Creativity as the Immune System of the Mind and the Source of the Mythic
Author: John Holt
Originally published in NuktaArt, inaugural issue, May 2005
Cover Design: Sabiha Mohammad Imani
Source of inspiration: Painting by Zubeida Agha, Karachi by Night, 1956
The following article is an adaptation of a chapter written by John Holt from a book entitled “Ways of Knowing: Science and Mysticism Today” to be published by Imprint Academic, May 2005. John Holt is the founder of a radical charity based in the U.K. called A.I.M. (Artists in Mind). A.I.M. was set up to promote the psychological, emotional and spiritual well-being of people experiencing mental distress through furthering visual arts input within psychiatric institutions and the community. A.I.M. espouses the significance of the sharing of psychological insights and experiences through art; the benefit to the artist-patient (defined as the service user) in terms of the growth of self esteem and self realization addressing fracture and imbalances within the psyche. A.I.M. takes a quote by American writer Sean McNiff as a definition of its own ethos: “Whenever illness is associated with loss of soul, the arts emerge spontaneously as remedies, soul medicine”.
Self realisation through symbolic language.
“There is no sharp dividing line between self-repair and self realization. All creative activity is a kind of do-it-yourself therapy, an attempt to come to terms with traumatizing challenges,” Arthur Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine; Picador 1975; p.127.
There has always been a human concern with the “fractured self”, right from the beginning of human consciousness. Questions fermented in the psyche; what constituted the fissure within and between minds and bodies, what is its causation and how do we repair the damage? And further, how do we reconcile the boundaries within us all, our environment and within the cosmos, between other beings and the spirits, and when things go wrong how do we rectify the imbalance, the illness? These dilemmas were addressed, until the development of the modern world, 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-realization 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-realization in this context does not imply total understanding, but more as an improvement in the awareness of self and a reconstruction of the awareness of one’s relationship with the environmental, personal milieu and history of the individual which charts the route of one’s life journey. This was done using the templates of mythology as a guide. The journey is, in this very process, enhanced by self initiated and archetypal use of images and symbols which acts as a form of mapping in relation to mnemonic and re-collective experiences, and which also includes a future potential.
Ben Okri, the 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, and domesticated the chaos”. Ben Okri, Birds of Heaven; Phoenix Paperback, 1996. We can begin by looking to the value of story telling, myth making, and art making towards the codification, the symbolization of human experience. The need of human beings to understand their life experiences and to pass on their knowledge to others is, I suggest, a primary facility in many people and has been throughout time. Initially people who sought knowledge from the inner realms would be seen as shamans, medicine men and women, visionaries or mystics of some kind. Although this capacity is often seen as inherent and intense in some individuals, I think that the capacity for inner knowledge is a potential within every being. Also, the capacity to construct a complex language to articulate these experiences is, I believe, an inherent propensity in all people. Though language usages differ in form, quality and complexity of vocabulary, the fact remains that the mind wants and needs to formulate language even when it is not a major factor in the individuals own culture (in South America there have been examples of people with hearing difficulties formulating their own signing language when the social structures of their country broke down and there was no taught signing due to the social chaos). This process can be likened to a map making practice, only the human creative process of orientation is in constructing maps of life experiences, charting the journeys, the paths, the struggles, the disorientations and challenges of our pathways. Such processes were always valued and it was seen that those who experienced life deeply, often with pain and trauma, were those who had more to chart in their maps of experience.
“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, centered in a rationalizing, abstracting and controlling ego, determines the world in which we live in 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. Uzi Gablik, The Re-Enchantment of Art.; Thames and Hudson, New York, New York. 1991.
And from those who have survived the mental health system there is so often a story to tell, a message to give. One such survivor, Angela, thinks of her long incarceration in various psychiatric institutions as a process of spiritual transformation, although her period of deep experiences was defined as “paranoid Schizophrenia” and not afforded the significance of a spiritual journey that she herself contended. Her creativity won through and she did survive after many years of drug and therapeutic intervention. She wrote with great courage, a clarion cry not just for those defined as mentally ill but for us all:
“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.” Seth Farber, Madness, Heresy and the Rumor of Angels; Chapter 6, Angela’s Story, p. 98.