Crossing the Bridge to Health: A Creative and Symbolic Journey

By Penny H. Baron

Asklepios - EpidaurosThe importance of the arts, beauty, and imagery in everyday life was acknowledged and utilized by ancient healers to bring the human body back into balance — body, mind, and spirit. For almost one thousand years, beginning around 500 BCE, "temple medicine" was the predominant form of healing throughout Europe, the Near East, and the Mediterranean. This fascinating history is outlined in the book Aesclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, by Professor Emma Edelstein.

If you were ill or troubled, physically or emotionally, part of your medicine was to journey for days to a temple where special diets, herbs, exercise, massage, rest, and consultations with priests would be part of your healing program. Along with these healthful practices, individuals enjoyed walks in beautiful gardens to observe statues created by famous Greek sculptors. Roaming minstrels provided music to lift the human spirit, and there were dramatic performances portraying the cycles and rhythms of human life. Even the images and symbols in dreams were considered important and interpreted by priests in the morning as guidance for an individual's healing regime. Personal written testimonials from this time period were etched in stone and later discovered in archeological ruins at ancient temples, giving us a glimpse into the temple medicine of two thousand years ago.

So what do these ancient discoveries have to do with our modern-day lives? Everything. Many recommendations by prominent physicians today practicing Integrative Medicine bear a striking resemblance to temple medicine. One well-known physician, Elliott Dacher, MD, has written the book Whole Healing: A Step-by-Step Program to Reclaim Your Power to Heal, which highlights the significance of certain healing practices, including both alternative and traditional forms of medicine. From an alternative or holistic perspective, time devoted to prayer, meditation, and walks in nature, along with the experience of poetry, music, dance, and art — all are part of a model in which the arts complement Western medicine. Engaging in both spiritual and creative practices, according to Dacher, allows individuals to develop a sense of inner peace, meaning, purpose, and coherence — qualities often lost when we become ill, yet so central to healing.

A number of years ago, I was faced with a serious illness and used art and the creative process as part of my own healing journey. As an art therapist, I found that including creative experiences to complement my medical treatments, both alternative and traditional, felt natural. I discovered through personal experience that art and creativity have the potential to keep our spirits alive, even in the darkest of times. Over a period of several months, I was able to observe that the creative projects I engaged in helped to lessen my feelings of depression and anxiety, while strengthening my inner resources for self-awareness and self-empowerment. Instead of being debilitated by negative feelings during my illness, I channeled my energies, whenever possible, by engaging in the creative process.

One of my favorite projects during this time period was the creation of an "Image Box." Using the medium of collage, I covered an empty shoebox with dozens of pictures cut out of old magazines and junk catalogues that I received in the mail. These images represented my hopes, dreams, and future goals from that period of my life. After many weeks of cutting, pasting, arranging, and rearranging, the Image Box was finally completed. Over one hundred positive images of my future covered all sides of the box, including the underside of the lid. I was filled with a sense of joy and accomplishment, deeply proud of my creation. My vision was to admire the collage images on the box until I was healthy enough to live out all my carefully planned hopes and dreams represented there. I would like to share the following creative experience, so that you will be able to create your own Image Box.

Creative Experience: 
Making an Image Box

To begin, prepare by gathering together some magazines and catalogues. Next, over a period of days or even weeks, tear or cut out pictures that represent, either realistically or symbolically, hopes, dreams, and goals for your present and future life. As you collect these images, place them in a large envelope or file. When you feel satisfied that you have enough images, use a scissors to trim the pictures and arrange them around every surface of an empty shoebox. Glue sticks are easy to use and work best for pasting down your selections. Take time to reflect on your images and creatively set them in place. Don't rush the process. If you wish, when you're finished, cover your box with clear plastic contact paper to protect and preserve these pictures. Consider using your Image Box to hold special objects, poems, or writings related to the ideas, plans, and goals depicted by the images on your box. At the conclusion of this project, write down any reflections you have about creating your Image Box.

Penny H. Baron, PhD, LCAT, is a Licensed Creative Arts Therapist in NY State and maintains a private practice in the Ithaca area combining verbal counseling with art therapy for both children and adults. Her new Health & Healing spoken-word CD, Crossing the Bridge to Health: A Creative and Symbolic Journey, is sold at GreenStar's West-End store and Oasis. She will be presenting a class at GreenStar on Wednesday, April 23, 7-8:30 pm. For more information about her work or CD, visit

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