Saved From Freezing: Spiritual Practice, Art Practice

Almost every day I listen to or read or watch the news, some days all three of these, because I want to stay tuned to what is seemingly going on in the world outside my house. These days this is an unpleasant experience. The longer I watch or listen the more worried I get. Things do not seem to be going well. The news about what is going on out there seems to rhyme with an idea of myself in here subject to these difficult conditions — and the world and that self seem mutually to freeze one another into place eventually with the sense of what seems to be the case.  There’s something desperate about about all this.

It occurs to me that world and the self as we usually understand them are exactly frozen: rigid, cold, and painful to touch. My personal problems, my conditioning, my attitudes, my self-definitions, what I hear from those around me, and the general conception of what the world is and where it is going - all of which are unfused with an unspoken and general sense of dread and fearfulness – all these convincing and compelling experiences chill me to the bone, fusing me to concepts, positions, anxieties icy in their effects. Palaces of ice that hold a world and a self in place, stunned and immobile.  But when I switch the news off and read a poem or listen to music I begin to thaw out. The world disappears. My body and mind relax. My burden is lifted, the ice melts. I think this is more than mere distraction. The reading or the listening produce a state that may be the opposite of distraction. Art saves me from freezing.     

Religious practice can have this effect too of course. It can provide me with a larger view of my life, a hopeful, flexible, warming, view.  At least this is the theory. But anyone who’s done religious practice for a while can tell you that it doesn’t always work that way. In fact, spiritual practice too can hit you with an arctic blast sometimes, icing up the soul if you’re not careful, into more grotesque shapes than the ones you were in before you began, perhaps in your desperation, to practice. Why? Because human beings naturally tend toward ice: we crave a fixed sense of things, a reliable truth we can depend on, a findable holdable world we can tame and understand. So though in the end it turns out to be quite painful,  in the beginning we seem to crave frozenness, even as we long desperately to thaw. Religion always ends up being a big problem because we are problematical. 

But... that aria, that string quartet, that poem, that picture, novel, film, play, installation, drawing, or dance can make a big difference. The imagination soothes the body, warms the soul in a reality wider, deeper, and more mysterious than we can directly sense or rationally know. Imagination sees into and through the apparent world to another world, luminous and significant. Without imagination there is only plodding on in the two dimensional ice cube world, merely surviving the day that hangs around our necks for twenty-four hours like a frozen weight, without rhythm, without quickness, without vitality. Living maybe but not alive.     

Yet imagination is tricky. It is wild and does not play by the rules. It is impossible to control and cannot be second-guessed. Imaginations is a muse, a goddess who comes when she feels like it and leaves without notice. From the point of view of the rationally organized world, imagination is dangerous, for she scorns the world as a mere backdrop for her colorful activity. No wonder Plato wanted to exclude the poets from his Republic. And no wonder religion almost always mistrusts and fears the imagination, which is forever evoking energies—sexual and creative energies-- religion would just as soon forget they are so messy, so hard to predict, so impolite and antisocial.      

Imagination feeds off desire, transmuting and magnifying reality through desire’s underground energy. Fantasy is the opposite: it avoids any real or drastic confrontation with desire and flees instead  into a tame, crude and far safer wish-fulfillment. Fantasy is teddy bears, lollipops, super heroes, or maybe whips and chains; it is also voices in one’s head urging acts of outrage and mayhem. It is also the confused world of separation and fear we routinely live in, a threatening yet seductive world that promises us the happiness we seek when our superficial fantasies are fulfilled. Imagination, on the other hand, confronts desire directly, in all its discomfort, intensity, and impossibility, deepening and problematizing the world right where we are, opening up abysses where we thought there was solid ground. Fantasy and reality are opposing forces; fantasy is an escape from reality that can’t actually hold. But imagination doesn’t oppose reality: it seeks reality, shaping and evoking it at its most poignant levels.

So although religion seems to be, and has been, at odds with imagination, the truth is religion requires imagination and is imagination’s chief production. If we want to go beyond the icy surface of things to the deeply hidden, passionate warm flow of the actual experience of being alive (as religion is supposed to encourage us to do), we need imagination as an ally. The senses, the reason, even the moral and emotional faculties are not enough.

Small children have an easygoing and natural sense of imagination. For them there’s no serious difference between the world of matter and the world of dreams that crisscross and mix all the time. But children have to learn to freeze the world, to get it to hold still, so they can figure out how to be fixed persons in it in some organized way.

Religion is childish and it ought to be. It ought to help us recapture something that gets lost in the process of growing up. It ought to foster a sense of play, a sense of magic, a sense of humor. Probably it’s too hard to cultivate these qualities within the normative forms of any religious tradition, so working with the imagination through art is good for religious practitioners. And the reverse holds as well: religious practice is good for artists. As a Zen priest I have been saved from freezing by my practice as a poet; as a poet I have been driven deeper by my practice of Zen. Zen has probably saved me from myself; poetry has probably saved me from Zen.

Working with the imagination through art requires discipline. The materials you are working with (even conceptual artists can’t avoid materials) will discipline you.  At first, you approach art out of passionate personal need to express your inexpressible feeling. But once you wade in, you find that the medium—the words or paint, movement or sound--is extremely resistant to your self-expression. Things don’t just fall into place. You have to grapple with the materials, reshaping yourself to suit them. It turns out that making art is not so much self-expression as a dialog between what we think we want to express and the materials that seem to have their own demands. Engaging in this dialog moves you to a degree of attentiveness and concentration beyond the private and the personal. It also moves you to encounter art’s own traditions, constructed on terms much different from those of religious traditions.

Art practice gives you a path into the rich and unique content of your own life. I don’t need art to know what I think and feel. But without art, what I think and feel becomes quickly circular, self-centered, and limited. Making or appreciating art gives me a way to start with what I think and feel and then to plunge deeply enough into it that it becomes not only what I think and feel but what anyone thinks and feels and, even beyond this, what isn’t thought or felt at all. When I write or read poems I am met, through my own thought and feeling, by what’s outside my thought and feeling. In this sense, art practice promotes a profound empathy, a widening of my sphere of awareness.

Art practice can help us overcome the weakness we have for religious doctrine and dogma. Art provides a way to discover truth, but not truth that is handed to us already vetted. Instead, we find truth ourselves for the first time. This is a much more difficult, intimidating, and essentially joyful proposition.

Those of us engaged in religious practice should never forget how painful and destructive religious practice becomes when our enthusiasm for the truth of whatever tradition we are pursuing becomes exclusive and obsessive. Not only does narrowness of view cut us off from others who practice and believe differently than we do, it also cuts us off from ourselves, as we slash away at our thoughts and feelings in an effort to fit them to the shape of the doctrines we hold dear.  Art practice can move the inner life of the religious practitioner out from under the dictates of tradition and challenge it with a demand for freshness. This has been my experience. My lifelong involvement with poetry has kept me sane within a fairly narrow and rigorous life of religious practice.

We need art as a form of recreation, re-creation of ourselves and our world, a freshening of what goes on day by day in our ordinary living. Viktor Shlovsky, the Russian formalist critic, arguing for attention to formal detail in art, said, “To make a stone stony- this is why there is art.” In defamiliarizing the familiar, art makes it new. Artists know this, but not only artists. We all know that in looking at the world outside our own personal interests and habits we feel something of the divine, of the whole. If we approach our daily tasks with this heightened sense of things, taking care of our homes, our relationships, our communities, and ourselves, with attentiveness and love, we can live as if we were artists, grappling with these materials of our life.  In fact this is exactly the intervention that conceptual art of the last century proposes, beginning with Duchamp, and no accident that Zen in particular, with its emphasis on the paradoxical and uncanny nature of time in the present moment was so influential with the early conceptualists in New York.

Being human is a big job. So much to do! Taking care of body, mind, soul, taking care of ourselves and each other emotionally and physically, repairing the world, earning a living - it’s endless. There’s no use worrying about finishing the job or even doing it all that well. But to brightly begin, and then having begun to continue: that’s the great thing.

This essay appears in Norman Fischer, Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language, and Religion (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, Dec 20, 2015). An earlier version appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Volume 14, Number 3 (February 2005).