Creativity and Self-Destruction: The Lives of Wounded Visionaries

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I used to be addicted to the biographical stories (and the various myths that grew up around them) of the many wounded and gifted artists throughout history. I had the sense that I was staring into some kind of over-sized mirror, which offered me a reflection of a more cinematic self, as I followed their lives.

It scarcely bothered me, at the time, that so many of them had died young, or that the time they did spend here on Earth was often filled with suffering. Their otherworldly creations seemed to justify such sacrifices, and it seemed appropriate that their incredible bursts of inspiration could only be sustained for so long.

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

But if creativity is meant to be life affirming, then why should one expect that the creative impulse will inevitably destroy whoever serves as its conduit? And why do the stories of countless burnt out artistic lives seem to confirm that theory?

We need our artists to demonstrate how one can live with a creative vision, even thrive because of its presence. Thus far, as history has demonstrated, the arrangement has oftentimes not worked out that way.

Is this failure symptomatic of some dysfunction within the artists, some lack of self-love or belief, or rather a consequence of a society that gives them little space to breathe and feel at home?

Intensity vs. Longevity

We may also have to consider the possibility that these great creators planned their destinies in just this way all along. Perhaps they never intended to be 'long for the world'.

It may have been their soul missions to express what they needed to - in one conflagration of inspiration akin to the passing of a comet before our eyes - and then disappear before the world and its ways began to make too much of an impression upon their peculiar innocence...

Sidestepping the Cliche

I spun the core of my novel What Casts the Shadow? around a young artist both brilliant and (seemingly) doomed. I wanted to explore the question of whether he could be 'saved'. Could he somehow keep his vision intact and yet still enjoy a balanced and fulfilling earthly life? Could he sidestep the ‘live fast, die young’ credo and cliché of rock'n'roll?

I knew that, in order to do so, he would need guidance.That's how his mentor Saul came to be.

Saul snapped his fingers. “Easier to pretend not to give a shit. That’s the posture of many a hard rocking band, as you know. But you never really wanted to be in that sort of a band, did you?”

“No. But this is a cynical age we’re living in, Saul.”

“And since when do you care about the spirit of the age?” he challenged me. “Aren’t you guys the band that discards convention and bucks every trend? Haven’t you put your finger on it yet, what you’ve been seeking ever since you jettisoned all your old songs and started reinventing yourself?”

“I wanted the music to be an outlet for everything that we feel,” I said, “not just the anger and aggression.” 

 “Yes! And a big part of that, I’m willing to bet anything, is that you’ve been looking for an outlet for your idealism. Yes, being cynical and jaded is the order of business in the modern world. And you listen to a lot of cynical bands, too. But there’s that part of you that wants to say, ‘Screw it – I believe in humanity; and I believe in myself.’ Even if it means that you won’t look so tough in the arena of hard rock swagger and insouciance.”

Demystifying the Creative Process

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In the novel Trust in the Unseen, Brandon Chane, the narrator, describes a moment when he touched into his own creative flow in a powerful way. This happens after a tumultuous emotional experience. He forgets, momentarily, all about his own agendas and ideas about what constitutes "real art" and, in that place of free and whimsical play, spontaneously composes what would come to be his favorite song on his band's forthcoming record.

Something odd happened to me then, at this critical threshold of my anguish. The world receded; or perhaps my mind relinquished its attachment to its surroundings. Nothing existed except for Rachel and I, for the love that passed between us as simply and undeniably as the breath of skies. The sensation was divorced from all notions of time. This was a single moment that always had been and always would be.

My feelings bubbled up from their molten core, lightening and quickening as they rose. They mustered up vibrations in my throat. Sounds demanded expression, so I opened my mouth wide. The notes slowly joined hands and formed a melody. Words sprang out of it like foam from the denser flesh of a wave. I sang without even stopping to consider what I was actually saying.

And thus, I serenaded Rachel with what would grow to become the song “Sister/Satyr”. Fortunately, I repeated it enough times to commit it to memory.

ART on a Pedestal

The creative process is as natural as breathing. That's true for all of us. The question isn't whether we're creative but only in what way.

If, for example, you are mid-way through an essay and suddenly feeling stuck - you literally can't squeeze another word on to the page -  this doesn't mean that you aren't creative in the moment. Really, you are creating whatever the obstructions are that are getting in your way.

Writers, painters, poets, dramatists... all of us can learn how to better step out of our own way. Demystifying the creative process is a big part of that. Putting ART on too-high a pedestal makes it almost impossible for anyone to create it. Such expectations create too much internal pressure for the voices of creation to make themselves heard. More energy is expended in deconstructing than in constructing.

The Spirit of Play

...is much more conducive to making art.

The Surrealists had a mission statement that basically read, "You just have to obliterate the ego and give the Unconscious free reign." That was the philosophy behind thousands of binges in various artistic circles.

Other creative people turn their back on intoxication but express a similar underlying belief in a different vernacular. "I am a channeler. It's not me doing this writing, but some Higher Power. God, maybe. I'm just the vessel."

But our primary work of art is our own lives; and the palette that we use to to paint the canvasses of our lives consists of our own thoughts, feelings and beliefs.

Realizing that we're the creators of our own reality can dissolve many of the detrimental theories that we may have about art and what it means to live creatively. We can feel how everything in life is a creative act. It demystifies the creative process, returning it to its natural place as an activity alongside all the others.

This belief has makes the whole experience of conscious creation much simpler, more enjoyable, and more powerful - no longer bogged down in dogma and hype.

 

Mystic Waters of the Depths

Some of my most spacious experiences of consciousness have occurred in the wake of water dreams, particularly dreams of being underwater and breathing. There is something about the depths of waters that slows the mind to a mystic rhythm where it can feel the essence of things.

Thoughts bubble up more slowly, but there is deeper surety to them. The insights can be trusted. They hearken from a place that touches upon endless shores.

Water is such an enduring metaphor for creativity. Inspiration "flows" or "dries up". We talk about the stream of consciousness. Consider the life of a beaver, an entire existence centered around relationship to a river. That's some powerful Zen.

Psyche's Essence is Motion

We lack conscious knowledge of these places, so the picture it gives us… there’s much greater scope and breadth; the watery depths of the psyche know all the variables that are in play, much like dreams themselves do.

So many people feel constricted by the walls created by their own conceptions of themselves and of life. The inner psyche in its wisdom knows that what we so often call stability is really a kind of death.

The eternal flow of the river shows us the nature of psyche’s essence in movement. The same name sticks to a phenomenon that is never composed of the same waters, the same elements.

We can say this as well of the ever-changing psyche. We look at the shape, the contours, and proclaim it a “thing” with definite boundaries and characteristics; we give it this name, though it is never the same from one moment to the next.

Dreams and Trust

Dreams encourage a flexibility of mind that is conducive to appreciating its ever-changing nature. “When are we ever finished?” Saul challenges Brandon. “When comes the time when our growth and unfolding is all said and done?”

I’m coming upon the mysticism of the word again, pulled down to the spacious place by the waters of the depths. The mind can be allowed to run like the mystic waters do; not cling to its banks; trust the rock-bed that upholds it, and roll on and on.

Clinging is born from a belief that we’re at the mercy of a world that is somehow separate from ourselves. This is the essence of doubt. To come to know the world through knowing our own minds profits us much more.

Maybe it’s that the spacious mind – which I have likened to the depths of the waters - feels the essence of events before, or during, their formation; and so it is here that its surety comes from.

It knows the forms taken by energy as it molds events in time. It is on this level that predictions can be made, that safety can be felt (even by the ego, if it is willing to listen to these assurances from the dream depths) when the world seems to be in chaos.

Reassurances from the Depths

And maybe tragedy can be more easily borne, too, because on this level we understand the reasons – the inner reasons – for our own participation in it.

As Brandon reflects in Humanity's Way Forward, in the wake of his father's funeral:

What benefit could any Entity derive from people mourning over one of its discarded shells? But then, funerals aren't really for the dead but rather for the living. They're part of an attempt to structure a story that's largely incomprehensible to our intellects but perfectly understood by the deeper places in ourselves.

The Shamanic Power of Art and Music

The shamanic power of art and music works to push us past the bounds of our preconceptions so that we experience new worlds of consciousness. It urges us to experience life in its most primal and passionate state. Without it we might all find ourselves looking out upon a (seemingly) very sterile and gray world, devoid of magic and wonder.

Our minds can grow accustomed to only perceiving and responding to the surface of the living world. Even certain functions of our physical brains work to filter out perceptions and sensations that don’t have anything directly to do with our “biological imperatives”.

But because we are possessed of intuition and connections to the deeper aspects of self-hood (such as dreams), our race has always been aware of other “realms” or dimensions of existence.

We give these magical, dream-like faces of reality various names: the occult, the supernatural, the unconscious, the fairy realm, etc. "Shamanism" is a word that has been given to various traditions throughout the world that aim to access and explore these worlds.

Art as the Medium

One of humanity’s touchstones to these other dimensions has always been music and the other arts. Like dreams, our artistic creations can function as bridges that we can pass over in order to explore altered states of consciousness and non-ordinary perceptions. In ancient times, music played a crucial role in shamanism.

Shamans would journey beyond the confines of the known world in search of wisdom and insights that could benefit their tribes. Drums, rattles, flutes and even stringed instruments were utilized to send them on their way.

Obviously, many people can learn to play musical instruments. It requires a more unusual individual - someone with the particular disposition - to function as a shaman within the context of modern art.

In the third installment of The Edge of the Known seriesHumanity's Way Forward, the band's manager, Maureen Connelly, tries to describe the impact that singer/guitarist Brandon Chane has on his audience:

“This thing that you have,” she said, “this spark, fire – the unknown variable that a dozen different writers have given a dozen different names to – it’s really rare. I mean, so many aspects have to somehow magically come together in order for it to work.

Some people are really verbose and yet they don’t have access to those depths, or they’re afraid to go there. Others have the emotional or spiritual openness and yet they can’t articulate it. I think it’s so fitting that your band is Edge of the Known, because you really have found this edge where you stand and you’re in touch with all of it at once, transmitting it… God, I don’t really know how to explain any of this!

“But if something so rare actually has occurred, I would have to say that it’s because – pompous as it may sound, Brandon – it’s because this world needs it.”

Shamanism and the Alpha State

Modern science has drawn parallels between these kinds of rhythms and the human brain's alpha state, which is associated with dreams, non-linear thought, intuition and artistic expression.

The alpha state of mind draws connections between thoughts, impressions and concepts in a different way than the logical faculties do. It is more associative and feeling-oriented.

This kind of consciousness is responsible for the inexplicable quality within certain works of art and/or music that move us in ways that we find very hard to describe. The precepts of shamanism continue to assert themselves in the modern world through such forms of expression.

The Soul of Art

The human soul always seeks to express as much of what it is as it possibly can in physical terms. Our culture has, unfortunately, curtailed much of this expression with its heavy emphasis on logical thinking and an assembly-line approach to living and solving problems.

The kind of psychic one-sidedness that results from this unbalanced emphasis can generate counter-reactions on the "other end". This can be seen in the New Age modes of thought that stress other aspects of the mind (like intuition and extrasensory perception), less healthy ventures such as alcohol and drug addiction, and the modern revival of interest in shamanism.

Music and the arts, if created and responded to with reverence and respect, can serve as a kind of therapy for us in this lopsided cultural climate.

They can remind us of those other dimensions that we've always been aware of but have oftentimes not been able to perceive because of the narrow state of consciousness that we've hypnotized ourselves into.

The Quest for Immortality Through Art

The Edge of the Known series is on one level a prolonged meditation on the pursuit of immortality through art: In this case, music.

Any work of art exists in dimensions beyond the ones that our physical senses perceive, so it's maybe inevitable that many artists ache to "overreach" their own lifetimes through their work.

Like anything else, it's a quest that can be pursued in either pride or humility; put to the service of a person's ego gratification or to "the greater good".

It's not possible (at least not at this stage of our evolution as a race) to edit, re-record or airbrush events from our own physical pasts; but a work of art affords us the chance to do this, to "get it right"; to pursue perfection.

Or is this notion an illusion?

Longevity Versus Artistic Immortality

There is a conversation early on in What Casts the Shadow? that sets the tone for my own fictional depiction of this quest. This occurs between the two founding members of Edge of the Known: Bassist and singer Tommy Visconti and Brandon Chane, singer/guitarist and narrator of the story.

I paused with my hand on the door handle. “This was just the beginning of things, guys,” I said. “I’ve just been finding my feet. I’m gonna take it so much deeper. We all are.”

Gregarious Tim, he just nodded and smiled. But Tommy leveled his censuring eyes on me. “I know you’ve got it in you, Brandon. But you can’t accomplish anything unless you keep yourself alive first, right?”

I waved his lecture down. Everyone knows the simple solutions to problems that are not their own. “The music could last forever, Tommy. That’s what counts.”

This brief exchange cuts to the heart of the differing philosophies and sensibilities at work within the band at that time. Tommy dreams of a long and personally-fulfilled life. Brandon longs for immortality through his art, even if it comes at the cost of longevity and normal human happiness.

Wrapped up within this aspiration towards immortality through art lies a hidden despair, however, because Brandon doesn't really believe that he can have a fulfilled life. He's given up on the notion of finding satisfaction in "this world", so he seeks it "Beyond".

Beyond the boundaries of this world: That’s where the great artists, writers and musicians – the truly eternal ones – had reaped their inspiration. And the powers from beyond had also wrought their fame. I was convinced of that. I was willing to forsake reason and safety in order to follow in their footsteps. Physical reality was not enough. There had to be something more to Creation; and I knew of only one way to seek for it.  {"What Casts the Shadow?"}

This is his motivation, at least initially, for seeking to translate his ephemeral experience into songs that will "live forever".

Different artists will have different reasons for embarking upon such a quest. Some want to prove their detractors "wrong". Some want to justify their existence through their art. Some conceive of it as an act of compassion, a healing gift for the generations to come; and Brandon shares this ideal, too, as he conceives of the healing power that his music will (hopefully) wield over his audience as a kind of compensation for the harm that he's caused the people within his own personal orbit.

 

The Wounded Healer

A precept of many forms of medicine and therapy that predate our own maintains that prospective healers - shamans, medicine men - must suffer through and transcend their own wounds before they can exercise their new-found healing powers.

Their ability to diagnose and combat illness in others is derived from their intimate encounter with the reality of illness, and its true underlying sources, within themselves.

Because of this, spiritual and/or physical trauma would often serve as a precursor to someone adopting the shaman's vocation. Oftentimes there would be two such internal crises: one occurring in childhood and another in adolescence. The wound obliges would-be healers to connect with the unseen world in order to regain spiritual equilibrium.

Again there is the sense of something missing from the known paradigm within which the healer exists, the need to seek for a broader conception of reality and definition of Self.

Initiation

This period of suffering and searching constituted a form of initiation, a process through which shamans and medicine men broadened their perceptions to encompass a deeper and wider view of reality, of the full depths of both sorrow and joy in human life.

Any journey involves things unknown and unseen. None of us would  step outside the ‘safe arms’ of the status quo unless we felt that something was lacking there; that there was something more expansive and fulfilling still to be found.

This search invariably involves pain, privation and other forms of suffering. But these emotional straits are oftentimes what prompts the potential healer to grow and expand in his or her view of the nature of things.

Fear, for example, can be used as a springboard into new life. Feeling fear and moving forward in spite of it can change our very conception of ourselves.

Existential Unease that Spurs the Artist's Quest

Artistic pursuits, spiritual seeking, psychological explorations... these sorts of endeavors are usually born out of a state of existential unrest. It's instinctive: The presence of pain makes one immediately search for possible ways to soothe and/or end it.

It brings things back to the age-old question of suffering, of being wounded. Is it necessary for art, for self-awareness, for 'enlightenment'?

It's not so much a matter of suffering being inherently connected with growth and consciousness raising, per se, but rather that we human beings just need some kind of motivation in our lives.

The wound, then, can serve as the impetus for seeking answers to hitherto-unasked questions; for finding an artistic response to the problems of existence when none of the world's tried-and-tested roads will serve; for learning to listen to your own inner voice when the words of others fail to soothe or clarify one's underlying unease.

I'm generalizing a little for the sake of illustration, but basically, people who feel satisfied in their lives, happy, like the world provides for their needs and holds its own meaning, aren't typically going to feel called to pursue the deeper questions of life.

The First Physicians

Shamans and medicine men often served as the healers within a tribal context. They could be considered the first physicians. Their particular therapies often addressed the spiritual and emotional condition of their patients rather than the physical body, but this did not mean that physical healing did not occur.

Indeed, mind-spirit-body was usually perceived as one whole and complementary system. The condition of the body was thus seen as a reflection of inner reality. The arbitrary separation that is such a fixture of Western medicine didn't apply within these ancient therapeutic models.

In the third installment of The Edge of the Known trilogy, Humanity's Way Forward, narrator Brandon Chane and his bandmates receive a write-up in an alternative magazine that likens their music to the healing arts of shamans from antiquity.

The members of this band have been surprisingly candid about their own difficult pasts in their various interviews; and it’s not hard to see, amidst the accounts of drug addiction, isolation, physical and emotional abuse, etc., the arc of ‘trauma followed by artistic release and a return to wholeness’ that is so prominent in the archetypal story of the shaman. It’s particularly evident in the struggles of guitarist/singer Brandon Chane.

The echoes of those scars can clearly be heard in Edge of the Known’s music. But one can also discern, quite distinctly, that other inexplicable thing that is within all of us, the undying flame that transcends our wounds and sufferings, that connects us to one another despite all that we’ve struggled and suffered through. If this isn’t shamanic art then I don’t know what is.

Trusting the Unseen Source

The title of the second Edge of the Known novel, Trust in the Unseen , was inspired by a blog post that I wrote a couple of years ago, which in turn was inspired by a dream.

A lot of commotion had been stirred up in a small logging town (nobody said so, but I somehow knew it was Aberdeen, Washington). It seems that a package had arrived, containing some kind of priceless treasure, and no one knew where it’d come from. The media descended upon this small town trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.

One trucker was interviewed. “All we’ve got here is trees,” he insisted. “There’s no way something this valuable came out of our town!”

When I woke up, I immediately associated Aberdeen with Nirvana, and I noticed the parallel at once. Here was a band that had emerged seemingly from out of nowhere to turn the musical world on its head. And Kurt Cobain’s ability to connect with his audience through his words and music was a ‘treasure beyond price’.

So, the dream was reminding me that the fulfillment of any dream is really a magical event, something that can’t be reduced to a series of logical steps. Like ourselves, it has its unseen source.

That media crew will never be able to trace the origins of the precious delivery because it sprang from the magic of consciousness itself. The reporters in the dream can be seen as the way our minds tend to race about looking for ‘explanations’ in the face of the unfathomable.

We’re not taught to see ourselves as the creators of our reality. Everyone learns, pretty early on, that the way to make life work is to get out there and manipulate things in the world, one way or another. What else can you do, in a (supposedly) mechanical universe without soul or significance?

And yet, logic-brain will always be confronted by certain phenomena – like the sudden appearance of priceless treasure in a poor logging town, or the emergence of the world’s biggest band from out of nowhere – that it just can’t explain from that framework.

This includes events that seem impossible from the perspective of the reasoning mind.

All of this ties in closely with the philosophy of Saul Mason, Brandon’s mentor, who insists time and again that our joys and victories, as well as our disasters and sorrows, all originate from within us. This is the essence of the magic that the greater part of humanity has learned not to believe in.

Trusting the unseen source involves opening our minds to the possibility of that magic, letting it touch us – and realizing that, oftentimes, the way in which it works really can’t be explained.

But it can be relied upon, nonetheless.

The Loneliness of the Spiritual Seeker

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To be "a seeker" of any sort implies that something is missing from one's life, something that then has to be be sought. To be a spiritual seeker implies that one's surroundings do not, to some extent or another, nourish one's soul. And so whatever it is that might fill the holes has to be quested after. Loneliness, then, is an inevitable part of the journey.

Myths often address this moment, when a hero's family is slain, or he or she is shunned by the surrounding community and must seek for a new home in a far land. The inventors and explorers of the world tend to lead lives of great discontent; they are acquainted with the loneliness of "living outside".

The contented like the status quo, and so where would be their motivation to search for the new?

In Humanity's Way Forward, the third installment of The Edge of the Known trilogy, narrator Brandon Chane circles around this very conundrum as he describes his band's struggles to attain recognition. Brandon has always seen life through the eyes of an outcast and misfit. For him, loneliness and artistic vision are deeply intertwined.

Any other band might have taken the hint by this point and at least begun to re-think their overall ambitions. But we were utterly incapable of envisioning any other path in life. We threaded a narrow way through the straits of the world, with our fierce passion for art and honest self-expression on one side and our fear of convention and control on the other. What most people considered society’s tried-and-true roads were veritable death to us.

Failure was unthinkable. And yet success on our terms, under the circumstances, was scarcely any more conceivable. This was the precarious existential point that I had endured for many years– somehow, miraculously and beyond reason.

Those who do not find a resonating chord in society's song may end up being the great musical innovators of their age, but their vision may also, by its very nature, make them solitary. They are often misunderstood. Not everyone wants the boon that the spiritual seeker journeys in search of. Many feel comfortable right where they are.

What do you do when your sense of reality is not supported - or even recognized - by the status quo? Is loneliness one's only recourse while walking such a path?

Brandon becomes one of the very lucky few to break past this barrier and actually reach some receptive ears. Being long acquainted with society's misunderstanding and indifference, the experience of suddenly being "popular" in the eyes of the world is initially baffling.

And so how confusing do you imagine this was, to a young man who’d spent the better part of his adolescence shut up in a mildewed basement room with naught but a black guitar for companionship? It really had a sort of fairy-tale air about it, like one of those stories where a starveling street vagabond is suddenly invited to a banquet at the palace.

The Psychedelic Era and the Spirit of Free-Form Experimentation in Music

There are a few reasons why people still point to the psychedelic era of music, in the late 1960's, as the halcyon days of experimentation. Many of the most magical, transcendent moments in music, for both performers and audience, occur spontaneously, with maybe only a hint of forethought or sense of direction.

Some musicians understand this and seek to invite this "visitation of the unknown" through free-form experimentation. This bold and risky approach - handing over the reins to the Muse and embracing whatever terrors or wonders She might choose to reveal - reached its initial heyday during that late '60 psychedelic era.

Music Reflecting a New State of Mind

The psychedelic experience in many ways expressed itself most naturally through free-form musical experimentation. Trippers were journeying with fragmented egos, which meant that the facility for attachment to the things of the world, to goal-oriented thinking, was greatly weakened. What else to do, under such circumstances, but dive into the river and let its flow take you?

This turn of consciousness characterized much of the music that was born out of the free-form experimentation of the times. Extended jams banished all sense of time; poetical excursions broke away from the linear world of cause-and-effect; words suggested subjective states of mind rather than concrete movements and events.

Some Standard-Bearers of the Movement

The Grateful Dead forged their early reputation in this way. The Syd-Barrett era Pink Floyd filled such "Underground" London clubs as Middle-Earth and UFO with aural landscapes that often began with mere sketches of song structure - maybe a beginning and ending verse - then filled out with Syd's inspired eruptions of the moment, as the rest of the band struggled to follow his frenzied improvisation.

Jim Morrison probed the new emerging musical landscape with words, sung or recited, adding / removing / rearranging snatches of poetry throughout The Doors' largely free-form sets. This approach culminated in the creation of theatrical epics like The End and When the Music's Over.

The Risk of Failure

Free-form experimentation could lead to a lot of stale ideas and aimless repetition. But it could also potentially shatter the musicians' notions of what music should be, what they were capable of, and how far the audience was willing to let the music take them. In that space of surprise and wonder, a wider world of creative possibilities could be glimpsed and pursued.

My protagonist throughout The Edge of the Known, Brandon Chane, lived by this creative ethic and sought to implement it within his own band. As he says in What Casts the Shadow? :

Only familiar things can be stuffed into the mental category of the “known” and thereby lose their power to move us. When the mind is caught off guard, when it’s confronted by something that it can’t label, then there must be an opening onto direct apprehension. New ideas, sensations and mental landscapes all have a chance to slip through the cracks. Spurred on by this inspiration, I told Tim and Tommy one night during rehearsals that we should have certain songs - or at least, certain movements within our songs - which we never played the same way twice.

“We’ll just create the space for whatever wants to come through in the moment,” I said. “And then we’ve got to run with it - that’s the thing - even if it takes us to some scary places.”

Inviting - and Promoting - the Unknown

Oftentimes, the most powerful art is as much a surprise to the artist as to the beholder. But this can only happen when the space is ready. If too much is planned then the spontaneous fire can't get through.

In Brandon's case, the approach worked in some ways because he was desperate enough to forsake safety and pursue the Muse at all costs. One of his earliest supportive critics wrote:

The band’s manager is off to my right, by the bar, weeping her eyes out at the sight of it all. One cocktail waitress is standing spellbound in the aisle, the forgotten platter of drinks in danger of slipping off of her shoulder. Brandon is soloing majestically behind the wall of his hair one moment and then telling us all about a ladyfriend of his who’d beaten cancer the next. You never know which way this guy is turning. It HAD to be utterly spontaneous; and yet his telepathic bandmates - Tommy Visconti on bass and Carlos Rodriguez on drums - respond to his every mad swerve as if this was all something that they’d rehearsed a dozen times over the night before.

The Aftermath

After the revolutionary fires of the '60s died down, the spontaneous fire found voice in pockets of the punk movement, in the erratic passion of Patti Smith, in the mind-bending free-form musical tapestries of Sonic Youth...

The dream-scapes that lie beneath the thresholds of reason will always seek release. Sometimes they find it; and. if we're really lucky, there will be artists who are awake enough to capture that Presence within their music.

Those tend to be the songs that we remember longest, the songs whose fire is made to endure the world longer than us.

The Language of the Soul

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Those of us who venture out (and in) to the realms of the soul can find ourselves within vast reaches of unexplored territory that is hard to evoke with words. Soul speaks a language that's oftentimes felt rather than heard.

There isn’t the vocabulary in place for all of the subtle feelings and intuitive insights that one can experience in this realm. You’ve got anatomy to provide you with scientific names for all the portions of your physical body; you can learn the technical names for all of your bones and muscles if you have the interest; but where’s the terminology that you can apply to the inner regions of the soul?

Not only that, but what few terms exist aren’t in general usage. They rather belong to specific “schools”; like, if I say The Nagual one must think of Carlos Castaneda; “spacious mind” is a term put forth by Jane Robert's Seth; “Collective Unconscious” was coined by Carl Jung; and yet these can all be (depending upon the circumstances of their usage) descriptions of similar phenomena.

And the essence of such phenomena can’t really be captured with language.

To Evoke rather than Describe

This is where I think the great poets have the right idea, because they use language to evoke experiences that can’t be described. If you're receptive to the poet's words, you may arrive there for yourself and must find your own way of articulating it.

Or you can enjoy the vistas and not worry yourself about setting it down in some kind of form (in antiquity, this was the shaman’s vocation) or communicating it to others (the arena – ideally – of a spiritual teacher of the West).

It will be interesting to see how language might evolve if and when the experience becomes more common among human beings. There will be so many nuances to explore with these newly invented words. I think of the myriad words that Inuit peoples have for "snow"; or, the many ways that desert-dwelling peoples have of describing sand.

And communication will definitely be fostered if the people who explore those realms, serving as pioneers of sorts for the movement, can get over the fearful need to jealously guard their terminology and claim ownership of it.

None of us are really inventing these concepts anyway. What we are doing that is new and unique, though, is learning to live with them within the context of a modern cultural environment the likes of which has never been seen before.

Experiencing universal truths as they apply to one’s unique, individual life; that’s the essence of the soul journey. So the myths tell us, anyway.

Spiritual Braille

In the first Edge of the Known novel, What Casts the Shadow? , Brandon Chane (the conflicted and struggling musician who narrates the tale) describes (among many other things) his songwriting process...

Because he is a visionary creator, there are no road-maps that he can follow to either produce his work or to try and convey it to others. He often feels as if he's groping around in the dark, trying to give form to insights and sensations that there are, as yet, no names for.

They felt like they {the songs} were already “there”, full cloth; I’d sense the faint outlines, sketch them out with some phrases or maybe a chord progression to start with. Slowly, all the pieces were laid into a pre-existing groove. It’s like learning to read a form of spiritual Braille.

The Muse on the Move

An inspired state of mind reminds me of the dreaming state in one crucial respect: No matter how hard you try and revive the memory of it later, that recollection will never be quite as vivid as the original manifestation. I keep a notebook close by, as often as possible: in my backpack when I’m hiking; beside me at the table in a restaurant or café. The Muse tends to visit me when I’m on the move, when the sounds of life are stretching out all around me and new sights are constantly unveiled before my eyes. She tends to get as bored as me when I’m staring at a computer screen or a blank page.

For this reason, my ideal writing environment isn’t any particular place but rather a state of motion. The source of that motion can either be myself (hiking, walking from one errand to the next) or the life around me (the birds and squirrels, the people conversing at the next table over).  Few things lubricate the flow of creative ideas like movement. I think the essence of it is that motion reminds me of the greater human conversation that is happening all around me, all the time; and then I become conscious of the act of writing as my way of joining in that conversation.

It’s as if my thoughts mimic my body’s activities, becoming sedentary when I sit and then tumbling one after the other when I’m on the move. I’ve learned (from the pain of countless great narrative scenes slipped beyond recall) that I’ve got to be prepared to stop and record the moment when that visitation of energy occurs – whether the closest place to sit and jot the words down is a log, a bus stop bench or a picnic table.

There are a lot of activities that can loosen the free-flow of ideas and bring me into contact with that “greater human conversation”. It doesn’t have to be anything as grandiose as a trip to a mountaintop. I might be in the midst of washing dishes when a descriptive paragraph or exchange of dialogue crystallizes in my mind; and then I’ll be running to towel my hands off so I can capture it before it dissipates. It probably works so effortlessly at such times because I’m not standing such strict guard over my own thoughts. Then my consciousness is free to play, and to cook up something tasty for the page.

 

Silent Knowing Awoke in Me

One night I dreamed that I was in a room in my grandmother’s house, someplace that I’d actually spent many nights when I was young. It belonged to an uncle of mine who, being only eight years older than me, had still been living at home at that time.

It was here in this room, when I was about eleven years old, that the whole trajectory of my life changed forever.

That may sound overly dramatic. For me it’s just simple truth, though, because I so vividly remember. My uncle’s room had often been a powerful stimulus for my imagination. He had all the early Iron Maiden records, for one thing, with their enigmatic pictures of “Eddie” on both front and back – vinyl covers, so you got all the blown up detail.

Those pictures only told so much; they invited my young mind to weave its own stories. My first memories of discovering my own capacity for fantasy revolve around this space.

"Chance" Discovery

One night I was perusing the bookshelf and noticed something that I thought read “The Wonderland”. Like most kids, I was a fan of “Alice”, so this drew my interest. When I pulled it down, though, I saw that I’d misread it. It was, in fact, “The Wounded Land”. {Emphasis mine}

That little discrepancy set off a whirlwind of implications in my mind.

I suddenly realized that this book, for all of its fantastical trappings, was not escapism. It was reflecting a deeper layer of life; of the inside of the world, so to speak .

I discovered that the book was the fourth in Stephen R. Donaldson’s magnificent “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever” series. I started reading immediately. My uncle was missing the first novel, “Lord Foul’s Bane”, so I had to begin with the second, “The Illearth War”: Another title rife with implications.

I’ve tried many times over the course of my life to articulate the impact of this upon me, at that tender age. It completely turned all my previous conceptions of story – of what it could touch upon, how deep it could go – on their head.

The magic was real. The Land was real. Of course I knew that on one level it was a “secondary world” that one could read about and escape to for a while. But it was also Covenant’s inner landscape; our inner landscape.

The drama enacted within it personified the forces at work beneath the surface veneer of the world that we all learned to call “the real.”

Background Sketch

Since the novels are fairly well known, I'll provide just a brief description of the premise here. Thomas Covenant's life, as the first trilogy begins, has taken a drastic turn from bright promise to darkness and despair.

Once he had been happily married, a successful novelist; but now that leprosy has begun to ravage him he finds himself surrounded by people who fear and shun him. His wife abandons him and takes their infant son along with her.

In his loneliness and bereavement, Covenant experiences a series of "psychotic episodes" during which he's apparently translated to a vibrant and magical environment known simply (to its wondrous inhabitants) as The Land.

As Within, So Without

For all of its lucid detail, and the searing power and sweep of Donaldson's prose, the crowning achievement of this work, to me, is the underlying sense - which the author never loosens his grip on - that Covenant's entire odyssey within The Land can arguably be taking place inside himself. In a sense he is The Land.

A land is a reflection of the inner state of the beings that inhabit it. From the inside, we each weave the fabric of our physical environment. Exploring our world, we are really journeying through the landscape of ourselves - and discovering ourselves.

As I read this yarn, something – a kind of silent knowing – awoke in me. I was aware of Donaldson’s rare gift to touch upon ‘both worlds’; and I understood that I had this inborn ability too.

I knew in that moment that, to communicate this innate inner understanding through stories, stories that might touch others with the same sense of wonder and intuitive recognition, was unquestionably the one sacred, wondrous and exciting direction of my life.

The question was settled right there and then, in that room on that night. It’s been a journey of more than thirty years, bringing that sensed potential to fruition in the ‘real’ world.

The Love of the Unconscious, Inner Self

No doubt we often struggle to trust one another on this planet. But we seem to experience as much difficulty with trusting our own inner depths. The unconscious, inner self - assuming that we even believe in it at all - can seem like an enemy as often as it does an ally.

Seldom is it perceived as a source of love and support.

Modern Psychology and Humanity's Self-Image

We certainly haven't been taught to trust it. Ever since Sigmund Freud's psychological theories became popular, modern humanity has seen itself as walking around with a very unruly under-story of its own consciousness that contained little more than repressed emotion and 'animalistic' (i.e., 'savage') instincts.

Freud's conception has had as profound an impact upon our cultural thinking as Darwin's theories; and in many ways, it has been just as detrimental to the way that we see ourselves.

Beliefs that Create Blinders

If we believe that our consciousness is constantly besieged by hostile forces 'beneath' it, that we're engaged on some kind of tooth-and-claw competition with each other here on this Earth, that nature is both remote and indifferent... then how can we conceive of our own inner nature as something innately good?

Our conception of love itself can then be reduced to a mere idea that we invented to comfort ourselves in an essentially cold and meaningless universe.

Our beliefs blind us to the reality that the force of love underlies everything in Creation; moving it, growing it, spurring it on to express its unique nature with all the time in Eternity and every kind of support available to it.

Imagine the ways in which the picture of our world could be transformed if humanity, by and large, believed in the love of the 'unconscious' inner self as much as it now believes in a threatening Unconscious and an indifferent Nature.

In the meantime, our distrust can lure us into doubting the guidance of our dreams, the whispers of our intuitive voices - basically, all the support that we could receive from a deeper part of ourselves that is so much more aware and far-seeing than the 'selves' that we consciously identify with.

Seen Through the Eyes of Love...

The inner self is forever loving and infinitely creative. It never gives up on us, not even when we may give up on ourselves. The unconscious inner self is the source of our being, and the essence of our being is love.

We are born out of the exuberance of that inner light which, in its unbounded love of all creative possibilities, generates the endless forms that exist within all Creation so that each may explore their potentials and realize their deepest longings, fulfill the promise of their birth.

Ideas of an accidental universe, of a threatening unconscious, of an unfeeling natural world, camouflage our deep knowledge of this truth and force us to exist in a reality where this boundless love seems not to be.

It's not that the world teaches us to believe in this way; it's that our beliefs teach us to perceive such a world. We can believe differently, and thus enter into a different world, one that more faithfully reflects the loving consciousness that birthed us and, even now, upholds us in every moment.

Natural Magic (with Chopsticks)

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One afternoon I got lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in town that I’d never visited before. Soon after sitting down, I decided that this was going to be the first meal that I finished using nothing but chopsticks (which I’d performed pretty ineptly with in the past).

This wasn’t the easiest dish to try the experiment with, either, as it consisted of long rice noodles, crushed peanuts, shredded lettuce, carrots and cucumbers shaved thin, and small slices of grilled chicken. I began in my typical fumbling manner. I was determined, though, to meet this challenge that I’d playfully set for myself.

Mid-way through the meal I suddenly realized that I’d spent the last several minutes in a kind of right-brained reverie, just daydreaming as I ate. During this period of time I’d had no trouble with the unfamiliar utensils at all, but had just gone along as easily as if I’d been using a spoon and fork. I was amazed to notice that I’d finished off half of the bowl without thinking about it.

Then, once I did become self-conscious about the action once more, it immediately became more difficult. I had to laugh to myself when I thought about the contrast between this and my previous fluid performance, when I’d managed to forget for a while my belief in my own clumsiness and just let my hands act out of their own natural grace.

In Trust in the Unseen, my protagonist (and narrator) Brandon Chane learns to more deeply trust the natural movements of his being and, in so doing, ends up delivering the most inspired musical performance of his life.

I just drifted along, my mind in a free-floating space. My thoughts could not attach themselves to facts, certainties or expectations. I learned to just appreciate my questions without demanding that they produce answers. And I came to discover that the deeper region of knowing carries its own form of certainty. It just isn’t arrived at through deduction.

I suppose you could compare it to the phenomenon that sportsmen remark about sometimes: Just knowing that you’re going to sink a basket, or bowl a strike, before the ball even leaves your hand. It’s as if the essential thing, the miracle, has already manifested. It just needs to play itself out in the field of time.

That’s how it was when we played Broomstick Belladonna’s a couple days later. {…}

The Academy of Reality Creation

Several times now I’ve dreamed that I’m attending a kind of “reality creation” school or academy. The most recent one took place in a setting that mirrored, in waking life, my ninth grade biology class.

This is where I was first confronted with such ideas as ‘the accidental creation of the universe’; the ‘fact’ that emotions and thoughts were mere by-products of chemical and electromagnetic activity in the brain; where dissection was taught as a method of “seeing what made something live.” And so on.

It was significant, then, that in the dream the “chalkboard” (which resembled the outlay of an online forum, projected onto a wide canvas screen) was set against the back wall. All of the seats were turned to face in this direction. The new conceptions that we were learning, about ourselves and the nature of reality, were turned the opposite way from that of the class I’d once attended in waking life. I chuckled a little at the brilliant aptness of this motif even as I was writing the dream down…