“When I ask, ‘Where is my soul, how do I meet it, what does it want now?’ the answer is, ‘turn to your images.’ ” — Jungian author James Hillman
Art-making, whether conjured by a stick in the dirt or generated by computers, is a primitive impulse, something we express instinctively. It draws out of us shapes, images, memories and stories that can propel the process of self-discovery so essential to the discernment of our callings.
That is, we can use art to bring us in line with our calls.
“Art is an articulator of the soul’s uncensored purpose and deepest will,” writes Shawn McNiff in Art as Medicine. Through it you can see your calls in writing and in pictures, make scale models and blueprints of them, conjure up visual aids. You can also reactivate the mind of the child within you, which knows what it knows with great simplicity and accuracy. In fact, the last time many of us engaged in artmaking was when we were children, and in most of us an artist died young and an adult survived.
All artistic practices, says writer Bharati Mukherjee, are “satellite dishes for hearing the signals the soul sends out,” and each artform individually offers unique contributions to the work of discerning calls. Drawing and painting expand our ability to visualize. Writing helps us tap into the stories we tell about our lives. Dance increases our range of movement and shows us how we position ourselves and move through the world. Through drama we acton what we know.
Ultimately, the work of both creativity and discernment share many commonalities. They both increase your ability to “draw out,” to call into being, what didn’t exist in your life before. Just as sculptors often speak of freeing forms from stone or wood rather than creating them, you, too, through the artistic process, can work to liberate the spirit trapped in matter, the soul implicit in what the alchemists called the massa confusa of your life. You work—and ideally you learn—to separate your own calls from the background noise.
This is exactly why I began my own journal-writing at the age of 19, and have kept at it every year since. I was, at that time, contemplating making the first big decision of my independent young life—quitting the college where I had financial aid because I hated it there, and transferring to one that offered classes in journalism. I not only had to discern a call, but contend with much background noise, including my parents’ confoundment and the loss of the financial aid.