A-musing Grace:
Aesthetics as cure

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Mar. 14, 1998)

Regular readers of this column know that besides working as a writer, I'm a doctoral student in archetypal psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara. A couple of years ago, fascinated with the idea that the aesthetic-based psychology of James Hillman (and Thomas Moore and Pat Berry) might offer a theoretical foundation for an alternative to developmental psychotherapy, I created a workshop called "Greeting the Muse."

In the last few months, the workshop has received a good bit of publicity. At the national level, Common Boundary magazine ran an article about it in its January issue. (You can read the article by Jane McGoldrick on my website.) Atlanta magazine's January issue also mentioned the workshop in a brief piece about my work as an "anti-therapist."

The publicity from Common Boundary resulted in my receiving calls from all over the world, including invitations to conduct the workshop in Los Angeles, British Columbia and Munich. That's not possible, since the term of the workshop is 11 weeks. However, I recently decided to begin offering a one-day "sample" of the work with my colleague and friend Rose D'Agostino. Those are scheduled Saturdays, March 28, April 18 and May 23. Call D'Agostino, 404-873-2645, for more information. (Cost is $100 but $40 of the cost is allocated toward the 11-week experience, if you choose to continue.)

I know I reveal some hubris in using this space to talk about the workshop. However, I receive at least 20 calls a week from local people curious about it. Some recent experience taught me that this work, contrary to my hope, is for a minority and thus the conversation that follows and continues next week is as much about the question of what it means to "heal" as it is about my own work.

As is usual in these kinds of columns, I take Hillman's approach by writing a kind of self-interview. It is more than that, though. The voices of the curious, of former participants, of my professors and of my own gestalts come present as imaginal inquisitors. In that, the writing resembles the very process I teach. Rose D'Agostino also contributes here.

What is the purpose of the Greeting the Muse Workshop?

Originally, I conceived it as a means of developing a therapoeisis, a therapeutic system based on the use of the imagination -- a poetics for the ailing soul. It irritated me that Hillman and Moore, for all their brilliant writing, had not developed a very articulate praxis. My own background in humanistic and transpersonal psychology, with long experience in 12-step recovery, had left me adrift. None went deep enough. I rediscovered the depth psychology of Freud and Jung.

Then I found Hillman and archetypal psychology, which takes classic depth psychology deeper. Or, I should say it adds breadth as well as depth by enlarging psychology's concern to the public sphere. Through the figure of the daimon, a personification of destiny and the soul, we are brought into direct contact with our symptoms, our defenses, and our path to healing. But we find this path in the world, not just in the therapy room. Hillman, of course, is a Jungian but he has freed Jung's psychology from a lot of its dogma.

And how did all of this work out in your development of the workshop?

Well, without anyone to guide me, I felt that I had to choose a very limited population with which to work. So I picked writers and artists who feel blocked. I knew, of course, they would be naturally disposed to approaching their blocks -- their creative blocks and their psychological blocks, which are the same -- through exercise of the imagination. My hypothesis was that if you approach the creative block effectively, something will shift more generally in the life of the client. This reverses the usual process of working with the psychological block itself with the hope that the creative block will spontaneously heal itself. This is why the Greeks all went to the theater and listened to the Iliad time and again. It's a symbolic, curative enactment.

And what did you find out? Did people's lives change?

Well, I found that to be true in my early work. The most astonishing case was of a terminally ill man who spontaneously confronted his dead and over-idealized father and then his own dying through the imagery of his writing and drawing. That was, of course, a radical exception. It was very clear to me from the start that intention and motivation mattered a lot. The work is extremely demanding. It involves a series of written and visual assignments designed to disassemble the notion of identity as conditioned solely by childhood. Many people are so attached to this idea or to their defenses that they just can't do the assignments. I try to respect the defenses but people who undertake the workshop are by definition inviting a confrontation of them. This part of the work calls on my experience in both the Fischer-Hoffman and Ira Progoff journaling processes.

So why are you trying to break people's attachment to their biography?

Because biography is remembered. It is a fantasy of the past. An artist writes or paints into the future. The very act of creation is future-oriented. When you can write and paint easily, you can begin to imagine your life differently. Imagination is really the only lens we have to examine the past. A professor of mine recently told me that one of her patients brought in a picture of himself as an infant being held at arm's length by his father. Early in his analysis, this was an image of distancing by the father. But as his analysis proceeded, the image became one of the father offering the son up in pride to the cosmos. Of course, you can say that the earlier interpretation may have been the more accurate reading of the symptom of their relationship. But the second interpretation reveals the deeper meaning beneath the symptomatic one. In the father's distancing he revealed his adulation. He reveals the gods to his sons in his act of concealment. At the level of depth, as Jung noted repeatedly, paradox rules.

But it must be terribly uncomfortable to be ripped from your biography.

Yes, it is extremely uncomfortable. It plunges you into a liminal space -- a space between identities. I call it a nekyia, a journey to the underworld on behalf of the soul. In another culture, you'd call it soul retrieval.

How does one get through that?

The glib answer is to say you write or paint or compose your way through it. When I speak of the muse, I mean to indicate the aesthetic function of the soul -- the part of the soul that produces images. It is active in everyone as the dream ego at night but it is especially active in creative people all the time. As the ego is sent to the underworld, so to speak, the muse can personify itself to interpret, comment, give comfort. Alas, the muse is a moral creature though, and, cuts very little slack. It's not one of those little New Age angels. It has more in common with Rilke's "terrible birds." In the workshop, we create a kind of spontaneous theater of the deep psyche. So imagine that all the lunacy of your dream life is brought into public view.

So, this is really hard work.

Yes, I have found that serious artists and writers, who are by nature accustomed to exposing themselves and taking risks, find it extremely valuable. It can also be valuable for people who have made a commitment to exploring the deep contents of the psyche but are stable. But people who have done no therapy or insufficient therapy and are wounded deeply find it intolerable. I always tell people it's not a support group. It's a group for confronting the core defense and the evocation of the muse. It's not intended to support the status quo.

It almost sounds like you discourage people.

I tend too. I require screening interviews now. Part of the reason for developing this one-day session was to give interested people -- and myself -- a clearer idea of an individual's readiness for the intensity of the 11-week work. I also see it as a way for people who might feel a little fragile or who don't have time to attend 11 weeks to learn a few of the basic tools.

The A-mused Body:
How creativity and physicality are related

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Mar. 21, 1998)

What is the relationship between the body and the imagination in psychological healing?

This week's column is a continuation of last week's. In that column, I talked about my work in the Greeting the Muse Workshop, an 11-week process that I developed for writers and artists a few years ago to experiment with the principles of archetypal psychology developed by James Hillman. Because the workshop recently received a good bit of national and local publicity, I have developed a one-day "sample" of the work for people who cannot take the entire workshop or who want to know more before deciding to undertake the 11-week process.

I'll be conducting the one-day workshops with my friend and colleague Rose D'Agostino, M.A., whose expertise is body-based psychology. Her master's degree is in somatic psychology from Antioch and she is also a graduate of Core Energetics training and the Barbara Brennan School of Healing. We'll be conducting the workshops on Saturdays, March 28, April 18 and May 23. Cost is $100, but $40 is allocated toward the cost of the 11-week group if you choose to undertake it. Call D'Agostino, 404-873-2645, for more information. Groups are kept under 10.

In the workshop, we'll be teaching and experiencing some basic principles of my work: recovering a sense of the muse, or the image-producing aspect of the soul; learning the aesthetic function's role in ordinary life as well as in creative work; learning the historic function of the heart as an organ of perception and the way the body represents a field that provides access to the imagination. (If you are interested in the workshop and have Internet access, I suggest you read last week's column on my website.

This week's column is a conversation between Rose and me. My part is in bold type.

Part of my commitment in this work, whether with artists or anyone else, is helping them recover the sense of the heart as a perceptual organ. It is a great mystery to me that we have a vocabulary for this but people don't seem to realize it describes a real phenomenon. We describe the heart as full, the heart as breaking, as happy. We say the heart is touched or full of joy ...

Yes, but most people have no sense of the actuality of this. It's just words. I remember in one of my somatic psychology classes there was a man, a man with HIV, who said he could feel his heart breaking. I didn't have a clue what he was talking about. I was so blocked from feeling that I thought those were just words, maybe a metaphor for something.

And yet if you read Sufi mysticism, you find very elaborated practices for thinking and imagining with the heart. Much of Hillman's work is based in this idea, borrowed from the French scholar Henry Corbin's studies of the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi. ... I wonder why so many people have lost the capacity to think with their hearts.

I think the individual process is that we are taught very early to withdraw consciousness from the experience of pain. I usually talk about how you can hit your finger with a hammer and you pull your awareness away from the pain. We seek an outside remedy, anything to avoid the pain. The problem, of course, is that the trauma remains there to be healed.

And of course, no heart is immune to pain in growing up. But why do we handle it this way? Why do we withdraw awareness instead of, say, paying attention to the pain?

I have to think it's cultural. I mean it's partly an effective defense, but the culture doesn't support the experience of the pain.

Yeah, there's that jingle: "I haven't got time for the pain." Now, I'm curious to know how you recovered your heart's capacity to sense.

Basically, I just think it was my destiny to get on this path. I was driven to inhabit my physical body more fully. Being very mental -- reading is still my favorite escape -- I needed to ground myself in my body. This was something that unfolded over time for me.

I remember the exact moment I got that my heart was a sensing organ. I had a very emotional reaction while I watched a mother shame her young son in public. When I got home, I came unglued and I literally felt like I'd been kicked in the chest. Then I realized that the "kicked" feeling was exactly the same feeling I associated with love. In other words, I had the feelings of love and pain enmeshed. It was then that I realized I was not ever going to experience anything like real love as an adult until I sank completely into the pain in my heart, when I learned to see with and through the pain in my heart.

Yes, that's what I mean when I say the trauma becomes part of the body, in that case in the heart.

So, as Hillman would say, the way to healing is through the wound.

Yes. I have a story about that. When I was in that same class, I did some work with someone who was role-playing my father. Suddenly, I had this terrific pain in my nose that moved under my eye. Well, I had been told that my nose was broken when I was a kid but I never knew how.

That brings up two questions for me. First, how is such an experience healing? Second, I presume you're talking about recovered memory. How do you know it's for real?

It's always healing when you unravel a block. In the way I think of it, you are establishing a free flow of energy where it was blocked and that is inherently healing. As for whether the so-called memory is real, I don't know.

This is very important to me. Because, to my mind, what has happened in your willingness to penetrate, to stay with, the pain is that an image arises and a story comes out of it. To me it's irrelevant whether your father actually hit you -- you just can't say so -- but the psyche has produced an image and a story that incarnates the fact of a combative relationship between the two of you. So, what you call energy is to me the flow of creativity. The imagination is restored to its image-making capacity by the willingness to penetrate the pain and write or paint or play music. This is what the dream-ego does quite spontaneously for everyone at night. In the workshop, I try to create a kind of waking dream with the muse as representative of the soul present.

The connection to soul is essential to me. I went from usual psychology, to bioenergetics and a lot of body work. It wasn't until I added soul and spirit that my path seemed clear.

I agree, but it's important to me to say that when I speak of the soul, I don't mean to imply something that is purely spiritual. I mean to imply something that mediates the body and the spirit. The soul's main means of expression is creativity and its perceptions are registered by the heart. When the broken heart of personal experience is finally acknowledged -- when we get on with the grieving of our biographies -- then we are opened to the positive aspects of the numinous, the archetypal, and then art and writing become processes that occur through the individual. They are works of the Self instead of the blocked, struggling, agonizing, tormented and judgmental ego.

Yes, until that happens, we tend to be driven by our lower self, the shadow. This part of us, despite the discomfort it causes, is a great gift because it points us exactly toward what needs to be healed. The shadow is the experience of constriction, whereas the higher self seeks expansion, creativity.

I've thought a lot about the way the shadow gets expressed in writers and artists. I think the avoidance of grieving our own pain is a refusal to treat ourselves with compassion. For a writer or artist this often gets expressed as literal creative block -- paralysis. But just as often you encounter technical proficiency without any real juice in the writing. The characters have the quality of zombies or one-dimensionality. A lack of self-compassion gets projected on the work.

You sacrifice the heart connection, and the work loses its authenticity. It can be exquisitely crafted but without passion. People live that way.

Clearly it takes courage -- a strong heart -- to do it differently.

Copyright 1998 by Creative Loafing | Published Mar. 14/21, 1998

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