I think the chanciest thing is to put spirituality in art. Because people don’t understand it. Writers don’t know what to do with it. They’re scared of it, so they ignore it. But if there’s going to be any universal consciousness-raising, you have to deal with it, even though people will ridicule you.
That’s a quote from the 94 year old Los Angeles artist Betye Saar interviewed back in September 15, 2020 for the NYT and I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 29 of my series of episodes on the Imagination, based around my book Create. Also, if this is your first time to the podcast please go back and listen to some of the earlier episodes to get an idea about where I’m coming from on process and everything else and especially as regards to Walls and Doors to the Imagination and creativity.
Last time I spoke about inspiration and rituals, but today I want to be chancy like the quote said and talk about spirituality and the imagination, how an awareness of “spirit” can help us understand creativity on a different level, and perhaps help heal emotional scars, or what Betye said in the same article which got me to write her quotes into my notebook from the newspaper:
Beauty is a form of spirituality. Once you start making something with your hands, the healing starts. I call this creative grieving.
This is going to be a much longer episode than usual because there’s a lot to cover so please bear with as I ramble through these ideas. It’s also the reason I didn’t get into talking about spirit more when I talked about inspiration, because there is a lot I want to get through.
So where to start? Well, where I usually start, with the word itself. The word spirit, just as with the word inspiration when I talked about it in the last episode, makes everything complicated, which I personally think is ridiculous. For thousands of years we’ve used the word spirit, but in the last fifty or so years it’s become a dirty word. Just think of Blake, the Romantics, nearly every creative movement. They talk of spirit, or soul. One thing we are definitely not allowed to talk about amidst all this present day divisiveness is spirit, or the even dirtier version, “spirituality”.
Spirituality means different things to different people, but we all get that subtle sense that there are other aspects to this life, a feeling that something else is going on, that there’s more to be discovered, as science is always saying. We have a sixth sense about this other creative world, what some call a world of spirit, which is basically what science does when it uses senses, or tools that go beyond our senses, like microscopes and telescopes. Inevitably spirituality is the same as science in the search for the unknown, equally as exciting, in that we’re only at the very, very beginning of understanding who we are on this tiny, tiny planet in the middle of a universe, in a space amidst multiverses.
Universes of space. Liminal spaces, literal and figurative spaces. These are all spiritual spaces. We only have to look at contemporary theoretical physics to understand that things are not the way they seem to be, which could be partial definition of spirituality, trying to understand that things are not the way they seem to be.
For example, with quantum gravity we have to change the way we think about space itself. It gives a whole new idea of space, and so of spaces.We also have to change the way we think about time. And this is difficult. To look at the world through a different lens. The obvious world is not always real. The small and large loose their obviousness, especially when we try to see things like quarks. Like how bizarre, how magical and mystical is it to think that we now know that space can stretch? It can move. This jumps into the world of spirituality, into a liminal world. How can space move? It’s space. But it can. It waves, like the sea. Just like light it’s made of little pieces, bricks, photons. It’s not what you thought. Our idea of reality has changed. It’s more creative than we thought. Bits of space now move. They interact. What does that say about our imaginations? Do they interact? Do we literally inspire each other? Space and time are no longer obvious, no longer familiar. The imagination is never obvious but always familiar because it comes to us out of nowhere, out of spacelessness.
But getting back to what I quoted before on the idea of illness and healing:
Beauty is a form of spirituality. Once you start making something with your hands, the healing starts. I call this creative grieving.
Rumi, St. John of the Cross and many others have written of a union with god and how this union can heal. Also, T.S. Eliot, has something interesting to say about it in his lectures from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. He spoke about how illness can inspire the birth of mystical poetry through what he called incubation, an unconscious osmosis of existent ideas, and secondly, by removing the usual reservations or Walls to inspiration and what he called “mystical experience” and:
an efflux of poetry in a way approaching the condition of automatic writing — though, in contrast to the claims sometimes made for the latter, the material has obviously been incubating within the poet, and cannot be suspected of being a present form a friendly or impertinent demon. What one writes in this way may succeed in standing the examination of a more normal state of mind; it gives me the impression, as I have said, of having undergone a long incubation, though we do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on. To me it seems that at these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say, not ‘inspiration’ as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers — which tend to re-form very quickly. Some obstruction is momentarily whisked away. The accompanying feeling is less like what we know as positive pleasure, than a sudden relief from an intolerable burden.
He goes on to say that this disturbance in the daily habits results in an
incantation, an outburst of words which we hardly recognise as our own (because of the effortlessness), is a very different thing from mystical illumination. The latter is a vision which may be accompanied by the realisation that you will never be able to communicate it to anyone else, or even by the realisation that when it is past you will not be able to recall it to yourself; the former is not a vision but a motion terminating in an arrangement of words on paper.
Julia Cameron in her well known book The Artist’s Way talks about this too when she explains how to get over what she calls a “creative injury.” The book is famous as a path, or way back into being creative, having helped thousands of people get back into creation, by being practical, some of which I referenced when I talked about notebooks and automatic writing, or journaling. To her there’s no quick fix. Her idea of discovery, or recovery is a process, which she teaches, one which has a stage by stage practice, where defiance at first is followed by frustration and anger, then grief. Then the resistance comes in an emotional rollercoaster of peaks and troughs, expansions and contractions, from elation to defensiveness, where the ego has to eventually surrender into consistency, into a daily meditative practice of creativity, a withdrawing from the world, a detachment from the world, but not in a negative way, but in a withdrawing to oneself, through the Door towards creativity, not away from it, by channelling creative focus back into ourselves.
Alongside her idea of creative healing what I found most interesting is her take on the meditative, spiritual aspect of creativity. She sees are a spiritual transaction, artists as visionaries who practice a faith in the invisible that others don’t see, and by practicing our creative practice. It’s never too late she says, because it doesn’t matter if it’s a career or a hobby. Or whatever our ego says the act is, silly, egotistical, selfish. Because creating is an expression of our true nature, a blossoming of our true nature, turning your creativity over to the only god she can believe in, the god of creativity and allow it that force to work through her, to just show up and write down what she hears, equating it to eavesdropping as opposed to trying to reinvent the wheel. Then the idea of being in the mood to create disappears. You simply create. As Neil Gaiman said when addressing the 2012 graduating class of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia: “You make good art.” Every time the emotional rollercoaster of the ego arrives to try to put you in despair of how bad what you’re inventing is then you just say: I’m making art. And when you make mistakes as Gaiman puts it:
Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make. Good. Art.
Which kind of reflects the quote I cited when I was talking about failure, from Beckett:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Creating no longer becomes a war with the ego when you let the force of creativity in, when you trust in that inner enthusiasm, from the Greek meaning, the god within, that inner god. When you trust this spiritual process your mind doesn’t explode into Walls, into negativity, into inaction, into blocks. Is it good? Who cares. Is it bad? Who cares. It’s not your business. Your business is not doing the work, your business is letting the work come, because it’s not coming from you, it’s coming from the god within, that fun feeling, that joyful feeling of creation, that playfulness. When I talked about inspiration I talked about this “in spirit”, but today I think it’s important to look at the spiritual even more, as a kind of devine engine we simply have to trust, when we let go of the self-conscious creator and let The Creator come through us. It frees you, into being a part of a universal ecosystem, into the flow of an electrical sea of creativity not a creator bobbing, apart, on the top.
This is why when someone like author Marianne Williamson comes along and runs for president of the United Stares because she trusts oneness, kindness and love, she’s seen as kooky and borderline crazy, but if you actually listen to her speak you realize she’s not talking about fairies and unicorns as many would say, but has policies, and talks about things like love, when others don’t even mention it. When did love become stupid to talk about in public? When did spirit and spirituality become a problem when it’s talking about things we can all agree on, kindness, love, and maybe even oneness when we realize we’re all in the same planet. Realistically, we’re inherently spiritual beings because we all have this inherent need to be good. If you think of the people in your life, you think of doing good for them, not evil, unless you’re in the sociopathic minority that is. Where’s our humility to this gone? What’s wrong with meditating, praying a bit, taking deep breathes every now and again? Doesn’t that seem like something that would help you get creative, become more imaginative, to meditate, breathe, pray, all these so called spiritual activities? Isn’t spirituality simply a trust in this inextricable connection between human beings grounded in love and goodness and kindness and represented by different people in Nature and God and Gods in our tiny planet? If we could all go sit up on the moon and look back at this little planet like Edgar Mitchell did maybe we’d all see the world as creatively as he did, as imaginatively as he did. In a People magazine article in April 1974 he had this to say:
…there is a spectrum of consciousness available to human beings. At one end is material consciousness. At the other end is what we call ‘field’ consciousness, where a person is at one with the universe, perceiving the universe. Just by looking at our planet on the way back I saw or felt a field consciousness state. You don’t have to dwell in such states long to accept them as reality. It is not faith, but knowledge.
We don’t have to dwell in these spiritual states as Mitchell put it. We simply have to try to be aware of it and go to that place when we can to be in touch with our creative selves, our spirits, again, inspiration, where in spirito comes from. Again, what Mitchell called “knowledge”. Something Julia Cameron the American author and teacher of The Artists’ Way, sees as the very heart of creativity, something experiential, a mystical union, where belief is ultimately rendered obsolete, because creativity becomes a spiritual knowing, not an epistemological or rational knowing. It doesn’t matter any more what it is, because you’re just in it, trusting it, en-joy, in joying it.
And you know, I’m not here to ask you about what your life purpose is, even if it is an empowering question as opposed to the disempowering ones like: Why am I not painting? Why didn’t I get a show at a big gallery? Who’s to blame for my lack of capitalistic success? No. I’m simply trying to go a bit deeper into what inspiration is, because most answers to creative problems come from nudges, dreams, intuitions – the spiritual world – if we ask ourselves the right questions, with sincerity. If you ask with sincerity the universe, spirit – all those inspirational words you name as that ineffable spring – if you ask the right questions with sincerity, the universe will answer.
Of course creative spiritual communion could come from running, playing the violin, listening to Gregorian chants. It’s existential. You’re being creative with your body, by interacting, but it’s more than the body, because there’s feeling. Some people get spiritual, into the flow state, by dancing. Again that episode I did on the Dancer and the Dance gets into this more. Or writing, or painting, or building or making something. When we make, we make something because we enjoy spiritual communion at times. We enjoy the silence of creation. Again, this could be called flow, in the groove, but what I’m trying to get at is that it can be expressed through the word spirituality without it being something annoying, suspicious, too religious. Again, we have to reclaim words that have been demeaned.
Another thing, intellectual arguments of atheism are very often very bleak, and extraordinarily and ironically dogmatic because they treat their ideas as dark certainties. I suppose another way of naming atheism would be rationalism. Spirituality and imagination or creativity, is silly in these worldview. For example, how can we calculate the limitless? Atheism’s dogma simply means no faith. It’s gospel is theological fundamentalism. If you don’t agree with us that there is no faith, if you don’t believe in our faith in a lack of faith then you’re a crazy non-believer. Again, this is the idea of separation, that we’re all separated from each other, that we’re rugged individualists, which is an illusion, for if we didn’t have other people we wouldn’t exist. I suppose another aspect of it all would be to look at all the books on consciousness coming out all the time. Why is that? Somebody has to be buying them all? Are we all just too embarrassed to talk about these books? Are we not all intrinsically absorbed by consciousness?
To me it doesn’t matter what kind of spiritual perspective you have, whether it’s religion or some form of mental health regime. Whatever keeps you happy and kind and loving to other people as much as you can works. All religions, whether it’s the I Ching, Bhagavad Gita, the Torah, The Bible have the mystical aspects in them irrespective of dogma. The principles are always the same: loving kindness, prayer and or meditation, steps to relive suffering. In Catholicism we have Aquinas, Augustine, St. Therese of Avila and Lisieux. So many.
What are the principles of creation then, like the principles of religions? Maybe the same thing, to be kind to ourselves when we suffer through trying to start or finish a project. The most important thing is whatever keeps you relatively happy and as kind as possible to others, which is a very Christian thing but also a very humanist and rationalist ethic too whether employed by people like Marcus Aurelius or other modern day stoics. The problem arrives when we don’t have access to all this. Growing up in the background I grew up in it simply wasn’t there. There were no books, no music, and the national broadcasts didn’t start up until the afternoon. The internet didn’t exist, as it still doesn’t for many in the world. How do we learn to create our own system if we’re not mentored or educated about all the different systems?
Spirituality is not a system. It sits outside the systems, and so becomes another type of lexical prison. We don’t have the words any more the way we used to, to talk about spirit. Science has taken over the modern language to a large perspective. In Ireland, we barely have any of the words and phrases and ideas the Celtic druids used, so how can we “talk”, how can we understand the Celts, ancient Ireland, any more. The native Americans, or sorry, the actual Americans, not like me, coming here and becoming one – they have this language still, but it’s not being supported, encouraged, and this is terrible, because their language is tied to their spirituality.
People who over intellectualize reality are what the French playwright Ionesco called “demi-intellectuals.” It’s as if they’re playing musical chairs with words, not looking at the ridiculousness, or what Ionesco would have called the absurd or bathetic nature of existence. So when an intellectual looks at a word like “spirit” the immediate stance is a dogmatic perspective, that anyone using that word, or the word “spirituality”, are unscientific, and somehow connected to charlatanism.
In the works of the novelist Ben Okri he has characters do extraordinary things. They talk to their ancestors, as they do back in Nigeria, where he was born. So the extraordinary is seen as ordinary. Some tried to call him New Age or magic realism, and one critic said his writing was spiritual realism, in a negative fashion. But, I see those two words as positive, as a pretty cool way of actually describing a lot of works.
Look at Shakespeare. His work is full of spirits. There’s Banquo’s spirit in Macbeth shaking his gory locks and disappearing, after freaking Macbeth out. Then there’s Hamlet’s father’s spirit who never stops monologuing about what was done to him, and there’s the fortune telling spirit in Henry VI, Part 2, and Richard the 3rd’s victims the murdered princes. And then there’s Tolstoy. His wonderful story Three Hermits has monks running across the water. He has them doing many extraordinary things. Both Shakespeare and Tolstoy are showing the world as certain people see it. They are giving us a whole world, not parts of it, like with naturalism. And they’re not giving us magic realism like Marquez, where there is an actual physical manifestation of the other world, like an angel with wings in a pigsty. When people talk of spirit, when characters like Macbeth and the Bishop in Three Hermits see extraordinary things it is only because it’s extraordinary to us, not to the people and characters seeing them. To them they are real, as real as me talking into this microphone. It’s like my dog Homer. He can smell a sausage hundreds of feet away, he can hear animals hundreds of feet away that I can’t even hear a couple of feet away. Does that mean what he perceives is any less real? To me, it’s extraordinary what he can hear, what he can smell. But to him, it’s ordinary. All Shakespeare’s spirits are real to the characters in his plays, extraordinary, and because of time we see them as ordinary extraordinary creations too.
Yes, there are many New Age charlatans out there plain their trade in spirituality, but there are also many charlatans in science too. Scientism is what the botanist Rupert Sheldrake calls people who advocate a mechanistic natural science, a new orthodoxy. Like Goethe, who was a botanist too, as well as a poet, he sees science as holistic, integrated with direct experience and understanding. It doesn’t involve breaking everything down into pieces and denying the evidence of one’s senses and harmony of the whole.
Just because we don’t see a ghost like Shakespeare’s characters, or other “forms” as Plato used to call them, or entities, or whatever word you want to use, doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or aren’t seen by others. Like my dog. Or quantum physicists. Or mediums. I have senses my dog doesn’t have, and he has senses I don’t have. Humans are the same. Certain people can sense things more than other humans, depending on what senses are heightened. Some can have a sixth sense, or whatever we want to call it. The point is that creativity is not tied specifically to one way of telling a story, one way of understanding a painting, a landscape, a problem. As I said in an earlier episode, we’re all different, and it’s because of that difference that we have such a wide range of creative works, because different people experience and create out of their own experiences of the world.
For example, in Brazil they actually have a philosophy called Spiritism. The West never talks about it. Even in France, when it was a French educator, Hippolyte Rivail, now known by his pen name Allan Kardec, who founded it in the 19th century. Spiritism, a spiritualistic philosophy, is to quote:
the nature, origin, and destiny of spirits, and their relation with the corporeal world.
People who are into this call themselves Spiritists and call Kardec a codifier, because everything that he wrote, didn’t come from him, but from the spirits mediums he talked to. His book, or the book he codified is a fascinating read. Basically it, or the spirits, it’s called the Spirits Book, says all beings, and yes, that includes you and me, all have spirits that are immortal. We get into these bodies and for a while, incarnations, to learn lessons, and to evolve, intellectually, morally, which means altogether, spiritually.
Of course, as in Ghost, or the Exorcist all these spirits are not all kosher. They can also fill certain mediums they talk to with negative rubbish. So, I suppose you could call it a religion but spiritists don’t seem to see it like that. Maybe I’m wrong.
The important thing here though is to ask the question: had you ever heard of Spiritism? I hadn’t. It’s in 35 countries and has influenced social movements, healing centers, charity institutions and hospitals involving millions. When the blockbusters Avatar and Iron Man came out in cinemas and took over the box office all over the world, in Brazil there were two Brazilian films taking in just as much money, one was about a medium, Chico Xavier, and the other was a film based on a book Chico Xavier channeled. The film is an adaptation of the 1944 book of the same name, said to be dictated by the spirit Andre Luiz. I find all this fascinating.
The global research firm YouGov lists, quote, “being more spiritual” as one of Americans’ top 10 New Year’s resolutions for 2020, and the icon used to illustrate that aspiration is a person meditating — not praying. More than a quarter of Americans now say they are spiritual, but not religious, according to the Pew Research Center. So it would seem the word spirit, and spirituality, is trying to make a creative comeback, and be taken back from the tinfoil hat world of aliens and unicorns.
For me, spirituality is connected to creation because it speaks to our interior lives. I talked about this interior life more in earlier episodes when I talked about emotions, feelings and emotional memory, awareness, acceptance, and change and recently when I talked about inspiration. But recently, according to scientists at Yale and Columbia universities in 2018 there is actually a “spiritual part of the brain” — an area they call the “neurobiological home” of spirituality which ties in with this emergence of a rising interest in secular spirituality. The reality is that as opposed to rewarding capitalistic privilege people are turning more and more to other more interior ways, as opposed to exteriors and exterior accomplishments. People no longer inherit the religion of their families but seem to be embracing an and or idea of spirituality as a way of being in the world.
Spirituality so, like creativity, is where we consistently come back to looking inside, re-centering so we can imagine beyond ourselves. It’s hard to find time for this inside world, which speaks to what I talked about before, trying to find rituals to get to your creative space. Before, church used to be the creative spiritual practice we used to have. Now we need to have personal spiritual churches of the inside so we can create from what we love. We have to carve out that space. This is why the younger generation is so passionate about other areas, and a lot of these are creative spaces, and probably explains why there’s such a huge interest in creativity, because it’s a way of replacing or filling the void left by a lack of spiritual inspiration from churches. Curiosity for the spiritual is everywhere especially amidst “nones”, people who identify themselves as having no religion.
So I suppose what I’m trying to say is that creativity and the imagination is not simply the mind, or body but a combination of mind, body and spirit. To create, we have to connect the inside with the outside. Separation, to use a Buddhist tenet, is an illusion. And because the capitalistic worldview wants us only to look to the outside we grow up with this false understanding of who we really are and how creativity can help and heal. We are not simply body, or mind, or spirit, but all 3 together. The trick is to try and marshal all 3 together so as to create something authentic. Sincerity. Authenticity. These are holistic tenets of the imagination, of creativity. Without them we might as well be writing on the wind. Creation can only come when we’re creating from an holistic perspective, not a separate one. And how do we create holistically? By understanding that spirituality is very much a part of the process of the imagination even if we’ve been thought to think it’s the absolute opposite.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from an American artist, but as always I’m going to end this episode with an Irish proverb. Literally, this one means:
Every gospel makes money.
Deireadh gach soiscéal an t-airgead.
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.