Home » Library » Creativity » Creativity: The Meeting of Apollo and Dionysus

Creativity: The Meeting of Apollo and Dionysus

A talk given at the Institut International de Psychanalyse et de Psychothérapie Charles Baudouin, Brussels in 1996.


The subject of this paper is creativity and why it is so important for our modern world; creativity as something that bubbles up out of the matter of the cosmos and can be found within the very substance of our bodies.

I will draw on my background in theoretical physics; my contact with Native Americans, particularly the Blackfoot and Mohawk1, who taught me a different way of seeing the world; and on what I have learned from artists and composers about the way in which their particular creativity emerges out of the body.

My focus will be four different ways in which creativity finds expression, namely as:

  • An act of renewal
  • A state of openness, characterized by active listening and willingness to change.
  • The conventional one of making something new, original and unexpected.
  • The art of healing, which, I believe, combines the other three forms of creativity


My exploration will draw heavily on what I learned from the Blackfoot, particularly with regard to healing, or maintaining a healthy society. There is a great need for healing in a world torn apart by war and conflict, violence in society, the breakdown of inner cities and the pollution of our natural environment. Through participation in circle dialogues with the Blackfoot, I have come to believe that healing requires a new way of being in the world, a transformation of human consciousness and a new sense of shared meaning. This requires creativity.

It seems to me that we sense a lack of shared meaning, of grounding to the earth, and of a sense of belonging to human society in general. This feeling that something is missing leads people to explore alternative religions, sects and cults, shamanism and many different kinds of experiences in their agonized search for a ground to their life and for a feeling of belonging to a whole. Often, out of a sense of desperation, people turn to the transcendental, leaving themselves open to all manner of forces. Native Americans, in contrast, take this phenomenon of ‘soul loss’ very seriously and have ways of protecting themselves from it. If you are, for example, a Blackfoot, you are protected through participation in a profound shared meaning.

Many indigenous people speak of having ‘A Map in the Head.’ This is something learned in childhood as you sit around the fire at night and listen to the songs and stories of the elders; you learn it by watching the animals, by coming to know the land in which you live, by talking to rocks and trees, by participating in ceremonies and by entering into a wider reality within dreams. This Map in the Head is a connection to the time of creation, a guide to the world of powers and energies, and also a protection.

But what do we, in our modern world, have that can contain the powers and forces the psyche may encounter? We are like those chemists and physicists in the first decades of the twentieth century who played around with radioactive materials without using any protection. Or like someone who wanders into a high voltage laboratory and begins to touch the apparatus. Moreover, the danger in a loss of soul is not just to individuals but to our whole society which is threatened with losing its collective soul. Connected to this is the danger of inflation. Economic inflation is bad enough but the psychic kind is even worse! It is expressed in our desire to escape from the body, from the world of matter, from human society, from nature and into the world of the spirit.

Our world also has great difficulties in dealing with what Jungians call the Shadow, that dark area within ourselves which we deny by projecting it onto others. The events of the twentieth century have been so terrible that we cannot face what our species is capable of doing. The British composer, Michael Tippett’s answer to the Holocaust is contained in his opera A Child of Our Time and particularly in the words ‘I must know my shadow and my light and then I will become whole.’ Resolution comes in the oratorio though the use of Negro spirituals that express the pain of the aching soul.

We cannot afford to continue this destructive cycle of denial of the earth and our bodies though inflation of the psyche. We can no longer deny our collective shadow. We have to face ourselves and this requires a new form of action which is essentially creative.

Blocks to Creativity

But there’s a strong possibility we are blocking our creativity through that tendency of our Western minds to exert control and nip new growth in the bud. It is an enormously creative act to watch and listen, to stay with something, to suspend action. It is enormously creative even to allow our children to grow up rather than giving in to our natural instinct to analyze, to reduce things to problems and then immediately to seek a solution—some way of predicting, manipulating and controlling the world. This can work quite well when it comes to practical issues, but in other cases it may be more important to suspend action, to look, to listen and then to attempt some act which flows harmoniously out of the whole meaning, movement, and essence of the situation.

Think of a medical team who arrive at the scene of a traffic accident and initially do nothing but observe. First the doctor or paramedic looks at the injured person, and only after making a primary assessment does he or she touch the patient in order to make a physical examination before finally attempting medical intervention.

We are constantly striving, constantly making an effort, constantly trying to anticipate the future and control its outcome, constantly asking how we can become more creative. But what if creativity is as inevitable as breathing and what we are really doing most of the time is blocking this natural force? I say that this force is perfectly natural because it is an essential part of nature. If we don’t see this immediately then maybe it is because our vision is still blocked by what could be called the Newtonian paradigm. This was of a world of independent objects in motion. Change only took place though the application of force and the transfer of energy. Leibniz criticized Newton on the grounds that Newton’s god wound his watch at the moment of creation and then left the stage. It was a mechanical universe with no room for the spirit of creativity. And before the Darwinian revolution, even plant and animal species were fixed and eternal, as was society with its specific levels for the rich and the poor.

All that has changed. Physicists have a new vision of the world—but the problem is that it has yet to change our everyday thinking. Ilya Prigogine speaks of the transformation of our vision from that of Being to that of Becoming. No longer do we see fixed objects but, rather, emergent structures—new unanticipated forms from the levels below. Systems are open to their environments; they are aware of changing contexts and strike a balance between internal stability and openness to transformation. Creativity is ubiquitous. It streams through the firmament.

The physicist David Bohm pictured the electron, as well as other elementary particles, not as an object but as a process, an action that is constantly collapsing inwards from the entire universe and then scattering outward again; or as an unfolding out of a ground of ceaseless movement—the implicate order—and then enfolding again. For Bohm, matter is in a constant state of coming into manifestation and then unmanifesting. Matter, of its very essence, is therefore creative. Creativity is inherent in each star and in each particle of dust. Creativity is the essence of our physical bodies. My own vision is of each piece of matter as an inexhaustible inscape, an inner song of authenticity, an endless process of renewal.

How close all this is to the Vedic image of the universe as a constant breathing, a coming into existence followed by an exhalation into the ground of all being. All this is repeated over and over again. Likewise, for the Blackfoot, everything that is not creatively renewed will be swallowed up by the eternal flux. Even the cosmos would not exist were it not for a continuous creative act of renewal—an act that involves all of life, from the spirits, powers and keepers of the animals, to the ceremonies of the Blackfoot society, the singing of the birds. Maybe even rocks participate in the song of creation. This creativity is like a spring of water bubbling out of a rock, it is not ego-bound, there is no striving, no effort in it. We are part of this, our very essence of being is unconditioned creativity.

Defining Creativity

Now what do we mean by creativity? Not simply producing something new. Creativity goes far deeper than that. I am thinking of it as Renewal; Openness; Novelty; Healing. Let’s begin with renewal.

When I lived in Ottawa, I knew a baker with mystical leanings! Each morning I would buy a fresh, warm loaf of bread. Day after day, month after month the bread looked the same, it weighed the same, it contained the same ingredients, yet it was created afresh. It was made new. The baker once told me he made the bread with love and with all the creativity he had.

When parents tell the same bedtime story night after night, they are also giving birth to something new. A pianist performs the same concerto in different cities. Many times it is assez bien but there are those occasions when, with the help of the active participation of the audience, something totally fresh is created—exactly the same notes are played but they are heard as if for the very first time. The icon painter is confined to use formal gestures and a preordained colour scheme, yet he or she is creating something new, a container for the spiritual. Creativity is the activity of listening on the part of the therapist.

The ceremonies of Native Americans are performed for the whole of creation. The goal of Islamic alchemy was not so much to produce gold, or even a personal transformation but to enter into relationship with the original moment of creation, the naming of all things by Allah and in this way to assist in the renewal of all creation.


The second aspect of creativity is openness, unconditioned listening. Life seeks stability, but it must also remain open and flexible to the world outside. This requires enormous creativity. The world is flux, things pass away, contexts change, people grow and age, organizations flourish or atrophy. To remain healthy means being able to accept change. It means supporting change in others—one’s children, a partner, the profession in which one is engaged. It means facing the fear inside, coming to terms with the shadow. Not clinging onto the past. It is a harmony between the need to renew and foster what is important and recognising that which must die and be replaced. Creativity is a willingness to accept endings, to discard, to sacrifice. It is the goddess Khali who must destroy in order to create.

Native American metaphysics sees society as a living thing, an expression of the consciousness of the people and the original compacts made by the ancestors with the spirits of the world. But societies only live on because they are actively renewed. They tell me that the great vanished civilizations of the past—the Olmec, Mayan, Anasazi—were not destroyed by natural forces, nor by external invasion. Rather the people decided that contexts had changed and it was no longer appropriate to perform acts of renewal. The people stayed where they were. It was the civilization, a particular order, that vanished.

Something New

The third area reflects the American poet, Ezra Pound’s dictum, ‘Make it New’: Creativity as making things that are different, original, like nothing seen before. The paradigm is Picasso, who seemed to produce something new and different every day of his life. Or Mozart, whose creativity was a pure, unconditioned outpouring of spirit.

There is a time for creative renewal and a time for creative change, for destruction of what already exists and replacement by the new. Byzantine art, which enjoyed renewal for so long, was no longer fulfilling to a painter like Giotto, or Cimabue, and so new, more humanistic modes of expression were developed. Enormous energy is needed to break apart the old paradigm as customary ways of thinking are held onto deeply and unconsciously. This is the creativity of a Picasso and a Mozart, but also that of an Einstein and a Cézanne, who both sought radical changes to the existing order. Cézanne spent his whole life struggling to ‘realize his sensations’ before nature and to create a new order to painting. Einstein spent his time reading the philosophers Kant and Hume; he had to reach down deeply into his own thought processes in order to produce a revolution in our concepts of space and time.

Healing as Synthesis

Finally there is creativity as the synthesis of the previous three overall types—renewal, openness and radical change. I think of this form of creativity as healing, making whole, bringing back into balance, restoring harmony. It is the natural creativity of the human body, which at every moment is assaulted by radiation, bacteria, viruses, poisons and other trauma yet constantly repairs and sustains itself. Creativity is healing of the body, society and, indeed, the entire planet.

Healing is also an act of sacrifice, for the healer must support inner tensions and paradoxes within the body, tensions which can often make a person ill. I believe that our present society is placing enormous demands upon the healer. Healers are not necessarily doctors and therapists for composers, artists, writers, actors and movie stars are also called upon to perform the role of shamans. They are often made physically ill by the internal tensions they must hold. Some societies are wiser, so that the act of healing is undertaken by the entire society. For the !Kung of the Kalahari (one of the San peoples), the healer dances in order to invoke and raise the temperature of the sacred n/um, that can burn and destroy. Once filled with the n/um the healer is able to see within and to heal. It is the responsibility of the society to protect the healer by removing some of the n/um when it gets too hot, allowing the healer to cool down.

The Mystery of Matter

I have suggested that creativity is perfectly natural and present in each one of us, in the very matter of our bodies. Now I want to look a little closer at matter.

To the Sufi mystic, every tree, flower and grain of dust sings the glory of Allah. In the West, and despite centuries of science, the inner essence of matter remains a mystery. To the contemporary physicist, matter has been transformed from an object to a process. The physicist David Bohm argued that quantum reality is so very different from our everyday largescale experience that it requires a new language for its discussion. Our Indo-European languages are strongly noun-based and subject-object structured. For Bohm they represent a barrier to deeper understanding. The essence of the quantum world is flux, movement, transformation, symmetry and relationship rather than individual objects in interaction. For Bohm the essence of such a reality requires a verb-based, process-based language—probably one very close to that still spoken by the Blackfoot2.

The physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who was involved in many discussions as a collaborator of Carl Jung, pictured atomic reality as a battle between symmetry and antisymmetry. Pauli had consulted Jung during a crisis in his life and his long series of dreams are discussed in Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy. They also collaborated on The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche which includes Jung’s exploration of the phenomenon of synchronicity. Pauli argued that just as Jung had discovered the objective side to the unconscious—that is, the collective consciousness which transcends the individual, personal history, of repressed experiences—so too physics must uncover the ‘subjective in matter.’ In particular, he felt that science must come to terms with what he termed ‘the irrational in matter.’ To take an example, quantum theory can offer no account for the disintegration of a radioactive nucleus or predict when this will occur. For Pauli it was an irrational act. Another example would be the way in which, when a quantum measurement is made, a large number of different potentialities collapse into a single actuality. The process is totally discontinuous and lies outside the power of quantum theory to explain.

Jung was concerned with synchronicity—what he termed an ‘acausal connecting principle.’ Pauli for his part believed that abstract mathematical symmetries were the key to the cosmos. He even pictured the duality between symmetry and antisymmetry as a battle between God and the Devil. Now symmetries do not appear to be tangible things; they are not objects that can be grasped or directly observed. They come very close to what Jung called archetypes. Yet it is the guiding role of antisymmetry, for example, that gives structure to the material world. Without antisymmetry, also called Pauli’s exclusion principle, all the electrons in an atom could collapse into the same state and the chemical elements would lose their distinct properties. In terms of electrons this means that there is an ordering principle, a connecting principle, that has nothing to do with interactions or forces or causality. At the level of quantum physics it is a true ‘acausal connecting principle,’ a true synchronicity between the material and something non-material.

Pauli, from the perspective of physics, and Jung from that of depth psychology were both approaching the ‘psychoid,’ that deep level where the unconscious merges into matter. The psychoid is variously described as ‘neither matter nor mind, and both.’ Or by the metaphor of the speculum, that reflects one world into another while, at the same time, transcending them. In one way of looking, the psychoid is material and it is also mental. In another it transcends these categories which, after all, are only the distinctions created by thought.

We have already seen that as we approach the atomic level the only world of causality and of independent physical objects in interaction with each other dissolves away and leaves a world of abstract symmetries, processes, transformations, flux and Pauli’s ‘the irrational.’ It is a world in which matter is constantly coming into being and fading away. This subatomic level is one of pure creativity, as must also be the nature of the psychoid which lies beyond the distinctions of matter and spirit. Creativity is to be found at the level of this psychoid. It bubbles up into the manifest world, where it expresses itself mentally and physically.

In this sense, creativity is synchronistic since its origins lie in the deep ground beyond matter and mind. Its metaphor is that of the artist, who requires both the mental image or intention, and the material substrate. These are then brought together in the creative act which leaves both matter and consciousness transformed and renewed.

Creativity is deeply connected to this mystery of matter. It is the meeting of Apollo and Dionysus—the world of Platonic order and abstraction incarnating into the flux and chaos of the world. It is a divine encounter; Apollo is forced to acknowledge the contingency that lies within the grain of the world. Likewise, the drunken ecstasy of Dionysus is bound by the chains of harmony and abstraction. Apollo and Dionysus, matter and spirit—each is transformed by the other.

A continuous act of sustained creation is present within each one of us. We contain within us the primordial ocean out of which all life evolved. The atoms of our bodies were created in nuclear syntheses within the heart of the stars. The elementary particles out of which these atoms are composed were formed out of the Big Bang. And if physicists like Bohm are to believed, our body is a constant process of renewal, each elementary particle being a process that unfolds out of the entire universe and folds back again.

It is also a fact of physics that each of us literally stands at the very centre of the universe. The cosmos was created in a singularity of spacetime, a point in space that began to expand in an explosive fashion. Today each point in space is a fossil of that primordial explosion. Each point is that point at which creation began.

The Middle Ages saw the human body as a microcosm of the macrocosm—‘as above so below.’ This was also the conviction of David Bohm who felt that because his body contained the same matter out of which the universe is created, then within him could also be found the deepest understanding of the nature of matter, its order and laws. Something very similar was said by the philosopher Henri Bergson who argued that reality is ultimately unknowable through the mind yet, since this same reality is the stuff of our bodies, it can be known within the body.

In Bohm’s case, he was aware of certain interior sensations, muscular dispositions, and acts of proprioception. On one occasion when thinking about physics he had a particular sensation. This was joined by a second sensation. Then the two combined to produce something quite different. This was directly related to a mathematical result about quantum theory, one that turns out to be very counter-intuitive. Einstein told Bohm that he too ‘thought’ by means of subtle muscular tensions. His work on non-linear field equations of space-time was helped by the movements he sensed within his arm as he squeezed a rubber ball.

What is curious in Bohm’s case is that mathematical results came to him out of the body—without the various logical and deductive steps needed to derive a result. Conscious work was something that came later—having to sit down and work out a proof for what had unfolded out of his body in a very different way. What we take as the experience of mind and consciousness is only a small part of something much larger that is distributed within the entire body. It takes place at the muscular, visceral, biochemical levels. It is at this material level that much of our natural creativity is to be found.

To give one example, there is evidence from brain scans that during a performance a professional musician suppresses the active listening region of the brain. What is being produced in performance appears to emerge out of an orchestrated vocabulary of inner muscular gestures, each of which seems to be specifically related to feelings and emotions. In this sense the music is emerging out of the very physicality of the body. Of course conscious study of the musical score has earlier been involved but the act of performance may be quite different. There is a wonderful anecdote about the Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, who was practising a particular piece by Bach and could not produce what he felt inside because the sound he was making on the piano had become too distracting. In the end, he put two radios on top of the piano, turned them up to full volume and went on practising!

The pianist, Alan Rowlands, told me that despite intense study and practice he had difficulty understanding a particular passage in one of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas. As he put it, the passage was musically ungrammatical, it was as if something had been left out. It did not seem to make sense. Then, on one occasion, he had a very strong sense of the presence of the audience, breathing with him and supporting him. As he approached it, the passage simply played itself. Only later, on reflection, was he able to come to terms with what he had played and to realize the inevitability of its inner logic. In this case creativity transcended the boundaries of the individual and became a ritual of the entire group—audience and performer.

The Dark Space of the Body

The significance of the body and its role in creativity is the subject of several contemporary artists such as the sculptors Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor as well as the performance artist, Marina Abramović. In making his work, which is based upon his own body, Gormley speaks of entering the dark space within the body. It is a place rarely visited in our own age, the place in which the body has its existence, a space beyond ego, beyond history, beyond space and time. As Gormley puts it, this space is beyond good and evil, although it may contain both good and evil. This is the space of pure potentiality and creativity. As far as Anish Kapoor is concerned, a pure act of creativity which transcends the personal and biographical can induce in his material—in the stone and pigment—what he terms an alchemical transformation. Again something that lies beyond mere causality and the action of one object on another. Abramović explores body and endurance art, the relationship between the performer and audience, and the possibilities of the mind. She pioneered a new notion of identity by bringing in the participation of observers, focusing on confronting pain, blood, and the physical limits of the body.

Sir Michael Tippett and Healing

When art brings us to a dark internal space it exercises a healing function. The idea of the artist or musician as a shamanic figure is an ancient one. Orpheus tamed the wild beasts with his music. Within many indigenous cultures songs have healing properties. Indeed, songs are considered to be living beings in their own right. What is important is not so much the act of the healer who sings, as the song that sings itself, that makes itself manifest through the medium of the singer’s body. In doing so, the song heals the sickness within a person. The sickness itself may have a spiritual origin and the song restores wholeness to the body and to the meaning to a life. People, who are still suffering from a particular disease or wound, may therefore speak about having experienced a ‘Good Healing.’

The function of the shamanic singer/healer is very much in evidence with the British composer Sir Michael Tippett. Tippett has spoken to me about being possessed during the act of composition—enthused and possessed by a god. His task was to hold within his body, over an extended period of composition that lasted several years, the tensions and forces that would later emerge in the music. The result made him profoundly ill. In this he could identify with other composers such as Berlioz when composing the opera Les Troyens, or Beethoven of the last works. Again, by sitting with the inner tensions of the body, by containing them to the point of sickness, the shaman is able to create an act of healing for others.

Inherent Dangers

But here let me add a note of caution. Shamanic figures can also be disruptive, self-destructive, anti-social and sometimes violent. In the case of artists, I wonder if their creativity/healing power comes from allowing themselves to remain open to what Pauli called, ‘the irrational in matter.’ There are times when the artist may help to renew meaning within a society and times when he or she must break that meaning apart in a search for new forms. It is interesting to note the degree to which art can still shock and offend.

Although they don’t seem all that eager to talk about it, I get the sense from Native American friends that there are healers one would be happy to see and others who are best avoided except at times of severe crisis when their special powers are required.

In our own culture, the bubbling creativity of Picasso did not preclude his callous and brutal attitude to women. Or Cézanne’s extreme rudeness and defensiveness. And if you think of outstanding American writers and poets, and try to list those who were not alcoholic. There is always a price to pay and the brighter the light burns the darker is the shadow.

Cézanne and Time

The creativity which emerges out of the body demands its own time. This is not the psychological time of anticipation and expectation, but something more organic and material. It is the time taken for a seed to germinate, for fruit to ripen, for food to be digested, for the alchemical workings within the athanor. It is time that must be accepted and lived with. It is the time of listening as the therapist sits with a patient. For Tippett, although the process made him ill, he knew intuitively this was the time demanded by his very organism. As the Native Americans insist, a ceremony can only be performed when ‘the time is right.’

To be creative one must allow this organic, visceral experience to ‘take its time.’ Parents provide a safe and secure environment for a child’s growth. They listen and watch without attempting to hang on to what is passing away or to reach forward to what may be.

This essence of creativity is contained in a remark the poet Rilke relates about the painter Cézanne. Cézanne sat before the motif ‘like a dog, just looking, without any nervousness, without any ulterior motive.’ At the time Cézanne was doing something radical—he was discovering an entirely new order for painting. But the only way he could do this was by containing the inner sensations of his body and allowing them to manifest on the canvas in their own time. His portrait of Ambroise Vollard took over 140 sittings and was left incomplete—the best Cézanne could say was that parts of the waistcoat were not bad. He was still painting a still life long after the fruit had rotted in the bowl. Again and again he returned to Mont Sainte-Victoire. He once said he could spend his life in front of the motif—now sitting a little to the left and now to the right.

Cézanne would sit and eventually he would make a mark—small parallel brush strokes of orange in this place, and over there another cluster of orange marks. Days later he may cool the orange with blue—pushing it further back into the landscape. Here he makes a mark of green. It is deliberately ambiguous. It could be part of the foliage of a tree in the foreground, or the green of bushes in the middle ground. But, as Rilke said, the miracle is that—I quote—‘It is as if every place knew about all the others.’ Another painter observed ‘here is something he knew and now he’s saying it; right next to it there’s an empty space, because that was something he did not know yet.’

The act of painting for Cézanne was pure physicality, the realization of sensations within his body. Towards the end of his life Cézanne felt that all he had were his ‘little sensations.’ But they took him into a world that lies beyond conscious thought and emotion. Rilke realized that it lay even beyond love. I quote: ‘While it may be natural to love each one of those things in the landscape if one shows this, one makes it less well; one judges it instead of saying it.’

In Cézanne’s own words : Le paysage se reflète, s’humanise, se pense en moi. Je l’objective, le projette, le fixe sur ma toile…je serait la conscience subjective de ce paysage, comme ma toile en serait la conscience objective. (The landscape is reflected, becomes more human, is thought of in me. I objectify it, project it, fix it on my canvasI would be the subjective consciousness of this landscape, as my canvas would be its objective consciousness.)

I find that passage quite remarkable because it sums up so much of what I want I have been trying to understand about creativity. And here I’d like to interject something purely personal. I have struggled for a long time with Cézanne, more than with any other painter. I have spent a long time in front of his paintings. I can’t say that I like or dislike them. That simply does not come into it. It is more that he engages me in a way that goes beyond analysis or reason. And so I would read what art critics say about Cézanne and then go back to look at a painting. Yes, I could see the way he created a new perspective out of colour. Yes, I could see how he analyzed the picture into a variety of planes. Yes, I could go on and on with this. Yet, in the end, none of that seemed to be to the point. Then, earlier this year, the big Cézanne exhibition opened at the Tate gallery in London and I visited, day after day, each time seeing something new. Finally, one day, I stood in front of a particular painting and asked myself, ‘What is really going on?’.

Finally an answer came. I had always been aware of sensations within my body when I looked at Cézanne—inner movements, tensions, sensations of orientation and so on. Now I paid more attention to these inner sensations and the way they seemed to be orchestrated. It wasn’t about looking any more but about feelings and experiencing. I was hit with an intuition, a firm conviction, that these were the sensations Cézanne himself had experienced as he sat before the same motif. I rushed to the library and sure enough I discovered that quotation above—je serait la conscience subjective de ce paysage, comme ma toile en serait la conscience objective.

The new order Cézanne created for painting involved simultaneously an order of gestures and colours upon the flat canvas and, at the same time, a reading of these gestures in terms of depth, movement and so on. As a counterpoint to the order of flatness there is the order of a multiplicity of planes, area and regions in perceptual space which form a dramatic counterpoint with what we expect to see—thus the foreground should be closer than the trunk of a pine, yet it is simultaneously further away and a patch of green shares both the immediate foreground and the distant plane in the background. What I now saw is the way in which this is informed by and recreates such an intense symphony of internal sensations and movements.

Again, as with the composer Tippett, there is such tension in this, this holding onto the feelings. I quote Cézanne again—‘…always with me the realization of my sensations is always painful. I cannot attain the intensity that is unfolded before my senses3.’ This recalls a letter I had from the English painter, David Andrew. He felt that nature ‘looked him,’ that is, looks at itself through him so that ‘art is nature in action.’ The art of painting for him was an act of dreaming where, in a series of paintings, forms emerge, shift, transform and crystallize. The environment ‘knows’ him and paints itself through him. And here I should add that his work is not purely representational since he is not so much responding to external objects but to, I quote, ‘the vibration of related bodily sensations.’

Projective Identification

Likewise, nature thought itself through Cézanne and his painting became the objective expression of the ‘sensations’ he experienced. I, in turn, standing before his painting experience those sensations, the same sense of the motif becoming conscious and thinking itself. This invites me to explore what psychotherapists call ‘projective identification.’ Mental projections are normally spoken of as being cast onto a blank screen. Something within the therapist triggers a projection in which the supposedly objective therapist is now perceived as the patient’s father or some other figure from childhood. The perceptive therapist must contain the transference and use its energy in the patient’s process of healing.

Over recent years I have talked to therapists about their experiences of projective identification. Often they will tell me about that one case which struck them deeply and possessed some numinous, troubling or inexplicable element. The accounts they gave me suggested the actual projection of certain contents of consciousness, an aspect of the self with all its memories, feelings, intentions and so on, from one mind to the other. In such instances they had direct access to bizarre feelings, memories, knowledge and attitudes—either in dreams or during a therapeutic session. On later reflection they realize these lay beyond their own experience and could only have come from the patient.

Probably ‘projection’ is not the correct word for what is happening in such cases. It does appear as if, for a short period of time, consciousness is shared and that the duality between matter and mind is transcended. Although its origins may lie in neurosis, I wonder if it is a profoundly creative act. Let me give you a metaphor. In chemistry there are certain reactions—such as the combination of oxygen and hydrogen to form water—that cannot take place at room temperature. The reason is that a barrier of energy must be first overcome in order for the molecules to rearrange their geometry before they can react. This energy barrier can be overcome if a catalyst is used. Molecules absorb on the surface of a catalyst, such as platinum, where they temporarily borrow a little energy, rearranging themselves until they interact. When they leave the catalyst, they pay this energy back. Another role played by the surface of the catalyst is to slow things down and give the molecules time to meet and interact.

Suppose something has become fixed in a person’s life: they are unable to move, unable to increase the dimensions of their life. They are closed and stunted in their growth. By themselves they do not have sufficient energy to bring about a restructuring of the psyche. But suppose that such contents can be projected onto or shared with the mind of the therapist. The therapist is temporarily possessed by this sub-personality but in such a contained way that it can, for the first time, be observed in a dispassionate manner by the patient. In this manner the patient and therapist generate the energy necessary to bring about a transformation of the psychic material to the point where it can be reabsorbed by the patient and structured in a new and more flexible way.

I speculate that this process is far more universal than we may believe. It happens not only at the level of pure psyche but also with matter. It is what is present in Cézanne’s paintings and in what Anish Kapoor felt as an actual physical alchemical transformation of pigment and stone in truly successful work. It is as if mind, sensation, consciousness—call it what you will—enter the material realm and cause it to transform.

I think here of alchemy in the Sufi tradition, at least as conveyed to me by the Islamic scholar William C. Chittick. The great work of renewal takes place within the womb of matter. It moves though the long processes of purification, separation, distillation and so on. It involves the use of fire and the containment within the athanor. As Carl Jung realized, the operations of alchemy have a metaphorical relationship to those of individuation of the psyche. Islamic mystics speak of polishing the mirror, that organ of perception within the heart that must be cleaned until it perfectly reflects the light of creation. Thus the goal of alchemy is not so much to produce gold but to bring about an inner transformation in which the mirror is finally cleansed and the world is seen for what it truly is—pure gold. Carl Jung stopped at this point but the alchemical mystics went further. They realized that at the deepest level matter and spirit, body and soul, can never be separated. Thus, if the inner world transforms, then so must the outer. The external, physical transformation of base metal into gold becomes as real, as actual, as the inner transformation of the psyche.

Now I am aware that all this may sound a little crazy. Producing actual gold. Paintings that contain consciousness. The matter of the world changing spirit. Have I fallen victim to inflation? Have I been spending too much time in that hilltop village in Italy? Is my mind filled with fairy stories?

It is perfectly possible to explain all this without ever leaving the world of Cartesian duality. One could talk about the connection between inner muscular tensions and emotional states, and their representation in terms of gestures on a canvas. In this sense states of consciousness could indeed be encoded within a painting and available for others to ‘read.’ Now I happen to think that this is quite true, that complex internal states can indeed be encoded within art and music as gestures, forms and so on. But that may not be the total story. After all, if a dream, in Freudian theory, is overdetermined and capable of many different readings, all of them in a sense valid, then why not reality itself?

As the Spanish playwright Calderón put it, La vida es sueño (life is a dream). The Symbolist Albert Aurier wrote ‘isn’t a literature of a dream a literature of true life’; and according to the historian Hippolyte Taine, ‘Our external perception is an internal dream which is found in harmony with external things…instead of saying that hallucination is false external perception, it is necessary to say that external perception is true hallucination.’ For David Andrew an aspect of this hallucination that is reality is the act of painting, an active dreaming in which nature comes to know him—‘my loves, my fears, my joys, my sorrows’—and to express its essence through him. Art, for him, is nature in action.

Shakespeare dumped them all together, ‘the lunatic, the lover and the poet,’ all slightly mad yet all operating with a heightened perception that can be curiously infectious, enabling us to see the world, reality, in new ways. The painter Patrick Heron argues that the function of painting is to enable us to see the world and that someone like Cézanne allows us to see the world in a new way. ‘The actual “objective” appearance of things is something that does not exist—or rather, it exists as data that is literally infinite in its complexity and subtlety, in the variety and multiplicity of its configurations.’ He goes on to say that the mind injects order into that amorphous cloud of visual stimuli and that the origin of this order lies in painting. I would go further: all the arts—and this goes back to societies in which there was no distinction between religion and ritual and theatre, song, dance and decoration—all create the order in which we can live, the sense of meaning that we can all share. At times the artist must renew this order, at other times transform it. This order, I believe, fundamentally exists in a realm that transcends our distinctions between matter and mind, body and spirit.

And so I will allow painting, music and all such acts of creation and renewal to be overdetermined and containing within them a multiplicity of levels of meaning and being. Nature perceives itself, it comes to know the artist and the artist manifests this act of feeling though the transformation of matter. Creativity is the marriage of matter and spirit, a mutual inner transformation in which the individual, society, nature and matter at times become renewed and at times take on new meanings and structures.

I am sure that if a hard-nosed physicist were listening he would reject what I am saying. But he would also be forced to acknowledge that the germs of such ideas are already in the air—and germs he would certainly think they are! The biologist Rupert Sheldrake has long been offending orthodoxy with his notion of morphogenetic fields that guide everything from the growth of crystals to the instincts of animals and the structure of human languages. While I may have some problems with the specifics of Sheldrake’s proposal I do think that there is something very interesting in what he says—particularly in that these fields transcend the traditional divisions between what is considered to be matter and what is considered to be mind, memory and behaviour.

There was also the physicist David Bohm who proposed the notion of what he termed ‘Active Information.’ According to Bohm the electron, or any other elementary particle, is guided by a field of information. Guided in the sense that an ocean liner, powered by great engines, will change its direction under the influence of the tiny amount of energy inherent in a radar signal. For Bohm, information is not simply a passive record of facts but a physical activity within nature. It is a field of information about the structure and configuration of the universe. In turn the activity of this information gives form to—literally in-forms—the processes and movements of matter. Bohm developed such ideas at the quantum level but believed that the concept extended to all levels. It is as if a new principle has been added to physics. Once there was matter and energy. Now there is matter, energy and information. There is a field of information, or meaning, the human body in health. There is even a field of information for human society.

Other researchers have proposed related ideas. As far as I am concerned as scientific notions they remain only half formed. A great deal more thought and investigation is needed before a really significant breakthrough can be attempted. But I do believe that this cloud of ideas probably contains a significant insight. It suggests that science is about to enter a new region in which it must learn to face Pauli’s ‘subjective side to matter.’

At all events such ideas are in the air and, if the Native Americans, are to be believed, then ideas are beings; beings just waiting for someone to make them incarnate. Or, as was said in the Middle Ages, ‘the angels love to sing to us. We simply have to learn to be silent in order to hear their song.’ For me the angels’ song can be found both within the world of spirit and deep within the inscape of the natural world.


1 Particularly the Blackfoot who live just east of the Rocky Mountains and the Mohawk who live south of the St Lawrence River.
2 From the point of view of non-speakers, perhaps the most notable feature of Blackfoot is that several meanings and categories that are expressed as separate words in English or French are components of the verb, including negation, adverbials, auxilliary verbs and prepositions. Linguists refer to languages such as this as polysynthetic, meaning that the words of the language consist of many morphemes (i.e., words that carry meaning). https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/siksikai-powahsin-blackfoot-language

3In a letter Cezanne wrote to his son six weeks before his death in the fall of 1906.

Author bio

F. David Peat was a quantum physicist, writer, and teacher who founded the Pari Center in 2000. He wrote more than 20 books which have been translated into 24 languages, as well as numerous essays and articles. In 1971-72, he spent a sabbatical year with Roger Penrose and David Bohm, and thereafter his research focused on the foundations of quantum theory and on a non-unitary approach to the quantum measurement problem. Peat continued an active collaboration with Bohm and in 1987 they co-authored the book Science, Order and Creativity. While living in Canada, Peat organized discussion circles between Western scientists and Native American Elders, and while living in London organized a conference between artists and scientists. He has written extensively on the subjects of science, the arts and spirituality. He wrote two books on synchronicity: Synchronicity: The Bridge Between Matter and Mind (1987) and Synchronicity: The Marriage of Matter and Psyche (2014). He was adjunct professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies, a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, and a Distinguished Fellow at the University of South Africa. David Peat died in Pari in 2017.