All human beings contain an inner scientist and an inner artist, in varying degrees and forms. The scientist in us seeks evidence, hard facts and rational frameworks. The artist in us seeks nonverbal means of expression and connections with aesthetics and sublimity. My life has involved an ongoing attempt to find a balance of these, and to use them together to inform my spiritual development.
I would argue there is typically more balance between these two aspects of human nature in childhood than there is in adult life. For example, my daughter Leila is 7, and her school education includes a balanced mix of reading, writing, factual learning, art, music and physical education. This mix is almost universal across education systems; it is broadly understood that for children to be well-rounded and happy, they need art, music and movement as well as intellectual learning. When children express themselves through all of these, they cultivate the many sides of their being, like a diamond refracting light through every plane, and this is vital for their development.
The word holy comes from the Latin word holus, which means whole, and by being in touch with all sides of their nature, children express their natural holiness. Children don’t need spirituality bolted on to this, for they are spiritual enough already when expressing themselves in this multifaceted way. It is of relevance, in relation to this, that a recent major study found that mindfulness meditation was not helpful for schoolchildren. This didn’t surprise me at all – I think that art, music and sport are the ways that children can be fully present. They don’t need meditation, and if anything it may inhibit their natural spontaneity.
While the idea that children should have a balance of art, music, intellect and exercise in their life remains widely held, the idea that adults need such a balance is more rarely grasped. The transition to adulthood typically involves a funnelling of activity into specific channels. As young people transition to university or work, life comes to be dominated by work, which in turn can lead to a narrowness of being that is in notable contrast to the range of expressive modes available to children. I venture that not many young adults maintain a healthy balance of art, physical exercise, music and intellectual work, but many may feel called to get it back. It is at this time in the life cycle that many people start to explore what it means to lead a spiritual life in ways that extend beyond the conventions and dogmas of established religion. The psychologist Fowler referred to this as the individual-reflective stage of faith development.
Reflecting on my own life, as I moved into a career after university, my life was imbalanced, and this needed fixing. In the rush to be a ‘success’ in academic and work pursuits, my passion for art that defined much of my life up to that point was getting little expression. I had lost my wholeness, and my mental health was suffering as a result. I did occasional art and movement workshops, as punctuation marks in an otherwise imbalanced life. If I was not in work, I was mostly either tired, drinking alcohol, or both. It took a lot of effort to shift my mindset out of that rather emaciated worldview and toxic lifestyle, and into something new.
For me, spiritual searching started in earnest at around the age of 25, and involved reading, art, music and movement. I read all kind of books that talked of different ways of encountering the spiritual or mystical, and how this connects to the post-Enlightenment scientific-philosophical culture. I found an organisation called the Art and Spirituality Network and went to a range of workshops that they ran in which visual media, movement and the spiritual quest were fused. I started practicing Five Rhythms, which is a spiritual movement practice, and I listened to music that I experienced as a whisper of the great mystery behind physical existence. I also started a folk band.
My thirties became an expression of that seeking effort, and the outcome was the writing of a book called Paths Between Head and Heart, about the complementary nature of science and spirituality. It was published when I was 39. My life now, as a forty something, is a pretty good balance between painting, music, intellectual work (I am an academic psychologist) and time in nature. There is room for improvement in the movement domain, and I’m working on that.
Why do I think music, art and movement practices are so important for mental health and the spiritual life? One central reason is that they provide ways of expressing ourselves, and interacting with reality, beyond the confines of word-based language.
Language provides us with a way of communicating and reasoning, but it is a limited sign system and can neither describe nor express the fullness of ourselves and the cosmos. If our means of expression becomes limited to words, we become a partial human, increasingly afraid of the portion of our being, and of reality at large, that cannot be captured in this way. It matters not how seemingly artistic a person is, it matters that they are active in non-verbal domains, exploring ineffable, non-linguistic ways of relating to the existence around us that lives without language – plants, animals and nature at large.
Such activities connect us to the numinous source of the known world. It is my belief that this source of the physical world is intelligent in ways that are beyond the capacity of the human to grasp. We can see evidence of this intelligence everywhere, but we can’t grasp its operations rationally any more than a fruit fly can make sense of human intelligence. Where understanding and discursive rationality fall short in the spiritual quest, the arts can step as ways of providing a sense of connection to the Great Mystery and a way of representing it in symbolic form.