Much of our lives are lived in conformity with family values, social structures, local laws, political and economic realities, religious pressures, geography and climate. Outwardly, most or perhaps all of us conform to social norms, although as individuals we may not share all the values of a society. 

Some people suppress their individuality, others are determined to express it; some fall in line, others rebel; some transfer traditional values to their children and others decide to establish new ones. These opposing attitudes are like the waves of the ocean, sometimes gentle and sometimes so stormy that they threaten to overwhelm societies.  

Extreme individuality is considered disruptive. The exception is culture, art, science and technology — all expected to generate new ideas or the ability to see things differently — and generally seen as a positive force.

Creativity has been called the harnessing of ‘the wild mind.’ The term ‘wild’ is associated with rebellious, disrespectful, anti-social and violent behaviour. The movie The Wild One spoke for the rebellious ’50s. Nelson Algren’s 1956 book A Walk on the Wild Side was inspired by a 1952 song The Wild Side of Life by country music singer Hank Thompson. It, in turn, stimulated Lou Reed’s famous ’70s songs — Walk on the Wild Side and Wild Child.

In these examples, ‘wild’ is used in a sense similar to a feral animal — a term used for a domestic or captive animal that has escaped and is living as a wild animal — just as rebellious people step out of mainstream society. A feral animal instils fear, while animals that naturally live in the wild are admired and seen as regulated by the natural order of things.

‘Wild’ has also been used for a sense of independent power as in “Wild Women Do”, a support group founded in 2014 for businesswomen who lost their courage under social pressure and from ‘belonging to someone’ — parents, husband or children. “Beneath it all they’re still wild women, fiery with passion and visionary ideas they want to contribute with and change the world,” says Marie Milligan, founder of Wild Women Do.

In the field of creativity, ‘wild’ represents a connectedness to the vast unconscious, not through behaviour, but through cultivating a calm mindfulness and an almost dreamlike state. The subconscious is explored and engaged with, rather than analysed as a psychologist might.

Michael Michalko, in his essay “Creative Thinking” writes that the subconscious mind never rests and is like the universe with “billions of bits of thoughts, observations and information floating around in your conscious and subconscious mind, totally unobserved, with each bit presenting a multitude of possibilities which evolve and change over time.” They appear as words, phrases, metaphors, images, feelings, dreams and abstractions. The creative thinker simply trains the conscious mind to learn how to harvest thoughts and ideas and give them form.

Creativity has been called the harnessing of ‘the wild mind.’

While Sigmund Freud saw the mind as a dangerous and dark place, his contemporary Frederick Myers believed the subconscious to be “a rich source of inspiration, meaning and creativity.” Writers, composers, scientists and philosophers such as George Eliot, John Keats, Goethe, Mozart, Niels Bohr and Bertrand Russell have all described a process summed up by Russell as a period of very intense thought, followed by a period of inactivity, for the work to “proceed underground … after some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done.” Others describe being directed by another voice or dreams.

Psychologist Graham Wallas outlined the stages necessary to activate the unconscious mind: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification.

These apply not just to science and art but everyday life as well. As Carl Jung says, “… if you have nothing at all to create, then perhaps you create yourself.” In the midst of the practical need for conformity, we need to preserve a space for our wild side.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 11th, 2019