Exploring what Level 1 is all about, through a conversation between two Level 1 graduates, Freddy and Frances.

To begin with, we start with an overview of the Tamalpa Life /Art Process® and the Level 1 programme.

The Tamalpa Life /Art Process® is an internationally-recognized expressive arts approach, which combines movement, visual art, and creative writing to access the innate wisdom of the body and the transformative power of the imagination. This work supports personal, interpersonal and social change.

In the Level 1 programme, participants uncover and explore a “body mythology” which connects to events, issues and questions in their lives. By exploring each body part, participants are able to identify the literal and metaphoric connections between body, life themes and personal stories. In this way the body is explored on the physical, emotional and mental/imaginal levels and is understood as the template for our entire life experience. Level 1 culminates with the creation and development of a life-sized self-portrait drawing, which is explored through ritual-performances. These are enacted with the group and teachers witnessing. The self-portrait ritual symbolizes the re-integration of all the different parts of self and one’s story with renewed insight, vitality and visions for change. The following is a conversation between two Level 1 graduates, Freddy and Frances, where Freddy describes her experience of creating and enacting her self-portrait.

Frances: A unique element of the Tamalpa Level 1 training program is the creation of a self-portrait which you undertook last year. Could you describe a little of what it means to create a self-portrait and what the steps are involved in that process?

Freddy:  I was just kind of smiling to myself because it was such an interesting, mysterious process. I suppose I think of drawing the self-portrait as a culmination of a lot of the foundational work that we did throughout the year, by developing a sense of different parts of the body that we explored every month.

Something that’s really beautiful about the self-portrait process is the opportunity it gives to redefine yourself. Like many people, I have a history of being defined, of having people tell me what my experience is or what’s wrong in it. The self-portrait process was really, really liberating, giving me the opportunity to reach my own definition of things.

 A friend of mine uses the expression to ‘restore and re-story’ (not a Tamalpa thing) and the whole process is an opportunity to do just that – to look at different stories that I have in my life and suddenly be like: “Oh, I’m not so into that actually, I can rewrite that”. A lot of what appeared in my self-portrait was how I was re-interpreting things. It was an opportunity to sort out what stories were useful and what stories have run their course.

Frances: In Tamalpa we talk about having a personal mythology – this is that story you’re referring to?

Freddy: Actually, as I entered the process of doing Level 1, I was a bit like: “I don’t really get what this personal mythology thing is!”. It was actually only through the process of learning about the different body parts that we worked with month by month, that I began to understand it. By the time I started my self-portrait, I was like: “Oh yeah, I totally get my personal mythology now!”. That was exciting. I was really surprised by the stories that I had associated with different parts of my body, and I guess that was kind of like the way in – one way that I started to understand the story I had built around myself.

Frances: How did that mythology emerge? What were the steps and tools that helped this happen? 

Freddy: Towards the beginning of the programme we spent a weekend exploring our shoulders, arms and hands. At the beginning of that weekend I couldn’t even bring [draw] the shoulders onto a piece of paper. But then by the end of the weekend (I wish I could show you the picture!), that whole area of my body just became like a menagerie! It was so populated with colour and shape and symbol. It was amazing and that felt really good to me.

I noticed myself developing a resonance with colour in a way that I hadn’t experienced before, like a real knowing of how I want to portray that part of my body. I noticed that there were different colours that I associated with different body parts. My pelvis was all like, fuchsia and really bright red, and my ribcase was very green, and pain was definitely a particular colour. 

Frances: So yesterday we talked about  the emergence of personal mythology through a process of mapping different parts of the body. How did you go from exploring these individual body parts to drawing a full self-portrait on this huge piece of paper?

Freddy: Well, I was quite organized about it, I did a lot of prep before I put anything onto the piece of paper. I actually rented out a room in a local community hall and spent half a day there looking through all of the pictures that I’d drawn throughout the whole year, putting them into their relevant sections, photographing them, choosing and sorting out what symbols were most important to me that I wanted to bring with me onto the self-portrait, and the stuff that that wasn’t important. I wanted to bring the things that lit me up onto the self-portrait. So, I had a lot of resources. 

By the time it came to drawing on the piece of paper, I was really excited; I was really deliberate about it. For example, I had a picture of an eagle and I totally knew that there had to be a moon on there – there were lots of deliberate elements. So, I felt really secure when really random things appeared on my self-portrait – like there are these crazy looking little dancing carrots! There were lots of things that I drew on my self-portrait that made no sense to me, but that just wanted to be drawn, and which only made sense later. The symbols that come up through the process are really powerful. There was something really lovely about the whole process, just being like, “I have no idea what that means, but fuck it, I’m gonna put it down anyway!”. I have this background of therapy, where I’ve become very used to my experience being defined and so I started the process a bit scared of that people would be looking at this and going “that clearly means she’s had some developmental trauma”. But actually, it got to the point very quickly, where I was like, “I don’t really give a shit how anyone else defines this, I really don’t care”. Because nobody really knows. So that for me was super liberating.

I developed this fierceness for my experience through the whole self-portrait process – of just being more rooted in myself and capable of choosing what benefitted me and what didn’t.

Frances: Were there methods or tools that you found particularly helpful in the development of the self-portrait during Level 1?

Freddy: Yeah for sure. One of the tools that was super useful and continues to be was checking in with the body on three levels of awareness: physically, emotionally and mentally. In defining my own three levels of awareness, I noticed the voices of so many other women in my life. Like, I’d be trying to clear through their voices to actually figure out how do I feel physically, emotionally and mentally. That was a huge thing for me. It was a bit overwhelming in the beginning, but the fact that the three levels of awareness is so clear, and so defined, was the grounding thing for me. The very first time that we did the three levels in a group, I was like, “Oh my god, I can do this in front of a group of people! People want to know!”. And that’s when the voices started saying “Oh, that’s just really selfish. I can’t believe how selfish you’re about to be to just talk about how you feel physically, emotionally and mentally”, when that’s actually just what was asked. So, it really shone a light on how there was so much of that going on in my head. 

Another incredibly useful and amazing tool is the non-violent communication model as an important tool that Tamalpa uses. I think the communication model is such an important part of the process. It was really supportive throughout the whole training to know that we’d been given a standard of communicating with each other, and even if we didn’t use it all of the time, when difficult stuff arose it was something to fall back on. There was a little bit of conflict amongst the group one weekend and the communication model was used to sort that out. It was really reassuring and I felt really held by it.  It was really like: “Shit, I have some difficult things to say, ok, let’s go back, how would I break it down using the communication model?”. I use it all the time in life now. I’m doing a degree in psychotherapy and we’re not offered a thing like the communication model, so I use it when I’m in break-out groups – it’s become a really important life tool for me.

Frances: So, our Level 1 programme started in person in 2019, but then due to our current circumstances, moved online halfway through the course. How did you find this? 

Freddy: I didn’t really mind that we had to transition to being online, because for me, it was either we do it online, or we just don’t do it. And I also was kind of excited at the potential of doing it this way, because – well look how much of our lives are online now! So, it’s like a way of learning to be to be in another environment, maybe like using different technology. I also foresee myself working with clients online. So, I was grand with it really. 

Frances: Over the last days you have described the process of drawing your self-portrait. Can you now describe the performance aspect of this, which took place once the drawing was complete?

Freddy: I was doing my self-portrait with a view to it being a resource for choosing what direction I wanted to bring my future in. From the beginning of drawing the self-portrait, I had in mind the question: “How am I going to bring this out into movement?”. Whatever I draw on this piece of paper I am potentially going to enact in some way. I guess it’s actually the performative element which is transformative. I’ve got these yellow shapes at the top left of the self-portrait to the right and they symbolize ancestry to me. It was all connected to breath, and ancestry and I was really excited to incorporate them in my performance. The performance is very much a portal which I entered with the themes that I had chosen. And then I came out the other end – it was just a really amazing experience. It was cathartic. It’s interesting actually, I’m noticing that it’s quite a difficult experience to draw into words. 

Frances: Can you say how the self-portrait ritual process impacted you? Has it led to any changes in your life?

Freddy: There have been tangible changes in my life in relation to what I let into my space.  For me, the whole process was very much about claiming, like serenity or sovereignty?  over my body. How what surrounds me affects my body and how I take up space. Because I had to start bringing the work home in order to accommodate doing the course online, I started to notice that I was really living a life that wasn’t particularly supportive of me as a creator. So that whole process made me a lot more aware of how I wanted to live my life if I want to be creative. I just became really aware of how I actually want to spend my days. I noticed I was spending a lot of my time letting other people affect me when I could figure out or choose ways in order to be more respectful to the sacredness of the body and space.

Frances: Over the last days you have described beautifully how you went about creating and then performing your self-portrait. Does your self-portrait continue to play a role in your life? 

Freddy: Yeah, it’s kind of like she’s just always in the background. I’m moving house and I immediately think about the things that I want to bring and I’m like: “Oh my plants and my self-portrait.” They’re the priorities. There’s like this good mother vibe about it. I don’t really know how to describe it, but it’s just like, when I feel exhausted, or like, at the moment, I’m having to make lots of different decisions about where I’m going and what I’m doing and stuff, and there’s something about just  bringing to mind the vibrancy of the red earth or like the wildness of her hair that is really supportive for me sometimes. There are particular bits of the self-portrait that I just really fucking love.  I absolutely love her hair and I just love the fierce way that she’s sitting and that she just doesn’t give a shit. It’s really great. Sometimes when you’re really exhausted or whatever, it just doesn’t feel like that exists, but I know that it’s there. So, it’s very important that way.

Frances: That’s really nice. I imagine that because it’s there on the paper, it means that we’ve uncovered those truths. So, it’s like an enduring testament to those strengths in ourselves.  

Is there anything else that you would like to say about that process?

Freddy: It’s the most amazing thing ever! One of the things that was happening for me through the process was that the self-portrait became this physical manifestation of how I was caring for myself. I’ve been like a prolific artist throughout my whole life until my mom passed away seven years ago and then it just stopped. I couldn’t draw anything for years. And the self-portrait process was this beautiful reclamation of my capacity to make shit or create. And it was like falling in love with that aspect of myself again. I noticed that I’ve surrounded myself with so much stuff that detracted from it and so it really helped me clear space in my life in ways that I would not have foreseen. The whole process was like a dance between me and her [my self-portrait]; between me and my body parts.

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