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"Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous." Albert Einstein, The World As I See It
unified field of consciousness, “a fusion of inner and
outer reality” in which all past and
future coexist. Einstein’s relativity speaks
to the inter-connected whole, and synchronicity to those moments the cosmos “winks” at us
through unexpected, mysterious seemingly magical connections showing up between people and events.
These moments are described as deeply personal, “boundary
events” which often occur at periods of major life transitions,
attention-grabbers through which we find the strength to endure those times
when growth means slogging through a thick fog on an uncertain path. The
creative process of change is like that sometimes. Here is an example.
Wandering through the Union Square Green Market in Manhattan one
Wednesday afternoon, I ran into an old friend from
college. It was April, 1983, almost a year into myfirst professional job, and
I should have been thrilled to see another Midwestern transplant. After all,
she was someone who knew the old me, before reality bitch-slapped my idealism,
and before my student loan debts came due and I needed a second job to make
enough money to stay at the professional job long enough to figure out my life.
But thrilled I was not. I felt obligated, trapped into an artificial show of warmth.
I was in no mood.
Any other Wednesday at that time I would have been at
work, wrapping up morning groups. I was a creative arts therapist on a
psychiatric unit in a Newark
medical hospital, and my last-minute decision to take a personal day from work
had so far had done nothing to shake off the sense of futility that overwhelmed
me on there. The gloom of the place darkened my thoughts well into the night,
like the claustrophobic gray walls, and air so thick with cigarette smoke you
could write in it dimmed our spirits during the day.
Here is what I was thinking when I spotted my old
college friend: “What does it say about me that I am burned out after less than
a year in the job I set out to do with student loans the size of the national debt and a super-sized, some might even say delusional sense of mission?" On this particularly day I do not want to know what that means. Nor do I want conversation about how things are going or what is new. But she has dropped into my reality so very happy to see me, and then there we are in a diner
"This is like old times," she said. "Remember when we used to go to the Coffee Trader on Downer Avenue in Milwaukee?“ Big sigh. "There's a bookstore attached to it now. In fact a book I bought there changed my life." I'm thinking this had to be some
“What is it called? Who wrote it?” I demanded. She said nothing, staring sadly into space.
“What was the book?” I asked.
“I can’t remember” she said. She did remember other details, like exactly what time of day she bought the book – – and that she often had a drop in energy around that time. She remembered the flavor of the day - hazelnut – and said that flavored coffees were sexy back then but now they were just kind of sad.
“You must remember something about it.” I insisted.
“One word in the title. Anything.”
“It was nothing special, just some book,” she
insisted right back. “It was that coffee I really wanted, but I bought a book
so I’d have something to read while I sat there by myself. While I was picking
it out and paying for it, the waiters at the café changed shifts. So when I sat
down to order, Will had just taken over that table. You know about Will and me, right?” she said. I did not. Will, she explained,
was her boyfriend and the person responsible for her move to New York. And she
met him when he waited on her that day, one of his last shifts at The Coffee
Trader before he quit for his first paid acting job.
Just in time for their paths to cross. "But the book." I said. "What. Was. The. Book?" “You’re not listening,” she whispered.
Now, I did not say to her that listening is what I do better than anything. I did not, at that moment, tell her that listening to a rotating group of mentally ill patients when no one else is around to do it requires epic degrees of attention and empathy if not actual skill, and it seemed petty and dramatic to say how defensive and irritated I felt at her simple accusation. But then again. Here I was, a thousand grueling little tasks on my to-do list the only justification for an afternoon away from work, unpaid of course, but precious as only an afternoon in New York City can be when a person is feeling defeated and disillusioned and depleted. And because I had lost my sense of purpose that sort of compensated for low pay and low status in my profession, and I felt adrift and restless and angry without it, she was going to be damn sure I was listening and she was going to tell me the name of the book that changed her life.
“If it wasn’t for Will, I would never have had the
courage to move out here,” she said. “I never would have gone this far from
home without him.” But the relationship, it turned out, had changed since the
“I thought we both wanted a future together. To me
the future was like, the next 30 years. To him, the future was his next acting gig.
When I started talking about getting married, he started talking about law
school. Acting is too hard, he says.”
“So you get married. And he goes to law school.” I
Oregon?” she said, shaking her
head. “I can’t see myself following him across the country again. I want to
stay here.” I asked her if she thought they were going to work it out.
“I don’t know,” she said. “What I do know is, things
are never going to be like they used to be.”
exactly what you mean about that,” I whined, “I know now that nothing is going
to be like it was. That life never goes the way you think it will.” It felt
good to whine, so I did it some more. I whined that everyone around me advised that
to survive in the field of psychiatry I must learn to detach from the crushing
realities of life for the mentally ill, but this was something I could not
grasp, much less master. I told her that the trouble really was–besides my rank
inexperience–I felt my own position in life to be uncomfortably similar to
these people who lived on the margins of society with neither security nor
safety. I told her about my growing preoccupation with budget cuts that
threatened as ominously as the constant threat of random violence on the unit, upon
which my position precariously teetered. This was, after all, a period when the
true effects of savage government cuts in social services that began in 1981
were just settling in, when every local resource available to those on the
bottom rung of the economic ladder was strained to capacity. Jobs were scarce.
The job I found had staff levels lower than what I had been led to believe. The
patients were given meals, medication and me. I was a solo act, eight hours a
day, five days a week, dancing as fast as I could to engage the energies of a
rotating group of patients that ranged from suicidal adolescents to chronic
mentally ill homeless people to grief-stricken retirees unable to cope with sudden,
tragic loss. It was therapy by improvisation, which should have made sense
given my music and theater training, but daunting and lonely with neither
support nor supplies.
I whined about the collective psychological toll of this,
which was an exhausting degree of hyper-vigilance that was difficult to turn
off at the end of the day.
“You should get a job at NYU,” my friend said. “You
could go to school for a higher degree than what you have now. Its free if you
work there,” That was such a helpful, positive suggestion I began to think our
paths had crossed simply to hear her say it. I went to NYU and while
on the campus applied for any job for which I was qualified. I stopped at the
Music Therapy Department, read the bulletin board for job postings, and picked
up brochures for conferences coming up in the Manhattan area. One was sponsored by the
American Association of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama at the Roosevelt
Hotel in New York City
in about a month’s time.
Here comes a synchronicity. At that time I was
reading The Doctor and The Soul,
having just inhaled Man’s Search for Meaning, both by Austrian psychiatrist Dr. Victor Frankl, which
chronicle his experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and subsequent development of his therapeutic method. His revelations
about suffering transformed his approach to healing psychological trauma, which
was to infuse the process of healing with creativity and spirituality. I had
only begun to digest this writing, but from the start had felt deeply,
desperately connected to it. One of the workshops described in the conference
brochure was based on Frankl’s idea that the conditions of our life, even ones
as unspeakable and brutal as the Jews suffered under the Nazi regime, need not
define our creative choices or inner attitudes. It described psychodrama as a
positive and poetic means to consciously form our responses to suffering and
create our destiny, and to explore what Frankl describes as “the need to be
responsive and responsible to life. We have said that in creating, man
actualizes creative values; in experiencing, experiential values; and in
suffering, attitudinal values."
Tolstoy is quoted as saying “true life is lived when
tiny changes occur.” Tiny changes can turn on seemingly trivial decisions,
which can change the course of a person’s life. It may seem an insignificant
connection, the confluence between reading the book, then through a series of
seemingly random events, having the information about this workshop directly about
the book cross my path, but that is the point. These co-occurring events
caught my attention and shifted my focus in a subtle but substantial way. These
twists of fate captivate us enough to allow a little more light into our murky,
moody mindset and defensive beliefs, to imagine that perhaps there are friendly
forces in the universe, if only we can line up our consciousness to work with
I attended the conference. I remember
nothing about the workshop that drew me to it, but I made friends. I dug into a
wealth of much-needed resources and professional community. I met my husband.
No new job with free tuition ever materialized, but this conference redirected
the course of my life.
With a nod to
Viktor Frankl, the greatest opportunities came through doing the old job with a
new attitude. Through ongoing training and continued reading of Victor Frankl
and Rollo May and other great teachers, I began to adjust my vision of the
circumstances of my daily struggle and that of my patients. And with that, I
could more clearly discern that even with all the poverty and oppression my
patients faced, their greatest difficulty was the profound disconnect between
them and the rest of the world, a disconnect many of us feel as the world
speeds up and our communities break down. These people on the margins of society
are like the rest of us in this way, and in our common capacity to connect
through art. The creative process heals through connecting us to the highest
expression of our humanity, through even the hint that we might transcend the
darkness. Even when a person broken by trauma cannot go back to who they were
before or a person brought low by oppression cannot change the system that
limits her choices, they can choose. And in choosing, create. In the gloom and
grey of a psych unit, the patients and I connected through song-writing and
painting and music-listening and story-telling. And laughing. Lots of laughing.
Together we could co-create a moment, an hour and maybe more, of meaning.
Sometimes, when all the elements came together and someone was able to discover
a new idea about life after all the foundations of their old life crumbled,
there was an energy that might be properly be called magic.
“Everything can be taken from a man,” writes Dr.
Frankl, except for what he refers to as “the last of the human freedoms - to
choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own
way.” Of holding onto one’s soul while in the concentration camp, he wrote,
“what was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life.
We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men,
that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather whatlife expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning
of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned
by life - daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and
meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means
taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to
fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
We can use Einstein’s revelation of the enormous
force that exists within the infinitesimal atom to grasp the idea that the
largeness of existence can be experienced in the most mundane, daily
occurrences. Real change happens in small decisions, on ordinary days, about
seemingly insignificant things. We cannot know which moments are the defining
ones, but sometimes synchronicities shine a light on a dark path and remind us
we are part of some magnificent, unfolding wholeness. It helps to have a goal,
but only to overcome the inertia that sets in when things do not turn out the
way we hoped, or we decide not to decide anything because it might turn out to
be wrong. We have to act, hopefully with a vision that we are part of something
larger and better than what we can see or know. After that, it is a matter of
choices, each one building on the one before.
Like whether to make small talk with the good-looking guy at
the workshop. Or to decide to give him your phone number (good move). To leave now
instead of later. Take Wednesday off instead of Thursday. Walk through Union Square
instead of taking the subway. To sit down at a cafe with a fresh book and enjoy
the flavor of the day.
Since September Lifestage has been offering a monthly training workshop exploring the use of improvisation to develop Emotional Intelligence . These workshops have been geared toward the work done by clinicians, educators and trainers who guide the process of personal change or professional development, but as it turns out we have enjoyed some interesting diversity among the participants - managers, business owners with both employees and customers, community activists, and performers. Below is a collection of the exercises we have used in the workshops, accompanied by some studies that supports their use. by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP Why Improvisation? Improvisation is a powerful way to become aware of mental habits and patterns. Reflecting on our inner experiences after engaging in an improvisation exercise provides an opportunity to decide whether our mental habits are effective and useful or self-limiting and obsolete. The tensions of the crea
Nicholas Wolff, LCSW, BCD, TEP , Director of Training at Lifestage, Inc and Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP, Trainer/consultant and writer/performer. Follow on twitter @JuTrWolff “To begin assembly one must have the right attitude,” goes a Japanese instruction for assembling a particular object, as quoted in Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance. The "right attitude" is one that best serves the action we are preparing to engage in, j ust as an athlete warms up his/her muscles before using them in the stress of a work-out or game. Psychological and emotional "muscles" that are properly warmed up will perform more effectively and make it less likely that we will experience strain or allow fear to produce a shut-out when things get rolling. The right warm-up makes everything learned in a training situation or classroom more accessible and immediately useful to the trainee/student. New skills and knowledge - in education, personal growth or a profe
"It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibly. They work with all the internal materials of the mind and self. They become part of you while changing you." Ben Okri, Birds of Heaven Stories can change your life and when they do you almost never see it coming. The way a story gets into our consciousness is often subtle and suprising. Something about it sticks. And if we allow the story to do its work it sticks exactly where we need it. This is true of both receiving a story and making one. The skills required to weave together character, conflict and color to create a vivid and imagination-grabbing tale that is also transformative takes time, training and experience to develop. It helps to be familiar with the impact of stories on our own inner life, recovery and growth. It helps also to have an inspiring, gifted teacher to guide the process. Such was my experience in April at a full-day wo