Dr. Joseph Valks – Psychology, Art and African Voodoo

Where exactly is the dividing line between fantasy and reality? Reality can influence fantasy and fantasy may sometimes influence reality. At times fantasy can be beneficial and at others, as in the case of some mental illnesses, it may be detrimental. No two realities are ever exactly the same. What is one person’s reality may be absurd fantasy to another, but is the general concensus always correct?

"Gateway to Other Worlds" by Chris Hollis
“Gateway to Other Worlds” by Chris Hollis

In National Geographic, David Lewis–Williams writes about the art of the San Bushmen as “Paintings of the Spirit”. The Bushmen who were the first people in Africa now seem to be the last in line to get anything and are faced with a world full of problems. When Europeans first encountered Bushman art, in the African mountians, the paintings were seen as crude, unaesthetic depictions of daily hunter-gatherer life. But according to David the rock was not simply a canvas, but a veil between the material and spirit worlds and the paintings helped to pierce that veil. The paintings on the rocks are actually open portals to the spirits. When a shaman painted an animal, he harnessed its very essence, with everything in nature having a spirit, with its own power and existence. The Bushmen believed that the animals could create an atmosphere that could help them locate God, so that they could tap into His power to cure the sick, or even make the rain.

The paintings were evoked using trance rituals, all-night ceremonies, in which women clapped and sang as men danced around the fire until their spirit power boiled and then they entered the spirit world transforming into a spirit animal and capturing its power. After the ceremony they would draw an image saying: “This is what I looked like in the spirit world”. Then they painted a portrait to that place of being.

The Bushmen are a last remnant of times past. Thousands of years ago their early ancestors emerged from the forests and moved onto the savannahs of Africa becoming the first hunter-gatherers, living in a world of great predators that still enthrall us with their power and strength. More recently they move with their livestock following the rains with their migratory herds. In their world of ritual, music, and myth, the Rainman is believed to dwell in the distant, snowy mountaintops and has the power to bring the rain, peace, healing and wisdom. This is their belief, but to us it is probably only fantasy, or the realm of Hollywood movies.

Consider the common, healthy phenomenon of daydreaming that most people do from time to time. Daydreaming alters the state of consciousness to the alpha frequency range. While remaining conscious and aware, nearly external distractions become blotted out as the person is captured in their fantasies. Sometimes a person’s daydreaming is so vivid and intense that without knowing it they are actually causing the goal they are dreaming about to come true. In this way hypnosis is very similar to daydreaming except in hypnosis the mind is focused upon specific beneficial goals and not random fantasies. However, the power of the mind is not limited to the material world. Through creative visualisation some people believe you can reach beyond into the world of physical and astral forces. Could this somehow be linked to the ancient trance magic of the African Bushmen?

Meditation is based on focusing one’s thoughts on tranquility. Nearly everybody needs a safe haven inside life’s storm, their land of magic and beauty, to combat the demons of this world. So, inside your haven build an image of yourself, as you really want to be. Not as other people might see you but as you’d really like to be. Body well-proportioned and athletic, wide-awake, healthy, handsome, relaxed and free-spirited, and wearing clothes you like. Perhaps the elderly may think of themselves in their prime. This is the real you and nobody can take it away from you! This is the person you are now becoming. As you walk closer to the image you blend into it, a living part of you that grows stronger each day.

Now how does this relate to the spirit paintings of the African Bushmen? Remember everything in nature has a spirit and, if you have watched Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, maybe everyone has his or her own spirit animal as well. Could a “painting of the spirit” be used to rebuild someone’s lost world?

The mentally ill, unfortunately may often live inside a hellish world of distorted reality and fantasy. Good psychological treatment involves knowledge of the humanity of life, of suffering and the motivation and fantasies of human beings. It may often involve rebuilding a damaged mind through a process of reprogramming thoughts and step-by-step rebuilding with some form of self-protection against the world. The person in this true example was diagnosed as schizophrenic in his late teens, but also had suffered crowd-induced agoraphobia as a young child. Nevertheless he still had a healthy interest in wildlife and motor racing. In the picture drawn by Chris Hollis the barley fields were taken from a photo of the farm where he grew up. The Japanese car, he actually owned and drove. He had wanted to be a race car driver and had even succeeded in obtaining a motor racing licence before illness took from him his ability to drive. The light in the sky is common in the local hills, where he would drive his car on trips to photograph wildlife. The kite, “thunderbird or spirit animal”, was from a photo taken as it actually flew over his car one day – fitting that it had recently been restored to the countryside after near extinction.

When his demons came, he would imagine himself standing in the wide-open barley fields of the farm where he grew up, corn swaying, and hair and shirt swept by the wind, the light flexing from the distant hills, casting shadows across the dancing barley with electricity in the air like the beginning of a storm. A sensation of being there would then occur, a shiver running down his spine. Maybe this was even magic! The “thunderbird” would cry overhead as the shadow of its wings passed closely across the barley, as he’d breathe the pure air and listen to the car engine, tuned to perfection, idly ticking over. Then, he’d climb into the car and ride high into the hills of his magic realm. Beneath the distant glaciers and snowfields would lie an enchanted forest, where ferns and heathers grew as big as trees. Mosses lichens and cascades of beautiful flowers hung from the boughs as sparkling dewdrops dripped into dark, mysterious pools that flickered like coloured mirrors between ancient rocks. No fairytale world was ever as dreamlike or magical as these Mountains of the Gods. There, in a valley wrapped in mist he would meet the Rainman, who as he had a strong faith in the Christ to him was Jesus, his great spiritual guide.

Unfortunately after nearly making a full recovery his illness began to return. He felt shallow and exploitative people were targeting him. To him this was reality, but to others this was just his fantasy! Hopefully his special place will help him to grow stronger.

It may at first seem far-fetched to draw a parallel between African voodoo and clinical hypnosis and art, but to borrow a quote from National Geographic, a parallel for the mentally ill might be drawn to the plight of the first Bushmen of Africa: “When people see we are a gentle people, they just walk on us. We have to find the strength to make a place for ourselves in this world. Otherwise there will soon be no more of us. We will all be gone. And so will our memories. Only our paintings will be left behind to remind you of us.”

In a world that seems to take first and give last, and the fastest take the lion’s share, these could be wise words.

What do you think?

Dr. Joseph Valks

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