I watched an enjoyable documentary on Amazon Prime last night, “Nothing Changes: Art for Hank’s Sake.”
I discovered the film late in the day, after reading Chapter 2 of Swami Kriyananda’s book Art as a Hidden Message: A Guide to Self-Realization.
It was one of those happy links of sparkling spiritual serendipity. The book and video both dealt with the need, for the arts in our time, to turn away from intellectuality and recover their role as a vehicle for uplifting consciousness.
In 2018, when the video was published, artist Hank Virgona was 88 years old. Up to six days a week, he would walk to the subway from his house in Brooklyn’s Woodhaven neighborhood, a 10-block journey that took him 45 minutes, compared to 10 minutes in his earlier years.
During the 30-minute ride to his studio on Manhattan’s Union Square, he would start the day’s work by making pen sketches of his fellow passengers.
At the studio, Hank would turn the sketches into charming small paintings that radiated an uncannily accurate and kindly feeling.
In the video, he reveals that his artistic inspirations came from looking at things “out of the corner of my eye.” Just a flash, a glimpse of the subject’s inner light, whether a person, a building, or a still life.
I was inspired by Hank Virgona’s clear blue gaze, his lucid thoughts, and his bright, expansive spirit.
From the day I first set eyes on Swami Kriyananda, I sensed that he knew me far better than I knew myself.
Whenever I sought his advice, his answers were always directed toward the liberation of my soul. It was always a heartfelt reply that would plunge me into silent reflection. It could be disconcerting, because he spoke as a spiritual father, a fully grown spiritual being whose perspective was vastly broader than mine. To be in his presence was, in a way, like being a newborn, dependent on its mother for sustenance and counsel. It was seldom comforting to my ego, which too often wanted to know it all and be good at everything, and be able to figure it out for himself, and be shrewd and smart and coddled and praised for my comfort.
His guidance extended into fathomless realms. There was a sense, at Ananda, that Swamiji was always silently present in the background of our lives. I often felt that we were living in a spiritual kitchen where God was baking happy people. (Nayaswami Haridas called Ananda “Fort Bliss.”)
Living at Ananda wasn’t always easy, but by God’s grace it was never dull. And it was thrilling for those who went along with the game. We weren’t leading ordinary lives, existing as beautifully as we could for a few short years, and then expiring on a pyre of our worldly goods, dearly accumulated. There was a real chance, at Ananda, of growing up and becoming in some small measure more like Swamiji.
It was the early summer of 1976, four months after I had moved to the community. Our annual Ananda India Faire was in the planning. We had invited a troupe of young female dancers to perform – they were students from a school of classical Indian dance in San Francisco.
The day before the fair, I found myself tumbling spiritually. It wasn’t that I was in pain. My ego wasn’t screaming, mortally threatened as it was on other occasions. But my heart was strangely burst wide open.
I was suddenly all about feelings, feelings, feelings! I found it impossible to think in my usual way – my rational brain seemed to have been cauterized or surgically removed from my skull. I had grown up living very much in my mind, relying on objective thought. I had done well in school, and had approached new experiences with objective logic. And now that comfortable instrument was torn away.
I knew that Swamiji was working on me, and it was not a little scary! Where were my familiar mental props? Who was I? How could I cope? My girlfriend laughed, “Rambhakta, you’re experiencing what it’s like to be a woman!”
When the dance concert began I was reeling inwardly. I was the Village’s “official” photographer, by default because there were no others.
The concert took place on a rustic wooden platform that had been specially built for the event, under an oak tree in the meadow where construction on the Expanding Light temple would begin several years later.
The concert was wonderful. The dancers performed the life of Krishna, weaving a magical spell.
They danced in the kathak style, stamping their feet and making a wonderful noise with rows of bells attached to their ankles as they portrayed Krishna’s life with the gestures of their hands and the expressions of their eyes. They were students of Chitresh Das, a well-known teacher from India.
I found it impossible to resist the dance. I entered into it completely, my heart unimpeded by the rational mind. I took many photographs and later made 8×10 prints which I sent to the performers at their school in San Francisco. They replied that they had never seen photos that captured the spirit of kathak so beautifully. It was, of course, through no skill of my own – the dance, the music and the photos had flowed in an impersonal spirit of artistic inspiration. It was not my doing, but Swamiji’s.
Over the years, Swami encouraged me to be active in the arts – writing, singing, chanting, and taking photographs; anything that would serve the work while helping to open my heart. He knew that I needed to expand the feeling side of my nature.
I had an interview with him around that time, where I asked him a stupid question. It wasn’t actually stupid, but it was a question that I could as easily have answered on my own. He said, almost sarcastically, “Well, let’s see now…” and proceeded to work out the answer logically.
But, generally, where the spiritual path was concerned, he never recommended that I spend more time thinking and analyzing.
In another conversation, he said, “You have a very objective mind.” He said it dismissively, as if to suggest, “And, well, what is that good for?”
I couldn’t have agreed more, because my “objective mind” told me that I could never find God except by offering Him my heart.
From a forthcoming book, Kriyananda Stories. Hank Virgona died on May 23, 2019 of natural causes. He was 89.