On Tuesday afternoon, October 19, 2010, I had the singular pleasure of joining a few thousand people gathered on the campus of Emory University to hear the artists Richard Gere (actor) and Alice Walker (poet and Pulitzer Prize-winning author) in a conversation with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama about "The Creative Journey: Spirituality and Creativity." What follows is my synthesis of a number of points the trio touched upon during that presentation.
One question initiated their discussion: "Do the arts have a special role in deepening compassion?"
His Holiness speculated that such a role is possible for artists in that the performing arts (he mentioned music and dance specifically) are ways "to convey some message." His Holiness observed, however, that much of the media expends itself promoting instant gratification and distraction. As I consider that observation I agree that such practices in the media foster impatience and an inability to focus beyond surface qualities. This clearly is counterproductive to a depth of compassion, spirituality or understanding of truth.
For millennia sages the world over have taught that the 'greater path follows the heart as well as the spirit.' With that in mind, and as it is clear in my posts on this blog that I choose to follow the path of the heart, I take this opportunity to respond to the discussion of the arts as a vehicle for deepening compassion.
Quite early in the discussion Mr. Gere described his view of the divergent motivations for creativity of Westerners and Tibetans - dreams and a desire for clarity, respectively. As I listened I noted that the pursuit of art in an effort to express, fulfill, or share a dream could be followed in the service of achieving clarity. Ms. Walker agreed with the need for clarity. Art can "help us to see" and, one hopes, guide us to deal with compassion for others once we gain our sight.
Mr. Gere, echoing some assessments of William Shakespeare's work, opined that the arts hold a mirror up to our lives so "we can see ourselves truer and ... deeper within the human context." Much later in the discussion he pointed out that humanity is deeply interconnected, thus, "We are responsible for our world."
As I see it, if one accepts that each of us is responsible for our world the question is, "What, then, are an artist's responsibilities for which he or she will be held accountable?" Mr. Gere stated succinctly, "Creativity is essentially storytelling." I agree, and allowing that the responsibility
of art is to tell the human story the question becomes, "What stories will artists choose to tell, and why?"
For my part the range of human experience - the beauty and majesty, the horror and despair - appear infinite,
thus providing infinite stories to reflect upon all aspects of the truth of humanity and bring clarity to all of them. I offer the opinion, my own, that creative acts of artists can be acts of compassion. A definition of compassion is "sympathetic feeling"; "sympathy" is understood to be the capacity for entering into and sharing the feelings or interests of another.
A creative act can highlight and examine some portion of the human experience and, in the process, make sense of it for some or call it to the attention of others. Helping others to see more clearly does indeed engender compassion. "Until you see people," Ms. Walker asserted, "It is very difficult to have compassion for them."
Mr. Gere noted that, "Every situation is a possibility for transcendence," pointing out the "extraordinary levels of grace" writers in the Soviet Union evinced in their work despite the oppression they endured. His Holiness agreed with this, calling the "flowering of compassion" blooming from that oppression "a paradox."
In my mind, as I review my notes of the discussion I find myself thinking that the Creative Journey sounds much like Joseph Campbell's description of the hero's journey: a journey into terra incognita to return with a boon for oneself and the society. Here I point to another paradox of human experience: beauty and light may be terra incognita for some while darkness and horror are alien to others. To deny some part of the human story will leave some portion of humanity yearning.
In light of that I must share one of His Holiness' more emphatic points. He stated firmly that when you are about to embark upon something you must really examine whether or not this is for you. If you do not do this, and if you set out unprepared, you will leave behind you a trail of unfinished business.
At that point I recalled a statement by Mr. Gere, at another point
in the discussion, that His Holiness is someone who has to continually work to be who he is. I understand this to be an integral part of the Creative Journey as well - a constant assessment of consciousness and cultivation of clarity. To neglect this invites imbalance and pulls the artist from the creative and compassionate path. While His Holiness alluded to the wisdom of mental conditioning as a part of the process of cultivating clarity, he did allow that the ego plays an important role as well. He asserted that self-confidence, a "sense of a strong self," is important because, "If we don't have a sense of who I am or what I can do it wouldn't be much."
For two hours on Tuesday the evolving stories, the lives, of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, Richard Gere, Alice Walker, and thousands of others converged on a southern academic campus. Whatever art springs from that experience is yet to be seen, but it will be central to humanity.