This is the text of my keynote address at the annual conference of the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts. It was delivered on 3 November 2006.
The great evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane once was asked what a study of creation could teach us about the nature of God. His answer? “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” I see his point: they make up a quarter of all living species. On the same principle, if you asked me today to deduce the purpose of human life from a study of my fellow humans, I would say it was to tell stories, because once you get beyond the activities necessary to sustain our existence—breathing, eating, sleeping—the unending font of stories is what everyone, everywhere has in common.
We tell ourselves stories about why we are here and what we are doing, stories to explain everything under the sun and stories to honor the mystery of what can’t be explained. The river of stories is endless: the world is so full of information, it offers ample material for any supposition, dream or observation that can be turned into a tale. The fact that the book of the world has an infinite number of pages shines a light on a deep truth about all of us: that what matters most, what determines the direction of a life and shapes the experience of living it, is how we reach into that river to fish out our own individual stories, the ones that shape our self-understanding and our relationships.
We can cast countless stories about our work in the arts. For instance, community arts education can be seen straightforwardly as training, imparting information and practical skills. It can be seen as a form of social work, giving people opportunities to enlarge their lives with beauty and meaning rather than succumbing to daily pressures and temptations to waste themselves. It can be seen as a business, tallying contributions and class fees against expenses and judging success by the bottom line.
If you or I understand our work in the arts as guarding a precious resource from the Philistines, if we focus our energy on warding off threats, our work lives will be beleaguered. If we understand ourselves as pleading with a bunch of simpletons who don’t appreciate the good, the beautiful and the true—if we feel resentment that what we hold dear is subject to others’ whims—our work lives will be grudging and sad. In other words, if the story we have created to explain what we are doing is a hopeless tale, we will go through our days defeated not by external forces, but by our own beliefs.
If you come to the workshop I’ll offer after this talk, I’ll invite you to examine your work through many different lenses, turning and turning it to find everything in it. No story invalidates the others; all of them can coexist. But for the next few minutes, I want to concentrate on one particular story you may not tell yourself every day: community arts education as a form of spiritual practice. I want to invite you to join me for a few moments in following the advice of the Buddhist teacher Thich Nat Hanh, who said, “The practice of looking deeply is the only practice that helps your heart to expand, the unmeasurable mind, the unmeasurable heart.”
Why have I chosen to focus on this particular story? Because we live in a time of tremendous confusion, marked by the clash of paradigms. On the one hand, the world seems crowded with people pushing each other away, even killing each other as an expression of religious belief. That is the story that makes headlines. On the other hand, there has been a tremendous growth in cultural understanding, with more and more people coming to see how we are all connected, how despite our superficial differences, we share a planet and a fate. Bring both those hands together and you have what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire has called our “thematic universe,” the themes and beliefs that characterize our era, always in dynamic interaction with each other. I have chosen to focus on the story of community arts education as spiritual practice because in relation to our amazingly busy and contradictory thematic universe, it is particularly powerful and suggestive. Art and spirit both turn on questions of meaning, which is why they are so compatible.
I’ve also chosen it because the program at this wonderful conference is jam-packed with practical information and advice on program planning, curriculum development, partnership building and dozens of other useful topics, and I want to help refresh your self-understanding so you in turn can choose wisely, by your own lights, among those offerings.
So let’s give it a shot. As a form of spiritual practice, what does community arts work say? It offers participants the opportunity to see themselves as creators, the role in which we are both most ourselves and most godlike: in the flow of creativity, we are enterprising, imaginative, playful, embodied, empathetic, excited, alive. We experience a moment of pure possibility. When we make art, we inhabit ourselves fully, and often the experience is so pleasurable, we want to stay there—which is one reason why so many young people who are introduced to this experience dream of living their lives as artists.
In confusing times, opening a gateway to this state of being is an incredible gift. As the great 18th century teacher Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov said, “The antidote to despair is to remember the world to come.” This is a paradox, of course, in that we can’t remember what has not yet occurred. But it is easy to see what he meant: the antidote to despair is a taste of a perfected world, of the experiences that remind us what it is to feel entirely alive. When we give students the opportunity to transcend the specific circumstances of their lives, diving headlong into the stream of creativity, we teach that even mundane things—even the focus, diligence and practice that sometimes seem like drudgery—can be lifted into pleasure by remembering the story of their higher meanings. “Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see,” said the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. Understanding our work as spiritual practice, we give people the gift of this insight.
The deepest spiritual truths transcend superficial differences, going directly to the common roots of our many stories. Mohandas Gandhi said, “Even as a tree has a single trunk, but many branches and leaves, there is one religion, but any number of faiths.” Just so, seeing community arts education as spiritual practice leads to understanding that the act of creativity and moment of presence are paramount, not the particular mode in which creativity is expressed. Whether students are playing sonatas or ragas, performing Hamlet or Woza Albert!, dancing ballet or samba, reading Pablo Neruda’s poems or writing their own is incidental to the fact that they are experiencing art, a life-embracing, non-polluting, spiritually enlarging activity that helps to heal the world and the human heart.
In London, my friend Gary Stewart led workshops for teenagers at ADFED, the educational wing of the popular music group Asian Dub Foundation. Each participant learned to compose and produce their own music using fairly primitive electronic sampling technology. Gary describes ADFED’s philosophy as “conscious party mode,” seamlessly joining pleasure and learning:
Some of these young people are under cultural attack, and they’re not actually allowed to go and do extra activities. Their parents or guardians have to be convinced that a safe place for them can be provided so that they can interact with other people without being at risk. It’s worked out as a 10-week block, and so there are specific technical headings that enable them to learn the specifics of music making. But in addition to that, other issues around racism and antideportation campaigns are discussed—they also bring up issues themselves, obviously. There are opportunities for them to talk about issues that affect them personally…. Basically, the music is used as a kind of metaphor. The workshops themselves are about exploring the rhythms of different sounds and exposing participants to connections. It’s a bit like an extended metaphor for the connections between people, economics and history.
Aniruddha Das (known as Dr. Das), who plays both bass and tabla in Asian Dub Foundation, described his philosophy of music as a meeting-place for difference:
…I had been brought up with Indian folk music and classical music and also being exposed to everything else that everybody hears. It’s kind of normal to incorporate those elements… It really isn’t fusion; it’s more like allowing different voices….I think we have to … realize that all music and all culture and language is a consequence of cross-fertilization and a meeting of peoples.
In my new book, New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, I argue that our very ideas of excellence must change to acknowledge the primacy of this truth. I love the way my friend Liz Lerman, choreographer and MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner, defines it:
For me, an excellent dance performance includes the following: the dancers are 100 percent committed to the movement they are doing; they understand why they are doing what they are doing. And something is being revealed in that moment: something about the dancer or about the subject, about the relationship of the dancers or about the world in which we live. Something is revealed.
This description fits every peak aesthetic experience of my life, whereas the alternative—to define excellence primarily in terms of perfection of form and execution according to one specific accepted standard—falsifies that experience.
Every spiritual tradition has its creation stories, its histories that affirm the individual’s connection to something larger and longer than the span of a human life, to the chain of being. Community artists have made this powerful connection central and integral to their practice. Here’s how Dudley Cocke, artistic director of Roadside Theater based in Appalachia, describes their group process:
[W]e prompt community music and story circles so the participants can begin to hear and appreciate their own voices. We pick a theme for the circles, maybe some compelling incident in their local history or current event, and community members start telling and listening to each others’ stories and songs. This becomes compelling, like fresh news, because participants often hear new information about a common experience. From the circles, a complex sense of a particular place begins to emerge. The songs and stories, which are often recorded, become the basic ingredients of community celebrations that end the second phase [of a Roadside residency]. We often have these celebrations around potluck suppers. People get up and play music, sing, and tell the stories that they’ve by now somewhat crafted. Through big, structured celebrations, the community voice proclaims itself in public.
People are drawn to spiritual ideas and practices because they magnify our sense of connection, revealing a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts—just like art. We learn this every time we enter a theater or gallery and are reminded that even though we are surrounded by four ordinary walls, as in any room, here we collectively create sacred space, generating feelings also associated with worship. We breathe more deeply, we notice more, we feel less like free-range atoms and more like part of something. “Every holy person seems to have a different doctrine and practice,” wrote the 13th century poet and Sufi mystic Jalal al-din Rumi, “but there’s really only one work.” In this field, that work is to reach this experience—what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement—and help others to do the same. Everything else is incidental.
We can hold many stories about ourselves at the same time, speaking one language to funders, another to students, another to bureaucrats. I don’t know if you will feel moved to tell anyone else the story of community arts education as spiritual practice. It doesn’t matter: I am offering it to you as a private resource, fuel for the engine of your own commitment, energy and imagination. And I offer it as a tribute. Viewed as spiritual practice, the work you do prepares countless people to construct and inhabit the stories that allow them to glimpse the ineffable, the moral grandeur and beauty of which human beings are capable. Viewed as spiritual practice, I am in awe of your work. I cannot conceive of anything holier and more important. I thank you for it.