The Spirituality of Art
Small children have an easygoing and natural sense of imagination. For them there's no serious difference between the world of matter and the world of dreams; they crisscross and mix all the time. But children have to learn to freeze the world, to get it to hold still, so they can figure out how to be persons in it in some organized way.
Spiritual practice ought to be childish. It ought to help us recapture something that gets lost in the process of growing up. It ought to foster a sense of play, a sense of magic, a sense of humor, so as to avoid the occupational hazard of freezing. Probably it's too hard to cultivate these qualities within the normative forms of any spiritual tradition, so working with the imagination through art is good for spiritual practitioners. And the reverse holds as well: spiritual practice is good for artists. As a Zen priest I have been saved from freezing by my practice as a poet; as a poet I have been driven deeper by my practice of Zen. Zen has probably saved me from myself; poetry has probably saved me from Zen.
Working with the imagination through art requires discipline. This is developed through an encounter with the materials. At first, you approach art out of passionate personal need to express your inexpressible feelings. But once you wade in, you find that the medium—the words or paint or sounds—is extremely resistant to your self-expression. Things don't just fall into place. You have to grapple with the materials, reshaping yourself to suit them. It turns out that making art is not so much self-expression as a dialogue between what we think we want to express and the materials that seem to have their own demands. Engaging in this dialogue moves you to a degree of attentiveness and concentration beyond the private and the personal. It also moves you to encounter art's own traditions, constructed on terms much different from those of spiritual traditions.
Art practice gives us a path into the rich and unique content of our own lives. I don't need art to know what I think and feel. But without art, what I think and feel quickly becomes circular, self-centered, and limited. Making or appreciating art gives me a way to start with what I think and feel and then to plunge deeply enough into it that it becomes not only what I think and feel but also what anyone thinks and feels and, even beyond this, what isn't thought or felt at all. When I write or read poems I am met, through my own thought and feeling, by what's outside my thought and feeling. In this sense, art practice promotes a profound empathy, a widening of my sphere of awareness.
Art practice can help us overcome the weakness we all have for religious doctrine and dogma. Art provides a way to discover truth, but not the sort of truth that is handed to us already vetted. Instead, we must find it ourselves anew. This is a much more difficult and intimidating proposition.
We who are engaged in spiritual practice should never forget how painful and destructive such practice may become when our enthusiasm for the truth of whatever tradition we are pursuing becomes exclusive. Not only does narrowness of view cut us off from others who practice and believe differently than we do, it also cuts us off from ourselves, as we slash away at our thoughts and feelings in an effort to fit them to the shape of the doctrines we hold dear.
Art practice can move the inner life of the spiritual practitioner out from under the dictates of tradition and challenge it with a demand for freshness. This has been my experience. My lifelong involvement with poetry has kept me sane within a fairly narrow and rigorous life of religious practice.
We need art as a form of recreation, re-creation of ourselves and our world, a freshening of what goes on day by day in our ordinary living. Viktor Shlovsky, the Russian formalist critic, arguing for attention to formal detail in art, said, "To make a stone stony—this is why there is art." Art defamiliarizes the familiar, and thereby makes it new. Artists know this, but not only artists. We all sense that in looking at the world outside our own personal interests and habits we can feel something of the divine, of the whole. We can, therefore, approach our daily tasks with this heightened sense of things, taking care of our homes, our relationships, our communities, and ourselves with attentiveness and love—that is, as if we were artists grappling with our materials.
Being human is a big job. So much to do! Taking care of body, mind, soul, taking care of ourselves and each other emotionally and physically, repairing the world, earning a living—it's endless. There's no use worrying about finishing the job or even doing it all that well. But to brightly begin, and then, having begun, to continue: that's the great thing.
Norman Fischer's most recent book of poetry is Slowly But Dearly. From 1995 to 2000 he was abbot of San Francisco Zen Center.
Image: Black Spirit, Walter Robinson, 1985, oil enamel on canvas. 36 x 36 inches. Courtesy of Walter Robinson.