How Brett Whiteley found his purpose

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Recent census data show that Australia is becoming a more secular society. Even so, 70% of people continue to identify themselves as having a religious affiliation, of whom 52% identify themselves as being Christian. On the face of it, this might suggest that spiritual issues are not so important to around a third of the population. However, it is being increasingly recognised that spirituality does not just relate to religion. Many non-religious people are interested in a spiritual dimension in life when it is defined more broadly.

Spirituality can be appreciated more generally as relating to our sense of life meaning and purpose. It also relates to a deeper sense of connection and unity with others or the world around us. It further involves attempting to make sense of the world in a way that goes beyond the material. Spirituality also relates to numinous experience, or experience which is especially mysterious, awe-inspiring and personally moving.

As a non-religious person myself I am nonetheless intrigued by a spiritual, and especially a mystical, dimension to life. I was initially skeptical about anything to do with such notions, thinking they related only to superstition. Spirituality, and especially mysticism, is little acknowledged in the mainstream psychology field. But hints of a mystical dimension abound when you’re open to noticing it. It might be reflected in synchronicity, a particularly uncanny and meaningful timing of events that connects our inner and outer worlds.

An especially intriguing example is described in the recently released film, Whiteley. Brett Whiteley, the renowned Australian artist, had an epiphany at 13 years of age that pointed to his destiny as a painter. He was sitting in the school church service when he picked up a book someone left behind in the pew. It happened to be filled with Van Gogh paintings. The young Brett was transfixed by the paintings, later saying, “It was wonder… every page was just amazing. It was the first I had heard… of Van Gogh. I had never believed anything like that could exist. I almost felt that I had done it, or part of me had. There was some connectedness of soul. I understood it. It was right.”

From that point Whiteley saw the world differently, in vivid colours and seething with energy. It apparently lifted him out of his pervasive sense of boredom and loneliness at school. He described having “this very, very powerful sense that my destiny was to completely give myself to painting… I knew immediately that there was meaning to existence”. His conviction was reinforced by seeing two words in a landscape section of the book, “security” and “rebellion”. Remarkably he recalled a dream from when he was five years old in which he was in his mother’s womb, and he had to choose between these same two words that were written on a wall.

Whiteley’s epiphany bears all the hallmarks of spirituality described earlier. His example might be particularly dramatic. But I believe that we can benefit from allowing for especially uncanny coincidences to have symbolic meaning in our lives, potentially helpfully pointing us in a worthwhile direction, consistent with our life purpose. I think it can be a way of receiving information from the universe at a soul level.

In my experience, exploring such notions can help develop our deep intuition that complements our rationality. It does not mean ignoring our logical and rational thoughts, but being open to an additional way of experiencing things. It involves combining our left hemisphere rational brain functioning with our right hemisphere holistic functioning. When our intuition is consistent with the conclusions that we make from our past experience and rational thinking, I think we have an even more powerful way of guiding us in our lives.

In my view, anything that adds to our sense of personal meaning, connection and making sense of life can be a psychological bonus. Many of those who are religious will have experienced the benefits of having a “guardian angel”. I think we can also learn much from the spirituality of Aboriginal culture, expressed in the Dreaming. In another ten to twenty years, I think these issues will be of much greater interest to health professionals. We seem to barely acknowledge the closeness of the connection between mind and body. We are some way off acknowledging the close connection between mind, body and soul.

This evening at his opening address at the 5th World Congress on Positive Psychology, Dr Martin Seligman, the founder of the field, described that the world is currently in a spiritual and political vacuum. He referred to the relevance of numinous experience, the first time I have heard him do so in any public address. If we don’t recognise and appreciate the relevance and importance of synchronistic experiences in shaping people’s lives, such as Brett Whiteley’s epiphany when encountering Van Gogh’s work in his early teens, then we are missing some of the best in what it is to be human.

Chris Mackey is principal psychologist at Chris Mackey and Associates, Geelong, and author of Synchronicity: Empower your life with the gift of coincidence. For radio segments about synchronicity, including a segment on Brett Whiteley on June 28th 2017, click here.