Writing — could it be the tool that transports you into transcendence?
The ancient Greeks used two different words for time.
Kronos, named after Cronos the god of time, represented the temporal, humdrum aspect of ordinary day to day affairs.
Kairos, on the other hand, symbolised his namesake being the god of the opportune moment. Boundless and enduring, it can be thought of as sacred time.
“To miss kronos is inconvenient. To miss kairos is tragedy.” — M. Owens
With only around 1 in 5 people feeling engaged in their work, it is fair to say that Kronos rules the roost. Most of us get through our days by breaking time up into manageable portions.
“Only 30 minutes until a tea break.”
“15 more minutes until lunch and an hours respite.”
“5 minutes to knock off!”
Engage in something we truly love, however, and we enter the domain of Kairos or what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi dubbed ‘the flow state.’
Time vanishes and only experience remains.
Mihaly argued that most people go astray because they look for flow chiefly in leisure time. But flow requires that we be highly challenged and that our skill level be equally proficient.
When I invite a person to write a life story I notice that some opt to write about surface events or safe topics. On the other side of the continuum are those who take on the more considerable challenge of exploring unresolved dilemmas, behaviours that are the bane of their existence or deeply buried longings.
As for the other flow requirement of ability, writing is a skill like any other. Having an openness to learn effective techniques and then hone the craft through time invested in it, ensures that ones ability to write grows.
Mihaly felt that finding flow, rather than engaging in the fleeting pursuit of happiness is a far better undertaking for humans to focus on.
Although he was famous for writing about the peak experience, psychologist Abraham Maslow’s ideas about it evolved. He went on to regard the less intense experience as being preferable. This sustained state of serenity he named the plateau experience.
Like flow, this condition also has 2 requirements. The first is that one self-actualise. Simply put, this is being fulfilled when we become all we are capable of being. Realising your potential in essence.
The second condition is transcendence, which he defined as:
“The very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.”
Another way of languaging it would be giving back and loving wastefully through offering our talents and wisdom to others.
Maslow suggested that our culture both rewards and idolises our base needs such as love, belonging and esteem. This is one of the reasons why he felt that less than 1% of people attain the top two tiers of human development: self-actualisation and self-transcendence.
Consider your experience of being educated. Creativity expert Ken Robinson once said that “Instead of growing into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather we get educated out of it.”
During our first years of school, we focus on writing imaginatively and with a focus on feelings. By the time we’ve entered secondary schooling, our writing is almost exclusively factual be it essays, reports or assignments.
Educated out of our creativity and groomed for jobs we feel ambivalent about at best, is it any wonder that most of us experience Kronos as king?
In order to discover or rediscover Kairos, or a sacred sense of time, we must first set out to create a sacred space — being a place designed for uninterrupted reflection or unrushed creative work, both of which may be accentuated through writing.
As the mythologist, Joseph Campbell put it:
Our life has become so economic and practical in its orientation that, as you get older, the claims of the moment upon you are so great, you hardly know where the hell you are, or what it is you intended. You are always doing something that is required of you. Where is your bliss station? You have to try to find it.
Sacred space is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation.
Campbell exhorted us to follow our bliss. In order to do so, we first have to know what on earth it is.
A first step to doing so may involve finding a location conducive to help you tap into our creativity, find inspiration and get in touch with our deeper self. Perhaps you have a space where you live that fits the bill. Alternatively, you might find that doing a write of passage remotely may work best for you. Others are better served in a retreat space, particularly if you are like many people who flourish away from familiar surrounds.
Gifting yourself Kronos, a clear segment of time devoted to digging deeper can be a further step. Lastly, the quest to find one’s bliss typically involves experimenting with different mediums of expression until you find the one which speaks your language.
Huw Lewis-Jones found his in drawing, saying “Drawing is infinitely preferable to writing. Writing is a matter of sullen toil. Drawing is pure joy.”
Then there are those of us who find the polar opposite. After dabbling in the many forms of written expression (lyricist, poet, fiction writer, spoken word enthusiast, essayist etc.) we wordsmiths find one that speaks loudest. The broad palette of memoir and biography writing might prove to be the form that you find the greatest delight in.
Your passion might lie outside of words but life writing and journalling might offer value in helping you sift through the other mediums and make sense of where your passion lies.
Leonard Cohen was known primarily as a musician but saw himself first and foremost as a poet and a writer. He published two novels and ten works of poetry in addition to the slew of songs he wrote. His son Adam had this to say about his father luxuriating in language:
“He often remarked to me that, through all the strategies of art and living that he had employed during his rich and complicated life, he wished that he had more completely stayed steadfast to the recognition that writing was his only solace, his truest purpose.”
Cohen had no problem channelling ideas from pen to paper. Reflecting his devotion to the craft of writing he only shared his work with the wider world when he had sufficiently polished his efforts. He would rather spend years without producing an album than offer anything less than his best. Arguably his most lauded song, “Hallelulah” took years of refining and 80 drafts before he deemed it ready.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s conditions for flow can be seen in Cohen’s dedication to taking on challenge and sharpening his skills to meet them.
Kahlil Gibran was another who demonstrated this quality. After finishing his masterpiece The Prophet, he spent years poring over every word to ensure each one was the best he had to offer.
Cohen’s son called his fathers style “mytho-romantic.”
His final work, The Flame, is an ode to the importance of kindling and maintaining one’s purest passion as well as a provocation. As a former manager of Cohen’s put it this book is a treatise to “how our culture threatened its [the flame] extinction.”
How might time in a sacred space, spent undertaking a write of passage, help you spark and set ablaze your latent talents?
Finished only days before his death, The Flame shows how multifaceted Cohen’s inner fire was combining poetry, song lyrics, sketches and musing from his notebooks. Over the course of six decades, he constantly added to them, writing a piece on the day of his passing at age 82. In all, there were over three thousand pages during his life. And journalling was just one string in his bow.
I’ve always tended to take pen and paper wherever I go. Look a good boy scout I’m always on the ready, never sure when an anecdote or epiphany might present itself. My bedside table, office, car, pretty much every abode I spend time in save the bathroom is dotted with scraps of paper full of scrawled ideas.
Adam Cohen shared childhood memories of looking for different things in his fathers’ house only to find notebooks stuffed in every nook and cranny. In describing his fathers enduring love affair he said, “Writing was his reason for being. It was the fire he was tending to, the most significant flame he fueled. It was never extinguished.”
Cohen had leukaemia during his final years. This focused his concentration as he compiled his final creative offering. The book ends with the transcript of his acceptance speech which reveals his humble origins.
Not being musically inclined, Cohen was walking through a park when he became absorbed upon hearing a flamenco guitarist playing. After approaching him, the man offered to teach Cohen the basics. He considered himself totally inept but he learned the foundations and in time he went on to become acclaimed as a great musician. Music was the medium he used to channel his ultimate mode of expression, words. As he put it:
“Religion, teachers, women, drugs, the road, fame, money, nothing gets me high and offers relief from the suffering like blackening pages, writing.”
But as with every archetypal force, the Creator archetype has its duality, being both muse and menace.
Words were both Cohen’s preferred vehicle to transcendence and also his means of penance. His son suggested that part of his fathers’ motivation for producing his final work was to offer “a statement of regret.” He sacrificed making any marriage commitment, felt he was an inadequate father, neglected his health and monetary affairs while in thrall to writing. Becoming a poet was his vocation. And only devotion to one’s vocation can produce a pearl of great price.
A write of passage is designed to help you probe what your vocation might be and how you can pursue it while maintaining balance and integrating the discordant parts within your psyche.
What is your relationship with the mode of words? Dancing with them might not immediately feel easy nor intoxicating but with a little persistence and experimentation, it can lead to a fit as Cohen experienced with music.
He made a point of saying how common it was for artists to have an aversion to danger or risk. The tendency to play it safe has a far greater application than just creatives. How many extraordinary memoirs remain unwritten due to the people fearing complete transparency? And how many more go unspoken due to self-doubt around the value of one’s story?
Many of the people I teach life story writing to come to it later in life when time is freed up. Some worry they will have to toil away in order to excavate memories only to discover that once they make a start the floodgates open.
Then there are those who sign up thinking it will be merely a breezy way to jot down recollections to leave to their kids or grandkids. Instead, they seize the opportunity to delve deeper, integrate forgotten or overlooked parts of themselves and tend to unhealed wounds. In doing so they find writing demanding but richly rewarding.
As Patricia Hampl said:
“To write one’s life is to live it twice and the second living is both spiritual and historical, for a memoir reaches deep within the personality as it seeks its narrative form.”
In my experience, anyone can write a story but the powerful ones take time.
Challenging ourselves, sitting with vulnerabilities, areas of confusion, regret and disappointment is not something we are used to doing.
Abraham Maslow very rarely shared his numinous experiences. He was precious about his privacy. The beauty of life story writing is that you alone decide if you want to reveal it with another. You might find that it is something you want to do just for yourself. Others are motivated to write as a gift to others but in doing so find they are equally enriched.
Leonard Cohen captured the tension of opposites in both the title and the content of his song, Bird On The Wire. It’s a fitting way to pose the question of whether or not you’ll employ writing to find flow, self-actualisation and even transcendence:
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He said to me, “you must not ask for so much”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door
She cried to me, “hey, why not ask for more?”