Larson Rose on Body Painting as Spiritual Practice
So here I am, trying to write something about a ritual that I actually created from my own interests and spirituality and asking myself, “How did I get here?” As I write this, it dawns on me that ceremony in my world is not the same as ritual, even though I understand that they can be closely related. Many people love ceremonies--weddings and church services come to mind. Most of my adult life I’ve wondered why I dislike ceremonies so much. I’ve watched them and felt participating in them was a form of lying to myself and others as well. Standing in front of an altar holding some ritual object in my hand and saying words from an old black book felt like an acting class exercise. I just didn’t believe what I was saying.
Lord knows I have tried to participate. I’ve been to church services, Shamanic circles, seances, Bar Mitzvahs, and I even sat ceremoniously naked under a string of prayer flags in a ritual tent looking at about a hundred religious objects and not making a connection to any of them. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever feel what moves other people about these objects and about ritual.
In the past few years, I’ve come to view rituals differently than ceremony. That was a turning point for me. I now think that rituals, whether done in a group or by oneself, can take on a very different life from ceremony. I’ve come to define rituals as something that participants are connected to individually on a spiritual level. I’ve seen someone say a prayer before a meal and sensed their connection with their spirituality: they beam when they do it and I can see that truth. I see it as magnificent and holy. I have watched good friends of mine build sacred fires and even before the ceremony of lighting them begins seen in their faces that they have already touched the sacred.
So how do I see ritual in my life? To be honest, I didn’t until I started writing this. Specifically, I never thought about my body painting work as a spiritual practice, but it does seem to fit. It’s spiritual, it’s psychic, it’s a great connection with other men, and I tend to go into “the zone” when I am doing the paintings. How did this evolve in my life?
I’ve been an artist since I could pick up a crayon. When I think back, I’ve had experiences where I channel spirit and just start painting. I allow spirit to guide me. I don’t think consciously about it, it just gets downloaded into my soul. My acquired painting skills simply allow it to appear on the canvas. Three hours will go by and usually I have no concept of the time passing. I grew up with a strong psychic connection to spirit, something that made me feel like a total outsider--as if being gay wasn’t enough. So my intuitive skills were closeted just like my sexuality.
A few years ago, I took classes in developing my psychic abilities and eventually became a certified intuitive consultant—a psychic medium if you will. And yes, I see dead people. Always have and hopefully always will. I have recently started telling people about it, coming out of the closet if you will. It was at this point that I commented to myself how much easier I thought it was to come out as a gay man then to tell people I am psychic. Nobody tried to have me prove I was gay, but as a psychic, a lot of people felt free to doubt me.
As an artist, I have always been fascinated by body painting and I always wanted to try it. Body painting has sexual overtones and so it can be difficult to actually manifest. Models are not easy to come by. Two summers ago, I had the opportunity to combine the art of intuition and the art of body painting when I went to Easton Mountain and found other spiritual men who were willing to get naked and let me paint them. I started off rather tentatively. With practice, I eventually fine-tuned the process and it became a bit more structured.
My body painting practice begins by first finding a man open-minded enough to allow the process and to welcome any results. I ask him what is going on in his life. Sometimes bringing something forward and actually seeing it manifested on your body can give you great power: this harkens back to a long history of war paint, tattoos, and body decorations though centuries of different cultures. I ask if there is anything he might be working on emotionally or if he has a power animal he would like to see manifested on his skin. I have also worked with men who admired certain paintings or artists whose work I adapted on their bodies.
The man I work with chooses how comfortable he will be in terms of getting naked or wanting to be covered, and I respect those boundaries. This also dictates where the painting starts and stops. So far, most men have been very comfortable with being completely open, and I always take this as a great compliment. Lying naked on a mat face up for a hour or more can be a vulnerable position. I am always honored that the man I am working with puts so much trust in me to keep him safe.
I place my hand on his chest and explain the process. My intent is to give him a pleasant and possibly spiritual experience. Whatever the painting looks like is guided mostly by spirit, not always by me. The painting may or may not end up looking like what we talked about. However, I always try to include an image or spirit animal in the painting if that is what he requested. I ask him if he prefers not to be touched on any part of his body and I give him permission to touch me if he is so inclined. I feel that repressed sexual energy or tension blocks a good connection, and I would rather someone float away and relax then to be caught up in suppressing unfulfilled desires to touch me during the process. I also explain that I will probably not respond to or reject the touch. When I channel spirit I enter what I refer to as “the zone” and my intention is not a sexual encounter. I invite him to allow the process, and his feelings, to unfold as they unfold. I explain that I probably won’t talk much, because when I am connected to spirit, I prefer not to move into small talk, though the man I am painting is welcome to talk to me.
After this preamble, I take a deep breath and start to enter a meditative state. I allow images to come to me, pick up my paintbrush and begin translating them into a painting. I usually know pretty soon what the painting will be and then I just start using my skills as an artist to make it happen. During the process, I often feel called to paint something without knowing what it means or how it relates to the man I am working with. I have learned, as with my psychic readings, to let go and follow these impulses.
After about an hour, the paintings find a way to tell me they are done. During the process, I usually stay in some sort of bodily contact with the man I am working with. I find this helps me stay in the zone and it adds a level of sacred intimacy between us. Since most men close their eyes and zone out, I feel the touch helps them to always know where I am and in doing so adds another layer of safety. After the painting is done, we stand in front of a mirror and I explain the images and what I feel they mean. If images have come to me that I don’t understand, I ask the man for his take on them. In every case so far, the images have had some connection to him in some emotional way or were an important part of his life.
I have discovered in this ritual/spiritual practice great significance to both myself and the man I’m painting. I never suspected that it would have such a huge emotional impact on the men who volunteered to participate with me. I was surprised at first how they reacted. I watched shy men prancing about painted and naked, inviting pictures to be taken of them and openly desiring men to look closely at their bodies--bodies they weren’t so thrilled about earlier in the day. Men have told me that they experienced for the first time in their lives being able to simply lie still and relax for an hour and a half. I have seen tears, laughter and a great deal of gratitude. Some men are speechless and stare at their images in amazement. I have been told that it has changed a few people’s lives.
For me, my body painting practice has increased my awareness of the intuitive gifts I am so blessed to have and how important my work can be. I confirm and reconfirm that I must stop denying to myself that my psychic, sexual and spiritual side is a powerful force for positive change; that my upbringing and prejudices about doing spiritual work, energy work, intuitive work, body work need to continue to be challenged; that I need to be proud of what I am able to bring to the world as a spiritual gay man and not apologize for it. Which is also what inspired me to share this in writing.
What I find most fascinating is that what came out of all this was never my intent. I was just really grateful and honored that I got the volunteers and had the opportunity to do the paintings. It’s not always easy for me to say to someone “Would you like to get naked and be a canvas?” Maybe that will get easier for me with time as well. Maybe if I face west, turn three times and spit it will come to pass. Who knows? It may be just the ritual I need.