New book by Philip Kenney

The Writer's Crucible Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity

Phil Kenney

Philip Kenney is a practicing psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon. He did his post-graduate work in British Object Relations at the Washington D.C. School of Psychiatry and has taught Self Psychology as part of his private practice. A long time meditator and poet, Mr. Kenney is the author of the novel, Radiance, and a collection of poetry, Where Roses Bloom. He strives to bring together the worlds of psychology, creativity and spirituality in his work and is the author of a new book on those subjects entitled, The Writer's Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity.

The Pickpocket and the Brain

April 2, 2013

Appolo Robbins is a pickpocket extraordinaire. He made his reputation in Las Vegas picking the pockets of happy victims for the purpose of entertainment. All items are returned to the bewildered and delighted patrons.

You can read “The Pickpockets Tale,” in the January 7, 2013 issue of The New Yorker. If you do, you’ll come to marvel and appreciate the art and mastery of Appolo Robbins, the pickpocket who is a magician.

Adam Green’s piece opens with a story that will take your breath away. Robbins is sitting at a table with a group of magicians. The leader of the pack, Penn Jillette, one of Las Vegas’ best, is denigrating the pickpocket trade as, “a few notches below hypnotists on the show business pole.”

Jilleette challenges the soft-spoken Robbins to demonstrate his skill. Robbins begs off claiming discomfort with the group and the difficulty presented by Jillette’s clothing, which is just shorts and a sport shirt. Jillette chides him, “Come on, steal something from me!”

Robbins offers to do a trick instead. He asks Jillette to place his ring on a piece of paper and outline it with his pen. Jeillette removes his ring, puts it down on the paper and takes his pen from his shirt pocket.

After a moment, he froze and looked up.

His face was pale. “F you,” he said,

and slumped in his chair.

Robbins held up a thin, cylindrical

object: the cartridge from Jillette’s pen.

It just gets better from there with tales of grand larceny ending with a gasp and a bewildered chuckle as Robbins returns items lifted from the jackets, pockets, wrists, fingers and necks of the people he is paid to dazzle. My favorite story has one man reaching for his cell phone only to find a piece of fried chicken in its place!

I was captured by this story before I ever began reading. Accompanying the article is a large black and white photo of Robbins riding a subway. His pose is quite nonchalant; leaning against a pole holding and reading a newspaper with his right hand while removing a cell phone from the rear pocket of his neighbor with the left.

Why was I so taken with this story? I had to wonder if latent criminal tendencies had been stimulated. Was I taken with the possibility of making people look like fools? Maybe I never grew up: just a kid at heart, loving a good magic trick. What was it that was so compelling?

Recently, Robbins’ remarkable talents have come to the attention of psychiatrists and neuroscience researchers studying the brain and the subject of attention. Deft at slight of hand as he may be, Robbins’ artistry has more to do with understanding human nature than it does with technique.

The physical technique of his art is important, however, “It’s all about the choreographing of people’s attention,” says Robbins. “Attention is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. My goal isn’t to hurt or bewilder people with a puzzle but to challenge their maps of reality.” Now we’re on it.

Maps of Reality.” Ever since my accountant father lectured his teen-age son on the nature of reality, I have been bent on knowing the edges of what is real. Coming of age in 1967 helped this along in a dramatic way. Our generation pushed the limits in every which way, determined to break down the conventional “map of reality” offered up by the greatest generation.

When I was 22 years old I had a very simple but direct experience, a collision, if you will, with one particular map of reality. It was autumn and leaves were falling by the dozens while I stood outside my apartment in Connecticut talking to a friend.

As we spoke I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, something looping towards me through the October air. Our conversation continued but my perception of the falling object moved into slow motion.

When it landed on my shoe I glanced down, barely interested enough to take a look at what I was certain could only be another fallen maple leaf. But my vision was blurred, such that I could not recognize my own shoe, let alone what had descended all that way. It really took a minute for my eyes to focus and when they did, I stared in amazement at the most exquisite 5-inch long preying mantas perched on my laces!

Growing up in Ohio, the reality maps were narrow and rigid. But this isn’t unique to Ohio. All cultures and institutions have maps of what is and what isn’t acknowledged as real within the collective view. Even the allegedly objective world of science has its predetermined parameters. Just ask Eben Alexander, author of Proof of Heaven, the remarkable story of a neurosurgeon’s near death experience.

The world is flat. The sun orbits around the earth. I suppose the human brain has been constructing reality maps ever since it got big enough to do so. Good stuff as far as adaptation and survival are concerned. This allows the evolutionary genius a chance to play its hand. Not so great for creative co-habitation despite the best efforts of some great reality map busters like Jesus and Buddha.

Most great art is a sledgehammer to conventional maps. Piccasso and company are the masters of turning our worlds upside down and inside out until our traditional notions fall apart like old bread. They show us what we don’t see, and how reality maps create, limit and distort our vision. Death is like that too: deconstructing the ultimate reality map, the constructed self.

I realize my profession of psychotherapy is a lot like pickpocketing. What do we do? We dip into the unconscious communications of our patients and pull out long-standing and unrecognized beliefs about the self and the world. We reach into the pockets of unwanted emotion and liberate feeling that has been burdensome. These efforts, which often seem like magic, bring about shifts in reality maps that are tectonic in nature.

And like Mr. Robbins, we return the contents of the unconscious to our patients, enabling the development of new personal maps. Having altered reality maps previously held out of awareness allows for the expansion of awareness beyond maps to take in ever-greater portions of what is.

And what that is, we could say, is the unfathomable: that which cannot be mapped, though we cannot help but try. That which cannot be named or cornered by the mind. And like Appolo Robbins’ happy victims, we can stand in this vast moment undone and in awe of the beauty of this life that again, and again does its best to wake us up from the dream of our reality to the full radiance of being.




2 Responses

  1. Joan says:

    I love the image of psychotherapist as pickpocket, an adept observation- brilliant!

    • Phil Kenney says:

      Hi Joan, thanks for commenting. I rather liked discovering that as well. Glad you liked it. Great story, isn’t it?

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