Creative endeavors feed our ability to better understand ourselves. Exploring our senses through “play” can lead us to learn more about who we are, and how we present in the world.

It all started when I was browsing through photos on the internet.

I was preparing to participate in a BDSM workshop in a few months, and I came across a photograph that intrigued me. In that photo, a young man was painted and sitting cross-legged, in a ragged sarong of sorts.

There was an intense look in his eyes.

But what caught my eye was the unusual painting on his body.

He was painted a light blue and white; half on one side of his body, half on the other. He was adorned in interesting markings, which looked like ancient script, all over his body. He was wearing Buddhist prayer beads around his neck, but other than the sarong and beads, he was painted from head to toe.

There was an intensity in his eyes. And he seemed to be intensely in another plane of experience.

“I want that,” I thought.

Jumping in to the experiment

My fellow brother, friend, and roommate Eddie had recently taken courses in photography, and his creative spirit has always fascinated me. Before I discovered embodiment, I was always all about structure, all about the rules; he was seemingly always been more about free-flowing expression. Our unique relationship is one that has led us to create experiments of exploration that lead to greater understanding of ourselves. Because of his spirit, and what he was teaching me about living in the moment, it was not uncommon to find us us creating clay sculptures, making jewelry, painting and building collages, donning up wigs and paint to “play on the edge,” or even listening to odd music and dancing like fools.

So when a freak ice storm hit our area in late January and I found myself at home with nothing particularly interesting planned, I knew what to do.

“Paint me like this. Let’s experiment with this. Let’s see what we create,” I said to him.

What followed that evening was nothing short of fascinating. Using paints of all sorts we had available from previous creative activities, including acrylics, tempura, and others, we set up the creative studio we used in our workspace and began the process.

No clear path, but driven by inspiration

Eddie played his music, called on his creative muse, and entered his artistic heart. My role was to be his canvas; to allow myself to serve, to pay attention to what I was feeling, and to express myself as the moment warranted.

Over the next two hours, I found myself staring at my naked body as it became something “else.” Something about body paint creates a transformation of perspective.

Although I am fairly comfortable with my nudity, I still have issues with accepting my body.

The cool, sticky, wet paint, visually, was like applying a mask that made it more comfortable to be naked. I wondered whether women feel like this when they apply makeup for the day.

The experiment started as literal; we were following the initial idea from the photograph, and the duotone combination of blues made me look like one of those crazed football fanatics who paint their whole face and torsos to show their passion for their team. Eddie mentioned what team I would probably fit in with. Because I’m not a fan of the sport, I couldn’t relate, but I understood the concept.

We adorn ourselves to pay homage to those things important in our lives, I thought.

Emergence of authentic feelings

As the paint started to dry, I started to feel claustrophobic. You see, paint drying on skin restricts movement. That’s why makeup is so moist; it has to retain its elasticity or it cracks. As we started to play with poses, I felt like combination clown, a backup to some odd music video, a tortured prisoner, and….yes…there it was…some sort of powerful being.

I recognized when those options were emerging for framing myself, that I had a choice.

That’s what I need to give permission to emerge…the powerful being in me.

As we continued on this experiment, I decided to bring out more props. Nothing elaborate at first. Sarongs, statues, items from the altar, things to hold in my paint-stained hands, and the photography continued.

As I disengaged from my present circumstances (the “restraint” of the drying paint, the nudity, the uncomfortableness of being witnessed in my full being, unable to follow any preconceived construct of what the “proper” behavior was in this situation — I mean, who gets painted naked and plays these days?), I noticed that I started to give myself permission to just be who I was in the present moment.

When in Rome….

Diving deeper: shedding scripts and learning to breathe

Sarongs led to masks. Masks led to handcuffs. Floggers and less expected props followed.

We had entered a second stage of the experience.

That second stage was one where I moved further away from a literal expression, and closer to celebrating myself. But it was still important to “grasp” at items that represented aspects of myself that gave me some level of comfort. I was still on my journey. I had not yet arrived.

The studio where we conducted this experiment gave us lighting options that we chose to explore more with. Laser lights, black lights, ambient lighting of many types. We started shifting things around.

Eddie took more photographs, and I continued to check in with myself in the full-length mirror.

Something had changed. I was no longer anxious about the paint. Although I still was restricted in my movement, it did not matter. I was still present…more present than I was when this experiment began.

Arriving at, and embracing, authentic expression

At some point, the music shifted; it became more tribal. I felt a surge of connection to my body. I was fully aware of my breathing, my movement, the smells, and the sounds. Eddie took out the fluorescent paints, and we dove into the third, and final phase of this journey.

In those moments, with the music close to deafening, he painted strange, odd, mystical figures and shapes on my body canvas. They looked other-worldly; vibrant; energetic; alive. I connected to myself through the full-length mirror in the room, and I found an inner creative being was ready to come out and play, and play it did.

The following moments were transformational. I felt powerful. I felt confident. I felt expressive.

I accessed love, pain, joy, and sorrow…dark and light had no dichotomy. I let out my inner soul, and it expressed itself fully.

Reflecting on the journey

After the experiment was completed, and the washing up and grounding back to reality began, I realized that we had found yet another path to healing.

As human beings, we rarely — perhaps never — give ourselves permission to just be who we are, in all the oddity, messiness, and real-ness that exists in us.

And if we do give ourselves this permission, we are diagnosed as psychologically inept or mentally unstable; we are frequently locked up in hospitals and mental wards. We are labeled crazy; we are ostracized and ridiculed.

What we have other options.

We all need to get to that place sometimes, that place of letting our true expressions out.  Release them. Expel them. Celebrate them. Walk through them.

Unfortunately, however, most often when we try, we do it in unhealthy ways. Before I became a student of ecstatic embodiment, I would try to get there through alcohol, through food, through over-sleeping, through depression, and through self-loathing. Those were painful paths. And they nearly destroyed me.

Recognizing the power in creative expression

As I found my path to healing, I’ve discovered that those very things that we are shunned for in our culture, in our society, are the very things we should use to heal ourselves. Our culture encourages addiction. It encourages us to numb ourselves, to avoid being aware and present to our situations and circumstances. It discourages us from walking straight into our pains, facing our fears, and conquering them or dispelling them so we can continue.

We are at war with those very elements of our existence that proclaim to save us from ourselves.

So the next time you have an opportunity to step into discomfort; the next time you can break with “societal expectation;” the next time you just “know,” in your gut, that what you want to do is the best for you –

just do it.

Breaking free from that which binds us is rare. Our culture has managed to suffocate too many souls before they ever had an opportunity to “come out” to be who they are, and rejoice in their existence.

Don’t be one of those casualties.

Your time here is too precious.