The art of expression

Last Friday, as part of my birth ”day”* celebrations, I was treated to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Set in the ‘brutalist’ exemplar of the Southbank Centre, the contrasting ‘gem’ of a music venue was the ideal setting to see a concert that carries much value…and the performer, “Sleeping at Last”, has come to mean a lot to me. Under that moniker is Ryan O’Neal, a self identifying Nine (does that help us understand his stage name choice?). I bring in the enneagram because this is how I came to know of his work…

…and to know him. Ryan (hoping he is okay with first name terms) recorded a Nine track ode to the enneagram as part of his “Atlas” concept album. As he explains, “Atlas is an ongoing series of music based on the origins of the universe and life within it”. There are three volumes so far: Atlas I features 30 songs inspired by the origins of the universe (exploring the themes of Darkness, Light, Space, Land & Oceans.); Atlas II is made up by 25 songs inspired by Involuntary Human Development (exploring the themes of Life, Senses, Emotions, Intelligence & The Enneagram of Personality); and coming soon, Atlas III has songs inspired by Voluntary Human Development – what we DO with all that we’re given. His ability and commitment to live out his own subjectivity through the music and lyrics is something I find quite incredible. For example, he penned all the enneagram tracks from the ‘as if’ he were that Type. And, as the listener to those tracks, there is then the invitation to step into those nine pairs of shoes too; to experience the subjectivity of the other. I feel like I have got to know the Types so much more viscerally through his work.

The initial hook was the enneagram; what has kept me hooked is a shared passion and thirst for understanding the system(s) we live in and create, unceasingly. At the time I was first deepening my understanding of the enneagram, I came across Ryan’s podcast, in which he would share the making of his current song project. I happened to find him just as he was penning and releasing the enneagram work – in fact, the ‘lead in tracks’ of Mind, Body, Heart (representing each centre of intelligence). Synchronicity moment.

Synchronicity moment 2. Just as I was starting the second term of the “Through the lens of the enneagram” CPD group for therapists, Spotify threw into my line of sight that he was playing in London…the week of my birthday! Stars, planets aligning (a little nod to Ryan’s Atlas I work).

So, why is it that this humanistic psychotherapist comes to write about a musician (or at least a reason that goes beyond a reason that goes beyond my fan status)? Ryan touches me, his music moves me, his creativity inspires me, his meaning making resonates with my own. I guess that pretty much covers the three intelligence centres! It wasn’t always so, as a mind triad Type, those other two centres have taken time to come online. I remember a summer walk, listening to the playlist of the songs he had released so far. I was listening to Five for the first time: the instrumental intro pierced me; and then the lyrics jolted my entire bodymind. I still get goosebumps each time I listen to it**

So there is a timing thing here – seeing him play live at a time I am immersed not just in the enneagram, but a somatic exploration of this map with the group. Throughout my life I have enjoyed and benefitted from how music helps me “go somewhere”. I remember sharing in therapy very early on in my training how music was one way that I felt I could connect to the body in a joyous, celebratory way (indeed, in an authentic emotional way). I imagine I am not alone in having those moments of expression through music. And this is at a time when I have been considering art and healing – on this blog, and certainly in my own creative expression of writing for my second book.

Ryan’s music, his performance (backed up by cellist Philip Sheppard and the Solem Quartet), and his between track explanations and vulnerable disclosures impressed me – and I mean that in the literal sense of left an “impression” in bodymind. And a good reminder that even we introverts can find routes for our vulnerability if the context is trustworthy, genuine. Quite a thing to be a part of something so intimate in a hall holding hundreds.

I was less familiar with some of the tracks he played on Friday night (his concept based approach means he has quite a discography), and so I have been spending the long, Bank holiday weekend, plunging in again to his podcast explanations of the tracks that he played as part of his set Friday. Songs that I especially sought out included his EP “Mother” in which he writes not only to his grief process but also the testimony to the living mother-son relationship. There is a beautiful and messy working through of his own experiencing in the time leading up to his mothers unexpected death; and a beautiful invitation to also lean into the mess of our own experiencing of life, death, loss, grief. There was the explicit story telling of his process, and the implicit within the music and lyric.

Maybe I am also influenced by the timing of the concert relative to my book project. Last Friday, I was also touched by Ryan’s collection on the senses (in Atlas ) and I began musing on my relationship with the senses as it has developed through my meditation practice. It also dovetailed with my current endeavour of writing a tour of the pioneers of the humanistic tradition – researching and completing a brief history of their contributions, and also the more personal ways each has touched me and influenced my therapeutic view / practice. It has been the turn of Eugene Gendlin this past week; he of “focusing” and the “felt sense” fame***. Slightly more off the beaten track of his better known work are his ideas on the process model and language. As I was listening and watching Ryan perform Friday evening, there was that visceral experiencing, my meaning making alongside…and it evoked in me that sense of “carrying forward” that Gendlin’s ideas speak to. We are always becoming; the next is always implied in the now; and the past is always to be found in the now. Gendlin taught me how to listen to the music of the body, to mine the tacit knowing offered, and to sit still and quietly enough for that to happen.

I can only imagine what music and the creation of his concept albums helps Ryan O’Neal “carry forward”. He is very honest about how the production of his “Mother” EP has helped him grieve; and likewise when he was producing the enneagram tracks from those nine different ways of seeing the world, he talked of how much it helped him get inside the Types in his life****

Over these last few weeks, treading through the artistic landscape, has foregrounded for me that art, work, relationship, life is never separate. That each medium of our being-in-the-world is of one taste, one thread. I imagine the next psychotherapeutic hero on my project list, Jim Bugental, is going to bring more food for thought. 

Art work credit to Elicia Edijanto who Ryan O’Neal commissioned for his album covers


*Truth be known, this is more often than not a birth month – last year, it became “50 events for 50”…I am now attempting to trim down rather than better my record 🙂

** and has led me to consider myself more of a “5.5” than a true Six

*** famous in the therapy field at least; although I have been quite impressed with how far his reach extended, his book “focusing” becoming a world-wide best seller.

**** I often think of the enneagram as the ultimate “bridge of compassion”

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