The Mission of Art

In the forward to Alex Grey’s book The Mission of Art Ken Wilber writes, “In a world gone postmodern, bereft of meaning and value, cut loose on a sea of irony and indifference, Alex is taking a stunning stand: there is a God, there is Spirit, there is a transcendental ground and goal of human development and unfolding. Higher realities are available to us – that is the message of Alex Grey’s art and words in this book.”

THEOLOGUE WEB FULL

In a recent TEDx Talk in Maui, Hawaii, Alex Grey outlined his artistic and spiritual journey. The message that comes through both the book and this talk is that the true artist’s role is to remind us of the existence of Spirit. He says

The painter channels the creative force into the artefact and this artefact then becomes a battery ready to zap a viewer into a new way of seeing the world. (Grey, TEDx Maui)

Alex_Grey_Painting

Alex Grey unapologetically aligns himself with a long line of sacred or religious artists, a lineage that was thoroughly broken during the modern era and continues to flounder in what is being called the postmodern era. But Grey has, almost single-handedly, rescued art from its ego-centric, materialistic foray into meaninglessness, irony and indifference and reintroduced visionary art into contemporary culture.

Visonary art matters because visionary art is the most direct contact we have with the divine. And all sacred art and religious traditions are founded on this mystic state. Now the best currently available technology for sharing the mystic experience is a well crafted artistic rendering by an eye witness. (Grey, TEDx Maui)

A visionary artist becomes an eye witness through direct experience of the divine as a result of mystical experiences. There are many ways in which the artist can have mystical experiences – from a low intensity awakening like being overwhelmed with the beauty of the natural world to a high intensity awakening such as an experience of unity through meditation. It is because of these intense experiences an artist knows how to see rather than merely look.

No wonder that once the art of seeing is lost, Meaning is lost, and all life seems ever more meaningless: ‘They know not what they do, for they do not see what they look at.’ (Frederick Franck)

There are three sets of eyes with which we perceive. Our conventional mindset, in what Jonathan Zap calls the “Babylon Matrix,” requires us to limit our vision to our physical eyes and to the eyes of reason. With our physical eyes we obviously look at objects in the outer realm. With the eyes of reason we see the symbolic in order to make conceptual relationships. This is the extent of most modern and postmodern artistic vision. Art is either ultra realistic or abstract to the point of individually assigned meaning.

Alex_Grey-Psychic_Energy_Sy

The third way of seeing, the way of seeing with the mystic eye of contemplation, or the third eye, sees the transcendent. This way of seeing, used by visionary artists, is not encouraged in contemporary culture or in art schools because the modern and postmodern mindset denies the existence of, and therefore the possibility of seeing, divine beauty. But the visionary artist sees with all three eyes.

Artists need to be able to see on each level in order to bring technical beauty, archetypal beauty, and spiritual beauty to their work. (Grey, The Mission of Art, p.73)

Visionary art is responsible for redeeming culture; for reminding us of our connection with the source of life. Sacred art, from the earliest cave paintings to the great cathedrals, has pointed in this direction because, as Grey says, we are the creative force of the universe.

Art is an echo of the creative force that birthed the galaxies. Creativity is the way that the cosmos evolves and communicates with itself. The great uplifting of humanity beyond its self destruction is the redemptive mission of art. (Grey, TEDx Maui)

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Belief or Practice

Bowl

A Tibetan Singing Bowl

From the Spiritual Practices class blog of September 8, 2013:

“It’s not about right belief; it’s about right practice.” – Cynthia Bourgeault

Doing rather than just believing; and, in the context of spiritual practices, doing something the right way has its correlation with playing tennis. I can believe that practicing tennis will improve my game, but only by actually doing it over and over again do I really improve. And a belief – such as wearing a lucky t-shirt – may not be the reason I win a game whereas learning to change my backhand swing could make a big difference. Even a right belief, like believing in my tennis trainer’s advice, isn’t really enough to help me win the game; I need to really practice the new swing until it comes naturally in my game.

Related to the two words in the quote above are two that we have looked at in class – soteriological and sophiological. If a way of thinking is soteriological, it acknowledges that we are all sinful and that we need to be saved from our unfortunate condition – usually by a Savior who is outside of ourselves. We believe in a Savior and through this belief we are saved. This is right belief; believe the right things while the only practice is usually trying to be ‘good.’

If we are sophiological, we believe in the possibility of transformation; rather than being sinful people we are ignorant of our true identity. This transformation requires doing something, practicing a way of changing our mistaken identification with our lower nature so that we awaken to our true inner nature. This approach to life suggests that there are others who have become transformed by the recovery of their true identity and they can show us how to do as they were able to do. The path they describe requires right spiritual practices such as meditation.

Whether we are Christian or not most of us are familiar with an image or idea of the Kingdom of Heaven. We know that Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of Heaven. But what did it really mean to him?

Wisdom Jesus

We have been led to believe (soteriologically) that the Kingdom of Heaven is place you go when you die – if you have been good! What Jesus said was the Kingdom of Heaven is ‘within or among you’ (that it is here) and it is ‘at hand’ (that it is now). This implies that the Kingdom of Heaven is something like a “quality or dimension of experience accessible to you right in the moment. You don’t die into it; you awaken into it”. (Wisdom Jesus, C. Bourgeault, p 30)

This more sophiological interpretation of Jesus’ declaration suggests that the Kingdom of Heaven is a state of consciousness rather than a place you go; it is a place you ‘come from’ as in state of mind/heart. Jesus used the Kingdom of Heaven as a metaphor for ‘non dual consciousness’ or ‘unitive consciousness;’ an awareness that sees no separation between God and humans, nor between you and me. Instead it sees that we are all one. It sees the underlying unity beyond our ego-driven separation-mentality. It transcends. It is the result of spiritual transformation or as Jesus said, of being ‘born again.’

We have learned that through a practice of mindfulness we can develop a state of mind that is spacious and ’empty’ – and rings like a Tibetan ‘singing’ bowl in the analogy I demonstrated in class. As you will recall, the bowl represents your life. It is beautifully crafter and designed to ring true. If you stuff it full with ‘the things of this world,’ it only makes a dull thud when struck. But if you develop a state of mind that is spacious, that does not cling to the ‘things’ of your life, there is plenty of room inside the bowl – like Dr. Who’s Tardis – and it will ring true.

tardisThe ‘things’ in your life remain, but you ‘hold’ them within a spaciousness that allows your true identity to ring forth. This is achieved by practicing being in the present moment and observing the contents of our hearts and minds rather than identifying with them and letting them carry us away from our true selves. In this way we begin to see, to identify with the underlying unity of all things. We begin to transcend our ordinary consciousness and transform our minds and hearts; we develop the capacity for compassion (see R. Davidson) as we begin to see others ‘as ourselves’ (meaning literally, the same Being as myself, no separation).

Whether we are religious or not, all of us have many beliefs that we don’t put into practice. We may believe that being involved in service activities will help change the world, or being environmentally aware will reverse global warming but how often do we actually practice these good intentions? Perhaps it is because we don’t have a practice that generates the capacity for compassion – for seeing someone as my own self in the sense that we are the same universal Being.

One thing we probably all agree to believe is that we need a more compassionately oriented world. That will come from individual people developing the capacity for compassion and selflessness. We want to create ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’ on earth but we can’t do that by believing in it, we need to do it by practicing it – by entering the state of non-dual consciousness that Wisdom Teachers, like Jesus, have always prescribed. We need a practice of mindfulness that transforms our consciousness so we can help others transform their consciousness, too.

A Philosophy of Education

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach;
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thought,
you return to the source of your being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

Tao Te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell

This summarizes the ancient Chinese Taoist Master Lao Tzu’s philosophy of education. It was based on his contemplative approach to life. Parker Palmer makes a similar point in The Courage to Teach,

“As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.”

Along with communicating course content, communicating the teacher’s soul through a unique connection with each student is vitally important. Simplicity, patience and compassion, as Lao Tzu states, must be the true contents of the courses we teach. How else can schools genuinely produce the “well-rounded student” most Student Learning Results asks for?

At most private schools the “well-rounded-student” is steeped in academics and gets a liberal balance of athletics, the arts, and social service activities. Throughout the learning experience the hope is that students will also develop positive character traits, leadership skills and a degree of religious, gender, political and racial tolerance. As worthy as these goals may be, I believe it produces one-dimensional individuals who, though they will surely succeed in our competitive world, lack the ability and motivation to “see inside themselves”.

We are great at helping students form the container that will define them as unique individuals and we help them learn how to maintain the container (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward) but we don’t do a good job of showing them the true purpose of this container. We need to put a more deliberate emphasis on people as “homo-duplex” or “two-tiered beings” (Emil Durkheim). What we are neglecting is deliberate discussion and education regarding authentic self-hood that transcends (yet includes) individual identity and we neglect emphasizing to students that the true purpose of their container is to fill it with compassion rather than the “stuff” of this world.

Acknowledging that we are two-tiered means we recognizes that we are “spiritual beings having a human experience” (Teilhard de Chardin).

“If we want to grow as teachers — we must do something alien to academic culture: we must talk to each other about our inner lives — risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.”
Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach

If teachers are socialized to ignore what it means to be fully and authentically human how can we be equipped to guide students into the upper tier of human life? Jesus’ rebuke in Matt. 23:13 aptly applies to us.

“Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

The kingdom of heaven is within and among us. It is entered through a contemplative practice of one’s own and becomes the root source of compassionate activity in the world. Obviously teachers need to enter the kingdom of heaven themselves so they can open the gates to others.

“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks–we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.” Parker Palmer

As I teach I try to maintain a vision of both levels of being human, the ordinary and the transcendent. I do so by living out of my own contemplative practice to maintain a compassionate perspective. Living into the kingdom of heaven is the goal and joy of my life. I try to share with my colleagues and students the exuberant energy and joy this practice gives me . My collaborations and communications with my peers and with students becomes a matter of projecting the “condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.”

Those focused on success in a worldly sense might say that “my teaching is nonsense” and “impractical” but those who can “look inside themselves” will see that “this nonsense makes perfect sense”.

Learning 2.0 Conference, Shanghai, 2007/09/14-16

Reflecting on this conference seems an appropriate way to start blogging. This is my first post and I feel like its taking a big step. The conference was about Web 2.0 tools and the changing face of education in the 21st century.

A key understanding for me was that these tools are not necessarily a good fit for schools – but as Will Richardson says – they are a good fit for learning. If teachers want to use these tools with students they need to be completely familiar with them and passionate about the learning the teacher can personally do by using them. Only an infectious use of these tools by teachers will make it possible for a teacher to understand how to implement them in the school setting.

Or rather – a teacher who uses and models these tools will encourage students to start using them – for their own personal learning, beyond the classroom.The teacher who is transparent is his/her learning, who allows students to read their blogs, shares their RSS feeds and flickr images, and encourages them to use del.icio.us will model learning 2.0. A vibrant learning community that extends beyond the classroom should be the norm.

You can see what the conference was about and even revisit each session to read the notes taken by those who attended by going here. I attended a couple sessions with Alan November and another with Will Richardson. My own session is here.