Recently I was awoken to a misunderstanding about the implementation of Art as a Spiritual Practice. In a conversation with another artist it became clear that she understood me to be saying that to enter the realm of right cerebral hemisphere function is the goal and the endpoint of art as a spiritual practice. It is only the beginning. It can provide a gentle introduction to experiencing the potential of both cerebral hemispheres working in harmony. Whew… many words. Let me explain.
Virginia Griffin published a model of learning using the metaphor of a six-string guitar to describe the ways that humans learn. This model has allowed me to visually imagine which aspects of learning I am engaged in (see illustration). The six-strings are: logical (left hemisphere), metaphoric (right hemisphere), physical (both hemispheres), relational (either hemisphere), emotional (either hemisphere) and spiritual (both hemispheres in balance). The spiritual string is different from the others as it cannot be played on it’s own, but only in harmony. The understanding is that spiritual learning includes logical, metaphoric, relational, emotional and physical learning, combining them so that all are harmonizing with each other. It is a whole brain function, something fairly rare in our day-to-day lives but something that can be learned. In the illustration I am the one who spins the wheel of creativity with my thoughts and insights.
Our minds have two sides, two cerebral hemispheres. One side, the left, specializes in language, time management, judgment and calculation. The other side, the right, specializes in non-verbal ideation, spatial construction and metaphor. Betty Edwards wrote a wonderful book that helped many people learn how to draw: “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. This resource is an excellent starting place for learning realistic drawing. However, she has written other books that are less well known. ‘Drawing on the Artist Within’ is one that explores inspiration and creativity. Though she does not explain it in terms of right and left hemisphere functions, I will. The creative process is described as a circle beginning with the identification of the subject to be explored- (right and left hemisphere), moving on to researching and imagining (right hemisphere), searching for solutions (right and left hemispheres), to experimenting and communicating the results (left hemisphere) and, finally, observing the effects created, identifying problems and additional room for exploration (right and left hemispheres) before beginning the process all over again from a new starting point. This process involves both hemispheres for without structure and evaluation- left hemisphere functions- the process would not move forward to a new starting place. I find the new starting places are rich in the realm of personal and spiritual insights providing fuel for moving forward.
The right hemisphere is the domain of metaphoric learning, also known as illogical learning. It has no time sense, few words, loves spatial relationships between things and is pretty mellow overall. In my teachings I often start with exercises that facilitate access to right cerebral hemisphere functions. These specific functions are often neglected in Western education and emphasis on printed information can create barriers to accessing the right hemisphere. This access is one step toward engaging the entire mind in Art as a Spiritual Practice.
A very important condition, and I am sorry to admit that I have not mentioned it until now, is the need for expertize in a chosen method. One reason I use drawing to assist novice artists to access right cerebral hemisphere functions is that most people are comfortable with the use of a pencil or a pen and do not need to ‘think’ about how to use these tools. If an artist is engaging in a new process it becomes necessary for the left hemisphere to dominate until the process is fully integrated. There will always be some movement back and forth, but not necessarily balance. However, once a medium is mastered this changes. The movement of our thinking between hemispheres can become so fast that it is like an incandescent light filament. The connection seems steady and lights up our thinking from within. It becomes difficult to remember that our thinking was not always so. In this state free imagination is matched by evaluation and critical thinking so quickly that it appears to flow and works just seem to happen.
When the mind is focused and awake in this holistic way insights come knocking. Sometimes insights knock quietly and have to be listened for, but they seldom knock only once. Often I write them down on the side of my board, or silently journal a new-to-me awareness and then return to my project. The project itself takes on a life of it’s own and I open myself to accepting what happens, selecting colours and drawing lines without ‘thinking and evaluating’ them first, but rather as they are put down I assess their rightness or wrongness related to what is being expressed and make adjustments if needed. There is a wonderful balance of being in the process and quickly circling around the wheel of creativity as it turns. I have many works in drawers and closets that are process pieces created in this way. These are rich mines of insights, but are not necessarily in my ‘signature style’ and are often so deeply meaningful and personal that I will not part with them anyway. This said, works in my signature style are fueled by these other works and often are created in a whole mind state building on insights of experimental works.
Right or left is not the question. Right and left is the answer. Half a mind is not enough, It is working and thinking and creating with the whole mind that is so very important to the full human experience and this includes the spiritual experience. Only with the whole mind can we fully communicate and move the human experience forward. Life is good. We are rich. Our minds are wonderful. We can play harmoniously with all six-strings of learning as often as we like. We all own a six-string cerebral guitar.
Joanne Thomson is a visual artist living in Victoria BC. She teaches a course about Art-making as a Spiritual Practice as well as courses in painting and drawing. Her works can be seen on-line at www.joannethomson.com and www.morrisgallery.ca.
You can read more articles fromt his interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking HERE