In the Hands of Alchemy
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Experience Designer Network
Interview by Brian Alger
July 31, 2005
See this interview on the Experience Designer Network Web site
(Also see the short interview Tension: Artists of the Living)

Experience Designer Network: Transformation and learning are closely related. Education and learning are often distantly related. What are the key experiences in your life that caused you to make fundamental changes in how you were living? What specifically happened in the way you thought and felt about the world in each of those experiences that became the catalyst for change?
Jerry:There are two key experiences that led to and supported fundamental change for me - and by "fundamental change" I mean "The" event that changes life permanently and at the deepest level. First, there is the allurement of inspiration with its ongoing magic. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there is the catalyst of change that comes from boring, useless suffering, which is often the result of living outside of one's true place of freedom in the world. It is often these 2 conditions that cause me to question my life. Through deep and honest questioning I can begin to open to some inspired new possibility that I may have been sensing at an intuitive level all along.

The most radical transformation that occurred in my life, which became the template for real and lasting change, happened for me in 1979. This was a period, real or imagined, that I felt I was at the pinnacle of "achievement" in my creative ability. It was at this point that I felt the need to turn away from the reasonable and controlled environment of my own creation and begin to trust something larger. Rather than looking for justification and support from the world around me, my journey led inward to some of the most undesirable and uninhabitable areas of both the personal and the collective psyche. It was the allurement of inspiration that drew me into this unlikely area of discovery. Inspiration was and is a mystery. In a sense, I was exploring the holy science of inspiration. I was asking, "What were the conditions surrounding that quantum leap that brought an inspired moment to life? And then -- "How could I give all of my life to the experience of inspired freedom?" Sustainable freedom is hard-earned and for the most part avoided by most of us. Perhaps this is because of the inherent discomfort, loneliness and formlessness we encounter, as we more fully inhabit our individuality.

The studio was a kind of laboratory for me. Having dabbled with the mystery of creation and more specifically, the allurement of inspiration, I came to understand a bit about the strange reality of this illusive gift. I began to trust and work with something larger than my will, intelligence and good intentions. My identity as an artist seemed puny compared to what I sensed life could be if I fully embraced what I was intuiting. I sensed that if I were to give myself to the formless allurement of inspiration it would completely transform and inspire both my art and my life. This is what I did in 1979, when I let go of my identity as an artist, (by destroying my large body of art ) giving everything I owned away, and deciding to completely trust the creative potential of the moment. Having given myself to such a complete void, on the external level, I proceeded to take life as it came, without interference. Keeping myself open to this way of being, I placed no limits on where my exploration took me. Paradoxically, it was some of the more undesirable areas of discovery that were rewarded with the most liberating, beautiful and inspiring experiences.

I sensed the single act of leaping into the void would set into motion the conditions that would require me to look to the source of inspiration for everything I needed, creatively and materially. My intuition proved to be correct and life began to unfold in unexpected ways - ways that required tending all aspects of life with equal attention. I focused equal, creative attention on every experience that I encountered. A moment of not doing was given equal attention to a moment of doing. Having been so driven as a young painter, finding substance in the experience of Not Doing was a huge, yet ultimately rewarding challenge. Doing nothing and finding meaning in the emptiness was probably one of the more difficult challenges for me as a man. Generally speaking, exploring emptiness does not come easy to men who tend to focus more on external goals and forms. Opening to the powerful creative potential of emptiness is generally a more feminine experience. Like the Black Holes in space this emptiness is vast, spatial and formless and women or those with a strong feminine nature are better equipped to hold and inhabit this vastness.

The initial shift that occurred for me at this time was and continues to be the most important event of my life. I am convinced that high art and the cutting edge of the creative human experience can only be accessed through a direct relationship to the source. The absence of any interface, sacrifice and outrageous trust in something unseen are required of this relationship. It is in our willingness to turn and walk into those areas of consciousness where our ego-identity may come undone that we have the potential to find our own true life. This conscious, directional shift requires all of our courage. The personal and collective ego does everything in its power to resist the possibility of such a radical shift in consciousness. The ego interprets any radical departure from a personal or cultural fix as sure death to its existence - and this perception is entirely correct. Something old and calcified must die; yet, it is in the dying we bring forth the truly inspired life which is our birthright.

I find it ironic and something of a cosmic joke that this metaphoric 'dying' of my identity as an artist is what essentially brought my art to life in the context of a larger cultural expression. When we find courage enough to sacrifice our ego-identity and allow the mystery a say in what we do, there is a universal quality that gets expressed. This universal quality resonates in the hearts of others as it makes into way the world. The world recognizes and experiences this quality, in a personal way, as a timeless myth. The boundaries simply fall away. Universal creative expressions of this nature belongs to everyone. An encounter with art of this nature awakens the best in all of us and reminds us of who we are - collectively.

Experience Designer Network: Dan Eldon embraced, "Life as safari." Erik Weihenmayer embraced life as, "I want to summit." These are fundamentally artistic perspectives on life and living. At the same time, these are perspectives that are not seen as the norm, but as something unusual or unique. The various life paths that people explore are of critical importance to learning, yet we often reduce them to data, facts, information, knowledge or just biography. And in reducing them, we limit their ability to be a healing force and reaffirming catalyst for action in people's lives. Simply reading about them or trying to mimic them is not nearly enough. How can we more effectively learn about the power of other people's lives in order to embrace them as a means to finding and beginning our own unique and individual life experiences?
Jerry: What is essential in both of these statements, "Life as safari" and "I want to summit" is the requirement of outrageous trust in something unseen. To seek the summit or to venture into unknown territory with the poetic sensibility suggested requires individuality, courage and personal vision. These statements are not the voice of complacency. There is reference to a wild and potentially dangerous universe that one must experience alone, internally and externally. At the same time, the statements leave open the unreasonable possibility that the adventure is informed, support and celebrated by a conscious universe-- a universe that we might rely on. Whatever we choose to call it, there appears to be a knowing in the human heart that overrides reason and awakens, in us all, the spirit of outrageous trust and adventure.

The power of this knowing will inspire us to venture into unknown territory where the path is defined only as we move forward. To come to terms with the discomfort of this override and to jump into the adventure anyway, is where the creative heart comes alive. It is often the visionaries, the artists or the more intuitive among us who are first to do this. They are the gatekeepers who point to the wilds outside the gates while inviting us through. The gatekeepers may inspire us but we have to set off alone on the adventures and establish a personal dialogue with the mysteries as they reveal themselves. The expression this dialogue takes is what defines our creative individuality.

Experience Designer Network: Joseph Campbell talks about the fundamental importance of finding and embracing our bliss. You surrendered yourself, courageously, to the experience of life and the mystery of survival itself. You claimed your life as your own. This is a critical learning process for everyone.
Jerry: Yes, it is critical to the learning process, however few of us are willing to surrender to the risk and requirements of bliss without a certain amount of kicking, screaming and surviving. For many of us the choice of bliss does not always appear blissful, especially when viewed through the lens of reason and responsibility. Following and inhabiting our bliss, as prescribed by Joseph Campbell, requires a certain amount of fearless and deliberate irresponsibility. Many of us cannot go beyond our ideas of what it means to be "responsible." We might feel it would be irresponsible to actually do what we love. For most of us, the ability to responsibly follow our bliss, with the attention required, needs a certain amount of material reward and justification.

This is particularly true in America, where money and the things that money can buy have become the only reason for doing a thing. There are no guarantees and no deals to be made when it comes to the adventure of bliss. In order to truly follow our bliss we would have to go about it as if the world depended on it and personally, I believe it does! Awaken we must -- exactly when and where we choose to do this is in the hands of individuals and their gods. Our current circumstances offer the best possible opportunity to experience our bliss. I trust that the universe is in perfect order and that we all create the conditions needed to live our bliss.

Many people create conditions of enormous suffering, and those are the conditions necessary for those individuals. However, it is important to remember that we do have options. Deep listening and an appropriate response to the moment's calling can eliminate excessive suffering for anyone. We experience great freedom working in the area of bliss. This freedom would terrify anyone who, out of the light of obvious reward, could not hold a selfless, steady vision. To remain on track with the discipline of bliss one would also need to know that they are learning what they need to learn and see that their involvement was in the service of a higher calling. To, then, blissfully make ones way forward the universe defines the path and the rewards come in unexpected ways -- ways in which those banging the begging bowl of literal gain remain blind to.

Experience Designer Network: Where does this learning originate? What is the source of this learning? What are the roadblocks in front of us? How can we set this learning free?
Jerry: As I said earlier, our true path originates in the present conditions of our lives, or as Lao Tsu says, "The journey of a thousand miles begins where your feet are." The source of learning is WHAT IS in each of our lives. What is right here in front of us? What are our allurements? What does our innocence call forth in us? This is the stuff that sets learning free and allows for joyful, creative manifestation in the world. Fear of the unknown is probably the biggest roadblock.

Experience Designer Network: Art and artistry are often confused with the production of material things that have an aesthetic quality. Yet artistry is a much more potent force in our lives that serves to guide our intuition about who we are and how we should live. In a world that seems more and more bent on equating progress with capitalism, how can art and artistry be elevated in people's lives, regardless of their age or walk in life, in order to allow it to play the essential role it should?
Jerry: Yes, art is no less than a powerful force that changes the world! Equating Art and artistry with material or esthetic value, alone, misses the mark completely. We have such an overwhelming number of things being made and set out on the surface, for all the world to see, that it gets confusing. The muse in her transformational power goes underground when there is an excess of literal materialism. And yet she exists where she always has - in the unseen depths. This is the place few are willing to go because there is no fanfare and no obvious reward. What is required of the artist today, is the same as it has always been -- Everything!

True creative breakthrough comes out of an inevitable moment where the artist knows he/she will have to risk it all in order to win the favor of the muse. If he/she is lucky enough to win her over and receives the gift of inspiration, the creation will be an outrageous, defining act of power and it will reflect something universal. Creations of this nature express the spirit of the time for all of us. It will be an expression the world has never seen or experienced before. An artist that makes this breakthrough in the loneliness of his/her own journey leaves the ground they have covered bushwhacked for the rest of us to follow. This level of artistic experience is what changes the world and, as you say, it serves to guide our intuition about who we are and how we should live our lives. In his book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Joseph Campbell writes, "The most sublime form of artistic expression is formless and simply leaves one in awe." The awesome, creative breakthrough establishes and gives meaning to the progression we see in art history.

This being said, I will also add, we all have access to these inspired breakthroughs, no matter who we are or what we do. Handing the realm of creation over to "the artist" is a way of avoiding responsibility for our own full potential. Fine-tuning the requirements of a creative life will inevitably make us better and more sensitive individuals with the capacity to contribute something unique to the collective. When we live creatively and begin to receive the subtle gifts that are available, the grosser allure of materialism will no longer appeal to us. We all value what we perceive as valuable and these values change through the insights and epiphanies that come with the experience of creative awe.

Experience Designer Network: Artistry and the artist within seem to be in steep decline in our institutionalized systems of education. Without taking care of our artistic sensibilities I believe we deny ourselves a fundamentally important perspective on life and living. In other words, without art we simply do not learn to appreciate the fullness of who we are and what we are meant to do. What is the antidote to an education system that views art as the production of things instead of a close companion in the journey of life?
Jerry: Art has a way of taking care of itself. Creativity that is limited and commodified in the classroom is sprayed out for free on the subway wall. An educational institution that attempts to tame the wilds of creation or eliminate the poetic sensibility of its people does not survive for very long. It is true, as you say; there is a decline in this area. Decline, too, is natural -- it exists in the cyclical nature of things. As ideas eventually take on the weight of mainstream acceptance they begin to grow, cool and calcify. As a common cyclical event in the human experience, we often feel a decline of our power and a loss of freedom just before we have an inspiring breakthrough. There is some inherent truth to the overused cliché "the darkest hour is just before the dawn." To fear or avoid the place in the cycle where we naturally experience a decline creates a blind spot. By seeing things in black and white and insisting on the reality of that point of view we eliminate paradox. This insistence is the source of every kind of fundamentalism. In the end, the only defense against decline and calcification is to consciously hold that paradox and allow an inspired third possibility to emerge. Inspiration and renewal seem to exist in the darkness of decline. Maybe that's the paradox that an artist just has to live with.

Experience Designer Network: If you were to create a learning environment designed to help people explore and enhance their ability to use artistry as a means to influence and inform their journey in life, what would you create?
Jerry: A genuinely creative environment would have to include all we do in whatever environment we are in. Creative-doing would have to be made a priority! We can do this by seeking a creative solution to every challenge that comes our way. The best-equipped people to establish such an environment are of course, the people who are living this way. Their very presence becomes a learning environment. They are learning themselves and demonstrating the creative process in everything they do.

Experience Designer Network: Fear can be a powerful influence in our lives. It can be healthy or, more frequently, debilitating. Some fear comes to us unexpectedly while other kinds of fears are manufactured by society itself. Sometimes it is as if society says to people, "If you don't follow our plan, bad things will happen." How can our artistic sensibilities be used to help people learn from their inner fears in order to transform their lives?
Jerry: Starhawk says, "Where there is fear there is power." The good that is available in fear does not come from reaction, it comes from an energetic boost to the system that renews our determination to turn and face the fear. For the most part, fear is the single most destructive force in our lives. We develop elaborate strategies to buffer ourselves from fear, which only empower it to create in its own image. Fear can become like some strange and tyrannical, false god who ends up calling the shots in our lives. Of course when we give power over to the fear within, it extends outward to become a tyrannical voice in our society. This projection of ourselves manifests as someone appearing to limit our choices. Basically we limit our own choices when we choose fear.

Courage is a journey and it is the opposite of fear. When, in small ways, we learn to trust rather than fear, we move forward even as we experience that fear. Eventually courage begins to demand more of us and we come to a moment where we must give ourselves to an even larger challenge requiring even greater courage. This is the moment where real personal transformation can occur. It is here that we establish a new stance where courage, surrender and renewal becomes allies in opposition to fear, limitation and death (metaphoric and, I believe, literal.) Once established, this trinity of allies remains strong and moves cyclically, like the tides, renewing and empowering everything we do. It is as if by letting the gods know we mean business, one good time, something larger takes over and carries our lives in a way that we were not able to do on our own. It is the ultimate gift of Grace.

Experience Designer Network: It has often been said that it is the artist's sensibilities and insights that are the foundation for discovering the best uses of technology for humankind. At the same time, much of our modern technology is guided by corporate or political motivations. We are either trying to make money from it, produce material things, or use it to control people. The role of the artist has become more important than ever before. How can we learn to better embrace our artistic sensibilities in order to make technology subservient to living a life worth living?
Jerry: It all comes down to what values we establish - first, within ourselves, then, as those values translate and extend outward to include culture and society. Anything can be either beneficial or destructive, depending upon its application. Beauty is a pretty good standard and, generally speaking, artists are concerned with beauty - whether it is in the creation of beauty through form, or through a kind of holy longing where the final expression becomes the beauty of one's life. If we intuitively move toward a sense of greater beauty, one way or another, what we do in the world will be a reflection of this beauty. In this context, technology becomes just another (and perhaps more efficient) way to serve that end.

I just read an article about a wonderfully creative organization that is creatively involved in a kind of reverse technology. They are developing more efficient, inexpensive human-powered devices to help feed and house the starving and homeless populations of the world. They are inventing and refining such things as hand-operated presses for extracting cooking oil, and foot-powered water pumps. In a village that hand-carries water out to the growing things, a device as simple as a water pump is saving lives by vastly improving food production.

Experience Designer Network: Why is it people need to "leave" society in order to go and "discover" themselves? Is it possible for society to provide an organizational foundation that meets the needs of the many while allowing a healthy sense of individualism to flourish?
Jerry: To leave or disassociate from society in order to find one's true place in the world is the ultimate act of responsibility. When we can be true to our own inner calling and follow a path that takes us away from society, there is the inevitable return. With this return we bring back a deeper sense of purpose and the unique gifts that might only be found in the desert of self-discovery. It is more often the case that we jump mindlessly into life to achieve financial security or to grab a bigger piece of the pie and ignore the quiet voice of our own deepest longing. When we don't know who we are we end up operating with knee-jerk reaction to anything that reflects back to us the deficit of our unfulfilled calling. To establish a sense of the sacred and to go about our lives with a deeper sense of purpose places us in the best possible position to be of real service in the world.

To answer your question as to why this is, it seems that when we remain in the ocean of established reality for too long we become steeped in its collective fix. Most of us do insignificant things to establish our individuality but few of us have the courage to really stand alone in the place where there are no reference points connecting us to the conventional world. Our true and unique voice can only come from establishing a one-on-one relationship with the larger mystery. This happens differently for each of us but it is most often discovered in the desert.

The best a society might offer, in terms of an organizational foundation for this work, is time, space and the trust in the uniqueness of each individual's journey. Generally speaking, these offerings are not the strengths of western culture. Extroversion and materialism go hand in hand and American culture is exceedingly extroverted. A good start might be for our society to value, introspection more. I read somewhere that there is a culture that actually has a word in their vocabulary that honors an individual's need to withdraw from the activity of daily life. Loosely interpreted, the word means, "she is with the gods right now so let her Be."
Experience Designer Network: "How did you learn the things you value most?" If you were to create a list of ten principles/ideas for this question that other people would benefit from, what would they be?
Jerry: I learned most by jumping into those areas of my life that both inspired and terrified me. Doing this leaves one with no viable alternative but to learn! It gets back to paradox --when one is caught between the horns of inspired possibility and terror the only other alternative is paralysis -- to freeze, do nothing and spend the rest of our lives intelligently justifying our frightened little existence.

As far as a list of principles/ideas that other people might benefit from...
  1. Trust! ~ Trust that you are not lost and that no experience (however difficult) is out of place or without meaning in the larger scheme of things.
  2. Reverent Inquiry ~ Take quiet-time away from the world to simply BE and ask inwardly for what you need.
  3. Remain open to the mystery ~ Unknowing is natural and part of our human experience.
  4. Courage ~ The path we walk as we attempt to live our lives with awareness is sacred ground. Simply meet life as it comes and avoid nothing.
  5. Intuition ~ Develop and pay attention to intuitive feelings, insights and allurements and take risks based on what you perceive.
  6. Humility ~ In the highs and lows of any direct experience, remain grounded in humility.
  7. Have Fun! ~ Fly with creative freedom while holding your vision, and accept whatever form emerges joyfully, and with gratefulness.
  8. Give ~ Give freely to others what you have received.
  9. Patience ~ as Lao Tsu says, "Important things take a long time."
  10.                ~ I will leave number 10 blank – a place for the mystery a place to BE.

Experience Designer Network: Jerry this has been a great pleasure. I hope that those reading this interview with you take time to visit your website In the Hands of Alchemy. There is much to explore here - to learn from - and to step directly out into the larger world with. Thank-you for sharing your insights and experiences with us.