Art as a Spiritual Practice — More Than Just Meaningless Words?

Ernst Barlach, “Singing Man,” 1928


By Asha Nayaswami. This article appeared originally on Heart to Heart With Asha: Gems From Her Talks & Classes.

During a class at Spiritual Renewal Week, someone asked me a question that I didn’t have time to answer as fully as I’d have liked, so I’ll answer it now.

The question was, “In the course of our spiritual lives, we sometimes feel the need to blow off steam – and how can we blow off steam in a way that won’t blow us off the path?”

I was reminded of a dramatic presentation that we watched earlier in the week. It was the world premiere of an interpretation in music, narrative, and dance of verses from Paramhansa Yogananda’s book Whispers From Eternity. The poems were presented in a beautifully visual form.

I had had a feeling for many years that we could do something creative with Whispers. It was no more than a vague image in my mind, but I had no clear idea of how we could pull it off. And then, about nine months ago, I happened to mention it to Marcel Hernandez, and after a couple of weeks he came back to me with a wonderful concept for a Whispers theater event.

Since then, a large group of us have spent countless hours refining and rehearsing it, and I have to say that the experience has been delightful. So when the person asked about the need to blow off steam, I thought of the tremendous fun we had had mounting this very creative theatrical presentation.

And then I thought of the souls who have devoted their creative energy over the last year to build a Temple of Light at Ananda Village. The temple was a long-standing dream of Swamiji’s, and it has taken shape as a beautiful expression of the spirit of our path.

“Express your ideas in architecture,” Paramhansa Yogananda said. And I’m sure that people will come from all over to see the temple. It’s already a huge dome, fifty-six feet across, with eight feet of gallery space around it, and it’s exposed wood. It will eventually receive a beautiful roof and lovingly finished walls,

Dharmadas commented that it’s like a giant guitar with wonderful acoustics. So it was natural for us to hold a huge kirtan there during Spiritual Renewal Week, in the grand tradition of Ananda that says “If it’s good enough to keep the rain away, we’ll move in and begin singing to God.”

During these big Ananda kirtans, I love to feel the energy of the chants coursing through my body. We all have our own past-life memories, and mine are powerfully centered around theater and music and dance. And although I’ve never been involved with dance in this lifetime, beyond some childhood ballet lessons, the kirtan awakened such a powerful torrent of feeling in me that I had an almost irresistible urge to stand up and get the whole room dancing in that wonderful space. But I was afraid to let the feeling out, because I wasn’t sure that the others would understand.

I remember a Christmas meditation many years ago where I suddenly felt like laughing. I was seized by a spirit of inner merriment, and I wanted almost desperately to let it out and start laughing aloud. Later, Swami said during a talk that one of the manifestations of kundalini rising is laughter.

I’m not given to exuberant spiritual experiences, but in this instance it was such a powerful force that in the midst of the all-day meditation, after we had been meditating in perfect silence for hours with Swamiji, I had this overwhelming desire to let loose with a hearty laugh. I was even so deluded that I imagined that if I would start laughing, the whole room would start laughing with me, and the Christmas meditation would turn into a giant, joyous celebration of laughter. Fortunately, a shred of reason restrained me, and I was able to resist the urge, but I was so convinced that it would make everyone happy that I came very near to doing it.

When we were chanting in the half-finished temple, I felt that if I could count on a few old friends to join me, we might be able to pull it off.

I mention these experiences to introduce the subject of how strongly Swami Kriyananda stressed the need to bring creativity and artistic expression into our spiritual lives. I think it’s extremely important that we give our deepest attention to these ideas, and reflect on them very seriously, not only for the well-being of our own spiritual lives, but for Ananda as a whole.

(Here’s a video of the Ananda Palo Alto choir rehearsing “O Master” at 8:15 a.m. on a Sunday morning. For more candid music-making videos, follow the link to the AnandaPhonic page. Suggestion: Music starts at the beginning, under the black screen. Ddisplay the video at Full Screen size for best effect.)

In part, I think these thoughts have come to me because of a book that I recently finished writing, about my life with Swami Kriyananda, and because creativity was the absolute hallmark of his existence, although nothing that he ever did had anything to do with him. To put it simply, he was never compelled in the slightest degree by his personality or by any personal desires.

There was a man at Ananda who decided that he wanted to leave the community and become a professional musician and record the songs that he had written. And even though Swamiji tried to discourage him, he left and ended up never accomplishing his plan.

He said to Swamiji, “You know how it is – sometimes you just have to express yourself, and you have to write a song!”

Swami replied calmly, “No. I don’t know how it is.”

He said, “I never think about expressing myself. I think only about how I can serve.” He added, “Everything that I have done artistically, writing books and music, doing photography and architecture – everything! – has come not from the thought ‘How can I express myself?’” but ‘How can I serve?’”

Now, this is one of the important roles that creativity and the arts can play in our lives: as a spiritual service to others.

But there’s another, very important role that Swami talks about in Art as a Hidden Message, which is the extremely intriguing idea that before you can become a saint, you must be a creative artist.

The natural reaction is to be surprised, and perhaps even a little bewildered – “Really? But what if I don’t have any special artistic talents?”

Does everybody really have to become a Michelangelo before they can be a St. Francis? It’s a very interesting question. And I believe Dana Andersen gave us a very clear answer.

Dana is an Ananda member who lives in Oregon, where she started a work that she calls the Academy of Art, Creativity, and Consciousness. She’s a gifted painter and writer, and she sings well – in short, she’s a person for whom self-expression through the arts comes quite naturally. And in a talk that she gave on the arts and spirituality, she shared an extremely interesting insight about the role that the arts have played in traditional societies.

She said, “In our culture, art is reserved for the professionals. And because the professionals are expected to perform, many of them, who you might think would be happy people, are actually quite miserable.”

Photo: Phad Pichetbovo on Unsplash.

The problem is that the arts are no longer about freedom of expression. They’ve come to be about being weighed and measured, and feeling that the artist has to live up to a certain standard. So art has become just one more sad definition of our self-worth that we’ve allowed other people to impose on us, instead of a perfectly natural and liberating way of expressing who we are.

Dana pointed out that in traditional societies, art and creativity are naturally integrated into people’s lives. In India, for example, the women will make beautiful designs with rice powder on their doorsteps in the morning, and by nightfall the designs will be obliterated. In fact, it’s considered sad if the mandala that you made in the morning is still there in the evening, because it means that no one has come to see you, and nobody is loving your house by going in and out.

In India, the traditional women’s garments are covered with embroidery and beading and designs made with dyes, and the men would traditionally have beautifully carved tools and weapons. People would write songs and tell stories, and the community would gather to sing and dance. And so, every day, in one form or another, they would not always be thinking about things, but they would be using their hands and voices and bodies to do something about how they felt. And on the spiritual path, feelings are the central point, because superconscious intuition is a pure calm feeling.

This is an extremely important point for us to take in and to understand. Because it isn’t as if we can think our way to Self-realization. We feel it. In deep meditation, and when we’re in a state of grace, we’re having an experience of the reality that exists behind this superficial world, and we cannot get there by staring at the world and thinking about it with our rational minds, “It’s all unreal!” We must have an experience of that other world, and that experience can only come to us through the silent feelings of the heart, in superconsciousness.

On the path of Gyana Yoga, which is the path of expanding our consciousness by using the mind, the primary spiritual practice is known as “neti-neti,” – constantly using our mental powers to discern what is real by discriminating, “Not this, not that.”

But even that very mental path is intended to take you to a perception that comes first and foremost in the heart, after the mental practices have fallen away. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” And, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

Photo: Karina Vorozheev on Unsplash.

The heart is where our feelings reside, and as Dana put it: “Once art and creative expression are removed from the natural fabric of our lives, those feelings have no healthy outlet.” She said, “And so, in our culture, we have two ways of dealing with our feelings – one is to suppress them, and the other is to project them onto others.” And that’s pretty much the world that we’re living in.

Joseph Campbell, the celebrated writer who talked about the power of traditional myths and stories, and the pressing need for those stories in our lives, was the subject of a series of wonderful conversations with Bill Moyers. At one point, Moyers asked him, “What happens to a culture when they lose touch with their stories – when they no longer celebrate their culture?” And Joseph Campbell quietly turned and looked out the window and said, “This.”

This is what happens. Because all of those feelings have no place to go, and the world today reflects a life that is increasingly devoid of balanced and uplifted feeling.

So I find it extremely interesting that on the path we follow, the arts have an absolutely central role to play.

Paramhansa Yogananda was a creative artist. He was a singer, and he wrote hundreds of poems and songs. Most of the saints and masters express themselves creatively. Swami Shankara wrote, Vivekananda wrote, and St. Francis wrote. And it isn’t that it’s simply a convenient way to communicate the teachings. It’s because they’re showing us how we should live, if we want to learn how to commune with God.

Paramhansa Yogananda poured so much feeling into the poems in Whispers From Eternity. That book is such a wholesome, pure expression of feeling. Whispers talks about all of the human experiences that you and I may go through. And when you’re enduring criticism, or your body is broken, or you’re having economic troubles, or you’re feeling lonely, or you’re feeling suicidal, somewhere in Whispers you will find a poetic expression of that feeling, and the keys for transmuting it into an upward dimension.

As the spiritual leader of Ananda, Swamiji would always try to solve any problems that might come up in the community by doing something creative that would give us all a chance to express ourselves.

This is why, in the brief time I was allotted to answer the person’s question about blowing off steam, I talked about how we need to become more free in our creative expression. We need to learn to dance and sing in a more spontaneous, natural way.

There was a piece that I wasn’t able to say but that I feel is extremely important. Because it isn’t a question of rigidly doing “what the community does,” but of whether we are discovering how we ourselves can respond creatively to our lives, and whether we’re establishing a creative, upward-trending way of self-expression. As Swamiji suggests in Art As a Hidden Message, we need to find creative modes of self-expression that will help us resolve the endless whirlpools of emotion that are always passing through us.

I’ve never been a person who paints or draws, and I used to think that I didn’t have a very good visual sense, though I eventually realized I did. But I was one of those kids who were never encouraged to be creative for its own sake. Everything had to be measured, with grades and test scores, and as soon as I wasn’t good at it, as soon as I couldn’t “make the numbers,” I wasn’t interested.

Surendra and Tushti lived in our Mountain View Ananda community, where they managed East West Bookshop. They eventually moved to Portland, and almost as soon as they had settled in, Swamiji asked them to come to Pune to help with our work there. So they spent a few years India, at the end of which Tushti was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Tushti was a yoga teacher and an athlete, and the kind of strong person you would expect to live to be a hundred. But God had other plans for her, and she suddenly found herself with this cancer which is a very difficult kind to deal with. So they returned to Portland, but before they left I was able to spend time with her.

She was fighting to get well, but it wasn’t working, and I remember one of our conversations.

“Tushti,” I said. “Do you think your soul is trying to stay in your body, or do you think it is trying to get out of your body?”

“Hm,” Tushti said. “I think it’s trying to get out.”

And then, like a true yogi, she turned all of her energy in the new direction, and no more than five minutes had passed before she was giving away her possessions, telling Surendra who should receive what.

She said, “I thought I was supposed to stay in my body, but I think now I’m not supposed to.”

I was with her and Surendra in Portland for a good portion of her final weeks. And because Tushti’s body was strong, it took her a while to separate from it.

At first, when Tushti was still active, I gradually understood that my reason for being there was that she would occasionally reach a point in the process where she would have a question, and we would try to work our way through the question together. And then the process would continue until there was another question. But when she was finally beyond questions and had gone into silence, I felt free to leave.

There were some women friends who had visited Tushti and left a big pile of collage materials, thinking it might be something they could do together. And because there were hours when I didn’t have anything better to do, I pulled out this collage material.

I had never had much respect for collage – I just never “got” it. But I found some scissors and glue, and for about five days I would wake up every morning with great enthusiasm and rush out to make my little collages, digging through the materials and cutting and pasting my little pieces.

I became obsessed. It was a very childlike feeling, “Oh, look at my collages!” In my mind I dismissed them as entertainment and just a way to pass the time. But I ended up with four collages, and when I was leaving, I found that I couldn’t throw them away.

I brought them home and stuck them in a drawer. I don’t like to keep stuff, but whenever I would pull them out, I couldn’t throw them away. Finally, I gave them to Helen, and she laminated them.

Photo: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

But it was a very interesting experience for me, because I didn’t quite know what I was doing. I was making these little pictures, with a horsey here and Jesus here, and maybe a little silver thread. And of course it wasn’t art – at best, it was no more than bad crafts. But they were okay. They weren’t bad. They were fine. And I realized that they were expressing the experience that we were having together, of Tushti dying, which was one of the great experiences of my life. And a great deal of it was cut and pasted into those little collages. It was revelation for me, when I could finally understand what was happening.

When we talk about being childlike and natural and innocent in our creativity, it may not mean that we’ll be getting up in the middle of a kirtan and organizing a line dance around the building, or helping with one of our big Ananda theater productions. All of which is possible. But what’s most important is that when feelings come, finding a creative and interesting way to deal with them and uplift them.

I saw a photo on the Internet of some African women who were living in desperate circumstances. The picture showed them holding their fabric art – I believe it was appliqué, where you cut out little pieces of fabric and make a picture out of them. It was a picture of a flower, and it was stunningly beautiful, even though the context of their lives was so contradictory. And it struck me so powerfully that I tried to learn a little more about these women and their art. I could only find that it was somewhere in Africa, I suspect the Sudan, but a place where the women would traditionally make this art. It was sheets for their beds, like part of a woman’s trousseau. And these women, when they were forced to flee because of the terrible chaos and fighting in their homeland, would gather whatever possessions they could carry and wrap them in these sheets. And when they found themselves living as refugees in a place that was nearly as impoverished as where they had come from, this was the one thing they knew how to do. So they would gather, and in the midst of these horrors this extraordinary beauty would emerge. And not only is it beautiful, considered as art, but can you imagine what it’s doing for those people who’ve lost everything, to be together like that, snipping little pieces of fabric, and thinking of how to make it beautiful?

Now, this is what our reading is telling us today: Can we see a reality behind the reality that we are living in? Is it possible?

I read about a family who were forced into hiding during the Nazi occupation of their country. They managed to survive because someone was willing to hide them, but for two or three years they could never go outside, or even go to a window.

I believe it was a young couple, and they may have had a child. But they survived the experience, and somewhere in the midst of that terrible situation, the father, who had been an energetic, active businessman in the prime of his life, started painting little boxes. Every morning he would go up to their hidden attic room and spend all day painting these boxes. His hosts were able to smuggle in supplies for him to stay busy. And afterward, he said that if he hadn’t had that simple art to occupy him, he would have gone crazy. Not because it would have been intolerably boring, but because he had nowhere to direct the energy that was flowing through him. So he began painting these little boxes.

This is what is meant when Swami tells us that we need to become creative artists before we can become saints. Whether it’s through cooking, creating gardens, making designs on the wall, writing poems, painting little boxes, or pasting little bits of paper in a collage, what happens is that we become healthy.

We become emotionally healthy. We let ourselves go ahead and feel what we’re feeling, and we move it out in front of us. We participate in clarifying it, and in the end we find peace, and we’re inwardly free, because it has passed through us instead of being held inside.

And maybe along the way we can serve. We can make little cards to give away to our friends. We can color – just get out our colored pencils and find a way to do something that will be uplifting, creative, and beautiful. And that is sadhana. And if we aren’t great at it, who cares?

Photo: Volha Flaxeco on Unsplash.

Swami loved a saying of his mother’s, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” I thought of that quite often while I was making my little collages. “I don’t have to be good at this, I just have to enjoy it.”

Navashen and Saiganesh started an import business, and one of the products they sell is mid-sized carry bags from India. They’re a little bigger than a purse, and they’re woven with bright colors. I have two of them, and I love them. They’re very practical, and apparently they are made from discarded plastic bags that a group of impoverished women in India have dyed with bright colors and woven into these lovely bags. I like them as a practical item, but whenever I look at them I think, “How much self-esteem, joy, upliftment, and release of tension and anxiety was created for these women by gathering the garbage and making it beautiful and trying to see how they can make something that looks nice?”

What does it do? It makes us suddenly a channel for a very different kind of energy than the energy that’s sitting there all bottled up and worrying and wondering.

The definition of Self-realization, oddly enough, is total self-forgetfulness. In the beginning of our search, we may think that Self-realization is about becoming more and more conscious of myself. But, as we realize in time, the truth is that as we grow in Self-realization we begin to understand that this little self is a complete illusion.

This is why Swami Kriyananda could say, “I never accomplished anything. I never did anything.” A great deal passed through him certainly, but when you let it flow through you, you find that you’ve gone away, and that there is a release into the great Self.

That’s Self-realization: to realize that the self that I thought was my own was not my true self at all, because there is another Self that is much greater, and a lot more fun.

Every one of us knows what it feels like to enter that creative mode of being, no matter how big or small the project may be.

I used to like to sew. I was in my twenties, in the phase when I was making my own granola and grinding my own wheat to make bread. I didn’t like the sound of the sewing machine, but I liked to sew, and I especially liked to sew by hand, so I made complete garments, lots of them, entirely by hand, just because it was so enjoyable. And when you’re immersed in something creative that you enjoy doing, you forget yourself and you become like God.

When we’re creative, we become God-like. We’re enthusiastic, we’re joyful, and we’re interested in creating something beautiful no matter how large or small. So we’re like Him. When we tune into that creative consciousness, the little self goes away, and when we’ve learned to do it in one form, we find that we can immerse ourselves in that state in all that we do.

Swami’s book on creativity and the arts is so fascinating, because it’s a very clear description of Dwapara Yuga, the age of energy-awareness that the world is currently entering.

Dwapara will not be a time for rigid suppression of our individual creative inspiration, in the name of conforming to a set of fixed rules of behavior. It will be a time when we will be invited to experience the creative powers that God has placed in us, and to find our own unique integration.

I think it’s wonderful that the notion of using the arts as sadhana, as a way of communing with the God who dwells within us, is such an integral and defining part of our path. Our masters demonstrated it for us – how we can use the arts as a spiritual practice. We ask God to use us as His instruments, and we ask Him to show us the reality behind the illusion. And by exercising our creativity we merge with the flow of His boundless creative consciousness.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on August 12, 2018.)


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