WHAT IS SPIRITUALITY?
What does spirituality mean to you? We often speak of it as if we had a shared understanding. But I suspect we all have our own individual notions. After all, what could be more personal than a sense of spirituality?
Here’s my idea. I sense that “something” very tantalizing lies just beyond or behind our daily, concrete world. Some people call it God, the “way” or the “path” or the creative spark. It doesn’t really matter what name we give it so let’s call it transcendent spirituality.
That “transcendent” is so meaningful to me that it can give me a different sense of myself. From it, I can experience a renewed sense of connection with “my” universe. And it can inspire me to write on into the early morning hours. It makes me change a part of me, my perceptions, thoughts or dreams. But what is this sense of spirituality?
For me it’s the sense of some unknown, forceful intelligence behind all the world I can see. Because I “know” it’s there, I want to chase it and express it. I call it my creative spirit—always and forever seeking–like an Easter egg hunt.
As you read this post, perhaps you’ll be mulling over your own spirituality and sense of what you want to chase. Could that be why we write literature, paint landscapes and compose sonatas?
We’re on the hunt for that ineffable sense of something else or something more. We can only catch it in glimpses. But once it is spotted it inspires us to respond with all our heart and soul. But so often it is doled out only in dribs and drabs by a parsimonious muse.
But how do we hunt down this spirituality which only comes in fleeting moments? I think our art [whatever art you practice] is the best tool to hunt with.
The camera is one of the available tools for the hunt. But with its mechanical nature, can it be used to find the transcendent, the experience of spirituality and help us express that experience? Sure! Why not?
An example? I’m looking at Ansel Adams’ landscape work. Or am I? Apparently there is a long-standing dispute over who took these photos. Who was the photographer?. Even if Adams did not take them, I still think we can appreciate the spiritual “content” regardless.
Without dwelling on technical aspects, just look at these three photographs and think what they make you feel. Another question—was Adams seeking that “something?” Does his camera work show to what he was responding? And what of his own interior vision did he contribute?With the light on the top of the rock, the man looks as if he is levitating into a spiritual state. The entire photograph further suggests that several other dimensions or places exist. The further your eye wanders down the rock face, the more solid the world appears. In contrast, the light in the sky above seems almost numinous. And the man is reaching from the earth to the sky. And so, for me, this figure bridges the two dimensions. The photograph suggests the whole notion of spiritual growth.
In spiritual thought, I understand that the reality of this world is created by the clash of opposites. We have night and day, male and female, hot and cold etc. Spiritual growth comes by finding our way through those clashing forces to whatever might lie beyond.
Joseph Campbell, the renowned mythologist, wrote about the clashing rocks, or the Symplegades.
“They represent the threshold of passage from the field of secular thinking, where “I” and “you” are separate from each other. In order to get beyond this daily phenomenal world, we have to pass through these clashing rocks to reach the transcendent. We think of those clashing rocks as the threshold guardians”
I think it is this sense of the transcendent [whatever lies
beyond] that drags the artist to create in order to get beyond those rocks and to the transcendent.In the second photograph, the gnarled tree with branches bent by wind, shows the sublime power of nature which molds the entire scene. My eye is drawn to the contrasts between light and shadow and texture [the tree] and smoothness [of the rock]. In fact, this photograph verges on the abstract. Thinking in terms of opposites, we appreciate these contrasts. It seems that opposites let us see this world but prevent us from apprehending what lies beyond.
This tree is majestically reaching upward. The detail of its branches and leaves is stark against the light and dark of the sky. Interesting how the lower branches hang down to the earth suggesting the strength and weight of the pull to the phenomenal world. And yet the upper branches are struggling ever upwards.
Frequently, I am drawn to photographing trees. I often think how representative they are of our physical being. The branches and leaves make me think of our lungs and our breathing. Trees do the opposite to us—we breathe in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. They operate in reverse taking in carbon dioxide and expelling oxygen. How well we are paired!
Dr. Carl Jung who has written extensively about the human psyche has been quoted as saying,
“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”
And so, the two are connected. The tree in this photograph is like the man in the first one. Just like the trees with the roots deep in the ground and ever reaching upward, we humans are similarly situated. We both have the same struggle.
Looking at all three photographs, there’s something about the light in Adam’s work. It seems to shine with an inner glow not ever seen in this world of ours. Perhaps that was what he glimpsed in the fleeting moment when he snapped the shutter. His light conveys so much intensity of his feeling.
But back to the questions: When I ask them, I don’t mean that this artist necessarily thought this out consciously. More likely it was an unconscious process which the creative process so frequently is.
What was Adams seeking? It wasn’t something visible or definable. It was something like a force or an energy.
Can we see what it was that he saw? Only in this sense—he has expressed that force or energy through his light, his choice of subject matter and composition.
What was his own vision? That is almost impossible to answer, but suppose a renowned photographer of street scenes were to take these shots. That photographer would bring an entirely different set of perceptions and experiences to the scene and produce an entirely different work. And so–perhaps we cannot tell unless we see the pictures taken by that street photographer.
But it is the search for that something which underlies all art—the spiritual quest for that transcendence. Perhaps it’s like the wind. You can never see it but you can see what it does in this world. In a sense Adams became “one” with his world through his camera and his art.
If you watch this video about Adam’s work, you will hear that photography is the investigation of the inner and outer worlds. Also, Adams is reputed to have said, “When I make a photograph, I make love.”
I’ve said what Adams’ photographs make me feel. I’m sure you’ve had your own reactions. It would be great if you would tell me about or anything else about your experiences of spirituality in a comment box below.
If you enjoy thinking and reading about art, life, love and creativity, you may enjoy exploring the novels in my two trilogies set out below. Please take time to look around.
Mary E. Martin is the . author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing.
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