Coming out to play

Some people are born ‘naturals’ with children and some really aren’t. Some mistake immaturity for stupidity and impose their adult ‘know-how’ in a patronising way, delivering information on a need to know basis, making it prescriptive, leaving no room for invention, withholding time and respect. Others know how to let the best of their kids unfold without fear of repercussion and treat them like mini-adults, engaging in open, playful, no-holds-barred and democratic, responsibility-sharing interaction from day one, which has been my way. We all have our viewpoints on what works when it comes to mentoring children into adulthood, and deciding when it is appropriate to allow them to have their sway (or even say) but the results, in terms of potential reached, can be very different and these behaviour traits can become a stuck pattern through generations.

But what happens when that child resides inside of us; when there is a part of ourselves that, long past childhood, remains playful and exploratory yet –  being considered unsavvy, immature  or even irresponsible – is only ‘heard’ under the most conditional of terms by us?

Is this part of us, by cultural epidemic, typically forced to take a back seat inside of itself simply because it is the part of us that still encounters everything as new and fresh, as unlimited and playful, exciting and open for reinvention and still asks (endless, persistent, mind-bending) questions instead of seeing everything through the filters that insist that we’ve seen it all before and that life is, fundamentally, serious, ‘a struggle’ and almost entirely predictable. So, what happens when we domineer-parent half of who we are?

Before dismissing this as nonsense, consider how many of us treat our creative side, the right half of the brain, like a silly over-imaginative child…telling it to be quiet and to go and play nicely in the corner yet seldom welcoming its engagement or its input. We hold to some unspoken opinion about it (“what would you know about the world”) and, assuming we are lenient enough to allow it out at all, often only let it come out to play at very particular times…like when we are on holiday, over a bottle of wine or at designated ‘silly’ times with our kids or, perhaps, after we have retired from decades of ‘real’ work and allow ourselves to take a painting class in our old age. We can all summon to mind people who have lived their whole lives like this, but I suspect its far more prevalent than we’ve been admitting.

What happens when, for so much of our time, we sideline this half (and it is a half) of who we are?

What if, even when we acknowledge the foibles of this part of ourselves, it is often to do so laughingly, scathingly, with those throw away comments such as “oh she’s a creative type; she’s so scatty she doesn’t know what day of the week it is” or “artists live in a dream world that has no basis in reality”; how does this gnaw into our perception of the right-brained skill-set? Cliché,yes, but we still adhere to these viewpoints as a culture and these kinds of put-down are so pervasive that even those of us who dare to be artists (by which I mean doing anything arts-related) learn to apply them to ourselves, in some sort of an attempt to make ourselves socially acceptable by laughing ourselves off or by way of apology for traits that hold little or no currency in this world. In fact, we take this belief system so deeply into ourselves that we actually start to believe that what we contribute to the world is only worth a few handfuls of pocket money, like ‘sweetie money’ given to a child, and not the kind of ‘proper’ income you could actually live off and use to put a roof over your head; almost apologising to those who do pay us whilst, simultaneously, apologising to our families for being such a financial burden. This is a serious shortfall in the balance of our modern society and is extremely ripe for review.

Just asking these questions made me realise how, all my life, I have treated the right side of my brain as a rather silly child making rather way-out suggestions that should be tempered ‘for my own good’ in a reality where the left-brain people feel like the real grown-ups in the world; the ones who run businesses, deliver coaching webinars, look after finance, make decisions, tells us how things should be done, organise the structures of our world…They are those who are vocal and successful and dynamic, who tell us (constantly) what to think and believe and who are apparently so very good at handling life, playing the game, while right brained stuff feels like all I am ever doing is sitting in the corner with my coloured crayons, drawing pretty pictures.

Yet, what if our right brain is, just like a child, even more inherently in touch with the natural order of things, the far far bigger picture, than any of the ‘grown up’ minds that have been conditioned to learn and deal in ‘facts’ but have largely stopped tuning into the vast amount of all that they already knew the day they were born? What if the right brain is that ‘inner child’ we all talk about so much, on the path to self-discovery, but still tend to refer to as a rather sad, somewhat wounded, perhaps even lost or slightly wayward version of ourself that needs a comforting pat on the head so that we can pacify it and get on with the real business of discovering whatever it is that keeps stopping us from feeling whole? What if that inner child doesn’t need yet another pat on the head but, rather, to be brought on board before we can get anywhere at all on that journey? What if our inner child is our very best friend and longest-standing ally? To paraphrase Matt Kahn, what if that inner child is the universe,  dressed up as an inner child, and we have been overlooking it at our peril as it can lead us straight to everywhere that we want to go?

It seems that this is a continuation of a discussion I have entered into before, about how important I believe it is that we guide our way towards a reconciliation of the left and right brain perspectives, as written about in some of my other posts (most recently, Windows of insight).

The feeling that I had more to say on this topic came to me when I realised that, for all I engage in, celebrate and unreservedly love my creative side (these days), I still tend to hold it smaller than my more practical aspect and to underestimate and play down its full capabilities, subserving it to left-brain criteria. I still veer towards underestimating what it brings to the whole picture of my experience, including the fact that its full integration into all aspects of life may well be the key to everything I am searching for, including (perhaps, especially) with regard to my health. I allow myself to let the deeply instinctively knowing slip away that by loving it and looking it in the eye, engaging with it peer to peer, not in any stooped down, patronising kind of way like an austere grown-up addressing a small child, but on a par (the way I have always parented my daughter, to great effect), I can expect to see very different results playing out. I witness the awkwardness of this distorted relationship between the two halves of our humanness playing out in the world all the time; a pretence at balance and equal respect being staged when, so often, there is no such substance in place…as yet.

As the parent of a talented young singer, I tripped upon this strain-zone ‘out there’ in the world just this week. When pursuing a right-brained talent area yet forced (for the sake of career progression) to subject yourself to left-brain criticism, there is an inherent conflict right at the heart of things. It can take a child’s response to this anomaly to newly appreciate the conflict as it can suddenly seem, through their eyes, such a nonsense to have to endure harsh criticism and being ‘marked down’ by one judge for the very same traits that, in the eyes of another judge, are declared to be the very highlights of a performance. When the arts are truly approached from the right-hemispheric angle, from which it is known that we are ‘all aspects of One’ playing out our individual flavour of expression, it feels inherently incongruous, and therefore uncomfortable to the boot-straps, to witness one person being torn to shreds over the opinion (judgement) of another and yet we have created an entire culture that feeds off this particular sport in the form of the endless (and ruthless) ‘talent’ shows that flood our TV screens and a media that gobbles up performers and artists for breakfast. Art, and its reception is, by default, a subjective thing and there can be no right and wrong, nor is the fact of engaging in its pursuit a call for open opinion and public slaying…which is not to say that the artist can’t choose to subject themselves to the criteria of a particular school of advice or to seek any technical guidance and evaluation that they feel may benefit them. Yet, even under the auspices of that ‘school of advice’ the question remains: should we be looking at how the terms ‘wrong’ and ‘bad’ and ‘less than’ are used in this context and whether helpful advice could be couched any differently, and in a far less black and white way? Having sat through several music festival classes, just yesterday, where an unusually superb adjudicator never once used such cut-and-dry terminology but, rather, sought to encourage and capitalise upon potential and make much of all the many positives, good bits and – yes –  individual touches that he noted in his enthusiastic assessment of these brave young people, I am newly encouraged that there is much scope for continued lid-lifting and expansion in this area (something our TV culture and its audiences could learn much from).

I had my own, far more gentle, brush with ‘artistic opinion’ (is such a thing a contradiction..?) this week when one of my favourite pieces of the year, one I have received the most rave reactions to and which, in fact, led to me being contacted out of the blue by the President of the American Art Awards, was not deemed ‘up to standard’ to hang in a small provincial exhibition; something which would have really bothered me a year or two ago but I have now matured (hardened?) enough, as an artist, to be able to laugh at the irony. It happens, inevitably, when the subjective meets more of the subjective; the difficulty being when ‘subjective’ is turned into ‘objective’ criteria by which people are evaluated and measured and, on a day when I have seen my daughter in floods over trying to anticipate and so deliver what her art teacher ‘expects’ of her, I am particularly mindful of this.  It would be a step forward if our less seasoned creative types, our fresh new talents, could be allowed to develop their gifts in an unlimited and wholly exploratory way, without the need to live in fear of being told that what they are creating is actively ‘wrong’ or ‘substandard’ or ‘not meeting’ some kind of pre-decided grade (so often based on past precedent or anticipated trend – wholly left-brained criteria – and so no arbiter of the freshest green shoots of the new). Having to concentrate so hard upon developing such an extremely thick-skin in order to survive in a left-brain dominated world can take up more of an artist’s effort than it truly warrants and, I know, is exactly what terrorised me away from the idea of going to art college when I was in my first youthful art bloom.

Of course, processing our harder-to-make-sense-of right-brained experiences through (what can feel like) the more concrete and manageable criteria of the ‘logical’ left-brained perspective is something we try to do when we are struggling to make sense of things any other way. This is exactly why extremely anxious people develop Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; the very rituals and repetitions serving like containers in which to deposit the otherwise amorphous and unhandleable spillage of how they are feeling on the inside of their world.

Synchronicity (of course) brought me to a film this week that fed into this line of processing. Not an obvious choice to me, I found myself watching ‘Extremely loud and incredibly close‘ with Tom Hanks but really about a boy whose father dies in 9/11. The boy is autistic and sets off on a mission to make sense of the loss of his father by seeking the solution to a left brain puzzle about a key he finds in his fathers possessions. By systematically working through each and every avenue of who this key might belong to, he attempts to process something unfathomable to his mind, which is the sudden and irreversible loss of his father in a manner that is almost too horrific to be contemplated or handled by any other method than by what feels most safe, systematic and familiar to him – which is cataloguing data. Along the way, as he sets about interviewing all these people, he travels his own inner path which actually serves to bring that emotional reconciliation about.

What really whacked into me was how much of this boy, his reactions to the world and his processing of its ‘data’ onslaught reminded me of me (and a handful of others I know with similar traits). Making sense of the world, and what it throws at us, is what we all attempt to do in our own individual fashion, day-in and day-out, whether we are conscious of the inner processing methods we use or not, but what seemed so pronounced, in this boy with ASD, was the very laboured attempt by his right-brain to integrate what life was presenting him with by working extraordinarily hard to dress it up in criteria that his left-brain would recognise. It was like watching the right-brain trying to be left-brained or to pre-empt that kind of processing by speaking its language; to make the unfathomable palatable to its counterpart team player in the hope it would have a solution to the extreme overwhelm that had already swept its own emotion-based perspective way over its threshold. The plot that unfolded was like watching a hearty attempt at a whole-brained collaboration, actually, and whereas anyone without ASD may have swung decidedly towards a right brain (emotional overwhelm, disengagement…) response or a left-brained attempt at some sort of logical way of coping (fear based, compulsive, anger driven…), here was an earnest attempt at a whole team effort. Yet (as with fibromyalgia), how often do people look at autism as something going right or being done well although it is recognised that some people with ASD have outstanding skills in a certain area and there is such a grey-area between the diagnosis of ‘autistic’ and ‘gifted’ that so much theory-making about autism is routinely blown to smithereens.

And how do you reconcile the almost irreconcilable – the fact of a terrorist attack and a father that was here this morning and gone by tonight (this was such a thought-provoking movie)? The boy is sent through virtual melt-down and back again, the very human interactions he is forced into along the journey of his enquiries thrusting him sideways into a more positive aspect of his left-brain’s particular skill-set than the over-analysis he is prone to get caught up in and so, in its way, a balanced response to the unfathomable is brought about and some sort of reconciliation reached.

So where does this play out in my life, in what ways is my right brain making a bumbled attempt at dressing up its experiences in left-brain terminology in the hope it can delegate those experiences to its logical team mate in order to make sense of them and let them go? This hooks straight back into my earlier post, Windows of insight, where I play with the fact that fibromyalgia is a state of experiencing every minutest body sensation and not knowing how to deal with all this information. Hoping to pass all this data sideways to the left brain, an almighty effort is put into labeling these sensations by typical left-brain digestible criteria; hoping the information will then just slip away into so many left-hemispheric cabinets and drawers, only doing this involves using all the old labels available, including a zillion words for pain and limitation, the result of which is that a state of emergency is triggered in the body.

What if, like someone daring to sing an old tune in an entirely new way, its time to come up with new words for what is happening here?

An alternative that came to me, this week, for how some of my most painful and challenging sensations feel to me, rather than ‘trigger’, is ‘activation’. This captures, oh so much more fully, how everything I have been through, and continuing, has been the very catalyst for new understanding about my human self; a veritable key in a door. How much more exponentially does my experience open up new potential for me if I set about consciously experiencing what used to trigger me as ‘hey, here comes another wave of activation and personal growth’?

I talked, in my previous post, about my theory that fibromyalgia could be something that ‘happens’ when the brain has struggled to process too much data in an extraordinarily whole-brained way, and I suspected this same rationale might underly other conditions and mentioned autism. Yet, I had never actually typed into Google ‘relationship between fibromyalgia and autism’ before (until the moment I finished watching ‘Extremely loud and incredibly close’) but, when I did, it brought up loads of thought-provoking articles, research and experience-shares. One post described FM as ‘all the missing females from autism’ since autism is a predominantly male-affecting whereas FM affects mostly women. What is particularly interesting to me is that there are so many different views about whether autism is a right or left sided brain ‘problem’. I suspect it is neither but, rather, a bumbled attempt, by a highly innovative brain, to use both sides equally and democratically, in ways that result in an occasional mis-delegation of tasks.

Bearing in mind most people get stuck into the simpler option of choosing their left or right brained preference and staying in that perspective for almost everything they ever process, could it be that an attempt at more holistic processing of data is the only ‘problem’ of someone with autism (and I am asking you to bear in mind that I am new to reading into ASD and Aspergers and that these are my instinctive – dare I say, right-brained – observations)?

Could it be that the brain, like a parent trying to be completely fair at dividing out tasks to two eager children of differing skill-sets and abilities, in a situation that calls for (say) a right-sided perspective, suddenly hands over a conundrum to left-brain with the question ‘so, what do you think we should do here?’ which elicits a shocked and embarrassed silence or a disjointed attempt to make sense of what has just been asked. This puts additional pressures on the already overburdened language centre that is desperately sifting through definitions to try and ‘label’ what is happening and so what results is a situation only made more complicated and entangled in the mess of labelling and rigid structures that are being clung onto as determinedly as a life-raft. I can’t help wondering whether the resulting behaviour, which often suggests a great deal of obsessive compulsion partnered with an apparent lack of emotion or empathy (as is sometimes typical of ASD), is just a botched attempt to integrate too much across two hemispheres and getting some wires crossed along the way. Certainly, my own flights into such moments of communication breakdown and overwhelm feel like it is this that is happening.

Certainly, too, from a fibromyalgia point of view, what results is a person drowning in a sea of pain definitions and ‘problems to be solved’ when, actually, if reserved for the right-brain to handle, what that person has going on is not nearly so overwhelming!

This whole, potential, connection between autism and fibromyalgia has switched on so many lightbulbs for me…still switching… and is a particular reason why publishing this post felt so important; in case it switches on anybody else’s lights!

It certainly fed straight back into this fundamental hiccough I seem to have in my relationship with the world at large, being this niggling feeling that my right-brained leaning makes me feel perpetually inadequate and ill-equipped to deal with the world as it is currently skewed and like I should be making more effort, ever more overtures, to couch all that I am about in left-brained criteria. In the end, this can start to feel a bit like having to hang a description underneath a painting – what, really, is all that about and should it ever be necessary?

The way things are, I feel constantly and relentlessly forced to ‘explain myself’ (to myself, and to others) in left-brain terminology…like I can’t quite shake off the belief that for me to experience something and make sense of it, to me, is not quite enough; yes, even knowing that we are all fundamentally connected and experience group evolution as a result of any individual breakthroughs that occur, even without the words to express them.  It’s like a compulsion in me, urging me to share my processing with others, however challenging that can feel, and this same compulsion has driven writers and philosophers to do likewise since the very beginnings of language – after all, words are hugely powerful (far more than we know) and I sense that, not so deep down, we all suspect that we are shifting mountains through their use, regardless of who gets to hear them; like casting a spell that makes things happen.

Yet I am beginning to question whether this valiant attempt at delivery of the almost inexplicable, through words, is entirely necessary, appropriate or even conducive to expanding ideas to their fullest capacity. As soon as I hurry to the keyboard to give form to ideas (such as these), I am simultaneously aware that I have ‘capped them’ somehow; I have encased the seedling beneath a glass ceiling of what it is already possible to express and I have allowed certain green shoots to wither on the bough just as surely I have chosen which other ones to give particular expression to. This singular act of collaboration between brain hemispheres can feel like such a self-limiting one…our unlimited potential honed into a defined creation where important bits can be left out or allowed to ramble, without our meaning to, unless we become the very conscious gardener of our thoughts. In short, we become our own adjudicator, allowing this thought to flourish, discouraging the next one, and by what (or whose) criteria?

Perhaps I am hitting upon the ultimate human conundrum, the ‘solving’ of which provides the ultimate key to our door. Is experiencing our own inner landscape sufficient without the expressing of it or does that expression make it more complete (yes, I tend to think so – or I wouldn’t be writing this blog!) yet how do we know, as ‘gardeners’ of the mind, where to apply those left-brain secateurs to tweak and prune or (going back to my original analogy), as parents of ourselves, when do we encourage and when do we gently shush the full flurry of our inner child who might, after all, hold all the deepest knowing of the universe?

A phrase came spontaneously to mind – actually, a song lyric – “I found god in the numbers” or it could equally be that old phrase “god is in the detail”. For a very long time, I think, I have been assuming that to mean that the detail, the complexity, the endless labelling and defining and cataloguing of everything in our world has made all of this criteria ‘the god’ of our experience but, suddenly, I knew how utterly inside-out that was. God, rather, is the very wholeness of all that detail and complexity – that is, the me that gets to experience it all; to sit back and enjoy the endlessly flowing sacred geometry of our universe that manifests and morphs, that one moment contracts and then swells and waves like the fingers of a sea anemone in a current and then spirals out to turn into something else entirely, endlessly reforming into beautiful and diverse patterns that swim and swirl into distinction only to dissolve back into a sea of all potential once again. Where we get stuck is when we think ‘everything’ is either all of these things together or all the minutiae that make it up when it is actually neither, nor is it both, but rather a sum of the whole; which is, necessarily, greater than the sum of its parts – and you can always tell you are getting much closer to the ‘truth’ when you reach such a big juicy paradox!

It takes these two distinct perspectives working simultaneously and without preference, in the same way that we see through both eyes, to get the whole harmonious picture of it all, which is far bigger than either sees on its own – and that is where we find our Self standing, in the shadow of our world; exactly where we have always been but could never quite see for looking. Just as we see all the tiny petals on a complex flower-head (simultaneously being both ‘the flower’ and all of those tiny petals; so which do we really see and does it really matter?), also like a pixelated image or the tiny dots of colour in a pointillism painting, we get to allow that there is really both, and there is absolute free-flow between them and then, suddenly, there is much more there than we ever saw before. As we practice being in this mindset, we get better and better at doing it until there is no trip-wire distinction, no moment’s awkward hesitation as we decide ‘which way’ to see things, nor is there conflict or a ‘wrong’ way or any room for confusion. We simply step back into our wholeness and realise that we never, really, left it – it was all just a game we were playing.


Magnificent dahlia – Konzakowski on Tumblr

About Helen White

Helen White is a professional artist and published writer with two primary blogs to her name. Her themes pivot around health and wellbeing, expanded consciousness and ways of noticing how life is a constant dance between the deeply subjective and the collective-universal, all of which she explores with a daily hunger to get to know herself better. Her blog Living Whole shines a light on living with high sensitivity, dealing with trauma and healing from chronic health issues. Spinning the Light is an extremely broad-based platform where she elucidates the everyday alchemy of relentless self-exploration. A lifetime of "feeling like an outsider" slowly emerged as neurodivergence (being a Highly Sensitive Person with ADHD, synaesthesia, sensory processing challenges and other defecits overlapping with giftedness). All of these topics are covered in her blogs, written from two distinct vantage points so, if you have enjoyed one of them, you may wish to explore the other for a different, yet entirely complimentary, perspective.
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2 Responses to Coming out to play

  1. This is a really interesting post Helen. I often think of myself in two halves: the person I have to be when I go out to work (left-brain) and the person I am when I’m at home and creating. I feel the shift from one to the other, as though I have to ‘put on’ the left-brain me and I notice it more and more. One reason, I think why I don’t often talk of my creativity in that world, or talk of it in slightly embarrassed terms.


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