Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 14 : The Arts in Culture > Chapter 3 : Art Experience and Mysticism

Art Experience and Mysticism

When creative art is truly inspired, it comes close to being sacramental.

There is a path to mystical intuition and sometimes to mystical experience in the beholding of Nature's beauty. There is another through the listening to musical beauty.

Only truly inspired geniuses of art and intellect, and those members of the public who appreciate their productions, understand that religion has to a large extent appeared in different vesture to this generation.

It is inevitable that inspired art and illumined writing should arouse the beginning of mystical feelings in the hearts of those prepared and sensitive enough to appreciate mysticism. But even in hearts not so ready, the dim echoes of such feelings are often aroused. This is particularly true of music.

If he can lay himself open to the power of beauty in art or Nature, letting it get deep inside him, he may receive an intuition or attain an experience as mystical as the meditator's.

Where literature, poetry, music, painting, or other real art is truly inspired, it comes near to religion and nearer still to mysticism. Those persons who cannot find any affinity with these last two may get their spiritual aid from the arts. Respectfully approached, properly used, and correctly understood, these too can be sacred, as the ancients well understood. If today art has been dragged into muddy gutters and mad encounters, if it has been squalidly commercialized and deprived of purpose, meaning, form, or Truth, that is because the invaders are not artists but barbarians.

Religion and art, liturgy and sculpture, prayer and poetry, come together as relatives when inspiration touches them.

Through the practice of art a man may come closer to soul than through occultism.

Is the artist's and the mystic's experience identical? Sometimes it is but more often not at all. The times when the artist, the writer, the musician, or the poet touches the same level as the mystic depend partly upon his ability to forget himself in devotion to his creation, partly on other things.

The ecstasy of the mystic is psychologically akin to the ecstasy of the artist. It is not metaphysically the same, however. For the mystic, inasmuch as he has been prepared to renounce all external things in its pursuit, is freer and has gone farther. He has not to depend on such things as a stimulus to his effort or as a focus for his method.

The practice of the artist is one level below the practice of the contemplative.

The artist uses a medium outside himself to effect his own personal approach to the ecstatic state of ideal beauty as well as to inspire the appreciators of his artistic production. The mystic uses no external medium whatever, but makes his approach to the source he finds inside himself. Although the mystic, if he be blessed with intellectual talents or artistic gifts, can project his ecstatic experience into an intellectual or artistic production when he chooses, he is not obliged to do so. He has this internal method of transmitting his experience to others through mental telepathy. Hence mysticism is on a higher level than art. Nevertheless, art, being much easier for most people to comprehend and appreciate, necessarily makes a wider appeal and reaches hundreds of thousands where mysticism reaches only a few.

The artist, the musician, or the writer who uses his art as a spiritual path must one day come to the point where he finds that it is no longer sufficient--that he must go beyond it, or rather, transcend it and find entirely within himself and without this outside means the uplift and the exaltation that he formerly got during the minutes of composition or creation. In the end, we have to look within because there alone is the real being, the soul. Art can lead us to its very border but art is still something that works upon the senses, and these senses have to be transcended, the senses of the body, the five senses.

Art succeeds in its finer and fundamental purpose if it succeeds in inducing absorption in the theme to the point of self-forgetfulness. Then the higher nature can come through and permeate the man's being with joy or truth, hope or strength, and whatever attribute is suggested by the theme itself.

The question whether art alone is enough may be answered affirmatively by the artist only until one of two things happens. Either he is confronted by a shattering event in his personal life or he is confronted by an uncommon one in his inner life. By the latter, I mean a descent of grace with no external cause or with one in human or nature form. This confrontation with an enlightened person may act as a catalyst, or this blessed gift of mountain-sea immensity or forest peace may touch him more deeply than earlier experiences. It is then that he understands that the importance of art can be exaggerated, that there is another level of being for which it can prepare him, or to which it can lead, but which it cannot touch because it is derivative--not direct, not immediate.

Human language is impotent to tell us exactly what this profoundest of all experiences is like, but it can give hints, clues. Human art cannot depict it in picture nor give it sound or music but can come near enough to excite or hush us.

With all its benedictory beauty, art alone cannot save a man. It can lead him to the very verge of ethereal moments, but not to the illumination which lies within them.

The release from care and repose after toil which the arts or Nature can give are more thoroughly given by mystical meditation, which has the further advantage of depending on no external person, medium, instrument, or vehicle. The way of art, being dependent on external forms although the goal itself is an interior one, has limitations which make it fall short of the way of mysticism. For if a man gets so attached and entangled in the attractiveness of those beautiful forms that his reactions to people and things constantly swing, pendulum fashion, back and forth between attraction and repulsion, then his aesthetic senses will no longer help but rather will hinder him from attaining the goal.

Those who find their fulfilment in any form of the arts and who look to it for their highest satisfaction may become, and often do become, attached to it in such a way that it blocks their way to the still higher level where all attachments, including this one, must vanish. For unless a man finds his higher self and values it above everything else, he has not brought his quest to completion. This does not mean he can throw aside all arts; they need not become obstacles in his way so long as he keeps them in their proper place and knows that they are on the step just below the highest one.

The creative artist is taken out of himself for a time and is serenely elevated, just as the meditative mystic is. But the two states, although psychologically similar, are not spiritually similar. For the mystic enters his elevated state consciously and deliberately goes in quest of his inner being or soul. He uses it as a springboard to escape from the world of space time and change. The artist, however, uses it as a means of creating something in the world of space time and change. Hence although art approaches quite close to mysticism, it has not the same divine possibilities, for it lacks the higher values, the moral disciplines, and the supersensuous aims of mysticism.

Even the highest art is only a means to an end--it ought not to be made an end in itself. The inspired artist must in the end put aside his theme, his medium, his work and turn to the Divine alone, not to its expressions down here.

That beauty in Nature which moves the artist to compose his piece, write his poem, or whatever, must in the end give place to the beauty in a glimpse, ethereal and elusive but more deeply felt than any other.

It is not only the workers in art who may get carried away by their concentration, but also the laymen who become the recipients of their productions and put themselves under their charm with a similar degree of concentration. In both cases--in the artist who creates and the layman who contemplates--there is an approach to the borderline of yoga. If it is pure beauty which calls forth their adoration and not some lesser thing, they may indeed cross this borderline and find themselves in a yogic state. What is said here of art is true also of the impulses derived from Nature. If man would only take such moods more seriously and rise to the highest level towards which the mood can carry them, they may well return to ordinary consciousness if not with a glimpse then with the next best thing to a glimpse.

Such mystical experiences are priceless to the artist. They give him the subtle but strong inspiration without which the finest technique is a half-failure.

Art is at its best and greatest when it is motivated by the endeavour to express such a glimpse.

Shelley called these glimpses "visitations of the divinity in man" and he called art "a record of the best and happiest moments."

The function of art is different from that of mysticism, but both converge in the same ultimate direction. Both are expressions of the human search for something higher than the ordinary.

Chuang Tzu tells the story of a carpenter highly gifted in carving wood. When asked how he made such masterpieces, he said, "When I'm about to do this, I guard against any lessening of my vital strength. I first reduce my mind to absolute quiet. For three days, in this condition, I end up by forgetting any question of gaining reward. For five days I forget anything about getting famous. For seven days my skill becomes concentrated, all disturbing things from outside vanish. I see the form in my mind's eye and set to work."

The greatest Japanese master of camellia growing, arrangement, and art in our time, Cholaa Adachi, said to disciples, "You must give yourself over completely to the flowers. Look upon their beauty with a warm heart and devoted mind. You have to sit and face flowers silently for a while. Old Japanese proverbs say, `A flower is a mirror to the mind' and `Be beautiful and pure like flowers.'"

The dangers of a disequilibrated psyche are vividly shown in the lives of gifted artists and inspired poets. If we comprehend that genius in the arts is in essence a spiritual thing, we can comprehend too why the ruin that overtook Ernest Dowson and Paul Verlaine was equivalent to a spiritual failure on the quest itself.

A brilliant concert pianist, who was also a successful meditator, told me that the same feeling of being taken over by a higher power which came at a certain depth of contemplation, came also after a certain period of time had elapsed during her playing. Both experiences caused her to be suffused with Peace.

The artist or poet who is highly inspired has a chance to find God.

Let the intellectuals argue and debate: that is as high and as far as they can go; the thinking machine must continue to revolve its wheels. But let also the intuitive-feeling poets, the beauty-searching artists, and the inward-turning mystics have their say.

The indescribable mystical content of a poem or picture is given to the delicate sensitivity of the man who undertakes to provide the outer form which it takes. Without feeling it is nothing; without depth its measure is slight. And of course the whole result grows under the warmth of tender love.

In the admiration of Nature's beauty and the appreciation of art, music, poetry, and literature, the seeker can find sources of inner help and themes for meditation.

Art is a means of pleasantly enforcing meditation, of unconsciously leading the mind inwards, of transferring attention from the material thing to the immaterial idea.

The mystical intuition and experience can come to men solely through a practice or appreciation of the arts, and can also be given out through them.

In literary and dramatic works which rise to the higher planes of thought, creation, imagination or aspiration, there may be moments when some among the readers or audience are carried to experiences where the ordinary self is dropped and a nobler one takes over; where a rare peace holds the mind or ecstatic beauty suffuses the feelings, not for long perhaps but to be long remembered.

The ultimate result and worth of a work of art lies not in the immediate pleasure it gives, but in the far deeper feeling of fulfilment. For this in turn arises out of the divine stillness, which was momentarily and unwittingly touched, or which momentarily absorbed and held the satisfied ego.

Whether in the presentation of Nature's scenes or the productions of man's art, the beauty which attracts the best instincts is a faint reverberating echo coming down from the highest divine world.

The poet's appeal to feeling, the architect's graceful forms, and the composer's melodious music can be elevated from a merely technical level, dependent on talent alone, to one of jewelled inspiration if he lets himself surrender to this ethereal stillness.

The closeness of God and Light, Matter and Light, Mystical Experience and Light shows itself in the study of philosophy. It is not a surprise to find that painters of genius have been lured into working with light to find their highest appeal--beauty!

For some poets and composers the experience of Reality is almost within their grasp.

It is the superior business of an inspired work of art to bring out the best in us for a time. But it is our business to put forth the efforts needed to keep it active for all time.

The beauty of some scenes in Nature and some pieces of music--who that feels them, and reflects, can fail to be touched by sadness at the thought that they die all-too-soon, leaving him alone again with himself? In the end, he must find it there.

A piano student tried to find if music was used in India as a path to the philosophic-mystic experience. She found no such practice, but that it was used to stimulate religious devotion, which is not exactly the same thing.

Whereas the Buddhist tradition frowned on music and dancing, most in the Sufi tradition delighted in the first and those in the Dervish one delighted especially in the second. Where Buddha banned music as a hindrance to aspirants, Pythagoras and the Neoplatonic masters praised it as a help.

Beethoven generally looked to the nature of the feelings to be brought out by music. Thus someone else's genius, that of a Beethoven perhaps, may help us get the mystical glimpse.

A beautiful scene or piece of music stirs the mind to unconscious remembrance of its own beautiful source. If this mood is sustained long enough then a kind of nostalgia develops.

The creative artist who has produced inspired work knows from his own experience that art can be connected with the higher development of a man.

He knows from the force of his own inspiration that there is a part of his being which transcends his normal level.

The inspired composer of music or painter of pictures may be so carried away by the beauty of his inspiration as to be lost in it. He then forgets himself, undergoes a temporary loss of ego.

If the artist could only learn to be as inspired in his life as he is at times in his work--that is, as elevated and idealistic--how quickly would he realize the quest's highest state!

Goethe knew, and said, that if he could find out why an artistic production interested and impressed, excited or fascinated him, he could advance another step forward towards saying the Truth.

Through these beautiful forms our feeling is aesthetically pleased, but through its own higher evolution it is merged and rapt in the spirit of Beauty itself. In this matter the thinking of Plato coincides smoothly with the knowledge of philosophy.

An inspired work is always fresh, for it always comes of a man's own deep spirit.

That which is most evident and attractive and inspiring in what the best artists and composers give us is not far from that which is given in thought and feeling to others who have felt the Presence.

The philosophic search for enlightenment and the artist's search for perfection of work can meet and unite.

The artist whose first impression of philosophy is a false one may believe that he has nothing to gain from it. The fact is that he can discover much in it--beauty, inspiration, support, a sense of art's real mission.

It is possible to combine the artist's search for his highest self-expression with the mystic's penetration into his self-ground.

Plato saw what the inspired artist discovers in the end, that beauty of form and shape is only a lead to the formless beauty of Overself.

The classical arts and crafts of several Oriental countries served a double purpose for their better practitioners. They were a professional means of earning a living. They were also part of a spiritual path. The craftsman who gave weeks or even months to finish a product gave it also considerable concentration. When he turned away to spiritual exercises, he brought this power quite naturally into his devotional prayer or meditational inner work.

A poem or a piece of music fulfils its highest purpose if it leads reader or hearer beyond poetry or music. Art is not the end of living: the beauty to which it points must be found in man himself.

Art in its best moments tells of a supernal reality. If it can lead him to look upon the face of that reality, he can then dispense with art.

The admiration felt for a work of art or a piece of music, an inspired poem or a mountain scene, should be turned into something more than brief enjoyment. This can be done by entering more deeply and more quietly into the experience.

As he yields himself to this admiration for nature, to music, to art, more and more he will find on specific occasions that a kind of stillness settles down over him when he is engaged in this attitude.

This faculty of admiration, properly used and rightly directed, may become a way of inner communion. Music, sunset, landscapes are, among others, fit objects.

When the beautiful thing has led to the exalted thought, when the mind is lit up by the glimpse, then the work of art or Nature has rendered its service of acting as a springboard and should be deserted.

When a piece of deep music or a chapter of illumined writing puts him under a kind of spell towards the end, when the aesthetic joy or intellectual stimulus of one or the other gives him the sensation of being carried away, he ought to take full advantage of what has happened by putting aside the thought of the music or book and remembering that he is at the gate of the Overself.

If his affections are engaged and he feels the effect of beauty--whether in Nature or art--so deeply that admiration verges on worship, he would do well to take the next step and search for beauty's source.

It is a rare moment when he looks upon Beauty itself rather than upon the forms of Beauty.

This meditation on beauty, which is practised by true artists and practisable by all others who are sensitive to Nature, can be stretched to a point of full absorption. The meditator is then lost in lovely feelings where the holy trinity of Greek worship--goodness, beauty, and truth--fuse as one. He rises from it as an inspired man. The beautiful object which was outside his body kindled the spirit of beauty inside his heart. The visible led, by adoration and concentration, to the invisible. It is then possible, while this influence lasts, to carry it back again into outer life.

From the attachments to beautiful forms, sounds, phrases, he has been set free by Beauty itself. He may still enjoy them, but no longer depends on them, just as he may still use a candle but worships the sun.

The arts may be used to approach the verge, the very edge of "nowhere and nowhen," but philosophy is needed to go beyond.

The artist's productions may be most inspired; he may glorify art and put it on a pinnacle as the noblest and loftiest human activity when at its best. But it is still a manifestation of man's ego, the finest and final one. He must transcend it in the end. Like yoga, it prepares the way, is a step not a stop.

He is a philosopher first, an artist second. This is the order, the hierarchy, by which he lives; yet this does not render him any less appreciative of a poem, does not stop him enjoying music to its fullest.

The artistic experience provides something of a foretaste of the philosophic one; there is something of the mystical glimpse in it, too: but because it depends on an outer stimulant, it passes after a while and leaves the experiencer bereft. But it refines and exalts feeling.

The glimpses produced by the arts, and especially by music, are only brief and slight ones. They cannot equal the measure or quality of those produced by the Quest's more direct techniques.

Words give us the idea of things, sculptures and paintings actualize their pictured forms, music renders sound-effects, but none of these has ever evoked the Real. For that everything else must be banished--only the Void, Silence, and Stillness may Be; nothing to see or touch.

Art can be a path to spiritual enlightenment but not to complete and lasting enlightenment. It can be born out of, and can give birth itself to, only Glimpses. For art is a search for beauty, which by itself is not enough. Beauty must be supported by virtue and both require wisdom to guide them.