Last Tuesday I made a cross-town pilgrimage to the Woodruff Physical Education Center — the gymnasium at Emory University — to what was called The Visit 2010, the Dalai Lama’s scheduled events on his very periodic public teaching schedule as a scholar in residence there.
The session I chose was called The Creative Journey, billed as a conversation on creativity, spirituality, and the arts, with His Holiness, actor Richard Gere, and writer Alice Walker. The title was enticing and timely for me, and I thought, for the edification of this congregation. After all, one of our end statements, how we live out our mission, speaks of giving voice to the human spirit through music and the arts.
An intriguing and expansive goal that has been made real, made vital by the music made in this sanctuary, the instruments played, the voices lifted; by the paintings, sculptures, and photography that line our walls and grace our corridors. From our youngest artist — the children in our own Atlanta Progressive Preschool — a school devoted to child-led learning, to their creative explorations described by Helen Goldberg, UUCA member and artist who is the Atelierista, or art specialist, for the school, as providing the children with a wide range of media and materials, some conventional and some unconventional. Through these experiences, our school is encouraging the “hundred languages,” the hundred ways children have of expressing themselves through deep play.
And the array of guest adult artists in the gallery that rings our building: the women in our Artists’ Way covenant group who meet Monday evenings for soup and support; the women’s writing group, who share and critique their work and who have co-led worship here; our Underground Theatre, the actors, director Dante Santacroce, who have held forth so faithfully and well for many years, transforming our downstairs into a home for drama and comedy.
All of these artistic endeavors enlivening this faith community, amusing and moving us, drawing in the greater Atlanta community, helping to make us more visible, more attractive, more appealing to those who might not have known we were here on this arguably unaesthetic freeway access road.
Beyond their secular appeal, their placement, their performance within the walls of a faith community — even those that are not explicitly part of our worship life — according to F. Thomas Trotter, former Dean of the Claremont School of Theology, these varying forms of expression also function as religious art. He proposed the definition of religion as being the human quest for meaning in the understanding of the world, an attempt, he wrote, to tie all things together into what he called a coherent and experiential whole. So by that definition, he observed, art does not to have any biblical, any scriptural subject matter to be “religious.” Any felt passion, he believed, or insight about the world, expressed with power, ought to be considered religious art.
He invited us “to expand our worship life outside the confines of formal rituals and services, to visit art galleries and museums and theaters, get acquainted with artists and find out what makes him or her think or speak, and how they might keep us open to the spirit of newness and innovation,” as he noted, “in the quest for meaning in human history and life.”
With these observations — and others — from a Western perspective in mind, in deciding to attend the Dalai Lama visit this time around, I was eager to hear another, an Eastern perspective about art and religion, and particularly to learn more about the creative process as it relates to the spiritual growth of the individual who is the creator. What changes occur in our own interior life for those of us who write, paint, photograph, play music, sing, even before and indeed whether or not there is a viewer, an audience at all.
I wanted, I looked forward to, an enlightened perception, something I could tape on my mirror, repeat daily as a mantra, that would help me understand how my sense of the sacred is affected by my creative life and how that shapes my experience of this living tradition.
After all, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader for thousands, is so compelling (besides being charming and funny with that laugh of his), so — quotable. He has given the world, the interfaith world, such pithy and profound insights as “All major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that is love, compassion, and forgiveness.” Or “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Or “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is Optional.”
So I boarded a bus at the North DeKalb shopping mall a full two hours ahead of the start time for the event, following the mailed instructions to the letter (or almost the letter), leaving behind my laptop and my big satchel with its backup paperbacks and thick journal.
As advised, taking only my car key, a cell phone, a water bottle, and a rapidly melting energy bar — and what I thought was a snuck-in tiny pink notebook and pencil stub to record the treasures I would hear. Hoping to revert to being a kind of spiritual journalist, recording an event, capturing the action, conveying the results to you.
After going through police security, after sitting in the unusually hot October sun in the athletic field bleachers waiting for the doors to open for the afternoon session, after browsing the concession tables with turkey sandwiches, Dalai Lama Visit 2010 coffee mugs and water bottles, Free Tibet bumper stickers, and My Religion is Kindness t-shirts, I took my coveted place on the floor of the gym, nearly at the back, and was encouraged by the platform that had been set up: for this: Tibetan lanterns, columns representing Western wisdom (and the gates of the university), and the presence of live artists: a jazz combo, an acrobatic dance troupe, and a water color artist, all improvising, all creating as we gathered, four thousand of us, to listen, watch, and learn. To be enlightened.
What I was hoping for did not happen. I did not have a single ah-hah moment, that take-away-fully-formed message that would clarify what it means to be creative, what the creative life is, and what the connection is between that and spiritual awareness or merger with the divine. Not the way I expected it anyway — brilliant and pithy. All tied up for me.
The first question asked was whether the arts have a special role in deepening compassion — at least one of our spiritual tasks. My take away sense was from the outset that creativity and the arts are not topics that much interest the Dalai Lama, with Richard Gere noting that there is no Tibetan equivalent for the word “creativity” and His Holiness admitting that he had little or no interest in the artist or how works of art are crafted, rather the inherent beauty and sense of realism in the works themselves.
The more real the better, as Gere has discovered himself. After showing His Holiness some of his “artistic” black and white photos, deliberately blurred, the Dalai Lama bluntly declared they were very bad, because they distorted what was “real.”
For him and from his Tibetan Buddhist perspective, the more clarity, the more real the representation of life, the more possibility for connection and compassion, for the cultivation of a good heart, a warm heart. This understanding of the power of art was echoed by fellow conversationalist Alice Walker, who similarly saw early on as a black woman living in the South that there was power in depicting average women of color as they were — as real as possible.
If you don’t truly see someone, she observed, it’s hard to feel empathy for them. If, by the strength of an artist rendering — through words or depictions — we can more fully see the other sentient being, we can experience the transformation within ourselves that can lead to more global change.
So while, as one reporter noted, the panel discussion was at times an engaging exploration of the interplay between creativity and compassion, spirituality, reality, and political struggle, I came away profoundly disappointed, realizing on the way back on the bus (no disrespect to the Dalai Lama) that I had approached his visit and this event very nearly like Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Lion, and the Scarecrow on their yellow-brick-road pilgrimage to see the Wizard of Oz. Believing, after a harrowing journey, once safely inside, from behind the curtain, that the Wizard would provide them immediately with a heart, a brain, courage, and the way home.
They did not get what they expected — but a different kind of astuteness indeed, and in each case — just actually what they needed from a very wise man.
After my admittedly much more benign pilgrimage than the journey to Oz — my brief sojourn in the hot sun on hard bleachers, the crowd, the difficulties seeing or hearing, the disappointment in not getting that take-away quote, that bumper sticker, that mantra that would make clear the link between creativity and spirituality or religious affection — what I was given — as a huge gift, a big ah-hah, after a few days of sifting through my experience — was the realization that, like Dorothy, I already had what I need in my own version of Kansas.
It was there all along, well before I bought the ticket to see the Dalai Lama: the inspiration, the wisdom, in favorite quotes sent to me by the artists in our own midst, in our own living faith community. What for each one of them, out of their own journeys, their own gifts, ties it all together, the creative urge, a life of meaning.
Bits of insight like this one offered by photographer and chaplain in our midst Cindy Brown, from God is at Eye Level by Jan Phillips, who writes: “every step in the process of taking pictures is a step toward the light, an experience of the holy, an encounter with the God, whose image I see wherever I look.”
Or these from Helen Goldberg: “I myself do nothing. The Holy Spirit accomplishes all through me.” (William Blake) And from Giacomo Puccini: “The music of this opera (Madame Butterfly) was dictated to me by God. I was merely instrumental in putting it on paper and communicating it to the public.”
From the personal reflections shared this morning by the actors and musicians, speaking of going deeper than fame and fortune, critique and outcome.
And in the tattered, yellowed quote from Unitarian poet and memoirist May Sarton, from a Journal of Solitude, which has been held up by dozens of different magnets on at least a half dozen refrigerator doors over the years, this observation that has so informed my own poetic efforts, my own creative stirrings: “When I am really inspired, I can put a poem though a hundred drafts and still keep my excitement. But this sustained battle is possible only when I am in a state of grace, when the deep channels are open, and when they are, when I am both profoundly stirred and balanced, the poetry comes as a gift from powers beyond my will.”
Deep channels open. Profoundly stirred and balanced. A creative gift from powers beyond my will.
On my own bookshelf all along was/is a book The Soul Tells a Story by author and editor Vinita Hampton Wright that at least from a Western perspective offers an accessible and meaningful framework for the creative and spiritual journey.
What does it mean to be creative? For her, in a general sense, every human being is creative. When you take the stuff of life and re-arrange it so it matters, so that it does good things, she writes, you are acting creatively. When parents of preschoolers come up with ways to occupy their exuberance for hours, she tells us, that’s creativity. The person in a congregation or in an office who never misses an opportunity to make a system more effective, is exercising creativity, she believes. The guy, like her father who worked in a factory all day and then came home and tended his garden, was being creative as well.
The creative process, she observes, does have its mysterious aspects, but overall it is, in her words, “natural, and we are designed to work with it joyfully and fruitfully.”
Creativity is exploratory, she tells us. Creativity is whole-life engagement, opening us up, deepening us, disturbing us, delighting us, making us more whole, tying things together.
When you say yes to your innate creativity, to your creative gifts, when you embark on this journey more intentionally, she observes that you can expect to be misunderstood, scare some people — scare yourself, be rejected, lose control, expect to grow more intuitive, expect to become more attentive to and engaged in life. Living in the moment, finding God in the ordinary.
We don’t have to do anything, she insists, to make creativity spiritual or vice versa. Creative work, she believes, is soul work. It takes place, she tells us, in that interior place, that place deep within where everything important is stored. The creative journey and the spiritual journey are parallel, she proposes. They require making choices on how to spend time and energy, processes and practices, community that mentors and supports us, helping us withstand the rough patches, celebrating with us, as she notes, the blessings as well.
Recent academic studies actually suggest that being in community, being amidst diversity, improves creativity, that spirituality blossoms as relations are formed and deepened. That differentness in gifts expands and enhances the creativity of each individual.
In the words of Patti Digh, from her book Creative is a Verb:
Let yourself yearn.
Author Robert Olen Butler asks, “At what level are we yearning? On the level of ‘I want an iPhone or a Lexus,’ or on the level of ‘I want to speak (or draw or sing or play) my truth.’ I want to find out who I am, not who you think I am. I want to create.”
May it be so this day.