In times of disillusionment, trouble and chaos, people throughout history have traveled to the same place to rekindle meaning in their lives.
"They go somewhere we've ignored for so long," says expressive therapist David Oldfield, "on a journey to the other side of the brain."
Recent scientific theories, he notes, claim that the brain's left hemisphere controls logical, rational thinking, while the right side is the imaginative, intuitive realm. Our culture's over-reliance on the rational left side, he contends, "is one reason why so many people feel an emptiness to their existence.
"In modern times -- since the Age of Reason -- we've come to prize rational thought and rely on the premise that there must be an intellectually-explainable, logical reason for everything. Anything we can't put into words -- like an emotion or phenomenon -- we tend to deny.
"We've ignored the other side of our brains -- the part that houses our dreams, our fantasies and our intuitive connections with the world around us. This imaginative side can act as a balance to our logical side; our dreams work out our frustrations, and we fantasize what we can't have."
To become mentally healthy and "to survive as a species," he says, "we must weave together these two sides. Because it is in the imaginative hemisphere -- which we all possess, but many of us rarely use or pay attention to -- where we are most able to discover new images of hope and vitality."
But many people -- schooled in the "rightness of reason" -- find it difficult or impossible to tune-in their intuitive frequencies. That's where the 29-year-old Yale Divinity School graduate and special education teacher comes in.
As founder and director of the Midway Center for Creative Imagination, Oldfield runs workshops designed to take people "on a trip" to this under-utilized side of the brain. Like the conductor of a Creativity Express, he leads relaxation and guided-fantasy exercises to help people explore the ephemeral dimensions of their experience.
"I try to create a magical space where things can happen," says Oldfield, who compares his job to that of a primitive shaman. "Then I step back so people can fill the space with whatever they want and need.
"I am, hopefully, the catalyst in helping people understand who they are, by developing an atmosphere where they can reach inward, touch their own spirit and become whole again."
Oldfield got the idea for the Midway Center while attending a workshop on clowns at Yale, given by writer/director Bill Carpenter. "I was interested in caring for my own spirit," recalls Oldfield (who says he might have joined the clergy had he subscribed to a particular belief). "I felt like it was getting damaged."
He found clowning intriguing because "clowns are a metaphor for humanity at its most basic, vulnerable level. I wanted to explore that part of myself." When he discovered that Carpenter shared his interest in using creativity to enrich life experience, they decided to initiate a project that would help people exercise atrophied imaginations.
Carpenter opened a Midway Center in New Haven, Conn., geared to developing spontaneous forms of celebration and finding new ways people can "congregate, create and share."
Oldfield moved on to Washington and got a job in 1978 as a special-education teacher at the Psychiatric Institute. There, on his own time, he started running workshops for staff members.
"My ideas tend to scare some people off," he admits. "But in a psychiatric hospital you're dealing with people who've experienced the devastation that can result from our present culture -- in power struggles, family situations, educational systems.
"They're often more willing -- or more desperate -- to look towards new ways of being since the old ways, for them, didn't work."
His workshops became so popular that the administration gave him the go-ahead to open the non-profit Midway Center last September. He now works with troubled adolescents and their families at the center and offers workshops for a wide range of groups: in churches, community centers, schools and offices. (He charges on a sliding scale, with fees starting at $100 for a half-day workshop.)
One of his most popular guided fantasies encourages participants to create an idealized "New World," where they can become any character they choose, and "adults, kids, bosses, employes can relate as equals." He has developed 40 such "fantasies" and plans to compile them in a book.
"Most people in the workshops are surprised to learn how creative they are," he says. "They think, somehow, that only artists are creative. But there is an art to living. Our lives are our masterpieces."
Often people are reluctant to use their creativity, says Oldfield, "because they fear the chaos inherent in the creative process. But the superstructure of the workshop helps them relax and be receptive to the voices of their imagination -- which is the first step in creativity. Then, suddenly, when they break through to an insight, it's really exciting."
A key to this kind of "constructive creativity," he says, is "learning to view problems as adventures -- which is a trick of the will. Once we understand the simple fact that life is hard, life becomes easier.
"Then we don't use up our energy grappling with problems. We're too busy making creative choices in the adventure that is life."