I recently attended a production of Tao of Glass, performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre as part of the 2019 Manchester International Festival.1 I want to share my experience with you as I think it is relevant to counselling and psychotherapy because it was an experience which reflected the potential of humans to connect with each other or the transcendent in different ways. It integrated the arts with therapeutic ideas and was profoundly spiritual too.
Can you give me a little background information?
It was a collaboration between the composer Philip Glass and writer, co-director and performer Phelim McDermott. Phelim told a mix of stories, which were performed with Philip Glass’s music. Many of the stories resonated with me and included accounts of his growing up as a young boy in Manchester.
It was underpinned by the Taoist philosophy of Lao Tzu2 and the therapeutic work of Amy and Arnold Mindell. The Mindells talk of process work or processes-orientated psychology, which they describe as ‘using awareness to track psychological and physical processes that illuminate and possibly resolve inner, relationship, team, and world issues’.3 One of the key ideas of this is the concept of ‘deep democracy’ in which they explore what they call different dimensions of experience which operate within groups and individuals.4 These dimensions exist on three levels, which they describe as consensus reality (the level of everyday experience that is shared), dreamland (our subjective and qualitative experiences) and essence (deeper experiences which link to the ideas of self and soul). The Mindells link this to the essence level of Taoism and suggest that non-ordinary consciousness can help us to communicate with people in near-death states.5
I simply wanted to hear the music of Philip Glass as I have admired it for a long time. I was a school music teacher for years and taught many students about his music. I find the cyclical patterns and structures emancipating as they seem to challenge the more linear and perhaps Western hierarchies of melody and accompaniment. I also liked the fact Philip practised Chinese exercises called Qigong, as it is something I have had an interest in for years. His music seems to fit with some Eastern philosophical ideas.
So what happened at Tao of Glass?
It was a powerful piece and I have a sense of what made it so for me. It was a combination of all the factors: the music, staging, direction, narration, stories, puppets, but something else too... something bigger.
Of sorts; it was transcendent. There was a puppet boy featured in it. I personally identified with the puppet, but perhaps he represented my sons too. I felt a deep, affectionate love for the puppet.
You loved a puppet?
A projective process. There were many moments of choreography, screened projections and measured speaking with music, which I think helped invoke a dream or altered state.
Perhaps. There was a frisson of disturbance; it had resonances for me of Antonin Artaud’s theatrical ideas, known as the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’.6 In line with his ideas, I felt connected, it was visceral in an active way, my senses were disrupted and I felt my heart and nerves emotionally awakened.7 Bertolt Brecht talked of breaking the fourth wall, in which an imaginary (fourth) wall between the audience and performers is broken – in part to facilitate a more active experience.8 I felt this production perhaps even broke the fifth dimension. Every so often, Phelim would seem to break the trance in an almost Brechtian way – with lighting, humour or the slamming of a piano lid, for instance. Brecht wanted to avoid passivity and to keep the audience awake and objectively aware, but in this case, rather than fully awakening me from it – it served to take the trance deeper.
I can only compare it to being woken from a deep sleep, but to then re-enter the sleep state in a re-awakened way.
An active dream?
Layered and lucid dreaming, with awareness; meditative but not passive. The choreography of the set was an active participant in this too. The set circles formed a cone effect, a physical representation of the ideas discussed by the Mindells. As it rose above the audience, it effectively caused me to sink to perhaps what Arnold Mindell might call the essence. I was taken to the depths. It felt physical and embodied. Arnold Mindell talks of the ‘dreambody’,9 in which our bodily experiences connect to our dreams and our dreams mirror our bodily experiences.10 This to me resonates with the felt sense of Gendlin.11 I was certainly feeling something.
Sounds like a psychodynamic theatrical experience...
It played with consciousness and my idea of what consensus reality may be. There was a constant oscillation of perceptions and positionality of the character(s), which was uprooting and served to facilitate a dreamy space. The use of paper to depict ghosts was mesmerising.
Philip Glass was a ghostly presence throughout. Towards the end, Phelim lay down in what looked like a yogic death pose next to a self-playing grand piano, which had been programmed by Philip Glass himself. It drew on the near-death ideas of Mindell, and Philip Glass had composed it in order to connect with a coma-like state of Phelim. It was as if the spirit of Philip Glass was playing.
It took me straight to the death of my younger brother, when he was 29 years old, and it reminded me of the last few days before he died. Listening to music had played its part in my brother’s journey to death.
In what way?
He was ill with a brain tumour, and discussing it with him felt difficult. I think he wanted to hold on to hope until the very end, in the face of a very negative medical discourse which didn’t to allow it. There were times when we listened to music, an eclectic mix from hip-hop to film soundtracks and religious music. It was an expression, a communication. He seemed to use listening to music, both to escape his situation and to be with it, and also maybe to prepare for the next chapter. There would often be no announcement and he would simply play it, with family and others present. The music and songs spoke and expressed a range of emotions, thoughts and existential ideas that perhaps couldn’t easily be said, but allowed us to converse through listening and experiencing together. He played it on the way to hospital before his surgeries. In his final few days of sedation, we listened to music with him.
A couple of months before he died, my brother and I, along with our Mum, visited our elderly great uncle, who was also close to death. My brother had suggested I played my violin to him. Uncle was lying very still and breathing deeply. As I played the Irish tune Danny Boy (which was a family favourite), it appeared to be a miracle, as he came to consciousness, and it seemed to give him a spark of life, back from the brink. He tried to sit up; he couldn’t speak, but his eyes opened and he was moving and looked excitedly happy. This was a connection to a near-death state, which the music facilitated. It had a magic to it. I felt the violin had a tremendous healing or even life-giving potential; but this wasn’t virtuosic or rehearsed stuff as I may have imagined – it was a raw, simple melody. The music prompted a response from my uncle which speaking to him hadn’t; he still had life and somehow the sound of it brought that life to the fore. It was a blessing and a huge privilege. After years of teaching and performing music, I realised that it didn’t get any more powerful or important than this, in all its simple beauty. At the same time, it was the toughest performance of my life and we were all deeply moved. I didn’t want to stop playing, as where there was music, there was life, and when I eventually finished playing, he lay back down and became still again. As we left, my brother said poignantly, ‘See you soon, Uncle’. Our uncle died shortly after that.
The Philip Glass performance brought back these moments to awareness; I was feeling a deep loss, yet was held by the space. The fact that it was performed in the round was important in containing the energy. It was almost like the holding space of the therapeutic encounter. The performers and crew all seemed grounded, serene and moved smoothly around the set. It helped create the conditions for the process to happen.
I felt a gradual sense of personal deconstruction throughout. At one point, a piano was physically taken apart and I felt myself taken apart too. There was a story of a glass coffee table being smashed, which was strong. I experienced it as metaphor. I felt myself being fragmented into small pieces.
You had been shattered…
Maybe, but there was also the hope of coming together more strongly. The Japanese art of kintsugi was a theme. The idea suggests that a broken pot becomes more beautiful after having been stuck together with golden glue.
What a wonderful therapeutic metaphor…
I just needed some golden glue to put myself together. A model of Philip Glass’s head was used on stage during the piano deconstruction, projected onto a rotating paper screen. It was tough for me to process. It reminded me of a violent image of John the Baptist, which I found disturbing when I was young. It was in a children’s picture bible. When Philip Glass surprisingly appeared in person at the end, there was a collective gasp of exhilaration.
In what way?
It was as if he was the biblical Lazarus, back from the dead. There he was – Philip Glass – the years of teaching his music – the admiration from afar. Excitement and disbelief. Broken and shattered. The child in me was jumping for joy – it’s him. It’s really him. Look – it’s Philip Glass! With his head on!
I think a version of my inner child came to the fore throughout the performance. Adult logic was suspended. Les Todres may say this opened me up to the magic, wonder and healing power of it all.12 When Philip Glass played the music, my tears came up and out from inside my body.
Your heart chakra?
I could certainly feel it in my chest. It was physical and embodied; my heart was being wrenched. This very present fleeting moment would only be experienced right here and now. It had a magnitude to it, yet temporal brevity and an impending loss. The minimalist musical motific mantras, with the gentle gyroscopic movements of the dimly lit floating set, had an overpowering beauty to them. There was a perfect integration of the art forms, which was almost too much to process at that time – overwhelming perfection. In my mind, it was almost as if the soundwaves were visibly moving through the air, connecting us like green ribbons round a maypole, but I couldn’t look; I averted my eyes and sobbed. Primal tears, coming from a place of void. Perhaps it was grief, a personal catharsis. It felt like I had tapped into something universal, a collective sorrow. I had to sit for a while in the theatre afterwards. I was physically exhausted.
It reminded me of a time when I had experienced something comparable in an experiential process group; an eruption of tears. This theatrical experience was a group process, developmental and therapeutic.
A peak experience?13
I had a sense we had collectively entered the dreamland14 with Philip Glass – and were invited to actively witness and partake in that creation in that moment. Philip Glass in his memoir talks of direct experiences and encounters with
the transcendent.15 This was that. For me, this correlates with William Braud and Rosemarie Anderson, who talk about direct knowing or merging with the focus or object of your attention.16 They compare it to yogic ideas of samyama or complete absorption. I came out, saying, ‘It got me.’ It felt connected and profoundly spiritual.
What do you mean by ‘spiritual’?
Perhaps, as William West suggests, it could be about human experiencing, connection to others or non-ordinary consciousness.17 Maybe it is what Dori Yusef calls embodied spirituality18 or, as Natalie Rogers discusses, it can involve the collective unconscious.19 In a Jungian sense, Phil Goss may argue this was littered with archetypal and unconscious influences.20 It seemed to help release repressed material from my unconscious in a psychodynamic way. Natalie Rogers says, ‘Reawakening our creativity leads to the spiritual path’.19 Similarly, Frances Vaughan suggests creativity (including dreams) is attributed to divine inspiration, and tapping into it is a form of listening to self.21 It certainly (re)awakened something, and was personally developmental and therapeutic too.
Sounds transformative, but as William West argues, with regards to therapy, there are tensions with spirituality. It can still be something of a taboo, as therapy is often perceived as a secular activity.22 I wonder if the arts could offer a creative bridge between these realms?
There seems to be an interrelation or intersection of what could be called the three domains of the arts, the spiritual and the therapeutic. In my experience, they can operate independently or they can borrow from and occupy each other at various times (see fig 1).
I think therapy can be a creative or artistic act in itself,23 and also spiritual. Spiritual pursuits can involve the arts and be therapeutic. The arts can be both therapeutic and spiritual.
Tao of Glass seemed to connect all this together. As with my family experiences, it is only my view and I can only reflect on what I felt I experienced at that time. It was a profound moment of connection through the senses, yet seemed to transcend them. It felt authentic and it touched my grief. The arts are so important and can hold the key to transcendent ways of knowing, experiencing and connecting. I have often had clients talk of a poem they have read, a film they have seen or a piece of music or painting that has impacted them Therapy can draw on experiences of the arts, which then may (or may not) connect to the spiritual. Clients may find it helpful to listen to a song or watch a film clip that has meant something to them in the counselling space. The creativity for me is not just in the making of art, but in the active experiencing of it too.
Cemil Egeli is a counsellor and lecturer and programme leader for the counselling skills BA (Combined Hons) at the University of Chester. He previously studied music and worked as a secondary school music teacher. Cemil plays the violin. Many years ago he was a researcher for the flagship arts TV programme, The South Bank Show (on ITV).
1. mif.co.uk (accessed 19 July 2019).
2. Lao Tzu. Tao te ching. London: Penguin Classics; 2000.
3. www.aamindell.net/process-work (accessed 19 July 2019).
4. Mindell A. Bringing deep democracy to life: an awareness paradigm for deepening political dialogue, personal relationships, and community interactions. Psychotherapy and Politics International 2008; 6(3): 212–225.
5. Mindell A, Mindell A. Deep democracy. An article in Tao of Glass, programme. Published for Manchester International Festival: 2019.
6. Artaud A, Schumacker C (ed). Artaud on Theatre. London: Bloomsbury; 2001
7. https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/antoninartaud-and-the-theatre-of-cruelty (accessed 28 August 2019).
8. Brecht B, Willet J. Brecht on theatre: the development of an aesthetic. New York: Hill and Wang; 1964.
9. Mindell A. Dreambody: the body’s role in revealing the Self. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; 1984.
10. http://www.aamindell.net/dreambody (accessed 28 August 2019).
11. Gendlin ET. Focusing. New York: Bantam; 1981.
12. Todres L. Embodied enquiry. London: Palgrave Macmillan; 2007.
13. Maslow AH. Religions, values and peak-experiences. London: Penguin Books; 1976.
14. http://www.aamindell.net/consensus-reality-dreamland-essence (accessed 28 August 2019).
15. Glass P. Philip Glass. A memoir. Words without music. London: Faber & Faber; 2015.
16. Braud W, Anderson R. Transpersonal research methods for the social sciences; honouring human experience. London: SAGE; 1998.
17. West W (ed). Exploring therapy, spirituality and healing. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; 2011.
18. Yusef DF. Embodied spirituality. In: West W (ed). Exploring therapy, spirituality and healing. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; 2011 (pp109–128).
19. Rogers N. The creative connection: expressive arts as healing. New York: Science and Behavior books; 1993.
20. Goss P. Jung: a complete introduction. Croydon: John Murray Learning; 2015.
21. Vaughan F. The inward arc. Healing in psychotherapy and spirituality. Lincoln: An Author’s Guild Backinprint.com; 2000.
22. West W. Spiritual issues in therapy: relating experience to practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; 2004.
23. Mitchel LR. Creativity as co-therapist: the practitioner’s guide to the art of psychotherapy. London: Routledge; 2016.