Creativity - Self Realisation Through Art
by J. Donald Walters
I once went with a group of friends to see the movie of Laurence Olivier in his great performance of Shakespeare's play, King Henry the Fifth. As we were leaving afterward, one of our group exclaimed, "I never realized Henry V was such a great orator!"
I reminded her with a smile that, after all, Shakespeare was pretty good as a speechwriter.
Hearing me, she shook her head a little in surprise; then laughed self-deprecatingly. "Of course you're right!" she replied. "I was so caught up in the mood of his play that I forgot all about Shakespeare."
What greater compliment could be given an artist than to forget him so completely in the contemplation of his work? Shakespeare could only have achieved his stature in the literature of the ages by suspending self-consciousness and immersing himself wholly in the dramas he created.
A problem facing every artist, though few of them recognize it as such, is how to abandon self-consciousness to a greater awareness. The true goal of art is, to paraphrase William Blake, " to see one's Self in a grain of sand, and one's eternal existence in an hourglass." It is to realize oneself in one's greater Self - to know one's identity with humanity, with the clouds, the setting sun, the wind's whispers on a grassy hilltop, the distant stars.
Self-realisation means, ultimately, to know our identity with the great source of all that is. Call it God and we but name the final secret of our own being. Self-realisation is the highest goal of artistic expression. Few recognize it as such, but those who come closest to this understanding are the ones most likely to achieve greatness in their art. Truly great art is the altar of that ideal - even as minor art is always that which is offered up in worship of the ego.
When you behold a countryside, your experience of it goes beyond what your eyes see. It includes, subliminally at least, your inner reaction to the scene. The artist who paints it may depict a neat landscape with clipped hedges, patchwork-quilt fields, and fleecy clouds roaming the sky like grazing sheep. Later on, he may insist that his painting depicts exactly what he saw. But even if it seems completely realistic, it will be in some way also a very personal statement, a revelation of his personal outlook on life.
Perhaps his very attempt at realism suggests a certain rigidity of nature or a literal mind, which defines itself as no-nonsense, down-to-earth, practical.
If the painting contains an exaggerated sense of neatness, it may suggest nostalgia for some ideal way of life in an era long past.
Greater emphasis on sweeping lines in the land will suggest rhythm: the rhythms of life, perhaps, or of the emotions; rhythms of happiness or rhythms of grief. Already, in these cases, the painting will have moved beyond the simple demands of realism.
Were those clipped hedges to be given heavier emphasis, the painting would suggest a feeling of enclosure - as though the artist felt himself living in a prison of emotions.
Just as an artist cannot but project himself onto whatever he paints, so the members of his public will also read into his painting their personal outlook on life. One viewer may see in those softened clouds a suggestion of divine protection, whereas the artist himself may in fact have been reliving childhood memories and thoughts of cotton candy.
The best way to understand a painting is to sense its vibrations. Deep understanding is never the result of analysis alone. It comes rather, when we back away from it a little, mentally, and feel the reaction of our hearts. It comes by setting aside for the time being our own personalities, our prejudices and preconceptions. It comes by tuning in to the consciousness behind the painting.
Paramhansa Yogananda wrote in the introduction to his commentaries on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: "One day, as I was deeply concentrated on the pages of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat, I suddenly beheld the walls of its outer meanings crumble away. Lo! Vast inner meanings opened like a golden treasure house before my gaze."
We shouldn't think of paintings only in terms of their lines, color, and symmetry. We should try to feel their effect on our consciousness…
… Understanding, as I've said also of artistic expression, often comes after the experience, not during it. It is from that vantage point, usually, that we can gain perspective.
At Haverford College, during a class on literature, the professor asked us to describe our criteria for greatness in literature. I've always been pleased with my reply, though the professor himself only shook his head bemusedly, and gave me a flunking grade.
What I wrote was: "I've noticed that great literature seems to emit a kind of light. Homer's Iliad, whenever I reflect on it, seems surrounded by a blazing golden-white light, from which fact I know it to be a great work even if, intellectually, I don't see why it is held in such high esteem. And when I think of Shakespeare, I seem to see a brilliant golden-blue light, with tinges of red. I know from this fact that Shakespeare, too, was a great writer. And though I love Shakespeare, from the light I sense from these two I think Shakespeare's stature may have been less than Homer's.
" From most works, I sense no light at all. They remind me of the word of Jesus. 'Let the dead bury their dead,' a statement suggestive of the spiritual numbness in which most people live."
You may not see light, or even sense it, when you think of a work of art, but if you consult your heart I dare say you will feel some response which transcends critical analysis. Most paintings, and most art generally, produce hardly a ripple of response on this feeling level. But there are works that do. And they are the great works.
Some works of art leave us feeling inwardly joyful. Others stir in us feelings of love, or compassion. Still others suggest to us a sense of sadness or loss. These last, however, are lesser works. In the greatest works, even tragedy is sublimated in joy. Joy is the natural state of the soul.
Really to tune in to a work of art, you must, as I said, step out of the picture, personally, even as the artist should do when he paints. Hold the work up, inwardly, to your higher Self. Concentrate your perception of it at the "spiritual eye" in the forehead. After that, concentrate your perception in the heart.
Don't hold any particular expectation there, but wait for whatever response comes to you.
The more faithfully you pursue this, the better at it you will become.
Most works of art emit no " light" at all. Many of them, however, convey a good feeling even so. It is a pleasure to have such paintings in the home, where they can be seen daily, or to play tapes of calming or happy music. To do so brings harmony to the home.
Music, in fact, exerts a strong influence on our consciousness. If it can influence plants to grow faster, how much greater is its potential for influencing us.
It is said of the Chinese emperors in ancient times that whenever they toured the provinces, they asked to listen to the music. They didn't look at the financial records. Nor did they inquire into the honesty of the officials. If the music was right, everything, so they believed, was as it should be. But if something was not right with the music, not only did this deficiency mean there was something wrong in those other areas of activity, but it was the music above all that needed correcting. Once that had been set right, everything else would improve also.
The artist, too, if he would draw the best out of his subject, might find it helpful to think of it in terms of its inherent music. Melody, harmony, and rhythm are present in everything we see, for what we see with our eyes is reflected light, and light is vibration even as sound is. Both are manifestations, on different octaves, of the same reality.
… When an artist depicts uplifted states of consciousness, he automatically selects hues that are light, or that give special emphasis to lightness in the central areas. If his consciousness moves naturally upward in his own spine, particularly toward the spiritual eye, everything he paints will reveal a hint, at least, of that upward movement.
His very view of life will embrace the thought of self-transformation. Even if his painting depicts a scene of drunken debauchery, it will do so from higher levels of awareness - a fact revealed, again, through his choice of color, or through a refinement of the lines, and almost certainly in the expressions of the people, which may even reveal their amusement at the absurdity of the scene.
Again, insight into such a painting must come from the way it affects our inner feelings, more than by a process of intellectual analysis. And, yes, it is always possible to project our subjective reactions onto a painting; that is why final judgment on a work of art must await the passage of time and the reactions of discerning art lovers, often over centuries. (Bach, for example, was all but forgotten soon after his death. It was only in the next century that Mendelssohn, a lesser but still great composer, and a gracious and generous spirit, rediscovered him.)
I was intrigued to observe the effects of this inner transformation in the paintings of Fra Angelico during a visit to the monastery San Marco in Florence, Italy. I noticed that, in his depictions of demons, he showed himself so ill-tuned to that level of consciousness that he painted their faces with expressions not very different from his angels. Fra Angelico, in his goodness of heart, could not even imagine the depravity of evil…
…In everything he does, an artist will be better able to inspire others if he directs his energy and consciousness upward from its present center. This he will find easier to do, the more he diminishes his sense of personal importance……
[Mental illness] occurs particularly when there is strong emphasis on the ego: in the case of the artist, the thought, "I - I - I - I am the one creating this masterpiece!"
The energy flowing into the brain must be free to flow onward beyond the ego. In a sense it is like tension in the body: if the tension can't be released, but is held there too long, physical damage will result…
… There can be ego-awareness without it necessarily posing an obstacle. Indeed, some ego-awareness is necessary, for the ego is an energy-motivator.
Ego is what gives human beings the incentive to seek solutions to their difficulties. It generates the desire for self-improvement, for creative activity, and, ultimately, for self-transcendence. If the energy remains focused in the ego, however, instead of awareness, then instead of helping us to grow toward further understanding it becomes mired in pride and pettiness. If, at the moment of inspiration, the ego intrudes itself with the cry, "Look at me!" it blocks the onward flow of energy.
The simple thought, "It is I who am painting this tree," as opposed to, "what I am painting is a tree," is enough to hinder the clear flow of inspiration. In this case, the greater the creative flow, the greater the blockage of energy. Creative artists are more apt than many people to be egotistical, not because their egos are naturally stronger, but simply because during creativity there is an increased energy-flow to the brain. Temptation awaits them in the thought, "see what a good artist I am!" It is important for them - for artists more than for less creative people - to exclude the ego-principle as much as possible while at work.
Paramhansa Yogananda stated that the seat of ego in the body is the medulla oblongata at the base of the brain. It is interesting to note how emphasis on the thought, "I," produces a greater focus of energy at that point. Try it. See for example, what happens when you accept too personally another's flattery. And notice the tendency that proud people display to hold their heads "high" as if they were looking down their noses at the world. Tension at the back of the head makes them draw their heads backward. In Italy, the expression is similar: Instead of calling it "looking down the nose" they speak of seeing the world "beneath the nose."
The way to remove this energy blockage in the ego, Yogananda said, is to divert concentration forward in the brain from the medulla oblongata. Best of all, focus it in the seat of superconsciousness in the forehead, between the eyebrows. Next, try to penetrate that point mentally. Project your energy out to the inspiration you hope to manifest……
The ego then, plays a role in creativity, as its generator. It must, however, keep a firm rein on the flow of thought to make sure that the mind doesn't get sidetracked. For there arises constantly in the mind the temptation to turn creativity to prideful ends.
Among famous composers, indeed, the only one I know who doesn't seem to have succumbed to this temptation at least occasionally was Mozart. So true was he to his musical inspiration that, when his publisher wrote to him, "if you don't consent to write music in a more popular vein, you will starve," Mozart wrote back, "In that case, I have no alternative but to starve. For I can only write what I have been given to compose."
The ego's role is, indeed, central to the creative act. The important thing only is that the ego join in the fun, so to speak, and not ruin everything by calling excessive attention to itself.
There is much more joy in offering ourselves up to a higher power, and asking that power to create through us, than in taking onto our own shoulders the burden of impressing the world with our "genius." As Ian Fleming once said, " Fame was fun for awhile, but now it's just ashes, old boy. Just ashes."
True creativity is ever new. It is ever fresh. When its flow is as clear as a crystal stream, the demands of every work we create become unique. Every moment is lived purely for itself. The more truly creative an artist is, the less he thinks of drawing on past associations of thought and experience. He lives here and now, and seeks ever to ride on those currents in the sea of thought, which take one to new shores, and never twice to the same spot.
Excerpted from Art as a Guide to Self-realisation
by J. Donald Walters. Published by New Age Books.
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