The Spirituality of Art
I'm in my car, on the highway. I turn off the news reports and the baseball game I've been listening to and switch to a Beethoven violin sonata that's loaded in the CD player. Listening to the music, my mind gradually starts to release, like a hand that had been grasping something tightly and is beginning to let go. Another mind appears, a mind completely engaged with the pattern the music weaves. A moment before, I'd been frozen into the shape of a self in a world. Now, the music has thawed me out.
The world and the self really do appear to us as frozen. Our personal problems, our self-definitions, what we hear from those around us—all these convincing and compelling experiences invite us to clutch at concepts, positions, worries. We naturally build vast structures of ice to hold in place the world and the self, chilly and confined. But the experience of art can shake us free of all that. Art can save us from freezing.
Spiritual practice can, too. It can provide us with a much larger view of our lives, a warming, melting view. At least this is the theory. But anyone who's done spiritual practice for a while can tell you that it doesn't always work that way. In fact, spiritual practice too often hits us with an arctic blast, icing us over, if we are not careful, into more grotesque shapes than the ones we were in before we began practice. Why? Because we tend toward ice: We crave a secure sense of self, a truth we can depend on, a world we can tame and understand. We want to be frozen, even as we long desperately to thaw. Religion is problematic because we are problematic.
But that snatch of music, that poem, that picture—these can make a big difference. The imagination situates us in a reality wider, deeper, and more mysterious than we can directly sense or rationally know. Imagination can see into and through the apparent world to something luminous and significant. Without imagination there is only plodding on in a two-dimensional world, merely surviving, getting through the day. Without imagination we feel only the world's dead weight, like an albatross around our necks, hanging there without rhythm, without quickness, without a beating heart.
But imagination is tricky and wild. It does not play by the rules; it cannot be controlled or second-guessed. No surprise, then, that imagination is depicted as a goddess, a muse, who comes when she wants to and leaves without notice. From the point of view of the rationally organized world, imagination is dangerous, for it holds that world in supreme irony, as a mere backdrop for its colorful activity. No wonder Plato wanted to exclude the poets from his Republic. And no wonder religion almost always mistrusts and fears the imagination, which is forever evoking energies—sexual and creative energies—religion would just as soon forget: they are just so messy and hard to control, and they are not usually polite.
Imagination draws its energy from a confrontation with desire. It feeds off desire, transmuting and magnifying reality through desire's power. Fantasy does the opposite; it avoids desire by fleeing into a crude sort of wish-fulfillment that seems much safer. Fantasy might be teddy bears, lollipops, sexual delights, or superhero adventures; it also might be voices in one's head urging acts of outrage and mayhem. Or it might be the confused world of separation and fear we routinely live in, a threatening yet seductive world that promises us the happiness we seek when our fantasies finally become real. Imagination confronts desire directly, in all its discomfort and intensity, deepening the world right where we are. Fantasy and reality are opposing forces, but imagination and reality are not in opposition: imagination goes toward reality, shapes and evokes it.
So although spiritual practice seems necessarily to be, and historically has been, at odds with imagination, the truth is that spiritual practice requires imagination. If we really want to go beyond the surface of things to the deeply hidden, actual experience of being alive (as spiritual practice encourages us to do), we need imagination as an ally. The senses, reason, even our moral and emotional faculties are not enough.