The Seven Habits of Highly Spiritual People


Squint. Don’t put your horizon in the middle of the composition.  Let your brush strokes come from a movement of your whole torso, not just from the fingertips.  And remember to step back from your work every fifteen minutes, maybe even turn it upside down or look at it in a mirror  All helpful tricks if you want to create a decent work of art.        

Where do you learn stuff like this?  My first teacher was Sally Linder, a local artist whose work I admired. Back then I was a horrible painter and Sally helped me tremendously.  But it also occurred to me that many of the lessons she taught had broader applications, and that many of the steps toward becoming a better artist were also steps toward becoming a more spiritual person and better human being.

For instance, the first thing that Sally told me was that I needed a place to practice my art.  I had been painting on and off for several years, but never on a regular basis, and had all my brushes and easels stored downstairs in the basement.  I’d have to lug them up where there was better light any time I wanted to paint.  Sally told me I really needed a studio, a room or even just part of a room devoted to my work, if I wanted to get serious.  I knew I would never be able to manage a space like Sally’s, an elegant loft filled with art books and anatomical models and northern light.  But I did buy a little chest of drawers from the nearly new shop and installed it in a place where it would be ready-to-go. In my apartment here in Hudson the mudroom which is heated with lots of windows is dedicated for the same purpose.  It makes a statement that painting is a priority for me, not stored away like the Christmas ornaments to be pulled out on special occasions, but important enough to claim its own space.  It stands to reason.  If you eat, you need a kitchen.  If you sleep, you need a bedroom. And if you want to be an artist, you need an art room.       

If you want to be a spiritual person, it seems to me, you also need to give that a priority in your life.  Annie Dillard says that many of us go through the world making "itsy bitsy statues," and by that I think she means that we are dilettantes, which my dictionary defines as those "who cultivate an art or branch of knowledge as a pastime, especially sporadically or superficially."   Whatever path you’re on, artistic or otherwise, it takes diligence to make progress.  You have to cultivate certain habits, find a teacher, make a commitment to a particular community, learn from a tradition, and embrace a degree of discipline.  Many people say "I can’t draw. I don’t have any talent," but most of them just don’t put in the effort or hours to develop their own innate ability.    

Ananda Coomaraswamy, who was for many years the curator of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and an expert on Hinduism, once said that "an artist is not a special kind of person, but every person is a special kind of artist." What he meant, I think, is that everyone has some special flair. Maybe your flair is for cooking, or conversation, or contra-dancing, but whatever it is, you need to cultivate it.  Art is whatever we pursue not as a means to an end but as an end in itself, purely for the pleasure of self-expression.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I object to making money from my art.  When I’m lucky, I earn enough selling paintings to pay for my canvas and frames, so I am very much an amateur artist, but I hope that I’m an amateur in the best sense, one who follows a pursuit for love rather than money, but not with the connotation of being completely frivolous or unskilled.

Most of you will never be religious professionals, but I hope that you will not be spiritual dilettantes, either. Rather, strive to develop your gifts, without supposing that loving your work makes it any the less a matter of  stick-to-it-iveness and application. For instance, I think being serious about your spiritual life means having a definite place of worship and a commitment to it.  Like an artist needs a studio, you need a sanctuary, someplace to foster feelings of reverence and the attitude of reflection. You need a weekly habit, preferably a daily one, that keeps you sane and in touch with yourself, whether it’s yoga or journaling or singing in a choir.  Community is helpful, whether a twelve step group or Chalice Circle, because you learn from other people.  And finally, just as there are masters of painting, there are also grandmasters of the spirit: the Buddha, Socrates, Jesus.  Learn from them, and if you like even try to copy what they did, but only to develop your own talents, for they themselves were not copyists but innovators and originals.  

Being a spiritual person, like being an artist, is not something that can be reduced to mechanical rules.  But there are tricks of the trade.  For instance, the oldest spiritual exercise in the world is probably watching your own breath.  One of the oldest artistic exercises is drawing your own hand. Start with what’s immediate. Both art and religion are ultimately about paying attention, raising the level of awareness, and the raw materials for that are not far away.  You don’t have to go to exotic locations or distant ashrams to find the sacred.  Cezanne, you know, painted the same little hill that he could see from his window sixty times, over and over, but every image different, each one a revelation. It wasn’t a majestic peak, yet he made it magical.  But that kind of seeing requires practice.  So here are the seven rules for being a highly effective human being.  Work every day.  Make room in your life to practice your faith.  Don’t go it alone.  Associate with and learn from others.  But be true to your own inward vision.  Final rules?  Keep it simple and stay loose.  That’s seven!

So now you know everything you need to unleash your creative power and set your genius at play.  Go to work.  Get started.  Buy a sketch pad and draw your left foot.  But if good habits and general rules were all that were needed, we would all be Michelangelos.  Fortunately or unfortunately, God is still in the details.