Working with Concussion and Brain Injuries: A Lesson in Cognitive Flexibility through Art Therapy

A brain injury leads to rigidity. This means over-thinking and over-planning to compensate for memory loss, lack of attention to details, inability to self-regulate like before – otherwise known as cognitive failures. Meaning people feel like they are a failure because of their brain injuries.

People with a brain injury and a concussion have increased headaches, dizziness, difficulties planning and these can result in difficulties adapting to new situations and people.

What are the results? Blaming oneself for the perceived failures and inability to perform like they used to.

Blaming oneself increases stress, anxiety and can result in depression.

Using Art Therapy can help with cognitive flexibility. Even for those who have no art experience and insist they are mathematically inclined. Why does Art Therapy help? Because it works on cognitive flexibility in action.

Let’s take the example of creating a word-art collage.

1. First, the client has to find words that represent how they feel.

They are encouraged to do this by scanning a magazine for the words in their heart. I also teach the person to create new words if they can’t find the exact word they are looking for. Experiment and cut out new words. This increases creativity, which is a flexible process, by thinking outside the box!

Through this process, clients are learning to discriminate and prioritize between what is important and what is not.

Clients are learning to cut things out and throwing unnecessary words away, and surprisingly this is a very difficult task. Due to the memory loss after a brain injury, everything seems important because losing things including thoughts and ideas has become the new norm. But this is overwhelming. Learning to use cognitive factors such as the ability to discriminate and prioritize means recognizing that not everything is important. This leads to more flexible problem solving by reducing the need to hold onto everything as a way to compensate for memory and cognitive failures.

2. By throwing in the element of surprise, clients are learning to work with unpredictable circumstances.

In the Art Therapy exercise, I add an element of surprise by adding the collage paper underneath before placing the words on top. This means that once the client creates their carefully designed word collage, they have to remove it to place collage paper underneath. This shows them that plans can change. And the results can still be ok.

In life, there are many unpredictable situations. Being flexible saves psychological and emotional energy. Rigidity creates mental and physical tension. Tapping into creativity to solve problems and come up with novel and innovative ways to approach a problem leads to re-discovering one’s potential for innovation; the act of bringing something new into the world. This builds self-confidence.

3. Trusting in one’s intact abilities.

Art Therapy teaches the client the skill of learning to create a rough plan and then having the freedom to problem solve and create something new. This is the key characteristic in innovation. The inward experience after a brain injury and trauma tells a person that risks are unsafe. ‘Don’t do it!’ Learning to take safe risks again is key to breaking through the emotional barriers that keep a person stuck. Accepting there may be mistakes in creating art and that this it is OK. This builds a new foundation of safety. A key feature in healing from trauma. In life, things do not always turn out the way we plan, but sometimes we can be surprised by our abilities to adapt and create something new from difficult circumstances. It may even turn out better than we expected. Surprise!

4. What are the results?

A reduction in self-blame, acceptance of perceived failures, acceptance of one’s current abilities, decrease anxiety and depression. And most of all, learning to have confidence in one’s abilities again. To feel that there is still happiness and joy after trauma.

Be Free

I started this painting in December. When I was in a strange mood. Painting helped me focus my attention on something positive. I enjoyed moving the brush strokes on the paper. The way the paint saturates the white surface. Playing between the dark and light blue. Then adding the details. After adding the background I wasn’t inspired anymore. So I put it away. But I didn’t forget about it. Just saved it. Waiting for new inspiration to come.

I became inspired again in March. So I added the details, added silver metallic paints. Mixed watercolour with acrylic ink. Added depth to the painting. Then finished it by naming it. It’s called “Be Free.” Can you see where I wrote that in the painting?

Forget! But how?

What feelings arise when you look at this image? Do you feel a struggle, a fight? Do you see the words ‘No Warning’? Do you see a ghost car and faceless people? Can you feel the darkness? Do you see an event that forever changed a person’s life?

When you have seen a traumatic event, how do you express yourself? James Pennebaker, a social psychologist who writes about traumatic experiences, says that people who have lived through a traumatic event often keep replaying it in their mind in a futile attempt to make sense of their suffering. Pennebaker said that continual thoughts about emotional upheavals can disturb a person’s sleep, job, and relationships.

I’ve seen this sequence. Intrusive thoughts about trauma can cause suppression. Suppression leads to depression, a depression that makes it difficult to connect with people or feel satisfaction and pleasure. The intrusive thoughts can also make it impossible to focus on daily activities where people need pharmaceutical intervention. The medication decreases the intrusive thoughts but it also takes away the joy in life.

Often people feel stuck in their painful emotions after trauma. Trauma doesn’t make sense. It is difficult to watch and feel someone else’s pain. Especially if that someone is your partner, wife, the person you cherish most. This is the story of C Hogan, one of my clients. He saw a traumatic car accident where his wife fought for her life. She suffered multiple orthopedic and nerve injuries as well as a brain injury. Her life changed: So has his.

I offer occupational therapy services to the victims of a car accident. But it is rare that the partner and caregiver receive services as well. This accident changed this couples’ lives in ways that are unimaginable for me. Mr. Hogan wasn’t the victim of the car accident; nonetheless, the effects of the accident rippled through his life just as much as hers. As service providers, we must not forget that trauma affects the victim’s spouse, caregivers and families.

I am providing mindful biofeedback and expressive art therapy services for Mr. Hogan. We talked about using art to heal and improve wellbeing. He asked me if we could create a collage. He believes that creating a collage is healing, but he didn’t know where to start. Furthermore, depression has a way of cutting off inspirational energy; the joy in life.


There are no warnings. Brene Brown says you cannot prepare for that moment when you get that phone call. His wife survived, but the realities after a car accident are shattering. He wants to forget. But he can’t. The memories don’t go away by themselves or with time. They are persistent. They are Intrusive. They leave a deep imprint on the body, mind, and heart.

On the outside, unbeknownst to the world, a person may look ok. On the inside, everything has changed. This is why meditation and expressive art therapy is so important. Meditation combined with biofeedback helps calm the fears and anxiety and soothes the depression. Meditation combined with art therapy is relaxing, providing stress relief.

Meditation does not permanently take away the symptoms, but it can soothe and settle the mind enough to create some energy for creativity. Creating art allows a person to communicate and express painful feelings, without needing to rely on words. Words are threatening: Speaking about trauma is heavy, for the traumatized person as well as the listener.

Trauma reduces a person’s quality of life. A low quality of life can trigger depression. Depression can black out self-expression. Creating art offers a way to break this cycle by opening another avenue to re-engage with oneself. Creating art encourages self-expression and facilitates emotional growth.

C Hogan finished this artwork. I helped him by facilitating the expressive art process.  The result expressed a very traumatic moment. When he saw his wife’s trauma, what he saw on her face, is an image that he cannot forget. He saw that she was afraid of losing her life. He saw her battle for survival.

During the art process, my client was given the freedom to make decisions, test out ideas and experiment. This creative process builds insight. It allows self-reflection. Finishing an art piece builds confidence.

With depression, it is very difficult to start anything. So things stay unfinished. Everything is stagnant. Seeing your finished artwork is validating. It validates potential because trauma takes away future potential. It shatters confidence and replaces self-esteem with doubt and fear. Recognizing your potential is the opposite of doubt. It is the start of believing in yourself. Believing in your potential. Realizing that there is still potential to materialized is a critical factor in healing. Healing through meditation and art is possible. It is possible if you believe in yourself.

Spring 2017 Workshop @ the BIAYR

We started our spring workshop last week. Often, survivors with a traumatic brain injuries have a sudden and abrupt change to their life. One moment they are on one path and suddenly the next moment, their life is flipped upside down. Group gathering allows survivors to come together to connect and share their experiences. This helps people to feel less alone and isolated. It also helps people to gain insights into their struggles and difficulties and come out with new perspectives and tools to cope with the difficult moments.

Dr. Joseph DeSouza, a neuroscientist at York University came to the workshop to gain insights about how to use meditation and art in a group setting. His research on the Neural Mechanisms behind Dance Therapy for Parkinson’s Disease hopes to improve the quality of life of people with Parkinson’s. The outcomes from this dance therapy aspire to give people with Parkinson’s hope as participants gather on a weekly basis to dance, move, connect and share. Here is what Joe had to say about Mindful Art Workshop.

“Amee – thanks for sharing the picture – AND SHARING YOUR COMBINED PASSIONS.  I loved it and so did everyone else.
Dr. Joseph DeSouza  — www.joeLAB.com, Neuroscientist at York University”
Circuit by Joe
Circuit by Joe
After the workshop, a participant wrote to me and shared the following kind words:

“Dear Amee,

It was a very well-led, blessed and blissful Mindful Arts session on this morning of the 7th of April, 2017.
 
I had the tremendous opportunity of meeting new people and accommodate newer insights about my life.
 
I have some remaining challenges with my sleep, motivation and thinking processes. This workshop made me feel revived and revitalized.”
Mindful Art Workshop @ the BIAYR
Next Workshop in June. Register today!

The adventures of the Headway T-Shirt in Toronto!

Recently I’ve had a chance to visit England and walked through the doors of Headway Essex, an organization that provides brain injury care and support. I came in contact with Headway East through discovering their art studio website. I discovered Headway Essex through Dr. Carolyn Lemsky, Clinical Director at CHIRS introduced me to Steve Shears, Trainer and Psychotherapist at Headway Essex. Steve kindly showed me the agency and I had a chance to visit and meet the people at Headway.

Headway Essex
Headway Essex – 58b Head Street, Colchester, Essex

During my day visit, I had the opportunity to visit BounceAbility – Special Needs Trampoline Centre. Watching people of all physical abilities getting out of their wheelchairs and working on balance, coordination and stretching. There was also added “stealth benefits” (according to Andy Plowright, Service Manager) such as allowing another person to help you with your balance and relying on another person to support you on a moving surface can build trust and re-establish physical and emotional connections with another person. This supportive and trusting relationship is especially important for a person who have experienced physical trauma that have resulted in the head injury.

BounceAbility – Special Needs Trampoline Centre

Visiting the day program and meeting people at Headway was heartwarming. One person showed me his ankle foot orthosis (AFO) brace that is very well made and seems to be protective of sensitive skin areas in the lower extremities. The brace was red and the owner of this brace is proud to be a Manchester United Fan; in Toronto, our AFO brace are uniformly white.

Ankle Foot Orthosis
A Manchester United Ankle Foot Orthosis

I had a chance to talk about my meditation and art program which hopefully generated some interest in developing meditation and art programming for people at Headway. When it was time to part, I was given several information guides, newsletter and a large Headway T-Shirt. Andy Plowright, Service Manager at Headway Essex was apologetic that the T-shirt would not fit me but generous in his giving spirit and gesture of appreciation.

When I came back to Toronto, I wanted to do something special and carry on the momentum of giving. I was speaking with my colleague Amanda Muise, Behavioural Therapist about my excitement and ideas. I thought it would be cool for CHIRS and Headway to connect and a T-shirt could be a good catalyst.  We talked about who could wear this T-shirt and she suggested Mr. Rob Ashe.

Rob ordering a burger
Rob ordering a burger

When I told Rob about my idea and showed him the picture, newsletter and T-shirt, he was very excited about the idea. He eagerly put the Tshirt safely away in his backpack. When I saw Rob two days later, he had taken pictures of himself around the city with the help of his friend James.

Welcome to Toronto, Canada!
Welcome to Toronto, Canada!
Rob in front of Tim Hortons - a Canadian favourite for coffee lovers
Rob in front of Tim Hortons – a Canadian favourite for coffee lovers

Rob and I know each other through his participation in Mindful Art Workshop – Winter 2014. During the workshop, Rob learnt to meditate and try to do an art activity that was new to him. He made new friends whom he tries to keep in touch with. Rob was able to complete his art activity quickly and was ready to move on to the next task. So sitting still and waiting and listening was new to him. He is very articulate and easily shares his stories, successes and difficulties but this ability to articulate could overshadow others who had a harder time sharing their voices. As the workshop progressed, Rob learnt to sit back and listen. To reflect quietly, then use his articulate voice to deeply appreciate other people’s talents and gifts. He talked more about others and less about his stories and came to appreciate this new way of being. Below is a sample of his art work. He called this piece – Anointed.

Anointed by Rob Ashe
Anointed by Rob Ashe – art work from Mindful Art Workshop 2014
Rob in front of CHIRS - Community Head Injury Resource Services of Toronto
Rob in front of CHIRS – Community Head Injury Resource Services of Toronto

After taking a series of photographs, Rob and I sat down and I helped to upload the photographs from his phone. During the summer months in Toronto, there are several festivals and celebrations. Below are the places that Rob visited with his friends from CHIRS.

Rob at Hockey Night - a CHIRS program for persons of all abilities to have fun playing floor hockey in teams
Rob at Hockey Night – a CHIRS program for persons of all abilities to have fun playing floor hockey in teams
Rob taking the Subway Train in Toronto
Rob taking the Subway Train in Toronto
Rob with a street performer in front of Yonge/Dundas Square
Rob with a street performer at buskerfest in front of Yonge/Dundas Square
Rob with a street performer on Yonge Street in Toronto
Rob with a street performer at buskerfest
Rob in front one of his favourite places - HMV a store that sells music and movies
Rob in front one of his favourite places – HMV a store that sells music and movies

 

Rob with volunteers collecting funds to support Epilepsy Toronto
Rob with volunteers collecting funds to support Epilepsy Toronto
Rob in front of Yonge/Dundas Square holding purple balloons to support Epilepsy Awareness - a cause that is close to his heart
Rob in front of Yonge/Dundas Square holding purple balloons to support Epilepsy Awareness – a cause that is close to his heart
Rob and David Slonim, Mentor's Coordinator in front of Pape Subway Station
Rob and David Slonim, (Mentor’s Coordinator) in front of Pape Subway Station
Rob and his friend sitting outside her childhood school
Rob and his friend Jen, sitting outside her childhood school – a private school for girls
Rob at Spadina Subway Station in Toronto
Rob at Spadina Subway Station in Toronto “This shows the humanistic side to us. He was playing guitar and I waited for him to finish and I gave him some money and asked if he would like to take a picture together and he said sure”
Rob in front of the Old Mills. This is an important place as it is where he received his 25 years watch for working with the city.
Rob in front of the Old Mills. This is an important place as it is where he received his 25 years watch for working with the city.
Rob in front of David's Tea a popular place for tea drinkers to enjoy many types of teas
Rob in front of David’s Tea a popular place for tea drinkers to enjoy many types of teas
Rob taking a picture for his wife who is originally from the United Kingdom
Rob taking a picture for his wife who is originally from the United Kingdom because she loves Union Jacks or anything to do with England

When I arrived at work on Monday morning, I found a treasure inside my mailbox. When Rob and I were sharing stories and photographs, he had tears in his eyes. He said that “you couldn’t have asked for a more perfect person to do this task” as he loves to connect with people and especially people of all abilities. Rob understands that people with a brain injury may not have the same physical abilities as they did prior to the injury. Through his travels he wanted to share with people the places and events that he has access to and hopefully through these images, all persons may have access to these places and events.

Rob's Message
Rob’s Message
Rob's message
Rob’s message

This is Rob’s Message

Hi!! My name is Rob Ashe and I am a client at CHIRS (Community Head Injury Resource Services) in Toronto. When I was asked to have pictures wearing your group shirt, I took on the task because I feel strongly that groups wherever and whoever need to make contact and then we have a better understanding of each other and That is Great!!!!

I want to thank you for this opportunity and let you know that I believe that having a brain injury should not hold us back as we have much to say, much to experience and above all, much TO GIVE

Rob and his wife Amanda. “We’ve been married 19 years and she helps me a lot”
Rob and his wife Amanda. “We’ve been married 19 years and she helps me a lot”

I can’t begin to tell you how much this has touched my heart. Sometimes the work that we do can feel like work and there are good days and challenging days.  Some days are full of beautiful moments and some days are problem solving days. My motivation for doing this work is to help others, whoever comes to my door. Knowing that we can touch each other’s lives and share in meaningful moments is a good reminder for me of the goodness inside each person that I’ve met. I am sure many therapists, helpers, teachers out there will share in my experience that the work that we do is relational and it takes two to form a relationship. The support and encouragement I give to the clients that have come into my life are reciprocated in so many ways that surprises me when I need it the most. It is these moments that helps me to remember what is important to me. To help others knowing that we all have an important part in each others lives.

What happens during Mindful Art Workshop?

“So what is it that you do during the workshop?”

I’ve been asked this question several times so I’ve decided to give everyone a glimpse into what happens during the workshop.

Step 1. Meditate

Colour Outline Meditation

Step 2. Design your Print

Tobi desigining his print
Tobi desigining his print
Don designing his print
Don designing his print
Giovanni & Nicola
Giovanni & Nicola

Step 3. Start Carving

Giovanni Carving
Giovanni Carving
Giovanni Carving
Giovanni Carving

Step 4. Wash your Stamp

Tobi Washing his Stamp
Tobi Washing his Stamp

Step 5. Start Stamping

Tobi Printing his Stamp

Don using a Stamp Pad
Don using a Stamp Pad
Don printing his stamp in his journal
Don printing his stamp in his journal
Mary Ellen stamping her print
Mary Ellen stamping her print
Nicola stamping her print
Nicola stamping her print

Step 6. Ta-daa!

All Roads Lead to Him by Tobi
All Roads Lead to Him by Tobi
Striving in Life by Giovanni
Striving in Life by Giovanni
Together by Amee Le
Together by Amee Le
Move Forward, Never Backwards by Nicola
Move Forward, Never Backwards by Nicola
Love by Don
Love by Don

Step 7. Gratitude Exercise

Week 8 – Last Session: Art Exchange

Don listening to the Reflection Exercise
Don listening to the Reflection Exercise
Reflection Exercise
Reflection Exercise
Art Exchange!
Art Exchange!
Art Exchange
Art Exchange
Giovanni contemplating
Giovanni contemplating
Mary Ellen viewing the slideshow
Mary Ellen viewing the slideshow

Our First Art Commission – the Twillingate Commission!

I am very happy to announce that Mindful Art Workshop has received its first art commission! This week, I will be shipping our gift tags from Toronto to Twillingate Newfoundland. You may be asking yourself, umm, where is Twillingate and how did you end up connecting to a small town of 2,269 people located off the northeastern shore of the island of Newfoundland?

Welcome to Twillingate
Welcome to Twillingate – Picture by Melodee McPherson

The story begins with Nancy Morin, an Occupational Therapist (OT) from Fredericton New Brunswick. She was reading the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapist magazine, called CAOTNow, and saw a very practical article called Exploring Mindfulness Meditation in Occupational Therapy: An introduction to Basic Practice, written by Nina Elliot, an Occupational Therapist from Newfoundland. Thanks to technology and the good hearts of OTs, it is several months later and we have all grown new project together!

Amazing is the power of the internet and social media to connect like minded people working towards the same goals. Nina, Nancy, and I have exchanged thoughts, ideas, and inspiration. We are three OTs interested in meditation and art and wanting to create a positive change in the work spaces we occupy.

Recently, I received a hand-written letter in the mail. I like getting things in the mail; it feels like a gift. Most of the time, it is bills or advertisements; this time the letter was a precious gift of kindness. Nina sent a cheque, a note, and her quirky inspiration!

Letter from Twillingate
Letter from Twillingate

So who is Nina? She is an OT and a person who is passionate about meditation, art, and craftivism (Activism through Art and Craft). She writes has a blog called Rock Vandals, in which “the aim is to surprise and delight through creative acts in otherwise neglected spaces.” She has recently created a campaign call Old Manolis and the Sea to bring awareness to the effects of oil spills on the fragile marine ecosystem. She wrote about Craftivism, which

“uses craft as a form of expression and political action and is often referred to as gentle, loving activism. The form is familiar and designed to encourage viewers to explore the issue and draw conclusions for themselves.”

To bring awareness to this issue, Nina gathered knitters and crocheters; “nine knitters and two crocheters answered the call, generously donating their wool, expertise, and artistic talent to create over 40 unique starfish for the exhibit”.

I used to knit, but had given it up many years ago because I was bored of knitting in a straight line and did not have the inspiration to follow a pattern to knit a sweater. Viewing Nina’s display of starfish on the rocks has inspired me to start knitting again. And Nina’s offer of a downloadable pattern for the starfish on her website was further inspiration. If you are a knitter or crocheter perhaps you would like to join Nina and her Rock Vandals!

image
http://www.rockvandals.com

I was sharing with Nina my excitement about visiting England for a summer meditation festival and retreat. Prior to the festival, I will be going to London and visiting an organization call Headway, which provides services to people with a brain injury. Headway East London has an art studio full of beautiful art pieces created by persons with head injuries; the studio has regular art shows and exhibits.

Headway East London - Art Studio
Headway East London – Art Studio
Headway East London - Art Studio
Headway East London – Art Studio

 

Headway East London - Mosaic Sculpture
Headway East London – Mosaic Sculpture
Headway East London - Mosaic Sculpture
Headway East London – Mosaic Sculpture

Seeing the studio inspires me to have the intension to learn to create sculpture. Viewing the studio has planted images in my mind of the possibilities of an art program for persons with a head injury. I will also be visiting Headway in Essex to explore the day program and share ideas on how meditation can be modified for persons with a head injury.

Coincidentally, Nina informed me that she used to volunteer for Headway. Her inspiration for Rock Vandals comes from Knit the City in London, England. So what is Knit the City? They describe themselves as “Operating from a secret underground wool-lined bunker in the heart of the busy metropolis of London, Knit the City’s Yarn Corps spend most of their lives operating under assumed names and living their lives like every day people”.

What is it that they do? The group engages in “Guerilla knitting or ‘yarnstorming’ is the art of conjuring up a piece of knitting or crochet, taking out out in the world, releasing it into the wild, and running away like a mad thing.” The picture below is an example of their creation.

I had to laugh while looking at this picture. It certainly left an impression in my mind. Seeing the squid and the beautiful starfish, I decided to purchase knitting needles and orange yarn; perhaps a fun project will emerge from this! A while ago, I had given away my knitting needles and yarn to a friend, who then kindly knitted a dish cloth and cute pouch for me. Perhaps it’s time to once again pick up the knitting needles and see what I can create. Although I cannot knit a giant squid, I can definitely try to knit a starfish.

As one therapist inspires another to start knitting, I hope that the art work from our workshop will inspire someone in Newfoundland to start meditating, carving, and stamping!

The Twillingate Commission
The Twillingate Commission
Mindful Art Workshop - The Twillingate Commission
Mindful Art Workshop – The Twillingate Commission
Don designing his print
Don designing his print
Tobi designing his print
Tobi designing his print
iovanni designing his print
Giovanni designing his print
Nicola stamping her print
Nicola stamping her print
Mary Ellen stamping her print
Mary Ellen stamping her print

The Many Hearts of OT: a Toronto Rehab Retreat!

I was kindly invited by Natalie Paananen, Occupational Therapist (OT) and OT Clinical Educator to give a presentation and lead a meditation and creative arts activity for the therapists at Toronto Rehab Institute. I was delighted for the opportunity to share my love for meditation and art with fellow Occupational Therapists.

Natalie and I prepared for the workshop by gathering all the materials necessary for a creative arts activity. We dedicated our time and efforts into this activity, in hopes that each person who attend the retreat would be able to walk away with practical tools to incorporate in their clinical work and other areas of their life. Luckily we were supported by Clinical Educator Debbie Hébert, who arranged for us to receive a budget to purchase carving tools, linoleum, and stamp pads.

Preparing for the retreat, I decided to lead a meditation on Patient Acceptance so that we could develop a calm and peaceful mind to help ourselves and others. My inspiration for this medication came from a book called How to Solve our Human Problems: the Four Noble Truths by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and, on what Shantideva says on page 34 of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

If something can be remedied Why be unhappy about it? And if there is no remedy for it, There is still no point in being unhappy.

On the day of the retreat, my student Nicola John, Occupational Therapy Assistant student, and I arrived at the auditorium to give a presentation and lead the art activity. Unfortunately, there were technical difficulties and the laptop that was supposed to be used to upload the PowerPoint presentation was crashing. There were several people involved in trying to fix this problem. Strategies to ensure that the retreat would flow smoothly included:

1) Restarting the computer
2) Taking out the batteries
3) Ctrl + Alt + Delete
4) Pushing the power button repeatedly
5) Waiting, hoping, and praying
6) Repeat

7) Asking strangers if they had a laptop that we could borrow
8) Asking the staff at the YMCA for a laptop
9) Asking anybody that was close by if they had a laptop
10) Looking at the laptop and sending it positive motivation so that it would reboot

11) Offering to drive back to the university to grab another laptop from some department
12) Waiting

While this was happening, I was smiling to myself because the meditation I was going to lead was on being able to Patiently Accept problems and difficulties with a happy mind while trying to actively solve the problem without becoming upset. When our minds are calm and peaceful we can more easily solve problems in a rational and wise manner. There is no point in developing an unhappy mind, as that will rob us of our logical reasoning and good sense and we will be less able to help ourselves or others.

It is funny how these events come together. As I was about to deliver a teaching, I was receiving a teaching as well. In that moment, I had to ask myself, “are you practicing what you are teaching?” I had to smile at the situation, knowing that I would be okay if I just kept a happy mind. I also knew that everyone around me was trying their best to resolve the problem. I reminded myself that I had the ability to be flexible, to change with the circumstances, and to do what was necessary for the best outcome.

Happily, just before we were going to skip the presentation and move forward with the art activity, the laptop came to life, the presentation was uploaded, and my time to speak had arrived! We were all very relieved and the presentation was delivered smoothly!

Then it was time to lead a guided meditation. Everyone was open to learning to meditate. After the meditation there was a noticeable calmness on the faces of those in the room. The energy was at a calmer level than before. When I had asked that everyone open their art kit, prepared by Natalie, there was noticeable excitement amongst the therapists. After one more movement meditation, involving gentle seated movements paired with a focus on the meaning of giving and receiving, we were ready for the next stage.

As Occupational Therapists, we give a lot to our clients and team members. It is part of this job and most of us who have chosen this profession did so because of our wish to help people. There are times when we may feel overburdened and the flow of giving has become stuck. To symbolize this relationship, I asked everyone to focus on continuing to give to others while receiving the things they need to feel love, supported, and nourished, thus enabling us to keep giving to others. This activity was paired with a mantra by Asa Bennett & Kelsang Yangchan called “Om Muni Muni Maha Muniye Soha” in the album From the Heart. There was a wonderful flow of movements during this meditation; afterwards everyone was excited to start designing, carving, and printing their art work. The pictures below show the focus and determination of the therapists as each person interacted with their linoleum block.

Toronto Rehab Retreat - June 2015
Toronto Rehab Retreat – June 2015
Toronto Rehab Retreat - June 2015
Toronto Rehab Retreat – June 2015
Toronto Rehab Retreat - June 2015
Toronto Rehab Retreat – June 2015
Toronto Rehab Retreat - June 2015
Toronto Rehab Retreat – June 2015
Toronto Rehab Retreat - June 2015
Toronto Rehab Retreat – June 2015

Then it was time to print. You can see the diversity of the images uniquely generated by each person. In each picture you can see the messiness and neatness of each workstation as each person used the tools to create a meaningful art print. Each print is designed and stamped differently, reflecting the diversity in our experiences, skills, and abilities.

Mindful at the Toronto Rehab Retreat
Mindful at the Toronto Rehab Retreat
Toronto Rehab Retreat - June 2015
Toronto Rehab Retreat – June 2015
Fiddleheads and Summerlicious at the Toronto Rehab Retreat
Fiddleheads and Summerlicious at the Toronto Rehab Retreat

When each person printed their images, I asked everyone to give a name to their art work. I was thrilled to see “The Many Hearts of OT” expressed on printed images.

The Many Hearts of OT at the Toronto Rehab Retreat
The Many Hearts of OT at the Toronto Rehab Retreat

At the end of the workshop, while we were tidying the tables, I wanted to see all the printed flags from the therapists. I arranged the flags and Nicola photographed them. When I was reviewing these images the next day, I was blown away by the beauty and meaning of each print. This was such a special experience for me to be able to share my love for meditation and art and receive many positive comments and feedback, as well as seeing the excitment and joy on everyone’s faces. Exploring meditation and art as therapeutic tools can have immeasurable benefits to one’s health and wellbeing.

A Mandala at the Toronto Rehab Retreat
A Mandala at the Toronto Rehab Retreat

Natalie and I hope that this workshop will have a positive effect on participant’s view of using meditation and art as treatment modalities. We also wanted to ensure that this was not a one-time experience, isolated to the retreat. By giving each group a physical tool box of goodies and the mental tool box of skills and direct experiences, we hope that the seeds were planted for this experience to benefit both the therapists and the clients, staff, friends and family that are within their circles.

If you are reading this and were a participant, please leave any comments about your experiences from the time that we spent together!

For a full gallery of the beautiful prints please [click here.]

A Mandala at the Toronto Rehab Retreat
A Mandala at the Toronto Rehab Retreat

What we have lost, what we can learn and the road ahead

Anniversaries, birthdays and milestone markers can bring fourth positive emotions like joy and happiness but can also call for sadness, grief and avoidance.

For people with an acquired brain injury the anniversary date of their accident is a day that is clearly remembered. Loss after a brain injury include memory impairments, planning problems , regulating emotions and although these people will forget new name, new faces and daily, the one thing they have engraved in their minds is their anniversary date.

I would like to share a story about a young man learning to cope with the effects of an acquired brain injury. Our Mindful Art group started on May 7, 2015 and I was informed that this is two days before the anniversary of his traumatic motor vehicle accident resulting in two fatalities and one survivor – Tobi. I was informed by his case manager that “this can be a more difficult time for him.” Tobi is a 22 year old young man  who sustained injuries as a result of a severe motor vehicle accident

During this group, participants tried to meditate and learn to carve and print linoleum blocks. This was the first time each participant tried this art activity. Tobi carved his first print called “Turn that frown upside down.” Initially, he drew many set of eyes in his art journal when he was designing his print. However, when it was time to draw on his linoleum block, Tobi’s image evolved into something different – faces expressing emotions. He seemed very pleased with the final result. As each person shared their art work everyone was supportive of each other and was delighted at the results of their efforts. There was an unconscious theme – ghosts, two graves and block of eyes. As I placed each piece of art work in the center of the table, the collective theme that emerged was a big surprise. The mindfulness theme of this session was: judgment + acceptance = surprise! (for further details click here) and this abstract theme became personally meaningful for each  individual person as each was was delightfully surprised by their own creation.

Turn that frown upside down by Tobi Banjo
Turn that frown upside down by Tobi Banjo
Mindful Art Workshop - Spring 2015
Mindful Art Workshop – Participants in the Spring 2015 group

I like to end our group with a gratitude exercise. From previous experience, I have found this exercise to be a powerful experience for people wishing to reflect and found it to be an opportunity for everyone to say something personally meaningful and share their thoughts. So I use the opportunity to explore the topic of anniversaries, as it is also my birthday in 3 days – an anniversary of birth.

I start the gratitude exercise by asking each person to thank themselves and those involved in helping them arrive to the group. It takes a lot of effort and planning to make a decision then stick with it and show up. Next, we thank each other for friendship and company and we thank our community for giving us a safe space to gather. Then I lead the exercise with something I am personally thankful for. I stated to the group that an anniversary is coming up, and that my birthday will be on Sunday. I wanted to express my gratitude for life and being alive and being thankful for my parents who gave me a body and life those many years ago. I could sense some tension from Tobi when I was talking about anniversaries. He was sitting beside me so I could see he was intently listening to my words. Then I asked other people in the group to share what they were grateful for and this is what Tobi said:

“It’s going to be two years since my accident in two days, so I am thankful that I am here and I am thankful for the people who have come into my life and the lessons I’ve learnt throughout these two years.”

When all seems lost and in a moment, the world we thought we knew seems to crumble, we can remember – that the most precious gift we have is our life. By living and surviving we can continue to learn and grow. We can become kinder, wiser and open our hearts in ways we had never previously imagined. When we learn to accept the difficulties of life, we can  create a space in which our real essence can reveal itself in so many surprising ways.

I shared this story with Meka Sadler, another young 24 year old woman that I work with. She had also sustained a traumatic brain injury in a motorcycle crash almost 2 years ago. Two young people, two accidents, two moments that changed lives forever. Now two years later these two people are able to connect in ways that they would have never thought of before. I showed her Tobi’s art work and explained some of the overall details of his creation. Then I asked Meka, “After everything you’ve been through, if you had to give advice to this person (Tobi), what would you say?” She responded:

“It gets better…let go of the past, because it only weighs you down. (Because this is when things started to change for me. When I stopped focusing on the past and focused on what I needed to do) Focus on the new you. And still aim for your old goals and if you don’t achieve them, change your markers of success, or change your course of action”

I suggested to Meka that perhaps she should write her story down and share it with others. Because after all, we do not know how one person can shape another and the most precious gift we have is your precious human life.

 

From Toronto to Fredericton with Love

Spring is finally here and the warm sun rays have returned to kiss our faces. It’s about time because this past February had been the coldest month in recorded history of Toronto. The East Coast also had record snow fall this year and cars had been buried in the snow.

This February I was also contacted my Nancy Morin, Occupational Therapist in Fredericton. I met Nancy through a lunch and learn session held in June 2014 hosted by the Canadian Association of Occupation Therapists. We’ve exchanged emails and talked about program development to connect our clients to meaningful occupation and artistic expression. At the time, Nancy had been interested in starting a creative expression group and was putting together the bits and pieces to combine Occupational Therapy with creative expression and even mindfulness. We exchanged ideas and encouragement and several months later Nancy had started her creative expression group and was wondering if I would be interested in participating in an Art Exchange with her group. I happily accepted!

I introduced this idea of an art exchange to the artists in my Winter 2015 workshop. Most people had not heard of an art exchange and did not know what it was all about. There was some hesitation as I explained the concept to the group. With encouragement several clients came forward to have their art work featured in the art exchange. Some people were unsure if they were ready to share their art work with others. Our group worked on putting together a collection of gift tags. I also contacted past participants and asked if they would be interested in adding their beautiful art work to this collection. Three weeks later we had a completed collection from the artists at Community Head Injury Resource Services of Toronto (for further information on CHIRS click here). This was mailed out with love to Fredericton.

From Toronto to Fredericton with Love
From Toronto to Fredericton with Love

On the last day of my winter workshop when I was feeling distracted and consumed by emails. I walked down the hall feeling a bit defeated by my to-do list and scheduled appointments, I checked my mail box and saw a brown paper envelope. The art collection from Fredericton had arrived and opening each paper envelope brought a smile to my face. By the time I finished opening all the envelopes, my mood had changed from exhaustion to delight and inspiration. Here is the collection of art from Fredericton to Toronto with Love.

The art you see below was sent to CHIRS as part of an art exchange with the Horizon Health Network of Fredericton, New Brunswick. Five artists in the Addiction and Mental Health Services program in New Brunswick contributed their art. They are: Sam, Sunayna, Lynn, Vicki, and Amanda.

In exchange, the artists in Mindfulness Art Workshop at CHIRS sent a collection of their art to Fredericton. The artists from CHIRS are: Orlando, Roxanne, RB, Chris, Scott, Ali, Cathy, Elisheva (Rehabilitation Student) and Amee (Occupational Therapist).

So where did where did this art work come from? Nancy kindly wrote the following explanation:

The Recovery Art Studio creative expression group was founded in September 2014 by Occupational Therapist Nancy Morin and Visual Artist Marsha Clark. The Studio is open to adult clients of Horizon Health Network Addictions and Mental Health Services, Fredericton Region. We also work in partnership with the Capital Region Mental Health and Addictions Association (CRMHAA) and their R.E.A.C.H. Centre (Resources, Education, Activities, Connections & Help Centre). The approach in the Studio is to fully integrate healing based on the principles of Recovery, Occupational Therapy, mental health care, visual arts, mindfulness and vocational counseling. Members are supported on their own recovery journey to self discovery and expression through art, greater self-esteem, skill building and improved confidence.

From Fredericton to Toronto with Love
From Fredericton to Toronto with Love

As Nancy said “members are supported on their own recovery journey to self discovery and expression through art, greater self-esteem, skill building and improved confidence” and that is the power of art contributing to positive health outcomes. The power of art to connect groups of people from one province to another is a testament to our ability  to form new social connections with one another. Through creative expression we can connect with a part of our self suppressed but longing to speak. Sharing art and stories improves self efficacy and boosts self esteem.  When we can push through the barriers of judgmental thinking social pressures, we may be surprised at the results and once we create we should share this genuine inspiration with others.

My teacher at the Kadampa Meditation Centre in Toronto  told me that after Buddha attained enlightenment he was unsure if he could share his experience and knowledge to the world. What he had attained was so great that he was uncertain if the world could understand these teachings. He waited two months and with a special request from Indra and Brahma he was asked to turn the Dharma wheel (teach the path to widsom) and he did. Imagine if he had never shared his experiences to his disciples and pass on his knowledge and wisdom. There would be no Buddhist concepts of: meditation, mindfulness, loving-kindness, and compassion in the world. There would be no path, no teachings, no guidance, no ways to change your mind to cope with difficulties. This gives all of us the encouragement we need to start sharing. We will never know how much our life can touch another’s. The only thing we can do is try our best everyday to put effort in being kind to others and being true to our inner voice and share these moments. Knowing this we can slowly learn to appreciate the preciousness of this human life.

Green

A series by RB

Prints and poetry were created by RB. All photographs were taken by Elisheva, rehabilitation student.

Blue Spruce by RB

Fox Bay

The song is bright today

Listen
breeze, leaves, needles
combine
create soft melodies

Voice carry
forest sounds

–RB

Chorus by RB

Become a community of sound

–RB

Growth by RB
Memory by RB Remember Me I’m 41 and still 12

Market Lament

      for dad

Lost in concrete
trudging
toward grey sun
seeking warmth.

My feet find earth
between
herbalists, fishmongers
screaming
space.

While you
oblivious,
speak
islands of pine
with silence.

Lost my Green.

–RB

Thunder Bird by RB
Thunder Bird by RB

Surfacing

   for Sara

July warmth
Bathes
my morning
in delicious
humidity

Bay mist
curls
flexes
in emerging sun

Water
calm,
serene
imploring fish
“Don’t feed”

I don’t listen
and like a largemouth
shatter lake glass
for my meal

–RB