DEATH, IDENTITY, AND CREATIVITY
by Gary Fisher Ph.D.
The interrelationship among death, identity and creativity is probably a simple one when fully understood. I do not pretend to that understanding. However, I would like to make some statements concerning glimpses of the interrelationship which I have caught.
In thinking about death, its seeming opposite, life, is the First phenomenon
to appear. Gibran expresses the contradiction poetically and meaningfully, "If
you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body
of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one"
(Gibran, 1946). That life and death are one and that life and death are a process,
what does this mean to us as individuals? Are we not dead when we are dead?
We are dead when we are what we think being dead is. This statement may look
like utter nonsense. Try this statement: We are alive when we are what we think
being alive is. Does that make any better sense? Let us specify what it is to
die. Death is a point in a process, a point of change in a process of experience.
Death is change and change is death. Putting this very concretely, whenever
a part of us changes, that part dies, dies in the sense that it no longer holds
a position of the strength' (in psychological terms, the motivating, force)
in our self or our existence as it previously did.
When we change, part of the self dies and this is death. As a result, a new constellation' or configuration of the "personality" or being obtains. This new configuration may contain new elements or it may contain fewer elements with a redistribution or new "weighting" of the elements in the configuration. Elements previously existing may perhaps now have greater opportunity for expression since other inhibiting elements have disappeared. (Parenthetically, I must observe that I am always amazed to see how infrequently people die. I have the same experience that all of you have had in meeting people after a period of years and finding "They haven't changed (died) a bit."
It seems obvious that the problem of the death of our physical self is a problem
insofar as we identify the self with our physical body. When we do this and
we see a person's dead body then we assume that he is dead because we have identified
"him" with his body and its actions, its appearance, its smell, its sound, its
color, and so on. Thus, when we see that these things are gone, we assume that
he, too, is gone. Identifying ourselves with our bodies and others with their
bodies then makes physical death a cessation of individuality and awareness.
In one of the Buddhist sects, the novice must sit and watch the decomposition
of the body of someone he has known well. This practice is to help cast some
doubt on the assumption that body and individual being are one and the same
thing. I imagine that it would be difficult to continue to believe that one's
friend, after a couple of weeks of decomposing, was just that mess of maggots,
worms and bone before one's eyes. The emphasis in Zen, of making an experience,
of concretizing an abstraction, so that it becomes a felt reality, is meaningful
and leads to knowing. Rather than abstractly thinking that man is more than
his body, and rather than having an intellectualized concept of this possibility,
as is more Western man's inclination, the Zen approach has us experience it.
The problem of physical death then has something to do with our identity and .what is. considered to be "me." When we identify ourselves with our "skin encapsulated ego" (to borrow Alan Watt's phrase), we naturally face annihilation. When we can identify with something beyond our skin-self, then death has a different face. The problem, of course, is a process of coming to know parts of ourselves that we do not already know. 'Or said, differently, identifying with things that we do not now know and therefore have no identity with. The solution is to identify with the life process-to experience, for instance, our cellular consciousness (awareness of that fantastic neuro-physiological activity) and to experience another's cellular consciousness, and on the other extreme, to experience (in Eastern religious terms) the "void," the unmanifested energy (the absence of any thing), the source of all life.
How does one begin this new identity? I think this broader identity occurs
by. our being willing to permit ourselves to experience-by learning to let go
and coming to know our feelings, attitudes, perceptions, moods, relationships,
forms and the senses we heretofore did not know exist. This occurs by leaving
ourselves and by becoming other experiences that have been unknown. Man, of
course, has eternally searched for vehicles for such travel, and Aldous Huxley
describes with vividness these methods in Heaven and Hell (Huxley, 1955). The
goal is to leave that usual, known and familiar experiential referent, the self,
and to move the awareness or energy to an unknown experiential referent, e.g.,
another human being, a rose, a note from a violin string, or an amoeba. Giving
up one's ego and its fringe benefit, "reality" (a tautological phenomenon) 'one
is able to become what was previously defined as "other" and not-self and to
experience the existential nature of differing referent points or energy manifestations.
Example: It is experiencing "rose-ness" and not "me experiencing rose-ness"-the
elimination of the subject-object relationship.
There is a very practical aspect to all this ethereal experience, because these
experiences give us an identity which is considerably more than our previous
body-in-skin one. As we learn to let ourselves experience we find an ever widening
identity. This of course is most important in our human relationships. When
we can come to know that others are just as we are, we can stop being afraid
of them, and stop being afraid we are different from them-better or worse-as
all comparison ends the same way-separateness, loneliness and anxiety.
Perhaps crucial to the present discussion is some statement of the. experience
of timelessness of one's existence or one's knowing. There cease to be concepts
of "beginning" and "end," but rather points of experience. What is described
as "being at one" is known. I have heard described somewhere that time is an
endless series of vertical' lines and space is an endless series of horizontal
lines and that at every point where two lines intersect, an individual consciousness
exists. Besides being delightful poetry, the picture portrayed is analogous
to the experience where an individual is apprehended as an experiencing node
in time and space. Timelessness of one's existence is known when one experiences
what is-the here and now, not the past and future, but the "is-ness" of the
Death then is a problem in identity: The more constricted the identity, the
more vulnerable it is to destruction; whereas identity with being, with life
process, increases the resistance to its destruction. Taking this to concrete
examples, we can understand why a multimillionaire commits suicide because he
has financial difficulties. His identity was so constricted that when he "lost"
his money, he "lost" his identity and was no longer an individual nor an identity.
When a physically attractive woman who has identified herself With her physical
beauty "loses" this beauty, she "loses" herself and catastrophe results. When
the identity is, narrow and constrictive it is more vulnerable, because events
and time can change the covering or, irrelevant attributes of an individual
and adjustment problems are inevitable.
Death then is a problem in identity just as any living change is a problem
in identity. The resistance in psychotherapy is partly a resistance to change,
to dying, to. becoming someone or something one previously has not been. And
this always necessitates giving up part of the self. In the transcendental experience,
giving up the old basic assumptions about self is literally experienced as dying.
Often these experiences are accompanied by ' the complete sense modalities where
one sees the world as one saw it being visually destroyed, where one hears the
world come thundering and crashing down, and where one feels the fire as it
consumes the old world.
Now I think creativity enters this process because creativity has something
to with the malleable interaction of attributes. In the creative relationship
there are attributes of both the creator and that out of which is created, and
part of the creative process is the mingling or fusion of those attributes so
that something unique is produced. Creativity has something to do with the creator
going out into other forms and making manifest a "reality" which proceeds from
this fusion. Michelangelo could not have created the David without marble and
the attributes of that marble. Attributes of the creator and 'that from which
is created intermingle, out of which is produced a manifest "original," which
is a product of those particular attributes of the creator and that out of which
is created. So a creation is a particular combination of attributes of both
the creator and his material. This process can only occur by the human being
allowing himself to go out of self, to go into other forms, other energy modalities,
and permitting himself to fuse with this material so that what is produced manifests
both himself and his material. The yang in the process is man and the yin is
his material. The active merges with the passive and the creator's identity
includes his partner, the material. The creator is thus not "I creating some
thing" but rather "transcended self and material becoming some new experience-thing."
Creativity occurs when man can permit himself to flow into the world about him and identify and participate in it. Creativity is seen as a life force which is able to merge with other aspects of being to produce new realities which are idiosyncratic to the creator and his material. Creativity has to do with this release of energy into the outside world. This often comes as a culmination of, or as a solution to, inner turmoil. The creative expression bursts out of the organism into the world. Perhaps this occurs when man sees his solution as a merging with the world and his solution to inner threat as a merging with something outside of him, that is, reducing the distance between self and what is considered "not self." I wonder if part of what we call creativity comes when man makes a desperate attempt to communicate with the world about him and goes out into his material (the world) to reduce anxiety that results from his separateness from it. In this respect, creativity is most beneficial to the creator. He again achieves a union with part of, or the whole of, the cosmos. He again becomes "one" through being able lo break through his skin-encapsulated ego and to becoming part of that world about him.
I have attempted to outline some of the interrelationships between death, identity and creativity. Death is seen as a point of change in a continuous experiential knowing. Physical death becomes a problem for a constricted identity, an identity with a skin-encapsulated ego. When one's identity becomes broadened so that he experiences himself as a manifestation of the life and death process (change), then physical death is seen as a point in this process. Creativity is released when an individual permits himself to experience, and creativity is seen as a blending of man with the world around him to produce a "reality" which has a particular combination of the attributes of self and the material. Creativity is seen as a process of a union with the world, a solution to .the experienced loneliness, separateness, and anxiety, so that man again becomes part of the cosmos.
Gibran, Kahlil, The Prophet. New York: Knopf, 1946.
Huxley, \\Aom. Heaven and Hell New York: Harper 1955