GLIDE-ing into Performance Excellence: Part II
Key Tools, Techniques and Tips - "Learning to Love"
So how do you embark on an expert learning path and sustain your sense of purpose and passion? How can the practice blood, sweat, tears and joy provide both a physical and psychological challenge and help evolve your whole self? How do you channel mind-body performance energy through focus and flow? Actually, let's go beyond focus and flow build on the previous outline letter "L" - "Loving to Learn" with its complement - "Learning to Love." Consider these "Key Tools, Techniques and Tips for GLIDE-ing Into Performance Excellence."
As part of his "Performance Excellence" series, the Stress Doc reflects on "learning to love" along with the stages of creative discovery - psychological incubation culminating in an altered state experience, followed by spontaneous and systematic model building and engagement with the real world. More specifically, he illuminates the process of transforming a seemingly mystical moment into, for him, an unprecedented artistic and non-theistic spiritual undertaking. The intuitive and conscious conception of an archetypal symbol is both a primal healing progression and a pathway to a deeper, holistic and higher Self. However, when the irresistible force (personal creative process) meets immovable object (doctoral program standards) and the tension inexorably builds…something or someone has to give (or give up). Yet, when fueled by devotion, a compelling desire to learn and insight into one's genuine voice (even while wrestling with some grandiose tendencies) it is possible to survive both the highs of defiance and to surmount the lows of failure. The keys: listening within as well as learning to respect and reconcile the contradictions and opposites in one's inner and essential nature.
The Art of "Learning to Love":
When Performance Excellence Is Not Academic or
Designing an Archetypal Pathway for "Self"-Discovery
When I think of "Learning to Love" two realms come to mind: 1) falling in love and then evolving a romantically loving relationship with an intimate partner and 2) falling in love (or being obsessed) with a creative or heartfelt project. You think there might be parallels working here? This essay will examine a project that compelled my mind, heart and soul nearly three decades ago. Perhaps at a later date I'll explore a psychic and physical space filled with both danger and opportunity - the realm of interpersonal intimacy.
The Accidental Analytical Archetypal Academic Project
My most powerful "Learning to Love" (as well as "Loving to Learn") experience not involving an intimate partner occurred while I was a doctoral student in Social Work at Tulane University during my "American in Cajun Paris" years in New Orleans (1974-1990). Almost 30 years ago, in the fall of '77, not yet thirty years of age, I was floundering. Discovering and designing a dissertation topic that engaged both my head and heart remained elusive. I was doing reading in the field of social psychology, information processing and therapeutic communication. Many of the concepts were interesting but I wasn't able to pull together a focus that generated passion.
Looking back, I wasn't emotionally mature enough to accept that a dissertation topic should be well defined and limited in scope. (Subconsciously, alas, a need to exorcize both self-esteem and past academic demons meant doctoral program reality would eventually be trumped by both nascent artistry and defiant grandiosity.) From a more positive perspective, perhaps some of my inability to stay academically focused was due to an increasingly intimate and sensual relationship with a creative muse…"The City of New Orleans." The "Big Easy" definitely helped ease me out of the "creative closet."
Anyway, driven both by frustration and that "R & R" feeling (less "Rest and Recreation" and more that Cajun "Rock 'n Roulez," the laisseaz les bonnes temps version) where "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," I unofficially abandoned the academic for the analytic. Actually, I became a patient (an "analysand") in a psychoanalytic training program and began seeing a resident in psychiatry at Tulane Medical School. This was a traditional psychoanalytic program - lying on the couch three times a week - with a very untraditional fee structure of $10/session. (The only thing comparable in today's world is my girlfriend paying $20 for a monthly hour massage with a community college therapist trainee. Gee, imagine if you could seamlessly go from a session on the couch to one on the massage table. Talk about a holistic - mind-body - approach to healing and harmony. Obviously I still have some unresolved issues with hedonism and narcissism.)
After one month of face-to-face therapy, I was ready to lie down on the couch. What luxury. The analyst is seated behind my head and I'm "free associating," that is saying whatever comes to mind. Hey, I love this…it's all about me! (You've heard the old saw: "Vanity thy name is Gorkin.") Actually, it took awhile to get beyond small talk. I needed to learn to quiet my mind and allow thoughts and feelings from my subconscious and eventually my unconscious to percolate up from my psychic wellspring. And as I began to understand this transitional space and process, the floodgates literally opened. Over this eight-month period, as I vividly recalled with depth and detail the pain of my past, tears flowed nearly every session - whether as tender streams or as convulsing sobs and gushing geysers of grief. The wellspring waters from the wounds seemed endless.
Yet, paradoxically (if not mixed metaphorically) the wellspring was transmuting into word hot lava:
For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire.
Not coincidentally, for the first time in my life I spontaneously began writing poetry. One couplet, as will soon be apparent, was particularly prescient:
There were two girls each one pearls
As life unfurls its mystic curls
The "Out of My Mind" Moment
Then one day, something very uncharacteristic happened. While lying on the analytic couch, I quickly realized I had nothing to say. Normally my mind and mouth, if not my psycho-physiological juices, were fairly off and running. When I noted this puzzling state, my resident made his most profound intervention. He simply said, "Don't say anything."
"Don't say anything!" This seemed like a waste of time and money. But I guess I trusted him enough to try something different…and I shrouded my self in silence. Initially it was an uncomfortable silence, but after a short while I simply let go…perhaps for thirty seconds. And then in this quiet space of just being, no conscious or subconscious musings, I'm overcome by an unprecedented sensation. Suddenly I have this mysterious and ineffable feeling that I'm connected to everything. And within minutes, this cosmic connection is somehow mirrored by two seemingly contradictory phenomena:
1) the split - an out of body experience where some manifestation of myself (even if it's just a dream-like or hallucinogenic projection) is looking down upon me lying on the couch, and
2) the integration - in my heart and soul there's a vague, inexplicable yet nonetheless tangible feeling of wholeness and self-acceptance. Hmmm…what the heaven or hell (or both) is going on?
I left the session in a state of bewilderment as much as one of wonderment. However, I put this all aside to run a variety of errands. But later that evening the question returned as I was sitting in Tulane Library attempting, once again, to forge a dissertation topic from an uninspired mind and heart. Talk about ignoring the obvious. I had had the most mysterious and intriguing experience of my life. Duh…earth to Mark. (Or should it be cosmos to earthling?) Finally I was ready to embark on a most profound (and literal) "learning to love" exploration.
Let me close this narrative simply by saying that within two months my resident-analyst had graduated and we did not continue working together. Not surprisingly though my mystical-like moment became our primary focus down the psychic stretch. Now whether the analysis was successful is open to interpretation but the experience paved the way for an uncommon and, for me, an unprecedented "learning and loving" journey, a path upon which I still march to this day. Let me highlight the post-epiphany enlightenment process and then abstract "Key 'Learning to Love' Principles for Holistic Awareness, Creative Process and Genuine Excellence":
1. Accept the Mysterious and Express the Ineffable. As Einstein noted, a good question is often more critical than coming up with a solution. While sitting in the library, the essential (and also existential) question was, "What the hell happened while lying on the couch?" I suddenly felt compelled to intellectually if not literally grasp or at least grapple with this inexplicable experience. Whatever happened was real; the source of the sensory perceptions - why the out of body disconnection and seeming cosmic connection - along with the emotions related to my sense of self was another matter. My investigation began by resorting to the familiar. Being fluent with the language of psychology, I attempted to convey this all-encompassing moment by listing words that seemed to be facets of some strange nexus: it was serene and tender, with a feeling of self-acceptance, perhaps tinged with sadness, but there was also some sense of my being infused with aggression, power and aliveness, if not ignited by an ecstatic jolt.
However, a problem quickly arose. The holistic or interconnected nature of the moment could not be captured by a linear listing of terms, no matter how psychologically evocative or in depth. So I instinctively went to a compass-like grid, contrasting (in "north-south" and "east-west" fashion) bipolar terms such as "tenderness and aggression," "serenity and animation," "playfulness and seriousness" (which I would later rename "gravity"). It was beginning to dawn upon me that some integration of the verbal and the visual would be needed to shed light on if not illuminate the ineffable.
And out of the blue, I had two mini "Aha" triggers. I suddenly recalled Ego Psychologist, Eric Erickson's "Eight Stages of Development" and being moved by his polar pairings, such as "Trust vs. Mistrust," "Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt," "Integrity vs. Despair," etc. And even more surprising, percolating up from the psychic past was a childhood memory: my intently doodling in octagons (an eight-sided geometric figure) and connecting the alternating points. To illustrate, e.g., try imagining an eight-hour clock, and then connect the points at 1, 3, 5 and 7 o'clock and then the points at 2, 4, 6, and 8. I was fixated on the overlapping triangles lattice structure within the octagonal shell. (Subsequent reading in art therapy revealed that such precisely patterned doodling is not uncommon for anxious children feeling fragmented. These children are expressing an often unconscious desire for some sense of control, meaning and unity, both in their threatening outer world and in their fairly chaotic inner sense of self.) Perhaps the "out of body" split phenomenon reflected a primitive survival mechanism to dissociate myself from all the emotional childhood pain. And perhaps the "holistic" experience on the couch, with its perceived external-cosmic and internal-psychic dimensions, was also connected to a long overdue healing process. But this gets ahead of our story.
Returning to the present, I began to intuit that not just one octagon but concentric octagons (that is, a smaller octagon encircled by a larger octagon, encircled by a still larger octagon, etc., etc.) might ultimately be required for systematically relating the half dozen or so polar pairings and possibilities mostly randomly scattered on my scratch paper. And as I began to increase the number of descriptive terms almost simultaneously I added concentric rings. And by the next day I had come up with a five concentric octagonal structure. This meant that I was evolving a verbal-visual system with, at minimum, 40 word-points (8 points per octagon x 5 rings) for the placement of my psychologically evocative terms. I was creating something, just what exactly wasn't clear. Perhaps most important, after finally allowing my exhausted mind to go home and sleep, I was back at it the next morning. I still trusted my gut's drive to make sense of this unprecedented experience and expressive unfolding.
2. Stay Focused and Patiently Play to Discover the Big and Deep Picture. If I had to choose one word to capture the first forty-eight hours of this process it would be "startling." Each psychic eruption - from the cosmic moment and out of body experience to the "Aha," eight-themed associations with Eric Erickson stages and childhood doodling - was unexpected and kept driving me, both analytically and intuitively. Clearly, using logic and the geometric were important parts of my problem solving. However, increasingly I understood that this puzzle didn't have one right answer just waiting to be discovered. This undertaking was more subjective and inventive. I was generating my own unique design to impose some structure and meaning on my psychic complexity if not chaos, a structural and existential process I subsequently came to call, "Creative Risk-Taking: The Art of Designing Disorder." (For the same titled article, email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
So for the first two days, a mix of confusion, curiosity and nascent creative impulses kept me playing with the raw verbal and visual materials, that is, the conscious and unconscious elements exposed and mined from my head and heart. Then, on the third day, another unexpected association emerged from my subconscious memory bank. Looking at my layered geometric configuration, I suddenly questioned aloud: "Is this a Mandala?"
I headed straight for the library's big Oxford World Dictionary. Without conscious awareness I, in fact, was creating a "Mandala," the Sanskrit term for "magic circle." I subsequently learned that a Mandala is a symmetrical configuration often displaying an Indian rug-like pattern. It is comprised of a central image, connoting seed-like growth potential along with unfolding layers, signifying a progression into deeper psychic-cosmic dimensions (Mandala, Jose and Miriam Arguelles, Shambala: Berkeley, 1972. This book contains numerous Mandala illustrations). Not surprisingly, the symbol is frequently used to induce meditative states. The dictionary also noted that this was one of the "archetypal symbols" of the "collective unconscious" studied and elaborated upon by early 20th century psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. I had done a smattering of reading on Jung, perhaps just enough to seed the subconscious connection. For the most part, though, these new concepts were a foreign (and somewhat foreboding) language. I had never done careful reading on Mandalas, Jungian archetypes, Eastern religion, mysticism, meditation or altered states of consciousness. The subject had seemed a little too far out. Now that I had entered the "Twilight Zone" my reading habits were to change almost immediately.
Mystical Madness and Mandala Method
Finally, I began to understand the original (as in "unique" and "fundamental" or "earliest") motive and method to my Mandala madness. While intuition and naiveté had fueled a feverish design, my mind grasped a deeper purpose: a cosmic moment in analysis was the wellspring for generating a cross-cultural symbol that went beyond my head and heart. I was building a structure of wholeness from the depths of my unconscious and my soul. And the smoldering pain and psychic splits, the cut off and dissociated or stunted early childhood emotions were the primal architectural building blocks. Smiling reflexively, I could just imagine Jung, the pioneering student of archetypes, appreciating the authenticity of my mystical-like moment and subsequent intuitive exploration. This was a journey toward psychological healing: reconciling the contradictions between superficial persona and soulful anima and fostering integration between my inner and out worlds. My Jungian battle cry: "Individuation or Bust!"
My Mandala reflected two other facets that are often captured by the notion of symbol, which "comes from two Greek words, sym meaning 'with' and bollein meaning 'to throw.' The symbol is, thus, that which throws or brings together these antimonies (or contrasting elements) into one image, one form" (Freedom and Destiny, Rollo May, W.W. Norton & Co., 1981). Symbols often bring meaning and a sense of wholeness to a complex if not contradictory experience. Surely, my visual-verbal octagonal structure, with its evocative concepts (e.g., "tenderness and aggression") relating through psychological and spatial opposition signified these functions.
But in addition to capturing and helping give psycho-spatial form to the mysterious, the symbol has another function. The symbol may be a map or pathway to these higher states of psychological integration and consciousness. And for me, because my Mandala was such an intuitive design, a verbal-visual structure that fairly poured out from my primordial recesses, there was so much that eluded conscious or logical understanding. (You might say that my conscious mind had to catch up with my personal and collective unconscious.) So the Mandala was like a psychic treasure map directing me, no, compelling me, to become a seeker of new knowledge. My Mandala experience and process were challenging me to reach a new level of awareness of my true nature, to glean both an intuitive and rational understanding of my deepest and most complex or spiritual "Self." I would have to accept "being a stranger in a strange land" in this unprecedented "learning to love" adventure.
3. Seek If Not Strike When the Mind and Spirit Are Hot. If the Mandala moment had thrown up an unconscious seed, the task now was to purposefully cultivate this cosmic kernel. When an experience defies easy explanation or categorization, (in my case, a uniquely serene yet heightened state of physiological arousal, along with holistic perception and subsequent preoccupation with a verbal-visual design), and this experience also raises a myriad of identity-related questions, while itself becoming the possible answer to a vexing concern (finding a dissertation topic) and even holds out the possibility of achieving greatness to compensate for years of feeling intellectually inadequate…well you have conditions for the perfect brain storm. Though it wasn't till much later that I understood how my drive might be fired as much by neurotic grandiosity as by natural and archetypal curiosity.
There was so much to discover. I poured into texts on Jung and Mandalas, metaphors, numerology and symbols (e.g., the number eight is connected to the infinity symbol), creativity, mysticism as well as the bihemispheric brain and altered states of consciousness. In fact, I learned that some "states of consciousness" researchers contended that the geometric and concentric configuration is akin to a snapshot of the mind in this mystical or "oceanic" state. (And just in the past couple of years brain research is positing a link between specific neurological wiring in the brain with a predisposition for mystical experience.)
But my new exploration was not limited to books. A neighbor who did drafting in the oil industry showed me how to use thin strips of drafting take to make large-scale models of the Mandala. (Remember, in 1978 there was no such thing as PCs and computer graphics.) And while walking around the Soho in New York City I stumbled upon a shop called The Mandala Store. The owner, an artist in his own right, was impressed by my verbal-visual prototype. I'll never forget his advice: "Choose the best words." Having an artist take my work seriously was very affirming. My mind and heart were open and prepared to continue "the (psychic) road less traveled."
4. Grapple with "Thrustration" and Take an Incubation Vacation. During this exploration I frequently would hit a wall wondering where all this study and mentoring was taking me. Was I just playing a mind game with myself? Was I avoiding "settling down" (a telling phrase wouldn't you say) with a realistic dissertation topic? I was definitely into psychiatrist Richard Rabkin's state of "thrustration." At these times of self-doubt, I was caught in this neologistic mix, trying to thrust ahead with direct action yet seemingly spinning octagonal wheels in a state of frustration, unable to put together the (missing) pieces of the puzzle.
Despite many anxious moments, one source of persistence in the middle of my creative "sturm und drang" was the structure of the Mandala itself. With its five concentric octagonal rings, even when only a dozen paired terms were positioned, I knew that I was unfinished. Analogous to the early years of the Periodic Table of Elements, whereby it's structure dictated that unknown chemical elements were still waiting to be discovered, there were at least sixteen more elements (eight bipolar pairs) to be conceived.
Another key step in weathering "thrustration" was learning to "let go." After reaching my limit of sitting and analyzing in the Tulane Library, I would often take the five-minute walk to St. Charles Avenue and cross into Audubon Park. A magical transformation occurred upon entering: you had stepped into old world bayou country, with its tranquil ponds, small island-like hideaways hidden by towering reeds, along with expansive greenery and huge oak trees draped with Spanish Moss. What a setting for just being, for letting my subconscious mind replace the logical and take an "incubation vacation." Sitting by a man-made waterfall, encouraging a semblance of aural symmetry between the gurgling of the water and the blood coursing through my brain, was just the right external-internal formula for hatching a new perspective, sometimes even a new word.
Of course, not everyone has easy access to an Audubon Park as a nurturing and germinating psychic watering hole. Still, the value of transitioning from a state of "thrustration" to a time and space for "incubation" and that eventual "Aha" or "illumination" has long been documented by the creativity literature. So don't just try to willpower your way past frustration to the uncommon or the original. Whether sleeping on a problem or working in your garden, let go to cultivate fresh eyes and thoughts; let go and allow your subterranean mind to conjure or crystallize new ideas and images.
Returning to my Audubon Park reverie, when a new word would percolate up, one that had a better fit in the Mandala model, then, once again my mind was off and running and reconfiguring. At the same time, my excitement was paired with anxiety. For the change of but one word could set off significant perturbations in this dynamic and interconnected model.
5. Risk Going with Systemic Feedback, Failure and Flow. The Mandala structure was increasingly evolving into an intricate and interrelated web-system. Having a five concentric octagon, wheel-like design meant that two basic substructures emerged when you connected the word-points: 1) eight spokes with five words on each linear path and 2) five octagonal rings with eight word-points. Changing one word often produced a domino effect. In addition to reevaluating the polar opposite concept, the words in close proximity to the changed word, e.g., the words above and/or below a changed word on one of the eight spokes often needed to be revised. Could my overall model maintain its coherence and integrity in the face of these conceptual changes and challenges?
Reaching excellence may mean putting your working paradigm or your whole system in jeopardy in order to ensure having the right parts or process. I think of Tiger Woods who periodically changes his golf grip and swing even after having an excellent PGA Tour season by any other golfer's standards. Tiger is determined to keep evolving. And though the changes may reduce his success in the short-term, with practice, as he works in the new components, Tiger invariably winds up playing at an even higher level of proficiency.
So each part must be able to play its proper role and must be effectively integrated into the overall system form and function. Another example that comes to mind is the recent problems with the NASA space shuttle. An improperly sealed tile can endanger the entire mission. But ultimately the graver problem for NASA was that key decision makers in the management system were minimizing the relevance of feedback from subordinates (systemic parts) that were questioning the reliability of the tiles under intense heat. (This disrupted feedback loop is not unlike Bush and Cheney disregarding evidence questioning the presence of WMDs in Iraq or of a link between Sadaam Hussein and al-Quaeda.)
The moral of these stories: In a high performance and "learning to love" systems you must be open to the meaning or significance of error (or the possibility for growth) in order to make a steady or rapid course correction; perhaps to delay or scrap an entire mission, even one in which you have invested much time, money and ego. Being an expert often means having the courage to acknowledge rather than cover up error as well as refusing to accept the mediocre. I recall basketball great, Michael Jordan, saying that the reason for his success as a clutch performer was that "(he) wasn't afraid to fail!" He wasn't afraid to take (and even miss) that final shot when the game was on the line. In some sense having the courage to be present and give his all under dicey or "dangerous" conditions proved rewarding even when it did not yield the conventional goal, i.e., the winning shot. Of course, coming up short may stimulate painful analysis (as opposed to ego-bruised and bruising self-flagellation). However, the result often is a critical trajectory correction, whether in outer space or on the court.
If honestly confronted, failure is less a final judgment and more a transitional space and place between one's high aspirations and one's current position. Your attitude and actions are the determining drivers in whether failure becomes a barrier or bridge to ultimate learning success. As a partner in a law firm once explained, for him failure was the norm as his goals were almost always set so high as to be unattainable. The key was being neither afraid nor ashamed to fail and his system almost always yielded new data that helped close the gap between the ideal and the real. His maxim: "Strive high and embrace failure."
6. Pursue the Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze Process. So there are times when you seemingly invite error or at least awkwardness to achieve growth. The key is to practice under actual game conditions or to create a "real simulation" while letting go - sometimes rapidly, sometimes gradually - of previously established conscious and subconscious learning connections, feedback circuits and behavioral routines. This is called "unfreezing" traditional or habitual patterns. As much as possible, stay with the performance anxiety and raw beginner feeling. Gradually initiate the "change" behaviors and continue practicing the new learning steps. (Of course, having a coach often can make your new change/relearning process more effective and efficient.) Depending on the complexity of the performance task, typically within three weeks to three months, you should be developing a feel for the new learning sequence and demonstrating a smoother performance rhythm. Finally, you are ready to "refreeze" and reintegrate at a higher level of performance. You have a new, enhanced performance repertoire. The paradox is clear: sometimes we need things to get worse before they can get better; we need to recognize failure's potential for being the progenitor of success.
For the Mandala experience, the equivalent was my going to the library and the park nearly every day, spending hours absorbing new information, then contemplating and periodically tearing down and reconfiguring my verbal-visual model. I fought off the desire for premature closure and grappled with the anxious feeling that I was pursuing, no matter how mysterious or mystical the undertaking, a mere figment of my imagination. It would take both parts determination and denial for my model to be the best that it could be.
7. Reframe Obsession and Handle Skepticism. It seemed as if I was living in the Tulane Library, especially in this basement section. Its large tables became my drawing board for laying out the ever evolving and growing Mandala model. Needless to say I was becoming a library oddity. If the Guinness Book of Records had an entry for introducing people to the word "Mandala" in the state of Louisiana I'd be a record holder. Both friends and acquaintances started wondering and some worrying whether I was becoming "obsessed." (Becoming obsessed?) Based on my experience I'd expand the oft-quoted observation by artistic genius, Pablo Picasso, regarding the creative process: "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction…and an obsession."
Yet, at some point, I realized that obsession may have been a necessary cause but it wasn't a sufficient explanation for my intense motivation. I was devoted to my Mandala Model. A daily mix of careful thought and intuitive reverie fueled my state of purposeful passion. Increasingly I saw myself on a "magical mystery tour" that was uncovering and nurturing my larger Self and that was inspiring a spiritual undertaking that was larger (and other) than myself.
For the first time in my life I understood the state of "devotion"; I could smile knowingly or even laugh at myself when challenged by many skeptics and "naysayers." However, as will be apparent shortly, there were some skeptics whom I could not simply laugh or shrug off. But first, let us return to model building.
I finally settled on a model with forty-six words. The central logos consisted of four terms: the words "Self" and "Love" enclosed in an octagonal Yin/Yang-like shell comprised of the words "Creation" and "Devotion." (Fittingly, the latter was the last word selected. According to the ancient Eastern spiritual text, the I Ching, "devotion" conveys "receptive" or feminine "Yin" energy, the complement of "creative" or masculine "Yang" energy.) The logos supported the essential message of the Mandala symbol: a person's highest level of integration and most idiosyncratic and harmonious development - that is, the path to one's deepest, fullest and truest Self - occurs by reconciling and integrating the opposites in one's head and heart, in one's psyche and soul. In other words, our fundamental nature or essence is both "masculine" and "feminine" and the more we embrace this seeming dichotomy the more natural and whole our existence.
8. Understand the Link between Creative Birth and Psychic Death. When you think about it, the integration of "masculine" and "feminine" energy must be the foundation of our human nature: conception is the union of sperm and egg. Which brings me to the only analogy I can think of that captures the essence of the intimate yet ultimately mysterious Mandala experience: the process of pregnancy and giving birth. And in the last stage I even had a mid-wife. For the final rendering of my model I found a woman who set type in a print shop and also did drafting. (This was no small find. As noted earlier, it was the late '70s; computer graphics didn't exist or, if it did, was way out of the price range for this starving "word artist.") It took about a week to complete the project. I'll never forget the day this woman phoned and said to pick up the Mandala. When I arrived at her house she asked me to wait on the porch. She had a few final touches. And then it hit me: I suddenly had some insight in what it meant to be an expectant father pacing in a waiting room, both terribly excited and anxious to see his newborn.
After about ten minutes, she called me in. I was speechless. My baby was truly beautiful; overlaying acetate sheets added a color spectrum effect to the 3'x4' web-like and shimmering visual-verbal octagonal structure. And the color was not simply an adornment. Shades of color were positioned with shades of meaning; for example, words like passion and aggression emerged from a background of purple and red hues while trust was bathed in blends of blue. (And I was especially pleased having chosen the lighter acetate shades despite my designer's preference for the deeper hues. I understood that the words must not be dominated by the visual components; there must be a yin/yang harmony.)
The Wall between Birth and Burnout
And there was another source of deep pride: No matter how incredulous this spiritual and artistic undertaking, I had seen the Mandala process and pathway through to completion. However, my baby and I did not live in a social vacuum. Clearly, I had created a "good news/bad news" situation: the good news was I had begun to establish my identity as a model builder and artist. And, obviously, I had found my dissertation calling. The bad news was I was soon to be up against the academic wall.
Not surprisingly, a traditional doctoral program was not the right academic environment for an "off the wall" dissertation. And while my advisors gave me some leeway, in reality, what I had created was more a work of art than a basis for a doctoral thesis. But for two years I struggled to turn an ineffable experience and archetypal symbol into an analytical treatise. Obviously, I was denying and fighting the reality of academic protocol. But there was a more powerful and complex denial process operating. A key dynamic was my unwillingness to accept the fact that I was too emotionally immature and undisciplined to stay within academic bounds. And second, the drive to explore my creative side was inexorably overtaking my dissertation goal. While proclaiming a desire for the doctorate, my defiant behavior spoke volumes on conscious and unconscious levels. And in truth, I had not started the doctoral program with the pragmatic goal of doing research or becoming a university professor. I had applied to the doctoral program to explore my intellectual potential after many years - from elementary school through college - of being an anxiously underachieving student. Once and for all I wanted to slay those demeaning voices and psychic demons in my head and heart.
Alas, my quest for the holy psyche was just too ambitious, amorphous and arduous. One definition of burnout is when your expectations and actions in an area of psychological significance are at variance with what's allowable and achievable within the actual parameters of your situation…and you keep trying to close a gap that cannot be meaningfully closed. Having invested so much time and money, identity and ego into a person, position or project, you can't or won't "let go." It's called the "Sunk Costs Phenomena."
In some ways, it was a good thing I finally did reach that state of meltdown burnout because, knowing the depths of my longstanding feelings of inadequacy, I'd still be trying to turn the Mandala into a dissertation. With hindsight, perhaps I'll call my culmination Moses-like. (By the way, Mosher is my Hebrew name.) Similar to the spiritual leader of the Jewish exodus from ancient Egypt who died before reaching the "land of milk and honey," I too was not meant to make it to the academic Promised Land. Yet, like Moses, I also had been to a mountaintop, though more of the metaphorical if not mystical variety. But before fully understanding the archetypal and individual Mandala commandments I had much grieving and healing to do.
9. Rise from the Ashes. I made a last ditch, half-hearted attempt to totally change dissertation topics, but couldn't do it. I was mentally and physically exhausted. Encouraged by my advisors, I resigned from the doctoral program. Shortly thereafter, I contracted a stress-induced inner ear virus that created profound dizziness and was accompanied by an irregular heartbeat or "arrhythmia." It was a scary time. I have written elsewhere about my burnout implosion and the recovery process. (Email for the essay, "Combat Strategies at the Burnout Battlefront.") I'll simply note the "Three Stages of Burnout Recovery": 1) Grieving Loss and Change, 2) Pursuing the Four "R"s of Rejuvenation - Running, Reading, Writing and Retreating and 3) Transitioning to Passion.
Not surprisingly, dropping out of the doctoral program unleashed emotional waves of failure and humiliation. I had never self-destructed so totally. (Perhaps noteworthy, I continued as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the same School of Social Work for another nine years.) And yet as Picasso observed (and as noted above), Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction. I could never return to my pre-Mandala identity. As I regained my physical health through time, grief work, the support of friends, article writing and regular exercise, I was able to gradually place events and my mental state in a more knowing and useful perspective. Being able to stand back from academia and its turbulent aftermath, both the obscure and the obvious became apparent. I now had a calling: to discover and portray my complex inner world through creative expression, to engage my destiny as a "word artist" - whether as a writer or a public speaker. (Actually, a friend bestowed this oxymoronic "word artist" label upon me twenty years after the Mandala mystery and mayhem. Her recognition was a true gift to my Self.)
Another insight involved the double-edged nature of creative obsession: while my fixation did culminate in burning out and dropping out, nonetheless, through tenacity and perseverance in the face of obstacles and uncertainty, I could transform an ineffable intuition into a tangible outcome. Actually, by carefully listening within I was able to dive into my primal wellspring and return with an archetypal symbol from those psychic depths. In addition, I could stretch my knowledge pool and problem-solving abilities through an unprecedented curiosity, by far flung reading and research and by harnessing both my analytic and unconscious processing capacities. I was capable of "devotion" and had demonstrated a capacity for both "loving to learn" and "learning to love."
In addition, despite powerful feelings of inadequacy, I was not deterred by outside skepticism or criticism. Exuberance fueled by and also firing creative exploration allowed me to soar in the face of all variety of doubt, self- and otherwise. While some immaturity and manic-like tendencies did contribute to crashing and burning, and despite my head and heart feeling broken, my spirit was not absolutely extinguished. I think there's some truth to the maxim: "What doesn't kill you ultimately makes you stronger." Clearly, I needed to be more selectively open to feedback - both of the external and internal variety. But I also could better trust my instincts when my more expansive spiritual Self was trying to get the attention of my smaller, security-driven egotistical self.
At some point during this retreat and recovery transition I penned the following:
Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion, like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.
I was nearing readiness to test a capacity for combining wings and wisdom. Would I be able to mix a tad more conscious and careful method with my potential for creative madness?
10. Apply Hard-Earned and Paradoxical Wisdom. The great Algerian and French author and philosopher, Albert Camus, in his Youthful Writings, succinctly captured a powerful truth about the grief process: "Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain." Personally, the Mandala obsession had blinded me to pursuits and possibilities outside academia. Actually, I was as much seduced as blinded. As long as I poured over the literal meaning of the Mandala I remained in a sacred space, above the common pedestrian path. And if I needed another cultural cloister, the growing "New Age" mass movement was beckoning for converts. But in Ulysses-like fashion, I resisted Circe's seductions. Superficial security would not be allowed to shortchange my daringly dangerous Odyssey-like quest for genuine identity, or to block the discovery of my idiosyncratic head, heart and psychic homeland. I made a conscious decision to stop pursuing the mystical and translate the message of the Mandala into everyday creative engagement.
Gradually (and painfully) I let go of my doctoral student status and became less mesmerized by the Mandala. (Though, ironically, the head of the Psychiatry Department of Tulane Medical School asked me to present my Mandala Model to the psychiatry residents. This was definitely a boost to the ego and a salve for my healing process.) Now two new directions began to emerge on my psychic horizon. The first involved starting a private psychotherapy practice as well as leading stress workshops. And the reasoning was clear: this played to my strong emotional intelligence and recent burnout experience while also providing the freedom, independence and time to set my own career path and creative agenda. And the second path sprang from the first: my desire to break into the media as a stress expert, despite a lack of media training and only one, albeit heady, television interview. I wanted to develop public presentation skills in a variety of arenas. (Alas, my success as a university instructor induced a false sense that camera or platform mastery would not prove so elusive.) Also, radio and TV and public speaking would give me high visibility. (My motivational mantra likely comes as no surprise: to get so much exposure that I'm finally arrested for indecency! ;-) Of course, once again, some narcissistic tendencies were raising their ugly head. I still needed to take on a difficult challenge in a psychological-communicational arena to be mentally engaged and to feel emotionally alive and worthy.
As it turned out, within two years I was able to break into New Orleans Public Television and Cable TV as well as do short "Stress Brake" essays on public and commercial radio. (In the early-'80s the oil industry had gone bust and almost everyone on the Gulf Coast was feeling the effects. Someone who could talk about stress and burnout was in demand.) In my two seasons I never did "learn to love" the time in front of the "one-eyed four-fingered" cameraman/monster or truly enjoy the pressure of recording in the radio studio. But I did give myself an "atta boy" for building my emotional risk-taking muscles. (For more insight on my TV trials and tribulations as well as lessons learned, email for my article on "Creative Risk-Taking: The Art of Designing Disorder.")
And I did love writing my media scripts, especially those two-minute radio essays, lovingly referring to them as my "scriplets." (Adding to a sense of family and synergy, a few close friends helped with the editing.) I was discovering an ability to tackle psychological topics from a jargon-free, non-academic perspective. (And this "writes of passage" helped reduce the size of the past scholarly failure when looking in my rearview mirror.) Most important, I was able to invent my own metaphoric, mirthful and memorable language - from the sublime to the silly. For example, I titled one essay on burnout, "Breaking Out of a Hell of a Shell or Don't Feel Too Sorry for Humpty Dumpty He Needed to Hit Bottom!" Eventually I'd introduce these conceptual and comedic inventions in my workshops. And while to this day flat out mastery remains elusive, presenting to live audiences was obviously a true love and my "Promised Land." Still, this man could not survive solely as a "hired mouth." I needed time and place for my dualistic nature: quiet space for the introspective writer side, what I've come to call my "Cave Persona," in addition to a performance platform and human interaction for my extroverted and expansive "Stage Persona."
So the legacy of TV and radio was providing an arena for finding my dualistic "word artist" voice and ultimately generating a new job title as a multimedia therapist and humorist. However it took several years - post academic fiasco - to glean another sagacious insight, one that truly put meaningful flesh on Camus' conceptual skeleton regarding loss, grief and new possibility: burning out and leaving academia as well as recognizing my reservations and limitations with the electronic mass media were critical for uncovering and single-mindedly cultivating my passion and gifts as a motivational speaker and writer. So painful loss and failure as much as mystery and wonder were vital way stations on my blood, sweat, tears and joyful journey of discovery, devotion and design. I had experienced both serenity and suffering while exploring altered states along with analytical mindsets and skill sets. And all this "blooming buzzing (creative) confusion" (to borrow from pioneering American psychologist, William James,) proved critical for evolving, integrating and "learning to love" my paradoxical - parts melancholic and manic, parts witty and wise - "Psychohumorist" ™ Self. And while the decades since the birth of the Mandala have been far from harmonious - more a veritable roller coaster of highs and lows, triumphs and bankruptcies (both figurative and literal), as well as accepting a family predisposition for depression and the need for biochemical intervention, etc. - I have remained true to the mysteriously basic message of the Mandala: exploring and integrating as well as expressing creatively and sharing intimately my deepest, my complexly holistic and my most genuine Self.
A spiritual experience and an artistic undertaking have been recreated and analyzed to illuminate how the deepest parts of our human nature can be revealed and transformed into symbolic form. The Mandala as archetypal symbol is constructed and deconstructed. And in the intuitive and analytical problem solving process many insights occur, from the nature of creative exploration and the integration of complementary energy to "learning to love" your whole self - the good and the bad, the flaws and foibles, your strengths and vulnerabilities. Ten steps have been outlined:
1. Accept the Mysterious and Express the Ineffable
2. Stay Focused and Patiently Play to Discover the Big and Deep Picture
3. Seek If Not Strike When the Mind and Spirit Are Hot
4. Grapple with "Thrustration" and Take an Incubation Vacation
5. Risk Going with Systemic Feedback, Failure and Flow
6. Pursue the Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze Process
7. Reframe Obsession and Handle Skepticism
8. Understand the Link between Creative Birth and Psychic Death
9. Rise from the Ashes
10. Apply Hard-Earned and Paradoxical Wisdom
These steps not only capture one man's creative journey but also hopefully illuminate the path to a person's deepest, fullest and truest Self. This state of conscious and unconscious harmony is achieved by doing unfinished grief work and by reconciling and integrating the conflicts and oppositional tendencies in one's head and heart, in one's psyche and soul. Next, this holy quest and the quest for wholeness involve two key discoveries: a) the importance of risking failure and of rebounding upon hitting bottom, however painful and painstaking the recovery and b) discovering your real voice and finding an arena to express your genuine identity, emotional sensitivity and talents in the real world. Surely these are life lessons for "learning to love" and for learning how to…Practice Safe Stress!