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Art as Spiritual Practice, Part III [Armchair Self-Analysis*]

(** Originally post April 22, 2021 on my "Artful Buddhist" blog on Substack **)

“I throw up a little every time someone asks me whether my art-making is spiritual” is how I began this series about art as spiritual practice. I followed that up with one that provided some possible reasons for my resistance to the term “spiritual.”

We all engage in activities that don’t appear obviously “spiritual” but do feel similar. Maybe it’s gardening, golfing, backpacking, knitting, running, walking, or watching the setting sun. What is it about those other experiences that might also occur during art-making?

A good first step begins with self-analysis. And the same holds true for the examples provided above: how would one imagine a perfect round of golf if one didn’t golf? You need to start with something you know personally. So, we begin where we are, with whatever experiences we consider “spiritual.” That should help non-artists imagine art as spiritual practice.

Artists, what do you see in your artwork? What can you learn about yourself from the material results (i.e., your completed artwork)? And beyond observation, what other sorts of tools might you use for self-analysis?

Today, I will talk about some tools I have been using, which blend self-reflection and psychology. I’m not wedded to any single paradigm, and I will say more about each perspective below.

Starting Point: Art Equals Your Fingerprints

I begin with a quote from Art & Fear:

“Your fingerprints are all over your work, and you alone know how they got there. Your work tells you about your working methods, your discipline, your strengths and weaknesses, your habitual gestures, your willingness to embrace” (p. 36).

The immediate context is a discussion of how artists imagine past, present, and future work in comparison to their expectations. We may not know what is going on psychologically, but we can at least see the material results.

When looking at my body of work, my fingerprints show my main gestures: patterns, precision, caution, beauty within chaos, tension anticipating release, minimalism, sinuous lines, and stark contrasts. I’ve thought about these patterns (pun intended) for some time, and they tie into other elements of my self-analysis.

[22x30, ink on smooth Bristol; @jeffbrackettart]

Reading: Self-Help and Beyond

Based on my “fingerprints,” what can I lean into and what are potential obstacles along that path? Honestly, I lean into everything about my artistic fingerprints.

Potential obstacles for me are over-thinking (which I’ve addressed elsewhere) and perfectionism. Two books I’ve found especially helpful are:

· Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection.

· Danny Gregory, Shut Your Monkey.

Dr. Brown helps with setting boundaries, and accepting my “imperfections.” Boundaries include not caring about criticism from people who “aren’t in the game,” to paraphrase Dr. Brown. I’ve read several of Danny Gregory’s books, and this one offered strategies for fighting my perfectionist tendencies.

Plenty of books provide us with ways to connect art, creativity, and “spirituality.” One of the more popular examples is Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Like many other books about art and spirituality, she uses spiritual and spirituality as though their meanings are self-evident:

“Creativity is an experience—to my eye, a spiritual experience. It does not matter which way you think of it: creativity leading to spirituality or spirituality leading to creativity. In fact, I do not make a distinction between the two” (p. 16 in eBook).

This quote illustrates how readers have come to accept “spiritual” as a catchall term, in spite of its long and varied history of specific ideas and associated practices.

If we use “spiritual” in this widely-accepted way, what value does it really add to a conversation to say, “My art-making is spiritual?” It may well be, but religious studies scholars (my “day job”) prefer far more precision. Of course, there are plenty of books that do just that, and I will mention them in future posts.

Psychological Tools: Assessment and Action

[*Disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not giving psychological advice, period.]

I only learned of having Asperger Syndrome in late November 2020, but the signs have been there all along. A good example happened in 2017.

Over lunch with a friend, we wondered what our respective artwork might suggest about our personalities. I compared my daily distractions with the feelings I experienced while drawing:

“When I sit in front of a computer screen, I flit from this to that idea, chase down (online or on my shelves) ideas as they pop into my head. I end up imagining all sorts of projects (scholarly, artistic, etc.), but in those moments of creativity, I’m not getting other work done.”

All of these distractions are reasons for why I prefer working on my “Power Lines”: I don’t have to think about what to create – I just draw. I shape the lines as I go, and I don’t have to make decisions about what to create.

Sitting in front of the computer increases anxiety, while drawing reduces it. A. Lot.

My friend recommended several books aimed at helping people get rid of distractions and figure out ways for remaining focused, but that doesn’t address the root causes of anxiety.

For Aspies like myself, repeated actions frequently alleviate anxiety. Note, too, that I don’t want to suggest that I have intense anxiety. I don’t. But I do have near-constant, low-level anxiety that is kept in check in various ways.

As I processed the conversation with my friend, I began seeing how some of the topics could suggest that my art is, in fact, spiritual practice. For example:

· Self-reflexivity

· Searching for meaning

· Stress reduction

· Focus in the midst of chaos

· Self-discovery

· Overcoming obstacles

· Goals vs. going with the flow

Thus, another reason for the ongoing discussion on this blog.

[22x30 ink on smooth Bristol, @jeffbrackettart]

While Asperger’s provides me with greater understanding of why I think and act the way that I do, there are many other tools I can use for self-analysis. My Myers-Briggs profile is INTJ, shared by only 2% of the population. Myers-Briggs is a personality profile inventory, not a diagnostic tool aimed at identifying potential psychological disorders. So, it functions like other self-help tools: its value relies on how one views the results.

As with other tools for self-analysis, I ask what the strengths and challenges are for me as an INTJ. A quick online search names INTJ as most the most likely profile to be a narcissist. It’s true that Aspies may appear to be narcissists, but there are important differences. Basically, Aspies are easily bored with topics and conversations that don’t fit their own interests. That oversimplifies the situation, but it is an important difference to note.

For me, the INTJ in conjunction with Asperger’s has proved useful in my self-analysis. My doctor said, “Neither one defines you. They are just tools to help – not determine – self-assessment.” In fact, it was my doctor who asked whether I’d taken the Myers-Briggs test.

Some challenges I face as an Aspie are: occasional insomnia; difficulty sleeping (always), which is compounded by Restless Leg Syndrome. From what I know about Asperger’s, the following actions are recommendations for lessening anxiety and improving in areas of potential weakness:

· Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: this continues to be useful.

· Meditation: I’m nearing 100 consecutive days. It’s been very helpful.

· Medication for RLS: this is not for Asperger’s, even though Aspies often have trouble sleeping.

I’m also currently enrolled in a mini-course online: “Silent Illumination,” a Chan Buddhist approach to developing deep relaxation and “somatic awareness” of connections between “mind” and “body” (hint: they are not separate); there is much more I will say about this aspect, after the course concludes, but I’ve already made important discoveries. I’m new to meditation, and having a teacher is proving invaluable.

Concluding Observations

People use all sorts of filters for making sense of who they are. Today, I shared a few that are useful for me.

My 2017 conversation with a friend was a good barometer of my artistic tendencies, but the Aspie knowledge provides me with a better sense of why I think and act the way that I do.

I am now seeing ways to connect the term “spiritual” to my work, but I will first explore more about the historical definitions and developments. This need for more information (always) is associated with both my Aspie and INTJ profiles. Self-reflective writing is a daily exercise for me, and hopefully this post indicates a bit of what I’ve learned about how my art-making might be spiritual.

A related question is how and why we label artists the way we do. How, for instance, did we come to recognize artists as geniuses, outside of “normal” society, or as somehow incapable of being anything other than different, eccentric? There is no single answer, of course, but I will post about these societal perceptions soon.

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