I work with young people who are experiencing so-called ‘mental illness’. To me, ‘mental illness’ is a misnomer. What I see are stunningly courageous and sensitive human beings who have somehow come to the conclusion that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. Maybe they’ve been told that they shouldn’t look the way they do, or love who they love. Maybe they’ve been denied opportunities, or had their voice shut down. Somewhere along the way, they have internalised this sense of not being good enough.
In individuals, this ‘trance of unworthiness’ as Tara Brach puts it, plays out in many different ways, including anxiety, addictions, psychosis, eating disorders, self-harm, suicide, and even just an underlying sense of not-‘OK’-ness. It’s complex. It’s brutal. And it is everywhere in our society. If I rolled out all the statistics, you would need seventeen hours straight of cat videos to recover. Luckily for you, statistics are not my thing. The arts are.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to tell you that art can save the world. Dancing isn’t going to shield you from a bullet. To turn the tide on fascism, rape culture, and transphobia, we’re gonna need a bit more than poetry (I know, or rather, I hope that there are people out there who would disagree with me on this point). But I do believe that the arts, or more accurately – art-making – has the potential to open the pathway to a golden and delicious medicine. It can go by many different names, but for now, let’s call it ‘presence’.
Presence is showing up to what is here in the moment. When we are present, we are open and alert to our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and surroundings. We have access to our reasoning capacity, and are able to respond to the world in a sane way. So what happens when we’re not present? In general, we are either flipping out or spacing out.
Flipping out means that our fight or flight response has been triggered, and we have lost our ability to access reason. This is very useful for responding to survival threats, but it can lead to problems when this response is constantly triggered when there is no immediate threat. Spacing out is when we avoid whatever we are experiencing, usually because it feels bad. Often, what this means is reaching for what Glennon Doyle Milton calls ‘easy buttons’, which serve to disconnect us from our bodies and emotions. These can be drugs, alcohol, workaholism, scrolling through Facebook feeds, or whatever gets us out of our bodies. When we are caught in the ‘trance of unworthiness’, telling ourselves that there is something wrong with us, that we shouldn’t be feeling what we are feeling, we are much more likely to reach for these things.
The magic is that when we show up to these experiences with a kind and compassionate awareness, they have the space to move. Neuroscience tells us that when we hold two things in mind at the same time, they wire together. Just as we can create negative associations, we can transform them into positive ones. If we experience compassionate awareness in the context of a negative story such as “I’m not good enough”, it changes our brain structure. That’s why telling a kind friend about our shitty day at work makes us feel better. We can practice doing this in many ways, including through mindful meditation, talking to people who are kind to us, or spending time in nature. Or by making art.
Art by its very nature is kind. That’s because art is open. Poetry, for example, is defined by its lack of rules: that’s what makes it poetry and not legal writing, or mathematics. Of course, it’s possible to get caught up in perceived rules and conventions about what we think poetry should be (and those conventions can be very useful at times). Having the capacity to side-step our inner critic and actually create is an art in itself. But at its heart, writing poetry means that we can say whatever is real for us, in exactly the way we want to say it. There is room for a startlingly fresh thought and a 2.7 billion year old cliché all in one poem.
Art is, by its nature, open and able to contain the fullness of human experience. It doesn’t have to be about getting down into the gritty awful feelings all the time; it can equally be a celebration of ‘this is what I love’, ‘this is what I want’ or simply ‘this is what I notice’. To practice creativity is to shush the internal critic for long enough to say yes to whatever is appearing in our consciousness, whether it’s real or imagined, scary, or beautiful, or raw.
Every time we say yes to our experience, either through writing it down, sploshing it with paint, crafting it into a play, or squishing it with playdough, we send a very important message to ourselves: ‘I matter. My experience is real’. This is a powerful antidote to the conditioned belief that there is something wrong with us, that we are somehow lacking. This is particularly significant for people who belong to marginalised groups in society, but it matters to anyone who has ever doubted their self-worth.
In my experience, finding a way to express what is arising as honestly and precisely as possible is where the best art comes from. By ‘best art’ I don’t mean art that is the most well-liked or appreciated by others (although that may sometimes be true); I mean that it is the most internally satisfying to create.
We don’t have to do this alone. We can show up for each other. For me this looks like hanging out with a bunch of young adults every Monday afternoon and painting together. On Tuesdays we do improvised theatre together. My latest experiment is running a series of classes called ‘Writing from the Body’ where we do movement activities to connect with our bodies, and then write from that place. We’re not only cultivating presence: we’re also creating new stories for ourselves, imagining new worlds and connecting with each other. The power of a creative community can not be overstated, but that is a subject for another time.
Practising being awake to our experiences with open attention, and expressing ourselves honestly, is the heart of making art. To actually pay attention to what is real for us, rather than judging, criticising or suppressing ourselves is a radical act in a world that is constantly asking us to be something we are not. Art can contain our fullness: the ugly, messy, impossible, beautiful hugeness of our lives. Art can handle us.
Rata Gordon: Rata Gordon lives on Waiheke Island and leads a creative youth development project called Express Yourself, based in Auckland. She is a poet and a dance teacher-in-training with Open Floor International.