Cosmic Catharsis: Transforming Pain into Art

By Gary Z McGee

Be confused, it’s where you begin to learn new things. Be broken, it’s where you begin to heal. Be frustrated, it’s where you start to make more authentic decisions. Be sad, because if we are brave enough we can hear our heart’s wisdom through it. ~S.C. Lourie

You will be shaken. You will be unsettled. You will not come out unscathed. You will experience much struggle and confusion. If you live long enough, you will have had your heart broken again and again.

Welcome to this thing called Life. It’s a roller-coaster-ride if you’re living life adventurously, and it’s a merry-go-round if you’re not.

Either way, there are good times and there are bad times. There are times that make your heart burst with love and there are times that make your heart break from pain.

Sometimes there is more of the latter and sometimes there is more of the former, depending upon where you fall along the being-in-fate ontological/existential spectrum, and depending upon where you fall along the roller-coaster-ride/merry-go-round lifestyle spectrum. It can easily be argued that your heart has a higher probability of breaking on an adventurous roller-coaster-ride than on a daily grind merry-go-round, but that’s par for the course.

Here’s the thing: Your comfort zone growth is directly proportional to the discomfort you withstand. It’s all psychological. But, and here’s the rub, there must be catharsis. There must be a time of healing, a time of psychological cleansing, a time of existential purification.

There must be a healthy recoiling into a sacred space, at the center of our comfort zone, where we are free to lick our wounds and reconcile with our shadow. Healing is immensely important for growth, whether it’s the physical healing of a wound into a scar or the psychological healing of a demon into a diamond.

That which does not kill you will actually make you weaker, unless you heal. Only then can it make you stronger. But healing must come first. Physically, we need a safe comfortable place with healthy food and medicine. Psychologically, spiritually, and existentially, we need catharsis. We need a sacred space, both inner and outer, where we can co-create with our wounds and our demons. This co-creation is vital for healing, and thus vital for coming out stronger for the experience.

In this kind of ontology of immanence, what we are describing is not a creature who is transformed and who transforms the world in turn in some miraculous ways, but rather a creature who takes more of the world into himself and develops new forms of courage and endurance. ~Ernest Becker

Catharsis is derived from the original Greek Katharsis, meaning the purification and cleansing of emotions through art. It’s especially effective on latent emotions that have been repressed. Channeling the pain experienced through rape, war, or abuse into an artistic medium such as abstract painting, poetry writing, or even film, can have enormous healing effects.

The drawback is that you feel the pain again, but that is vastly trumped by the upshot of feeling healthier for having co-created art with that pain. In fact, it is precisely the renewal and renegotiation with the pain which prevents it from becoming further repressed and thus further cloaked in unhealthy and unreconciled shadow energy.

Art is the wonderful bonus side-effect of this catharsis. Where all the suffering inside us, that was fuel for the fire that forged it, comes to the forefront in ecstatic union with our imagination. It’s like a trophy that we can hold up to the vastness of the cosmos and declare, “I created this, despite my suffering. Indeed, I created this precisely because I managed to suffer greatly.”

Cosmic catharsis takes suffering greatly to the next level. To the spiritual/existential level, to be exact. Cosmic catharsis subsumes the typical micro-cosmic catharsis under its macro-cosmic umbrella, while also channeling the existential angst of mortal dread and death anxiety into cathartic art. Channeling death anxiety into works of art symbolically transforms death into life.

The art created from cosmic catharsis becomes the art of life. It’s the unfolding of life as art and art as life. What Ernest Becker called our “immortality project,” which is essentially a creative and heroic engagement with life that creates meaning, purpose, and significance in the grand scheme of things. It’s a way of transforming mortal pain into immortal art.

Cosmic catharsis is also the process of self-overcoming through artistic expression, where the individual uses the art born from healthy catharsis to reinvent the self again and again in a kind of imaginative and creative life-death-rebirth process of self-actualization and self-transcendence. The cathartic art of today recreates the artist of yesterday into the robust and visionary artist of tomorrow.

The suffering individual who can somehow transform that suffering into cathartic art becomes a hero who somehow transforms the suffering of existence into cosmic catharsis.

The hero then becomes a cosmic hero, who can transform his/her entire life into an immortality project. Thus, becoming part of something eternal; something that will continue long past their physical body expires. The immortality project is the courageous art left behind by the cosmic hero who practiced cosmic catharsis to create it.

At the end of the day, healthy self-improvement begins with the healing of past and current wounds in order to create a more robust Self. The best way to do this is through artistic catharsis. Consistent catharsis leads to cosmic catharsis which then leads to a personal immortality project that can bring meaning and purpose to life.

But it all begins with showing up, with digging up repressed pain and reconditioning its conditioning with imagination and creativity. Nobody else can do this for you. As Seneca wisely said, “Fate leads the willing and drags along the reluctant.” Be willing, so as not to be dragged.

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