Breaking The Movement Taboo: Reclaiming The Body’s Power Through Dance
August 6, 2017 § 4 Comments
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.
Several years ago, I attended an art opening. During the event, I noticed a woman in the crowd start to move in a way that caused her to stand out. Dressed in flowy black clothing, she slowly, with great poise, began to extend her arms, moving her fingers as though sculpting the air. Eyes slightly downcast, unfocused and internal.
People stopped looking at the art and began looking at the woman. What was happening? Was she drunk? Having a slow-motion meltdown? The air in the room became tense and thick.
Like underwater kelp, she allowed her body to gently sway back and forth, stepping forward to move ever-so-slowly across the room, all the while tenderly crafting the space around her with fluid fingertips. Her pace and reverence were reminiscent of Tai Chi, but more evocative. Each movement was graceful, flowing into the next.
And then . . . we understood.
She was a dancer, and part of her performance was to take us by surprise. One moment she was one of us, standing around, looking at the paintings on the walls—conforming to the confines of accepted physicality (sitting, standing, walking). The next, she was breaking the movement taboo. Neither sitting, standing, nor walking, but expressing, emoting through her body.
The movements themselves were simple enough, but they were affecting. They came from a deep, committed place within the dancer.
[Martha Graham by Yousuf Karsh, 1948]
I was struck, not only by the performance itself, but also by that string of moments when people were taken aback by the simple act of a woman moving authentically. You could see in their faces that until they could categorize what was happening, they mistrusted it. Until she was officially “a dancer” in their minds, she was potentially a loose cannon for daring to step outside the confines of acceptable movement.
As we watched her perform, I noticed how sharply her physical fluidity and emotiveness contrasted our own uniform rigidity. It was then that I realized there exists an invisible tyranny over movement. An unspoken, shame-based restriction so pervasive, we don’t often think to question or challenge it.
[“Birthing The New God,” By Paul Bond]
Dance has been an important part of human ritual, healing and celebration since before the birth of the earliest civilizations. Archeologists have discovered paintings in Indian and Egyptian tombs depicting dancing figures from as far back as 3300 B.C.
While in tribal scenarios we once danced together—and still do in some parts of the world and small pockets of society—as culture has evolved, a distinct division has occurred between professional dancers, who are in effect “socially sanctioned” to move expressively, and regular folk who make jokes about having “two left feet.”
Break dancing is one notable exception, in that self-taught dancers are celebrated. But even in this scenario, it’s the most exceptional, skilled and practiced performers that are given audience. There are still parameters. Technique is required. One couldn’t simply improvise and make up for a lack of skill with feeling.
Beyond perhaps shaking their hips at a dim, crowded club here and there, most people without a background in dance feel intimidated by the idea of engaging their body in expressive movement.
Most of us who are not professional dancers have at one time been shamed—or watched others be shamed—by peers when we step outside the box of acceptable movement. The shadow of social stigmatization looms large. We fear being a joke, Elaine, in the TV series Seinfeld, who famously loved to dance but moved with embarrassing seizure-like jerks, thumbs and knees akimbo, all the while thinking she was the life of the party.
This unspoken shame and fear surrounding expressive movement prevents most people from ever experiencing the immense therapeutic benefits of dance.
Swedish researchers have shown dance to improve mood and increase mental health. It builds cardiovascular, bone and muscle strength. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, dancing can decrease the onset of dementia, boosting immunity, memory and cognition. A Standford Study has found that movement to music creates new neural pathways by integrating several brain functions at once: kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional.
The depth of skill required to perform any kind of classical or structured dance is undeniably impressive. But many people don’t realize there exists a genre of dance which specifically celebrates the authentic movement that springs from the untrained body.
Postmodern dance emerged in the late ’60s as a reaction against the compositional constraints of modern dance. In the same way, modern dance itself once rebelled against the rigid formalism of classical ballet. The Judson Dance Theater, a collection of Greenwich Village artists, dancers and composers, rejected formalism in favor of fostering the purity of ordinary movement.
They saw beauty and value in the freshness of instinctive human self-expression, often using untrained dancers in their performances. Postmodern dance is typified by natural movement—versus learned form.
Around the turn of the last century, people like Isadora Duncan had developed a style they called “free dance”—a rejection of classical formality, which paved the way for a deepened expression of natural movement. Drawing on inspiration from classical Greek arts, folk dances, nature and natural forms, Duncan “followed [her] fantasy and improvised, teaching any pretty thing that came into [her] head.” (Barefoot Dancer: The Story of Isadora Duncan.)
Several years after my experience at the art opening, I found myself stretching on a studio floor with a dancer-friend of mine. A modern dance teacher, she had been kind enough to give me a crash course in movement. As we warmed our bodies up and felt into the space around us, she told me all about postmodern dance and the virtues of authentic movement. Hearing from a trained, professional performer that my natural, untrained physical impulses had value was nothing short of mind blowing to me.
As she stretched her hamstrings, my friend explained that, just like any art, the main purpose of contemporary dance was to develop one’s “authentic voice.” As a writer, I recognized this phrase and understood it. Authentic voice highlights the value of personality and uniqueness in making effective art. It denotes the pleasure provided by idiosyncrasy, honesty and sincerity.
To cultivate authentic voice takes experimentation, risk and practice—it’s a meditation on the power of vulnerability. Applying this idea to dance was a game-changer for me. Ultimately, developing one’s true voice in dance is not about technique, it’s about having the confidence to go deep, and to be vulnerable, allowing authenticity to shine through.
[Photo by Javier Vallhonrat]
I started in my living room. I began to play with what my body wanted to do. My dancer-friend had mentioned Bartenieff Fundamentals, a method she had studied which begins with a focus on breath, and evolves into one of the body’s extremities taking the lead in expressing itself.
It could start with a hand, a shoulder, a toe, the spine…I learned that if I waited and listened, with music playing, some part of my body always volunteered for the job. And after that, another part inevitably followed.
The goal, my friend said, was simply to become comfortable with my own patterns of authentic movement. And then to eventually build and expand upon those patterns. Modern dance pioneer Martha Graham’s concept of Contraction & Release (a contracting movement with each in-breath, an expansive one with each outbreath) was also a helpful touchstone to begin.
In flamenco, there is a word called, duende, the spirit of the dance. Flamenco dancers wait to start moving until they feel the duende move them. They will wait, poised while the music plays, for as long as it takes.
My first time experiencing being moved by the duende of dance was life-changing. I felt a natural rhythm take hold of me, propelling me. I wasn’t thinking at all, which felt delicious. As a writer who spends most of my creative time in my head, it felt amazing to move my focus to the body, to learn this new visceral language and communicate beyond words. My body rejoiced in its newfound freedom, and it had a lot to say. Stored emotions surfaced, flowing through me, released. It felt good to move expressively. In fact, it felt essential. I wondered how I had ever lived without it.
I started my dance practice while snowed in during the month of January, while fighting an immense depression. Without exaggeration, dance lifted me out of an epic funk and into a new exciting space of possibility. I had broken through the movement taboo and it was deeply liberating. I dare anyone to throw themselves into dancing to the full length of a song they enjoy and not feel a marked sense of uplift by the end. It’s an endorphin rush, athleticism meets creative catharsis.
Dance is a vital resource of physical health and emotional wellbeing. You don’t need to take a class to do it. Dance is for everyone. With the exception of the completely paralyzed, someone in a wheelchair can move their upper body expressively to music—there are whole dance companies created by the differently abled.
Deep, expressive movement works as emotional therapy, a physical boost and a cardiovascular workout that you won’t even know you’re doing—until the song ends and you feel how fast your heart is pounding in your chest. Even a slow song, if you work on consistent pacing and fluidity, is a major core workout.
This is an invitation to shed the shame, break the taboo, and reclaim your body’s natural joy in movement. All it takes is 5 minutes, some space, some music, and your willingness to open up to what your body wants to say.
*For some inspiration, follow my journey as an untrained dancer exploring free/postmodern dance & movement on Instagram, @taiwoodville. Special thanks to Alissa Hattman for her notes on this piece, and for Michele Ainza (my dancer-friend) for freely sharing her wisdom, knowledge and inspiration.
Activating A State Of Flow
October 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
“In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self-consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates.” ~Steven Kotler
“When a person invests all her psychic energy into an interaction—whether it is with another person, a boat, a mountain, or a piece of music—she in effect becomes part of a system of action greater than what the individual self had been before. “ ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow is that feeling of being in “the zone,” when every choice you make lands perfectly, gaining momentum & feeding itself. The musician in the groove, the surfer united with the wave. The great conversation in which you lose track of time.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—who first pioneered the concept of “flow” as a study—has observed the commonality between all these states of optimal performance. Steven Kotler, author of “The Rise of Superman,” summarizes flow as a state of “near-perfect decision-making.”
Csikszentmihalyi performed the largest global happiness survey to date. “He talked to everybody that he could possibly imagine,” relays Kotler.
“From Detroit assembly line workers to Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members, elderly Korean women, Navajo sheep herders, expert dancers, expert neurosurgeons. Everybody agreed that when they felt their best and were at their best, they felt flowy. Every decision, every action led perfectly, seamlessly, fluidly to the next. That’s where the term comes from.”
Neurobiolgically, it is possible to pinpoint exactly what is happening during flow states: the prefrontal cortex temporarily deactivates. This is the area responsible for executive functioning or self-monitering. Management of cognitive processes like the judgement of good & bad/better & best, as well a social control—like the ability to regulate urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes. We become less self-critical & more courageous.
The brain—taking up just 2% of our body weight & using 20% of our energy—is required to be extremely energy efficient. When resources are needed for concentration & attention, it performs an efficiency exchange & switches to subconscious processes, which bypass the inner critic & draws on a larger reservoir of knowledge.
Neil Craver, from the “OmniPhantasmic” series
During flow the brain releases a cascade of pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing neurochemistry. Large quantities of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide & serotonin flood our system. These chemicals—the most addictive cocktail the brain can produce—have considerable impact on creativity.
“Both norepinephrine and dopamine amp up focus, boosting imaginative possibilities by helping us gather more information,” details Kotler. “They also lower signal-to-noise ratios, increasing pattern recognition or our ability to link ideas together in new ways. Anandamide, meanwhile, increases lateral thinking—meaning it expands the size of the database searched by the pattern recognition system.”
When the brain encounters the overwhelming complexity of a starry sky or a grand canyon, “reality seems to pause, if only for a second,” relates Kotler. “The conscious mind—what’s technically called the ‘explicit system’—can only hold about seven bits of information at once. This is why phone numbers are only seven digits long.
“But the subconscious mind—the ‘implicit system’—has no such limit. Thus, when we encounter overwhelming complexity, we trade conscious processing for subconscious processing.” (“The Rise of Superman.”)
‘Man Juggling His Own Head. Saint Thomas D’Aquin. 1880
Flow state can be broken down into a four stage cycle.
The first is struggle. Though it feels like the opposite of flow, this is the brainstorming stage, the period of pushing, reaching, training. Overloading the brain with information or taxing the body with new challenges.
“Most people never push this first stage far enough,” notes Kotler, “which is why they constantly miss the doorway to the flow experience.”
Relaxation is the second stage.
“This is when you take your mind off the problem entirely, taking a break, going for a walk or doing something physical,” remarks Kotler. He notes that it’s not the same as watching television or some other distraction that keeps your brain busy. “It’s about relaxing the brain so the conscious mind lets the subconscious mind take over. Many people miss this break and as a result are constantly in overload and burnout, missing flow altogether.”
Neil Craver, from the “OmniPhantasmic” series
The third stage is Flow—that blissful, much-sought state of being. This is the experience of optimal performance. Self & time disappear. The inner critic takes a break. Action & awareness become one. Preparation meets relaxation & expresses itself almost magically. Inspiration takes over.
Consolidation concludes the cycle. Learning & memory are amplified, synthesizing the experience of flow & folding it back into your subconscious in preparation for returning to stage one. As the feel-good neurochemicals of flow recede, it can be easy to “go on a down,” Kotler notes, which leads to an emotional reaction—& often self-sabatoge—in an attempt to regain the flow state.
“The key here is not to let this stress block the learning or reverse the results of being in flow, but to move smoothly back to the next phase of struggle and repeat the cycle.”
Part Two Coming Soon!
*I’d like to thank my dear friend & fellow blogger Alisha Westerman (check out her blog!) for brining my attention to Steven Kotler’s very interesting podcast: Steven Kotler & The Rise of Superman.
Dreams: Symbolic Keys, Subconscious Communication & Catharsis ~ Part 2
March 3, 2014 § 11 Comments
[“Don’t Trash Your Dreams,” by AquaSixio]
All men whilst they are awake are in one common world: but each of them, when he is asleep, is in a world of his own. ~Plutarch
All the things one has forgotten scream for help in dreams. ~Elias Canetti
The general function of dreams is to try to restore our psychological balance by producing dream material that re-establishes, in a subtle way, the total psychic equilibrium. ~ Carl Jung
[CLICK HERE TO READ ~ PART 1] A fascinating number of scientific discoveries, inventions & creative breakthroughs have been made via dreams.
Those who dismiss their nocturnal inner journeys as meaningless mental meanderings may not know the extent to which dreams have assisted the progress of humanity, examples that bolster the weight of dream interpretation as a study.
Influential 19th Century chemist August Kekule, for example, discovered the empirical formula for benzene when, dozing in a chair, his subconscious presented him with an image of a snake biting its own tail. Startled, he jumped up & worked out the mathematics of the molecule—which we now know has a ring rather than a long string structure, as previously thought.
Dante reported that the entire story of The Divine Comedy was revealed to him in a dream. Even more fascinating, when part of the manuscript was lost after his death, his son Jocoso recovered the manuscript after his father showed him where to look in a dream.
Nobel Prize winning 20th century physicist Neils Bohr developed the model of the atom from a dream. After working on many different designs, which weren’t quite right, he dreamed of sitting on the sun with all the planets whizzing around him. When he woke up, he knew that the sun symbolized the nucleus & the solar system represented the electrons. This was the model for which he had been searching. Further testing proved his hypothesis correct.
Paul McCartney dreamed the melody for “Yesterday.”
Nobel Prize winning medical scientist Frederick G Banting, who discovered the insulin-link with diabetes & developed our modern treatment of the disease, went to sleep frustrated one night, after a long day of working on the problem, & woke up having dreamed the experiment he needed to confirm his theories.
The inventor of the sewing machine, Elias Howe, found the defining concept of his design in a dream that he was being hunted by cannibals & thrown into a pot. He kept trying to climb out, but the natives kept pushing him back in with their sharp spears. When he awoke, terrified, he went back over the dream in his mind & realized that each spear had sported a hole at the tip, just like a long needle. All at once, he saw that this was the solution to his problem. (Lisa Shea, “Famous Inspirational Dreams.”)
“Father of Neuroscience,” Otto Loewi discovered the secret of nerve impulses from not one, but two dreams:
“In the early 20s, [Leowi] was working on how nerves transmit impulses…night and day with little result. Then one night he fell asleep and had a vivid dream. He scrawled down some notes but was unable to read them the next morning. Frustrated, he waited until the next night. Again, he had a vivid dream, showing him the style of experiment that would help him in his nerve transmission work. Sure enough, he went immediately to his lab to try the experiment. It worked, and as a result, Otto Loewi was awarded the 1936 Nobel Prize for Medicine.” (Lisa Shea’s “Famous Dream Inspirations”.)
Clearly there is a level of useable insight to be found in dreams—the implications for the hidden wisdom of the subconscious are huge!
It’s worth noting that all of these “discovery dreams” involve symbolism, decoding & the following of an intuitive hunch regarding interpretation…
Kekule dreamed of an ouroboros & applied the image to his work. Bohrs dreamed of a solar system & applied it to the atom.
Dream theorists agree, there are different levels of dreams in terms of their depth of insight. Often, dreams which carry important messages feel & appear more vivid than your run-of-the-mill nightly jumbles.
They often simply feel significant.
Author & dream scholar Theresa Cheung notes: “Although different types of dreams can blend and merge, modern dream researchers tend to break dream types into one of the following categories.”
Amplifying dreams put a magnifying lens up to certain life situations or attitudes.
Cathartic Dreams “evoke extremely emotional reactions, when the unconscious is urging us to relieve pent-up feelings we may feel unable to express in waking life. For example, you may find yourself bursting into tears on a packed commuter train in your dream.” (“The Dream Dictionary From A to Z.”)
Daily-Processign Dreams are factual dreams in which you “go over and over things that happened during the day, especially those that were repetitive or forced you to concentrate for long periods. These kinds of dreams don’t tend to be laden with meaning, and most dream theorists think of them as bits and pieces of information your brain is processing.” (“The Dream Dictionary From A to Z.”)
Dreams of Childhood may reflect a childhood dynamic which hasn’t been worked out yet and requires a resolution,” notes Cheung. Although it can also simply represent a touchstone of extreme familiarity; even a place where your inner child lives.
False Awakening Dreams occur when you dream you’ve woken up, but in fact are still dreaming—particularly trippy from a philosophical standpoint.
If you can appear to wake while still dreaming, it’s logical to assume there is the possibility that even now, when you think you exist in waking reality, further states of awakened awareness might yet exist.
“It is thought,” details Thereasa Cheung, “that many reported sightings of ghosts are caused by false awakening, which occurs when you are actually asleep but are convinced in your dream state that you are awake.”
This bleeds into the so-called “old hag syndrome,” characterized by one’s mental awareness coming out of the sleep state before one’s physical body has fully woken up, creating physical paralysis (and sometimes a pressure on the chest) often attributed to ghosts and alien abductions. Though sleep researchers have identified it as a physiological phenomenon.
Inspirational Dreams contain creative seeds and ideas for the dreamer. Many great works of music, literature and art have been conceived in the dream state. William Blake reportedly found much inspiration for his visionary epic poems in dreams. Mary Shelley dreamed the premise for Frankenstein.
Lucid Dreams, perhaps the most exciting category, describe the circumstance of realizing you are dreaming while you are dreaming. Once you become aware that you are dreaming, you can start to determine the course of your dream with your mental focus. Whenever I realize I am dreaming, I try to fly. It usually works with a few jumps and some active willing of my dreamself off the ground.
Methods vary for increasing lucid dream activity. One way, which has worked for me at times, is to periodically ask yourself throughout your waking day if you are dreaming; this sets the pattern up in your mind to ask the question, and eventually your subconscious will ask it of your dreaming self.
In The Art of Dreaming the Yaqui seer Don Juan instructs Carlos Castaneda that when you can look at your own hands in a dream, then you will realize you are dreaming and be able to control the course of your dream’s content.
I have not personally had luck with the hand method.
The best way to increase one’s likelihood of lucid dreaming, in my experience, is to simply focus on your dream life. By spending the first few minutes of your morning mentally going over dream recall, and jotting a few notes in a dream journal, you will start a process of increased awareness surrounding your dreams, which, in my experience, often culminates in lucid dreaming.
Nightmares, of course, are dreams which cause us extreme distress. It is not uncommon to dream of being chased or pursued by a malevolent person or being…While nightmares typically reflect an anxiety or sense of helplessness in waking life, they are also a natural and healthy way for our minds to process and explore fears without actually jeopardizing our safety.
Night Terrors are nightmares which occur during the deepest level of sleep (stage four) from which we awaken without memory of the dream’s content, yet having a lingering feeling of dread.
Physiological Dreams reflect the state of your body, from the simple pursuit of water in a dream when you are, in real life, thirsty, to the more profound reflection of physical needs or conditions. Problem Solving Dreams occur sometimes when we are mulling over a problem and receive the solution presented in some form during ensuing sleep, as did our previously sited great inventors
Wish Fulfillment Dreams are simply an expression of one’s desires…usually the ones not given full expression in waking life.
Sexual Dreams of course are common, sometimes a source of embarrassment. But sex can be symbolic of intimacy in dreams…according to dream analysts, dreaming of sex with an unlikely partner can often be read symbolically as a desire to be closer with the person, or to integrate ideas they represent into your life. Cheung notes that sometimes a certain person will show up in a sexual context in one’s dreams simply to get our attention.
Precognitive dreams, as one might expect, reveal glimpses into future potentials, only confirmable after the fact. These do, indeed, seem to occur, if rarely. President Lincoln had a precognitive dream foretelling his own assassination.
In Lincoln’s own words: “…There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing […] I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully…
“‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers “The President” was his answer; “he was killed by an assassin!” Then came a loud burst of grief form the crowd, which awoke me from my dream.” (Famous Dreams.)
This was apparently a recurring dream for Lincoln, one he had again the night before he was assasinated.
In conclusion, when attempting to decode a dream, it is best to ask yourself: how does this situation make me feel? What does this person, animal, place or action represent to me?
Does it seem to be a simple processing dream, or did it have a deeper charge, worth examining?
Part 3 will explore the concept of aboriginal dreamtime as well as further explore the phenomenon of lucid dreaming!
Dreams: Symbolic Keys, Subconscious Communication & Catharsis
January 23, 2014 § 4 Comments
“All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together.” ~ Jack Kerouac
“Yet it is in our idelness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” ~ Virginia Woolf
“Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.” ~ Sigmund Freud
Bewildering, inspiring, sometimes horrifying, embarrassing, or just plain surreal—dreams have the power to recreate the rules of reality & transport us to places where we can fly, shift from one place to another instantaneously, converse with loved ones, long dead; or people we have never met. In a dream, a person can be simultaneously themselves & someone else.
These ever-shifting, quicksilver landscapes of the subconscious have fascinated humankind for time immemorial.
Dreams have been given mystical & personal significance throughout the world’s spiritual traditions for centuries—from the Bible to the Quran. A revered part of almost all indigenous cultures—from traditional African to Native American beliefs— the concept of dreams & “dreamtime” is particularly central to traditional Australian Aboriginal cosmology.
While initially considered divine messages from God or the spirits, the Greeks were the first to propose that dreams came from within—many a mystic would not see the difference.
Plato beat Freud by thousands of years, being the first to propose that dreams were expressions of the dreamer’s hidden desires.
Jung felt his contemporary’s focus was too narrow & contributed the idea of the collective unconscious—a universal pooling of archetypal figures or personified ideas, such as The Wise Old Man (which, incidentally, according to Jung, is the archetype that represents the collective unconscious.)
Most modern students of dream interpretation agree that, while certain symbols & their accompanying implication are universal—such as stormy seas indicating a sense of emotional turmoil in the dreamer’s waking life—the most important aspect of decoding a dream’s meaning lies in the personal significance of the symbol to the dreamer.
For instance, a serpent appearing in the dream of someone who likes snakes, or owns a snake, or considers snakes symbols of life force & personal power, (as is propagated by Hindu mythology, among others) will necessarily interpret a snake dream differently than a person who fears snakes or has a strong Judeo-Christian background, in which the snake is a classic symbol of evil.
(To extend this metaphor further, a snake owner with a strong Judeo-Christian background can determine the snake’s significance in their dream by assessing how the snake made them feel.)
The idea that the dreamer’s relationship to the symbols in question is the most important aspect of dream analysis was first proposed (in our known cannon of history) by diviner Artenidorus two thousand years ago, who wrote the first known book on dream interpretation.
In order to understand what dreams are, we must first dig a little into the idea of human awareness & its compartmentalization.
While the psyche is obviously made up of many layers, it can arguably be reduced to two basic components: the conscious & the unconscious mind—an intuitive, even self-evident idea. Though popularly connected with pioneering Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the term “unconscious” was actually coined by 18th-century German romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling—later introduced into English by the poet & essayist Samual Taylor Coleridge. Developed by Freud, expanded upon by the trailblazing Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, the conscious/subconscious split is the basis for all modern psychology.
The conscious mind, as the name implies, contains all the memories, feelings & beliefs—preferences, desires & fantasies— that we can easily draw into our awareness; essentially, what we “know” (or, if you prefer, “what we know we know.”)
The unconscious mind, by contrast, is composed of the remaining psychic terrain, of which we’re not consciously aware—all the feelings, desires & experiences we did not know how to process or reconcile with our lives, buried & hidden from ourselves until we are equipped to deal with them.
(The idea that we can hide knowledge from ourselves—like alcoholics hiding bottles throughout the house & then forgetting where they are—is one of the most fascinating aspects of psychology & the conscious/subconscious split.)
Not everything in the subconscious is emotionally charged. It also contains simple data deemed meaningless by the conscious mind, but non the less retained.
You could call these exiled & forgotten fragments “what we don’t know we know” (in some cases, too, “what we don’t want to know”). There is wisdom here, like buried treasure, along with the ghosts.
For instance, a person in a relationship with someone who is overly controlling might dream they are being suffocated. Later, after the relationship has ended & the dreamer has admitted the truth of the unhealthy dynamic to themselves, they can deduce the dream’s meaning. But if this reality was not acknowledged consciously at the time of the dream, then it will appear a meaningless night terror.
Freud famously likened the conscious mind to the tip of an iceberg & the unconscious to the vast hidden depth beneath the visible top.
For, like the hidden yet far vaster depth of the submerged half of an iceberg, the subconscious still exerts power over the conscious mind’s choices—no less powerful for its lack of “conscious” awareness, in fact, more so. The brain’s influential but hidden “shadow government,” if you will
This is one of the reasons why dream analysis can be an important part of personal development; dreams reveal the raw nature of the rejected, unprocessed aspects of our psyches & their accompanying life experiences. They also reveal the buried gems, creative talents & powers—like treasure at the bottom of the sea.
Dreaming is commonly described as the way the subconscious communicates with the conscious mind. Through dreamwork we can become more conscious of the lenses through which we view the world & better see which are serving us & which may need some polishing.
Why do we say that dreams are symbolic?
A symbol represents, stands for, or suggests an idea, visual image, belief, action, or person. Since we are not “really” doing the things in our dreams, but experiencing images & sounds as if they were real, the visual & audio cues “stand for” their real-life counterparts. This is one level.
The deeper level is that the subconscious mind is not a logical, tame beast that communicates neatly in language. It is a primal aspect, emotionally charged, which speaks in the symbolic universal tongue of images. It is the wild jungle-forest aspect of our psychic terrain which has not been colonized & farmed by the socially conditioned conscious mind.
So the unconscious uses symbolic language to express itself—presenting images & scenarios that may represents or suggest things or ideas beyond the thing itself. For example, a red rose symbolizing romantic love.
Jung popularized the now mainstream wisdom, “Everyone in the dream is you.” But many dream scholars, including myself, believe that there are many different types of dreams.
Different characters in the dream may in fact represent different aspects of the dreamer’s self. But it is equally possible that they represent actual people or circumstances in the person’s life.
Go to PART 2 to read about common dream types, famous dreamers & how the course of history has been altered by dreams.
September 26, 2013 § 22 Comments
“Why do we describe a distraught person as being ‘beside himself’? Because the ancients believed that soul and body could part, and that under great emotional stress the soul would actually leave the body. When this happened a person was ‘beside himself.'” ~ Dictionary of Word Origins
“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” ~ Jesus (Matthew 16:26)
Our language is rife with references to what has traditionally been described by shamanic cultures as ‘soul loss’ — “Nobody’s home,” we might say of an empty-eyed co-worker. Or, in a funk ourselves: “I feel like a part of me is missing.” Popular songs site it casually — I don’t know where my soul is / I don’t know where my home is (Nelly Furtado, “I’m Like A Bird”).
Yet, these expressions are so common, we often use them as descriptors without fully investigating their implication.
“Many of us today don’t feel totally whole, don’t feel as if we are all here,” relates Sandra Ingerman in her book Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self.
“Few of us live as fully as we could. When we become aware of this, we want to recover the intensity of life, and the intimacy, that we once enjoyed…We want to come home more fully to ourselves and to the people we love.”
Many turn to the shamanic arts for language and methodology which address our collective angst with a soulfulness lacking in modern lexicon.
“The re-emergence in the late twentieth century of shamanism — with its lively and concrete notion of soul — seems to be a response to a very depressing cultural reality,” notes Jungian analyst John Ryan Haule. “In the past six or seven hundred years we have undergone a consciousness-shift of 180 degrees. Formerly soul was our primary reality. Now we have only a body and a rational ego.
“The material conditions of our lives have improved immeasurably, but we’ve lost the imaginal and transcendent scope that belongs to the reality of soul. In a situation like this, it is often the depressives among us who are the most realistic regarding the impoverishment of our human existence.” (“Depression & Soul-Loss.”)
According to modern writers on the ancient subject, soul loss accounts for depression, anxiety, a sense of alienation, incompleteness and disconnection, a feeling of being “spaced out,” or “sleepwalking” through life. Extreme cases include coma, psychosis, fugue states and dissociative identity disorders.
Interestingly, the concept that a vital aspect of the self flees or retreats during experiences of extreme pain or disturbance is an idea shared by shamanism and psychotherapy alike. Psychotherapy calls it “disassociation,” shamanism calls it “soul loss.” The purpose in both cases is self-protection.
Modern shamanic healers explain that we all lose bits and pieces of our soul, or vital essence, as we go through life.
The cause doesn’t have to be something as monumental as an accident or as extreme as abuse. It can be as simple as a small child’s sensitivity to their parents’ psychic tension or continued arguing. Little by little, parts of ourselves withdraw and become seemingly lost to us.
Rejected elements of the personality are banished from conscious awareness — Jung’s concept of the psyche’s “Shadow” aspect. This is done unconsciously, to ease the cognitive dissonance of harboring seemingly conflicting or ambiguous feelings; what modern psychology calls “compartmentalization” and repression.
Denied aspects — such as repressed sadness, anger, inner child or libidinous impulses — are effectively exiled. But they do not disappear. They continue to exist “underground,” as it were, in the subterranean caves of the psyche, causing emotional alienation, discomfort and disconnection from self.
The good news is that excavation of these buried aspects — and a renewal of their accompanying vital forces — is always possible, and the focus of psychotherapy and shamanic healing alike.
“An aspect of the infinite soul fleeing under duress is a state everyone has at some point experienced, regardless of terminology or ideology applied,” comments Kelley Harrell in her Huffington Post article, “The New Treatise on Soul Retrieval.”
The most common approach of neo-shamans is to echo the ancient model of shaman-as-guide in the netherworlds of psyche/non-ordinary reality. As pioneering anthropologist Mircea Eliade wrote in his now classic text “Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy”:
“Only the shaman can undertake a cure of this kind. For only he ‘sees’ the spirits and knows how to exorcise them; only he recognizes that the soul has fled, and is able to overtake it, in ecstasy, and return it to its body….Everything that concerns the soul and its adventure, here on earth and in the beyond, is the exclusive province of the shaman.”
However! A fascinating synthesis between psychotherapy and shamanic soul retrieval has been in the works over the past several decades. A growing number of healers are shifting the agency from themselves to their patients.
Practicing psychotherapist & shamanic healer Selena Whittle attributes the modernized soul retrieval method to her mentor Ross Bishop. Upon his return from studying with teachers in India, Australia, and South America, Bishop transformed the Soul Retrieval process into a method that could be embraced by the Western mind and heart by making a simple shift in the roles of Shaman and the healing recipient.
“In this contemporary method of Soul Retrieval,” relates Whittle, “the essential elements of the process are the same. There is a shamanic journey into the inner world where the wounded part of the self is identified, healed and brought back; however, the client does the work and is guided by the Shaman. The client takes the shamanic journey. The client identifies the part of the self that is wounded. The client builds a relationship with that part of the self, heals it, then brings it back for integration.
“The Shaman guides the client every step of the way, helping the client navigate the internal world of the psyche, guiding the client in the potent words or actions that are needed to build the relationship with the fragmented aspect of the self, to heal it and to bring it back. The shamanic journey becomes a shared experience, the Soul Retrieval a shared healing intervention.”
Ross Bishop’s “Healing the Shadow” details the process. Both Selena Whittle and Ross Bishop offer in-person and phone-based sessions.
But let me initiate you right here and now into a simple yet profound method, which you can practice in the comfort of your home.
1. Create your inner sanctum.
Visualize anything from an ornate temple to a simple spot by a running brook. The important part is that the setting has identifiable features, which can be recreated, and that the space makes you feel empowered, centered, safe and calm. Mentally construct as many details — sights, sounds and smells — as possible. Lie back, get comfortable and spend some time really making your inner sanctuary come to life behind closed eyes. (*The bath, with some low light, candles, calming scents and salts, is an excellent place to do soul work.)
2. Call in the missing soul part.
Decide which aspect you are going to reach out to before settling in by first looking at the problem areas in your life. For example, if you are having issues with anxiety, call in “the one who feels anxious.” If you are dealing with addiction, call in “the one who is addicted.”
If you are a visual person, the rejected aspect will likely take form in your mind’s eye. If you are not, you may simply get a feeling or “thought package” of insight — though visualization is encouraged with this particular method.
3. Reach out, reassure, & connect.
Remember, these inner aspects are in hiding because they have been wounded, ridiculed, banished, frightened. They are like scared children — who have not developed beyond the age at which they fled — and must be reached out to accordingly. So it’s important to access & project a sense of deep compassion towards them if you’re to inspire their trust.
Tell them you wish to discuss their unmet needs.
These rejected aspects, which you may have deemed bad, difficult, or unacceptable, actually have legitimate needs, which — as they are not being met by you, their guardian — are being substituted with unhealthy behavior. The coping mechanism employed by the exiled aspect, however far from your ideal, is truly its best effort with the tools at hand.
As Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran said: “when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead waters.” (“On Good and Evil.”)
Explain mentally to your exiled aspect that you are here to increase communication between their awareness and your conscious personality. Remind them you both have the same goal of wellbeing and wholeness, because ultimately, you are one being. Any sense of isolation and disconnection has been a fear-driven illusion based on pain and misunderstanding. Now you are calling home your missing parts. If they have felt unloved, give them the love they crave. You have all the power. Use it.
These injured aspects have a long history of feeling unsafe in the presence of the too often accusatory and judgmental conscious mind. As a result, they will often cloak themselves in guarded energy, which can have a menacing impression. This is not the true aspect, but a self-protective mask.
Like any vulnerable creature attempting to seem stronger than it feels, this protective presentation may take the form of something frightening. Practitioners refer to this as “entity” presence, which denotes fear-based energy that isn’t yours but is being used by the wounded inner aspect like armor.
This same goal can be achieved by the inner aspect through opposite means, by presenting an overly “goody-two-shoes” image (“See? I’m perfectly fine. Not hurt at all.”)
So it is necessary to gently test and question the initial appearance of the invited aspect by asking if it is an entity. In your sacred space the aspect can not lie. Even if it says “No” with its mouth, it’s shape may shift or the eyes may flicker, telling a different story and betraying its true nature.
It should be noted that simply because an image is disturbing does not automatically make it false “entity” energy. It can just as easily be the symbolic representation of the feeling-state of the soul part—it may feel, and thus present as, bruised, starved, beaten-up or neglected.
Keep probing its authenticity gently until you feel it has lain down its defenses and actually offered its true, vulnerable self at which point reach out and initiate a compassionate dialogue. A good place to start is by asking how you can help.
If the answer is simple and true, you know it’s the soul part speaking. If the reply is too convoluted or complex, it’s an entity-energy defense, or your cerebral analysis kicking in; start over and await the answer without assumption, projecting compassion.
5. Identify Source of Disconnection, Correct Misunderstanding
Once assured of the fragmented aspect’s authenticity, ask it to show you at what age it became separated. It may show you a particular scene or instance. Ask how this situation made the soul part feel. What was the message it received? Usually, something in the “Not good enough” category will surface. As with small children who blame themselves for their parents’ divorce or general unhappiness, the impression of unworthiness will invariably be based on a misinterpretation of events. With compassion, correct this misunderstanding. The fragmented aspect needs to hear it is worthy of love. Bring it home by embracing this exiled aspect of yourself; give it the love and acceptance it has been hereto denied.
6. Stay connected afterwards.
The goal is to continue the newly forged relationship beyond your inner journey into your everyday life, eventually forming a full integration between the formerly exiled piece and your conscious awareness. Check in with the newly rediscovered aspect throughout the days following your journey. How does he or she feel? Are you meeting the needs discussed with more awareness?
What makes this method different from, and often more effective than, regular “talk therapy” is the willingness to surrender conscious mind constructs to the wild and telling symbolism of the subconscious. In this way cerebral analysis is transcended and the beating heart of true experience touched.
What may read as hokey can be extremely powerful in a real-time, step by step process. After all, these are the parts of self from which we are always running, from whose pain we so often seek distraction. Giving them back their voice, and gracing their needs with our attention, can be a life-changing integration.
Ultimately, whether you regard this excercise as symbolic or literal doesn’t matter. As French poet Baudelaire said, this world is a “forest of symbols.”
The inner fragmentation experienced by so many in this modern time mirrors the compartmentalization tendencies of society itself.
“The natural environment is treated as if it consisted of separate parts to be exploited by different interest groups. The fragmented view is further extended to society which is split into different nations, races, religious and political groups. The belief that all these fragments — in ourselves, in our environment and in our society — are really separate can be seen as the essential reason for the present series of social, ecological and cultural crisis.” ~ Fritjof Capra, (The Tao of Physics)
In a so-called civilized world, which so often dismisses the idea of soul and then complains of feeling empty, soul retrieval — reclaiming personal wholeness — is a heroic act.
Creative Connections & The Science of Inspiration
March 29, 2012 § 9 Comments
“The creative act is a letting down of the net of human imagination into the ocean of chaos on which we are suspended, and the attempt to bring out of it ideas.” ~ Terence McKenna
The creative spark — that incandescent flash of insight known as a breakthrough — is known for being unpredictable, elusive and mysterious. Yet over the past few decades, cognitive psychologists have been studying the various neurological processes behind creativity.
Research led by Mark Beeman and John Kounios has identified where the flash of insight comes from when a creative problem has been solved.
“In the seconds before the insight appears,” explains Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, “a brain area called the superior anterior temporal gyrus (aSTG) exhibits a sharp spike in activity. This region, located on the surface of the right hemisphere, excels at drawing together distantly related information, which is precisely what’s needed when working on a hard creative problem.”
Michael Michalko, author of Creative Thinkering, agrees: “Creativity comes from observing the relationships between objects and making metaphorical-analogical connections […]
“If one particular style of thought stands out about creative genius, it is the ability to make juxtapositions between dissimilar subjects. Call it a facility to connect the unconnected that enables them to see things to which others are blind.
“Leonardo da Vinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water. This enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.”
Researchers of brain function have found that certain factors increase the likelihood of receiving an insight. For instance, subjects exposed to a short comedic video boosted creative solution performance by 20%.
Interestingly, studies conducted at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that drunk test subjects given word problems outperformed their sober peers by 30%!
The insight puzzles given were ‘remote associates,’ in which a person is asked to find an additional word that goes with a triad of words. For example:
Pine Crab Sauce
(the answer is below the picture)
(The answer is “apple” — pineapple, crabapple, applesauce.)
Why would subjects exposed to comedy score higher than peers not treated with a laugh? The same reason drunk subjects outperformed their sober peers.
“The answer,” according to Lehrer “involves the surprising advantage of not paying attention. […] We might be focused, but we’re probably focused on the wrong answer.”
Creative blocks occur when the logical left hemisphere of the brain has reached an impasse with its linear, systematic approach; interrupting its frustrated obsession with the wrong questions can free up the right hemisphere to supply the essential fresh connection. Relaxation helps.
“This research,” expounds Lehrer, “explains why so many major breakthroughs happen in the unlikeliest of places, whether it’s Archimedes in the bathtub or the physicist Richard Feynman scribbling equations in a strip club, as he was known to do. It reveals the wisdom of Google putting ping-pong tables in the lobby and confirms the practical benefits of daydreaming. As Einstein once declared, ‘Creativity is the residue of time wasted.'”
So next time you’re hitting your head against the wall of some creative problem, give the left brain a break and take a shower, play a game, drink a beer, watch a comedy video, take a nap or take yourself on a walk.
Studies show, this is a bona fide part of the creative process! The insight hiding in the superior anterior temporal gyrus of the brain needs a chance to offer its fresh connection.
“If you’re trying to be more creative,” concludes Lehrer, “one of the most important things you can do is increase the volume and diversity of the information to which you are exposed. Steve Jobs famously declared that ‘creativity is just connecting things.’ Mr. Jobs argued that the best inventors seek out ‘diverse experiences,’ collecting lots of dots that they later link together.
“Instead of developing a narrow specialization, they study, say, calligraphy (as Mr. Jobs famously did) or hang out with friends in different fields. Because they don’t know where the answer will come from, they are willing to look for the answer everywhere.”
“Original ideas,” agrees Michael Michalko, “inevitably are created by conceptually blending subjects from different universes into something new.”
Polarity and Paradox: Black and White Thinking in a Rainbow World
February 8, 2012 § 27 Comments
“To offer the leadership and vision, our times require as individuals, professionals, change agents in any domain, and even as spiritual leaders, wisdom dictates we move beyond unconscious polarization – not just intellectually, but in the very words we speak and the actions we take.” ~ Ragini Elizabeth Michaels
“[T]he thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion” ~ Soren Kierkegaard
“To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.” ~ Jianzhi Sengcan
If one extreme presents itself, such as a predator, it’s logical to put as much space between you and that danger as possible—to go the opposite direction. It makes sense to label the saber tooth tiger “unsafe” and the cave where he can’t reach you “safe.” In situations so basic, locations which are “somewhat safe” are ineffective to ponder.
But we no longer live in an age where this kind of thinking serves us. In fact, the cognitive distortion brought on by viewing a complex world through the reductive lens of “this or that,” “all or nothing,” “either/or,” can harm relationships, diminish well-being and limit our overall understanding of the world. In viewing a multi-faceted situation through a binary lens we are bound to miss essential details.
In the modern era the ability to perceive nuance, ambiguity and paradox is considered the height of cognitive vitality. Finding balance between seemingly contradictory elements is believed by many to be the road to inner peace.
Language itself promotes dualistic thinking. ‘Difficult’ and ‘easy’ define each other. What would ‘calm’ mean without ‘anxious?’ ‘Up’ makes ‘down’ distinguishable.
Even the simplest, most everyday question — “How are you?” — pressures us to pick a side. Are you feeling good? Bad? Which is it?
Yet, our lives at all times contain both pleasant and uncomfortable aspects.
Middle-ground responses provoke an interpretation veering towards the negative. For instance responding with a shrug, “I’m okay,” or the unlikely but far more accurate, “I’m both good and bad,” will be read as unspecific and inspire detail pressing. The most honest answer (“I am”) would be considered highly uninformative.
“While we speak to the unity and harmony of the whole as our desired goal,” writes Ragini Elizabeth Michaels in her article “Managing a Paradoxical Life,” “our language itself too often reveals an unconscious choice of one pole of a polar pair as more important, or more right, than the other – spiritual over material, peace over conflict, trust over doubt, unity over diversity, harmony over discord.”
A false dilemma (also called a false dichotomy or black-and-white thinking) is a type of logical fallacy that involves a situation in which only two alternatives are considered, when in fact there are additional options. (“It wasn’t medicine that cured Mrs. X, so it must be a miracle.”)
Marked by a logical leap and the oversimplification of a more complex matter, a false dichotomy may be presented intentionally, in order to manipulate a perspective (“You’re either with us, or you’re against us,”) or unintentionally, due to an assumption (“He wouldn’t do that if he loved me.”)
Social systems reinforce this kind of polarized thinking. For example, if you want to identify with a political party of any influence in the United States you have two choices: either you can identify as belonging to a party that is pro-peace, pro-gay, pro-tax, pro-regulation, pro-choice and anti-gun, or pro-military, anti-gay, anti-tax, pro-free market, pro-life and pro-gun.
What if you are pro-gay, pro-free market, anti-tax, pro-life, pro-peace and pro-gun? Too bad. Pick a side or your vote yields no power. Cultural splitting such as this encourages people to think in unnecessarily polarized terms.
In structuralism (the sociological study of cultural context) dividing the world into two opposing categories, known as binary opposition, is seen as a fundamental organizer of human philosophy, culture, and language (for example, we need the idea of “evil” in order to conceive of the concept of “good.”)
But others (post-structuralists in particular) argue that such binary opposition is often value-laden and ethnocentric.
French philospher Jacques Derrida agrees that binary oppositions often mark “a violent hierarchy” where “one of the two terms governs the other.” In this way, binary language can be linked with oppression.
“Black and white thinking doesn’t just hurt ourselves, but also the relationships we try to build with other people,” notes psychology writer Steven Handel. “When we view the world in strict and over-simplistic terms, we are less likely to compromise and cooperate with others to meet common interests.
“We lose in black and white thinking because we are never going to be everything we want to be. We’re always going to be lacking something if we’re trying to measure ourselves on some black-and-white scale where x is good and y is not good. We’re never going to be able to be completely x. It doesn’t happen, because we’re human – we’re unfinished – and we’re not simple.”
“A black and white viewpoint often creates artificial ‘needs’ in our life that lead to disappointment and depression,” continues Handel, adding that the cognitive-based psychotherapist Albert Ellis called one example of this ‘musterbation.’ “This is our tendency to think that we must have something, or we must do something, or life must be a certain way – or it will be awful.
“Black and white thinking doesn’t open us up to the possibility that even if life doesn’t work out exactly the way we think it should, we can still find happiness.”
Ragini Elizabeth Michaels agrees: “We may think that by eradicating the pole we don’t want, we are creating a non-dual universe, or ‘fixing the problem.’ We may believe that the dilemma, or duality itself, with its conflicts and tensions, will then somehow disappear. Or worse yet, we may begin to perceive the spiritual as the solution to the problems of the material world – which, paradoxically, it is and it is not.
“In contrast, depolarizing the mind frees us to perceive war and peace, anger and compassion, freedom and responsibility, and even duality and non-duality, as partners, and to perceive the friction or tension between them as creativity in disguise. This shift in perception changes everything.”
German philosopher Hegel saw history as a merging of opposites, creating progress: one viewpoint (the Thesis) merges with another, seemingly polar, viewpoint (the Anti-Thesis,) creating a new entity altogether, the Synthesis. This process is known in philosophy as the Hagelian Dialectic. For Hegel, dialectic tension is inherently creative and capable of union.
Great thinkers have always embraced paradox — looking past black and white simplification into a world where seemingly contradictory forces can co-exist. Kierkegaard said:
“…one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.”
Ancient Eastern mystical philosophy contains the concept of yin yang (referred to in the West as “yin and yang”), which describes how seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, giving rise to each other in turn. Yin yang are not opposing forces but complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole.
Paradox is the heart and soul of Zen philosophy. As Lau-Tzu said, “If you want to become full, let yourself be empty…Look, and it can’t be seen. Listen, and it can’t be heard. Reach, and it can’t be grasped… seamless, unnamable, it returns to the realm of nothing. Form that includes all forms, image without an image, subtle, beyond all conception…You can’t understand it, but you can be it. The Tao is beyond is and is not…”
Next time you find yourself feeling anxious over some perceived reality, take note. Are you making a logical leap that if X is true, then so must Y? Are you boxing yourself or someone else into an all-or-nothing false dilemma, considering only two alternatives where there are many? Ignoring seemingly contradictory aspects in order to create the illusion of a more manageable whole? In the end, the dualistic worldview is not more manageable. It is more prone to distortion.
Am I saying to abandon discernment? On the contrary! By releasing preconceived dualistic notions we open ourselves to perceive a greater spectrum.
The Art of Madness
January 10, 2011 § 3 Comments
By Tai Carmen
“Madness is to think too many things in succession too fast, or one thing too exclusively.” ~ Voltaire
“A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free.” ~ Nikos Kazantzakis
“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” ~ Robin Williams
In his seminal work, “Madness and Civilization,” French philosopher Michael Faucault posits that psychiatry uses labeling language (known as positive science) to camouflage the bourgeois values imposed on social deviancy.
In other words, the mental health system acts as a kind of suppressive goon against nonconformity.
Vincent Van Gogh, famous for his sunflowers, wheat fields and ear-chopping, acknowledged that:
“It is only too true that a lot of artists are mentally ill — it’s a life which, to put it mildly, makes one an outsider. I’m all right when I completely immerse myself in work, but I’ll always remain half crazy.”
From an evolutionary perspective, survival depends on some kind of social acceptance. So it’s natural that we attempt to avoid stigmatization. Yet, the seeker-dreamer feels compelled towards living authentically and will often sacrifice herd acceptance for the satisfaction of true self-expression.
Still, there is the ever-present, if subconscious, awareness that if you go too far, you could lose liberty. If you act too differently, you could be institutionalized.
Once deemed clinically insane, the individual’s rights become blurry, as with criminals.
The incarceration of psychological dissidents acts as a kind of warning to wayward thinkers; a cautionary tale to not let one’s mind run too far into the fanciful woods.
Edgar Allen Poe observed:
“Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence—whether much that is glorious—whether all that is profound—does not spring from disease of thought—from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”
In the Renaissance, the mentally ill were considered to have gotten too close to “the Reason of God.”
Tribal cultures throughout the world consider madness the first sign of a shaman’s birth into his power, marking him as one who can communicate between the physical and the invisible worlds.
Dr Adele Juda, researcher at the Institute for Psychiatry of Munich, interviewed over 5,000 people between 1927 –1943. She found what was considered neurosis and personality disorder in 27% of the artists & 19% of the scientists and statesmen studied, against the general rate of 10-12%.
The highest rates of psychic disruption were seen among poets (50%).
As French poet Arthur Rimbaud writes:
“A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences. Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes all men… Because he has cultivated his soul, already rich, more than anyone, he attains the unknown.”
The lowest rates of neurosis were found among architects (17%).
A good friend of mine once worked as a personal assistant for an Oscar-winning talent who shall remain nameless. She has shared moments with me wherein the successful entertainer barreled through the living room in boxer shorts, a newsboy hat and cowboy boots, a manuscript of papers clutched to his chest, saying, “I’m going mad!”—after dumping his papers in a pile to play a beautiful fit of piano music & jumping up to scribble in a notebook.
He smiled of course when he said it, because he had managed to play the most beautiful hoodwink upon society that a creative mind can play: he made money being slightly mad.
And that is the art of insanity: valuing creative chaos and giving it room to unfold without premature critique or analysis. Order and reason can come later. As Nietzsche says:
“You must have chaos within to give birth to a dancing star.”
Creative process doesn’t have to make sense, and some of the world’s greatest visionaries have proven that it’s better if it doesn’t. Far-fetched processes yield unusual thoughts, and novel ideas garner more attention than pedestrian ones.
Am I suggesting that one can not be brilliant without being insane? Certainly not. But in order to have great thoughts, one’s mind must certainly be open to a broader scope than the average thinker, and when a mind is broad in expanse, the impressions therein will be unusually varied.
Madness and art are not mutually exclusive, but they do go well together, and often turn up as a pair to the same party. If you’re one of those who dreams awake and finds yourself an “outsider” like van Gogh, consider yourself lucky: you’re in good company and that much closer to doing something original.
So use your madness to your own advantage. Rather than stuffing it in a drawer, take it out to play.
“Imagination,” Einstein says, “is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
“There is no genius free from some tincture of madness.” Seneca
If you liked this post, you might also The Outsider, The Outsider As Visionary & The Mythology of Conformity