Creating a Way Out of Depression -1

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WARNING: IDEAS UNDER CONSTRUCTION

Thanks to a series of compelling posts on creativity by Isabella Mori at changetherapy (part of an exchange with Psyblog), I’ve been trying to understand more clearly what happens when creative work takes place. I haven’t gotten there yet (can’t say I expect to solve this puzzle since more learned and insightful people than I have been trying for a long time). But I would like to throw out a few ideas I’ve picked up in my reading, and then ask you to share your thoughts.

Now why should I get into this in the first place? Simply because I know that when I’m working creatively I’m in a different state where depression doesn’t exist. Just like the spiritual encounters I’ve been trying to describe that stop time and this despairing condition, there is something about creating, even at my modest level, that draws out a force within me that dissolves depression. What is that? Can I package some and pull it off the shelf when I need it? Here are a few of the insights that gifted thinkers have offered. They make sense to me, but this is just a starting point. I hope we can build a dialogue to go further into creativity and its ability to make depression disappear, at least for a short time.

  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sees the focusing of attention as a key to enabling creativity to flourish. The discovery of new things depends on a mastery of existing knowledge and techniques, and that requires deep learning and focusing on the field in question. He describes a contest for the attention of our mental energies in daily life. Creative work, he says, requires an ability to withdraw attention from other matters and create a “surplus” that can be used both for the mastery of what exists now and for the creation of the new. Though his study tends to focus on the major breakthroughs that change a culture, his emphasis on this key condition for creative work resonates with my experience. Creative energy would be scattered if not concentrated on nurturing skills and knowledge as a writer, artist, scientist, or worker in any field. Attention and focus, of course, are just the qualities that depression tends to undermine. Countering that impact of the illness presents a major problem.
  • David Bohm emphasizes the way in which creativity occurs outside the fixed categories of thought that arise from logic and the conventions of daily life. Logic works in situations where pure and definitive distinctions can be made, but most events in real life are too complex to be so neatly cleaved apart. Thought confined to these categories leads to confusion rather than discovery. Bohm talks about the need for an alertness to this tendency of thought and sees intelligence as the art and skill of maintaining an alertness to set aside the fixed categories of thinking when appropriate and consider a situation in a completely different way. He calls this the “art of intelligent perception.” Again, I find this a key condition enabling creative work.
  • T.S. Eliot talks about a negative aspect of creativity – the breaking down of barriers (that tend to reform quickly in the mind) – barriers which close off perception. He’s getting at the same thing Bohm is. Bohm likens this flexible state of mind to the way children can perceive things as fresh and new. Not hindered by fixed patterns of thinking that limit the imagination of adults, children remain alert to details and impressions grown-ups would miss or take for granted. Part of the excitement of being a parent is to share that first experience of a child with something long familiar to you. The moon one night looks like it’s crying; a rusty pipe becomes a treasure; a cow in a field is suddenly an amazing creature. Creative insight depends on an ability to break away from seeing and interpreting experience in the ways we use to navigate daily life.
  • Jacques Maritain captures the actual moment of discovery as creative intuition. After the preparation and long drawing in of learning, ideas, perceptions, a creative mind gets to a place of quiet where everything comes together in that sudden flash of insight that is so hard to put into words. He emphasizes that this intuition of a new thing does not come from outside but from the inner depths of the mind and soul. He sees the experience as a kind of natural grace, a spiritual encounter of the soul with its deepest self in a place free of tension and full of repose that brings rejuvenation and peacefulness.

These ideas ring true in helping me understand what’s involved in arriving at that state of mind and soul where creative work is possible. But there are practical dimensions to this for a person plunged in depression. What are the specific actions we can take to work creatively in spite of that condition? The next post looks at ideas about how to do that.

But in the meantime, what do you think of these attempts to capture what happens in the creative process? Do they square with your experience? Please share your thoughts.

8 Responses to “Creating a Way Out of Depression -1”

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  1. JohnD says:

    Hello, CK – Sorry for the delay in responding! Creative intuition in Maritain’s terms is related to Catholic theology about grace. I’m going to explore some more about this – also reading Merton on grace. But Maritain goes way beyond doctrine – his book has great insight throughout. Some of the romantics have a much more intuitive grasp of the creative experience that is more immediate to get into – of course, they also take you there through their poetry. I hope we can dialog more on this when I get the next part of this up. Thanks for your comment.

    Evan – I think I’m with you on on the need for intimacy with the medium. Mastery doesn’t have the negative connotation for me – probably not for MC. For me it means reaching such a level of accomplishment with all the techniques of a given medium that their use becomes second nature. The structure and technique no longer get in the way of what is being communicated. They form an organic whole. I know when I have something I want to express visually, I’m stymied by lack of mastery of the tools of the trade. So then I’m trying to learn on the job, and that puts me at a frustrating distance from getting out what I see in my mind.

    John D

  2. Evan says:

    Hi John,

    My problem with MC was the feeling I have around mastery. This has a feeling of distance and manipulation. For me creativity is an intimacy with the medium (or media).

    Creativity can have the feeling of calling to us from the materials (this stuff wants to take this form). This may not be true for all creativity all the time, but it is certainly one possibility – and I don’t think talk of mastery captures this.

    Hope I’ve made myself clearer and not just muddied the waters more.

  3. You express some really exciting ideas here! It has really got me thinking, so thank you.

    I find the concept of creative intuition particularly intriguing. The meeting of consciousness and unconsciousness, in a way, with that something extra. The hard to define X factor in the creative process. I do believe he’s right – it’s about grace, that is to say entering the sublime as the Romantics suggest.

  4. Brenda says:

    I just want to say how much I appreciate your ability to use this personal struggle (depression) towards greater self-awareness and personal development as well as a source of help for others. My struggle is with ADD, but there are parallels to our journeys! Today, I think I’m a better person for the self-examination needed to deal with the negative aspects of my racing brain. I hope you feel the same!

  5. JohnD says:

    Thanks, Isabella, I look forward to whatever you have to say on the subject. The related post I’m working is about how to stay with creative work when you’re depressed, not just waiting for those moments when you’re suddenly there.

    Angel – I know what you mean – writing, or whatever you do in those moments – can seem isolating. This is a good point I want to think about more – there is always the danger of finding escape at these times. Isolation is what we have to fight as part of depression, so I begin to wonder!

    Evan – Not sure I understand what you’re saying about MC’s idea, though I agree completely about obsessiveness. That’s another dimension of my own depression at times, and it’s like sulfuric acid in the soul. I think Bohm and Eliot are getting at the same thing about the need to shake yourself out of living by the normal categories that are like blinders.

    Thanks, all, for these comments. There’s a lot to work on!

    John D

  6. Evan says:

    Not so sure about Mihaly. I’m not convinced it requires mastery – though the creation of a work does require the skills. Perhaps he is focusing on the making rather than the quality of creativity which (a few) works have. Obsessiveness can be the death of creativity.

    David. Not sure where outside is. Perhaps he means an awareness of our categories (after all this is a category too).

    The good TS (that most bank clerkly of Englishmen). The ability to tear apart and destroy is part of creativity. Destroying an existing category is different to by-passing it. But the element of destruction that he adds is important.

    Jacques I think gets to grips with the actual moment very well.

    There is a need in all these to distinguish creativity as a quality (novelty, play etc) from the work of making (work, ‘discipline’ etc).

    Most work in the ‘creative arts’ is about as creative as last years fad.

  7. “Simply because I know that when I’m working creatively I’m in a different state where depression doesn’t exist.”

    This is so true for me also. When I’m writing poetry or doing anything that engages my creativity, I feel untouchable. It is also a way for me to detach though, and that isn’t always so good for my relationships.

    Thanks for this post!

  8. isabella mori says:

    thanks for the shoutout!

    i think this is worth a post of my own … interestingly enough, i just had a short exchange with another blogger about something similar: a question about the degree to which another mental health issue – addiction – can coexist with truly living in the moment. this would, perhaps, square with what ciskszentmihalyi says about attentional resources: if most of our attention goes to creating, how much is there left for the mental activities needed to “nurture” depression or addiction?

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