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Awakening the Creative SpiritBringing the Arts to Spiritual Direction
By CHRISTINE VALTERS PAINTNER BETSEY BECKMAN
Morehouse PublishingCopyright © 2010 Christine Valters Paintner and Betsey Beckman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneArt as Mediator of the Sacred
Creativity constitutes the ultimate intimacy for it is the place where the Divine and the human are most destined to interact. —Matthew Fox
Art and God
As spiritual directors, we support others in opening to the sacred, living deeply with mystery, and awakening to an ongoing encounter with the Divine. But, we might ask ourselves a fundamental question: how does one actually nurture an encounter with mystery? In other words, how do we—and those we work with—come to know God?Traditionally, we might suggest that our encounters with the holy can be deepened through scripture, study, prayer, relationship, church, nature, and meditation, but what if we consider the possibility that a primary way we can experience the revelation of God's mystery is through the process of our own creative expression?
Gifts of the Arts
When we engage in the arts, we dip into our souls to discover deep pools of wonder, breath-taking gifts of beauty, and quiet revelation. As we create, we are invited into playfulness, poignancy, and surprise—energies that renew us and revitalize our sense of purpose. Along the way we may encounter archetypal symbols, depth of emotion, and ecstatic expressions that lead us beyond self-consciousness to oneness with community, revealing "intimations of immortality." The arts are the language of the soul. If we become "linguists" looking back on the development of this language through the journey of time, we recognize that God has been inviting us into this sacred dialogue since the earliest awakenings of humanity.
Imagine this ...
You are traveling back in time, hundreds of centuries, thousands of cycles, back 30,000 years to a make-shift "village" at the dawn of humanity—a tribe of your own ancestors. The sun is emerging over the edge of the world, and you see a child being carried, a sick child upheld in loving arms. Now imagine yourself as that child—for after all, this is blood of your blood, your own ancestor—and so you feel yourself being carried from the morning light through a crevice deep into the darkness of an ancient cave. Strong arms bear you through ever thinning passages to the heart of the cavern. There, the drums and rattles begin their foundational rhythms, connecting to your own heartbeat, resonating within your inner chambers. Not long after, vocal chords open and chant coalesces around you as you are enfolded in a circular repetitious sound, reverberating to the marrow of your bones. When voices tire, a bone flute picks up the melody and carries it on. A small, sturdy feminine figurine, sculpted from ivory, is placed on your chest.
Then, by the light of flickering oil lamps, you open your dazed eyes to see images being stroked in rust colors onto the walls of the cave; bison and stag curve up the arching chamber. After a time, the group's singing quiets and the Shaman's voice rises up, and the ancient stories begin their recounting in voice and song. For hours, you are drawn into a dream-time telling of myths you have heard before and yet not heard, of animal-spirits and voyages of great courage, of raucous birds and whispers arriving on the wind. At one point, the Shaman lifts a feather and begins dancing over your body, calling, breathing, at times wailing, at times leaping, chanting, drawing energy to you, away from you. After a time, two elders cover their hands with mud and begin smearing it on your body—and you become one with the earth.
After many hours, you awaken to find yourself being washed in waters and emerging into the light. At the cave entrance you are greeted by your tribe-family wafting flower petals over you and singing with exuberance. Other villagers in masks greet you with their painted faces and bodies. A great feast is assembled and the sound of laughter rises up and your strength is returning now. You have traveled to the underworld, and you are emerging into new life.
By engaging in an imaginative, yet historically based, exercise such as this, we begin to get a picture and kinesthetic sensation of how art, as a language of the soul, rises up out of our collective human memory, our inner creative fire, and our ancient sacred impulses. Art-making is somehow all at once a journey, a communication, a modality, a healing, and a prayer. Art is a distinctly (though perhaps not exclusively) human activity. Through the arts we connect with the mystery of Creative Spirit beyond us, moving in us and through us. Through the arts we open ourselves to dialogue with the Divine.
Art as the Language of Intimacy
This imaginative journey took us back in time to the Paleolithic Period, where numerous archeological discoveries indicate the prolific artistry of our ancestors from that time. Perhaps even more striking is the fact that engraved blocks of red ochre, traditionally used for decorative or body painting, have been found in South Africa dating from as early as 75,000 BCE. Far from being a secondary activity, these findings verify that throughout time, the expressions of our souls through the arts have been integral to the survival and development of our human race. To this day, we can marvel that whenever we pick up a paintbrush, sing a song in the shower, or even create a slide show on our computers, we are engaging in an ancient practice, a practice once intricately linked to a way of honoring and communicating with the sacred origins of all creation.
In addition to studying our artistic origins in our earliest ancestors, art philosopher and anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake draws attention to another place of recognizing our innate capacity for artistry. In her book Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began, she suggests that the origin of art can also be observed in our most intimate encounters, beginning with the expressive language of love between mother and child. She describes how the original modes and rhythms of communication between parent and infant are also the foundations for all of our art-making. These include "moving together in synchrony, matching vocalizations and gestures, [and] handling or manipulating the physical world."
Picture a mother and her baby spellbound with each other. See their dance of connection, communicating through song, breath, rocking, coos, lifting of eyebrows, comforting touch, sounds and words, laughter and nourishment. See her introducing objects to explore through touch, taste, smell, and sound. Here is a language of deep intimacy that becomes the foundation for all of our life experiences, and develops our capacity for making and receiving both love and art. How we dip and sway, sing and call, touch and create can all be traced back to our earliest pre-verbal communicative language. Irish poet John O'Donohue suggests that our very orientation to beauty is fashioned by our gazing up at our mother's faces—our first imprint of symmetry as an organizing principle for making sense, meaning, and art of our world.
Contemplating the origins of artistry and intimacy as languages of the soul, I am reminded of a poem I wrote not long after the birth of my son. I offer it as meditation on awakening to mystery:
The Ancient Dance
Tonight I hold you.
The dreams I have held in my heart
take on flesh and form,
breath and body and bone
in the shape of you—new one,
egg cracked open in our nest
opening your mouth unabashedly
to drink in life.
I hold you now
against the drum of my chest,
our hearts beating, rocking,
repeating some ancient dance
older than any posture or pose.
This is the sacred dance
where I become mother
and you become child.
Tonight I am not ready
to lay you in your crib ...
pausing instead to savor this moment
revealing itself, ripe
in our seven weeks of
studying each other's
faces, moods and many movements
that mesmerize and
make our duet.
You squawk and I croon
we sing as we find
one leads, one follows,
decisions dance between us
like the smiles
newly flashing on your face.
though it is impossible to do so—
tonight, I hold mystery in my arms:
you, settling against my shoulder,
weight giving in to
my breast and bone.
Finally, I lay you down to
the dream of sleep.
You rest now unawares,
and I linger longer than I need to,
sitting in your presence,
hushed as a sanctuary.
I, the wide-eyed child,
to your darkened church.
You rustle and ruffle—
sigh and sniffle,
speaking an original language.
and this night ...
in your muffled music,
ancient far-flung mystery
If our deep language of intimacy is also the language of art, then what better language with which to express our intimacy with our Creator? Likewise, if our souls speak in this language to our Creator, we might also anticipate listening to divine messages through the arts as well. As a dialogue, we can expect God to be revealing deep truths, invitations, mysteries, and surprises to us through this language. If art is, in its essence, mediator of the sacred and window to the ultimate mystery, then as spiritual directors, we might invite ourselves (and directees) to become fluent in this language of the soul.
Right and Left Brain
Besides looking at the origins of art as the language of the soul within human evolution and human intimacy, we can also gain meaningful insights from brain research. Much new scientific information has been gleaned in recent years detailing the relative capacities of each hemisphere of the bilobed cortex of our brain. Through time, the two halves of the human cortex have differentiated so that each fulfills a critically different function in our everyday usage and in evolutionary development. The right brain (which controls the functions of the left side of our bodies) is responsible for holistic states of being: music, dance, aesthetics, nurturing, and heightened attunement to emotions and images. In contrast, the left side of our brain (which controls the right side of our body's functioning) is responsible for linear thinking: definition, speech, language, mathematical skills, logic, strategy, and focus.
Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor's recent book, My Stroke of Insight is a detailed documentation of her debilitating stroke that paralyzed her leftbrain. While barely able to decipher how to dial a telephone to call for emergency help, she describes the mystical, holistic awareness and sense of deep peace that flooded her, directed by her right brain. Her capacity to be fully at one with the entire world expanded while her boundaries of ego dissolved, giving her a felt experience of radical bliss, enveloping timelessness and oneness with the Divine. She explained how her mind functioned in that time: "Communication with the external world was out. Language with linear processing was out. But thinking in pictures was in." It took her eight years to fully recover dual brain access in order to tell her remarkable story, and to give witness to the evocative blissful insights and awareness that came through her right brain's direct, artistic way of knowing.
One of our Awakening the Creative Spirit Program participants describes a similar right-brain holistic state of being:
During the making of the soul portrait collage, I was instantly taken back to the feelings I had while doing art in high school. And I loved it! That sense of peace, centeredness and an altered state of being was truly re-awakened. I learned that it was the process that fed my soul, a process that took me into Holy Presence and an encounter with the sacred. I did not know as a teen that it was the meditation of doing art that I desired, a spiritual practice available to me and anyone else regardless of commercial talent. The quality of the product and the level of talent to produce it are irrelevant to Divine encounter. I finally understood my love of art was because of my love for Divine encounter. —Cynthia Gayle
Carl Jung also believed that our symbolic, pictorial way of knowing comes before rational thought. He suggests that only after first experiencing symbolic images are we able to then claim them, express them verbally, and come to understand them. There is also much evidence that dreams occur primarily through activity in the right brain. As spiritual directors, a scientific understanding of the functions of our right and left brain can help us to provide a framework for integrating the arts as tools for creating a holy balance in the spiritual journey. For directees who are skeptical about using the arts in spiritual direction, it may also be handy to be able to address their left-brain concerns with clear scientific research.
To further explore this concept in his book, The Goddess and the Alphabet: The Conflict Between Word and Image, Leonard Schlain explains that the right side of our brain was the first to develop in humanity's evolutionary journey. Being non-verbal, the right brain synthesizes meaning through a holistic awareness of space, emotion, image, and sound. Schlain explains that in early evolution these traits were especially utilized by women in their gathering and nurturing activities. Through time, the left brain gradually developed detailed linear clarity, and became highly useful for men who were responsible for the tribe's focused hunting duties. Even though the early differentiated role of men and women in our ancestry emphasized uses of the different brains along gender lines, evolution created access to both forms of brain functioning in both sexes. The high degree of refinement and coordination between our two brain halves has made our human brain the most complex on the planet. Schlain goes on to explain that for millennia in human history, a balanced blend of both masculine and feminine modalities existed and is evident from archeological findings.
Approximately 5,000 years ago, however, the culture of our ancestors radically shifted to an emphasis on left-brain functioning. Simultaneously, history reveals a shift to patriarchal values, which included a growing dominance of men over women, as well as use of force to control. There are various theories about why this major shift towards the masculine modality occurred. Schlain's theory suggests that a primary reason for emphasis on left-brain came through the development of the abstract alphabet. He proposes that this key to literature, philosophy, and law also radically altered the balance between feminine and masculine characteristics in the development of culture, even shifting religious perceptions away from icons and images to a new emphasis on the written word and patriarchal dominance.
Schlain also notes that in our present age a new revolution is occurring through technology: the television, computer, and camera are re-introducing visual images as a primary modality of communication. Simultaneously, recognition of the gifts of women is re-awakening. Indeed this gives us a framework for understanding why the modalities of image, sound, story, and music are reemerging in modern culture as language of the soul, not to replace the analytical, but to be integrated with critical thinking on the path of the spiritual journey.
One spiritual director describes a retreat she led which provided possibilities for both right and left-brain wisdom:
I led a workshop about finding holy balance in our lives. Most of the workshop was left-brained work, thinking about our time, values, and priorities. But at one point I invited the group to do some art to open up new channels for hearing God's call. One woman told me later that she took her artwork home, posted it on her wall and used it for the next six months to help her pray. This was a new way of contemplation for her and new understandings came from this form of prayer. —Karin Ogren
Excerpted from Awakening the Creative Spirit by CHRISTINE VALTERS PAINTNER BETSEY BECKMAN Copyright © 2010 by Christine Valters Paintner and Betsey Beckman. Excerpted by permission of Morehouse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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