Creativity as the Immune System of the Mind
There is no sharp dividing line between self-repair and self-realisation. All creative activity is a kind of do-it-yourself therapy, an attempt to come to terms with traumatising challenges. –Arthur Koestler
From the beginning of human consciousness, there has been a concern with the “fractured self”. What constitutes the break within the mind and how do we repair the damage? How do we reconcile the boundaries between the self, environment and cosmos? Until the development of the modern world, these dilemmas were addressed as spiritual problems with a divine process for healing. To be disconnected and dislocated from the notion of self in the deepest sense of the word is to be deprived of our potential as human beings and to be deluded into perceiving the world as a distorted and hostile place.
Self-realisation or self-integration can be said to be a tendency, a movement towards a greater understanding and acknowledgement of self in relation to the world. Self-realisation in this context does not imply a total understanding, but more an improvement in the awareness of self and a reconstruction of the self within a personal history and timeline. Self-realization is also a move towards inner peace and acceptance of who we are. This was done in the past by using the templates of mythology and oral traditions as guides. In this process, the journey is enhanced by the individual’s use of images and symbols. Images and symbols act as a form of mind-mapping, which help to integrate memories and past experiences. By reshaping memories and past experiences through symbols and imagery, an individual’s future transforms and begins to take a new course.
Remembering Image, AIM Artist
The telling of stories has always involved sharing and thus the catalyst for healing. Negative experiences lose power when they are told in the form of stories and shared with others. An attentive and compassionate listener soothes our traumas. Ben Okri, African poet and writer, has written widely on the purpose of stories to self and community. He values stories as powerful vehicles for understanding:
When we have made an experience or a chaos into a story we have transformed it, made sense of it, transmuted experience, domesticated the chaos.
We can begin by looking to the value of story-telling, myth-making, and art-making as the ordering and understanding of patterns of human experience. The need of human beings to understand their life experiences and to pass on their knowledge is a primary faculty of humans, through different cultures and time periods. Initially people who sought knowledge from the inner realms of the psyche would be seen as shaman, medicine men and women, visionaries or mystics of some kind. Although this capacity is often seen as inherent and intense in some special and unique individuals, I think that the capacity for inner knowledge is a potential within everyone. Also, the capacity to construct a way of expressing these experiences is, I believe, an inherent gift in everyone. We often find that people construct a particular language in art to make clear their life experiences. But sometimes these channels of communication break down which can lead to frustration and anger. In those who have never had the chance to develop language and are unable to communicate their inner experiences then frustration can boil over into violent reactions to the world in which they find themselves.
The Last Supper by Stephen (AIM Artist)
This process can be likened to making maps based on one’s experiences. In many cultures of the world, the paths, struggles, disorientations, and challenges are valued intrinsically and it is understood that those who experience life deeply, often with pain and trauma, are those who have more to chart in their maps of experience. The radical art historian Suzi Gablik asks us to develop a spiritual ethos for the arts:
One of the peculiar developments in our Western world is that we are losing our sense of the divine side of life, of the power of imagination, myth, dream and vision. The particular structure of modern consciousness, centred in a rationalising, abstracting and controlling ego, determines the world in which we live and how we perceive and understand it; without the magical sense of perception, we do not live in a magical world. We no longer have the ability to shift mind sets and thus perceive other realities – to move between worlds, as ancient shamans did. Ritual signifies that something more is going on than meets the eye – something sacred.
As Suzi Gablik observes, we no longer feel that we can tell our stories. Tapping into our own creativity leads to a deeper understanding of our lives, and it also makes great art! I have worked in secure psychiatric hospitals where, through art-making, patients have begun to understand themselves and their states of imbalance. So, in terms of metal well-being, creativity is the very thing we need to heal the wounds of our fractured selves. Creativity is the immune system of the mind. Also, as the source of the mythic, creativity tells the story from which we have all come.
Keeper, AIM Artist
For those who have survived the mental health system, there is often a powerful story to tell, a message to impart. One such survivor, Angela, thinks of her long incarceration in various psychiatric institutions as a process of spiritual transformation. Her period of deep experiences may have been diagnosed as “Paranoid Schizophrenia”, but it still has the significance of a spiritual journey. The creativity which sprung from these deep experience, years of drug and therapeutic intervention, have helped her to follow her own path towards self-realization. She writes:
Those of us with a grander vision of human possibilities will refuse to sanction as reality this vision of a soulless universe that has cast a spell upon the collective imagination of humanity. We refuse to collaborate in this process: “the disenchantment of the world and its transformation into a causal mechanism” .We will protest, we will fight – in the name of the Imagination, in the name of Love, in the name of God, in the name of madness.
The creative heals if we can provide sanctuaries where people can be creative without being judged or pathologised, sanctuaries where we can tell our stories, work out our maps, paint our pictures, write our poems–to deepen our understanding of ourselves. The beauty, the enchantment of this process of healing, is that creativity does not only heal the maker, but the audience as well.
Arthur Koestler. “The Ghost in the Machine” Picador 1975. p98.
Ben Okri. “Birds of Heaven” Phoenix Paperback 1996. p23
Suzi Gablik. “The Re-enchantment of Art”. Thames and Hudson. N.Y. 1991.
Seth Farber. “Madness, Heresy and the Rumor of Angels.” Open Court Publishing 1993. Chapter “Angela’s Story” p98.
Artist/writer. Cultural theorist. Interests in non western contemporary art; art of the “marginalized” and the value of the creative process in itself. Founder of A.I.M. (Artists in Mind) an arts and mental health charity based in the UK.