Warning: This Blog Contains Strong Language and Scenes of Strong, Bloody Negativity.
When I was 13 I read a book on Shamans and Artists. I’ve looked for it since but can’t remember its name. The author describes the classic shamanic journey; the shaman sets off on a quest to heal a person, or a group. The quest takes them down into the underworld, where the shaman is dismembered, then reassembled, then they return to the land of the living, with the healing or wisdom they sought.
The author argued that artists, in the widest Julia-esque definition, are modern society’s shamans. The distinction between craftspeople and artists is that artists are prepared to go on that journey to their inner darkness, lose themselves, and come back with that inspiration which creates great, healing art. He argues that McCartney was a craftsperson, unwilling to make the journey, while Lennon was a true Shaman-artist. Bowie, is an artist, Elvis is someone who started an artistic journey but whose path was aborted through bad influences and I think Chaplin may have been a Shaman-artist too but my memory of that chapter is hazy.
This book had a very profound effect on me. From then on I understood that when there were difficulties, if you run away from the darkness you end up back where you started, but if you run through it, then, after pain and tribulations, you emerge somewhere new and amazing. I carry that story of the Shaman-artist with me everywhere, but there have been many moments when knowing this truth hasn’t helped and I have wanted to run, screaming, back to the safety of my imperfect start. Being a hero, an artist, a Shaman, is a scary thing. Better the familiar and broken, than the unknown and transformative.
So I’ve had two voices in my head during Week 4, which has been fucking awful. One voice has been saying that this is the journey, that the Artist’s Way is really working now, precisely because it’s sending me to a very dark place. And there’s the other part, a wounded child, desperate to run home.
There are a number of possible reasons for my descending into the underworld:
1) I returned at the end of week 3 to the site of some pretty nasty experiences and met people who were still suffering it.
2) I undertook the intensive weekend of therapy.
3) I’m a quarter of the way through this 12 week journey.
4) I’m post-viral from flu three weeks ago, the doctor says it may continue to effect my inner ear for a few weeks. If you like the idea of spending your life on the seven seas I heartily recommend the constant sea-sickness of inner ear problems. If, on the other hand, you have challenging stuff to deal with it’s a nightmare.
5) I have re-encountered four old karmic patterns, which I thought I had well and truly broken and would never have to face again. Four of the fuckers! In a week! With the attendant feeling that maybe I haven’t grown or changed anything in the last ten years of my practice.
6) The weather has been oppressively grey and wet non-stop (wettest April on records.)
7) This week was Reading Deprivation week in the Artist’s Way.
Julia challenged me not to read anything for a week. ‘For most artists, words are like tiny tranquilizers.’ So go cold turkey, she says. ‘Reading deprivation casts us into our inner silence.’ P.87
What this actually involves is hazy. She wrote this pre-mass-adoption of e-mail and a cultural aeon before Twitter and Facebook. So the deal I made with myself was this – seven days of responding to work and social messages and texts but no passive absorption; no spooling through Twitter or Facebook feed-browsing, no webcomics, no books and, crucially, no podcasts. She’s absolutely right about words being a drug. Every spare moment I’m not concentrating I have head-phones on and am being sedated by Melvyn Bragg, Mark Kermode and Adam and Joe. And I do it to drown out the awful voice of my critic, constantly carping on. I sort of knew this about myself, but it wasn’t until I had to lose the words entirely that I realised how bad it had got. My mood plummeted like a stone. And it was as if all that I had learnt about myself, all that I have achieved, fell away, and I was back as a kid, wailing ‘Poor me’ at every thing that happened.
And where was this synchronicity that I was told to look out for? Working in reverse. Lots of challenging situations? Oh, here comes post-viral infection and a constant spinning sensation. Desperately trying to e-mail through some work before a deadline? Here’s a power cut which takes out the entire street for a whole day and part of a night. And all this through constant, driving rain. When you’re feeling down, there’s nothing like stepping out of your front door and feeling your rain pass through your trousers, and then your underwear becoming instantly water-logged to help you keep a buoyant frame of mind.
I fell off the wagon on day five. I was watching someone else leading a youth workshop, for a little professional development, and he was illustrating a point using 99 Ways to Tell A Story, a comic in which a very simple one page story is told 99 different ways. I thought, well I’ll just have a peek. After all, I don’t know when I’ll encounter this book again. Then the room disappeared, the children and the workshop disappeared and, oh joys! I disappeared. It’s a joyous book, and I like my books with pictures. I was completely unaware of anything until I finished it an hour later and then the world, including me and my critic, bled back in.
I managed to go back to cold turkey after that, but the cravings were worse.
When the seven days were up, I allowed myself a sip of Buddhist literature, and it was like coming home after a long journey. For a while now I’ve had a real problem with Buddhist writings; nothing seems to go in – I have to reread the same paragraph over and over again, but that first read after the week was like drinking from a cool stream.
Slowly I got myself back on to solids. When my mood was bottoming out I allowed myself a News Quiz. As a treat, having overcome several challenges in short order I allowed myself to finish a novel, Little Brother, on Saturday night. The novel (written for teenagers, so perfect for me) made me remember why I don’t read literature much (most of my reading is plays and non-fiction.) It’s not that I don’t get anything from novels. It’s that I get too much. I am a slow reader. I even went for a dyslexia test earlier in the year, but they said I was just slow at reading. And crap at spelling. When I’m reading I feel everything the characters feel, but, unlike a film or a play, I know it’s not going to be resolved in a couple of hours, I’m going to be with that feeling for days and weeks. Little Brother had my heart pounding as our hero faces off against the unfairness and oppression of Homeland Security’s over-reaction to the War on Terror, and it’s attempts to strip him of his civil liberties. At least his face isn’t eaten by rats in the end.
I’m not sure where all this leaves me. I’m looking at my linguistic diet; I’m still off the feeds, cautious about surfing the net, deriving great pleasure from my more selective use of podcasts. Julia says this process lets you hear your inner voice. I didn’t like mine. It was shrieking in pain.
‘Faced with impending change, change we set in motion through our own hand, we want to mutiny, curl up in a ball, bawl our eyes out. “No pain, no gain,” the nasty slogan has it. And we resent this pain no matter what gain it is bringing us.
“I don’t want to raise my consciousness!” we wail. “I want. . . “And thanks to the morning pages we learn what we want and ultimately become willing to make the changes needed to get it. But not without a tantrum. And not without a kriya, a Sanskrit word meaning a spiritual emergency or surrender. (I always think of kriyas as spiritual seizures. Perhaps they should be spelled crias because they are cries of the soul as it is wrung through changes.)’ p.81.
And this struck a real chord too:
‘As we gain – or regain – our creative identity, we lose the false self we were sustaining. The loss of this self can feel traumatic: “I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t recognize me.”’
I gave myself some bonus days after the reading deprivation, so I’m technically about a week behind now. And I am completely lost in the dark. I don’t know who I am or where I’m heading. But I know if I stop now I’ll drift back to where I started. The only way now is forward and down, to be torn apart, and reassembled and come back with a gift. Time to go deeper down the rabbit hole.
‘The journey from Kamakura to Kyoto takes twelve days. If you travel for eleven but stop with only one day remaining, how can you admire the moon over the capital?’
(Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 1027)
As a post script, I would like to apologise to everyone I stood up, ignored and generally let down this week. Also I want to thank everyone who’s going on this journey with me, especially Hazel, who sent me a squirrel:
Final post-script. I managed most of the exercises this week, plus morning pages every day. I didn’t manage to fit in an artist’s date and and am running low on ideas for them, so feel free to send Artist Date dares!