This book is a Get Out of Jail Free card and a passport back into the playground.

The aim of this book is to set you free. But free from what? Free from neurosis. Free from the feeling that you have to obey authority. Free from emotional intimidation. Free from addiction. Free from inhibition.

The key to happiness, mental health and being the most that we can be is absolute and unconditional self-acceptance. The paradox is that many of our problems are caused by trying to improve ourselves, censor our thinking, make up for past misdeeds and struggling with our negative feelings whether of depression or aggression.

But if we consider ourselves in our entirety in this very moment, we know these things :

1. Anything we have done is in the past and cannot be changed, thus it is pointless to do anything else but accept it. No regrets or guilt.

2. While our actions can harm others, our thoughts and emotions, in and of themselves, never can. So we should accept them and allow them to be and go where they will. While emotions sometimes drive actions, those who completely accept their emotions and allow themselves to feel them fully, have more choice over how they act in the light of them.

Self-criticism never made anyone a better person. Anyone who does a “good deed” under pressure from their conscience or to gain the approval of others takes out the frustration involved in some other way. The basis for loving behaviour towards others is the ability to love ourselves. And loving ourselves unconditionally, means loving ourselves exactly as we are at this moment.

This might seem to be complacency, but in fact the natural activity of the individual is healthy growth, and what holds us back from it is fighting with those things we can’t change and the free thought and emotional experience which is the very substance of that growth.

How to Be Free is available as a free ebook from Smashwords, iBooks in some countries, Kobo and Barnes & Noble

It is also available in paperback from Lulu or Amazon for $10 US, plus postage.

The ebook version currently has received 611 ***** out of ***** ratings on U.S. iBooks.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Sucked into Paradise

Grotesque and frightening things are released as soon as people begin to work with spontaneity. Even if a class works on improvisation every day for only a week or so, then they start producing very ‘sick' scenes : they become cannibals pretending to eat each other, and so on. But when you give the student permission to explore this material he very soon uncovers layers of unsuspected gentleness and tenderness. It is no longer sexual feelings and violence that are deeply repressed in this culture now, whatever it may have been like in fin-de-siecle Vienna. We repress our benevolence and tenderness.

Johnstone, Keith. Impro, Improvisation and the Theatre (Eyre Methuen, 1981)

Why would surrendering to the free operation of the imagination lead us through “sick" or disturbing ideas to a rediscovery of our capacity for love?

There is within us a natural pull towards wholeness and healing. What impedes this tendency is fear. We began as unconditionally loving beings. This was a state of faith in love. But at some stage we lost our faith. We gave in to fear and a divide opened up between ourself and others and our own psyche became split. This was the infliction of our defining wound. This is sometimes referred to as The Fisher King Wound after one of the characters from Arthurian legend.

When I was a young child I had an irrational fear which was the cause of much amusement among my family. I was afraid that, if the bath plug was pulled out while I was in the bath, the force of the circling water might suck me down the plughole.

If we cling to dogmatic ways of thinking or in any other way resist the uncensored and unimpeded operation of our own imagination or that of others it is because we can sense that we are being sucked towards the black hole of our defining wound. We fear immolation.

And yet the improvisers in Johnstone's example found unexpected tenderness beyond the cannibalistic fantasies. What lies on the other side of the black hole is our original unconditionally loving self, our inner child.

Why might cannibalism be a key concept surrounding the defining wound? To understand this we have to imagine ourselves in the position of a child who is unconditionally loving and has not yet become wounded and thus selfish. Selfishness is the natural self-directedness of the wounded. If we hit our thumb with a hammer, all we can think about is our sore thumb. And if we are wounded, much of our attention will be focused on our wounded self. But how does this look to the unselfish child. The world of adults, as we come to know it more intimately as we get older, must seem to us like a world of cannibals, in which the selfishness of each individual eats away at the life and needs of the others. The free operation of the imagination leads us back through the acknowledgement that we are spiritual cannibals to the point before we acquired the wound which made us such. The door to Paradise looks like the door to Hell, that is why we have been so reluctant to go there. But Johnstone shows how easy it is to negotiate this trip back down the black hole as long as we are in an environment in which we feel safe.

In Homer's Odyssey there is a very famous passage in which the sailors have to steer a course through a narrow body of water which lies between two terrible dangers – the Scylla and the Charybdis. The Scylla is a monster with four eyes and six long necks with frightful heads each equipped with three rows of sharp teeth. Charybdis was once the beautiful daughter of Poseidon and Gaia, but she has become a monster – a giant bladder with a huge mouth which swallows huge quantities of water three times a day and then belches them out again. Later Charybdis came to be viewed simply as as a whirlpool.

This myth is a very succinct description of how we live our lives, caught between fear of the black hole or Charybdis within and the battle against external threats (the Scylla). Often the two threats mirror each other. The need to deny some aspect of ourselves, the acknowledgement of which might lead us down the black hole, can drive us to obsessively fight against the expression of that very quality in others. An example might be a very conservative individual who is obsessed with the defence of freedom by military means but who also is in favour of censorship. Unable to acknowledge to ourselves that we fear the freedom which might lead us down the black hole, we project our internal struggle onto those who express opposition to freedoms we do believe in and fight against them. Our fear of the Charybdis drives us onto the fangs of the Scylla. And yet the way to end the injustices of the world is to lead the way down that black hole and show that it leads not to Hell but to Paradise.

This is not just a personal phenomena. Culturally we are in the midst of an improvisation similar to that described by Johnstone. Censorship of artistic expression was one form of cultural armouring we used to keep ourselves from being sucked down that black hole. Fifty years after the banning of Lady Chatterley's Lover was overturned in Great Britain and the United States, 50 Shades of Grey has taken the world by storm. And in the cinema we have moved from a time when all films in countries like the United States, Great Britain and Australia had to meet a restrictive code in which the length of a kiss had to not exceed a certain length to a time in which films depicting extended scenes of graphic torture and dismemberment are considered acceptable entertainment at the local multiplex. Allow artistic freedom and at least some of the expressions will tend to circle down to the most primal of material, that which leads through the black hole to Paradise. And what are the obsessions of our time? Flesh-eathing zombies. Vampires. Incest. Acknowledgement that our wound turns us into a living dead creature which sucks the life out of others. Zombies and vampires don't begin as zombies and vampires. They have to be bitten by someone who has already turned. They have to receive their wound. And, as Freud pointed out, the unavoidable rejection of our initial incestuous desires is one of the most common forms of psychic wound. Hence, in the world of erotica, pseudo-incest, and in some cases genuine incest, are all the rage. Allow freedom and we go back to our origins.

Fear is an important factor in how we view this collective improvisation. There are some who become very fearful and view it all as some dark Satanic conspiracy. Such individuals may claim that the Illuminati have conspired to create popular television characters who are homosexuals to brainwash us into accepting homosexuality, etc. It is easy enough to understand how a frightened individual can fall into this manner of thinking, because an improvisation is much like a conspiracy, but it is an unconscious one. It is an expression of what Carl Jung called “the collective unconscious" – a kind of group mind which exists beneath the level of consciousness, joining us all together. In an improvisation this group mind manifests itself externally. Feel a part of it and it seems magical, but feel isolated and frightened and it is the very stuff of paranoia.

It is important to remember that Johnstone's students didn't actually become cannibals and eat each other. They acted out scenes in which they were cannibals pretending to eat each other. Some are afraid that if we allow depictions of depravity and sadism in our books and movies then we are encouraging people to become depraved and sadistic. But going down the black hole requires only that we remove the impasse in our thinking and feeling which originates in fear of re-experiencing our defining wound. Our culture is a place to collectively renegotiate this passage and realising that we have nothing to fear will make this easier.

I know a good deal about this process because I've experienced what is now called bipolar disorder. It used to be described as manic depression. Bipolar disorder, in its more extreme manifestations, is a tendency to be repeatedly sucked down the black hole of one's defining wound and then spat out again. And, as with most forms of psychological disorder, fear is the key problem. In the manic phase one touches Heaven, one reunites with the inner child and the inhibitions of adult neurosis are abandoned. But there are two problems. One is that losing one's inhibitions and behaving like a child leads to trouble. Just because the neurotic adult state may be unhealthy in a way we may identify with cannibalistic zombies, doesn't mean that a grown man running around naked in a hospital emergency room were people have serious problems that need attending to is not just as, if not more, of an unhealthy manifestation within the social system. The other problem is fear. The descent into the child state is generally precipitated by a serious crisis – often some kind of double bind situation in which we are damned if we do something and equally damned if we do not (see Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1972). What we are looking for is reassurance. Simply being dumped back into our childlike state does not provide that reassurance. It happens too quickly. And we have to remember that when we were a child we were particularly prone to fears. We might feel the need to check under our bed for monsters. And because the process of being sucked down the black hole is one of cycling through opposites – yin, yang, yin, yang, yin, yang – a prediction of that which is desired is likely to quickly be followed by a prediction of that which is to be feared. A classic example from my own major episode was when I was in the emergency room. I thought a bunch of sexy female nurses were going to drag me off into some shower room for an orgy. But that was immediately followed by a sense of terror that, when they were finished having sex with me, they would eat me alive, beginning by biting my fingers off one by one.

Gregory Bateson

So highs can be scary and the disruption they cause to our lives can be extreme. For this reason there is a tendency to pull back from them to an extremely repressed state – that of depression. At some stage though, for our own healing, we have to return to the creative maelstrom of mania. What I've come to realise over time is that the key to managing this process is to replace fear with understanding and acceptance of the process. There are four things which can lead to problems for a person in a manic state – fear, reckless behaviour, taking thoughts too literally and talking too freely. Fear drives the excitement level and makes it hard to get enough sleep or to restrain one's reckless behaviour. The thoughts of the manic state are prophetic, but not to be taken literally. They have to be interpreted. The thought that we should be naked should not be seen as a rationale for shedding our clothes in public but rather as an inducement to shed our neurotic armouring. And it is not necessary to talk about our experiences if we think that those around us will interpret what we say as a reason to impose unwanted psychiatric care upon us.

I once read about a man who believed himself to have a fish in his jaw. (The case was reported in New Society.) This fish moved around, and caused him a lot of discomfort. When he tried to tell people about the fish, they thought him crazy', which led to violent arguments. After he'd been hospitalised several times – with no effect on the fish – it was suggested that perhaps he shouldn't tell anyone. After all it was the quarrels that were getting him put away, rather than the delusion. Once he'd agreed to keep his problem secret, he was able to lead a normal life. His sanity is like our sanity. We may not have a fish in our jaw, but we all have its equivalent.

Johnstone, Keith. Impro, Improvisation and the Theatre (Eyre Methuen, 1981)

By understanding the process of going back to that childlike state, I now find that I don't suffer from depression any more and that I go to that state more often and find it a less volatile place to be. The process of improvisation is the best way to understand that place – one of openness in which we see that those who are closed off are closed off because they are fearful and long only for us to give them permission to be free. What keeps us from Paradise is the feeling that we don't really deserve to go there, and there is no more powerful way to have this false belief challenged than to have the door opened for us by someone who is already on the inside.

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