The Creativity of Suffering

By Shelley Klammer | Posted 4/22/11 | Updated 11/14/23

"Everything in life that we really accept undergoes a change. So suffering must become love. That is the mystery." —Katherine Mansfield

Life Calls Us to the Total Expression of All Feelings

Years ago before my daughter was born, I had a real, very authentic art studio in the downtown core of the city where I lived. By authentic I mean the building was old and crumbling and filled with artists — photographers, playwrights, painters and writers and a whole cast of characters whose "professions" were unknown to me. I had a corner studio on the fourth floor overlooking the busy street below. It had high ceilings, a well used paint sink, large old paned windows and several rooms.

I was shy and withdrawn back then. I expressed myself mostly to myself — by myself — and rarely socialized with the people in the building. I was on an inner quest to understand myself as an artist, as a woman, as a human being. I cultivated my creative self because I felt there was more to me than just the nice girl image that I presented to the world. In spending so much quiet time alone, it was not long before my darker feelings inevitably rose up to be seen, balanced and integrated.

I was a gallery artist at the time, in one of the best galleries in the city. I was intent on painting "perfect art" and often I became bored and frustrated with my narrow ego driven efforts to produce a perfect, colorful painting that would sell. My primary personality was friendly, cheerful, helpful — lovely unto itself but quite one-sided. Because we all hold multidimensional aspects of our psyche inside, my darker, more disowned, instinctual energies begged for equal expression.

Something deeper and darker rumbled inside of me and it was weary of being ignored. When I would feel the anxiety rising as uncomfortable, long rejected feelings arose to the surface, often I felt called to hit the streets with my walking shoes on and wander the city. I walked for miles and miles in those days often for 3 or 4 hours or more. I wandered into strange neighborhoods miles from my studio downtown, and after several hours of walking, my mind would be still. In a reverie I would go back to the studio and paint for a few hours at the end of the day and then go home for the evening.

"I surrender myself to everything. I love, I feel pain, I struggle. The world seems to me wider than the mind, my heart a dark and almighty mystery." —Nikos Kazantzakis

The Light and Dark of Creative Inspiration

When we voyage into the darkness and meet it with all of the strength and determination of all of the awareness that we can muster — when we meet darkness with love, we are deeply changed. I recently wrote a friend who is struggling with her own darker feelings, about how meeting the darkness within is just as important and creative as meeting the light of creative inspiration.

In fact my deepest inspirations and connections to life often come only after meeting my darker forces inside. I make every attempt meet my deeper, darker suffering with a trusting presence. I try to be still as I ache and in doing so, once the intensity of the darker feelings come to its own conclusion, I am profoundly deepened and I am made "larger." After meeting my own suffering with faith, I am always rewarded with a new energy and a fresh creative lease on life. The presence that it takes to meet a darker feeling with stillness becomes a part of me and allows me to meet life with more strength and responsibility.

We find out phenomenal things about ourselves when we explore our personally disowned and our more universal, unfathomable difficult feelings. Mostly we find inner strength and our true humanity. In our humanity, we find love for our families, our friends and our whole humankind. I know by looking at the darker corners of my own psyche, by holding space for my own suffering, fears and tremblings, I cannot rightfully judge anyone for anything. I have every possibility inside of my self.

Looking back 16 years ago I can see that I was continuously trying to quiet my darker thoughts and the deeper, darker rumbling feelings, so I could create freely and be the artist I envisioned being. But I had to go through a journey of presence with them first. The long walks helped tame my anxious mind and dissipated the more difficult feelings underneath my thoughts.

I so wanted to tap into my true creativity, and I was frustrated by my lack of focus. Something begged me to express myself beyond the need for perfection. I beat myself up a lot back then about my lack of ability to remain intuitive and creatively aware as an artist. I was angry about being "taken over" by my unruly feelings. I thought ideally I should feel good and positive all of the time.

Young Spirituality Tries to Be all "Positive"

Years ago when my creativity felt blocked, I became a "spiritual person" in the youngest sense of the word. I turned to spirituality in the interest of controlling my thoughts and moods. Early spirituality can often go this way. The books I read early on in my spiritual journey encouraged me to use positive affirmations, and to visualize exactly what I wanted to create in my life. As I meet more people in therapeutic settings I can see that it is common for people in the early stages of their self growth to believe that they are "responsible" for their every thought and feeling as if they should have, or do have utter control over every aspect of themselves. So often people say, "I am grateful for my life" as a kind of spiritual cover-up for the darker, more instinctual feelings that need to be voiced and honored.

As my journey has continued I realize that there are much more powerful forces at work and that the intensities of my life and my psyche were so much larger than my limited attempts at positive thinking. I remember one particular studio day years ago — feeling blocked and deciding to wander the city. On this day I almost felt like I had marching orders as I walked through the city streets. "Turn here — walk here"… and finally "Walk up these steps." When I arrived at the top of the steps I saw a tiny bookstore that I had never seen before. I walked into the store picked up a book that beckoned me and walked out. I was filled with feeling after I bought it and went to sit down on a park bench. For some reason I started to cry.

As I read the book I realized it was deeply written. It was the book "The I that is We" by Richard Moss. Since then I began a reading journey into the truth that there is something more than just my own mind that I am trying to control. What has struck me profoundly is the essential nature of being human and how it calls us to express and acknowledge both the dark and the light. It is a cultural myth and it is humanly impossible to feel good all of the time. We are dichotomous creatures of light and dark, and we all suffer.

We all have darker feelings that we must meet within with an uncommon depth and courage in order to evolve spiritually and creatively. My experience is that it is often through meeting my darkness that I access my creative inspiration. We need to face all that lives within us — with great accountability and awe.

Richard Moss says it so beautifully in his book, Inside-Out Healing:

"How can you tell if your ego has appropriated a dark feeling? You find yourself compulsively thinking. Your mind will spin with story after story about what is wrong with you, what strategy to pursue or why your situation is hopeless, why your life is ruined or meaningless, or how you can save yourself. It will find every way to attack you, judge you, blame others, or even attack them.

"It will make you guilty resentful, terrified, hopeless, impulsive, and aggressive… one after the other. It is frantically trying to create a known (albeit terribly amplified) misery in a desperate attempt to be in control of an unknown and ultimately unknowable feeling that doesn't even realize what it is reacting to.

"But the ego can never control what comes from a deeper ground of consciousness… The more your ego spins stories in the face of an abysmal feeling the more miserable you become… Until you can understand what is happening to you and can instead turn your full awareness with focused, spacious attention directly toward the darker feeling, you might as well be in hell.

"After a siege of the Dark Night, when you go back to what can be called normal or ordinary consciousness, you find that your heart has broken open, fear has evaporated, love flows more spontaneously, and you have become more compassionate and forgiving. You have entered previously unknown levels of your being, and it has made you a little more humble and a bit wiser."

The Thoughts that Torture and the Feelings that Cleanse

Over the years I have come to understand that some difficult feeling I bring onto myself by my own self-torturing thoughts. Gradually I have had to disassemble my negative thought patterning and as the years have passed I succumb less and less to self-sabotage. Much of it comes from how my original family viewed the world and much comes from my own mistaken beliefs about how Reality works.

There is however a suffering that arises from a more primordial place. Even though the dark intensity of it invites the familiar overlay of thoughts of self-sabotage, it begs just to felt all the way through to completion without thoughts — without words. These kinds of darker, difficult feelings deepen our humanity and when held, accepted and embraced until they are over, they engender a more powerful presence and compassion for others. They invite a deeper creative connection to life.

Joel Rothschild, one of the longest living survivors of HIV/Aids contemplates suffering in this profound way:

"We do all suffer in this life… and I began to wonder if suffering were part of some universal cleansing process. In time I began believe it was. If we are all a cell in the body of God, all connected in this universe, perhaps our suffering functions the way the liver functions in the body: perhaps suffering cleanses the greater being."

Next: Living Into Your Creative Vision

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