The Perennial Vision
By Alex Grey
The miraculous complexity of human consciousness is the result of billions of years of cosmic and biological evolution. To observe nature in any detail is to be spellbound by the infinite creativity and divine intelligence inherent in the cosmos. If the sun was a slightly different size, or the earth deviated a few degrees from its present orbit, life on earth in its astonishing variety might not have occured. There was nothing accidental in the creation of the universe. Only a perfectly balanced tension of opposites could lead to the creation of galaxies, planets and life forms. Artists unknowingly or knowingly align themselves with the force of universal creativity.
Scientific reason has overthrown centuries of mythic/magic superstition. We don't burn witches for failed crops any longer. One reasoned proof has built on the next, constructing a refined scientific worldview. One of the major breakthroughs of science has been the theory of evolution. Since the time four billion years ago, when blue/green algae was the only life form, planet earth has developed magnificent plants and creatures. Animal morphology and behavior has adapted and refined according to environmental cues.
Consciousness is an aspect of all lifeforms and has obviously evolved and diversified along with the physical forms of all living things. Observing human development in the light of evolution theory, we may surmise that human consciousness in its very early stages was without language and probably without the capacity for rational and conceptual thought. Humanity has developed to its current state of complex rationality due to the refinement of language. Considering consciousness as an evolutionary force may imply that there are higher states of consciousness beyond reason, trans-rational states. Some psychologists have been fascinated with altered and mystical states of consciousness, interpreting them as either pathological or holding promise for expanding perception. The nobel prize winning scientist Frances Crick, has recently stated that the derangement of mystical experience might be explained by a "theotoxin" (God-poison) in the brain. Freud hoped that his psychoanalytic clients would reach a state of well adjusted functional neurosis. Is this the best we can hope for? What are the higher capacities of human awareness? The field of transpersonal psychology has been mapping these possibilities for several decades now.
By confining itself to only what can be measured with instruments, the materialist point of view becomes a metaphysical flatland allowing no subjective insight as to why we are here. Scientists and Artists need not limit themselves to such a view. No less a scientific genius than Albert Einstein professed a profound respect for mysticism and the importance of the imagination:
"The most beautiful and most profound emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms--this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illuminable superior who reveals himself in the slightest details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction for the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God."
The transpersonal model of consciousness is based on dimensions of the human mind that transcend reason. Transpersonal means beyond the personal, toward a universally spiritual consciousness. The influx to the West of Eastern wisdom texts, meditational disciplines and psychedelic explorations during the later half of the 20th century led a few courageous scientists, psychiatrists and philosophers to revise the materialist impiricist paradigm. Instead of following Freud's focus on mapping the mind by examining the neurotic and psychotic, the psychiatrist Abraham Maslow based his research on psychologically healthy and creative individuals and their higher states of awareness or "peak" experiences.
According to the transpersonal vision, consciousness is central to understanding the nature of reality, and not merely a "byproduct of brain activity". There are many states of awareness, from dreaming to wakened rationality to psychic clairvoyance, and states of mystic union. Each state reveals its own characteristic reality, its own world view. The laws of the dream world are not the same laws which govern the physical world.
The way one views reality is dependent on specific states of mind. To see the world anew you have to enter into a new state of consciousness. A child of five cannot understand complex mathematic functions until they aquire higher reasoning abilities. All philosophies or points of view are "state specific". If language was the necessary mind tool needed to develop reasoning intelligence, what mind tool is needed to develop beyond reason? Spiritual practice is the tool which gives access to the transpersonal transrational state. Every culture has spiritual practices and the mystics of those traditions have left records of their insights.
In his book, The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley compares quotes from the world's spiritual teachings. For example, he shows how Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Islamic and Christian mystics all describe the human spiritual essence as united with the divine ground. The nature of the spiritual ground is then examined through the same comparative approach, as well as the subjects of divine incarnation, the morality of good and evil, and methods of spiritual practice. Huxley shows an uncanny unanimity between mystical insights at the core of the world's great religions.
In his numerous books on the transpersonal perspective(6), Ken Wilber details a spectrum of consciousness evolving from the least conscious through dozens of hierarchical levels to the most superconscious. He refers to the span of progressive levels of awareness as "the Great Chain of Being". This hierarchy of consciousness is broadly divided into the dimensions of matter, body, mind, soul and spirit. Wilber makes the case that individuals go through a microcosm of human evolution, developing through the sequence of pre-rational, to rational, and potentially trans-rational states, each level superceding and incorporating, "transcending and including" the former levels.
Wilber is fond of quoting St. Bonaventure, a 14th century Franciscan mystic who taught that humanity has three modes of knowing or "three eyes". First is the eye of flesh by which we perceive the "outer" material realm of objects within the framework of space and time. Second, the eye of reason which discloses a knowledge of symbolic language, philosophy, mathematics, the conceptual realm. Third is the mystic eye of contemplation which reveals the luminous transcendental realms. The artist must be adept at opening each of these eyes.
For a mystically inclined artist of the twenty-first century, the Transpersonal vision offers a unique and essentialized spiritual synthesis. Transpersonal psychology and the perennial philosophy have shown that within the sacred teachings of world religions are universal spiritual truths. To paraphrase Huxley(7):
(1) All that exists is dependent upon the divine ground.
(2) Human beings can realize the existence of the divine ground by transrationally uniting with it.
(3) Humanity possesses a double nature, both an egoic contracted self and a timeless spirit.
(4) The purpose of life on earth is to identify with one's spiritual nature and achieve liberative unity with the divine ground.
And I would add:
(5) Once liberative unity has been experienced, it is the person's responsibility to share their insight and act in accordance with their new vision.
Transpersonal psychology examines the mind from the perspective of every wisdom tradition and also includes many other fields of consciousness research, such as psychedelics or near death experiences, which may or may not have spiritual or religious components. Let us distinguish the meanings of the words religious and spiritual. Both words point to what humanity considers sacred. Yet there is a difference between the exoteric dogmas of a religion, ("You are inherently sinful and will go to hell. Take Jesus as your saviour and you will go to heaven when you die.") and the esoteric revelations of spiritual practice ("The kingdom of heaven is within me now, as infinite clarity, awareness and bliss. Christ consciousness, Buddha nature, the Atman in the Brahman are all different names for my innermost spiritual nature which is beyond the reach of words...") Religion is based on faith in a traditional dogma whereas spirituality is based on transpersonal experience. Religion offers the external authority and security of a belief system, the guidance of a code of moral conduct and a community of like minded believers. Spirituality is a subjective, internal experience of the sacred, an opening to ultimate reality which positively affects the heart and mind of an individual. The spiritual does not depend on any specific religious setting, yet obviously may be found in individuals within every religion.
Just because a person holds religious beliefs is no guarantee that they have had a mystical experience which has grounded them in transpersonal spiritual knowledge. Sensing an internal spiritual emptiness, many people join religions or cults looking for the security of an idealized family or community and a belief system which dogmatically proclaims them to be "right". Others are called to religion by a conversion experience in which a specific religious archetype reaches out to them. Unfortunately, the most self-righteously religious persons appear to be the most intolerant, uncompassionate and spiritually blind. The religious zealots who kill in the name of their religion are inflicting emotionally based tribal hatreds, perversely masquerading as religious dedication. True religion and spirituality begin at the heart level. As Albert Schweitzer once said, "Dogma Divides, Spirit Unites."
Let me affirm the tremendous wisdom inherent in the living religious traditions. The power of a Master teacher's transmission within a spiritual lineage goes far to assist the aspirant in their journey. The encouraging context and group soul of a religious community can sometimes make a profound and beneficial difference in furthering one's spiritual progress.
It's important for artists and creative people to gather together and support and encourage each other. In Buddhism, the spiritual community is known as the sangha, it's one of the Three Pillars of the Path. A gathering of the art community which mutually honors and empowers each other is art sangha. Can we transform the art world, or our attitude toward the art world to the degree that we can regard it as a spiritual community? The other two pillars of the path are the Teacher (Buddha), and the Teaching (called the Dharma.) As artists, if we wanted to continue the correlation with the three pillars, perhaps we could think of the Teacher as a lineage of master artists who transmit Spirit, and our Art Dharma is the art itself, and all the teachings about or approaches to creating spiritual art. The spiritual aspirant needs direct personal contact with a teacher who embodies the teaching. This face to face meeting allows for a subtle transmission to occur. Contact with a great teacher catalyzes and encourages the spiritual process. Our teachers can be living or dead, as long as their legacy and realization lives in their works, we can learn from them. Art Dharma is the art, the craft and the truth conveyed by the art. A work of sacred art is a carrier, a messenger of wisdom. The art object or event is one of the primary distinctions between art and other spiritual paths. Through their craft, artists leave tangible traces of the states of being which they have entered.
Religion and Art which emphasize ecstasy and mystical experience will always fulfill profound human needs, bringing people back to the source of infinite love and ultimate reality. A reverence for life is one of the hallmarks of true spirituality. Our violence as a species and destructive assaults on the web of life make obvious humanity's spiritual blindness and the critical need for spiritual awakening. Art can serve that awakening.
When an artist's work is a sacred mission, it gives meaning to their life, it's a satisfying motivational force. The artist becomes sensitive to spiritual inspiration, and allows themselves to be guided by these intuitions. Artists of today may not find spiritual inspiration by reading popular critics or curators assessment of contemporary art. The transpersonal vision has not become a common context for assessing art. That is not to say that art catalogues, magazines and books ought not be read or that one should deliberately ignore current fashions in the contemporary art world. But the artistic refinement of one's own "soul's gold" and the spiritually transformative potential of art is usually not the motivation for most critics theories and concepts. The art historical or post-modern imperatives which are discussed in much art criticism ignores the consciousness evolutionary imperative driving the quest for planetary ecological awareness and spiritual renewal. The artists of the 21st century will have to look deeply into themselves and ask hard questions about the mission of art. Is art merely the fashionable expression of the artist's ego and reflection of the world they live in or can art become a healing path which reveals the holiness of our selves and our world, projecting an ideal of what we and our wounded world may become? This is not a dogma for new art, merely a call for art to reclaim it's power to spiritually uplift and inspire.
Though we may try to write about it, the Transcendental is beyond all conceptual or theoretical frameworks. The best that theory and critique can do is point us toward the creative source. Artists rely on themselves, peering into their own souls for inspiration and guidance, yet the artist's friends, mentors, and a spiritual practice, may all be able to assist the birth of spirit in their art.
An art object of sacred beauty can bring joy and profound insight to a viewer. Art objects may also catalyze consciousness transformation and even stimulate healing responses in sensitive persons. There are statues of Madonnas and church icons that weep healing oils. The "Ex Voto" found in Spanish and Mexican churches are testimonials to the healing power of some art. The Ex Voto is a small painting offered to a statue or other work of art, and hung in close proximity to it, which shows how the art acted as a transmitter of healing power. A common Ex Voto may show a person sick or on their death bed and an image of the honored statue or painting of Mary or Jesus appearing to them in a vision and offering healing grace. The inspiring art in the church thus becomes surrounded by artistic testimonials supporting its power, and enlarging its aura of effectiveness as mediator of holy spirit.
Certain statues in Tibet are regarded as having the capability to accelerate the process of enlighten-ment. Pilgrimages are made to the statues which are believed to bless the viewers mindstream. The blessing leads a person to a more fortunate rebirth or removes obstructions to spiritual progress. What higher goal for an artist's intentions than that their art may bring healing and blessings to the viewer, and catalyze their own and the viewer's spiritual evolution?
Let artists honor the values that make life worth living, that they might plant seeds of transformative power in the field of art. The mind of the artist should always be a stronghold of free will. May the mind of the artist also be a stronghold of the divine will.
You may contact Alex Grey at: firstname.lastname@example.org