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Art as Spiritual Practice, Part 2

(Originally posted Mar. 16, 2021 to my Artful Buddhist blog on Substack)

I had an “Aha” moment about my resistance to the term “spiritual” generally, and especially in relation to my art-making.

Suddenly, connections became clear about two important parts of who I am:

  • I’m an Aspie

  • I’m a former Evangelical

Both of these identity-markers show a tendency toward rules and rigid thinking. I will say a bit more about each one in order.

“Grid Lock,” 9x12 Woodcut print on Mulberry paper, @jeffbrackettart

First Identity Marker: Asperger Syndrome:

  • Asperger’s is a neurological condition: it’s how I’m wired.

  • Aspies are now referred to a being Neurodiverse, in contradistinction from Neurotypical people (NT), who used to be called “normal.”

  • Aspies are “on the Autism spectrum,” and frequently labeled as “high-functioning”

  • Aspies tend also to be good at detailed work, seeing and creating patterns, and being able to stay focused on tasks for a very long time.

Yes, there is a lot more to say, but this will do for now.

These traits alone could explain my resistance to “spiritual,” as it falls outside the rules, or the bounds, of traditional, organized religion in the West.

However, a stronger, more “positive,” tendency among Aspies is the ability and drive to become an expert in narrowly-defined topics; hence, I tend always to see topics as complex, in need of lots of explanation, and I defer to experts.

So, when I hear people make sweeping generalizations about the relationship between art and spirituality, I am simply reminded of how much more complex these topics are. I don’t begrudge people for using popular understandings of “spirituality,” except when they foist that onto my own self-understanding of my art-making process.

“Red & Black 2,” (“Grid lock, modified), @jeffbrackettart

Second Identity Marker: Former Evangelical:

During my Evangelical years, I saw the term “spiritual” as inferior to traditional religion.

Here’s an illustration: if someone said, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” my reaction to the term “spiritual” triggered thoughts, like:

  • Well, that’s part of “false religion,” as it fell outside of the only True Religion (read: mine!)

  • Okay, but that just signals a lack of commitment (ahem, Mr. Fake Buddhist!), and a profound misunderstanding of organized religions;

  • “Why are you so lazy?”

Obviously, my judgments came through, revealing more of my own insecurities and rule-bound ideas than anything else.

As an Evangelical, I rejected all religions other than my own as false. That perspective made for a challenging time in college, when I majored in religious studies and took courses in “Asian religions.”

Now that past experience helps me when I encounter similarly-minded students in my own classes. I’ve been there. I (think) I understand. I listen. I try to be as helpful as possible, working with (never against) such students to see how I can be of assistance.

What I learned during my Evangelical student days was that I had been completely mislead by people who were woefully ignorant of those so-called “non-Christian” religions. I recall vividly the friend who, when he learned I was majoring in religious studies, asked, “Why not go to the local Christian bookstore and get a book about other religions?”

I took a different path.

I studied.

I learned from people who actually knew what they were talking about.

So those two identity-markers (Aspie and former Evangelical) led to my “Aha” moment about the term “spiritual.”

To be clear, I’m not saying that I now will use the term spiritual to describe my art-making. Nor am I back pedaling and reconsidering what I said in my previous post. Keep in mind that I didn’t go from Evangelical to the present overnight. I’ve spent much of my life studying religion.

My goal in this post was simply to give an honest assessment of some reasons for my resistance to the term spiritual.

As always, one post opens questions to be explored in future posts.

I’ve been working on several strands that weave through the “art as spiritual practice” theme:

  • Artists who integrate Buddhist practice with their artistic work

  • What my artwork says about me (via self-analysis)

  • Making sense of “artistic influence,” especially the claim of “religious” influence

  • Artists’ intentions versus reception and interpretation of their work

  • Setting artists apart as “special” or even “geniuses”

Finally, to repeat myself, but it’s important: I don’t begrudge people who use the term spiritual regarding their work or their identity; just let me name my own. I may use it myself someday.

Or not.

I’m working on it.

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