October 25 2021

Breathing | Being | Praying Meditations: The Generative Possibilities of the Arts

Yohana Agra Junker, Claremont School of Theology

illustration of a group of masked people

As I write this piece, most of us have spent 2020 attempting to mitigate the effects of a global pandemic and its ensuing consequences. Nothing about this experience has been stable, predictable, or encouraging. We have been attempting to adapt to a fast-changing reality that has been overwhelming, disrupting, and marked by so much loss and grief. Students and teachers have begun to populate virtual learning spaces with bodies that are carrying an overlay of stories, experiences, memories—and trauma. From personal losses, to grief, to struggles to remain alive, to catastrophic environmental collapses, the brutality of white supremacy and anti-Black racism, the effects of settler-colonial extractivism and capitalism, the rise of anti-immigration populism, so much is circulating our bodies right now. As adrienne maree brown puts it, “the crisis is everywhere, massive massive massive. And we are small.”1 She argues that if we begin with small actions and connections, we might be able to transform the crisis of our time.

Sonali Sangeeta Balajee argues that we are at a societal juncture in which the integration of trauma-informed work, power analyses, healing, the arts, and embodied belonging is most urgent.2 In her essay “An Evolutionary Roadmap for Belonging and Co-Liberation,” she proposes a framework for addressing our urgencies and angsts through small actions and connections: by constructing spaces of belonging rooted in love, stillness, beholding, and becoming. Through the work of love, we are able to cultivate affection and openness as ways of expanding care for our bodies, communities, and land. Through the practice of stillness, we can begin to slow down our nervous systems—sustaining our capacity to be whole as we continue to do the work of disassembling the massive, massive crises we are living through. By beholding we can begin to expand our small circles of care into larger ones. Capitalism and supremacy cannot take root in decolonial spaces where deep witnessing exists. This exchange of deep, intimate regard allows us to identify where violence circulates, where power is hidden and misused to exterminate, to other, and to exclude. Small practices of becoming also support emergence, mutuality, an orientation towards creative wonder.

Our bodies have, indeed, experienced too much, too fast, and too soon this past year. And I ask myself how much the design of classes and pedagogies could benefit from engaging with Balajee’s framework as an attempt to respond to the profound and collective shifts, disempowerment, and trauma that COVID-19 has imparted on us. How might we incorporate experiences of presence, love, stillness, witnessing, and becoming in our classes? Perhaps, a first important step would be to acknowledge that many of us are dealing with experiences of helplessness, anxiety, withdrawal, grief, and preoccupation. In short, we are metabolizing trauma. We are dealing with fear, anxiety, various forms of material and spiritual insecurities. And by choosing to employ trauma-informed pedagogies we can begin to design learning spaces premised on regard and beholding, even in the face of continued pandemic, white supremacy, militarism, anti-Black violence, war, and elections. A trauma-informed approach would not only affirm that suffering, pain, and distress are proliferating among us but would also seek to actively mitigate and address these realities.

In Pedagogy of the Heart, Paulo Freire reflected deeply on his experience with trauma. Brazil’s coup d’état in 1964 forced Freire into exile for several years. In this book, he describes his longing to return to his places of belonging, of affection, of regard, and of becoming. Finding stillness in his writing after the expulsion from his homeland, he understood trauma as having deep implications in people’s ways of being, becoming, sensing, and moving in the world. To Freire, trauma needs to be deeply felt, acknowledged, and suffered—it is not just an intellectual process, it is an embodied one.3 For him, one of the ways to process social-historic trauma is to undergo a process of individual and collective conscientização. In doing so, we become keenly aware of the ways systems of oppression affect us while becoming implicated in each other’s co-liberation through an exercise of presence, solidarity, and communion. Both Freire and Balajee acknowledge the challenge of experiencing various forms of oppression and trauma. Continued exposure to abuse and violence wounds us deeply. Tending to the ways in which these traumas interact and show up in our communities and classrooms is a way to design learning experiences that take seriously the impact these realities have on our bodyspiritplacetimes, as Patrisia Gonzalez puts it.4 As Resma Manakeem points out, our bodies and brains have this great capacity to learn, undergo transformation, to grow, and to heal. “While trauma can inhibit or block this capacity,” he writes, “once trauma has been addressed, growth and positive change can become possible again.”5 Just as trauma and viruses spread, so too can affection, regard, and presence.

Though Freire wrote to process his trauma, it is difficult to articulate it through word alone. And because of art’s power to evoke, create, and reveal various patterns, thoughts, and meanings, I have found the act of drawing to be incredibly helpful in elaborating anxieties that emerge from the various threats to my existence. In my classes, besides required readings, I have also woven into the curriculum a compendium of sources such as poetry, podcasts, documentaries, and the visual arts in an attempt to co-create more expansive and generative learning experiences. These pedagogical choices lean more into instability and unlearning, affirming embodied educational spaces that resist “the worst muck of racialized, ableist heterocapital” settler-colonialism, as Alexis Pauline Gumbs names it, while being aware of how our bodies responds to exhaustion, heartaches, and indignation. These works remind us of our inherent capacity to be at once “problematic and prophetic.”6

Art has a tremendous power to connect, reverberate, disclose to us that which is hidden in our interior recesses in embodied, striking, and visceral ways. It can help us educate our affections, as Freire puts it, while inspiring us to resist, heal, connect, conjure, and tend to all our relations. The visual arts, in particular, are generative tools for speculative imagination, for integration of embodied and intellectual knowledge. It is a site for world-making, for dreaming, rehearsing, and choreographing new possibilities of being and intervening in the world. When we immerse ourselves in acts of drawing, we sometimes access the visceral, the somatic life of the body, its reflexes, limits, intuition, responses, desires, and needs.

This has become evident in the art series I created entitled Breathing | Being | Praying meditations. This was my attempt to become more keenly aware of the dimension of the trauma, grief, and angst I experienced due to COVID-19. Throughout several months of 2020, I invited co-learners and co-teachers to share this practice in various contexts: from graduate seminars at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, to workshops given through the Instituto Rubem Alves in Brazil, to online worship spaces in Argentina, Brazil, and Southern United States, to the Divine Wisdom Festival organized by Dra. Lis Valle, Assistant Professor of Homiletics at McCormick Theological Seminary, to the Center for Whole Communities. The meditative drawing exercise—or doodle therapy as some have called it—is an earnest attempt to be in touch with the cadence of our breaths, to excavate sensations within our bodies that are often unnoticed or sublimated. This exercise is also an attempt to enflesh feelings, to delineate the contours of our angst, the rhythm of our compassion.

We begin by finding a quiet enough space where we can draw, breathe, and be. We light a candle and breathe in and out as deeply as we can, repeating it until we feel ready to begin the drawing. We then identify a sensation, a thought, an emotion that is transpiring into our awareness, one that seems most urgent, most pressing. As a particular sensation or thought crystalizes, we write a word that gestures toward it on the center of the page. As we breathe in, we draw a line from one end of the page to the next, without judgement or a plan. We simply follow the direction our hands are wanting to go. As we breathe out, we draw another line on the paper. In this swelling and emptying of our lungs and chest, the movement of lines, the sound of pen to paper, we are able to sense and name that moment’s most urgent needs, the desires of our spirit, our body-prayers. We check in with our bodies. How does it feel? Is it activated? Is it tense? Does it feel grounded? As the air moves in and out, we sense the energy activating our bodies. And as we inhale and exhale deeply and widely, lines begin to fill the page and they tell us things of which we may not have been aware: our current patterns of being and breathing, our worries, burdens, and griefs—our heart frequencies. And we find ourselves right here, right now, present to the insurmountable complexity of the world’s suffering and our own—one breath deeper.

At the end of this guided practice, participants have reported being able to release anxiety, nervousness, and discomfort, name their angst, and what at once seemed formless and inaccessible became unclouded and surmountable. Many expressed being able to breathe more expansively, leading to an experience of wholeness, integration, and a sense of tranquility. By returning to our bodies, our sensations, our breath, and connection to our bodyspiritplacetime, we are able to create sacred moments of presence and witness little pockets of emergence, however small. As Lara Medina explains, these practices are like medicine that awaken our consciousness in order to sustain our well-being. It is “medicine that leads us to our inner refuge,” so as “to simply be.”7

Reflection, meditation, and contemplation are fundamental in co-creating communities of presence, belonging, liberation, and regard. And drawing practices such as the Breathing | Being | Praying meditations have a profound ability to put us in touch with a creative impulse, to offer us insights into our own interiorities, and to move us spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. By externalizing and giving shape to sensations that are often suppressed, we are able to activate and exercise presence, stillness, beholding, and becoming. In doing so, we are also gaining access to an awareness of how traumatic events have impacted our flesh. As we draw, our hands obey nonverbal commands, which, according to Gantt and Tinnin, are influenced by unconscious and nonverbal intention as much as by conscious will.8 The hand, in some ways, remembers what our intellect forgets.

This pandemic, the ensuing uprisings, the incapacity of governments to decently respond to the population’s most pressing needs interrupted our lives in unimaginable ways. We haven’t really recovered or adequately processed much of what happened in 2020. Perhaps, by breathing, being, praying, and drawing we may create spaces for presence, for deep witnessing, and for deep regard.

 


Notes

1 adrienne maree breown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017), 3.

2 Sonali Sangeeta Balajee, “An Evolutionary Roadmap for Belonging and Co-Liberation,” in Othering and Belonging Institute, August 2018, http://www.otheringandbelonging.org/evolutionary-roadmap-belonging-co-liberation/.

3 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Heart (New York: Continuum, 1997), 67.

4 Patrisia Gonzales, Red Medicine: Traditional Indigenous Rites of Birthing and Healing (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2012), xix.

5 Resma Manakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Las Vegas, NV: Cetral Recovery Press, 2017), 55.

6 Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2020), 2.

7 Lara Medina and Martha R. Gonzales, Voices from the Ancestors: Xicanx and Latinx Spiritual Expressions and Healing Practices, (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2019), 225.

8 As cited by Paula Howie in “Art Therapy with Trauma,” in David E. Gussak and Marcia L. Rosal, eds., The Wiley Handbook of Art Therapy (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), 378.


Yohana A. Junker is an educator, visual artist, and assistant professor of art, religion, and culture and Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Scholar at the Claremont School of Theology. She received her PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, in 2019. Her ongoing research probes the salient intersections among the fields of art history, eco-criticism, decolonial studies and contemporary Indigenous aesthetics.