What Do Highly Creative People, Spiritual Seekers and Mad Men Have In Common?
Or, Are We All Mad?
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix
Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”
A handful of creative geniuses in the 1950s defined a generation, ushered in the counter-culture of the hippies, and became the progenitors of the new age movement of eastern spirituality in the west. The recently released movie Howl, starring James Franco, gives a glimpse into the lives of these acclaimed Beat Generation authors, who were celebrated for their non-conformity, rebellion, rejection of materialism, eastern mysticism and spontaneous creativity.
A darker side is also revealed of much personal loss, tragedy, acute depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and an inability to find their place in the “real” world. Kerouac, the father of the Beat Generation authors, described the term Beat, “as a kind of weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world.”
Is there a parallel between the brains of highly creative people and those who suffer from depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorders? One major study reported brains of healthy highly creative people and schizophrenics both share low D2 dopamine receptors in their thalamus.
In his book, Touched With Fire, psychologist Kay Redfield of John Hopkins University, explores the relationship between creativity and manic depressive illness and explores the age-old question of whether psychological suffering and artistic personality go hand in hand.
Yoga philosophy has long understood the parallel between the schism in the minds of spiritual seekers, creative geniuses, depression and schizophrenia. In Yoga, human birth, death and rebirth, are seen as a journey of the soul towards realization of its cosmic roots. With each successive birth, the experience of the soul deepens, as it moves further from physical reality and closer to the Absolute Reality.
As such, in any given population, there will be people who are born at the stage in their evolution for whom the connection with the metaphysical reality is stronger than the physical reality. While many spiritual teachers exalt this state, we must also recognize that this kind of birth may also bring with it haunting and vulnerable experiences, as there is a very fine line between surrender and escape, metaphysics and hallucination, and non-conformity and madness, renunciation and depression.
Evolution of consciousness and creativity is often spurred through crises and alienation in the physical world, so the personality searches for alternative realities to find meaning and purpose. Hence, the blurring of boundaries between the tangible and intangible world usually comes at a price of some type of deep emotional loss or “death”, which sets into motion the demise of the conscious personality/ego. The transformation which follows is never easy, as the individual personality struggles against this experience. Even the most evolved of souls find it challenging to gracefully handle the disintegration of the outer personality. It is here, at the edges of reality, that Spiritual Seekers, Poets and Madmen meet.
When properly supported and channeled, this experience gives the ability to access universal energies, allowing for prophetic creativity, psychic channeling, healing abilities and immense compassion. However, when erroneously channeled the experience can take a more painful path. The soul struggles to find its connection with the divine. When it is unable, it creates an ideal scenario on the mental plane to escape from the everyday world and instead may embrace defeat, fantasy, drugs, alcohol, depression, darkness and psychic/mental disorders.
Most of the Beat Generation Poets’ experiences exemplified the extreme expression of the soul’s schizophrenic journey of a spiritual being having a physical experience. This unleashed their creative forces, spiritual seeking as well as acute alienation, depression and escape through intoxicants. Some examples follow:
Allen Ginsberg, a practicing Buddhist, claimed that at the core of his epic poem “Howl” were his unresolved emotions about his schizophrenic mother who was institutionalized, sometimes for years at a time. He struggled with the loss of his mother, as well as the crisis of sexual identity and drug addictions.
Jack Kerouac’s search for spiritual liberation produced his most well known book, the autobiographical novel, On The Road, about his drug fueled journey across the U.S. As a child, he experienced the death of his father and brother. He believed that his brother’s spirit followed him around as a guardian angel. He was antagonistic against all the name and fame that came with the Beats and died at the age of 47 of internal bleeding due to long-standing alcohol abuse.
William Burroughs, a novelist, poet and performer and author of the controversial book Naked Lunch, is considered to be one of the most politically and socially influential and innovative writers of the twentieth century. He struggled with a serious heroin addiction and experimented with a myriad of drugs. He accidentally shot and killed his wife, while playing a drunken game of William Tell, which he claimed was the pivotal event that provoked his writing.
Gary Snyder was a Pulitzer Prize winning poet who was immersed in Buddhism and Zen. He was perhaps the most grounded yet ethereal of the Beats, finding his escape less through intoxicants but through much of his time spent alone and secluded in nature.
Neal Cassady authored only one book but is considered the inspiration and genius behind the Beat movement. His devil-may-care attitude and overwhelming charm covered up a dark and troubled childhood with an alcoholic father, skid row hotels and juvenile detentions. His death just four days shy of his 42nd birthday is attributed to drug and alcohol abuse.
Indeed, we are all “Mad”. We sit for hours in our twisted poses; eyes closed, inviting the grace of the spirit. We create masterpieces of art and poetry as our higher calling seduced by powerful possibilities of liberation and evolution. Those who have truly taken a plunge into the mysterious waters of the Spirit know that they were once at a crossroads and had to either make a choice to render life meaningless, or make it rich with meaning and purpose. Whether we will transmute our pain into an opportunity for the highest calling of the soul for introspection and communion with the universal consciousness, or choose to hit the “escape” button, is perhaps the most important factor of free will in our lives.
Below is a clip Holy from the movie Howl—it moves me no matter how many times I watch it.
Renu Namjoshi is a Vedic Astrologer, offering a unique counseling service based on years of deep study and practice of all aspects of life, as revealed in the system of Vedic Sciences including: Vedic Astrology, Ayurveda, Yoga, Meditation and Mantra practice. Renu accepts the responsibility of holding this ancient knowledge and wisdom with great humility and strives to be of genuine service to each and every one of her clients. Visit her online or e-mail her at [email protected]