The Alchemy of Creativity: Art, Consciousness and Embodiment

by F. David Peat

Photo by Arleen HartmanAs a physicist, I've been looking at art and music rather than science because these areas provide clues to the way consciousness is embedded within the physicality of the body.

Consciousness arises out of processes deep within the body that are projected, by means of creative acts, onto the external world where they can then be internalized into awareness. While our awareness, our direct consciousness of rational thought, involves the purposeful manipulation of internalized mental states, the source of all of this lies much deeper. Such processes are ubiquitous, and extend right throughout the cosmos.

Science constructs consciousness in its own image - from a system of hydraulics; through 19th century thermodynamics with its flows and balances of energy; and on to telephone exchanges, computers, parallel processors, neural nets, strange attractors, quantum devices; or even some hypothetical level beyond present quantum theory. It is assumed that the physical brain, which is generally believed to be the seat and origin of consciousness, works by some sort of logical means, using algorithms, programs and cognitive strategies in order to process data and information.

While this approach may have produced some useful results in the past I want to look at the whole question from a different angle by suggesting that the issue of human consciousness and awareness demands a different logic and a different way of thinking.

Suppose that we begin by assuming that consciousness involves the entire body and brain.

We should look to the medium of art, and the way in which many artists work, as the source of clues and intuitions.

Discussions of consciousness, from the time of the ancient Greeks, generally proceed in a didactic way, using Aristotelian logic with its categories, opposition of binary dualities, and assumption that closure and unambiguous choice amongst logical alternatives is always possible. Yet this is certainly not the way that our dreams, fantasies and unconscious slips operate. Nor is it the underlying logic of art, music, dance, jokes, courtship and so on.

The discussion of consciousness may be better served by a logic that allows for ambiguity, transformation and the tension of unresolved contradictions - a logic of shifts, slippages, shape changes, transience and flow.

Human consciousness is not simply synonymous with direct awareness but is a process that embraces not only mind and brain but also one's entire physical body. Just what is consciousness?

It arises out of psychophysical processes occurring deep within the body, and often outside general awareness. These are then projected outward onto the external world in the form of gestures, actions, words and so on. As a further part of this whole process, the projected material is then internalized into awareness where it is encoded or structured. This internalized material works within the body to be projected outwards again.

By being released into the "open air", as it were, projected material is then free to become active at both the social and interpersonal levels. Yet, at the same time, it is part of the one indivisible process and must at some point be internalized and returned to the body to continue through the same cycles of projection and internalization.

Artists and musicians must undergo a long training to refine their skills. In addition, most of them engage in their work with great degree of passion. It is for these reasons that I find that their sensibilities about the consciousness of the entire body is more developed than the average. Art and music make manifest, by bringing into conscious awareness, that which has previously only been felt tentatively and internally.

Art, in its widest sense, is a form of play that lies at the origin of all making, of language, and of the mind's awareness of its place within the world. Art, in all its forms, makes manifest the spiritual dimension of the cosmos and expresses our relationship to the natural world.

This creative "work" of the body is a significant aspect of what I am calling "consciousness". At one level it goes beyond what is normally meant by mental awareness and ego-directed mental activity, at the other is moves beyond the "subconscious" into the whole of nature as psyche.

Perhaps this is a good point to clarify what I mean by "consciousness" and "awareness". By consciousness I mean the whole operation of mind and body which is the source of our behavior, actions, moods, intentions, intuitions, inspiration and creativity. Consciousness descends deep into the body until it enters the realm of pure matter. It has aspects of the Transpersonal and the Collective. Consciousness communes with the gods; the powers and energies of the cosmos.

Clearly much of what I am referring to by the term "consciousness" is not open to general awareness, neither is it controlled and directed by the Ego. In fact much of what is most valuable and creative in our lives lies outside the immediate domain of awareness, and is vastly larger than anything the Ego can encompass. Awareness is a fleeting thing. It is transitory. It hovers over our waking life and part of the time is a rather mechanical device we use to patch over those gaps in time when we are not aware, or not paying attention.

Evelyn Glennie, a profoundly deaf percussionist of international renown, tunes her timpani by "feeling" each note in a specific part of her body. Other profoundly deaf musicians have become successful orchestra players, responding to the body gestures of their colleagues.

While watching the Dutch violinist, Janine Jansen, playing the first movement of the Brahms violin concerto I was struck by the vivid way the music appeared to be emerging out of her body. As she played she raised herself on the toe of one leg then swept low over the violin. It was clear that her body was not only responding to the music she was making but also anticipating what she was about to play. It was as if the music was already present inside her. The intention was first unfolding within the body so that its actual expression could then emerge though her fingers and bowing.

The American artist Janine Antoni has a compelling, almost passionate, affair with the matter of her art. In "Gnaw", for example, she chewed 600lbs of lard, spitting out the material, which was later made into lipsticks. Once when talking to her I drew attention to the table which was physically separating us. Antoni hypothesized that she could chew the table, incorporate it within her being and then spit it out, particle by particle in order to rebuild it by combining the wood particles with her own spit, hair and flakes of skin. What had previously been absolutely separate had first to be absorbed, incorporated, then projected back into the world, externalized, but this time containing elements of her own body - a metaphor for the subject of this essay.

When a creator's work has finally been projected externally and expressed as a manifest form, symbol, act of speech or writing, it is objectified and freed to be internalized yet again but this time into the conscious realm of concept and thought.

The function of art is to take our experiences of the world at the individual, social, cosmic and spiritual levels and allow them to attain internal coherence by containing them within the alchemical vessel of the body-mind to the point where they can be expressed externally as the engagement of inner form with the material contingencies of the outer world. In this way the invisible is made manifest, set free and given an independent ontological existence so that it can later be consciously recognized and internalized as thought, emotions, sensations and so on. In this manner the consciousness of the body is finally released into public symbolism, language, form, physical structures where it can be absorbed and discussed by others as ideas and concepts as well as though their feelings and emotions.

In fact all creative action - from painting and sculpture, to dance, music, poetry and science - involves acts of projection onto the material world. The power of this projection is that it gives us access to a series of codes, linguistic structures, archetypes, call them what you will, that we can internalize, only later to inject them into the our perceptions and thinking about the world. These codes and structures are therefore the ways we make sense of the world, society and our relationships. They are the infrastructures that determine the way we act and have our being. Thus at times a single work of art enables us to see the world in a radically new light so that familiar things are revisited in novel ways.


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[F. David Peat (born in Liverpool, England) is a physicist and writer whose interests include psychology, art, and culture. He has authored many books on quantum and chaos theory, and on synchronicity, including a biography of David Bohm. Peat lives in Pari, Italy where he created the Pari Center for New Learning.]