IN OUR PRESENT ERA, with its sense of profound transition, we yearn with special intensity for a powerful synthesizing vision of what we, and our life with each other, might be. We yearn for a vision both subtle and simple: intricate enough to honor the myriad strands of our separate ways and wisdom, elegantly simple enough to spark recognition quick and sure within us of the guiding patterns coursing through our lives.
To try to name, to give definition in any way to that which we sense to be emerging is to experience the process of form-giving. And when it seems that what is trying to emerge is a level of consciousness which will be critical to the quality of our lives together, the urge to bring forth truly worthy, eloquent forms becomes all the more pressing. Will we have creativity and commitment enough to serve this movement? What difficulties hamper us? What temptations might we meet? Where might we find encouragement for the critical form-giving we feel called to do?
It may seem that giving formal expression to a compelling image or intuition is something only those we call "artists" do. Certainly artists are especially sensitive and skilled creators, and we honor their many forms of eloquence by devoting time to being with their works. But there are many day-to-day ways in which all of us participate in creative expression. Writing a grant proposal, designing a workshop, redecorating living space, teaching and evoking wisdom, articulating corporate objectives, keeping a journal – as we do these things, we give shape to what we are trying to know, what we believe, and who we are trying to be. We need to understand more clearly that there can be much at stake in each of these efforts, that each can be sacred creative work, reaching towards a threshold we have not crossed before.
It is important, too, to recognize that evaluation is also a part of form-giving. Not only are we often asked to assess the merits of one another’s expression, but even in the midst of our own process we continually test the adequacy of what we produce against that seemingly perfect yet elusive fullness which seems to shimmer in soft focus just out of reach. At the deepest level, this can feel like a kind of existential myopia – where no amount of intellectual and spiritual squinting brings that longed-for clearness to our lives. We can never quite make out the contours, and yet we are so insistently called to keep trying because what is at stake is the shape of our lives.
It is difficult to be reminded of such myopia all the time, difficult to stay at the edge of what we are trying to know, and do our form-giving there. It truly takes courage to sit there and gently sketch impressionistic shapes when the evaluators – both the inner and the outer ones – seem to want, not gestures, but statements – statements which are explicit and confident and focused. But if we value the revelations that may come to us when we position ourselves at the edge of our present consciousness, we must not let our evaluators tempt us to step back from the edge into a place where the lines may be more clearly drawn. It is relatively easy to be confident about who we already are, to be articulate about insights we already have. And when we want so much to be valued, it is natural to try to appease our evaluators with expressions of clarity and assertiveness. But new consciousness begins in diffuseness, and takes shape only gradually – in soft, tentative, but somehow purposeful forms. So if we value full consciousness most of all – if it is deep spiritual wisdom that we seek – we must learn to wait expectantly at the edge of our knowing and welcome the squinting and the sometimes fumbling form-giving that happen there.
I think of this as a discipline of creative vulnerability, and as I seek faith and courage to be open in this way, I am often informed and comforted by the example of artists – those who are explicitly devoted to giving form or expression to their perceptions. Since this discipline is at the center of their profession, they are especially accustomed to living at the boundary of the not-yet-conscious. Thinking about how artists proceed in their work, I am struck by how much time is devoted to practicing. Months of rehearsal precede a single performance; dozens of discarded lines finally yield the one that completes a poem; and isolated movements exercised over and over again gradually cohere into liquid dance.
Certainly practice has much to do with simply perfecting the mechanics of the given technique so that the expression may flow forth unrestricted. But there are other benefits. In the hours of rehearsal one is continually coming up against what one cannot quite do…and then, on a subsequent try, moving beyond that point to another. It is a halting, often frustrating process, but it certainly builds patience, and it builds courage in the face of awkwardness. For the artist, practicing is exercise in being at the edge of expression, exercise in standing near the place where the shimmering image begins to take form. Like all exercise, it develops strength and makes for a more skillful, more responsive, more subtly attuned being. It also gives birth to artistic expression which seems to speak to our innermost core. From practice, then, from a commitment to work at the edge, comes the gift of eloquence – in movement, in color, in clay, or in song.
We may begin to sense the true dimensions of the human spirit if we attend to what the arts make manifest. In dance we see the pilgrimages of our lives – movement from balance to balance, graceful extension, angular thrust, disciplined practice turned liquid responsiveness. Can we be as dancers in our sense of self, bodying forth who we are with such fluidity and grace?
Can we hear in a theme and its variations what it is to be subtly transformed? If we move with the nuance of a melodic line, we will surely be led to the life force resonating within us.
From the potter’s hands we may learn reverence for the fragileness and resilience – the integrity – of that which we seek to shape. What would it feel like to be a pot so formed? Can we support one another with such gentle skill?
In the midst of the tremendous pressures of our times, when we are petitioned for healing energy by so many compelling voices within our souls and around the globe, perhaps the call most challenging and most needful of our response is the one which asks us to discover and be who we are – to do this with unswerving honesty, a fitting humility, and profound integrity. It is the form-giving at the center of them all. If it is finally an eloquence of being that is asked of us, then we must learn from artists that such gifts only come to those who practice, and in the practicing find the courage to be ever vulnerable to new life and truly present to its richness. If we can find within ourselves the dedication with which an artist works to be a channel for flowing energy, we too might come to know the secret of openness.
May the artist in each of us inform our efforts to serve our era with sacred creative work. May we be gentle with ourselves and one another as we hover near the edge of who we might become.
Karen Thorkilsen lives in Westminster, Vermont.