives. One of the most healing experiences for me as a person before ever going to Grad School was a six month course in theatre and clowning. I was freshly out of a painful divorce, coupled with a physical healing crisis (no coincidence:) and the daily work of ‘acting’ my sadness, joy, silliness and simply just being other than my own particular story was incredibly liberating and healing. One thing I remember from that time (25 years ago) was our instructor admonishing us to get into “neutral” before taking on a character. The “neutral” state has qualities of being centred, empty and witnessing, as in mindfulness meditation practice. Anyway yes, I could still use more clowning in my life and work as a therapist.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.


  3. That was the best description of graduate school I have ever read. Your story brings to mind an old homily “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” What I find to be uplifting about your seminars was making contact with so many people and speaking and sharing experiences. Therapists don’t always notice how isolating the profession is.

  4. Willa says:

    As someone discovering the experience of myself through the joy of mixing colours and making whatever shapes/moves that appeal, (rather than painting a picture of something), I can testify that creativity is a rich seam of healing, and enormously enjoyable. And satisfying.

  5. Angela says:

    This post is so true. I’m a yoga teacher who’s just got her undergrad degree in social work and I’m looking forward to using/developing my yoga skills in clinical work. One yoga course that changed me considerably and made me much more playful was a Circus Yoga course – I highly recommend it! I learnt to juggle and for a while I was doing juggling workshops for kids – lots of fun! You don’t have to be a yoga teacher to take their courses and the skills they teach are wonderful – lots of playfulness and interactivity –

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