Filed in Arts & Culture

Saved From Freezing

The Spirituality of Art

Norman Fischer

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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.

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wilnerj's picture

Fantasy is driven by desire. Rather than an attempt to avoid desire it is its manifestation. And fantasy is part of the imagination. The pursuit of art can be very egoistic closing one's self off from others.

kcwd50's picture

Thank you, this is wonderful. The distinction between fantasy and imagination is particularly helpful, one which it took me a long time to discern and which caused me a lot of suffering in my youth--you nailed it.

summerleaf's picture

Thank you for this, it helps a lot. Creativity is ultimately what helps me connect with others, and this is why the creative process seems so desparately important to me that I could never give it up, even while wallowing in a tradition that tells me to "accept what is" rather than embellish or add my own story to it.

cobham's picture

Very glad the author shared his experience :)

I didn't really understand the part where he says: "Imagination draws its energy from a confrontation with desire. It feeds off desire, transmuting and magnifying reality through desire's power."
I hope someone will be kind enough to explain it to me.

marginal person's picture

I think the author is saying desire is an intense, uncomfortable energy. The imagination feeds off this energy to create art .The imagination doesn't avoid the discomfort of desire but uses it's energy to transform our every day world into something "luminous and significant".
He writes that fantasy avoids the discomfort of desire by escaping reality and engaging in "a crude form of wish fulfillment"
That's my take on the meaning of the passage, I hope it's helpful..

wilnerj's picture

Yes, it almost sounds like he is drawing from the poet of Aesthetic Realism Eli Siegel.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As an artist I find imagination and fantasy are the same thing. Both uplift you from the harsh reality of samsara.

marginal person's picture

"We want to be frozen even as we long fervently to thaw".
Interesting that Dante"s 9th and final circle of hell, reserved for the betrayers of trust, is a vast plain of ice. Satan resides here , frozen to the waist in the ice,trapped for eternity.

jackelope65's picture

My wife is an artist and while I was at work, often 14-16 hours, I might call her 2-3 times during that period. When she has delved deeply into her art, she thought why is he calling me so frequently, when actually calls may be 4-8 hours apart. She has lost the small "I" who keeps track of time with no true dualistic separation from all that surrounds her. This type of experience has occurred to me with medical codes, surgery, and writing my own poetry. It is of no surprise that art can improve our immune systems, reduce stress, and improve our general health and longevity, as we truly do not "lose" time. Singing in the car or shower with reckless abandon similarly loses the small "I" unless singing "I, me, me, mine____" with John Lennon. Yet, I can not truly separate this experience from deep meditation, no longer needing the breath, but just aware.

toonteo's picture

Very artistically explaining the needs for art
Thank you so much

Danny's picture

These beautiful and profound lines from the poem "July Mountain", by Wallace Stevens:

We live in a constellation
Of patches and of pitches,
Not in a single world,
In things said well in music,
On the piano and in speech,
As in the page of poetry-
Thinkers without final thoughts
In an always incipient cosmos.

Shubhangi Karnik's picture

"TAKING CARE OF OUR HOME, RELATIONSHIPS, OUR COMMUNITIES, AND OURSELVES WITH ATTENTIVENESS AND LOVE---THAT IS, AS IF WE WERE ARTISTS GRAPPLING WITH MATERIALS."

SUPERB !!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Picasso said art is a lie that tells the truth. For Buddhists enlightenment to this truth is sustained through faith.

mikkigriffin's picture

This brilliant article reminded me why I read poetry and visit museums and artists' studios. Those encounters with rich imaginations keep something alive and perhaps growing inside, something that bumps into the thud of fantasy. Thank you.