An Essay on Spirituality and Creativity or “what is that light bulb that lights up above a cartoon characters head.?”
Picture a scene from the 1820’s of a twilit city street in Germany. ¹.”A figure appears, lurching along like a crazy man, rushing, dawdling, waving his arms, muttering hoarsely. Intensity blazes from his face. Thick black hair streaked with grey stands out as if charged with electricity, his eyes small, wild and piercing, seeming to see things that other people do not see.” A policeman arrested him because of his bizarre behavior and appearance. When the wild figure protested in a loud voice, “I am Beethoven!”, he was laughed at.
Back at the station it was finally ascertained that the detainee was in fact Beethoven and he was sent home with profuse apologies, leaving the chief constable to instruct his subordinates upon the differences between a dangerous crackpot and a genius in the grip of inspiration.
Western artistic tradition is full of images of this kind – the difference between insanity and creative genius is sometimes hard to define. Eccentric behavior by artists is expected to such an extent that some who wish to be considered creative make a point of being eccentric in the hope (all too often well founded) that they will be acclaimed as a genius by way of association.
In less materialistic and intellectually oriented cultures however, the ideal for an artist is one of ultimate sanity – a profoundly spiritual outlook on the world, as expressed in this Taoist view:
“Actually creativity requires no intellectual explanation in terms of process. It is rather, a mere intuitive reflection of things.
².The wild geese fly across the long sky above.
Their image is reflected upon the chilly water below.
The geese do not mean to reflect the image on the water;
Nor does the water mean to reflect the image of the geese.
Our minds are merely Gods mirror, reflecting the ‘here now’ of creation. Such, according to the Taoists, is the process of creation. But this creative reflection can only be understood through private intuition.”
Some cultures view creativity as such an integral part of their everyday activity that it is not seen as a special endeavor. As reflected in the Balinese saying; “We have no art, We do everything as well as we can.”
Concepts of creativity vary widely, from the purest Taoist conception of it reflecting the ‘here now’ of creation, to the individualistic western concept of creativity reflecting the artists unique genius. In modern Western society, creative inspiration, like so many subtle psychic or spiritual phenomena, is often assumed to be beyond the reach of the average person, the exclusive domain of an elite consisting of artists and mystics.
Perhaps such assumptions arise from excessive pre-occupation with the talent and fame of a few individuals, leading to a general feeling of inferiority, where people to forget that famous artists or spiritual teachers are just ordinary people expressing a potential that we all possess. In fact experiences of higher states of consciousness are not so rare as we may suppose. One of the reasons that people do not talk freely about these experiences is fear of ridicule.
The intense moods of creative ecstasy described by some of our greatest painters, musicians, scientists etc, have been a subject of wonder and speculation for many years. Michelangelo said he could only create “in a seizure of the soul. “…under the inspiration of the holy ghost.”
Much of our most beautiful and uplifting art arises from a vision of a deeper reality.
To see the world in a grain of sand
and heaven in a wild flower
To hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
This verse speaks of a profoundly altered view of reality which the poet (William Blake) in his ecstasy is trying to convey to his readers.
“When we are struck by the utter tranquillity of landscapes by Mi-Fei and Ni Tsan, or moved by the simplicity and purity of poems by Tao Chien we come close to experiencing aesthetically what the Taoist hopes to experience spiritually. There is something inherent in these works that leads us to the inexpressible ultimate that humans share with the Universe… they draw us into a spontaneous and even unintentional unity which, as the Taoist sees it, refers back to the Tao itself – the primordial source of creativity.”
Beethoven occasionally tried to describe his creative process: *****“I cannot say whence I take my ideas. They come to me uninvited, directly or indirectly. I could almost grasp them in my hands. In the woods, in the silence of the night, at the earliest dawn. They are roused by moods that are transmuted into notes that sound, roar and storm until at last they take shape for me as notes.”
Dylan Thomas used to awaken in the quiet dawn hours, poetry pouring through his mind and would wake his wife and dictate it to her as she recorded it. It probably didn’t do much for his marriage but this was how he produced his best work.
The ancient Greeks (and their imitators of later ages) spoke of “the hand of the Muse” touching them at moments of great inspiration.
What in fact are these Muses, these goddesses upon whom the poets and minstrels waited in an agony of anticipation? Presumably, like many gods and goddesses, they are a personification of a natural phenomena, in this case a mental one. But if the “Muse” is not a goddess residing in some mysterious realm from whence all creativity comes, then what is creativity’s origin and what is its nature?
What indeed is its nature? Many are the casualties of creative genius upon whom this beautiful creature seems to have turned, throwing them into madness or confusion, tossing them between alternating moods of ecstasy and despair. Spike Milligan and Jimi Hendrix were manic depressives; Vincent Van Gogh and Judy Garland committed suicide; Dylan Thomas and Mussorgsky were alcoholics. There are too many tragic examples like these to doubt that creativity can have both positive and negative effects.
Nearly 40 years ago, when I first started practicing meditation, I soon noticed an unanticipated effect. It awoke a flow of fresh ideas and inspiration for my music and poetry, that I’d never experienced before.
Then when I looked more closely at the philosophy of yoga behind my meditation practice, and learned about yoga psychology, and this ancient model of the mind, I realized that my experience of increased creativity resulting from my meditation was no accident. The yogis appeared to have had this all figured out long ago.
According to the yoga psychology model, the human mind is composed of five layers. The first two we are quite familiar with. They are commonly called the conscious and subconscious layers. But after that the layers are progressively more subtle as they approach the highest level of limitless, pure awareness.
The third layer of mind – supramental mind – is the first level beyond the intellect and “at times in the lives of some individuals, a vibrational flow from this or higher levels of mind has inspired the lower kosas and given birth to great discoveries and achievements in art and science”.
However, this supramental layer of mind is also the storehouse of the seeds of the personality, (individual samskaras or personal unexpressed karmic reactions). Hence someone who has developed the creative or intuitive faculty is not necessarily free from the negative influence of their own unconscious.
“One who, in spite of possessing the creative faculty, does not seek for that Transcendental Entity, whose thought process has gone aberrant….(results in) something strange and grotesque.”
…” individual lives of such artists becomes a serious catastrophe… tugging between their temporary sense of subtlety and temporary lust for material happiness, they lose their firmness of character.”
A deeply creative individual is often so sensitive that the harsh ugliness or cruelty of certain worldly realities causes profound mental anguish. Added to this may be their own difficulty dealing with the darker side of their own nature, and the disturbing knowledge that they cannot live up to the ideal implicit in the glory of their own creative visions.
The capacity to experience the reality of human suffering is a gift which sometimes brings out the best in these individuals, but without the ultimately positive knowledge of the deeper spiritual reality life can become a constant battle against a tide of despair – a battle which some tragically lose.
On the other hand there are many examples of individuals who have integrated and chanelled their creative urge through the adoption of a transcendental goal: Rabindranath Tagore – the world acclaimed Bengali poet, mystic and musician and first non-European to win a Nobel Prize, Johann Sebastian Bach, Basho the Zen Poet, and Don Cherry the modern jazz musician, to name a few.
William Blake – poet, mystic and painter, said “the poetic genius is the true man (or woman)… which was called by the ancients Angel or Spirit… If the doors of perception were cleansed, we would see things as they really are… infinite.”
The pursuit of a transcendental vision of reality, the attempt to truly see, suffuses the artist’s mind, and their work, with wisdom from the higher kosas of the causal mind.
An ego-centric pre-occupation with ones own brilliance and originality doesn’t exactly help. If you are less concerned with expressing individuality than with becoming a clear channel for divine inspiration, the Muse tends to use you more kindly. Traditions of many cultures suggest that we cannot create – we can only open ourselves to become the vehicle through which incipient cosmic forces become manifest. If you discipline yourself to live in accordance with your ideal, the Muse will not only use you more kindly, but will visit you with inspiration more readily.
That elusive Goddess for whom the poets of old waited tends to oblige those with less ego. Perhaps in the hope that they won’t try to take all the credit for her work…
“Those who have worried their heads least on the score of originality seem to have had that quality granted to them in abundance… and those, who in their anxiety lest their precious personalities should suffer eclipse, have feared to subject themselves to discipline, have been the first to fall into banality.”
What is the importance of spiritual discipline to creatively inclined individuals? And are we not all in some respect creatively inclined? The control and strength of mind that comes through meditation becomes more vital as the creative force is awakened. The earnest pursuit of a spiritual ideal channels the undirected and powerful conflicting desires that have marred the work, and indeed the lives and personal happiness of so many otherwise great personalities.
The serenity of mind that meditation can bring attracts the Muse for the same reason that she came to Beethoven in “the woods, the silence of the night, at the earliest dawn “, for the same reason that she came to Walden by his pond, or many of us in a place of peace, when the mind is still. If you make your mind still through meditation, the likelihood that the Muse will visit you, increases accordingly.
“Sometimes when the lower kosas are calm or concentrated, the deep awareness of the superconscious mind penetrates into the lower levels of mind.”
Creativity in its purest forms tends to come spontaneously, without warning, but often as the result of a prolonged tremendous effort to stand aside and allow That which has created all things to do its miraculous work.
“It is a pure, true, immediate reflection of ultimate reality. We call it the process of creativity. When you are in this creative process, you are truly egoless: as egoless as the moon and the stars.”
1. from”Beethoven” by Brad Darrach & Editors of Time-Life Records.
2. from Creativity & Taoism by Chang Chung-yuan
3. a 1987 Gallup poll revealed that one in three people in Britain will have a spiritual experience of one kind or another in their lifetime.
4. from Creativity & Taoism by Chang Chung-yuan
5. from “Beethoven” by Brad Darrach & Editors of Time-Life Records.
6. The five layers of mind are described in detail in “Beyond the Superconscious Mind”, based on the Tantric philosophy of Shrii Shrii Anandamurti. Briefly, they are as follows: Crude Mind: the layer of desire Subtle Mind: memory and reasoning
7. from Abhimata by P.R. Sarkar
8. from Peaks & Lamas by Marco Pallis
9. from the Spiritual Philosophy of Shrii Shrii Anandamurti
10. from Creativity & Taoism by Chang Chung-yuan