Some days are just shit. Everything that can go wrong seems to go wrong. It feels like nothing is creative and nothing changes. It appears like hard work does not pay off and it’s a slippery slope into the dark side: the realm of uncomfortable, unmanageable and ick thoughts and emotions. Last week I had one such day. I felt angry, useless, frustrated and I just wanted to give up. My thoughts were ricocheting off the walls and I wasn’t able to focus. So I headed out into the hills.
It was evening, I was alone, and wonderfully, dramatically, the mist descended. It felt like a scene from a horror movie: all dark, drizzly and dreary. The myriad voices in my head vied to be heard and I felt I was losing a battle to hold back a deluge of madness.
I have ridden the negativity roller coaster all of my life: it used to be far worse until I learned to get myself outside, or into the water or into a studio with a few buckets of paint or onto a dance floor and move it. Incorporating these practices in my life has eased the highs and lows but still there are days when it feels like too much.
That evening, while I was walking I could hear hints of teachings in my ear: to stop and breath, to come back to the present moment, to focus on something to be grateful for. But I thought: You know what, NO! Fuck this! What if I just let all of this out? What if I don’t even try to suppress it?
It just felt like the thing to do, so, I let rip.
I gave this deluge free rein: just letting the thoughts, words and stomps arise. I expressed my disgust for myself, my feelings of stupidity for my ‘faults’, my frustrations, it expanded out to my anger at life, at my work to feeling of being unheard and unseen. Rather than landing on my ass in a soup of self pity I felt good!! It was a relief to stop fighting the feelings and even better not to judge myself for feeling them.
I let myself imagine the colour of these feelings. I let them move. Keeping out of their way, I could see, feel and taste my thoughts: the anger was black, grim and drippy like tar. The process became fascinating. The marks of hopelessness were gouged, staggered, rigid, the movement stunted and collapsing. I began to feel this burst of creative energy in me: I imagined the music of the victim and its proportions, if it were a cartoon character. I imagined what the perfectionist would wear, how they would walk; the shape of their mouth. And I found words for the poem of the cynic and saw the audience that would listen to it. My mind was an colourful explosion of new ideas: images of puppet shows, carnival floats and scenes from movies.
My greatest fear, with these dark thoughts, has always been that they would destroy me or lead to me destroying something or someone else. But here I was riding waves of emotions and thoughts; one after another they bubbled up and as they did I found myself getting more and more curious, less and less afraid of them.
I often forget that I am not what I think, and that I am not my emotions. As I moved with them that day I felt I was ‘exercising’ my demons and wow, did they need exercise. I realise that the more I stay with them the less dark and the less like any kind of demon they feel. I recognise the familiarity of them and how they are simply a part of me that does not respond well to being repressed.
Over the years, the pain of these ‘dark thoughts’ has been in the amount of energy I’ve expended being afraid of them, blocking them and in judging and shaming myself for feeling them. I recognised that evening for the first time in a truly embodied way that I have nothing to fear from them. It was liberating.
I wondered about all the creative people through history who have sourced inspiration from ‘the dark side’: The stories and illustrations of Edward Gorey, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, rebel songs and songs of freedom, The Nightmare before Christmas, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. Nelson Mandela’s Long walk to freedom. These true and fictional creative, songs, poems and books engage the dark and the light, they engage our hearts and our spirits, they remind us of our shared humanity. They teach us that we are all connected. They move us and bring about change.
The intention of my work is to support changemakers to access their creativity to effect positive collective change. But the work of creative changemakers is a challenging business: dedicating ones work to standing up to injustice and creating change in the world attracts negative attention: challenging responses, defensiveness, anger and cynicism. It challenges people to face our fears: of change, of difference and of the unknown.
There is a lot in the world that is challenging to understand and to listen to. But by learning to listen to our own challenging emotions and darker sides maybe we can release ourselves from self-inflicted judgement. Maybe we can learn how to engage with our stickier unfamiliar emotions and maybe free up emotional space, empathy and compassion to listen to others who hold challenging view points. And maybe we can see that we hold in ourselves a mirror of what we see in the world around us.
There is a lot of fear in our modern world, of all the things that can harm us, but I don’t believe that engaging with what we call our dark side is a slippery slope into the abyss or the realm of conquerors and evil overlords, but is a very necessary part of us: a partner in the balance of what we call light in generating all the colours that we are. It is a part that needs tending just as much as the light and it is essential.
No painting is possible without a spectrum of shade and colour, no joy is fully appreciated without the experience of grief, no flavour is savoured without the full palette of other flavours. Our collective dark side is ever a part of us and does not respond well to being repressed: it has and will inevitably find its way out just as surely as a river will inevitably make its way to the sea. So it offers us up an opportunity to listen to it.
Perhaps you can get curious about your dark side, and what that even means to you? Perhaps you know it well and are great friends with it or perhaps the idea of it is terrifying or ridiculous. I am not suggesting that you act out your darker thoughts and emotions in your day-to-day life but that you might explore giving them a container where you feel safe: a place for them to be expressed. Give the energy over to a created character: a villain, a victim, a cynic and let this character take shape: it could be in a sculpture, a poem, a story, a movie, a dance or a painting and it could be in the theme of a comedy, thriller, satire or abstraction. Let it have some space in your creative process. *
“Whether they are raised in indigenous or modern cultures, there are two things that people crave: the full realisation of their innate gifts, and to have these gifts approved, acknowledged, and confirmed. There are countless people in the West whose efforts are sadly wasted because they have no means of expressing their unique genius. In the psyches of such people there is an inner power and authority that fails to shine because the world around them is blind to it”. Malidoma Patrice Somé
When we open up to our own full palette of emotions: light and dark and everything in between, we gain access to our unique gifts. By accepting who we are, accepting the richness and uniqueness of our own gifts then we allow ourselves to attune to, approve and acknowledge the richness and uniqueness of the gifts of others.
Where I ended that evening last week was in a place of levity: it was a relief to my whole system to move my emotions, to free myself from judgement and to let myself be curious. Afterwards I felt a huge amount of gratitude for the great complex emotional landscape that exists in all of us: all the colours and shades of it. And I felt a renewed sense of hope and possibility that there is such incredible potential in each of us to engage with an abundance of creativity in addressing the challenges of our time.
So this week I invite you to get curious about this play of light and dark that you experience in your creativity, and in the books, films and stories of change that inspire you.
* If engaging in heavier emotions is traumatising for you, do not continue alone: do get professional help to support you in the form of a professional who is practiced in supporting emotional trauma.