There is a language underneath our familiar verbal language. Ordinarily it is called nonverbal communication. It is also called body language. I came to intimately know this language during each of my excursions into altered states, which resulted in my diagnosis of schizophrenia. During each of those experiences I became mute. Prior to and during my second hospitalization, I spent about a month not speaking a single word. I remember thinking that words had lost their meaning. I said to myself, “What is the point of speaking? No one listens anyway. I will only speak when someone truly listens to the real me.”
Somehow several corpsmen at Bethesda Naval Hospital reached me and gained my trust. They might have been helped by a book on body language I was carrying around during that period. Their emotional connections and the trust they built with me enabled me to return to the word of spoken words.
I have for the 40 years since that hospitalization, however, been puzzled over that mute period (and the three other periods of not speaking that I went through in a 6 year interval from 1969 to 1975.) Why did the deepest core of me feel so compelled to go mute?
Then several weeks ago I glimpsed a clue that helped me better understand that dumbfounding experience. I learned that in his last book, Angels Fear, Gregory Bateson and his daughter Catherine had suggested that in addition to our familiar language of words, there is a more basic language, which they called creatura. They said that creatura is the language of all living creatures, of artists, and of madmen.
At least that was the way I heard my teacher Mary Olson explain the Batesons’ concept of creatura. The Batesons contrasted that animated world of creatura with the inanimate world of pleroma. “Pleroma is the world of nonliving matter, described by the laws of physics and chemistry. (Steps to an Ecology of Mind.)” Suddenly many pieces fell in place. I recalled a moment earlier this week with K, a member of my recovery dialogue group. K had not spoken for the first hour of the group. During the hour I had checked on K and saw little expression of emotion on his face. Near the end of the group, I looked over at him and he looked at me. I raised my eyebrows and smiled and he smiled back. I then asked if there was anything he would like to share about the group. “Well doctor, relating is an art form, which I am still trying to master.”
So it seemed that to initiate verbal conversation he and I first needed to initiate a dialogue of gestures. Ah, but what profoundly true words he spoke, when he spoke. Relating is indeed an art form. Another member of the group, a Nigerian woman also had been quiet. She, however, had been showing emotional expression, albeit a sad one. When I asked her if she wanted to share with the group, she said she had been having a difficult time in this country. She said that she didn’t want to offend us but in the three years she had been in this country she found that people rarely have the time to talk or share with each other. She said, Here everyone is always in a hurry and working. In my country, people always stop to talk and ask about you and your family.”
Perhaps this one of the reasons that the recovery rate from even the most severe mental distress, called psychosis, is much higher in Nigeria than in more industrialized countries (as shown in two WHO studies, www.power2u.org).
Then I asked a friend who is Mexican American what the word creatura might mean in Spanish. “Ah, you mean criatura (creeeatura)? Well that word is often used to describe behavior that is child-like, yet it means much more,” and then she recalled a Mexican Folk song, Criatura Hermosa, or Beautiful Creature. The chorus of that song is:
there is nothing this romantic
wants to see more
than the light in your eyes
shining upon awakening”
We may think of creatura as the language of criaturas hermosas, the language of love, a heart-to-heart dialogue of emotions and gestures.
What if our spoken language of words depends upon a foundation of dialogue between our inner criaturas hermosas? What if the dialogue of chemistry and movements between mother and baby in the months before and after birth establishes the roots from which our verbal language is nourished and flowers? Perhaps that dialogue forms the roots of our very being. What if this wellspring of vitality needs to be replenished by face-to-face contact, touch, hugs, kisses etc. on a regular basis? Then this criatura hermosa language may be lost in our modern world of electronic communication and monologic thought.
Our premium on efficiency, competition, isolation, and individuality may be robbing us of what is the essence of our life’s force, the gestures that underlie and embrace the verbal dimension of our language. Perhaps the language of criaturas hermosas appears in madmen and artists as a rebellion against the life stifling forces of conformity and regimentation. Perhaps we are all striving to be more fully who we authentically are and yet are rarely able to be so.
In my own life, this explanation rings true. I have pictured my periods of madness as having resulted from my extreme suppression of emotions. Since my emotions seem closer to who I truly am, suppressing my emotions is actually a suppression of my vital self. I tried to suppress my emotions and true self growing up, because the rest of my family seemed emotionally out of control.
To guard against these distressing emotions, I went to the furthest extreme of rational thought and emotional control, by becoming a neurochemical researcher. I was convinced that if we could discover the biochemical basis of unhappiness we could then fix it with carefully constructed drugs. I did not allow myself to open up to people because I was afraid that I would be hurt. I found out later that this fear was largely due to the sexual trauma that I endured at the hands of a teacher. This experience left me fearful and “fear builds walls (Pink Floyd, ‘The Wall’).”
At NIMH, I found the right boss to work for. He literally believed that the only reality that existed was the one that could be described by chemical equations. I was only living in the nonliving world of pleroma. I believed that I was just a mixture of chemicals (“We are all just bricks in the wall, (The Wall)) until my unhappiness became so excruciating I had to escape to another reality. That other reality was one of all embracing thoughts and feelings.
Whereas before, in the laboratory we were constantly separating and purifying our chemicals, in that other reality, everything was interconnected. Whereas before I had felt that my actions had little impact on the world, in the other reality every gesture, even those of strangers was rich with meaning. Suddenly when I saw the Pope on TV, he was my best friend. I remember living in that silent limbo and thinking that the only way I could come back to the world, was if I radically changed my life and got a life. I instinctively knew that my survival depended on my turning towards people and away from machinery. I needed to “learn earth talk,” as a client later confided in me.
So I left the lab to work with people as a psychiatrist and an advocate. Through engaging in a dialogue of therapy, love, hugs, friendship, and children I have found ways to nourish my criatura hermosa inside and out. So my criatura hermosa, I believe, is the most basic expression of my humanity. It is my spring that feeds my vital center.
So I did not recover from an illness. I recovered from the extreme mental distress of a constricted life by recovering my humanity. To recover my humanity I had to relearn to interrelate with people and all of life through the language of criaturas hermosas, the language of love, the language of life. It is a language of dialogue, and as Bakhtin said, “To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds. He invests his entire life in discourse, and this discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium.” (Bakhtin, 1984, p293)
But I ask myself today, “Why is this creatura language, this language of life so important to mental health?” I got a clue this morning. As I was running along Lady Bird Lake, in Austin, Texas, I saw a snake cross my path. I was captivated by the beauty of its rhythmic undulations. I was particularly struck by its unity of movement, the interrelation of all the parts of the snake. It seemed all the parts of the snake acted together as a whole.
It then struck me that my recovery has progressed by my achieving such a rhythmic, integrated whole in my life. I have been striving to unify my mind, body and spirit. I also realize relationships play a crucial role in helping me to unfold into such unity of purpose. It was only by sharing this observation with a friend tonight that I could express these thoughts here.
She and I had recently trained people in emotionalCPR. In this practice one person can help another through an emotional crisis by, Connecting, emPowering and Revitalizing with them. In doing so, the person assisting also revitalizes them self. We noticed that in the evaluations several students said they did not understand the idea of our having a vital center. I said that in our eCPR course, I picture revitalization in terms of nourishing greater awareness and expression of our vital center.
But the idea of vitality merely being a center didn’t ring true to me. I conjectured, “I think I could more accurately describe the experience of revitalization as an expansion of my vital whole. ” My co-trainer resonated with that idea and said it made more sense to her than a vital center. A vital whole implied that we gain our greatest vitality from experiencing our wholeness not from some hidden center. Any experience, which diminishes my wholeness, is traumatic. It leaves me feeling wobbly and insecure.
Then the presence of another person, in their wholeness, being with me in the present moment, allows me to experience the fullness of my vital whole. That experience of my vital whole may be my being my criatura hermosa. I want to appreciate the beautiful creature, which is the core of my being and of everyone.
I want to help K in my group to master the “art form of relating.” Indeed, relating through our creatura language is closer to an art form than a linear, rational form. Ultimately we who have the lived experience of mastering the art form of relating, need to find the words, the music, the painting, the sculpted forms, to describe that art form to share with the rest of the isolated ones in society as they are still struggling to relate.
I see a future when the distinctions between biological and psychosocial descriptions melt in the face of a much greater unity based on the process of interactions in the present moment of existence. The dance of molecules expressing the art of relating may resonate with the dance between two people in love. Through love their minds, bodies, and spirits are closer to their vital whole, and both beings become a whole together.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Edited and translated by Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University of Chicago Press.
Bateson, G., and Bateson, MC. (1988). Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. University of Chicago Press.