• Andrew Field

What is the Difference Between Art and Spirituality?

Ken Wilber

Sometimes I feel like we have all these different categories, and all these different fields and disciplines, and we attach words to these disciplines, and people, and although they are traditions - philosophy, or literature, or visual art, or religion - they also interact in such fruitful and potent and germinative ways, and I sometimes think places like academia can get in the way of us thinking honestly and clearly about these things.

This makes me think about Ken Wilber, who is one of my favorite thinkers, and who seemed over time to not be taken seriously by academia, for reasons I never understood. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I took this amazing course with a teacher named Ed Sarath, a jazz musician and scholar who founded a department there called Creativity and Consciousness. The class was fascinating - it was out of the box in the best way, and I remember meditating at the beginning of it, and also doing some interesting exercises that pulled me out of my comfort zone, like looking into someone's eyes for a few minutes. Maybe it sounds hippy dippy, but I found it meaningful, because there was the sense that we were really trying to do something, to think about communication, or intimacy, or how people grow, and that this had to do with both creativity and consciousness.

Those are good terms for beginning to think, I'd say, about reading and meditation, because the former is often associated with creativity - novels, say, or short stories, or essays, both the writing of and the reading of - and the latter is often associated with meditation, with finding techniques for cultivating one's consciousness, or augmenting one's consciousness, or even liberating one's consciousness from the strictures imposed on it by the conditioned mind. And I think in this context there are some important similarities and important differences between creativity and consciousness, or meditation and reading, and these have to do with differences, to my mind, between art and religion, or art and spirituality.

What is the difference between art and spirituality? How do we begin thinking about this? I suppose, in a psychological context, we could invoke Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences, and say that the existential and verbal or mathematical or musical or kinesthetic intelligence are different lines in a human being's sort of chart of development, the kind of thing you'd find in a Wilber book. And this is a completely legitimate way of thinking about it. But I don't know if, for me, it has enough texture, because it doesn't connect to my experience enough. So let me back up, and try to involve Wilber in this discussion, while carrying into this context the notion of the imagination.

When we meditate, as Wilber wrote about, we begin to gain distance from our customary ways of thinking and, in some sense, move from the I to the me and back again, and the more we meditate, the more we can see how the I sees, and the more we feel like "me." It's as if one becomes more adult and more in touch with one's inner child. The "me" is transcended, meaning there is the child "me," the adolescent "me," the young adult "me," and meditation is a way of integrating these different parts of the self, these "me's," in a healthy way, so that we can understand who we are, how we came to be who we are, and be aware of what regression means and feels like, or what repression means or feels like, and how we can learn to listen to the different parts of our selves to aid us in becoming our best self. When the "me," is transcended, we take on a different "I," because the "I" becomes de-centered, and this radical act of de-centering, in a grounded way, is what meditation is and is meant to do, so that we can gain insight into how our minds work, we can discipline our minds in a non-forced way and, over time, have a kind of breakthrough so that the customary patterns of the mind shatter, or fall away, and we can begin to see with a kind of inner light, shorn and torn from the blinders of what is called in many religious traditions "the ego," which is essentially the part of us that grasps and forms endless attachments but that does not love but rather seeks only weak forms of gratification, a kind of viciousness that plays games without loving to love.

In Buddhism, there is the idea that life, existence, is suffering, and that attachments are what make us suffer - not friendships, but holding on to things in such a way as to prevent us from growing. And I think this is true. The idea in Buddhism is that, when we relinquish our attachments - to food, or sex, or cigarettes, or parent figures, or ideas about what our life should be rather than what it is or could be, or different self-images, more authentic versus more fake - then we begin to see that there is no self, that the self, shorn of these various attachments, is only a kind of mirror, a witness, and what it witnesses is something unbounded and unconditioned, without patterns, a kind of light that just sheds light because it is light. I think when we perceive from our egos - not the ego from Freud, but the ego as the grasping part of us that needs constant validation for its existence, and that good work can get rid of - it's like a kind of eclipse of that inner light. But when we listen to our hearts, and do the right thing, then we can understand the roots of our intentions, and we can suffer less, because we are less attached to things, even while we love things more.

Wilber described the process of growing - of shedding attachments and becoming more liberated, more free - as a process of attaining new and different levels of consciousness, and in his model of consciousness, called "AQAL" - "all-quadrant, all-level" - he outlined a structure, invariable across cultures, in which people develop through these levels. It is an important contribution to developmental psychology, and should be read more. And I think this model for thinking about psychology in the context of development is also applicable to reading and imagination - Emerson described poets as "liberating gods" - although I don't know exactly how to describe how reading liberates us, hence this blog post. I can say that, phenomenologically, meditation and reading are very different. When you meditate, you are silent, or try to be, and the thought you hear is your own buzzing thoughts, mostly mundane, traveling through your mind like, to use Wilber's metaphor, clouds. You try to stay grounded, to observe your thoughts, and to treat them, as a great teacher named Babuji taught in the Heartfulness tradition, a meditation system I used to meditate in and still learn a lot from, "unwanted guests." And the more you do this - the more you observe your thoughts - the more you realize you are not your thoughts, and then you realize that you are awareness, and awareness is not bounded by the random thoughts that perpetually plague us during the day when our minds are not disciplined.

I think being a good person, doing what's right, disciplines the mind. There is a connection between focus, feeling good, and doing what's right, since I think consciousness itself, and the intention behind it, only works when our morals are in the right place. Reading literature is another form of silence, I suppose, but when you read a novel, say, you are hearing the thought of another person, and yet there is a spiritual dimension to it which is hard to describe. For example, when one reads Kafka, we have to say that, although it is primarily an aesthetic work, there is also something irreducibly and powerfully spiritual in it, as if one were encountering a human being that made no decision ever contrary to what he was supposed to do, and therefore someone aware of a kind of Law operating in his life, perversely, but also liberatingly somehow. Harold Bloom wrote in The American Religion that there are spiritual geniuses who cannot write, which is a fascinating comment because it differentiates between spiritual greatness and aesthetic greatness, but Kafka seems to me to be and do both, as well as Whitman. But how do we differentiates these things, or describe them phenomenologically and not so impressionistically? How does reading great works of art liberate us? What is the relationship between this liberation and art and spirituality? Between creativity and consciousness?

The thing missing in Wilber's model, to my mind, is imagination. And other people who are considered spiritual do write about it - Rudolf Steiner is a notable example - but I still think that, for my money, the people who write best about the imagination are literary critics like Emerson or Bloom or Samuel Johnson, and these men are not the kind of people we often associated with Rudolf Steiner or anthroposophy or Ken Wilber or whatever the term new-age means. But there is a great fund of spirituality in the work of these critics, and all three are wisdom writers and sages. Yet they are interested more in the imagination than the occult or religion, and so they base their thinking, their work, on works of the imagination, and therefore on aesthetics, even while knowing that the greatest works are acts of catharsis and therefore acts of social justice. I wonder if, for these critics, the East did not possess the same imaginative riches - that the Eastern contribution to world thought, we could say in a weird-sounding way perhaps, is spirituality, but the Western contribution is works of the imagination like Shakespeare. There is no equivalent to Shakespeare in the East, just as there is no equivalent of the Bhagavad Gita in the West. And these are both examples of genius, but the genius is of a different sort - Shakespeare being predominantly aesthetic, and the Bhagavad Gita, or someone like Babuji in the Heartfulness tradition, being predominantly spiritual. And this holds up in practice, for Shakespeare did not leave behind a method for meditating, and Babuji's writings never really struck me as too exciting, although perhaps I"m wrong.

But what does this mean? What is art, and what is spirituality? I think I'm going around in circles at this point, but I'd like to return to this post at a later time.

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