By Christine Valters Paintner
The Monk and Artist Archetypes
I have spent most of my professional career exploring the connections between two archetypes – the monk and the artist. Archetypes are universal patterns of energy found across cultures. Each of us has an inner monk and artist and we are invited to cultivate those aspects of ourselves. The monk is the part of ourselves that seeks connection with the divine in each moment of time, through the objects of daily life, and through encounters with other people. The artist is the part of ourselves that seeks to give expression to an inner set of images in an outward form. That form might be words, paint, film, movement, or other artistic medium. The monk and artist support and nourish one another.
Creativity as Process Over Product
I was not drawn to a professional life in the arts. I was much more interested in peoples’ experiences of creating. I loved what happened when I led retreats or sat with people in spiritual direction and opened up spaces where people had permission to follow their creative impulses, to make a mess, to perhaps create “bad art” and set aside old messages about what an artist is. Externalizing something you are wrestling with can be very healing. I discovered this is all very spiritual and soulful work.
I am most enlivened by engaging in creativity as a process, rather than focus on creating a product. Process means following the flow of what is unfolding in the moment. It means being open to a journey of discovery as we create instead of thinking we know where we are heading. It means getting out of our own way, surrendering agendas and plans, as well as fears and judgement. It is an ongoing journey. It is a lot like prayer.
Art as Pilgrimage
I liken the art-making process to going on pilgrimage, which is a soulful journey where we seek the Holy. Pilgrimage is also an embodied practice - we walk, we travel across land and water, we encounter our physical needs often more keenly.
The Buddhist writer and meditation teacher Reginald Ray describes the body as “the last unexplored wilderness.” When I first read this description my heart sang with recognition. I have a great love of the desert monastic tradition – the ammas and abbas who journeyed out into the wilderness to strip away what was not necessary and come into radical communion with the divine.
In a culture that promotes endless self-improvement, to descend into our bodies and navigate that territory, honoring it as a place of sacred encounter is a tremendous gift. To see it as wilderness means we open to the holiness of our flesh. When I am more attuned to my body and her needs, I write and create from a more deeply grounded place. I find yoga and dance hugely beneficial to both my contemplation and creativity because these practices help me to move out of my mind which wants to direct, control, plan, and expect things, and move into my body which is a more spacious, open, receiving, and generative vessel. Making this shift is at the heart of the creative process.
One key way to bring embodied awareness to our creative practice is by paying attention to the rhythms of creation around us, especially in the rise and fall of each day and the rise and fall of the seasons. The ancient monks would pause to pray eight times during the day. This was to remind themselves of the orientation and direction of their lives and hearts. It also helped them to attune to the distinctive rhythms and invitations each day offered – praying at dawn we listen to what is awakening in us, at midday we listen for what is coming to fullness, in the evening we pay attention to what we want to release, and at night we move into rest and mystery and unknowing.
The seasons of the year follow this same pattern of blossoming, fruitfulness, releasing, and resting. The more we attend to these rhythms, the more they can support our creative process. We live in a culture that promotes perpetual productivity, asking us to always be blossoming or bearing fruit. However, the release and rest, the letting go and times of being are as essential to creative work as the doing. Again, this helps us honor our physical bodies as well with their limitations and possibilities. When we honor sacred rhythms we guard against burning ourselves out. We start to see “artist’s block” as a time when we are invited to rest and set aside our work. We begin to reverence the body’s needs as foundational to our creative and spiritual practice.
In the Benedictine monastic tradition, lectio divina is an ancient contemplative way of reading the scriptures. It is a way of slowing ourselves down and listening deeply for how God might be speaking to us through a given text. We choose a text, we read it several times over, we allow images and feelings to arise in our imaginations, we listen for an invitation, and then we rest into silence. The text we choose could be scripture or a poem or other text. We can also practice lectio divina with an image or with music.
Lectio divina is a wonderful way of activating the creative imagination. As a poet, one of my primary practices is to begin the day choosing a poem to read several times through slowly. Poetry has a way of moving us out of the linear, analytic mind and helping us descend into a more intuitive and embodied kind of knowing. As I listen for the images sparked by lines in the poem I make space for them to expand. When I attend to the invitation arising, I let it arise from my body’s wisdom and how I am being invited to express my response through my own poetry.
An Artist’s Rule of Life
One of the central practices of monastic communities is to create a Rule of Life. Rather than a rigid document, a Rule is more like a trellis to give structure to our spiritual practice while leaving room for growth and change.
Creating an Artist’s Rule of Life means to contemplate what are the practices and rhythms that help to nourish your creative life the most. You must first consider the times of day and times of year that feel most supportive of entering into a place of open-ended flow. Let those become the heart of your Rule, protect these times. Then build a set of practices that help to support this. Time spent sitting in silence, time for lectio divina, time for ritual.
Create a simple ritual to begin your creative time to remind yourself of its sacred connection and grounding. Lighting a candle, saying a blessing, or singing a song are all ways to mark this transition into intentional creative work. Weave in body practices that help you to regularly drop into your embodied experience and stay attuned to the wisdom being offered. This might include a walk where you aren’t trying to get anywhere, but simply savoring the gift of movement and paying attention to nature’s delights around you.
To become a holistic artist means to connect our creative capacity and expression intentionally to our spiritual path and practice as well as to our bodies. This requires practices from us, habits and ways of being that support us in staying open to receiving wisdom and insight from other sources beyond our own desire to plan and control the outcome.