DEATH, IDENTITY, AND CREATIVITY
The interrelationship among death, identity and creativity is probably a simple one
when fully understood. I do not pretend to that understanding. However, I would like to
make some statements concerning glimpses of the interrelationship which I have caught.
In thinking about death, its seeming opposite, life, is the First phenomenon to appear.
Gibran expresses the contradiction poetically and meaningfully, "If you would indeed
behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death
are one, even as the river and the sea are one" (Gibran, 1946). That life and death are one
and that life and death are a process, what does this mean to us as individuals? Are we not
dead when we are dead? We are dead when we are what we think being dead is. This
statement may look like utter nonsense. Try this statement: We are alive when we are
what we think being alive is. Does that make any better sense? Let us specify what it is to
die. Death is a point in a process, a point of change in a process of experience. Death is
change and change is death. Putting this very concretely, whenever a part of us changes,
that part dies, dies in the sense that it no longer holds a position of the strength' (in
psychological terms, the motivating, force) in our self or our existence as it previously did.
When we change, part of the self dies and this is death. As a result, a new constellation' or
configuration of the "personality" or being obtains. This new configuration may contain
new elements or it may contain fewer elements with a redistribution or new "weighting"
of the elements in the configuration. Elements previously existing may perhaps now have
greater opportunity for expression since other inhibiting elements have disappeared.
(Parenthetically, I must observe that I am always amazed to see how infrequently people
die. I have the same experience that all of you have had in meeting people after a period
of years and finding "They haven't changed (died) a bit."
It seems obvious that the problem of the death of our physical self is a problem insofar
as we identify the self with our physical body. When we do this and we see a person's
dead body then we assume that he is dead because we have identified "him" with his
body and its actions, its appearance, its smell, its sound, its color, and so on. Thus, when
we see that these things are gone, we assume that he, too, is gone. Identifying ourselves
with our bodies and others with their bodies then makes physical death a cessation of
individuality and awareness. In one of the Buddhist sects, the novice must sit and watch
the decomposition of the body of someone he has known well. This practice is to help
cast some doubt on the assumption that body and individual being are one and the same
thing. I imagine that it would be difficult to continue to believe that one's friend, after a
couple of weeks of decomposing, was just that mess of maggots, worms and bone before
one's eyes. The emphasis in Zen, of making an experience, of concretizing an abstraction,
so that it becomes a felt reality, is meaningful and leads to knowing. Rather than
abstractly thinking that man is more than his body, and rather than having an
intellectualized concept of this possibility, as is more Western man's inclination, the Zen
approach has us experience it.
The problem of physical death then has something to do with our identity and .what is.
considered to be "me." When we identify ourselves with our "skin encapsulated ego" (to
borrow Alan Watt's phrase), we naturally face annihilation. When we can identify with
something beyond our skin-self, then death has a different face. The problem, of course,
is a process of coming to know parts of ourselves that we do not already know. 'Or said,
differently, identifying with things that we do not now know and therefore have no
identity with. The solution is to identify with the life process-to experience, for
instance, our cellular consciousness (awareness of that fantastic neuro-physiological
activity) and to experience another's cellular consciousness, and on the other extreme, to
experience (in Eastern religious terms) the "void," the unmanifested energy (the absence
of any thing), the source of all life.
How does one begin this new identity? I think this broader identity occurs by. our
being willing to permit ourselves to experience-by learning to let go and coming to know
our feelings, attitudes, perceptions, moods, relationships, forms and the senses we
heretofore did not know exist. This occurs by leaving ourselves and by becoming other
experiences that have been unknown. Man, of course, has eternally searched for vehicles
for such travel, and Aldous Huxley describes with vividness these methods in Heaven and
Hell (Huxley, 1955). The goal is to leave that usual, known and familiar experiential
referent, the self, and to move the awareness or energy to an unknown experiential
referent, e.g., another human being, a rose, a note from a violin string, or an amoeba.
Giving up one's ego and its fringe benefit, "reality" (a tautological phenomenon) 'one is
able to become what was previously defined as "other" and not-self and to experience the
existential nature of differing referent points or energy manifestations. Example: It is
experiencing "rose-ness" and not "me experiencing rose-ness"-the elimination of the
There is a very practical aspect to all this ethereal experience, because these
experiences give us an identity which is considerably more than our previous body-in-skin
one. As we learn to let ourselves experience we find an ever widening identity. This of
course is most important in our human relationships. When we can come to know that
others are just as we are, we can stop being afraid of them, and stop being afraid we are
different from them-better or worse-as all comparison ends the same way-separateness,
loneliness and anxiety.
Perhaps crucial to the present discussion is some statement of the. experience of
timelessness of one's existence or one's knowing. There cease to be concepts of
"beginning" and "end," but rather points of experience. What is described as "being at
one" is known. I have heard described somewhere that time is an endless series of vertical'
lines and space is an endless series of horizontal lines and that at every point where two
lines intersect, an individual consciousness exists. Besides being delightful poetry, the
picture portrayed is analogous to the experience where an individual is apprehended as an
experiencing node in time and space. Timelessness of one's existence is known when one
experiences what is-the here and now, not the past and future, but the "is-ness" of the
Death then is a problem in identity: The more constricted the identity, the more
vulnerable it is to destruction; whereas identity with being, with life process, increases the
resistance to its destruction. Taking this to concrete examples, we can understand why a
multimillionaire commits suicide because he has financial difficulties. His identity was so
constricted that when he "lost" his money, he "lost" his identity and was no longer an
individual nor an identity. When a physically attractive woman who has identified herself
With her physical beauty "loses" this beauty, she "loses" herself and catastrophe results.
When the identity is, narrow and constrictive it is more vulnerable, because events and
time can change the covering or, irrelevant attributes of an individual and adjustment
problems are inevitable.
Death then is a problem in identity just as any living change is a problem in identity.
The resistance in psychotherapy is partly a resistance to change, to dying, to. becoming
someone or something one previously has not been. And this always necessitates giving up
part of the self. In the transcendental experience, giving up the old basic assumptions
about self is literally experienced as dying. Often these experiences are accompanied by '
the complete sense modalities where one sees the world as one saw it being visually
destroyed, where one hears the world come thundering and crashing down, and where
one feels the fire as it consumes the old world.
Now I think creativity enters this process because creativity has something to with the
malleable interaction of attributes. In the creative relationship there are attributes of both
the creator and that out of which is created, and part of the creative process is the
mingling or fusion of those attributes so that something unique is produced. Creativity
has something to do with the creator going out into other forms and making manifest a
"reality" which proceeds from this fusion. Michelangelo could not have created the David
without marble and the attributes of that marble. Attributes of the creator and 'that from
which is created intermingle, out of which is produced a manifest "original," which is a
product of those particular attributes of the creator and that out of which is created. So a
creation is a particular combination of attributes of both the creator and his material.
This process can only occur by the human being allowing himself to go out of self, to go
into other forms, other energy modalities, and permitting himself to fuse with this
material so that what is produced manifests both himself and his material. The yang in
the process is man and the yin is his material. The active merges with the passive and the
creator's identity includes his partner, the material. The creator is thus not "I creating
some thing" but rather "transcended self and material becoming some new
Creativity occurs when man can permit himself to flow into the world about him and
1 identify and participate in it. Creativity is seen as a life force which is able to merge with
other aspects of being to produce new realities which are idiosyncratic to the creator and
his material. Creativity has to do with this release of energy into the outside world. This
often comes as a culmination of, or as a solution to, inner turmoil. The creative
expression bursts out of the organism into the world. Perhaps this occurs when man sees
his solution as a merging with the world and his solution to inner threat as a merging with
something outside of him, that is, reducing the distance between self and what is
considered "not self." I wonder if part of what we call creativity comes when man makes
a desperate attempt to communicate with the world about him and goes out into his
material (the world) to reduce anxiety that results from his separateness from it. In this
respect, creativity is most beneficial to the creator. He again achieves a union with part
of, or the whole of, the cosmos. He again becomes "one" through being able lo break
through his skin-encapsulated ego and to becoming part of that world about him.
I have attempted to outline some of the interrelationships between death, identity and
creativity. Death is seen as a point of change in a continuous experiential knowing.
Physical death becomes a problem for a constricted identity, an identity with a
skin-encapsulated ego. When one's identity becomes broadened so that he experiences
himself as a manifestation of the life and death process (change), then physical death is
seen as a point in this process. Creativity is released when an individual permits himself to
experience, and creativity is seen as a blending of man with the world around him to
produce a "reality" which has a particular combination of the attributes of self and the
material. Creativity is seen as a process of a union with the world, a solution to .the
experienced loneliness, separateness, and anxiety, so that man again becomes part of the
Gibran, Kahlil, The Prophet. New York: Knopf, 1946.
Huxley, \\Aom. Heaven and Hell New York: Harper 1955