Last year whilst attending a retreat that aimed to catalyse a process of presencing in service of transformation I took a risk. Whilst we sat in circle for dialogue I stepped into the centre and gave myself to spontaneous expressive movement and speech. Instead of speaking from the mind, I let myself roll about on the floor and I channelled words emerging from movement impulses. As I did so, an array of themes emerged: One moment I found myself climbing a sheer cliff, expressing my feelings of the collective challenges we face. The next moment I was channelling Gollum from Lord of the Rings, expressing our instinctive impulses to fear, to mistrust, to want to possess and keep to ourselves what we consider most precious as we face existential threats.

I did all this without any cognitive framing, which could have explained what I was doing: “Hey, I’m a performance artist and a psychologist. What you’re about to witness is a different kind of meaning-making, foregrounding expressive movement and somatic impulse work to give expression to forms of intelligence beyond the rational mind.” Providing an explanation could have mitigated the risk of potential reputational damage. You know, people wondering, “What on earth is this woman doing? She must be mad!”

So, why did I do what I did? And why did I do it without explanation?

Well, cognitive framing lessens the immediacy of the experience. It weakens the element of surprise. When I worked with the acclaimed theatre director Eugenio Barba from Odin Teatret on a production of the original Hamlet myth, Ur-Hamlet, he once said to me, “Jessica, it’s best when the audience is confused. When they’re confused I know I’ve bypassed their intellects and touched their hearts. That is what theatre is to me. An opportunity to stir the soul.” – That is exactly why I did what I did and why I chose to do it without any explanation.

More and more people who are witnessing, analysing and commenting on the uncertainties and growing chaos of our times are speaking of crises of relationship and perception. There is a growing recognition that confusion and not knowing have something to teach us, and that we need to remember and honour other forms of sensing and sense-making. And yet a lot of the analyses and commentaries I have read remain at a cognitive level. They talk about honouring the heart and opening to other ways of knowing, but they don’t let the heart speak. They don’t let the body dance. They don’t let the water drop or the leaf or the blade of grass share its wisdom. Why? Well, maybe because doing so … feels risky. In WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) contexts we feel the constraint of public perception, public norms. Amplify voices of other beings and other forms of being … and run the risk of being perceived as, well … weird and whacky! OK, so be it. Here I am. Bring it on!

As an artist I am well accustomed to doing things some might consider weird. It’s part and parcel of choosing a creative life path. To be fair, artists also have greater public permission to do things that do not fit the norm, that are unexpected. It is, however, to our enormous collective loss that we place constraints on everyone else. Imagine if more people felt free to play, to embrace poetic sense-making, to channel the wisdom of their bodies, to amplify the voices of trees and bees and rivers. We give young children such permission … and then we educate it out of them.

The creative embodied ways of knowing I am advocating for in this piece carry enormous potential for catalysing profound openings in our awareness. They can enable deep shifts in perception. They can help us transform mind sets and beliefs. As someone who has worked in participatory arts for over two decades I have seen these inner and relational (r)evolutions happen over and over. I have witnessed people return to life from profound states of brokenness. I, too, have lived that journey. Here we are. Let’s give ourselves permission to be more fully ourselves, shall we?

I recently wrote a poem, ‘World as Lover’, which was a response to Wisława Szymborska’s poem ‘Conversations with a Stone’. The poem invites us to remember our deeper participation in the world: Not grinding down the stone, turning it to sand and extracting from it what we desire … but being with the stone and noticing what it may teach us. As it turns out, the teachings of stones are profound. You can hear the two poems here:

Conversations with a Stone:

World as Lover:

What practices enliven you?
What brings you into a generative relationship with earth?
What other ways of knowing put you in touch with (y)our deeper nature?
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