Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Art and Irrationality

A topic for the blogteam or any interested reader to take up:

REBT, proceeding from logical-empirical bases, offers important guidelines for rational living and personal happiness. But the rational road is not the only path to knowledge. In his writings, Dr Ellis rarely touches on the subject of artistic creativity. Given his friendships with artists of many kinds over the years – from Artie Shaw to Lenny Bruce to Saul Bellow – it seems a surprising omission.

Artistic discoveries can’t be forced by purely systematic means. The artist must periodically shut off the rational-critical part of the mind, and at times even embrace irrationality, as he or she sifts the unconscious for new insights.

While it is possible to over-romanticize the quest for inspiration, the matter is not always resolved, Sinclair Lewis-style, by sitting in a chair and staying there until the novel is finished! In seeking creative shortcuts and illuminations thousands of artists down the ages have destroyed themselves with drink and drugs. They continue to hurl themselves, lemming-like, from the same reckless cliff. This particular phenomenon is not discussed in Ellis’s writing on addictions, nor I believe in other writings on Rational Recovery.

My questions then: how can creative intuition and REBT practical logic best be harnessed? And are there any writings on art and irrationality in the literature of REBT/CBT?



Gayle said...

Steve, to my knowledge, the REBT literature does not discuss the subject of combining the rational and the irrational. I, too, find this a glaring omission.

In the last two years of his life, Albert Ellis demontrated, privately, that he respected and used the intuitive in his own life. But that's another story ...

In my own life, I've repeatedly combined the methods of Albert Ellis, Carl Jung and mythologist Joseph Campbell. That may seem like an odd combination, but I don't think so.

Campbell is famous for coining the phrase, "Follow your bliss." In later life, he groused that he should have said, "Follow your blisters." That's because he saw his message trivialized to mean "party hearty" or "do only what feels good."

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Campbell was a man of his times, meaning that when he published "Hero with a Thousand Faces," in 1947, the work of Freud and Jung represented the cutting edge of science of the mind. Campbell wrote about the monomyth as springing from the collective unconscious. As described by Jung, the C.U. is a biological aspect of human consciousness. It's not, as some people think, some sort of ESP connecting minds in the ether. It represents hardwired images in the brain and body.

The C.U. explains why cultures separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles keep coming up with the same heroic myths of virgin birth, death and resurrection, floods and so on.

Art -- great art -- in all forms supposedly flows from the collective unconscious. That's why a post-modern person will feel a thrill of excitement in viewing paleolithic cave art or hearing native drumming. The immediate response to art is emotional and irrational. Later, we may deconstruct it bit by bit, but that first rush -- it's physical.

I started reading Campbell when I was 11; Ellis when I was 19; and Jung sometime in my late 30s. I read Jung in order to better understand Campbell. I now use Jung in my personal life as much as I use REBT. The ego, the self, the shadow, the anima/animus -- this represents a way to view creative and irrational impulses. I interpret dreams for myself and others using Jungian symbols.

And, then, what comes next ... I apply REBT to the irrational aspects of my life. For me, irrationality leads to self-defeating behavior. The irrational pushes me downward, backward, presses me with distress. The REBT pushes me forward, upward and frees me from distress.

I use REBT instead of CBT or CT for a specific reason. REBT is emotive. It recognizes that emotions and irrationality are part of the full human package and it helps me to use my irrationality and emotions to further my health, happiness and productivity.

As I delved deeper into Jung, Campbell and Ellis, I began to view the teachings of Joseph Campbell to be a synthesis of Ellis' rationality and Jung's emphasis on the unconscious processes.

When Campbell said, "Follow your bliss," people kept asking him how, what were they supposed to do? They wanted an instruction manual. Campbell was not willing to give them a step-by-step approach; rather, he told stories, gave lessons, and pointed to particular behaviors that could help them reach down into their unconscious minds and then follow their blisters to creative productivity.

Having read Campbell for decades, watched him on video and listened to countless audio lectures, I can sum up his step-by-step approach to combining the rational and irrational aspects of life in order to find your bliss. He told his students to work on overcoming the following...

12 Irrational Ideas That Cause and Sustain Neurosis

1. The idea that it is a dire necessity for adults to be loved by significant others for almost everything they do -- instead of their concentrating on their own self-respect, on winning approval for practical purposes, and on loving rather than on being loved.

2. The idea that certain acts are awful or wicked, and that people who perform such acts should be severely damned -- instead of the idea that certain acts are self-defeating or antisocial, and that people who perform such acts are behaving stupidly, ignorantly, or neurotically, and would be better helped to change. People's poor behaviors do not make them rotten individuals.

3. The idea that it is horrible when things are not the way we like them to be -- instead of the idea that it is too bad, that we would better try to change or control bad conditions so that they become more satisfactory, and, if that is not possible, we had better temporarily accept and gracefully lump their exis tence.

4. The idea that human misery is invariably externally caused and is forced on us by outside people and events -- instead of the idea that neurosis is largely caused by the view that we take of unfortunate conditions.

5. The idea that if something is or may be dangerous or fearsome we should be terribly upset and endlessly obsess about it -- instead of the idea that one would better frankly face it and render it non-dangerous and, when that is not possible, accept the inevitable.

6. The idea that it is easier to avoid than to face life difficulties and self-responsibilities -- instead of the idea that the so-called easy way is usually much harder in the long run.

7. The idea that we absolutely need something other or stronger or greater than ourself on which to rely -- instead of the idea that it is better to take the risks of thinking and acting less depen dently.

8. The idea that we should be thoroughly competent, intelligent, and achieving in all possible respects -- instead of the idea that we would better do rather than always need to do well and accept ourself as a quite imperfect creature, who has general human limitations and specific fallibilities.

9. The idea that because something once strongly affected our life, it should indefinitely affect it -- instead of the idea that we can learn from our past experiences but not be overly-attached to or prejudiced by them.

10. The idea that we must have certain and perfect control over things -- instead of the idea that the world is full of probability and chance and that we can still enjoy life despite this.

11. The idea that human happiness can be achieved by inertia and inaction -- instead of the idea that we tend to be happiest when we are vitally absorbed in creative pursuits, or when we are devoting ourselves to people or projects outside ourselves.

12. The idea that we have virtually no control over our emotions and that we cannot help feeling disturbed about things -- instead of the idea that we have real control over our destructive emotions if we choose to work at changing the musturbatory hypotheses which we often employ to create them.

(From The Essence of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, by Albert Ellis, Ph.D. Revised, May 1994.)

Joseph Campbell did not say those particular words. Albert Ellis did. Campbell and Ellis were both actively giving free lectures in NYC at about the same time. They may have met. I don't know. Campbell would have been the elder. And I sense that if they did meet, they might not have taken to each other. I certainly don't know of either ever mentioning the other.

But throughout Campbell's writings and lectures, as he spoke about the archetypes of the collective unconscious and the monomyth, he repeatedly advised his students to work hard, to stop worrying about what mom and dad wanted to do, to take risks, to try things you might not be good at and if you fail then try again, stop trying to control other people and things, accept life as it comes and to accept the duality of good and evil without condemnation.

As I look at Al's 12 Irrational Beliefs, I feel confident that overcoming them represents a pretty good "Guide to Following Your Bliss," to a creative life. Campbell would have you reading poetry and mythology, dancing, singing, drumming with the Grateful Dead. Al would have you applying evidence-based ABCs. Campbell would have you falling into a creative abyss and finding the light of transformation as you lie in darkness. Al would have you practice rational imagery of the thing you feared most. Hey, we're getting close here.

One of the problems of falling into that abyss is that it's scary down there in the dark. All the creepy crawlies of your unconscious mind are down there with you, gnawing at you, scratching, threatening to eat you alive.

Maybe one of the reasons writers, artists and musicians resort to alcohol and drug abuse at what seems to be a higher rate than the general population is they don't have the tools for dealing with the anxiety and despair-producing creepy crawlies of the unconscious mind.

Albert Ellis would have called the emotional distress one feels as we face the creative abyss a "secondary disturbance." In a nutshell, it's "fear of fear." When one gets in touch with the contents of their own personal unconscious mind and if they touch upon the collective unconscious, it can be a terrifically upsetting experience. People start getting scared of what they might feel and they upset themselves over it. They upset themselves over the possibility of rejection, upset over their feelings of vulnerability when they rip away their emotional armor and expose themselves to public scrutiny.

And that's what artists do. All of that. They dive right into the unconscious and pull up art that will transform them and may transform others ... or not.

Joseph Campbell said, "It is a terrifying experience to have your consciousness transformed."

Albert Ellis gave us instruction manuals on how to stop feeling terrified so we can get on with following our creative bliss.

I've often wondered if either Al or Joe saw that connection.

loveslob said...

I must underline that Albert Ellis also acknowledged the pathways to knowledge and enlightenment through art, which he also emphazised in a few of his writings. The following two quotes does indeed illustrate this, the first one from the professional article Early Theories And Practices Of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy And How They Have Been Augmented And
Revised During The Last Three Decades:

"REBT uses reason, empiricism, logic, and flexible, alternative-seeking ways of thinking. But it also stresses the use of metaphor, hermeneutics, philosophy, narrative, drama, humor, and other presumably non-rational and non-logical means of understanding and alleviating human disturbance."


"Science and reason are good and useful. But so are art and emotion. Reason often implements desire and emotion; and feelings can also implement reasoning. Both/and rather and eighter/or!"

In addition to the value of art in alleviating disturbance, Albert Ellis spoke of the importance of long-range creative pursuits (including art) to promote happiness.

As one reads the works by Albert Ellis one gets aware of the complexites and many layers of his theory and practises. Every time I read his books and articles, I am mesmerized by his precition and suttlelitis of his theoretic legacy.

Sanjay said...

Dear Gayle,

I read your precious comments several times and am trying to understand them. Thanks a lot for writing them.

Would you please tell me a few books of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, which you consider to be their best.

Kind regards.

Dear Loveslob,
Many thanks for your important comments.

Steve said...

Inspirational post by Gayle. Makes a lot of sense to me. Although I haven’t (so far) spent much time with Campbell’s writing, I’ve thought about the role of myths, legends and teaching stories in the works of Idries Shah, whose Sufi tales seem to me related to the modern teaching stories of Milton Erickson (see for instance “My Voice Will Go With You”). Erickson, in turn, as very independent therapist with playful humor, seems in his writings like a cousin to Ellis. There is some kind of connection between these three, each of them dealing with the reframing of experience, challenging assumptions, making us look again at ‘reality’. Ellis blunt and head-on in his attacks on our crooked thinking, Erickson and Shah much more oblique.

I would have liked to talk to Al about Shah in particular. Ellis’s book “The Myth of Self Esteem” looks at points of contact between REBT and various religious philosophies, but leaves out Islam. “REBT and the Psychology of Sufism” – that’s an unwritten chapter I’d like to read. The Sufi concept of the Commanding Self - which needs to be outwitted if enlightenment is to be achieved - dovetails rather nicely with Ellis’s idea of rooting out the Irrational Beliefs that drag us down…


David said...


I will not speak for Gayle. She has her favorites. However, I think introductory reading in Jung should begin with his autobiography, "Memories, Dreams, Reflections."

From there, foundational reading includes "Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious" and then "Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self."

If you're interested in learning more about his conception of the psyche, I think Emma Jung presents a thorough examination of both animus and anima in "Animus and Anima."

For a more casual, yet very interesting book, you might read, "Living with Jung: Enterviews with Jungian Analysts" by Robert and Janis Henderson. This book presents interviews with twelve Jungian analysts, many who were trained by Jung.

Gayle said...

Welcome, Loveslob, and thank you for the insightful quotes from the works of Albert Ellis.

David is correct that I do have my favorites ... and the only Jung book that I would recommend to a new reader is "Man and His Symbols" by Jung and associates. This book was published in 1968, and Jung finished editing it just a few days before he died. I personally find much of Jung's writings almost incomprehensible, but "... Symbols" is a good overview of Jung's ideas.

If someone wants a quick glance at the subject before deciding to delve deeper, I'd suggest starting with "The Power of Myth," by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers.

This is a series of wide-ranging interviews that formed the basis for the public television series by the same name. Campbell discusses Jung in this book. Campbell and Jung both delve into the mystical, but Campbell maintained his stance as a scholar studying the subject. At times, Jung became an active participant.

The "Power of Myth" is easy reading. That makes it a good choice for people who use English as a second language. It touches on the Upanishads and other non-western mythology, but it leans heavily toward western thought.

"Myths of Light -- eastern metaphors of the eternal" might be of interest to people who are interested in the mythologies of India and East Asia. This book was edited from Campbell's diaries of his travels and was published more than a decade after his death. Campbell looks at the religions and myths of the east in this book, including Islam and the Sufi mystic al-Hallaj.

Albert Ellis had little patience with the "mystical" aspects of world religions, including New Age beliefs, largely because people tend to take the mystical literally instead of metaphorically. Campbell is squarely in the camp of the metaphor.

The mystical experience and the intuitive experience are not synonymous, although there's probably a point where the lines get blurry. The mystical generally takes in what people call direct communion with ultimate reality or God.

Well ... we know what Al thought about that! Al remained secular to the core and advocated viewing the here and now on earth as the only ultimate reality we would ever experience so we darn well better make the best of it because this is the only chance we'll have.

Intuition is different. It can be defined as the unconscious processing of subliminal cues. From that processing, we get feeling or urges or knowledge that doesn't follow logical or linear steps.

Al credited Freud and Jung with defining the unconscious mind and he considered it to be a valuable and valid contribution to understanding the science of the mind. This is where the rational and irrational can meet. One can take the urges, impulses and vague intuitive feelings that get triggered by small cues and apply rational analysis to it.

If we inspect our intuitions well, we may come up with rational evidence to support our vague feelings ... or it may turn out the opposite way. Sometimes our intuitions are nothing more than our old iBs, prejudices and biases nagging at us. A rational analysis can help us figure that out.


Sanjay said...

Dear Gayle and David,

Many thanks.

Its really inspiring how Gayle is able to synthesise the teachings of Albert Ellis, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell.


Steve said...

Recently came across this video clip:


Here Jeffrey K. Zeig of the Erickson Foundation, buttonholed between conferences, briefly talks about debating with Ellis, using art versus science models. It’s merely a matter of approaching the subject from “the inside out” or “the outside in”. Zeig’s respect for Ellis is evident, as he speaks of Al’s “importance for contemporary culture, not just psychotherapy.”

Gayle said...

Thanks, Steve. Jeff Zeig behaved as a true friend to Al and Debbie in the last two years of Al's life. It was Jeff who brought Al and Debbie to the Evolution of Psychology conference in California after the institute people claimed Al had lost his ability to function as a therapist and teacher. That conference demonstrated to the world that Al still had all his abilities to perform live demonstrations of REBT in front of an audience of thousands. Debbie ably assisted him. The two of them received standing ovations.

Another person who has been a staunch friend and supporter is Jon Carlson. Jon is an Adlerian. He has written about the irrational, shamanism and spirituality. Al and Jon had great respect for each other.

Debbie Joffe-Ellis is probably the most intuitive person I've met in my life. That woman is ten pages ahead of everyone else, figuring things out from cues that others won't be picking up for quite a while. Al respected and admired those qualities in her.

Was Al intuitive? I think he was. I do. He was certainly creative.

Anonymous said...

I paint regularly and also practise REBT. I have an art school education to thank for being able to "think outside the box" creatively.

Creativity and rationality can be combined - look at Designers,who design feasible, practical but also beautiful and functional items, such as cars, furniture, kitchen items etc etc. I dont want to get into arguments about capitalism and materialism etc etc, but stop to think where we would be without household appliances and their ingenuity and this would prove quite tough.

Painters such as the Russian Constructivists and De Stijl have created visual languages based on rationality and structure. Others concentrate on a personal theme throughout their life, and symbolise pictorially these ideas.
Some painters just love the process of painting, the physical gestures.

Part of the creative process CAN be mapped out into a methodology. People might like to look at the area of semiotics and visual language. As a general rule,most good art and design starts from drawing skills. Betty Edwards has wriiten the classic "Drawing From the Right Side Of The Brain" which scientifically and methodoligically teaches people to draw where before they were stuck in drawing the *symbols*, or the abstractions of what they *thought* they saw. Its pretty much NLP for drawers, follow a pattern and practise, practise, practise as Ellis would say!

Anonymous said...

...and drawing is the foundation of any good art practise.

Anonymous said...

I am extremely sad Dr Ellis is gone.
I knew this only now.
I owe a lot to his little book "Myth of Self Esteem."

However, I am going to post a blog entry, criticizing his errors in that book soon.

I feel really bad to write a criticism when some one cannot defend themselves any more.



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Kyaw Kyaw Naing / George said...

Dr Albert Ellis basically said in that book that
(1) The so-called self is so fragmented, so transient, so temporary.

Isn't that the basic claim of Buddhism?

He read only 1 "elementary" Buddhist book and even that 1 book, shallowly, hurriedly, impaitiently and full of pre-concieved, pre-determined biases.

A pity that such a brillinat mind missed the fruits of Buddhist peace.


Sanjay said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sanjay said...

I am surprised by these comments.

The author shows his complete ignorance about Albert Ellis' work, specially by his second comment ("He read only 1...").

It would be better if Mr Kyaw/George makes some effort to read Ellis' books before making such foolish comments.

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Kyaw Kyaw Naing / George said...

(1) If Dr Albert did read more than 1 Buddhist book, he should have mentioned them in that book.

(2) The book he mentioned is very shallow.

Reasons : Thai, Burmese/Myanmar meditations are very deep and accessible.

(3) And his understanding of that 1 Buddhist book is very very shallow.

If these 3 comments are "foolish," please enligthen me ;-)

I am humbly and gratefully awaiting your teachings, without being defensive.