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Ken Paul Rosenthal img
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From Demonizing to Dancing With Our Shadow

by Ken Paul Rosenthal © 2016

Walt Whitman wrote, “When we face the light, the shadows fall behind us,” which on the surface sounds very affirming. However, it implies that we are better for casting our problems aside. When our societal script for addressing trauma is, “out of sight, out of mind,” the innumerable shades of human experience are invariably reduced to dualisms such as right or wrong, well adjusted or crazy, psycho-normative or mentally ill. Remember that ‘psyche’, the root of the word ‘psychiatry’, means breath, spirit, and soul. So rather than focus on categorical, biochemical-based assertions in spite of neuro-diversity and lived experience, rather than be blinded by the light of the medical model, let us consider facing our shadows and feeling the warmth of the sun on our backs.

This notion is perfectly embodied by a wooden, laughing Buddha I purchased many years ago in Bali. The beatific grin on this particular Buddha called out to me the moment I spied it. However, its entire rear half was so pale and washed out in comparison to the richly embossed brown of the front half, I felt obliged to ask the vendor if she could finish staining the other side. When she insisted it was already finished, I figured she was simply trying to make a quick sale. Somehow I failed to notice the Buddha’s underside, where the dual tonality of the tree’s core proved that the artist had chosen to embrace the intrinsic character of the raw block of wood. Today it is clear that the artist was distinctly acknowledging darkness as a garment to be worn as conspicuously as a cloak, rather than something to be cloaked by. I adore Martin Luther King’s statement, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” It’s a more expansive and inclusive reflection, suggesting that we have something to learn by creatively adjusting our relationship to our maladies. For example, I have a mother of tongue plant at home. Its tall, broad leaves stood erect as spades in the soil. One day, I tried to nudge my plant into a very narrow space between two bookshelves, but the container was a bit too wide. My efforts to repot the plant into a smaller vessel threw the formerly linear leaves into wild disarray. So I brought the entire mess to my florist, who restored its former vertical posture. Yet within days, the leaves twisted and spiraled of their own accord, achieving a profile that was far more attractive and unique than the ordered symmetry it had previously been corralled into. Only after its foundation had been uprooted, could my mother of tongue unfold towards its authentic personality. Filmmaker/poet James Broughton said, "The way to happiness is to go into the darkness of yourself. That's the place the seed is nourished, takes its roots and grows up, and becomes ultimately the plant and the flower. You can only go upward by first going downward."

But we live in a culture of distractions that encourages us to turn away from the dark nights of our souls, and bury our attention in the virtual light of our social networking devices. We are not given the language—or the time—to navigate the space between our brilliance and our blues. It’s widely considered far safer—far more normal—to wade in the mainstream than to dive into the heart of our darkness. However, obstacles—when mindfully embraced—always inspire new ways of seeing. Keep in mind—literally keep it in your mind—that ‘cure’ is the root of curiosity. Our perceived flaws and concrete roadblocks can point the way towards healing and transformation because they present us with a means towards a beginning. Carl Yung said, “If you get rid of the pain before you have answered its questions, you get rid of the self along with it." We’re not fundamentally broken—we’re just cracked. And that’s how the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen sang. Traditional Japanese potters filled in the cracks of broken pottery with gold in order to bring attention to the fragments. They believed that when something is damaged, it has a history and thus becomes more beautiful than the undamaged original. Jacks McNamara, the featured subject of my first mental health documentary, Crooked Beauty, wrote that, “Birds with perfectly symmetrical wings cannot fly.” In other words, bird wings—like the flaps on an airplane wing—adjust themselves in relationship to the winds that blow their way. Our collective parts in all their asymmetries are our sensitivities. If we can learn to harness them and more skillfully navigate the space between our intoxicating highs and our desperate lows, we won’t burn and crash like Icarus. Lisa Simpson said, “The blues is like a fire in the belly that comes out your mouth. So you better put an instrument in front if it.” Break down always has the potential to become break through.

We live in a culture that pathologizes difference based on race, gender, sexual preference, and economic class and that’s crazy-making. J Krishnamurti said, “It’s no measure of wellness to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society. My creative work is an antidote to the institutionalized roots of trauma that are embedded in the media-driven narratives of damage, despair and terror that oppress us on a daily basis. As a filmmaker and as someone who has been labeled and medicated for my mental distress, I’ve observed how identical Hollywood and mainstream psychiatry are in their privileging of power and profit over insight and integration. Hollywood’s generic characterizations and conventional storytelling techniques are deliberately constructed to hold our hands, and guide us along a prescribed path of what, when, and how to think and feel. Our societal prescription for wellness has a parallel directive: untie the biochemical knot in our heads and medicate our shadows into submission. Such compartmentalizing is like standing so close to a pointillist painting, that nothing can be observed beyond a single dot. However when we take a few steps back—whether from the painting or ourselves—we perceive both the big picture and the whole person as a matrix of many interdependent dots or traumatic experiences. My yoga teacher suggests that we can change our positions—our patterns—from the outside in. This is very different than our cultural ideology, which is about fixing yourself internally, picking yourself up by your own bootstraps, and shaming your shame because “big boys don’t cry.” But like a yoga pose, we can re-position our actions out in the world and heal our selves in relationship to others. Perhaps the best way to get over our selves is to get out of our selves. So much of my own healing from my childhood trauma has manifested through service to others.

The job of the poet is to make grief beautiful, which is not meant to glorify trauma in any way whatsoever. I simply believe that the most transformative pathway to the head is through the heart. As an artist, I know that beauty is the gateway to the heart. Beauty can give us access to parts of our experience as human beings being human that we may not otherwise have the capacity to embrace. And as an activist, I am very clear that my job is to transpose stories with as much compassion as possible, so that lived experience can function as a touchstone for healing collectively. The original meaning of compassion is, ‘to suffer together’. So instead of triumphing over our shadows, let us recognize them as unruly children who act out when they have been denied attention. Let us move from demonizing to dancing with our shadows. Let us expose them like that grade school art project where we colored wildly on paper, covered it with black crayon, and scratched through the dark wax to reveal unexpected color combinations. If black is all colors, then each of us is responsible for the integrity with which we fall, crawl, and stand tall beside our own shadows.