Art Is a Spiritual Pathby Pat B. Allen
Art is a spiritual path—not a religion, but a practice that helps us knit together the ideals and convictions that guide our lives. Creating art can be prayer, ritual, and remembrance of the Divine. And the sharing of this creativity with others in small groups can serve as sanctuary, asylum, ashram, therapy group, think tank, and village square. Pat Allen
Art is a spiritual path—not a religion, but a practice that helps us knit together the ideals and convictions that guide our lives. Creating art can be prayer, ritual, and remembrance of the Divine. And the sharing of this creativity with others in small groups can serve as sanctuary, asylum, ashram, therapy group, think tank, and village square. Pat Allen has developed a reliable guide for walking the path of art through a series of simple practices that combine drawing, painting, and sculpture with journal writing. Designed for readers at any level of artistic experience, the book shows how to:
• awaken the creative force and connect with the divine source of creativity
• access inner wisdom and intuition about life issues, including both personal and community concerns
• find a path to meaning that includes honoring, celebrating, and giving thanks
• explore the images and symbols of traditions such as Catholicism, Judaism, shamanism, and Goddess worship
• join in spiritual community with others who are following the path of art
• discover that artmaking can help us live our ideals and be of service in the world
Detailed examples from the author's own practice of art, plus the stories and images of several other people, are presented to illustrate how art becomes a spiritual path in action. At the author's virtual studio, www.patballen.com, readers can post their images and writings, communicate with the author, and subscribe to an electronic newsletter. The site also contains an archive of the images in this book in full color.
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Art Is a Spiritual Path
By PAT B. ALLEN
SHAMBHALACopyright © 2005 Pat B. Allen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Practice of Intention
The first act of initiating an art experience, before making a single mark, is the creation of an intention to guide our work. We take a few moments to become quiet and go within to create a space that will ignite the spark of imagination. We must make room, clear out whatever distracts us to discover our intention. We may meditate, focus on our breathing, or free write until an intention takes shape. We may arrive knowing what we seek. More often we arrive with worries and tasks to do later clinging to our consciousness like so many Post-It notes.
Write the intention down in a journal or a notebook in the form of a present tense, straightforward statement, without using the verb want. To "want" is to remain forever lacking, preventing the Creative Source from catching up with what is underneath the lack. Make the intention as clear and concrete as possible, addressed to a force of great compassion that intends what is best for you, as if it were a prayer that has already been answered. When beginning this practice you are more likely to see the effect with a concrete intention that has some built-in limits. For example, you might ask for guidance about whether you should accept an invitation to some event or declineit and use the time for rest and quiet rather than just saying, "I am open to whatever comes." You are working toward the overriding intention of being in alignment with the divine intention; but to begin, keep it simple, recognizable.
Intention is always a co-creative process. It is not as if there is a Divine Puzzle Maker who "knows what is best for us" but withholds the information and makes us guess at it. Who co-creates? If we reflect even briefly, we recognize that every interaction we engage in has its own distinct energy. When two people are in a conversation, each of them contributes to its shape. I will discuss this further in chapter 3, which reflects on the edges of knowledge and the challenges inherent in art as a spiritual path.
Intentions that ask for change must be for oneself, not for another person; and they cannot violate any natural laws. It is fine to ask for guidance about how best to deal with a difficult person, but not correct to have an intention for that person to see that you are right about some disagreement. We turn over the outcome and the details of how it manifests to the Creative Source. As we gradually become conscious of the power of intention and the limits of our individual understanding, it becomes easier to let go of specific outcomes and open to a greater reality. Common beginning intentions in the studio include "to enjoy myself," "to let myself explore my creativity," "to receive guidance about a personal decision or health concern," "to make an image of my sorrow," and "to open to the creative source." As artists begin to create images, intentions also grow out of the relationship of the artist to the image as a teacher. The acceptance of the image as teacher often takes a long time. For many of us, especially those trained in art, the image is a thing we make; imagining it to have a life of its own or seeing it as an expression of a consciousness beyond our thinking mind can be a challenge. Shaun McNiff says, "If we imagine paintings as a host of guides, messengers, guardians, friends, helpers, protectors, familiars, shamans, intermediaries, visitors, agents, emanations, epiphanies, influences and other psychic functionaries, we have stepped outside of the frame of positive science and into the archetypal mainstream of poetic and visionary contemplation" (1992, 74).
The word intend derives from a Latin root, tendere; in-tendere means to stretch toward (Ayto 1990, 302). One way to think about intention is to ask yourself what you are willing to stretch toward. What are you yearning for? What is asking to be born through you? And can you imagine that a force of great compassion is also stretching toward you, with information that both you and the world need? What do you wish to be near-peace, wisdom, harmony, compassion, purpose, community, justice, truth? Although intention seems like a very simple idea, it is a practice; one must use it to reap its rewards. For example, in my first book I suggest some sample intentions (Allen 1995, 197) such as, "I want to know the meaning of this image." One day while reading a book whose title I forget, I came across the idea that to use the word want when forming an intention creates a state of lack. The words "I want" are a statement to the universe of an existential reality of lack or scarcity. What follows those words is received as so much static because wanting is a reality of not-having. I wish I could recall the book or even the subject in order to thank the author, whose words seared me and shifted my perception. I can only confirm over and over that these ideas belong to all of us and to no one in particular. They arise from a collective knowing that is the birthright of every person. How they are expressed will vary according to the circumstances, special gifts, and limitations of each person who chooses to express them.
After the insight about "want" I began to listen more closely as others read their retentions. I began to notice that many of us are in a state of chronic want that has to do with our forgetting. We forget what we asked for yesterday; we ask for something that contradicts that request; we forget to notice what we have; we forget to express gratitude. It comes as a surprise to many of us that the surest way out of want, which is a perception, is to make an inventory of what we have and then find something to give thanks for or, even more powerful, to give something away. Often there are things filling our lives and the spaces of our minds that prevent what we "want" from arriving. Sometimes the best intention is simply to make space to notice what is before trying for something new. In that space, our attention catches on something and the imagination is sparked. The spark is our intention, ignited by the attention we give it through making art. Our intention can be to see what we are holding on to that is filling our space. A refrigerator with old, spoiling food that doesn't nourish can't be replenished until it is emptied of moldy items crowding the shelves. New relationships, work, or life purpose will not manifest with clarity if we do not make space by acknowledging and letting go of some of our busyness and doing of what is no longer working. The architects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa at the end of apartheid in 1994 had a clear intention to let go of fixed ideas when they stated in the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995 the need for "understanding, not vengeance, reparation, not retaliation, ubuntu (humanness), not victimization" (TRC 1995). The TRC created the space necessary for new ideas to arise in the face of historical atrocity.
I believe that the Creative Source intends for each of us to manifest fully and joyfully. I also believe in the relational aspect of the Divine. I must ask in order to receive; I must come to the realization that my will is not the only factor in determining what will manifest but neither can it be completely superseded by divine intervention. It is part of the practice of intention to discern what we are really asking for and then to let go of worrying exactly what the result will look like. It is important to review our intentions on a regular basis to notice contradictions in our requests. Wording and language is important in crafting intention. Once, in the early days of Open Studio Project, discussing the notable absence of men signing up for workshops and our belief that men "needed" to be there, we decided to make a formal intention for more men to come to the studio. In the following weeks we were treated to random visits from several men. One offered to sell us art supplies that had "fallen off a truck." There was an earnest young artist who, unbidden, plopped himself down with slides of his art and recited his life story. And several city workers, taking a break from repairing the sewers, came in to ask if they could use our restrooms. The Divine has a great sense of humor but didn't fail to manifest our vaguely worded intention. The statement of intention crafted by the TRC allowed for a new cultural form to emerge that has been adopted in many other countries. While not perfect, it has opened the way for us to see that violence need not beget violence, if that is truly not our intention.
As with any practice that seems simple, it is easy not to give intention its due. Today I was running late and feeling impatient to get to the studio and write. I hurried through the rituals I have created over the years to foster mindfulness-including writing an intention. I had written something down, slapdash, but couldn't even remember the words. "Hmm," I thought, "I better go back and see what I wrote." My journal reveals the result of my hurry: "I do some writing, I do some art." After this terse summary, I had tacked on a reminder of what I needed to bring home at the end of the day. "Some writing" can be a grocery list or phone messages. If I am serious about working on this book, I will revise that intention. I write: "I align myself with the Creative Source as I receive refinements of the book I am writing." Better, but the new intention makes me stop and wonder, "What is necessary for that alignment to take place? Is it just an act of my will?" Well, if I'm really distracted by those tasks, I better figure that out. I get up and collect the items I need and put them in my bag to bring home later. Now am I aligned? I sit in my chair and notice my feet on the floor, grounding me. My body must be aligned. I offer a silent prayer to plug into earth energy and invite it to come up through my feet so that what I write is practical and useful to others. I feel the energy begin to surge upward, and I become aware of my heart: "May my words be openhearted so that they convey the joy that I feel when I am in alignment with the Creative Source, and may I be given the words to extend that joy to others. The heart of the world desires to touch your heart." Suddenly my mind says: "Whoa! How could you have forgotten to remind everyone that checking in with body, heart, and mind is part of the practice of intention?" May these words be simple enough, the thoughts clear enough, so that it makes sense to other people to take the time to line up body, heart, and mind, which is how we make way for spirit.
Body, heart, and mind are like a series of doors that the soul knocks on in different ways. If I get too caught up in thinking, I might trip or bump into something or develop a sore throat; so I can't broadcast my overheated ideas without being reminded that the body has some wisdom to contribute to ground the flight of my ideas. When I write when I am really tired and should be sleeping, a crabby self-righteousness can creep into my words. When I become enamored of a metaphor or story and try to force it into the text, the writing gets like over-yeasted bread, too full of hot air to nourish. When I haven't resolved a dispute with a friend, I find myself writing to instruct her, rather than listening to the flow. All of these things are my lessons. I lake them into my art. I ask for guidance about working when I am tired, and sometimes I get the message that I need to take a nap. Sometimes I learn that I can work very small and accomplish what is needed. I make all image to learn the way to resolve my dispute with my friend. All of these subtle alignments are aligning me with the Source, which is in and of me, in and of my friend, in and of us all.
My daily intention is to be open to my learning about how to serve the Soul of the World with joy and to be an instrument of peace. Even so, I forget this intention at least a hundred times a day. Rereading my notebooks, I am constantly amazed at how fleeting mindfulness is. Taking an action to remind us of intention can really help. My friend Jackie gave me a bottle of essential oil called Joy once after she heard me read my intention to serve with joy. It is in a tiny brown bottle with a pink label. I place a drop behind my ears and on my wrist, when I remember to, and the scent helps me. Wearing a certain piece of jewelry or color of clothing can be an act of remembrance supporting our intention. Often when writing I wear a cloisonne amulet, a gift from my friend and colleague Janis Timm-Bottos, with an image of a woman writing on each side. It stays empty to signify my intention to have the words I write supplied by the Creative Source. When I especially intend to keep my daughter in my heart and mind, I wear a silver ring inscribed with the Hebrew name, Adina, that she and I share. We all have many, many "good intentions" that never manifest because we do not pay attention to them. Yet we can cultivate a space for intention to blossom by paying attention with mindful gestures that support our connection with the Creative Source. Mindfulness requires space. We must come to a stopping place to notice exactly what will support our intention. When our gestures of homage become rote, they begin to lose efficacy. There is no power in a charm or an idol; the power arises only from our directed attention, of which the charm is a sign to remind us. Without careful cultivation of attention, the Source cannot send us what we need.
Important insights can occur anywhere and anytime. Ideally, intention should permeate our lives. Each morning, before getting out of bed, I try to remember to recite the Modeh Ani, a Hebrew blessing in which I thank the Divine for the return of my soul, which has been journeying on my behalf in the dreamtime while I slept. Otherwise, I just say thank you for whatever I see or feel first-usually the simple fact of being in a body. My intention is gratitude. One morning, I become aware that I have taken on too many responsibilities for others. I have not set the limits and boundaries I need to accomplish my own creative work.
I am walking the dog in the early morning darkness. She sniffs an object; I bend down and pick it up. It is a battered little plaster burro from a Christmas nativity scene. I laugh at the beleaguered little work animal and my mind takes off to the manger scene under the Christmas trees of childhood (figure 1). Would the Divine Child have survived if the donkey and ox hadn't been breathing their warm breath over him instead of out plowing a field or hauling wood? I take the figure to the studio as a reminder to stay focused on my work even when others want to drag me off to plow their field. I acknowledge how much easier it is sometimes for me to respond to a request from someone else than to face the rigor of my own creative work. When I am away from my art and writing, a sort of callus grows over my heart. At these times, my life becomes a sort of dutiful martyrdom that leaves me feeling resentful toward others for keeping me from my work. I often imagine that I must get all chores and obligations out of the way before I sit down to make art. When I remember to make an intention to connect with the Creative Source and also fulfill my obligations, time expands. I engage in artmaking from a place of dedication to the Creative Source, and duty becomes joyfully rendered. The paradox of how that happens is the work of the Creative Source, not my rational planning. The Creative Source doesn't issue ultimatums for us to neglect whatever is true service in our lives, but does challenge us to get all our parts into perspective.
When I am the facilitator of the studio, I make an intention to do no harm, to receive no harm, and to be a worthy conduit for what needs to come into the group. If I am rushing in without a moment to spare because I decided to do three errands on the way to the studio, it takes longer for me to re-center and become present. Yet that is not my only task. In every studio experience, I also make a personal intention based on my life at the moment. I am not present solely for others, but also for myself. So, as I create an art piece for my daughter, I may have an intention to be present to my feelings about her going off to college. At the same time, I trust that my intention to be present to the group will also manifest. After years of teaching this process to my students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I found myself becoming bored. The image came to me that I had lost traction; I was spinning my wheels in the same ruts but not moving forward. Students continued to tell me how much they got from the class, but it was becoming a chore to me. It isn't enough to have the intention to share the process with my students; I also have to have a personal stake in being there if the Creative Source is going to keep showing up for me.
Excerpted from Art Is a Spiritual Path by PAT B. ALLEN Copyright © 2005 by Pat B. Allen. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Pat B. Allen Ph.D., ATR, is an artist and a registered art therapist who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She produces workshops, events, and collaborative projects around the country and directs an online image community at www.patballen.com, where readers can post their images and writings, communicate with the author and one another, and subscribe to an electronic newsletter.
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