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Early Childhood for Adults

Notes for a presentation at a symposium on Beauty and Healing at Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University, Nov. 5 2011.


(The  presentation  was fuller than the notes, obviously, and involves a series of exercises people did up on their feet. The goal of the exercises was to get people to a direct experience of the kind of uncritical awareness, the state in which creative work is done.  Conclusions of relevance were left to participants, but my own feeling is that the conclusions are less important immediately than the effect of simply having the creative experience consciously as a reminder of this prelude to critical thinking.)


Early Childhood for Adults


No need to suggest or defend a connection between Beauty and Healing with this crowd.  But there’s a difference between sitting in an auditorium and listening, on the one hand, and a direct experience of creativity and what it feels like when it works in us.  

We tend to think of creativity and result and beauty as something that visits on its own schedule, and all the more so as adults. But these visits, and the wonder and growth that accompany them, seem to come to children every day. Visits to grown-ups become few and take place apart from our “real lives.”

And yet, if you think about the growth and learning that children accomplish we might wish to have their unanchored creativity and undirected awareness back.

We are going to see if these things are still in us, and to explore them. But first a few words, mainly to define a few things.

My interest in the phenomenon of creativity began when I started teaching photography. I concluded that  cameras, chemistry and software don’t make photographers any more than vocabulary, grammar and a decent pen make poets.

I thought that awakeness to things was the key to making good photographs . And I came to think that that state of availability is a lot like the state  of a young child.

And then I wondered  if adults could revisit that child-like state, and what would happen if they did.

I’m sure you know the punch line: Of course we can. And today we’ll do an little experiential investigation of our own, and you can see for yourself what happens.


Photography had invoked it for me, but there were other means. They had in common that thinking was not really.



The poet Paul Valery said, “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.””

He pointed to holistic state beyond speech and cognition that is somehow wider, and a kind of knowing that is different than cogitation.


(Do Wide View exercise here, as an example)


Let’s look at two other terms that are part today’s program:

Beauty. What is that? Extreme prettiness? Obviously not

What then? “Truth is beauty, all we need to know.” We first encounter this line from Keats at about age 15, and at that age we don’t have much patience for it.  


A more up to date expression might be like what Susan Sontag meant when she spoke about a grotesque Diane Airbus photo: “I find this ugliness beautiful.”


Why would anyone say that about art that is disturbing?

Because, while it may be about something that is ugly, or frightening or disturbing, the piece itself—words or photos or music—if it is done right it can reflect the thing…perfectly. Not comforting, decorative, uplifting, necessarily, but true and right, just as it is. Perhaps you’ve written something like that.

As if you have, it seems gratifying and even beautiful in its proportion to the thing described, the “subject matter.”


So perhaps Keats was right, and truth really is beauty.

I think of Picasso’s Guernica, or the work of Richard Serra.

Or this poem by Gregory Orr:


The way the words sink

into the deep snow of the page.

The deer, lying dead in the clearing

its head and antlers transparent

the black seed in its brain

parachuting  toward earth.


Clearly something difficult expressed in a way that is beautiful in its perfection of expression.

And Imagine the satisfaction  for the poet, that of just nailing something perfectly.


Then, what about Healing?

I got a call from a doctor named Matt Budd asking me to be part of a workshop for women with serious forms of cancer and other illnesses..

I said I would, as long as it was understood that healing doesn’t mean one eliminates the disease. And after this workshop I concluded that it mean pulling away from disease enough to see ones situation and life and world in a way that is fuller and more balanced.


So perhaps healing is coming into full harmony with one’s entire situation (bear in mind it doesn’t have to be an illness). In seeing it whole one is more able to be with it, accept so that one can move outside of or beyond one’s fear to live in the truth of one’s situation.




These things—Beauty, Healing—seem to be closely connected to the creative state that surprises us, that lets Beauty and Healing in.  I experience that state as a thoughtless awareness, without categories or definities.  (Second grade teachers don’t value it as much as I do, as I recall.)


Samuel Beckett, contemplating  paintings that he was supposed to write about, could only murmur, “Wonderful, wonderful.”


As much as we are trained in critical thinking, it doesn’t work in the creative realm. (New Yorker cartoon of a man and woman on a hillside at night under a starry sky. “Look, a shooting star. Let’s critique it!”)


What is happening in that non-critical state then? Here’s a version of it.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damassio: describes the brains encounter with any unfamiliar object.

 “We become conscious when the organism’s representation devices exhibit a specific kind of wordless knowledge—the knowledge that the organism’s own state has been changed by an object.


So, imagine a child seeing its first dog, working to make a place for it in his brain/mind. And he has wordless knowledge that he has been changed, that he is different as a result.

What this describes is I think what happens with any of us in a creative moment. We are opened by it. It changes our wiring, it makes us larger.

Finding a result we weren’t looking for.

            Holistic “thinking”.

    It leads us to place we can’t think our way to. Timeless, dimensionless ineffable point where experience ignites something in us.


Later, when the child does start thinking, looks for patterns, its process may go something like this:


“What is that?” Oh, one of those furry barking things. Different than that other one, but close. So, a dog.”


Such thinking is the beginning of being able to anticipate, to construct meaning from our experience, to make leaps. But we have to have the experience first.


Well,  that’s a bit of background that might get us to some sort of understanding about we’re going to do next. Let’s play with this and see if we can fall into this child-like state.

We’ll do some exercises that seem to have no real point. That’s because they “get nothing done.”  But they will get at your state of mind, take you to awareness and avidity, and in that state things happen…though they may be “wordless knowledge.”

Best thing to do is to allow them to dissolve your conventional mind and to seek what Samuel John called the “unexpected copulation of ideas.”


Believe me, the conventional mind will be right there waiting for you where you left it..



At this point we did a series of theater games and musical exercises.


A non-wrapup:

I struggled for years to come up with a sort of summation, or at least an ending, of this kind of presentation. But in the end I have realized that it shouldn’t have an end. I urge you to hold onto these moments of experience, to keep a place for this kind of thing in your life and thinking, to recognize them when they are trying to happen.

After all, if they got you from birth to language and movement, that suggests that there’s a power there that is worth pursuing in adulthood.



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