Art and Spirituality are like sisters, sprawled on the green grass of the cosmos. They are the pendulum on which the universe of personal existence swings. Let’s explore these interrelated phenomena and find out what’s the relation between art and spirituality and how one can feed the other.
Spirituality, Art, and Poetry
One of the greatest sources of spiritual fulfillment can be easily found on your bookshelf – it’s called poetry. Reciting poetry, given the right ambiance, can lead to a profound spiritual experience. And there are many great poetic traditions, to draw from.
I love the wine-filled, deeply symbolic love poetry of Persia. Poets like Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Hafiz, Saadi, or Attar are always able to change my mind in a positive way. Somehow, a few simple words can turn the course of my day.
We often forget how lucky we are to be alive, and instead of appreciating every moment, we moan about trivia. But who cares about the mundane, when faced with the image of the ever expanding universe?
That’s one of the purposes of art – to smack us in the face with incredible beauty, and wake us up from the comatose little worlds which we inhabit.
Sung poetry and spiritual ecstasy
The tradition of sung poetry is alive for hundreds of years in Persia, and Ghazals (a type of love poetry) were sung even before the Muslim Conquest. After the so-called Islamic Revolution in Iran, the stern Ayatollah tried to suppress almost all forms of artistic expression, but it persists till this day.
The situation slightly improved over the years, but still, one of the most famous classical singers of Iran, Mohammad-Reza Shajarian in 2009 requested that the Iran Broadcasting Company should stop playing his songs, especially “Iran, Ey Saraye Omid” (Iran, the Land of Hope), as it has no relation with the current situation of his country.
Consider this poem by Attar, written on the mystical theme of “the moth and the flame.”:
The Poem of The Butterflies
“The people of this world are like the three butterflies
in front of a candle’s flame.
The first one went closer and said:
I know about love.
The second one touched the flame
lightly with his wings and said:
I know how love’s fire can burn.
The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame
and was consumed. He alone knows what true love is”.
Now take a moment and listen to this poem sung in Farsi by Salar Aghili, for the original soundtrack for the beautiful movie called Bab Aziz, The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul:
Rabindranath Tagore And The Spiritual Art of India
One of the writers who affect me greatly is Rabindranath Tagore, the most treasured poet of India. Tagore was not only a poet, but also a great educator, activist, and painter. He was the first non-European to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
He was also knighted, but he renounced knighthood after the massacre of peaceful protesters by British forces in Amritsar, in 1919. He lost many of his children, and his beloved wife, but he never gave up, and lived the life of a true artist until the very end.
LET all the strains of joy mingle in my last song ⎯ the joy that makes the earth flow over in the riotous excess of the grass, the joy that sets the twin brothers, life and death, dancing over the wide world, the joy that sweeps in with the tempest, shaking and waking all life with laughter, the joy that sits still with its tears on the open red lotus of pain, and the joy that throws everything it has upon the dust, and knows not a word.
– Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali
The spiritual writings of Jalaluddin Rumi
Rumi is another great spiritual voice of The Orient. His mystical poetry never fails to evoke feelings of awe and humbleness. That’s probably why he’s been called the most popular poet in United States.
His magnum opus is Masnavi, an extensive collection of stories and anecdotes, but the most accessible volume you can pick up is called The Essential Rumi (anthology of poems translated by Coleman Barks), a collection of poems translated by Coleman Barks.
I first bought his book of poetry in Dharamsala, the home of Dalai Lama, only to live it in the train a few days later. But the poetry haunted me, so I ordered the same volume for half the price on Amazon when I came back home.
The Journey Starts Here
Don’t go off sightseeing.
The real journey is right here.
The great excursion starts
from exactly where you are.
You are the world.
You have everything you need.
You are the secret.
You are the wide opened.
Don’t look for the remedy for your troubles
You are the medicine.
You are the cure for your own sorrow.
How about another great Persian poet, Omar Khayyam? He knew definitely knew the good things in life:
“Drink wine. This is life eternal. This is all that youth will give you. It is the season for wine, roses and drunken friends. Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.”
Sources of spiritual insights can also be found in novels, painting, architecture, and of course, music.
Art, Spirituality and Music
Nietzsche was absolutely right when he wrote that “Without music, life would be a mistake”. Music helps to evoke ecstatic states, but you don’t have to participate in a religious ceremony to get the best of it.
My ethno-musically-wired-brain makes me gather all the best from different musical traditions. But I’m also a devout follower of the pleasure principle. If I don’t like it, there’s no point in bothering with it. Pleasure is the sine qua non of the proper musical experience.
No one said it better than Samuel Butler in one of his notes:
“I should like to like Schumann’s music better than I do; I dare say I could make myself like it better if I tried; but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them at once and no trying at all”.
Music conducive to spiritual experience
Some types of music are more conducive to a spiritual epiphany than others. To me, instrumental music seems to best suited for that purpose. Without words, you can just relax, look within, meditate and see what you can find.
Moreover, with instrumental (or ambient) music you never know what to expect. The only thing that you can be quite sure of is that it’s going to be beautiful.
Surprise is one of the main ingredients of good music. That’s why I love the meditative music of Munir Bashir. His use of silence and a variety of the musical ideas are truly masterful. It’s perfect if you want to practice Zen attitude in your life.
Musicians of The Spiritual Tradition
I’m also a great fan of artists such as Hossein Alizadeh, Ali Akbar Khan, Jalil Shahnaz, Nikhil Banerjee, Rabih Abou Khalil, and many others. As you can see, my sonic antennae are directed to the East. There are many reasons behind it. The connection to spiritual traditions is one of them. The rich cultural heritage and intrinsic beauty is the other.
If you want to use music for spiritual purposes, the most important ingredient should be the feeling of awe that it invokes in you. Some people marvel at the beauty of the scared music created by Arvo Part or Jordi Savall.
Others feel something special while listening to ambient masterpieces of Robert Rich, Michael Stearns, or Steve Roach. If you really want to get deep, I would recommend smoking cannabis, putting on your headphones and closing your eyes.
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