Head of vile serpents,

Avoid her furious gaze,
Lest ye turn to stone.

Greek legend tells the story of Medusa the Gorgon, a monstrous creature with hair of snakes and eyes that had the power to turn anyone who met their gaze into stone.  Medusa’s full story is rich in metaphor and continues to provoke a plethora of different interpretations and representations to this day.   And, if we tweak it slightly, it is also a powerful metaphor for rehabilitating spontaneity and creativity.

I’ve written in the past about my interest in masks and how potent a device I have found them to be in personal development work.  Used in a particular way they have the power to shift our sense of self, offering glimpses into different ways of being that liberate our spontaneity and allow us to experience ourselves in ways we didn’t think possible.  My most potent mask experiences have felt like a workout for my personality where my sense of self has been stretched beyond its normal range and layers of fixed self images have gently fallen away.  (Rowan Gray recently wrote this wonderful blog of his experience at a mask worksop) However, where Medusa had the power to turn people to stone, the mask seems to have the opposite effect when the wearer sees it in the mirror for the first time.  Instead of seizing up and becoming solid, the wearer often describes the experience as a loosening up where fixed parts of the personality become fluid and pliable.  The instinctive, physical response to witnessing this odd, yet familiar creature for the first time seems to grant us access to previously un-owned or repressed parts of ourselves.

In his wonderful book “Waking the Tiger” Peter Levine speaks of the process of Somatic Experiencing that he developed to work with and heal trauma.  In a nutshell he suggests that trauma manifests in the human organism because the natural cycle of embodied regulation has been interrupted and excess fight, flight or freeze energy remains locked in the body. As this is a physical, somatic problem, talking therapy alone will not work and a process of embodied energy discharge is required for healing to occur.  What I find particularly interesting about Levine’s work is his comparison with the animal kingdom and his observation that most species allow themselves to go through this necessary process of energy discharge.  Most mammals and birds, having experienced something that has triggered their instinctive fight, flight or freeze response, will discharge the excess energy that has been mobilised by physically shaking it out.  (You regularly see this with ducks on a pond who have just had a territorial encounter or in dogs who sense that a perceived danger has passed.)  Young animals also use play to discharge and release this excess energy productively.  Levine tells a story of a pack of cheetah cubs who, having narrowly escaped being eaten by a lion, played ‘escape’ over and over again, taking it in turns to try and catch each other.  The game simultaneously discharged the excess fight/flight energy whilst improving their future escape capabilities.  Levine suggests that human beings, on the other hand, tend to use our highly developed intellect to override and suppress the body’s instinctive need to discharge which leads to a variety of conditions including trauma.

The overlap with Levine’s trauma work and my experience with masks as a form of self development seems to come from the idea of developing our ability to get in touch with our felt sense – our moment by moment internal body sensations that can instinctively guide us into healthier patterns of self-regulation.  Levine suggests that “In directing our attention to these internal body sensations…we can unbind and free the energies that have been held in check.”  The permission provided by the mask, when it works well, seems to provide a portal through which we can experience ourselves in ways we had previously numbed out of, providing a release of energy and giving expression to repressed parts of ourselves in a safe and playful way. Through these experiences we become more aware of who we are both cognitively and somatically.

All of this has led me to wonder if there is such a thing as “creativity trauma” where, over time, there is a build up of experiences where our naturally occurring spontaneity is stimulated but not discharged.  Moments where we cognitively override our creative instincts through fear of being perceived as mad, bad or wrong.  Moments of creative inhibition through fear of failure, being shamed or rejected.  Over time, these moments would lead to a build up of undischarged creative energy causing us to eventually numb out of our creative felt sense and respond to external stimulus in overly logical and guarded ways.  If this is true then it means that our organisations, corporations and institutions may be having a more damaging effect on our creativity and wellbeing than we’d previously imagined, colluding with the repression of creative energy in  a rather unhealthy way. Rather excitingly the reverse medusa effects of mask work seem to provide a potent but playful way of facilitating the discharge process and begin to rehabilitate human spontaneity. I am left wondering in what other ways we can do this in our day to day lives and how corporations might create more space for us to shake off our suppressed creative energy.

Steve runs public and private mask workshops at various times throughout the year.  Check the events page to find out more.