The Creative Potential Within A Time of Trauma

the Promise of Post Traumatic Growth

A rainbow appears in a Scottish storm.

Let me preface what I am about to say by making it clear I am not taking trauma lightly and certainly not recommending it as a basis for creativity. I believe this period of challenge from the unseen enemy of Covid 19 is quite a trauma for a large number of people throughout the world, and trauma leaves us vulnerable which means other unwelcome stuff can surface. In what follows I’m going to using the word ‘soul’ to mean that unique individuality, or individual essence of us as a human being not only as a thinker but as an organism of emotion and creative potential. 

There are positive possibilities and the work of people like Tedeschi and Calhoun suggests that ‘post traumatic growth’ can come as the brain begins to explore creative possibilities to reshape it’self for the future. The mind can reframe, open new up new patterns of thinking.

Deep trauma can throw the mind and body into shock but instead of the mind recovering, the mind remains ‘stuck’ and can repetitively replay the anxiety which is extremely exhausting the mind feeling in state of the chemical flooding that comes with flight, fight, freeze challenges. This in turn can produce a sense of disconnection and immobility – perhaps the mind seeking rest? Anxiety and depression are so closely interlinked and there can be episodes of darkness and inner turmoil.

The idea that human beings can be changed by their encounters with life challenges, sometimes in radically positive ways, is not new, the theme is present in ancient spiritual and religious traditions, literature, and philosophy. What is reasonably new is the systematic study of this post traumatic growth phenomenon through scientific investigation. But lets start at the begining.

The ‘dark night of the soul’ is a term that goes back a long time. Yes, I have also experienced it. It is a term used to describe what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life… an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness. The inner state in some cases is very close to what is conventionally called depression. Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything. Sometimes it’s triggered by some external event—some disaster perhaps. The death of someone close to you could trigger it, especially premature death—for example, if your child dies. Or the meaning that you had given your life, your activities, your achievements, where you are going, what is considered important, and the meaning that you had given your life for some reason collapses.

It can happen if something happens that you can’t explain away anymore, some disaster, which seems to invalidate the meaning that your life had before. Really what has collapsed is the whole conceptual framework for your life. That results in a dark place.
There is the possibility that you emerge out of it into a transformed state of consciousness. Life has meaning again, but it’s no longer a conceptual meaning that you can necessarily explain. Quite often it’s from there that people awaken out of their conceptual sense of reality, which has collapsed.

They awaken into something deeper. A deeper sense of purpose or connectedness with a greater life that is not dependent on explanations or anything conceptual. It’s a kind of re-birth. The dark night of the soul is a kind of death. What dies is the egoic sense of self. Of course, death is always painful, but nothing real has actually died—only an illusory identity. Now, it is probably the case that some people who’ve gone through this transformation realize that they had to go through that in order to bring about a spiritual awakening. Often it is part of the awakening process, the death of the old self and the birth of the true self.

You arrive at a place of conceptual meaninglessness. Or one could say a state of ignorance—where things lose the meaning that you had given them, which was all conditioned and cultural and so on.

Then you can look upon the world without imposing a mind-made framework of meaning. It looks, of course, as if you no longer understand anything. That’s why it’s so scary when it happens to you, instead of you actually consciously embracing it. It can bring about the dark night of the soul. You now go around the Universe without any longer interpreting it compulsively, as an innocent presence. You look upon events, people, and so on with a deep sense of aliveness. You sense the aliveness through your own sense of aliveness, but you are not trying to fit your experience into a conceptual framework anymore.

Note: from Eckhart Tolle Newsletter, October 2011. Edited by Kosmos.
www.eckharttolle.com

The dark night of the soul
comes just before revelation. When everything is lost,
and all seems darkness,
then comes the new life
and all that is needed.

Joseph Campbell, A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living

When old patterns are being detroyed, or at the very least feel corrupted, then the mind begins to look for the new. Great therapy gives words to the mind and the sensations of the body. The arts gives expression to that which may have no language, or they communicate in a language not always fully understood and yet offer meaning.

 “We live in a time when human ambition is focused on decreasing our dependency on and attachment to the human body. Be it overcoming the physical decay brought on by the realities of aging, enhancing our physical performance via wearable or implanted tools of augmentation, or dematerialising corporal experiences via virtual reality, entire industries and the world’s best technological innovators are working in this field, habitually dreaming up and realising new and varied ways to fundamentally renegotiate the relationship between our physical bodies and our inner selves.

MAX HOLLEIN – SCULPTOR OF THE MIND, 2018. From EARTH BODY, Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg, Austria, 2018

A virus that exists only to replicate has challenged our disconnected world and shown it to sadly wanting. Back in 1969 smart enough to have put men on the moon using technology that today seems laughably simplistic. In 2020 we have technology beyond all imagining in 1969, we have taken ourselves to the brink of mass destruction with climate change and viral infection, now is the time to begin post traumatic growth, using our creativity to positively imagineer a future that feeds your body and soul.

Starting Something New – Fear

“For anyone who is making something that previously did not exist in this form, is at this point, of necessity an amateur. How can he knowhow this thing is done that has never existed before? Every designer, every artists, every inventor or discoverer of something new is in that sense an amateur. And to explore the untried, he must be an adventurer. For he finds himself alone on new ground. He is left to his own devices and must have imagination and daring. All decisions are his own, and only he is responsible. But though it is he who is in charge, he feels himself only to be an intermediary who is trying to help the not-yet-existent turn into reality.”

Anni Albers, Designing As A Visual Organization. Anni Albers 1965

https://albersfoundation.org

I love those words of Anni Albers because for me they sum up the scariness of starting to create something, anything new. The feelings of uncertainty, and fear that it will go wrong, the inner voices that bring self-doubt. We are in what W. Timothy Gallway calls the ‘inner game.’ Gallway has an equation: P=p-i

The capital P is about our performance, what we can achieve, and this is our (p)innate potential – what we are naturally capable of, and the I is our own interference – our capacity to trip ourselves up. Our self-talk brings us down far too often. Gallway was a tennis coach who began to realise that whilst coaching technique and physical fitness was important and devising strategies to defeat specific opponents was very sensible, players faced not only an opponent across the net but an inner opponent as well.

“In every human endeavour there are two arenas of engagement: the outer and the inner. The outer game is played on an external arena to overcome external obstacles to reach an external goal. The inner game takes place within the mind of the player and is played against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts or assumptions.”

I mention all of this , not to scare you off but rather for you to know and for me to remind myself everyday, that feeling like an amateur every time I start something new, or build upon an idea, is a very normal place to be. In a creative place our brains are firing excitedly just like they do when about to do anything physically risky, so its no wonder we can feel a mixture of excitement and fear. Feeling excited and disempowered at the same time? It’s a humble place from which to start, but it means that we are on our mettle. The key is draw one’s focus onto the physical and mental processes taking place and to notice it all without self-criticism and see them as the narrowing down onto the task in hand. I will explore this more in later blogs.

The Need For Inspirations

The world is full of books that set out to inspire us to greater things, and if you are lucky you just might find one that chimes with you suffficently strongly that you take on board their suggestions for longer than a new years resolutuion. Steve Jobs, the founder and subsequent rescuer of Apple is often cited as an inspirational person. Jobs had some remarkable qualities but he also had many flaws, an extremely short temper being one of them. Is it his short temper that’s admired? No, Jobs was remarkable for his ability to see an idea and develop it. Jobs saw the mouse being developed elsewhere, he immediately saw it’s potential for consumers and Apple made one. Jobs was far from the first to think about digital music but he made Apple develop somebody else’s ideas and similarly with mobile phones. What might be admired was his ability to take an idea and develop it, or a variety of ideas often molding them together and making something the consumer would find intuitively easy to use. If Steve Jobs was so inspirational and his abilities so well known why aren’t there millions of Steve Jobs clones out there? Short answer? Every brain is wired differently.

Inspirations are there for us to use because they make our brains think afresh. Psychologist D. Campbell proposed a theory around creativity he called blind variation and selective retention, (BSVR). D.K. Simonton has developed the theory and describes it simply as,” ideas are produced without foresight into their eventual utility.” So, in other words, allowing ideas to form and swish about and to see what comes and allow for trial and error. Steve Jobs was good at that, and this just might be the thing that inspires you, not the need to only ever wear jeans and a black polo neck! To rehash an old Apple marketing phrase,”Think Different.” Seek out all the the stimulus you can cope with, get inspired finding what really chimes and resonates with you, and get motivated. Remember every artist ever born and people like Steve Jobs have all ‘stolen’ ideas and made them their own. Inspirations are the palette you mix your unique colours (life) with.Remember, Einstein once said,”If we all knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research.”

Insprations

  • People you know
  • People in the public eye
  • People in history
  • People in stories/plays/films
  • Music
  • Nature
  • Art
  • Science
  • Gardens
  • Sport
  • Poetry
  • Books
  • A culture
  • A country
  • An object
  • Meditation
  • Other sources of inspiration?

Your Outside Resources

The Smithosonian reports that scientists recently re-examining a Moroccan cave, used the latest dating techniques showed that the Homo Sapien remains were from around 300,000 years ago. This means we originated 100,000 years earlier than we thought. That fact makes a good deal of my talks look immediately dated! But not only that, they showed that 300,000 years ago people were trading their resources up to 55 miles away their resources for obsidian, a naturally occuring volcanic glass which was valuable at that time for its sharp edges.

We homo sapiens ( thinking man) have been around for 300,000 years and sharing our resources. Outside of yourself, what are the many resources available to you as you seek to develop?

Resources

  • Family
  • Friendships
  • Acquaintances
  • Network
  • Professional support
  • Coach
  • Therapist
  • Finance
  • Education
  • Qualifications
  • Natural resources
  • Museums
  • IT e.g. internet
  • Libraries
  • T.V. and radio
  • Films
  • Talks
  • Courses
  • Any others?

Finding Your Skills

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Finding The Light

When we think about our strengths we may recognise some, but others recognise in us but we don’t. Some strengths we think we have but others are not so sure, and so it is with skills.

Here I am providing a list of skills for you to contemplate, again other may recognise more skills than we recognise in ourselves. When you feel you have scored yourself and others have scored you and given you feedback you can set the two lists (Strengths and Skills) alongside each other and be informed without any sense of self-criticism. Straighten your back, relax and allow your breathing to deepen slightly, with each intake of breath bringing those skills and strengths into your body and really becoming a part of you. These are well you build from. These are your solid base. We move towards what we need to draw upon as imagineers, remembering it’s easier to build from strengths than to start on perceived weaknesses.

The 4 D’s in Appreciative Inquiry look at Discovery (what is), Dream (about what might be), Design (what could be) Destiny (the completion of what has to be). When you have adsorbed your stengths and skills you can allow the questions around what the 4 Ds might mean for you. Allow plenty of time and space for this exercise because the conscious mind will try and limit your thinking, instead let it drop into your subconscious because even when the conscious mind thinks nothing is happening the subconscious never stops working, as Einstein knew so well.

Skills

  • Task organiser
  • People organiser
  • Social
  • People
  • Scientific
  • Technical
  • Mathematical
  • Writing
  • Painting/drawing/3 dimensional
  • Music
  • Imagination
  • Financial
  • Decision making
  • Cooking
  • Photography/video
  • Dance
  • Hobby specific
  • Job specific
  • Practical
  • Negotiating
  • Problem Solving
  • Listening
  • Assertiveness
  • and any more that you can think of

Once again, get feedback from others and ask for actual examples from people so that you know that thier feedback is real.

Reflect on what you are beginning to discover about yourself.

Think about yourself around the age of 14, what was it that fired that younger you?

What still feels repressed?

What are the things about you that have been shut in a dark room for years and now need to blossom.

Beating Your Inner Critic – 1

I want to provide you with four resources to draw upon and help your creativity move forward. This is the first resource, you may simply use it for reflection but much better if you use it to get feedback and then use it for your meditations or support from a coach etc.

One of the biggest issues in our lives is that of crticism. We fear the critcism of others because it feeds our own inner critic. Our own inner critic has a visceral response is triggered by that nano second responder, the amygdela. This primal responder is buried deep in our minds and forms part of our primitive brain, it has no language and is designed to work in an instant, flooding the rest of our brains and our bodies with all the chemicals needed to deal with perceived danger, inducing freeze, flight or fight. To investigate this response and its impact on the vegas nerves I’d refer you to Stephen Porges.

More and more research points towards the extraordinary slowness of our ‘thinking’ brain we think that processes and reflects the signals it receives and can give voice to that information instantly but it really is not the case. That primitive part of our brain has already begun to respond up to 20 seconds before the thinking brain is conscious enough to start checking out, why they feel their body responding in a certain , perhaps familiar way. Or why they just blurted out something they now regret. A good source would be to look at Simon Sinek’s, why, how, what model of the brain.

Creativity is dangerous, it must by definition be about something new, and newness challenges existing patterns of what is acceptable. Things that were not acceptable to early humans could put you outside of the group, being outside of the group is dangerous because early humans were threatened by all manner of predators. There is a lot of evidence in the form of human skulls that have teeth marks from such loveable creatures as sabre toothed tigers to underline that one human on their own was pretty vulnerable.

There is a long history of the threat perceived by groups to people not responding to following the rules, spoken or otherwise. just following the wrong religion could mean a quick or indeed tortuous death, and still societies lock people up who pose no material threat but who dare to be at a tangent. My contention is that there is a deeply conditioned set of responses that can make creativity feel threatening. Which creative person hasn’t prevaricated rather rather than starting work? So, how do we change some patterns of behaviour within us?

Take a small plant in a pot and put it on a window ledge, as the plant grows does it grows it begins to lean towards the window and the available daylight. What I am providing below is about finding what to shine the light upon and to build upon.

Appreciative Inquiry holds that it’s better to work from what works rather than to try working with what doesn’t. Shine the light on what works, strengthen that and then what doesn’t work becomes easier to fix. Problem; if I don’t know what works I can’t overcome what doesn’t!

For most of us we don’t realise what a treasure house of potential we hold and what others would gladly have. To create and become an imagineer requires us to know what we can use to battle against the crisis of confidence, blocks and barriers that come our way.

For many years I have used 4 quadrants to help my coaching clients to start build a new future using the resources available to them. Starting with one of the quadrants we can can eventually bring all four together and build a holistic picture. The four quadrants will show you where you can safely build and by default those areas that may be unsafe foundations from which to try and build.

This is the first top left quadrant, MY STRENGTHS. You may chose to score them yourself, perhaps out of 10. Then without disclosing your marks, ask others to score you (you may want to do this as an exercise with at least two quadrants together when you ask others). I always urge the person being coached to ask an honest partner to feedback to them what they experience of the person being coached, and to score the list. Even better is when the person giving feedback can give examples. Try not to self-justify. Subsequent questions arise as to why all too often the feedback is surprisingly positive in so may areas. We begin to become aware of how others see us, what we can build upon and what can more easily be strengthened.

MY STRENGTHS

  • Sense of values
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Open-mindedness
  • Love of learning
  • Perspective (wisdom)
  • Bravery
  • Persistence
  • Integrity
  • Vitality
  • Love
  • Kindness
  • Social Intelligence
  • Responsibility
  • Fairness
  • Leadership
  • Forgiveness and mercy
  • Humility/Modesty
  • Prudence
  • Self-regulation/control
  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence
  • Gratitude
  • Hope
  • Patience
  • Transpersonal

Transpersonal by the way is about the spiritual, the soul, the soulful; this may be religious, but equally it can be experiencing the transformative effect of a beautiful view, a piece of music, a work of art etc.etc.

Over the next three posts I will give you the other quadrants so you can gather together Strengths, Skills, Resources and inspirations and grow towards the light.

Some Resources For Today + a fun bonus

Resilience

I met Chris Johnstone whilst he was still lecturing at Bristol University. A softly spoken doctor with a huge experience that you can rely on. Easily understood, and simple graphics, followed by questions.

Coronavirus

https://www.covidviruspandemic.com

A great American resource whose focus is obvious from the name!

Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a bit dry but he gently shows the outcome of his investigations into happiness, career choices and what it means to be in a flow state or as sports people would say, in the zone.