Sunday, July 02, 2006

Visionary Poetry 9: Shamanic artwork & poetry

At one point, a few years ago, I had been looking for a way to describe and articulate my thoughts about my creative work (visual art, music, and poetry), with only limited success. This has been an ongoing, necessary process for me—especially in reference to my body of work called Spiral Dance, which is a visionary work I hope to publish eventually as a deck of cards to be used for meditation and visioning. It's archetypal, it's visionary, it's otherworldly, it's mythopoetic, it's transformative, it's this label, it's that category—none of which entirely fit. So, at that time in question, I was "tugged" by a certain book to open it and read (something that happens from time to time). I was astonished to find within the book a few paragraphs that describe my own creative work—its purpose, its function, its meaning, its goals—with amazing accuracy.

I had been planning to go camping that weekend, but could not, for various reasons, so instead of spending a few days in the woods up north, I spent some time visiting the forest within. This book was my guide and my goad, and for several days, after reading a section, I felt energized and opened wide to experience.

The book is When the Spirits Come Back, by Janet O. Dallett, a certified Jungian therapist and artist/writer. (Series: Studies in Jungian Psychology by Jungian Analysts. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1988.) Be warned: this is a somewhat controversial book, in which the author describes her personal process of breaking out, along with some of her clients, of her clinical training and conditioning into a more creative, affirming practice.

Here is the relevant passage, from the chapter entitled "Shaman, Artist, Lunatic, Thief":

Now, seeing what I can only describe as an inductive effect of [my paintings hung on the walls of the cafe/gallery] on others' psyches, I became aware that it made an opening into another world for people from all walks of life, people who would not ordinarily be motivated to discuss their dreams or to give conscious attention to the spirit world in any way.

As I sat in the cafe that day I fell deep into deja vu. A few years earlier, when I began reading my poetry in public, many people had seemed puzzled by the work and some had expressed strong feelings of discomfort with it, just as some did now with my paintings. Simultaneously, then as now, others had reported that their creativity was remarkably stimulated by mine. Reflecting upon these events, I understood for the first time that a certain kind of work, resembling what Jung calls "visionary art," functions in much the same way as the shaman in tribal societies. That is, some art is shamanic in function. Formed from collective unconscious material, it activates the unconscious of its audience and mobilizes the psyche's self-healing capacities. It opens the door to a different reality, the world of dreams and imagination, and "spirits" silently pass into the world of every day, affecting people in unexpected ways.

Shamanic art undermines unexamined cultural assumptions. For this reason it disturbs some people and may even arouse rage. Those who are open to it, however, often find that it sets their own creativity in motion.

Such art tends to be prophetic. It asks, even insists, on being heard, just as shamans are compelled to tell about their inner experiences when they begin to apply what they have learned about healing themselves to the healing of others. The visionary creative act is not complete until it finds an audience, coming out into the world and disturbing the complacent surface of collective consciousnes. If the process is blocked, one outcome may be psychosis. Cancer may be another.

Shamanic art brings eros values to the healing of the psyche. That is, unlike traditional clinical psychology and psychiatry, it is more concerned with connecting and making whole than with the logos values of dissecting and understanding. It is related to a form of psychotherapy that interprets rarely, seeking instead to set in motion a symbolic process that has its own unforeseeable healing goal. Understanding of behavior is important only to the extent that it serves a living relationship to deep levels of the psyche. Since it is fundamentally creative, this approach to psychotherapy sacrifices the claim to clarity, undermines unexamined asumptions and is more disturbing to than supportive of conformity. The soul of the shaman lies equally behind the visionary artist and the therapist who works in this way. If the shamanic type of therapist ceases to live her own creative life, the capacity to function in healing ways becomes lost and may even turn destructive.


When the Spirits Come Back, pp. 36-37

Part of the result of reading this book, was a feeling being validated and affirmed, in my wanting to continue to do my visionary artwork, and also to be more open about doing it. Thus, I have been writing about this topic for the past several entries.

One important value about poetry, about art, that this brings forward is the truth that: Art does not replicate and reinforce cultural values; rather, it disrupts and expands those boundaries. Such art is often uncomfortable, and resisted.

Such art brings in the new, the unfamiliar, i.e. the not-yet-foreseen or experienced. This lies close to the root of visionary poetry, in its prophectic function.

If we focus on art that only replicates a culture's existing values, we get Socialist Art, we get Hallmark cards, we get lots of bad art that panders to cheap sentimentality (the bane of Victorian poetry), we get Entertainment instead if Art, in the sense that entertainment only reproduces, soothes, and provides escapism. Bread and circuses for the masses, while Rome burns. This is exactly what is meant by the slogan "Art is life. Entertainment is death." (Rob Brezsny) And also by the statement that artists are "Against the reproduction of Death." (Hakim Bey)

Dallett writes: Since it is fundamentally creative, this approach to psychotherapy sacrifices the claim to clarity, undermines unexamined asumptions and is more disturbing to than supportive of conformity.

Rollo May says some similar things in his book The Courage to Create, and Arnold Mindell devotes an entire book to this topic in The Shaman's Body. (Imagine if Castenada had been a post-Jungian process therapist, and you'll get some idea of where Mindell goes with this work.) Abraham Maslow also gets into this terrain, when he studies the psychology of peak experiences. Another excellent book that discusses peak experiences is George Leonard's The Silent Pulse.



The shaman's journey to the Otherworlds is solitary, and yet his return is social. Hers is a message of healing, and it is ultimately rooted in compassion. Too much modern, Western, psychiatry-influenced poetry seems to be about what Alan Watts called the "skin-encapsulated ego." Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and many, many others—the confessional poets. Poems about one's life, one's dog, one's feelings in relationship to others; poems about grandmother's wedding dress, or individual subjective insights; or what I had for lunch on Tuesday. All of these serve to reinforce normative (socialized) existence, which is trapped (especially in America) in myths about the (rugged) individual, standing independently apart from all, self-motivating, self-made, self-propelling, yet grounded in family, subjectivity, value. (I exclude Whitman from this thread of confessional poetry, beacuse despite his constant use of the first person, his vision was transpersonal and all-encompassing, rather than normative. In fact, all visionary poets stand outside the mundaneness of this kind of poetry, even if their poems start in the mundane.)

By contrast to the normative world enumerated by the confessional poets, the returned shaman often lives a precarious balance between social acceptance and social rejection. He never entirely returns to the fold, and she is always a suspicious character in the eyes of the more conservative elements in society, as he keeps going off on new journeys, new soul-flights, and never really settles down. Once a traveler, always a traveler. Most shaman I have known have remained troublesome individuals, eccentric, idiosyncratic, troublemakers, even Tricksters—they've been outside the box, they continue to think outside the box, and so they tend to be, well, rabidly misunderstood.

There's a saying I've heard: "The shaman does not live in the village."

The truly individuated person is always going to be non-normative, because they have, in the process of becoming a whole Self, a whole person, overcome their Tribal conditioning, which often means giving up their Tribal value-system. Growing up as an individual can mean leaving all Tribal values behind in one's wake. The hidden truth here is clear: the Tribe is there to support us and protect us when we are helpless newborns; and so the Tribe's actions and values are thus inherently protective, conservative, and based on fear of the dangerous outside world. But when we start to grow and stand on our own two feet, the Tribe will actually try to hold us back, keep us infantile and dependent, for fear of losing itself as its members move away from it.

Another old saying: "The prophet is never beloved in his home town." No one is ever going to applaud you for thinking beyond their internalized and self-limiting belief-system.

The problem with compassion, which is a word I accept and use, along with bodhichitta and lovingkindess, is that "compassion" to many people in our post-Christian society (which is still learning about Buddhism, and hasn't really absorbed it yet) carries the connotation of Grace, as bestowed from Above. It is a function of the Divine, rather than the human. (This is not what I believe; it is a paradigm I see in play, though, in many cases.) So, people tend to think of compassion as being lovey-dovey, gentle, or angelically bland (another holdover from the Victorian symbol-set). Compassion is what the Divine Feminine bestows upon us, in the form of Mercy (or whatever Face the Divine is wearing today).

But compassion can also be "tough love." Doing the action that seems hurtful at first, because it is not conventionally lovey-dovey, but in retrospect is seen to be the action required for the development of the individual's highest good. I was in the audience once when the Dalai Lama was in Madison, WI, giving a talk; he had just been named as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, although this talk had been planned for some time prior. I remember him saying, in responce to an audience question about compassion, more or less exactly this: that compassion can be fierce as well as tender, that tough love is also a form of compassion. Whatever the soul needs in order to wake up, can be compassionate action.

So, while I agree that the shaman's motivation, upon return from the journey, is to pass on the healing to others, and while I can accept compassion is one of the shaman's motivations, I am also aware that compassion in this case can break all the rules, and be very non-stereotypical. It can be explosive. It can be the opposite of a soothing balm. It can be disruptive, and in the form of poetry and artwork, just as Dallett describes above.

Is it more compassionate to an evolving soul to let it stay asleep in its dream of normative social values and roles, or is it more compassionate to remove those illusions, so that the soul can wake up, and make progress on its path?

So, compassion can be a destroyer and disturber, as well as a soother and caretaker. This is the truth behind the Wrathful Deities, in tibetna Buddhist cosmology: they are the same as the Peaceful Deities, and both want to wake you up. In the Bardo, the Peaceful Deities appear first, to give you a chance to wake up; if that doesn't work, then the Wrathful Deities appear, to slap you upside the head, and give you another chance to wake up.

But both are emanations of compassion.

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