Healing Bad Habits Through Poetic Action

Unlocking the power of manifested imagination.

Sigmund Freud created the method of psychoanalysis as a way of explaining human behaviour. He believed that psychological traumas could be healed by recognizing the unconscious roots of a particular habit.

For example: If you have an alcohol dependency an adult, said behaviour can be liberated by digging deep into repressed memories to find the trigger event — your parents divorced when you were six years old and your mother turned to booze as a way to compensate for the lack of love in her life. So you associate alcohol with emotional gratification.

But is recognizing our traumas and talking about them in a therapy session enough to overcome a deep-rooted habit? Can one suddenly stop depending on alcohol and hard drugs simply by recognizing the inner-void that they are filling?

‘Words are good for providing evidence of a trauma, but cannot produce lasting change.’ (Jodorowsky, 2006).

Alejandro Jodorowsky (1929) — Chilean surrealist turned psychotherapist — argued that psychoanalysis isn’t enough to overcome trauma because it is limited by its reliance on spoken words as a tool for therapy. Language equips our minds with a cookie-cutter framework to analyze and interpret what our senses perceive. That’s why trying to change our behaviour with psychoanalysis is like trying to use a black and white camera to capture a sunrise. You can’t do it because you are using a limited lens.

Psychoanalysis is great at sweeping the floor — recognizing where our bad habits came from — but the work should not end there. After the sweeping, shouldn’t we work on actively changing the mental habits and perceptions that brought us to our knees in the first place?

  • Old assumption: Recognizing our unconscious traumas and speaking about them is enough to change negative behaviour.

  • Reframe: Recognition is not equivalent to change. Recognition is passive, change is active and therefore requires positive action.

The Power of Imagination in Changing Our Realities

We are used to perceiving reality from the limits of our own conditioning — our language, education, culture, and upbringing. But what if we are merely confusing our mental barriers with reality? And if our world is just a product of our limited conditioning…then wouldn’t this mean that we can change our entire worlds by switching the way we imagine ourselves in it?

Jodorowsky firmly believed that we cannot conceive of reality in the first place without the use of imagination. Imagination is the motor behind our self-perception and our relationship with the rest of the world.

At school like at home, Jodorowsky grew up loveless — constantly teased for his big nose, stubby features, and circumcised penis. Left to ponder over his existence instead of playing football matches with the rest of the kids, he discovered meditation by chance. This allowed him to question other things besides his existence, like his identity.
He realized that who we think we are, especially as children, is determined by how others around us perceive us. For example, his nose had been transformed into a living container of ridicule — “pinocchio, wandering jew, vulture, etc. by virtue of years of abuse.

But upon recognizing the root of the feeling of disgust he associated with it, he worked on changing that perception by exercising his imagination muscle.

“The hook-nose that had been imposed on me needed to change. I re-softened it’s edges, and turned it into a malleable dough. I then perfumed it, filled it with love, with light, with goodness, and lastly, I crowned it with sublime beauty.” (La Danza de la Realidad, p 95)
  • Old Assumption: I am the helpless victim of my conditioning — language, environment, other people’s perceptions.

  • Reframe: I can use my imagination to change my self-perception and my relation to others.

Poetic Action

Poetic action is a method created by Jodorowsky to expose the malleability of reality, and therefore our power to alter it. It works by complimenting imagination with physical activity in the world.

‘A poetic act must be impregnated with an oneiric quality, allowing us to create an alternative reality within the one that currently contains us. It opens the doors to a new dimension by purifying our perception, allowing us to manifest positive creative energy that is normally repressed or latent.’ — (La Danza de la Realidad, p 138)

The act itself doesn’t need to make logical sense and it doesn’t matter whether or not you think it’s absurd — the point is to bypass the filter of our rational minds, cutting straight into the realm of the subconscious.

‘Jodorowsky finalized his emancipation from his old-self by vandalizing his grand-parent’s 60th wedding anniversary, hacking away at an old lime-tree during the party. At that moment, the tree symbolized the anonymity, hatred and despair that had become his identity. He was chopping away at his old self, the one that other’s had imposed upon him and which he had later adopted as his own. He then laughed his way out of the house, leaving behind a party of mouth-gaping, furious family members ready to chop his head off next.

It was the end of his previous life as an abused child and the beginning of his new life as an artist.

  • Old Assumption: It’s not the intention that matters. It’s the action.

  • Reframe: The effect of an action depends on the intention behind it.

Rethinking Rituals

A poetic act works in a similar way to a ritual. Rituals have been dismissed as mere superstition by Western psychology but there is a purpose behind them — to affect the real world. Poetic actions go beyond words because they have tangible ripple effects. It’s the simple law of karma — intention, action, and reaction. It isn’t enough to intend to throw a rock in the pond if you don’t actually pick it up and throw it. In the same way, it isn’t enough to recognize an unconscious trauma if you don’t intend to change the behavior that resulted from it.

On a personal level, I work a lot with manifestation.
I envision a future scenario for myself — the person I want to become or the situation I want to attract into my life — and then I solidify this vision with action. For example, I’ll write down my vision on a piece of paper, and leave a glass of water on top of it overnight. The next day, I’ll read the text to myself again, and drink the glass of water.
To me, it’s much more than a simple glass of water. I am symbolically integrating my future self into my present with every sip.

It isn’t so much about which specific actions you choose, it’s more about the intention behind it.

  • Old Assumption: Rituals are useless because they don’t make logical sense.

  • Reframe: Rituals are powerful because they compliment intention with action. The intention is one with cause and effect.

Final Thoughts

Recognizing a trauma isn’t enough to overcome it if it isn’t followed by a positive action. To truly change your self-perception and the way you relate to the world, you need to throw a rock in the pond. You need to play the game of cause and effect — intention, action, and reaction.

  1. Bring the unconscious to conscious: The first step is always to recognize the root of the problem. Modern psychology is useful to identify the unconscious roots behind a negative behavior, and the mere act of recognizing a trauma can be very liberating. However, getting rid of a bad habit isn’t good enough if you don’t have a plan to replace it with a better one.

  2. Use your imagination to set an intention: Imagine what you want to let go, and create a new vision for yourself. Ask yourself who you want to become, and which situations you want to attract in your life. Paint a beautiful picture in your head.

  3. Poetic Action: Choose an act that marks the death of your old self, and the birth of a new self. This is the part when you get to throw the rock in the pond. It is the act of imagining a future scenario for yourself and empowering this vision with a physical act that catalyzes change.

“Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness.” ― Alejandro Jodorowsky (2001)