Reflections on the need for self-compassion: My story of sharing ‘Wounds’ at the InsideOutMusician Ceilidh

Sophie Renshaw
Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Sophie Renshaw reflects on what her Arts Therapies training has taught her about vulnerability as a source of creativity

Sophie Renshaw
Sophie Renshaw

After nearly 40 years in the music profession as a performing violist and active teacher, I have recently embarked on training to become a counsellor using arts therapies. One of the most important observations I have made on the course so far is that all human beings carry vulnerability and often work very hard to hide it from themselves and others. This creates detachment from our own hearts, bodies and minds and leads to an unnatural separation from our moment-to-moment somatic experience.

I would argue that we need to be able to know and embrace our vulnerability in order to grow as individuals and as artists. In my view, the greatest omission from the educational curriculum in general, and in particular in the the training of musicians, is often a recognition of the need for the holding of space and opportunity for students to explore themselves, safely and deeply under the supervision of an expert. 

Arts Therapist, emeritus professor at York University in Toronto and founding dean of Doctoral Studies in Expressive Arts Therapy at the European Graduate School in Switzerland, Stephen K Levine speaks with great authority on the gift of pain: ‘Most of us do not view our suffering as a gift to be treasured; we see it instead as a foreign object that has entered our souls and must be expelled.’ He describes phases of development when people and communities go through periods of transition during which they enter a state of ‘outsiderhood’; no longer held by the structures they have known and not yet held by any new identity. In this vulnerable state we can receive the ‘gift of wisdom that comes from encountering our own essential suffering’ from which we can ‘develop an awareness of our limitations’. 

If we consider this in the context of our learning institutions, it raises some fundamental questions about how these transition periods are often viewed. They may be signalled at times when, at best, a student is ‘failing’ or ‘under-achieving’, or, at worst, when they are resorting to self-harming behaviours or just ‘flunking out’. We might instead understand that these periods are characterised by intense suffering and that the individual needs to be accompanied through a period of self-reflection to come to a better understanding of their pain; that they need to be witnessed with compassion so that they can become self-compassionate. Instead of viewing these periods of life as times of ‘failure to achieve', we might learn to see them as essential moments of growth which help us develop wisdom by coming to know ourselves. 

In the field of Classical music, as the art of interpreting a written score gradually took over from the 17th century practice of improvisation and composition, classically trained musicians lost touch with the experience of musical expression coming from inside themselves and started to divide into two camps: creators and interpreters. Incredibly, three centuries later, it is still the case that expression is what composers do and our task as performers is to faithfully bring this to life through our interpretation. This movement away from direct creativity has left a gap in the development of classical musicians who, in the pursuit of the perfect realisation of another’s vision, often neglect to explore the depths of our own creativity or feel too intimidated to try. We learn that only ‘perfection’ will do and to achieve this we must, at all costs, mask our vulnerability and, consequently, our true gifts behind a false self masquerading as super-confident, super-controlled and invulnerable. How can we then expect ourselves to feel free in performance or allow ourselves to compose original music when we remain cut off from the very source of our own creativity - our vulnerability? 

When we receive the gift of a genuine work of art, we ourselves enter the ‘gifted state’ and become open to our own spirit.

Recently, as part of our Arts Therapies training, we were asked to create a five-minute live piece using several art forms, which expressed our deepest wounds. This was introduced as a rite of passage, a process which invited us to express deep pain through metaphor and archetypal imagery. Of equal importance to this ritual was the conscious reception by a community of witnesses, each committed to being open and compassionate with feedback was given in the same spirit. The process of making the piece was a journey of learning: learning to trust the potency of my most vulnerable feelings; that the very suffering I had worked hard to hide from myself and others would turn out to be the crucible from which my vitality flows.

The gift we give others in bearing and sharing our own pain is the capacity to accept and understand their own suffering.

My piece, Wounds, which consisted of recorded soundscape, improvised music, movement, words and mask, was welcomed first on a training day by fellow course participants, and later at our December InsideOut Musician Ceilidh. Those who witnessed it listened with open generosity and fed back that, while they saw and felt my vulnerability, the piece simultaneously struck them as being beautiful and moving. Art can turn our individual suffering into a universally recognised and felt expression. The context of receptive spacious listening that characterises our Ceilidhs invites an exchange which becomes more of a ritual than a concert. For me, the act of offering was like walking through a door, on the other side of which I discovered a new acceptance of myself and a new surge of confidence and energy.

This ritual of offering, being received and, in turn, being given the gift of reflective feedback, is a very different paradigm to the typical classical music concert, masterclass or competition. Yet imagine if this experience were to be considered worthy of taking central place in both our education and our communal cultural experience? We might start to teach and learn that by embracing all that we are with compassion, we can fully develop our creative potential and freedom as creators and re-creators. This, I feel, could transform the way we conceive the musical exchange as creators, performers and educators.

All quotes in this article are taken from Bearing Gifts to the Feast by Stephen K. Levine.(1992)