Week 11: Recovering A Sense of Autonomy

Are your kids back in school yet? R doesn’t start until this Monday, but I’m already sorting through emails and filling out forms—even as I’m writing this I’m getting interrupted! And so it begins… (cue ominous Lord of the Rings music). 

I’ve had a few people comment on my quantity of writing. How do you produce so much with a job and a kid? This is always interesting to me because I mostly see how much I don’t write. For every word that gets published, there are hundreds or thousands lurking like mimes, either on the page or in my brain. 

It’s like once I opened myself up for working with the ideas, (You know, the ones that float through our atmosphere like free radicals?) they come to me constantly. I tend to write non-fiction because, while I love fiction, I find the poetry of real life, the patterns and webs that extend out from me into other beings, organisms and entities, into infinity really, to be endlessly fascinating. Writing is a way I interact with those connections. Creativity keeps me attached to a sense of wonder that comes from noticing those connections. Creativity, for that reason, has become its own end for me. 

When I started blogging I was going through what’s generally called the dark night of the soul. With my marriage ended, I opened my spiritual suitcase and found it to be empty. I don’t mean that I was abandoned by god, but she wasn’t in the suitcase I thought I had been carrying her around in. It was lonely and excoriating. I felt like one big raw nerve walking through the world, jolted by every point of contact. 

I’ve come a long ways since then and, as hard as those years were, I’m thankful for them. The foundation I have now is much more solid than my old foundation. It’s the humility of having your face in the dirt that gives you a beautiful sense of freedom. I think that’s what Julia Cameron is writing about in this chapter. 

“To a large degree my life is my art, and when it goes dull, so does my work,” she writes. (Cameron, p. 180). Amen.

By this point in the exercise, I hope you have some ideas of how to care for your artist child and the other parts of yourself, but also how to trust yourself slightly more than you did before. I think this is why she invokes the word, autonomy, which means to be self-governing. What a beautiful word—self-governing!

Some advice I frequently give to my patients is to make a list. The list can be for things to do when I feel depressed, things to do when I feel suicidal, things to do when I want a cigarette (if they’re trying to quit smoking). The reason for the list is that when we are in the moment of depression, suicidality or cigarette craving, our brains are not good at coming up with new ideas. Even a well-functioning human brain will struggle in these moments. Our brains naturally try to preserve energy so they tend to throw out easy-button sorts of suggestions, like watch TV or have a drink, or eat something unhealthy. There’s nothing wrong with your brain if it has these kinds of suggestions. 

But the brain’s propensity for easy-button ideas is what makes the list so important. So rather than leaving it up to your brain in those precarious moments, make a list so the only thing you have to remember is: Step 1) Look at the list and, Step 2) Do something on the list. I suggest you do this for your artist self because there will be moments when your brain will want to sabotage your artist self. Your brain will tell you it’s too hard to go on creating. In those moments, go to the list. 

What goes on the list? Things you’ve discovered through the exercises in these chapters. Things that spark your artist child. Things that bring you joy. Things that feel luxurious. So right now, go back through this past few months and think about what you’ve done that should go on the list. Then write the list. Then post it somewhere you can see it. Next time you’re feeling funky, voila! You have an instant list of ideas of things that have worked in the past to light you up inside. This will improve your sense of autonomy. 

Cameron writes, “If I sabotage my artist, I can well expect an eating binge, a sex binge, a temper binge. Check the relationship between these behaviors for yourself. When we are not creating, artists are not always very normal or very nice—to ourselves or to others.” (p.181) Your morning pages will help you to keep these behaviors more conscious, simply because you are engaging in a regular conversation with yourself. When I notice these binges in myself, I ask myself, What are you numbing, masking or hiding from? I’m not a wizard! Sometimes it takes me a while to notice, but always—there is something I am avoiding and it is related to creativity either via art or my life. 

“Creativity is oxygen for our souls. Cutting off our creativity makes us savage.  We react like we are being choked. There is a real rage that surfaces when we are interfered with on a level that involves picking lint off of us and fixing us up. When well-meaning parents and friends push marriage or nine-to-five or anything on us that doesn’t evolve in a way that allows for our art to continue, we will react as if we are fighting for our lives—we are.” (Cameron, p.181) We will fight or we will numb. 

I am convinced that a number of the conditions that modern medicine has limited answers for, things like migraines, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and a number of the ambiguously described autoimmune disorders, are really disorders of the spirit, disorders of creativity. More clearly stated, disorders of unused creativity. These disorders don’t differentiate between the bourgeoise and the proletariat because both of those extremes limit creativity. If you are rich you may have no need to create. If you are poor, you may have no time or space to create. If you are surrounded by assholes, you may feel unsafe to create. I’m not saying that if you have one of these disorders, you are responsible for it, or even that my theory will always explain the cause of the condition, but I see a correlation after more than ten years working with these patients.

Cameron writes, “We are asked to expand in order that we not contract. Evading this commitment—an evasion that tempts us all—leads straight to stagnation, discontent, spiritual discomfort. ‘Can I rest?’ we wonder. In a word, the answer is no. As artists, we are spiritual sharks. The ruthless truth is that if we don’t keep moving, we sink to the bottom and die.” (Cameron, p.182)

The answer when we get off track, as we invariably will, is to begin again and again and again. When we lose connection to universal creativity, we must trust that we will find it again. We find it by going back to those practices that put us in the way of beauty, that put us in the flow, that relieve us of our obsessive self focus.

The last section of the chapter is titled, Building Your Artist’s Alter. The world’s religions and spiritual practices are peppered with alters and rituals. Maybe you grew up with some in your life, maybe not. They are so common because they work. Alters and rituals serve as reminders of truths and you should have some. My bedroom is a sort of alter to my creative life. It is filled with plants which helps me to feel connected to nature even when I’m indoors. The walls are covered in art, reminding me that I am fulfilled in small acts of creativity. I have pictures of me and my son alongside little trinkets and artifacts we’ve collected together. 

I recently taped a little card with artwork of a UFO floating over the beach. The beach is a familiar SoCal scene, but the UFO is there to remind me that there are things out there I don’t expect, that I won’t ever see coming. It’s there to remind that magic is real. I need this reminder because, I, probably like you, am steeped in a culture that worships the seen and discredits the unseen. I think this has been one of my big lessons during this last trek through The Artist’s Way: Leave a little room for the magic.

Sat nam, mamas and papas <3 Next week is our last week!