Compositionwork uses natural symbolism as a source of self-insight and growth.
In Compositionwork the inner world is externalized in a symbolic form of a landscape consisting of stones and sand. Natural symbolism helps to access areas of the self that are otherwise hidden. Aspects of experience that are not directly accessible become visible through a symbol (Tillich, 1960). Using stones and sand allows to express experiences that are not yet conscious and reveal deep symbolism that is the source of insight and transformation.
Our own work and that of others (e.g. Harris, 2012) shows that using these natural symbols helps to access deeper thoughts and feelings. Tactile sensations and the symbolism of sand (e.g. ground, depth, unknown) enhance the process of moving into the depth of one’s self.
Stones have been universal symbols of the psyche through the centuries (Jaffe). By their abstract qualities stones can symbolize and express experiences coming directly from the sensory and affective dimension of the self, unmediated by concepts. The language of stones is the language of colors, sensory experience, textures and space.
It is the language of the right hemisphere that is the source of deep affective knowledge.
Stones can easily symbolize hidden aspects of the self. According to Jung the function of stones is to help unconscious aspects of the psyche become conscious. In this way they enhance the exploration of the self and reveal aspects which are not accessible by words. Enhancing a dialogue between conscious and unconscious elements is a factor of integration (Hermans, in press).
Using sand in Compositionwork helps to access deeper feelings and work on the formless level of awareness itself. The sandy spaces between the stones allow to experience the space between these form-elements. This space is called “Ma” in Japanese language (Morioka, 2009). This space can also act as a door to another level of the self: the awareness background in which all form aspects appear, e.g. as I-positions and their qualities. The symbolism of space allows to relate to the transcendental dimension of the self. Experiencing this dimension can lead to a shift in one’s self, for example from identification with the roles, positions and emotions culture provides to a sense of self based on more authentic personal experience (Konopka, 2012, Hayward, 1999). Work with sand and space also supports a possible move to the transpersonal level.
Externalization is a powerful process used in compositionwork for creating insights and enlarging inner freedom.
In Compositionwork you externalize your inner ‘landscape of mind’ in order to explore it and develop it further. In the process of externalization personal experience is translated into a symbolic landscape, represented in a concrete form. Representing your inner world in an external form helps to relate to it in an easy and comprehensive way. Just like a picture can say more than a thousand words, a landscape can express feelings, emotions, tensions, issues that previously had no verbal language (Harris, 2012). Such a landscape ‘speaks back’ to you in a nonverbal language of space, colors, shapes and forms. These aspects give important information about emotions, important aspects of one’s self and their relations, information that goes beyond the verbal level.
“ A form has inner meaning: form is the outward expression of this inner meaning” Kandinsky
Externalization allows to look at (a representation of) your self from a meta-position, which renders a larger perspective. Looking simultaneously at the variety of symbolized and externalized positions and emotions helps see relations and patterns between the different elements much easier and more directly than by verbalizing them. A composition shows how different elements of your self hang together. Any emotion you feel or position you take can only fully be understood in the broader context of other aspects of the self, not as an isolated element. The method creates such a context by composing and relating all elements simultaneously. An emerging composition not only simultaneously shows these different elements, at the same time this may evoke a broader array of emotions and thoughts you may have about this. You see “what is happening in you”: a composition immediately ‘speaks back’ to you. Compared to ‘talking about it’ (in a linear way) this facilitates and deepens the exploration considerably.
Externalization also helps to create a distance towards a position or emotion. This distance enlarges your space of freedom and supports your agency towards problematic emotions and aspects of the self. You may experience that you do not coincide with your anger or professional role, but that you can relate to them from different perspectives (other positions) and make choices about how to proceed with them. This helps to make more balanced decisions about one’s life, work and developmental direction.
Differentiating aspects of yourself, energies and emotions allows for learning about one’s inner richness and potential.
Accessing hidden aspects, deep emotions creates change, energy and new motivation. When the multiplicity of aspects of your self are symbolized and externalized it is much easier to differentiate them and learn about their unique qualities. Such a differentiated picture helps to see what gives and what takes energy, what dominates and what is suppressed, what is central and what is put aside, what is close to your core and what is imposed by opinions of other people but not yours, etc.
When rejected or inaccessible parts are integrated, a person may become more complete, integrated and authentic. Allowed and integrated parts can become new sources of energy. Struggling against parts of the self takes energy. When you can allow these parts, be with them, integrate them in your life, this enlarges the sense of being more complete and more authentic. And the energy that was lost in the struggle against them now becomes available. What we fight against in ourselves, fights back. It is an inner war. When we are able to be with all we are we create a new and more complete relation with our self.
Compositionwork uses the transformational power of abstract art and creates conditions to discover the artistry in who you are.
“The more abstract a form is, the more direct is its appeal” Kandinsky
Art invites the totality of the self to express itself. This completeness, that transcends the positive and negative, reveals the artistry of who we really are. Compositionwork as abstract expressionism allows expression of the self in a form of art that moves towards the realness of experience as it is, not as it (the self) should be. The artistic approach invites to see ‘the perfection of imperfection’ in a way that the ‘imperfection’ adds to the completeness and authenticity of the self. It celebrates and enhances the authentic self: the self that one more truly is. “There is no must in art, because art is free” (Kandinsky). In making a composition you can create a space of freedom that invites the realness of your inner world to be expressed. In this perspective Compositionwork gives space and establishes conditions for creative experimentation with your unknown potential and the possible positions that may become sources of inspiration and new energy (promoter positions; Hermans, 2000).
Compositionwork uses the potential of both brain hemispheres, which optimally enhances learning processes.
The learning process in Compositionwork takes place in a dialogue between direct experience and reflection, or, as is often said, in a dialogue between the heart and the head. In our Western culture there is a dominance of left hemisphere functions such as reason, cognition and rationality (Schore, 2012). This also manifests itself in psychological practice and education. The functions of the right hemisphere, such as emotional processing, creativity, aesthetic experience, empathy and direct present experience, are easily restricted by this imbalance. According to Greenberg (2002) integration of emotion and cognition, two dimensions of the self which are closely related to the two hemispheres, are optimal for learning and development.
Taking in account this imbalance and the importance of integration of our two sides (‘heart and head’), we deliberately created conditions in the method for expressing experiences derived from the affective experiential dimension of the self by introducing the “nonverbal language” of colors, textures, shapes and space, using stones and sand. Naming the elements of a composition (verbalizing them), voicing them and reflecting on them, as well as reflecting on the overall pattern, subsequently connects the activity of the right hemisphere with the left one. The “co-operation” of the two hemispheres and their corresponding inputs and impact on the self adds to the integration and development of the self (Hermans, 2015 in preparation).
Corresponding to the different qualities of the right and left hemispheres we use two different approaches in creating compositions: process oriented and structure oriented
The process oriented approach addresses the experiential, present moment dimension. The structure oriented approach primarily starts from reflection and uses a larger time perspective.
• Reconnecting with the present moment embodied experience in the process oriented approach helps to connect with present feelings and develop a strong inner compass. Compositionwork not only gives insight and understanding but also allows to connect/reconnect with the present moment embodied affective experience. People cannot follow their authentic path if they have no strong inner compass: an inner evaluation center that tells them how they really feel about what is going on in or around them. People who are not connected with their embodied emotions can easily be dominated by voices of others, cultural voices, all kinds of “shoulds” and “musts”. As a consequence they have difficulty making their own choices. Cultivating a strong connection with one’s feelings allows to cultivate this inner compass and enhances the development of an authentic personal self. The process oriented approach starts from a ‘not-knowing mind’ (a ‘nowing mind’) that allows to connect to the immediate ongoing affective experience, open one’s self to the direct experience of it and to be in touch with one’s true feelings about it.
• The structure oriented approach helps to create a relevant overview on the broad spectrum of elements that are playing an important role in one’s self. It helps to see patterns that have appeared over a larger time period and to reevaluate them.
The method has a sound scientific basis
Compositionwork is based on a coherent and integrative view on the self that guides interventions and allows to understand the mechanisms of change and development. Its view on the self relates Western psychological theory with the wisdom derived from spiritual traditions all over the world. In this way it offers a basis for a coherent and integrative psycho-spiritual approach.
To understand the dynamics of the multiple aspects of the self and emotions we use a systematic knowledge that guides us in the process of making and exploring compositions. Dialogical Self Theory is the body of knowledge that guides interventions on this level (The Dialogical Self; Hermans & Hermans-Konopka, 2010 Cambridge University Press). As a psychological theory the Dialogical Self is mainly focused on the multiplicity of forms the self may take as I-positions and their mechanisms. We extended this view relating it to the wisdom of the spiritual dimension as offered in many mystical and religious traditions (Konopka, 2012; Konopka & van Beers, 2014). In compositionwork this perspective is clearly present in the use of stones in the sand. This is inspired by the tradition of Japanese Zen Gardens, where stones represent the world of forms while the sand represents the dimension of formless awareness. The wisdom of mystical traditions and related practices allow for the possibility to transcend the world of multiplicity and enter the background space of awareness, which is often seen as the ultimate goal of development of the self. However, the dimension we approach in coaching will always depend on the goals and needs of our clients.