Wheatfield with cornflowers

I had an unforgetable feast of visual stimulation at the Kunstmuseum in Basel. There were over 70 original paintings of Vincent van Gogh being exhibited. As I moved from one painting to the next I felt in awe of the master pieces that I was encountering. This was no ordinary experience for me.

Foyer of the Kunstmuseum, Basel

I found myself connecting longest to a painting called ‘Wheatfield with Cornflowers‘. This did not seem to be a public favourite. It did not depict an elaborate scene. I am not an artist nor do I have any academic qualification in art to judge a painting, but it seemed such a ‘simple’ painting. Yet it had such appeal to me.

While I felt mesmerized, I did not stand still in front of the painting. Instead I found myself experimenting with movement and distance as I remained visually connected to the painting. Moving towards and then away from the painting. Slow movements, with stillness in between. Always looking. It felt as if I was in a meditative dance, similar to that I usually found myself in when doing tai chi. Moving without thinking, but feeling connected to the context that I was in.

When I stood very close, I saw thousands and thousands of little brush strokes in the predominant colours of beige, cream and yellow. By being so close, there was no visual meaning. No recognizable shapes. It appeared as chaotic colour. I was too close to the actual painting to make any holistic sense of it. The predominant feeling I had, by being so close, was one of confusion.

As I moved away, there was an optimal distance away from the painting, when the painting came to life and with it, ‘I saw’. I had to be away and ‘distanced’ from the actual painting in order to see the form, to see the picture, to get the meaning. I am sure that most artists may be thinking so what’s the big deal – that’s how art works. You need to stand away from it in order to appreciate the richness of the piece of work.

In my actual experience of this with ‘Wheatfield with Cornflowers’, I was reminded of the therapeutic process that usually unfolds with my clients.

Problems have the magnetic pull of a van Gogh painting.

Problems usually behave in the way that I had experienced ‘Wheatfield with Cornflowers’. By being too close, you find that you are in the domain of chaos. The chaos in turn, causes confusion. You cannot see any meaning.

An emotional problem is usually all consuming. It feels as if  it exists inside you. In my experience, my clients find it almost impossible to separate themselves from the problem that they are dealing with. Because of this, they find it difficult to get a perspective, to see a bigger picture, to get a meaning.

Many athletes deal with the ‘fear of failure’. One of the most effective ways that I have found to deal with fear is to ‘look at it’, to observe it, without actively trying to change it. There is no need to actively search for a solution. Fears do not like to be looked at. Fears exist in darkness and thrive on repression and/or denial.

When the therapeutic process creates some space and distance between the person and the problem, new meaning and insights usually unfold. Observational reflections are one of the ways to create space between the client (the observer) and the problem (the observed).

The first step to get distance, is to acknowledge the fear. Paradoxically, you have to admit to its existence (and its closeness to you) in order for you to separate from it. Next, if you can look at the fear with curiosity, as an observer would look at something (a painting) that exists external to  him/herself, new insights and meaning usually come to the fore. You need to be patient in this process.

For those of you who are immersed in your own unique problems, this distancing is not as easy as what I had experienced in my encounter with ‘Wheatfield with Cornflowers’. Also, problems are certainly not as beautiful as the master pieces of van Gogh. Maybe I shouldn’t link the two.


6 thoughts on “Wheatfield with cornflowers

  1. craig

    beautiful words Ken – great site. You are right to connect a painting with problems. The painting could represent the world or simply a situation. Problems cloud your view of the world and situations. How you look at the world often solves and eliminates problems. Really really like the way you describe fear. I think people often think they can eliminate fear through blocking it out. This is neither real nor sustainable. Detachment as described by Bhuddists is also for me too far from the situation. There is definitely as you describe an optimal distance. Neither too immersed nor too detached. This is sport. This is life and more importantly this is love.

  2. Ken Jennings

    I think we have been conditioned into either/or thinking and to ‘block out’ the negative and try and only see the positive. Most of the ideas in sports psychology and motivation over-emphasise the positive (and avoid the doubts, fears that an athlete may have) in order to enhance performance. Because of this, I believe we have created a more complex 2nd order level of fear, namely the fear of our fears. When we position ourselves at the optimal distance, and then carefully observe what unfolds in us, we start to neutralise this 2nd order level fear and gain deeper insights into our own functioning and human frailties.

  3. craig

    Exactly. The plethora of self help philosophy out there tells us to suck the marrow out of life. They challenge us to live every day as if it were our last. Most do not offer a practical way to deal with the fear that prevents this from happening naturally. The result is a forced almost socially and self-inflicted pressurised and unnatural optimism. Promise I won’t reply too much anymore – I am just fascinated with the idea of people achieving their personal best in life.

  4. Ken Jennings

    There is something unrealistic and unnatural in some of the self-help literature when a mechanistic ’10 step programme to achieve success’ is offered. Further, if you still have not achieved the success you desire, then ‘more of the same’ is prescribed .

  5. Lutz

    Ken thank you investing the time to share your wonderfull and helpful insights with us.

    I believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with drawing correlation of images or stories to real life – Infact sometimes it helps to create clarity, speeds the process of understanding, offers valuable perspective in a different form or creates the basis of problem/ challenge resolution. Linking images or stories can be helpful in explanation, training, mentoring or a self-guiding process.

    In paradox to the above points I think that although these can be useful in expediting process, I think it is important for us to realise, as you have stated, that the real work lies within ourselves. The process takes tremendous time, committtment, will power and effort, infact it is a long committment to growth. As our lives unfold it sometimes becomes difficult not to “fall in the same hole” when trying to create the space to see “the forest from the trees” – For me rewiring has become an ongoing process and your reminders of “mastery is a journey and not a destination” ring entirelly true. I believe that the process takes dedication and belief in good.

    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts,

  6. Ken Jennings

    The concept of a journey is movement. Movement is linked to freedom and lightness. Problems usually impede this movement, causing us to feel stuck and heavy.

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