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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Elliot Benjamin is a philosopher, mathematician, musician,
counselor, writer, with Ph.Ds in mathematics and psychology and the author of over 230 published articles in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, pure mathematics, mathematics education, spirituality & the awareness of cult dangers, art & mental disturbance, and progressive politics. He has also written a
number of self-published books, such as: The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental Health
. See also: www.benjamin-philosopher.com
SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY ELLIOT BENJAMIN
Reposted from the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 47(1), 2015, with permission.
"The Creative Artist"
by Elliot Benjamin
Despite findings of above average rates of psychopathology among artists the literature does suggest high creativity is much more about health than illness.
This unique book, The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance and Mental Health, by Elliot Benjamin, Ph.D., should perhaps be classified as autoethnography, and is a very readable gift of personal sharing and artistic promise. Here one finds theory, personal contemplation over a few decades, sections of a novel, and vivid in-the-moment notes from his creative and adventurous son, also leading the creative artistic life in a society that doesn't always encourage it. Both are clearly persons of exceptional creative talent and complexityand of persistence and strength. As Dr. Benjamin (with Ph.D. s in both math and psychology, who taught math for over 20 years at the college level) said years before, in a letter to his yet unborn son, he wished him the "joys of being 'yourself,' i.e., to know what it means to live an authentic life where you are true to your own dreams and ambitions" (p. 61).
As Dr. Benjamin, this creative artist-mathematician-musician-philosopher-psychologist-author also found, this authenticity can be vital to one's connection with others (in his own life and his son's), and can lead to exceptional moments whether with family, friends, or one's life partner. Surely there is health here. Yet making it a mainstay of one's life, in our consensual reality, and our current culture, may not always be that easy. Out of this conviction came Dr. Benjamin's own skill learning and educational, psychoeducational, and supportive program, the Natural Dimension; we see alternative trajectories along a humanistic and transpersonal path. Among other things, his overarching model became a viable aftercare path for some patients leaving more traditional mental health programs.
Yet finding and sharing our self and path is hard enough for anyone whose felt creative task is to reveal an inner world which even minimally challenges the status quo; there are many forces arrayed against such a change in the larger world as this reviewer, for one, has expressed. Dr. Benjamin expresses this powerfully in terms of his "reality argument," where we are called to do the practical, the lucrative, and very much the expected. He, himself, could teach mathematicsdealing with the practical worldalthough there too, he did find colorful ways to inject creative methods into the programme. Not to mention, in his larger life, philosophy and music. He found it quite natural to inject another world, one of elegance and beauty, into the picture. He was drawn to a wish to "taste of 'higher' worlds." Yet the role, and the task, isn't always one of beauty, nor of escape. Nor is everyone at a higher level of psycho-social-spiritual development.
Further, not every creator is called to take this particular path. Sometimes the creative artist, committed to a path of vision, takes a role of truth teller, more than visionary, poignant teller of bitter truths that others prefer to skip, or deny (along with most of society). He or she, as an artist friend of mine put it, is often "the canary in the coal mine." Not only more sensitive to what's going on, but at times more readily injured by it as well. Some real dangers and challenges here. It surely can help to have support, and role models and encouragement, as we indeed see here in what father is offering son. But one must not think all is euphoria. There may be such moments, as the son delightfully remembers from his youth. But it's not the whole picture.
All the more, then, strength and overriding purpose are needed if there are mental health challenges to address, particularly in a world that can pathologize difference, of whatever sort, healthy or not. Some of us have in fact asked for a different definition of "normal," including this author in the steps of the legendary Frank Barron, since what is most common (one type of norm) may not in fact be the most healthy. At all. This is very much what we are hearing here, in terms of conformity to social norms. At one extreme we have a mindless automaton, following conventional rules, by contrast with a very present, aware, insightful, and risk-taking artist, a higher ideal if not a statistical "norm." Dr. Benjamin has called society, at times, crazy. I have done so as well!
Fortunately, the author does not fall into the trap of romanticizing illness (or saying it is de facto creative in itself) or that all who create are ill or vice versa. It is definitely not "the sicker the better." He acknowledges there are many roads to creativity. One must still keep in mind that there are many types of creative artists, and motives for creating. Of particular importance, health is the overriding message. How tragic the consequences for some who have idealized illness. Yet on the upward path, some may indeed reach heights of Maslow's "self-actualizing" creativity, as suggested here, it is not all. Dr. Benjamin mentions that, at times, "a fine line" may divide the creative artist and the mentally disturbed person. Yet let us look more carefully here.
Some truth can be found, but it seems vital to clarify that this is in comparing specific pieces of a complex human picture, and not necessarily the totality, or the delicate balance and conditions that produced them. Dr. Benjamin was once fortunate to converse at great length with philosopher Ken Wilber, who was intrigued by Dr. Benjamin's thinking and also influenced it considerably, including the Natural Dimension. This contact led to many of Dr. Benjamin's later publications. However, Wilber has also made this same point in a spiritual context: Advanced spiritual development may at times resemble more primitive patterns (pre/trans fallacy), yet the context and significance can be totally different. They may all look like oranges but in fact they are apples and oranges.
Despite findings of above average rates of psychopathology (and particularly mood disorders, with evidence as well for schizophrenia spectrum disorders) among artistsoften among the eminent (thus we cannot automatically say the same for everyday people) the literature does suggest high creativity is much more about health than illness. ( Plus there are other paths, not at all about illness. ) Here, creativity tends to peakwhere mental disturbance is present at all, in individuals or in families, especially in research on people in the bipolar and schizophrenia spectra. Creativity peaks during during better functioning periods. And, as a corollary, getting treatment cannot only be lifesaving in some cases but can enhance creativity.
One may speak of creativity as a "compensatory advantage," and there is good everyday creativity data we (colleagues Dennis Kinney and others at Harvard) and others have to support this. Indeed it can be a major strength in situations of risk, allowing perspective, alternatives, transformations of a situation; one finds a delicate balance of the forces that open one to inspiration, balanced by the control factors or executive functions that can shape this to adaptive ends. This is what the neo-Freudians earlier called "regression in the service of the ego." This is the Freudian "ego" used in the sense of "adaptation to reality." Dr. Benjamin mentions "ego strength" (p. 57) as well. This is the ego-strength we wish some teenagers would show more strongly, or show more often. In high level creators, the overarching control may fluctuate, allowing certain flights of fancy, and even, and by deliberate choice, the taking of psychological residence (think of the novelist) in alternative worlds. Yet ultimately, and when needed, that loose overriding control is always there.
What we see in these rich personal journeys and reflections are, first, Dr. Benjamin's own thoughtful conclusions on relations between arts, mental health, mental disturbance, spirituality and other factors. A positive trajectory of overcoming is seen to include the author's brother, who is viewed as manifesting "self-actualization" despite obstacles.This includes the interesting issue, later overcome in a more transpersonal context, of what he calls egoism. Let us put our pointer again on "ego-strength." It isn't or needn't be "all about me" but we do need to strengthen qualities of the self. Beyond this, mental health is here defined, in higher developmental terms, ethically and psychologically. For this purpose of intentions, we are not necessarily speaking of all artists, either, but of a more prodigious subsetand could it perhaps even be a trajectory for some artists who persist? Some of us have thought so. See Maslow's "deficiency" and "being" needs as applied to creativity.
Dr. Benjamin's essays of personal reflection elaborate on certain themes, and very much his semi-autobiographical novel (excerpted here). How marvelous, too, to have a mathematician-author who is also an artist and a musician and…can speak to us in so many languages and ways of knowing. Then, in son Jeremy's story, one hears in his own words (and lived in his own way), the brave persistence in a tough and demanding first year as creator and actor in Los Angeles, and the eccentricity that both helps him to cope and may be misunderstood. Let one not automatically pathologize anxieties, late nights, excess energy--but celebrate it, particularly when enacted in the service of those overriding goals. Here, indeed, is that balance of creative talent with the strength, grit, gumption, and resilience, to succeed. And, happily, some initial success, after the first year. May this prodigious young man go on to do very well indeed.
Ultimately, Dr. Benjamin wisely recommends education, counseling, and supportive and insightful resources (such as he himself started) to provide skills, perspective, encouragement and understanding of a different artistic world and worldview, perspectives which a creative artist may need and not find as readily in the conventional world. Yet a world which must still be maneuvered successfully. For Dr. Benjamin, as well, being a "philosopher in life" has helped him see a larger picture and keep his own perspective. He hopes that this heartfelt, authentic, and very personal series of accounts, contextualized with his own exploration of the field, its literature, and its voices, has also helped in "loosening the bonds between the creative artist and mental disturbance, and of honoring my family heritage" (p. 399). I would say it has surely done so. May its insights further help open the doors to creativity for all of us.
Barron, F.X. (1968). Creativity and personal freedom. New York: Van Nostrand.
Denzin, N.K. (2014). Interpretive autoethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 4
Goodwin, F.,. & Jamison, K.R. (2007). Manic-depressive illness: Bipolar disorders and recurrent depression. New York: Oxford.
Maslow, A. (1968). Toward a psychology of being. New York: Van Nostrand.
Richards, R. (Ed.). (2007). Everyday creativity and new views of human nature. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Runco, M., & Richards, R. (Eds.). (1997). Eminent creativity, everyday creativity, and health. Stamford, CT: Ablex.
Sass, L., & Schuldberg, D. (Guests Eds.) (2000-2001). Special issue: Creativity and the schizophrenia spectrum. Creativity Research Journal, 13(1).
Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, ecology, and spirituality: The spirit of evolution. Boston: Shambhala.