I’ve been spreading a lot of yellow around these days.
The latest Practical Bodywork space design project is a north-facing nursery, designed to evoke the Hundred Acre Wood. When mama and I sat down in the room with roughly 200 color swatches, it became clear that the background had to be ‘Peach Tickle,’ which leaped out at both of us. When held against each wall, this particular yellow seemed to create light rather than pulling it in, as all the others did.
Another recent project, Maria’s physical therapy gym, also required a lot of yellow–in an entirely different shade (Apricot Mousse). Ditto with my daughter’s bedroom (Resort Sunwash), my bodywork studio (Summer Wheat, hand-sponged), and my kitchen in Brooklyn (Butternut and Goldfish). Each of these yellows were radically different from one another when placed side-by-side, and each room has a totally different affect. But every one of the walls declared, upon first encounter, “I must be yellow.”
As I discovered during two decades of painting light, however, when you under-paint a canvas with a member of the yellow family, the finished painting appears to glow. And when you have a room for playing, or cooking, or working out, yellow is warm and lively without being too aggressive.
And my therapy room?
Well, the other major factor is Compact Fluorescent Bulbs. Many of the artists in my network are hoarding incandescent bulbs, against the day when they’re no longer on the market. The technology of energy-efficient bulbs has come a long way from institutional tube lighting that flickers, badly enough to cause seizures in the susceptible and headaches in the rest of us.
But most compact fluorescents are still visually chilly. They’re much farther toward the blue end of the spectrum than incandescent bulbs. The human nervous system, when it comes home, wants to snuggle around a virtual campfire, not wander around the energetic equivalent of a convenience store or a hospital corridor. So the yellow on the walls is compensating for the blue in the fixtures.
What are your thoughts on fluorescent bulbs? Do they bother you? What do you do about it?
It’s impossible to overstate how big an effect your environment has on your nervous system.
Living in urban environments, it’s easy to forget that human beings evolved, literally, in nature. Our nervous systems are attuned to cues that have been in place for millions of years–when to wake up (light gets blue), when to go to sleep (light gets rosy and orangey and fades away), when to run like hell (rustle in the bushes), when to grab your spear and jab it in all directions as frantically as you can, because you are actually being swallowed (light gets very red and black indeed.)
Then, a few hundred thousand years later, inhabitants of the inner city so far forget their roots as to paint their windowless bedrooms like this:
and think that somehow they can avoid the repercussions. (Which, in my observation, usually range from nasty divorces, to arrests for assault and battery, to psychiatric hospitalization.)
This is one of the many reasons that we at Practical Bodywork take our wall colors so very, very seriously.
Our domestic partners may get annoyed with us. “Don’t paint the kitchen, we’ll just have to re-paint it when we move out, like, five years from now.” “We don’t have to hang that rug on the wall before the party, it’s no big deal.” “It’s just a rental, why are you bothering?”
These people may believe that their sense of well-being, productivity and ability to sleep at night does not hinge upon the color of their bedrooms, but these people may be wrong. Most of our nervous system responses are hard-wired and beyond our conscious control. And doing battle with stress-inducing ambient cues, day in and day out, has devastating consequences.
So, forthwith, we provide a primer on How To Choose Your Room Colors.
Step 1: Ask yourself how you want to feel in a particular room.
Nobody ever says to themselves, “I want to feel angry, nervous and depressed when I go into my kitchen.” Instead, their kitchen designer, who always orders take-out, says, “Kitchens should be elegant, timeless, and cave-like. Because our ancestors cooked in caves.”
This is the kind of kitchen that induces you to stick a Stouffer’s in the microwave and scarf it with a chaser of bourbon, because what’s the use?
Your kitchen, ideally, should inspire you to make fabulously creative, scrumptiously healthy meals for the crowd of awesome people who wandered over with a bottle or three of good wine, because it’s just so much fun to hang out there.
But in order to figure out what colors will provide that specific company-and-wine-attracting vibe, you must perform:
Step 2: Honestly analyze the quality of your natural light.
The biggest mistake I see enthusiastic room-painters making, in the upper Northern Hemisphere, is going into denial about how much light they have access to, or thinking that they can fake it.
Let me explain. The closer a person lives to the Equator, the drier the climate, and the higher the altitude, the jollier the colors they can get away with. This is why Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are painted the way they are.
Bright, strong, clear light, coupled with high ceilings, can carry a palette straight out of Romper Room. Nothing ever clashes in direct sunlight. The louder the better. There are walls in Mexico that you can practically see with your eyes closed, so saturated, enveloping and pervasive is the color. It’s not tacky or horrendous in the least.
But when you try to convert your low-ceilinged, north-facing, ground-floor apartment into your own little Buddhist temple, north of the Tropic of Capricorn, nightmares ensue.
General rule of thumb: the higher the ceiling and the larger the windows, the more you can use saturated colors. The lower the ceilings and the foggier your light, the more you have to dust it down.
That doesn’t mean you can’t go bright; it means you must go oblique. You use colors with earthier hues. Dusty rose instead of cotton-candy pink; butternut yellow instead of sunflower. You can get away with almost anything, as long as you mix a good dollop of some phlegmatic neutral into your glowing paint bucket.
Step 3. Don’t try to brighten up a dim room by painting it white, or beige, or pastel.
This is one of the most counter-intuitive principles in space design: white is not bright unless there is a ton of natural light to reflect off it. If you paint your basement apartment pure white in order to stave off a cave-like ambiance, adding a lot of excellent halogen lighting to ensure you don’t get S.A.D., you will merely create the effect of a refrigerated subterranean laboratory. Instead, pick warm, luminous colors in mid-range tones.
Step 4: Don’t be afraid to go personal and eclectic.
Matchy-matchy is tacky-tacky. Show me a room full of furniture that was all purchased at the same time (most likely from the same suburban shopping mall), and I will show you a room without a soul. A soulful room is curated, rather than designed. Before you go running out to buy a lot of stuff, take a good look at the stuff you already own. Do you like it? If not, get rid of it. If so, pick out the stuff you like best–like an Oriental rug, an antique table or a tiled mirror–and choose colors that show it off. Pick one of the tones in your rug and paint the wall with it; match the curtains to one of your tiles. Play around with visual jazz.
And if you have no idea what to do next, drop us a line and we will give you a free consultation!
Recently, I had a four-hour layover in Times Square. I was taking the bus up north to visit family, one of whom is critically ill, and my stress level was seismic. Times Square is not a restorative locale at the best of times; after ducking into Le Pain Quotidien for an overpriced lunch, and unwilling to stiff a long-suffering waitress by spending the afternoon there, I found myself walking the streets in a freezing drizzle, lugging a leaden backpack, and overwhelmed by chaos.
Suprisingly good for a random choice.
Urban Outfitters provided no refuge; neither did H & M, Sephora, or any of the other glamorous shops in my path. The rain kept coming. By this time my nerves were so frazzled that I couldn’t summon up the will to obtain an umbrella; for me, chaotic environments are almost as obstructive as low blood sugar, when it comes to making sensible decisions.
Finally, in desperation, I ducked into a movie theatre and bought a ticket for the next available show. (It was ‘Argo,’ : highly recommended.) As soon as I was seated, in spacious, temperature-controlled darkness, I felt my blood pressure start to descend. By the end of the previews I was feeling human again.
A movie theatre, even during an action film, is the opposite of a chaotic environment. Every element of your surroundings is aligned to give you a singular experience; sound, light, temperature, furniture, even smell. Your nervous system is receiving a coherent set of stimuli, telling you–look this way, listen to this, follow this story, feel this emotion. You are taken on a journey, and all you have to do is receive it.
By the time I emerged from the theatre, I was able to tackle the rest of my trip with an organized mind. I’ve never been a Ben Affleck fan, but now I forgive him for looking like a frat boy.
This organized neurological journey is a big part of the healing process, and one often overlooked by modern healthcare systems, although this is beginning to change. It is one of the reasons that I design the Practical Bodywork treatment space with attention to every sense; color, light, smell, sound, temperature. Every element of the environment should send the message: ‘safety, comfort, welcome, peace.’
Macagno has been testing hospital design in a virtual-reality lab, and this work could bring us closer to that elusive hospital where, for example, no one gets lost. Other findings from the kind of research he is talking about may challenge what architects have practiced for years. For instance, hospital rooms for premature babies were long built to accommodate their medical equipment and caregivers, not to promote the development of the newborns’ brains. Neuroscience research tells us that the constant noise and harsh lighting of such environments can interfere with the early development of a baby’s visual and auditory systems.
Your environment can either promote well-being, or detract from it. This is a simple idea–perhaps so simple that it is often dismissed. Certainly it seems to have been ignored by a generation or three of big-box retailers, public schools, hospitals and urban planners. Not to mention physical therapy offices.
As many of you know, my brother-in-law, Leif, is currently battling a rare form of cancer called mantle cell lymphoma. He’s young, formidably strong and has one of the healthiest lifestyles of anyone I know. We went up to Maine to visit him last week.
It’s impossible to describe what it’s like to watch someone you love go through a terrible experience. As far too many of us already know, cancer treatment is not only brutal, but chronic; it just goes on and on. Coping with chronic is qualitatively different from coping with a crisis, like getting hit by a bus; getting hit by a bus has a narrative arc that you can move through. Getting cancer is like setting up house in the middle of a freeway.
Most of us, of course, want to be able to walk into a crisis and fix it. Feeling helpless in the face of suffering is thus one of the most difficult states of mind we endure. So what can we do about that? Here are a few suggestions.
• Never underestimate the healing value of mundane service. Wash dishes, clean floors, do laundry, run errands, cook a healthy meal. These tasks are particularly helpful by virtue of the fact that they are infinitely renewable, and can be done without thinking too hard.
• Just be around. Send notes, send gifts, make phone calls. They’re appreciated.
• Don’t say, “If there’s anything I can do, give me a call!” Instead say, “Would it be helpful if I brought a meal, did laundry?” People under stress are often too overwhelmed to be proactive in asking for help. Use your common sense, double-check, and listen to the answers.
…Foremost among these practices is the one known as tonglen, which means “taking and sending.” The practice is as follows:
In meditation, picture or visualize someone you know and love who is going through much suffering–an illness, a loss, depression, pain, anxiety, fear. As you breathe in, imagine all of that person’s suffering–in the form of dark, black, smokelike, tarlike, thick, and heavy clouds–entering your nostrils and traveling down into your heart. Hold that suffering in your heart. Then, on the outbreath, take all of your peace, freedom, health, goodness, and virtue, and send it out to the person in the form of healing, liberating light. Imagine that they take it all in, and feel completely free, released, and happy. Do that for several breaths. Then imagine the town that person is in, and, on the inbreath, take in all of the suffering of that town, and send back all of your health and happiness to everyone in it. Then do that for the entire, state, then the entire country, the entire planet, the universe. You are taking in all the suffering of beings everywhere and sending them back health and happiness and virtue.
When people are first introduced to this practice, their reactions are usually strong, visceral, and negative. Mine were. Take that black tar into me? Are you kidding? What if I actually get sick? This is insane, dangerous! When Kalu first gave us these tonglen instructions, a woman stood up in the audience of about one hundred people and said what virtually everybody there was thinking:
“But what if I am doing this with someone who is really sick, and I start to get that sickness myself?”
Without hesitating Kalu said, “You should think, Oh good! It’s working!”
A strange thing begins to happen when one practices tonglen for any length of time. First of all, nobody actually gets sick. Rather, you find that you stop recoiling in the face of suffering, both yours and others’. You stop running from pain, and instead find that you can begin to transform it by simply being willing to take it into yourself and then release it. The real changes start to happen in you, by the simple willingness to get your ego-protecting tendencies out of the way.
–Ken Wilber, ‘Grace and Grit,’ 247-49
This doesn’t have to be a big dogmatic deal. You don’t have to let anyone know you’re doing it. It’s a practice that may help you to be more present, less anxious, and less visibly freaked out. Lots of us want to ‘be strong’ for our loved ones, but what does that mean? Stoicism? False cheer? Pretending nothing’s wrong?
Tonglen meditation can help you stop ‘doing’ and move into ‘being,’ which is where authentic connection lives.
As some of my wise friends point out, changing the face of healthcare is a quixotic proposition. It’s all very well to saythat your doctor should be prescribing more massage than painkillers, that insurance should cover it, and that everyone should be insured.
But as we all know, our broken healthcare system makes far more money by selling drugs and high-intervention treatments to sick people than by investing in low-intervention therapies that keep them well. Too many people have their livelihoods bound up in the status quo. It’s not just difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it; it may well be impossible. Upton Sinclair was an optimist.
So where do we start?
This is funny. Ha. Ha.First of all, like the global economy, our healthcare system is grossly overbalanced. Premiums are rising faster than our ability to pay for insurance, high rates of unemployment mean that more and more people are getting pushed out of employer-funded healthcare, and an aging population is using up more and more healthcare resources. Those who still have jobs and insurance are able to remain in denial, but the system as it stands is unsustainable.
Second, our society is changing in some fundamental ways. Communication is infinitely easier, faster and more varied than at any time in history. There are a lot of smart, underemployed people with time on their hands, and highly sophisticated communications devices in those hands.
As the healthcare system slowly collapses under its own weight, there’s a lot more motive and opportunity for alternative practitioners to set up shop, and for desperate and disillusioned clients to try them. Due to the lack of a cohesive, non-exploitive alternative system (Massage Envy: even the name is bad karma), alternative healthcare practitioners have to be entrepreneurs, if they want to earn a decent living. And good entrepreneurs know that you live or die by the number and quality of your relationships.
Because of these factors, there’s a lot more scope for new healthcare paradigms gaining influence and visibility through lateral connections, like network marketing, rather than the top-down corporate capitalism model, which requires huge investments up front.
Therefore, Bucky Fuller’s ‘better model’ is building itself as we speak. As people lose their insurance, or see their premiums rise, they’re forced to take responsibility for their own health. As network marketing reaches more and more people, they will be savvier about how they choose a practitioner, and what healing modalities work for them.
At the same time, Big Healthcare is trying to save costs by cutting payments to practitioners. Mainstream healthcare practitioners will have less and less incentive to hitch their wagons to a system which is giving them less and less, and more incentive to look around for another model.
And there it will be. People like Atul Gawande are out there backing up their common sense advice with research and documentation. Practitioners who collaborate, develop skills and market effectively will have a wider range of influence over cultural thinking about healthcare. And people getting screwed by an insane system will have both the motive and means (through relentless communcation) for demanding change.
‘Winter and Spring,’ stained glass by Judith Schaecter, 30″ x 38″, judithschaecter.com
Wouldn’t it be amazing if:
• You could go to your doctor with severe pain, and she would write you a prescription for a course of massage therapy and other bodywork, which not only blissed you out, but solved your problem without the nasty side effects of drugs?
• Your massage therapist could refer you to the top specialist in the area for whatever issue you had, from varicose veins to systemic nerve pain?
• Wellness centers were jam-packed with practitioners who not only knew how to work miracles, but knew when to send you to someone else for the best possible treatment?
• You’d be hard put to tell the difference between a doctor’s office waiting room and the atrium of a high-level resort spa?
• Insurance covered all of this, and everybody?
Impossible, you say? Crazy? Hubristic to the max?
But this is the vision for Practical Bodywork that gets me out of bed every day. In my mind, I see that atrium, with the fountain, and stained glass by Judith Schaecter set into the walls. I see my favorite clients pouring in and receiving all the love and joy they’ve come to expect. I see practitioners who like and respect one another, working together to create the best health outcomes for every client. I see everybody earning a living wage with health insurance.
During the last year I’ve been taking a crash course in business development–marketing, networking, accounting, and management–a DIY MBA, if you will. I’m surprised to note that I’m loving it. The business world has, seemingly, greater scope for idealism than the art world ever did–more leverage, more autonomy, more community engagement, and more practical influence. Also more money.
Practical Bodywork is still at the very beginning of this journey. We’re moving along at a pace that may not set the world on fire, but won’t kill us, either. We’re beginning the search for office space, which will one day hold that fountain and fabulous art, as well as many other amazing health care practitioners. We’ve got a bookkeeper and an editor, a project development advisor and a business coach, and may qualify for a loan sooner than we thought we could.
We have also, on a joyful, visionary whim, applied for a small business grant. You can help us qualify. Just go here, search for Practical Bodywork in Philadelphia, and vote. No donations required. Love!
As a visual artist, I have long maintained that one’s surroundings have a profound effect on one’s health, or lack thereof. I once founded a gallery in Brooklyn named ‘Healing Arts.’ Now a friend of mine, Kesha Bruce, is producing a project called 6×6, based on the premise that artists can exhibit, market and sell their work without a gallery doing it for them. I asked her a few leading questions for her 6×6 Blog Tour: see if you can spot my agenda.
KILLING GOD’S RAINMAKER, 2006 by Kesha Bruce. Ink, gouache, collage on paper. 7 x 9 in. (18 x 23 cm.)
• You’ve said you have a spiritual connection with art-making. How does this manifest? In the way you work, in the subject matter, or in other ways?
My way of working really relies on getting to a place where I can tune out all the “noise” in my head and get to the story. Or maybe a better description would be, getting still and quiet enough so that the story reveals itself. To get there I use a technique I learned in college that’s meant to be a warm up, but I use it more as a “calm down”. I do anywhere from 50 -100, non-stop, 5-minute drawings of the same image or idea. I think of it as a drawing meditation.
• Can art be used to heal? How?
I think the experience of making and the experience of viewing art are both incredibly healing.
From the standpoint of an art –maker I can tell you that the process of making art is a critical part of my well-being. I quite literally think it is good for my health.
And in terms of how viewing art can be used to heal Visual imagery is powerful. The experience of beauty, however you define it, is powerful. The beauty around you has the power to make you whole again. I think that’s what healing is.
• How has your work with Kickstarter, 6X6, and consulting influenced your studio practice?
This whole past year has been about me learning to reach out and in turn let people in. Asking people, sometimes complete strangers, to support my project has been an amazing learning experience. It’s made me understand how important it is to connect with people and learn about them–and also be willing to share.
My work has always been about the stories people tell, but I can definitely see my focus moving towards more collaborative ideas. The energy and the ideas that I’ve had access to as a result of planning 6×6 have totally transformed the way I think about what it means to be an artist. Working alone my studio to produce new work is a solo task, but everything else, absolutely everything else, is about connection.
To hear more about 6×6, read Kesha’s weekly articles on art, art marketing, and creativity, and to download a free copy of “The 5 Step Art Career Make-Over” visit her blog at www.KeshaBrucestudio.com.
That’s a rhetorical question. I may never know why rehab centers are ugly, because I’m not going to physical therapy school, and you may never understand a system until you’ve worked within it.
While I was researching a career in physical therapy, however, I interviewed at several institutions where physical therapy takes place. I vowed that I would not attempt to redecorate any of the environments in which I found myself, or even bring up the issue; this vow lasted about fifteen minutes.
I used to believe that hospitals, doctor’s offices and cubicles at Pacific Gas & Electric were the nadir of modern working environments, with the exception of meat packing plants and third-world sweatshops. Then I interviewed at X Physical Therapy Center in Philadelphia.
The above image is not the center that I visited; it is infinitely nicer. Note the elements of actual color, however frigid; the matching furniture, the plants–possibly not even fake. Flickering fluorescent lights, however: check. Acoustic tile, check. Windowless basement, check. Bare walls, hideous floors, musty odor, uncomfortable furniture, people wearing scrubs: present in force.
If this were a movie set, it would represent an Argentine military prison, circa 1977. Your mind is not clueless–it walks into a place like this and knows you’re about to be tortured. If relaxation is a healing state of mind, you will not achieve it here.
I doubt this is an accident. Why else would they all look like this? Maybe they do it to signify that This Is Serious Medicine, not snake oil, like all that ‘alternative medicine’ BS. Perhaps they wish to demonstrate that they aren’t wasting your premiums on interior design. Possibly the Western healthcare establishment is entirely oblivious to aesthetics.
But, just possibly, it’s about power. Because beautiful places send signals of their own: you are important. You are cared for. You are healthy, wealthy and safe.
Conversely, fluorescent cubicles are where the Little People must work, play, live and die. Ugly=Low Status. It’s as if our culture expects that sick and injured people understand, in their bones, that they are second class citizens. By getting sick, you have sinned. If you want to rejoin society, you must endure Purgatory.