For many years I counted myself amongst those who reject the notion of art as a potential source of healing. I saw both the practice and the appreciation of it as a largely formal and intellectual exercise—a game of the mind: a game capable of infinite richness, perhaps, but nonetheless a game. And I will confess that, privately, I would judge those who saw it otherwise as a kind of lesser species who lacked my superior intellectual resources.

How wrong I now see myself to have been! Perhaps it’s the advance in age that has weakened the brain, but I now find myself increasingly disinterested in art that is not in some way able to help me feel more fully human; and if that’s not healing, I don’t know what is. “Don’t turn away,” the poet Rumi wrote: “Keep your eyes on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”

Keep your eyes on the bandaged place: in art—and for me in writing—I understand it to mean working in those areas where we are most exposed and vulnerable. And I’ve come to understand that being vulnerable does not necessarily mean being soft and squishy. An extreme case: Richard Serra’s overwhelmingly powerful structures in corten steel reveal my vulnerable humanity if I dare to interact with them. They remind me of another “bandaged place” in my own psyche: my sense of my own smallness, my petty envy of those who manage to be grandiose, to speak with a loud and clamorous voice, to defy the decorous rules of etiquette and self-effacement that constrict my vision. I am equally sure—though without needing to explore the psychological reasons for it—that these grandiloquent statements spring from some “bandaged place” in the artist’s psyche, revealing itself with eloquent sufficiency in the work. In this context, his humanity speaks to mine, and healing of a kind takes place for both of us: for Serra in the making, for myself in the experiencing of his work.

Nor, of course, does this sense of vulnerability mean “New Age,” with all that term implies for me about vague spirituality and fuzzy thinking. Go back to Shakespeare. No mealy-mouth there. Go to Michelangelo’s David, or his Moses. How much about strong, yet deeply vulnerable masculinity can we learn from spending time with them? How much about youth and age? How much about human resilience—and fears of our own fragility? How much soul-healing do we experience in their proximity?

Keep your eyes on the bandaged place. How much I wanted to avoid seeing my own! The other day, inspired by a passage in Tara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance, I started making a list of them—those lessons about myself and the world that I had learned in childhood, beliefs I held to be immutable truths only because I had lived with them for the better part of my life without ever stopping to question them. A sampling: That the sometimes painful reality of life should be suppressed in favor of polite appearances, and that embarrassment must be avoided at all costs. (Remember that hilarious—and for me tellingly poignant—speech in A Fish Called Wanda, when John Cleese, arch-Brit, is discovered butt naked in a place he has no right to be and explains the Englishman’s agonized fear of embarrassment to the totally shameless American wench played by Jamie Lee Curtis?) Never, ever risk looking foolish, then. It took me years, too, to unlearn the “truth” that all problems in life can be solved by the application of rational thought and action. Or that others always come first. That if you leave the smallest chink in your emotional armor, others will use it to inflict some painful injury; so tighten up, protect yourself well, let no one get too close.

These are among my lessons, all learned to perfection. None of us, I think, is spared them: children are terrific sponges, they learn easily and well. They sop it all up, soak it all in, without the benefit of critical judgment. You may not share any of my lessons, but you will have your own. We carry them about with us and—without the defense of continuous awareness—respond to the events of our lives reactively, according to their untrustworthy dictates. It’s instructive sometimes to pause for long enough to make a list of them. What are the messages I received from the adult world when I was growing up? How many of them do I allow to color my perception of the world today, and how do they show up?

One natural impulse is to pretend they don’t exist: they may well be associated with deep pain, or shame, or grief, and—as we have all likely learned, now that a half-century of 12-step teachings permeate our culture—denial is all too often the better part of valor. The problem for us, as creative people, is that when we try to shut them out, they can respond by shutting us down without our knowledge or consent: no matter how casual or innocently unintended, a father’s suggestion that we’re dumb or lazy can cling to the inside of our head like gum on the underside of a school desk and sabotage our every effort to escape what we believe to be our stupidity or sloth in later years. If we’re taught early to believe in our insignificance in the important world of grown-ups, we may well manifest that belief in limiting our adult work to trivial pursuits, or in minimal expectations of success. Conversely, a sense of over-importance can lead to flatulence and bombast.

So these are what I call the “bandaged places,” where the wound is patched over but not yet healed. We protect them by covering them up—forgetting that frequently a wound will heal much faster if we expose it to the air. But when we learn to keep an eye on them, as Rumi suggests, we begin to discover their positive effects. They can be our allies rather than our enemy.

Because this is where the red meat is, and it’s not what is taught in the schools. What’s taught in the schools, for the most part, continues to be the tough line: intellectual discipline, competition, control of the medium, a hard head for business. What’s too readily passed over—perhaps because it is so hard to teach—is what it’s all about. Why do we do what we do, in a world that is increasingly inhospitable to the work of all but a fortunate few? The only convincing answer I’ve been able to come up with for myself is that it’s what I have been given to do. My creative work comes out of an inner need that is too compelling to ignore without serious consequences to my health and happiness, not to mention the health and happiness of those around me.

If I find myself paying more and more attention to the bandaged places, these days, it’s because I realize more and more that the “work” is to find out more and more about my own humanity, and to share it more and more with others. As Rumi tells us, this is where the light enters us. And the more I’m able to find those places, deep inside, and let the light in to illuminate the shadows, the more I seem able to communicate with others: it’s in our anger, in our pain, and grief—and joy—that we find common ground. So I aim to write words in which everyone can find a piece of him- or herself.

But in shedding light, I’m also more likely to discover what has been holding me back. In working with artists over the years, I know I share this experience, too, with others. Without our knowledge or permission, those bandaged places can impose their limits on what we have to say, or how we say it. Do we deserve to command attention or respect? Only if we believe we do. How many of us have been reduced to silence, not by our lack of creative potential, but by some hidden inner fear that puts a chokehold on our ability to speak.

Which brings me to one other lesson that I learned in childhood. It came in the form of an adage which is not heard too often these days, but was much bandied in the days of my youth: Little children, the saying went, should be seen and not heard. An absurd cliché, on the face of it, but one that I heard repeated enough—and even though often jokingly—to accept it as a truth: I should not be heard. So I have been quiet all my life. It’s only with the realization of that lesson’s lurking presence in some deep layer of the unconscious mind that I have come to understand so clearly that I need to speak out loud. And when the silence returns—as it inevitably will—along with the self-doubt and despair that accompany it, I find it helpful to remember to keep my eyes on the bandaged place. It’s where the light enters me.

Author's Bio: 

Peter Clothier is an internationally-known novelist, art critic, and blogger. A student of Theravada Buddhism, Peter hopes to use his online platforms to integrate compassion, non-attachment, and political engagement into our contemporary discourse, even as he gradually integrates those same qualities into his own life.

In addition to his Huffington Post blog, you can find Peter's work on his daily blog, The Buddha Diaries and his monthly podcast, The Art of Outrage.

If you are interested in exploring your own "bandaged places", check out the ManKind Project. CLICK HERE