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Spontaneous Drawing For Understanding

By Bernie Siegel MD

As a surgeon I was not made aware, by my training, of the many uses of spontaneous drawings and dreams, as psychotherapists are. What I am about to share stems not from my beliefs but from my experience and my work with patients and their families. I have always been an artist and a visual person. In 1977 I attended a workshop presented by Dr. Carl Simonton and in 1979 one presented Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The former led to my first experience with guided imagery and the latter with a spontaneous drawing. Both revealed incredible insights and information about my life, and so I became a believer and returned to my practice, where a box of crayons became one of my therapeutic tools. I was also quite angry about what is not routinely taught in medical school, about the significance of dreams and drawings as they relate to somatic, as well as, psychological factors.

What makes our species unique is not our ability to reason but our use of symbols. No one stops to think about why mankind has evolved in such a way that we sleep for long periods of time while most animals do not sleep, or sleep for only short periods of time, because we are vulnerable while asleep. I believe the answer is to give our body, brain, unconscious and conscious minds the ability to communicate in the universal language of symbols. A universality which can be seen in the symbolism and themes of myths originating from various cultures.

I began to ask my patients and their families to draw pictures to help us make therapeutic decisions based upon not just intellect but inner knowingness, as well as to help family relationships and psychological issues. I was amazed by what I learned, and particularly the revelation of somatic aspects in the drawings. When I wrote to medical journals about my work, the articles were returned, saying “interesting but inappropriate for our journal”. When I sent them to where they were appropriate they were returned saying, “appropriate but not interesting.”

When I began to realize how much I hadn’t learned in medical school I made contact with Jungian therapists to explore their work and wisdom. I will never forget a note I received from Susan Bach, the author of Life Paints Its Own Span, a book based upon the drawings of children with leukemia. I wrote to tell her what I had discovered and she wrote back, “Calm down; we know all this.” It confirmed the consistency and the truth of what was known because we had discovered the same things. Gregg Furth’s work, another Jungian and author of The Secret World of Drawings, has also helped guide me. Because of my training as a surgeon and knowledge of anatomy I was experiencing things a psychotherapist would not normally be aware of, particularly the somatic aspects of various disease states and its treatments, by people who were sharing their experience of illness and their lives through images.

Bernie Siegel MD is a retired surgeon running therapy groups for thirty years for exceptional cancer patients.

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