Golnaz Fathi, Untitled, 2011
Last night I had the great pleasure to hear the accomplished Iranian artist Golnaz Fathi share her passion for painting at a presentation at Hong Kong’s Asia Society. As I listened to Golnaz, I realized that she was describing her love of art as a sacred practice. Upon a night’s reflection, it seems to me that her example can be both instructive and inspirational to those of us who want to explore art as a restorative force in our lives.
Before sharing Golnaz’s experience, let me set the stage by reviewing our recent class discussions. I’ve shared with you the central claim of the Wisdom Tradition, which is that each of us has the innate ability to access the vertical (or infinite) dimension of reality, and thereby move us from a small self existence to that Larger Self integration of the human and divine in our daily lives. The key is to train one’s body and heart capacities, which atrophy in the intense glare of traditional academic achievement, as measured by the number of APs you take, your SAT scores, your GPA, etc. I am inviting you to take up various spiritual practices in this course to facilitate this body-heart training.
I find that students who take up art as their spiritual practice almost always have a very positive experience. Whether its calligraphy, zentangle, painting, paper-cutting, or making mandalas, students with an interest in art seem to find it natural and pleasurable to consider their art work as a form of spiritual practice. In fact, most of these students can’t help but spend more time than they had intended because it is so enjoyable, relaxing, and perhaps even liberating.
Golnaz’s Calligraphy as a Spiritual Practice
Born in Iran in 1972, Golnaz shared that even as a young child, art captivated her. Her parents took her at a young age to a museum in London where she became so spellbound by the exhibits that they couldn’t find her, despite paging her over the PA system. Many years later, she still describes becoming speechless in front of abstract art paintings that leave her “trembling” inside. When this happens, she feels this irrepressible urge to express all of these sensations on canvas – right then and there in the museum.
After high school, Golnaz felt called to devote herself to what she calls the sacred art of calligraphy. To become a master calligrapher in Iran requires dedicating one’s whole life to this great work. For the next eight years of her life, Golnaz wrote for eight hours a day with no days off, a labor of the highest devotional love. This is no source of pride for Golnaz, for her master teachers spent 16 hours a day doing their writing. One of her teachers only slept 3 times a week, giving himself over to his practice as much as 20 hours/day! The fruit of his practice for all the devotees was humility, for ultimately all the gifts of calligraphy come from God.
How does she look back at this daily discipline that many of us would consider monastic in its austerity? Wide-eyed and smiling, she intones, “So grateful . . . such a pleasure.” For she had the opportunity to dedicate herself to a task of beauty that at the same time purified her own heart. For Golnaz, calligraphy and her later shift to painting are sacred arts not to be gained without this rigorous, yet joyous, dedication.
Calligraphy and the Wisdom Tradition
In terms of the Wisdom Tradition, we can observe that Golnaz’s body, mind, and heart required training. First, her hand needed to learn to write the script perfectly, the same size and style day after day, month after month, until it became as steady as breathing. Golnaz commented specifically that the meaning of letters and words were of no consequence to her. Unlike the typical reflection we teach in our humanities classes, Golnaz advised forgetting about the meaning of the letters and words. The key mental training is attention apart from meaning-making, simply “becoming one with the pen.” Calligraphy is “exactly meditation,” she explained.
Her heart, too, needed training to teach it how to be responsive. Once the “monkey mind” learns attention, self-infatuation gives way to a gentle humility that cultivates new levels of sensibility. Through this purification process, the heart becomes attuned to beauty everywhere, which then serves as the source of one’s art. The artist’s life task, then, is to train one’s perceptual faculties to notice beauty in its infinite manifestations, select a particular fleeting moment of such recognition, and then transfer that essential felt sense (that is “not communicated by words”) onto the canvas. In accordance with the great Islamic masters, she humbly acknowledges that such an understanding is a gift of divine grace. She is but a vehicle to transmit beauty from her heart’s perception to the painting for the viewer’s consideration. Her role is to be a pure vessel of transmission, to “make strokes dance on the canvas …that line now has a soul.”
If the goal of her work can be said to infuse her art with soul, I would suggest that her presentation, too, communicated this same spirit. This blog entry is a testimony that she succeeded in animating her story with that same life force.
Student Art as a Spiritual Practice
What comes as a great surprise to me as a religion teacher, however, is that my students seem to experience a sense of that same aliveness that Golnaz speaks of when they do art as a spiritual practice in my class. The discipline required for my project is miniscule in comparison: ten times over two weeks. Yet the serenity that Golnaz has developed over the years seems evident in embryonic form in my students as well. Listen to one of them, Moqiu, describe writing the Buddhist Heart Sutra in traditional Chinese script for her spiritual practices project:
“When I first started copying the Heart Sutra, I was always nervous, and one of the challenges I had was over-reacting negatively when I thought a stroke didn’t look aesthetically pleasant. Due to this, I would sometimes even hold my breath to prevent my breathing from making my hand shake. Throughout this entire project, I noticed that I used extremely shallow breaths, as my breathing correlated with the strokes I wrote, but these breaths changed from being nervous and caught to being steady and meditative once I started focusing on the concept of letting go and keeping in mind the actual message of the Heart Sutra. For my ending sessions, I found that I was able to concentrate entirely on the calligraphy and use my shallow breathing, which had once been a barrier in my path, to assist my hand movements and concentration. I went from only noticing the surface of the calligraphy I was writing to better understanding the teaching of the Heart Sutra and using the calming movements of calligraphy to move one step closer to the inner peace I hope to achieve.”
Like most art students who do these projects, at first Moqiu was quite nervous, perhaps even perfectionistic, doing her Heart Sutra calligraphy. Through the practice, however, she became aware of this tendency and its effect on her breathing. Over the course of the project, she relaxed into a deeper calm, a peace that surpasses the rational mind.
Similar to Golnaz, writing calligraphy for Moqiu became a meditative experience, as she let go and focused her mind. Commenting on her “biggest religious breakthrough” of the semester which came through doing her spiritual practice project, she explains:
“In each of my calligraphy sessions, I was able to create a calmness and create for myself a space separate from my everyday life . . . . In later practices, I was able to connect my mind and body through conscious focus and breathing meditation . . . . I’ve gone from understanding religion from mainly belief to believing in the change religion can spark in ourselves. I’ve discovered that I have moved closer to the inner peace and happiness I hope to obtain while beginning the journey of discovering my Larger Self.”
Another student, who has some struggles with obsessive-compulsiveness, had to face this perfectionism in choosing to draw mandalas as her spiritual practice, attaching herself to the outcome of her art, constraining her sense of freedom and creativity that she aimed to cultivate. Through the project she came to realize that “using art as a spiritual practice is a great gift to my self-expression as long as I don’t try to control it by my ego, but let it flow from a higher source.”
When I think of the students who have done art as a spiritual practice, the same themes emerge time and again: perfectionism giving way to relaxation, letting go, body-mind connection, flow, and a generalized sense of well-being. These are strikingly similar to Golnaz’s own experience over the last quarter century of practicing calligraphy and painting as a sacred art.
The amazing conclusion I have come to – something I was only beginning to sense four years ago – is that the same process that has brought so much joy to Golnaz in her soul-expanding artwork can be offered to 9th grade students who have no formal training, nor prior religious experience. This seems to lend credence to Cynthia Bourgeault’s assertion that the heart, unlike the mind’s requirement of so many years of education, is fully formed and innately capable of accessing the holy at any point. The image that comes to mind is that of a shut door that opens only a slight crack, allowing some previously undetected draft of air to enter into a space. Like that invisible rush of wind, the Wisdom Tradition suggests that spirit is everywhere. When we dampen the mind, pay attention to the body, and purify the heart – even over a short period of a few minutes a day for 10 days – a new breath-wind-spirit enters into a human being. In a world awash with young students struggling with mental health, let us see their anguish as a prompt to search for a new paradigm. In that quest, it would be remiss of us not to consider the Wisdom Tradition’s body-mind-heart interrelationship as a potential source of re-enchantment for our spirits.
 C. Bourgeault (2016). The Heart of Centering Prayer: Non-Dual Christianity in Theory and Practice, p. 61.
1. “Brushstrokes in Motion“, December 8, 2010
2. Here is how one of my students described her experience with calligraphy – writing Chinese characters – as a spiritual practice:
I am doing calligraphy…. I think calligraphy is also symbolic of the human purpose is because the line between the creator and the created becomes blurred when the paper, the pen, the ink, and the person are all fulfilling their own divine destiny.
My initial intent with the spiritual practice was to “let go of my appreciation and attachment to beauty so I can truly experience the art without any clinging.” However, the more I wrote, the more my work became about beauty because I found that I was seeing beauty in a different way than usual. Instead of an intellectual appreciation of beauty, it became a more bodily appreciation and wonder of the universe and its shapes and words and curves. The true gift of calligraphy for me, was allowing me to sit long enough to experience beauty and truth and depth as a relationship between the creator and the created in my own body. I saw how once I got the hang of holding the brush, my body knew how to write and how to convey the words. It wasn’t hard, I just had to learn how to flow and resonate with a wisdom that already lay within me. While I started out copying the words exactly from the book, as I kept writing, I started free-styling and going with my gut and the words became more free and bold and I actually thought they were more beautiful even though they weren’t as perfect as the words I copied. However, to get to this point, I had to stop worrying about the physical perfection of my words. Instead of getting rid of my appreciation of beauty, my experience of beauty shifted from the object that I was creating, to the relationship that I, the creator, had with the object. Because of this, I think that true artwork can only be seen by the heart because it’s not the actual artwork you are supposed to see, its the intimate and harmonic relationship between the creator and the created that is a divine work of the universe. All of this has led to a detachment with physical beauty because I can now sense a more infinite beauty that the physical and finite beauty is trying to convey.