“This is why alchemy exists. So that everyone will search for his treasure, find it, and then want to be better than he was in his former life. Lead will play its role until the world has no further need for lead; and then lead will have to turn itself into gold. That’s what alchemists do. They show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.” ~ Paulo Coelho
Transformation is tough. Even healthy transformation is difficult work. In fact, healthy transformation can be even more painful than unhealthy transformation. It is scary stretching comfort zones and breaking mental paradigms.
It’s uncomfortable thinking outside of traditional and parochial boxes, especially when those boxes are all we’ve ever thought inside of. Creating art is one of the ways we have to smooth the transition of transformation, and art can even make the process an exciting adventure.
But in order to see/feel/understand how powerful art can be we first need to get to a place of peace and calm. So it is that the first art in the Zen of alchemy is the transformation of anger into humor. Like Deepak Chopra said, “The secrets of alchemy exist to transform mortals from a state of suffering and ignorance to a state of enlightenment and bliss.”
Transforming anger into humor
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” ~ Mark Twain
Anger is indeed an acid, but through the art of emotional alchemy, it can also be a fuel that can help us to outline healthy boundaries and to express our essential truth, passion, purpose, and even bring forth a necessary healing strength into the world: a sacred sense of humor.
But in order to be able to transform acid into fuel, we first must resolve the dilemma of the ego, which requires resolving the dilemma of either remaining a victim or becoming a hero. No easy task, this. But art isn’t supposed to be easy, and neither is transformation. Like Seth Godin said, “Making art hurts. But it’s better than the alternative.”
We read a lot about soul authentication and ego denunciation, about starving the ego and feeding the soul, and this is an extremely important process, but at a certain stage of spiritual development it is highly necessary to have a robust ego that can act as an independent force of interdependence in an otherwise codependent world.
This is the individuated ego, the resolute self, the creative force of personal character, the aspect of the self that shows the interdependent world its own soul-signature. Daring to show the world our unique soul-signature takes tremendous courage and the nerve to starve the victim and feed the hero in order to discover high humor. Victim is to anger as hero is to humor. When we resolve the issue of ego, we individuate and realign with soul.
Heroes always function from a place of soul. The difference between a hero and a villain is that the hero’s platform tends to be soul-centric, whereas the villain’s platform tends to be ego-centric. Heroes still use the ego, mind you, they just happen to use it as a tool to leverage humor, thereby gaining power. Villains tend to be used by their ego, becoming a tool to power, which leverages separateness (independence/codependence) through angry energy.
It probably goes without saying that we would all rather be heroes than victims or villains, and that we would all rather be courageous than cowardly. But most of us don’t want to do the hard work necessary to transform our victimization into individuation. In most cases it requires us becoming intimate with our pain and comfortable with being vulnerable. It usually requires us to face our demons and wrestle with our shadows.
Pain, demons, shadows; these are all scary concepts. But even scarier is their suppression. In order not to become people who suppress themselves in unhealthy ways (in order not to become victims or villains), we must instead become people who can express themselves in healthy ways (heroes). What follows are two tactics of self-expression that can prevent such suppression: creative catharsis and artistic playfulness.
“In almost every bad situation, there is the possibility of a transformation by which the undesirable may be changed into the desirable.” ~ Nyanaponika Thera
One exciting and rewarding way we can go about becoming our own hero, instead of remaining a victim, is through creative catharsis: purging our anxiety through artistic expression. By transforming our anger into humor, and our humor into art, we are all at once allowing ourselves to be worthy and to courageously engage with our demons. We are daring ourselves to dance in the fire, to harness the ability to transform rage into a fire that cooks things rather than burn them.
And if we should so happen to get burned, so what. We can simply rise like a phoenix through our own artistic expression. Like Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, “If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenges of apocalyptic times.”
By channeling our anger and anxieties into creativity, we launch ourselves into a heightened state of awareness where our art is free to transubstantiate the world.
“What is the real origin of my own anger?” wrote Jean-Yves Leloup. “Is it the ego defending its territory, or is it something that has its source in the desire for the well-being of all?” Life isn’t just about enduring and going through it.
It’s about the ability to affirm life despite, and even in spite of, the worst that can be dished out. It’s about coming back to what one has as their bedrock, their own unique capacity to be creative. From this place one can transcend any amount of pain, anger, or hate, and even transform it into a gift for others.
When we can process anxiety by expressing the energy through a drawing, a painting, a dance, or through song, we are indirectly unshackling the soul from its attachment to ego. We are liberating ourselves by transforming that which stressed us out into a sharpening stone that sharpens us into a finer instrument, an instrument capable of soulful self-expression.
Like the Latin poet Quintilianus said, “Facit indignatio versus: My anger creates my verses.” Forget water to wine, that’s old hat. Instead, turn anger into art. Now that is a most worthwhile alchemy.
“Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.” ~ Tom Robbins
Playfulness, and the drive to play, requires suppression of the drive to dominate. This in itself is worthy of practicing playfulness, but being proactive with such playfulness takes it to a whole new level. Call it benevolent chaos; strategic messiness; purposeful improvisation; playful experimentation; alchemical joy.
Proactive playfulness is the precise ability to transform the mundane into mythos, seriousness into sincerity, profanity into sacred resonance, and anger into art. Practicing proactive playfulness is harnessing the power to transform confusion into clarity. Imagine Toto calmly pulling the curtain to reveal to Dorothy and friends the true nature of the Wizard of Oz. Imagine Banksy practicing civil disobedience through humorous graffiti.
Such a state is a platform where bewilderment and turmoil might blossom into insightful clarity, and might even have the power to stretch the comfort zone or break the mental paradigms of others. “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the truer method.” So says Ishmael, the hero of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. How true it is, especially in an impermanent world that is constantly changing.
Such playfulness launches the spirit into a heightened state of creativity even as it prevents certainty from imprisoning imagination. It dances a jig upon the laurels and glories of old with the full intent of trampling them, burying them like seeds that can grow into something gloriously new.
Like Bruce Nussbaum mischievously articulated, “In an uncertain, complex world of constant change, playfully discovering new answers to puzzles that do not have one right answer is a better approach than solving existing problems that do.”
It’s all wide open. Not even the sky is the limit when approached with a playful heart. There are no rules but for cosmic thresholds, and even those can be breached (at least metaphorically) with enough imagination.
Like Einstein said, “Games are the most elevated forms of investigation… Mystery is the most beautiful thing we can experience. It is the source of all true art and science.”
Proactive playfulness puts us firmly in the game of life, in the thick of the pains and pleasures, the heartaches and love quakes, dancing us over it all with a humor of the most high that launches us into immanence. Here, even the gods bow to us in profound veneration.
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