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Awakening Genius: An Interview With Carolyn Elliott

If all of us are born with genius, why can't we find it?

Carolyn Elliott, PhD, is a unique figure in the field of creativity. She’s the author of the book Awaken Your Genius and leads the Outlaw Court, a secret Facebook group where “folks are hugely supported in rocking their magic and bringing their things into the world,” as Elliott describes it. She attended Carnegie Mellon University for a degree in Creative Writing and the University of Pittsburg in Critical and Cultural studies with an emphasis in Poetics. Refusing to trapped in the box of academia, Elliott has worked for the past seven years “teaching people to wake up their genius and magic.” We had a great time talking about imagination and personal freedom.

MM: What do you mean by genius, exactly?

CE: It’s our soul, our erotic, creative, generative essence and it’s available to us when we are responding to life in a manner that’s free from our conditioning. The term tends to conjure a rarified image of someone who’s extremely brilliant but my understanding is that genius is within all of us.

MM: Free from our conditioning in what sense?

CE: We’re conditioned just by living in society, and this conditioning requires us to seek approval and outside validation from an early age. Almost everyone can remember having a really engaged imaginative experience of the world as a child. I think it was Pablo Picasso who said, the trick to being a genius is to retain the same kind of consciousness that you had as a child.

Jesus said something similar: In order to enter the kingdom of heaven, you have to become like little children. To me what that means is that you have to find your way back. Obviously we have to learn how to be adults and be in the world, but once we’ve learned that we need to individuate to reach our full potential. Individuation, a term from Jungian psychology, is the process finding what is our own beyond what we’ve been taught.

MM: The Romans thought that we are born a genius, a tutelary spirit that was personal to us. Do you see genius as a kind of muse?

CE: Absolutely. The Romans called it genius and the Greeks, daemon. That’s part of the dynamic of this generative energy. It is, in a way, our very basic self and in another way it’s also something that we have a dynamic tension with. It communicates with us in various ways through our intuition.

MM: You use the word ‘soul’ a lot. How does this relate to genius?

CE: My understanding of the soul is informed by many sources including Jung, Campbell, Emerson and Kant. Soul in this sense is the impressionable part of our being that comes into the world and that is shaped by our experiences and interactions. The soul corresponds to what the biologist Rupert Sheldrake called the morphic field. Every living being has an electromagnetic energy field containing. This energy field works at an individual level and at a species, group, and planetary level, which is where the idea of the world soul or the collective unconscious come from.

What I’m making whenever I write a poem or a novel, or paint a picture is part of my soul. Then it goes out to others and they receive it and it works on their souls. Basically, the highest thing that a work of art can do is inspire further creation in the person who receives it. Emerson spoke of this and said when a soul reaches a certain level of brightness, it sends little spores off into the world as songs, paintings and essays, and then those spores touch other beings and create the same kind of growth.

MM: Is this related to the process of poiesis?

CE: Yes. Poiesis is the Greek word that means “to make” but when the Greeks used that word, they tended to use it specifically to describe the making of vivid, wise, and engaged experience. My thoughts about poiesis are very informed by the work of Martin Heidegger. His book of essays called Poetry, Language, Thought, contrasts poiesis with a way of being in the world that is trying to extract value and to hoard, to basically have a defensive and fearful way of being in the world.

That kind of alienated way of living has really dominated our global society for a long time. We can see it in all different manifestations from corporatism to fascism to environmental destruction and poetry. Poiesis as a way of living and growing, is really the opposite of that. Instead trying to be make myself safe, to protect myself, it’s about opening more fully to whatever the world brings and meeting it in a way that’s very intimate.

MM: Poiesis corresponds to the feminine principle as opposed to a patriarchal worldview?

CE: I would say that the hoarding, aggressive kind of approach to life is the masculine principle when it is divorced from its right relationship with the feminine principle. I have a great respect for the masculine and its energies of grounding, acting, and all of the beautiful things that the masculine can do. But what’s happened in our world for thousands of years is that there’s been a false separation of the masculine from its relationship to the feminine and that relationship gone askew does look like aggression, hoarding and extracting.

MM: You talk about living in a “wisdom deficient culture.” What do you mean?

CE: We live in a culture that highly values information and science. The information that science gives allows us to do many things with technology that we would never be able to do. The kind of truth that comes from science is what the Romans called veritas. It means truth as correspondence. Our whole society is built on verifying things, making things objective and gathering information. Information and technology are wonderful, and they make many things possible, but veritas is not really wisdom.

Growing up and attending public schools, I got tons of information about history, math and science but I didn’t receive a lot of wisdom about how to live life. My parents, friends and teachers gave me what they could, but that’s not our culture’s focus. That wisdom comes from a deep engagement with what the Greeks called alateus, a form of truth or a living truth that’s available at each moment we engage with deeply. We don’t how to be vividly present, receptive and responsive to the truth as it emerges, however. This kind of feminine receptivity is in the process of changing in our culture. It is much needed.

MM: You mention a number of different technologies for awakening genius in your book. Could you enumerate on those?

CE: The technologies for awakening our genius have corresponded, historically, to the processes known as alchemy and tantra. They center around the art of using our imagination deliberately to shape our consciousness, and the way that we experience ourselves, the world and other people. I present a synthesis of eastern and western methods in the book. There are experiments that are based on the hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell; basically, this journey follows the pattern of individuation, the work that it takes to leave the collective consciousness, venture outside of our comfort zones and discover something wholly fresh in ourselves, and then to bring it back and share it. They are exercises that lead readers through that imaginative, intuitive work of waking up their creativity.

MM: What happens when we refuse to take this journey into our own creativity?

CE: This is fascinating. When we don’t know how enrich our genius with love, compassion and wisdom, genius becomes a demon because it demands so much energy. This is the reason why many very creative and talented people succumb to drug addiction or terrible relationships. Genius will seek energy from anywhere it can get it and if it has to take a quick fix, it will. The best way for genius to get energy is from love, though; that’s what it actually wants.

MM: What do you mean by saying that all of us are “sleepwalking dreamers?"

CE: Nearly all of us are asleep to a certain extent. We are operating out of unconscious patterns involving fear, aversion, grasping, selfishness or anger. It’s sleepwalking because when we’re in that egoic state—just trying to get by, seeking approval and validation from the world—we’re not fully open and our point of view is very narrow. I believe that depression and ailments like metabolic syndrome are so widespread today because of how shut down we are in a world that wants us to be asleep. When we’re asleep we buy more things and don’t question authority. We live in a global society that is almost entirely built on encouraging us to consume and identify with some very dull myths that come out of Hollywood and don’t give us room to be heroes.

MM: You recommend “identifying the guide” as part of this hero’s journey.

CE: Yes. There is a place in the journey where you go within and find a figure, either in your dream world or in your waking life, toward whom you have either an intense attraction or aversion. Then you enter into dialogue with that person. There are many cycles in the hero’s journey and we will have many different guides. Someone who has a strong attraction or aversion for us is usually representative of an aspect of ourselves that we have become alienated from, that we’ve denied or suppressed or just not fully engaged with.

If you want to find a guide, begin to dialogue with that part of yourself and ask it what it wants from you. What does it want you to know? Play with this and see what comes up for you. When I did this process myself there was a man whom I was really attracted to and also hated. When I entered into this dialogue using his character as the representative for the part of myself that was alienated, I asked him what he wanted to teach me. What came out was that he wanted me to be more consciously playful, imaginative and silly. Once I became more willing to own that dimension of my being, the intensity of the aversion to him just went away. We can all do this practice.