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Paul McKenna and Me 5: Birthday

By the time I got to the Ibis Hotel on my birthday, I had a really strong sense of expectation going through my body.  I was wired, and I wasn’t sure why.

A friend had given me a little cake with a single candle in it for me to have that day, and I had brought it with me, a little physical reminder that life is sweet. There was a bustle around me of people, and that strangely growing sense of excitement that was inside me was starting to bubble up. My senses were all switched on in a way that I hadn’t had since maybe I was a kid.

The training started in the usual way – with a lot of joy.  Paul did his thing on stage. Getting us to laugh and enjoy ourselves. Getting us to deal with stuff, and telling stories about treatments he had done on people. Then he demonstrated a technique called swish patterning and asked us to go ahead and perform it on each other.

I’d had a little nagging voice in my mind that had started to tell me that I was going to speak with Paul that day.  That I was going to make a change. And so it happened that when we broke to do the exercise, I went over to him and said:

“Paul, can you use this technique on creativity? Because I’ve had writer’s block for 13 years and it’s been a complete fucking nightmare.”

“Yes, yes, absolutely,” he said. “I’ll get you up in the next session. Great stuff.”

What was weird was that it was like I had stepped out of myself when I asked him. It was as if I was now entering a different reality, by simply seizing a moment and acting on it. I went and did the swish pattern exercise we were shown with a growing sense of anticipation. There was a weight of expectation pushing me from the inside. Paul’s reputation, the changes he was able to make in people, the results he got. My remembrances of seeing him on the box, of considering writing to him to see if he could help my mother, all of that history of being aware of him as a public figure – likeable but aloof – seemed in that moment to crystallise.  Wow. He was going to do some stuff with me.
When we resumed our seats he started a preamble in which he explained that the technique he was demonstrating could be used for all sorts of applications. It could certainly be used with creativity. As he spoke, he gave me a friendly and reassuring smile, I remember clearly his pale face, and the eyebrows raised, the head nodding slightly, a friendly smile on his face.  And then he called me up on the stage and asked me to sit next to him.  He was on my left hand side, and he began to ask me what it was that I used to write.

I told him that I used to be a scriptwriter for The Bill but that things had fallen apart and I had stopped writing.  He talked a lot about tv shows and how he loves police dramas.  He told me one of his favourite cop shows was The Shield, and I found myself, as he talked, becoming slightly disoriented.  He wasn’t particularly doing anything, it seemed to me, but the unfamiliar experience of being on stage, his talking, the bright lights in my face seemed to make me glaze over a little.

“Tell me, what do you do when you sit down to write, now?” he asked.

“Well, it’s like I can’t make a decision.  I start to write a word, and before I have even got to the end of the word I ask myself should it be this word or this word. Why this word? And I start again.  I never get anything done…”

He told me about the Walt Disney creativity strategy. He said that it was vital that the Creator should be allowed to create without any intervention. Walt Disney had a special room for being creative where anything was allowed.  That is the room of dreams and invention. Then, when the Creator was finished for a while, he would take the work to another room, which was the room for the Realist, who would sit and work out whether or not the story hung together and had a realistic chance of working. It might then go back to the Creator for more work.  Only when most of the work was done, would the script be taken to the room of the Critic.  The Critic was there just to make sure that all the edges were rounded off, and that everything work properly.  Once again, the Critic might send the work back to the Creator.  But in the creative room the Critic was not allowed.

I nodded, seeming to understand what this was about.  It was about switching off critical voices.  Then he asked me if there was a particular event that had really caused the whole block to happen.

“There is,” I said. “I had an argument with a girlfriend,” I lifted my hand as if to gesture that there was an image of her there, in front of me.  He put his hand exactly where I had just put mine and said:

“Just there?”

I nodded, and he quickly pulled “the image” away towards the far end of the stage.  It was deeply disorienting.  It really was as if the picture I held of her in my mind was shrinking down.  He quickly asked me if she had said anything in the argument.  She hadn’t really said anything special.  She was Spanish, and she had just shown disapproval. But the sentiment I had got from her was that my work was complete crap.  I told him: “She said my work was a load of shit.”

He mimicked the sentiment in his comedy voice over and over again. It was utterly ridiculous to hear that sentiment said in that voice, and I laughed out loud.

Paul then walked back to me across the stage and got me to perform an NLP swish pattern on my belief in myself as a writer. There was a thing I was certain about, like the sun would come up tomorrow, right?  Where, he asked me, in my field of vision did I experience it. I pointed straight ahead.  And when I saw myself as a successful writer, where did I visualise that? It was in another place.  He quickly got me to fire the image of me as a writer off onto the horizon, then brought it back in right in front of my eyes.  We repeated the exercise several times, and then, again, he moved me on to more of the process.

Then he told me to go into trance quickly. Relaxing down. I was pretty disoriented at this point, and I found myself gladly going down at speed.  He was acting with real pace, now.

He told me to take myself back to a time when I was really deeply creative, and to go inside and really experience that memory again, now.  To get the feeling from the visuals, to make it real, and to experience it all over again. Then, when I had built up that creativity in my mind so that it was strong, he asked me to do the same with other memories.  To build up the creative feeling so that it was really strong inside me.  I can remember, in my heightened consciousness, doing the classic squeezed finger anchor so that I could get this feeling back when I wanted to. It was weird though, because my head was spinning like mad at the same time.

Then he asked me to go down deeper in my trance, and to go along a corridor in my mind, until I found the door marked “Control Room”.  I opened the door and went inside, and he told me to find the control panel marked “Creativity”. I found it, and it was covered in dust. There was a dial on it, that I could turn. He asked me what level my creativity was at now, on a scale of 1 to 100, where 1 was low and 100 was high.  “About five,” I replied.

“Okay, so I want you to turn it up.  Turn up the dial, keep it going.  Keep it building up and up.”

It was weird, it was like I could hear machinery starting to turn.  After a while he asked me:  “What level is it at now?”

“About 15.”

“Okay, well I want you to double it.  Got that?”

I nodded.

“Now double it again.”

He walked away from me, I could hear him going down the stage, giving the audience the show that they wanted, too.

I visualised lights stacked one on top of another in two square columns on either side of the control panel – like something out of Star Trek.  Each square light lit up, one after another and I seemed to be in a room of utter stillness, while at the same time I was on stage in a hotel conference room in London.  I could hear Paul’s voice in the distance…

Then I felt something start inside me. A great big welling up of grief that rose up through my body, flooding my mind with despair, pain, anger, frustration and hatred.  I tried to control it and push it down – but it rose up and up – higher and higher until I let out a lonely, desperate cry  and opened my eyes a little to see a tableau: Paul, whirled around on his heel staring at me, leant forward, watching my face, and out, beyond the lights, the audience in utter silence, some with their jaws dropped.

I wept, loudly and uncontrollably. The anger, the hatred I had nursed for the deal I had somehow got out of life, the broken dreams, smashed aspirations – all of this now surfaced – everything I had ignored for so long as I coped with life. My dreams. My hopes. They were twisted things, it seemed – crushed by life and by my own mistakes.

Paul moved quickly.  “I can see this means a lot to you,” he said and then came in close.

“I’m going to tell you how to get rid of this once and for all,” he said.  “Here’s how to do it.  I want you to hold out your hand and visualise all the bad feeling coming out of you and gathering in a ball on your hand. Do that now.”

I did as he said, imagining all the badness coalescing there, on my hand, a great swirling mass of malice.

“What colour is it?” he asked.

“Black,” I answered.

“Well, keep it coming.  And don’t you dare stop until every last piece of bad feeling is on your hand.  And when you feel the last piece of badness come out from you, I want you to nod…”

I sat there for what seemed an eternity, visualising all this ill feeling coming out of me.  I was desperate.  I felt so deeply alone on the stage, and utterly miserable as more and more of this blackness gathered itself in an imagined ball on my hand.

Meanwhile, another part of my mind was saying: “This is bullshit.  This is complete bullshit.  Utter bollocks.”  And still the blackness swirled.

Then, Paul asked me again: “Is that all of it?”

I nodded, and before I could think of anything else, he knocked my hand so that the ball fell to the floor, and then he stamped where it fell.

And it was then that I knew that something strange was going on in my head.

Because as he stamped, at that very point, I saw a huge pool of black ink splash and then spread across the stage.  The hallucination was so powerful that I blinked two or three times to make sure that my eyes weren’t deceiving me.  And it was still there, but overlaid on it was the real stage, the blue floor and Paul, looking at me.

I sat back in my chair, as if I was exhausted, wondering what would happen next.