Monthly Archives: June 2012


If anything’s true about the world we live in, it’s that it’s a world of constant change. We’re immersed in a sea of images and narratives engineered to ensnare us in thinking and acting in certain ways (often for other people’s benefit). In the midst of this it becomes really difficult to find the thread of our own stories.

Let’s take a quick look at the importance of story: on a fundamental level, story is an organizing principle that allows us to piece together experiences and events into a meaningful sequence. In his 2008 book, The Political Mind, author George Lakoff (who also co-wrote Metaphors We Live By with Mark Johnson) proposes that most narrative sequences can be mapped to recognizable patterns of roles and events, which he calls “frames.” In the rescue frame, for example, we have the roles of the villain, the victim, and the hero. The villain threatens or harms the victim, the hero challenges the villain, and after some period of struggle and uncertainty, the hero prevails over the villain and the victim is delivered to safety. We’ve seen this frame a gazillion times and yet it’s still enticing. This is in part because each time we witness the playing out of this frame, we’re participating in it ourselves: we’ve all lived through this frame personally, experiencing at least one, probably more than one of the roles. Each time we encounter it in a story, it evokes (i.e. literally reactivates) the very emotions we felt first-hand when we lived through the experience.

On a neural level, the reason why this frame is so gripping is because it engages one of our fundamental biological adaptations: the fight or flight response, which we humans share with all mobile living organisms. When the fight or flight response is initiated, it kicks our nervous system into high gear, increasing heart rate and breathing and pumping cortisol and other stimulating chemicals into the bloodstream, allowing us to maximize our active response (and thus, chances for survival). But the body can only sustain this state for so long before it collapses from exhaustion, which is why the resolution (the defeat of the villain and the rescue of the victim) is so sweet: it allows the body to relax, which is accompanied by the release of happy, calming neurochemicals. The ordeal is over. It’s time for a beer.

Why this diversion into good guy bad guy land? Because one of the vital aspects of the fight or flight response is that it has a fantastic ability to narrow and sharpen our field of attention. All nonessential information fades into the background as our sensory receptors search out and hone in on information and signals that are most likely to contribute to our survival. (This is usually the moment in the movie where the hero/protagonist notices the vent in the ceiling — hark! possible escape…!). This goal then has the effect of hyper-sequencing the nervous system: the body goes into action and organizes itself to achieve the goal.

This process is most effective in life or death situations — the will to live is impressively strong and its sequencing power enables organisms to overcome impressive odds. The same principle applies in less drastic situations, say, when we’re late and are rushing to get somewhere. Reaching the destination is the main organizing principle; all other non-essential data is automatically assigned a lower priority. This is why drivers in a hurry become assholes: their nervous systems are hyper-focused to such an extent that it becomes impossible to run other sequences, such as waiting and allowing other drivers to merge. They’re acting out the proverbial one track mind.

So what does this all have to do with finding the thread of one’s personal story? Here’s the deal: without a narrative driver as an organizing principle, we get lost: we stumble around without a sense of direction; we get distracted by multiple simultaneous threads; we get caught up in other people’s stories; or (my personal favorite), we become Netflix addicts, essentially borrowing other narratives because they help us *feel* purposeful. What we need to do is identify the story we’re living so that we can allow it to organize and sequence our activity.

Here are two suggestions on how to do this:

1) The practical approach: Get really clear about what your goal is. Keep it simple. Break it down into easily achievable mini-steps. (Our brains love accomplishing things. When we “win” at something we get a dopamine hit that makes us want to keep winning.) Choose small steps that are challenging enough to activate your game-self (the milder version of fight/flight) but not so out there that you get overwhelmed or succumb to self-doubt. Also important: find role models–other people who have achieved the goal you’ve set for yourself and study what they did — really break it down step-by-step. This will help your nervous system begin to make sense of the sequence that will get you where you want to go. Try to find ways to embody what they did so that your goal becomes a living, real-life sequence and not just a conceptual idea. Do this enough and you’ll start to gain momentum.

2) The more mythological approach: (This is the idea that inspired this post in the first place.) Ponder this question: what story or narrative do you identify with most strongly? Have you ever read a book or seen a movie and felt down to the bottom of your soul that the protagonist was you? Perhaps you became obsessed with the story or character, saw yourself in his/her shoes, imagined yourself going on his/her journey. Chances are this story–and the frame it represents–is Your Story. (I must credit Craig Chalquist as the originator of this idea. If you haven’t yet taken his Archetypal Myth class at JFK, I highly recommend it.) Go through a similar process with this narrative: break it down, parse it out in pivotal events and moments of transformation. What did the protagonist do to overcome odds? How many times did s/he fail and rise again? What did s/he release / accept / transform that allowed him/her to succeed? You might even map your current situation to the narrative sequence: what scene are you in right now? What happens next in the story that might give you some clue about what you need to do?

(If anyone’s curious, my favorite story is the movie Contact. After I publish this post I’ll be doing my own analysis…)

You might think about combining these two approaches: take one real world example (for me, it’s always Bjork), and one imaginal example (Jodie Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway). Let their stories give you clues. Can’t hurt to have more than one angel.

And as you’re doing this, practice letting Your Story become your one-track mind. Not to such an extent that you slack off on other things you need to do, but just enough that it helps filter out the nonessentials. If you’re not sure whether a piece of info is part of your story or not, just contemplate it for a moment: hold whatever it is in your mind’s eye against the backdrop of the fuller narrative. If it doesn’t seem to fit, don’t try to force it, just let it go.

To pick up the theme of collaboration from the last post (it’s central to this whole blog project) let’s not forget, too, that stories always have more than one character: protagonists nearly always have helpers, teachers, friends, and/or companions on the road. Look into your story and see who these characters are (Ellie Arroway has Kent, her friend and fellow astronomer, who happens to be blind (the blind seer) and who has keen insight into her inner spirit, and S.R. Hadden, the mysterious trickster who appears out of nowhere and gives her major clues that bring about quantum leaps on her journey…hmmmm…). Of course she also has detractors, challengers, doubters, and saboteurs. It would be nice if they didn’t exist but they’re necessary players too: without the villian, there wouldn’t be a hero, right?

My dear friends, I am anxious to hear what your story is and where you are in it. Please reply and share!!



Making the case for Arts & Consciousness as a collaborative process

Dear A&C friends:

If you are reading this, it’s quite likely that you have invested, or will eventually have invested, two, three, four or more years of your life in making contact with your inner self — your soul, let’s call it — the part of you that interacts with energies, the imaginal, the symbolic. The part of you that has learned to some degree to dip into the stream of the great Mystery and come back out of it with new information, which becomes the art we make.

This is special knowledge, which each person has learned (is learning) in a certain way that is unique to who s/he is.

So what do we do with this? I’d like to share a couple ideas…

Idea #1: The Mosaic

I’m writing this email to advocate for the idea that being a conscious, spiritual or transformative artist is, by definition, meant to be a collective activity. That we’re each bringing back aspects of a whole that is meant to be assembled through sharing what we find and figuring out how it fits together. What is the picture it makes? What forms take shape amid the reflections and relationships that are revealed when these works of art are brought face to face in some fashion?

Perhaps you have heard of the book Original Wisdom, by Robert Wolff? I first read it in 2006 and its description of the collective life of an indigenous Malayasian tribe as experienced by a Western medical professional (yes, it’s one of those, but bear with me…) made a profound impression on me in terms of suggesting what becomes possible when a group of people commit to sustaining a collective connection to the imaginal. Here’s an excerpt:

In the morning, we might not all wake up at the same time, but those who woke up early would lie quietly, waiting for more people to awaken. And somehow, as if by magic, we would find ourselves sitting in a circle, rubbing our eyes, stretching to get the kinks out. One person would say, “I saw a bird, a beautiful bird.” Someone else would say, “Yes, I too saw a bird.” “What kind of bird was it?” another would ask. And so we would create a story with images from our dreams.

They did not think that they were sharing dreams as we think of dreams. The Sng’oi believe that the world we live in is a shadow world, and that the real world is behind it. At night, they believe, we visit that real world, and in the morning we share what we saw and learned there. The story that was created around the memories that four or five people brought back from the real world set the tone for the day.

Sometimes one of the group would take the lead in soliciting input from each person in the room: How about you? What do you remember? Other times the story flowed without help. A few times no story emerged at all. It was very obvious that when a more or less coherent story was created around the images we shared, we who had slept in that shelter would live that story that day. Usually the stories were simple: a bird had shown the way to a tree that was bearing fruit. Later that day some of us would find that tree, and of course it did have ripe fruit. Or the story was about a bad storm. People would stay close to the shelters all day, and yes, there was a big storm in late afternoon.  (pp. 88-89)

In 2011, I was a T.A. with Karen Shojolm for Creativity and Consciousness. During the classes dedicated to sharing artwork (at the end of each three week phase of working with one or both opposites), we had some opportunity to observe the relationships between the different pieces within a room. It was very interesting: there definitely were colors and images that surfaced in more than one person’s work. It’s possible to say this is a result of people being in the same class and part of the same discussions, but what if the group really was touching into a collective imaginal space, and that space was coming through in the artwork?

In 2010-2011, elizaBeth Benson, raven reyes, and I also midwifed collaborative installation art experiences at the Poet Tree House, a multi-story live/work loft into which we invited groups of interdisciplinary folks to create three-dimensional imaginal spaces — each show attempting to create a spatial atmosphere with a particular theme (show 1: the Enchanted Forest; show 2: Paris, (show 3 was a little different)). We learned some very interesting things: of particular note was the discovery that kicking off the development of each show with a storytelling circle during which people shared their personal connections to the theme (memories, daydreams, feeling-states…) helped establish an imaginal container for the show. We then created a material installation world that let us enter into and embodily inhabit our shared symbolic space. (For me, this was a big wow!) This is a slightly different example in that the storytelling and artmaking were directed around a particular theme rather than arising spontaneously, but I still think it’s a noteworthy example of the potential of what can be manifested through the collaborative imaginal.

Idea #2: Partners in Healing

Maybe, like me, you’re not sure if you’re first and foremost an artist or if you’re a different kind of *someone* whose work is still very much related to the creative process. What is the creative process? What is Transformative Art? My working definition is that when you’re transforming materials of any kind, there is a simultaneous transformation of self also occurring–and it’s the transformation of self part that I want to focus on. Some of us who go through this program are driven to create work; others have a compelling wish to support people in the transformative process. I think they go together.

A few weeks ago, during a meditation, I had one of those moments of understanding that sometimes happens, and the info was this: these gifts that we have — teaching, healing, facilitating, creating — they’re meant to be shared. That we’re actually supposed to put all the things we know and are learning into practice and heal each other — that by sharing our healing and teaching gifts, we’re creating ways for energy to come into and become part of this realm (ja, I know how this sounds…). The important point is that this collective work, and the field it creates, is actually what helps us all get to the next level.

What would this look like? Maybe you’re a bodyworker, and you can exchange sessions with someone else who does sound healing. Or maybe you’re an herbalist and you can do an exchange with a visual artist who will listen to your  story and then create a healing drawing or picture for you. Maybe you have a special connection to animals, or places, or colors — you can help other people learn these things too. Maybe you’re really awesome at leading people in meditation or guided imagery and you double up on teaching a workshop with someone else who can help people read their own and other people’s energetic states. Maybe you’re a musician and you would be willing to play music while someone else is helping people learn to paint. Maybe you’re extremely grounded and can hold a safe container for groups: I’m pretty dang sure there’s a semi-hyper, very eager teacher somewhere out there who would love to collaborate with you.

The point is: we know things, each person reading this knows how to do some piece of this. These things are not supposed to stay hidden any longer.

I remember, back in the thick of my dive into books about indigenous cultures, I kept coming across books that had a common theme: “For centuries this knowledge has been held secret by my people, but now the elders have said it is time to share it with the world.” Again, this could be seen as a marketing ploy, but what if it’s not? What if we really are living in the age where esoteric knowledge needs to see the light of day and be put into practice in real and exchangable ways that become as normal as any other part of community life? Isn’t that kind of the description of the world that we came to JFK hoping to find or help make happen?

Isn’t it?

Well, here’s our chance.


Thoughts??  (plz click on “leave a comment” up above in green…)

In determined alliance with y’all,


Making the case for Arts & Consciousness as a collaborative process