Sacred Companioning by Making Art

by Andre van Zijl

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© 2014 “I See You.” Pencil on paper by Andre van Zijl

Preparing a blank canvas or sheet of white paper for artwork is akin to preparing one’s mind and heart for the arrival of the Beloved. It is a cleansing and purifying of the instrument of creative expression to become a fit vessel for the transmission of the spirit’s subtle prompting. It is the assumption and even the embodiment of what in Soto Zen parlance is called “beginner’s mind.” This is a mind, heart, and body laid out like a white cassock, a bride’s dress, or a pristine canvas, upon which sacred whispering that wishes to be poured through might be appropriately consecrated and consciously midwifed into being. This is a mind awake and open, without presumption.

We operate with two minds in this life.

One mind is what we can refer to as an “ordinary” or “everyday mind.” It is this mind that helps us negotiate the normal challenges and concerns of everyday life. It references and mainly relates to what is outside of us.

The other mind is the more contemplative aspect of our being, which we deliberately access to do the work of reflecting and mirroring the divine, both in and through ourselves and those we serve by witnessing the movement of spirit in, through, and around us. This is also the mind or state of attention we hold when reading poetry or acutely observing art that moves us beyond the everyday mind into the timeless space of eternity. Prior to receiving poetry or art, it is best to enter contemplative space. The everyday or ordinary mind does not have the required patience to slow down enough to fully experience what art and poetry offer. In the words of the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, “Art speaks soul to soul.” It bypasses the busy mind to pierce the opened heart.

Take a deep, slow breath right now. Feel yourself deliberately leaving the ordinary mind and entering into the soul-language of art and poetry. Take your time, and in doing so, prepare to meet “Stranger as Unknown Friend.” Drop your expectations and simply surrender to a process of sweetly waiting in the silence and stillness of not knowing, not expecting as you gaze upon this piece of art.

© Andre van Zijl, “Stranger as Unknown Friend,” from a 1,500-part art installation called “I AM— An Archaeology of the Future,” exhibited in 2015 and 2019 at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

What feeling-thought comes up for you as you are companioning this artwork?

I would like to suggest that sacred companioning is also about entering the sacred mystery of the moment, with the same humility and surrender that art and poetry ask of us. Simply listening for the still small voice to be heard. When this hyper stillness appears within one’s capacities, one can recognize its gift as the undeniable opening and expansion of the heart space as the primary organ of divine hearing, seeing, and being.
This is the gift life grants us to be able to hear and see as God hears and sees. When we have learned the art of stepping aside from our individual personhood as the given foreground of attention, thereby allowing what is always embracing us to well up from the depths of our souls, we then are in a fit state to serve our divine calling.

Making art in this way, and living life in this way, can seamlessly become worship in every circumstance.

As spiritual companions, we develop a degree of agility and flexibility that allows us to navigate the streams of conscious and superconscious listening, back and forth, without missing a beat. Just as we previously took a deep breath and exhaled fully before we slowly took in a piece of art, let us do the same for a bit of poetry. I would like to share this poem with you in increments, interspersed through the text of this article, just to show you that you can indeed navigate multiple streams of consciousness if you put your intention to do so.

Let us take three slow deep breaths, with a brief pause between each, before beginning to explore this poem:

—ooOoo—
I Am Holy Ground
I am the holy ground
Upon which I walk,
I am the burning bush,
Which lights the desert way,
I am the rock
From which living water springs,
O Lord, tap me with your rod
Of unswerving love,
O Lord, lay me bare
Like a flayed, splayed frog
So that without
Anything to call my own,
I am wholly cleansed
In the unutterable beauty
Of thy presence,
In the ongoing incantation
Of thy name burning on my brow,
You slay me, free me, and divide me
Into all the quarters of the sky’s
Broad sweeping fullness…

—ooOoo—

(Pause for a moment before re-entering the narrative.)

Being silent means being ready to listen.
Being empty means being receptive.
Cupped hands are ready to receive.

For me, as a professional artist, the beginning of the process of allowing the creative flow of life and spirit to move through me involves trusting what is rising up in me. It is trusting spiritual intuition to lead the process of creating, or more appropriately, to lead birthing the formless into form, and making the invisible visible. It is keeping the ordinary busybody mind at bay whilst seeing through the open eyes of the surrendered heart.

In my own contemplative reflections, I have experienced the truth that the most secure space in the universe is the radically undefended heart. A heart that needs no defense because it sees only love pouring out of every molecule, no matter the appearance of life and death in its myriad contrasting forms. The realm of the ten thousand things. Being in heart space is listening to and simultaneously expressing what is being intuited through this deeper listening of the surrendered heart.

The art of spiritual companioning is no different. It is mirrored in the bright alertness of a robin, bobbing gently on a windswept branch, with its head slightly askance, listening to the voice of the sacred as it comes in with the breathing of the world soul. It is experiencing the self—emptied of opinion, judgments, or even thoughts, and conferring the same respect of non-imposition or countertransference upon the soul one has entered fruitful silence with. In this state of poised reverence without internal speech, there is a deep sense of allowing—allowing the spirit to move and allowing each one involved to be so moved by the spirit. Spirit comes unbidden and unearned, but always breathing into the pearl ear of our souls.

There are as many ways of making art as there are artists. But for me, it is more a state of allowing and resting in being, attuned to the unspeakable mystery being allowed into expression, rather than inducing a desired or wished-for result through manipulated and self-conscious making or doing. The many forms of spiritual expression are also qualified by our personal filters of belief, our patterns of life experience, and the markers of self-identity we hold. These differentiations make our own creativity unique, bringing spirit into form, exactly as the situation requires. The white light of Life expresses itself through each of us in the character of a given moment, prismed into living color through the quality of our singular character.

In this appreciation of the process of spiritual companioning as kin to the birthing of creative expression of any kind, we hold sacred space into which our human journey can be informed by an unconditional space beyond the tyranny of the measuring, comparing, commenting, and incessant judging of the ordinary surface mind.

—ooOoo—
I have nothing to
Call my own,
I have no brethren,
No church,
No followers,
No students,
To call my own,
I have no possessions,
But I am possessed by
Only Thee.
Thou art my brethren,
My followers,
My family,
My city,
My school,
My house,
My home,
My church,
Yet the burden I carry
Is the hidden Joy
Of thy presence,
Only to be found
Hidden
In the very heart of my own being.

—ooOoo—

Did you pause and take a few deep breaths before you read the next part of the poem? If so, how did that prepare you to make the shift into deeper reading? If not, please go back and do so now and see how your reading might be different. Think of the times you have entered into spiritual companioning after pausing and deepening your perspective, surrendering your need to control any outcomes, as opposed to the times you have entered into a companioning conversation still burdened by your own self-centered thoughts, still stinging from an insult lobbed at you earlier in the day or burdened with worrying about the bills you need to pay. It is amazing what a difference it makes when we pause and raise our intention to shift into higher consciousness!

Spirit must be allowed into form through the weight of its own compulsion. Spirit creates accurate replications of itself if allowed to move more freely through us without our personality qualifying its moving from the stillness of universal potentiality into the natural limitations of form. Our personality might be described as the local flavor poured into the broth of spirit. No matter how well any form clothes spirit, no form can contain the full magnitude or magnificent beauty of the supernal. Yet, in vibrationally matching the source of all that is, we can provide a safe passage for infinity to move through us into the light of day. Our own or our companion’s perceived need might be a factor in this emerging expression in form, but it cannot be seen as some sort of spiritual quid pro quo—the urgency of our need as some sort of bargaining chip in receiving the grace of divine attention, as if the Divine is somehow absent or reluctant in noticing our need.
As Sri Ramakrishna has put it: “The winds of God’s grace are always blowing; it is for us to raise our sails.”

One way that we can be assured that God’s grace is always flowing is the gift of time. Time gives us the opportunity in each succeeding moment to think a new thought, feel a new feeling, choose a new action.

Take a moment now to ponder this. Allow your eyes to rest upon this artwork as you pause.

“Ascension Is Beyond Thought,” a diptych 72" x 48" watercolor and ink on paper

Now take a deep breath and resume with the narrative.

All suffering seems to come from the habitual breathing new life into it by bringing it into present awareness. Spiritual practice, or better yet spiritual optimism, is the art of keeping our sails up even when we do not feel “creative” or “in the presence.” The art of spiritual companioning can also be characterized as the art of being able to accurately read and manage energy in oneself and to be available to fully receive the energy of the spiritual companion we are serving as a faithful mirror.

According to the Samkhya school of Hindu psychological and philosophical understanding, there are three energies that interpenetrate everything in differing proportions to each other in each circumstance. These embedded energies are the down-pulling energy of Tamas, sloth, torpor, weakness, impurity, or darkness; the rousing energy of Rajas, anger, agenda-driven action; and the calming energy of Satva, peace, purity, and equanimity. As we deliberately cultivate the energy of Satva through contemplative practice, we balance the other energies within us so that they become more manageable, and as a result, we become more available to serve others. As such, spiritual life can be seen as the management of our internal thermostat!

When spiritually companioning someone, as when I approach an artwork, I do not want to know in advance what might emerge from the silence. In fact, allowing a state of openness without knowing is crucial for me as I begin touching paper with words, or canvas with paint. There is moving in and out, a going inward to the relaxing of heart space in order to become a shamanic healing presence for myself, and thus a conscious healing container in which what must emerge outward into form is allowed a natural birth, both for oneself and for those whom one is in service to.

A key piece is not taking oneself personally. None of this is personal. The infinite eternity that we are is always seeking expression in and through us and seeks for us to be available for its agenda, being less distracted by the ego-survival agenda of the time-bound form we inhabit—ideally, expressing, doing, and being as the universal spirit in human form. In this process of sacralizing all human activity, we approach the experience of allowing the Divine to be present in the powerful and undeniable way that Brother Lawrence shared so well: “I have quitted all forms of devotion and set prayers but those which my state obliges me. And make it my business only to persevere in His holy presence, wherein I keep myself by simple attention, and general fond regard to God … (in) a habitual, silent and secret conversation of the soul with God” (21).

I begin with such contemplative art ruminations as the next drawing, with a single dot on the white page, simply allowing each succeeding dot to create its own trajectory. It becomes more a process of following the dots than leading them somewhere—a process of divine discovery. My intention is to make accessible through the nonverbal language of art the underlying message of eternity flowing into and through the ongoing cycles of life.

From light to light. Can you see it in this piece? Please, take your time. And do not forget to take three deep breaths.

“Born of Stars, We Are but a Moment in the Sun.” Ink on paper by Andre van Zijl

My teacher, Swami Nisreyasnanda, a realized soul, said to me: “To the degree we enter infinity (through meditation), to that degree infinity leaks (expresses Itself) into the world through us” (personal communication). Life births everything into being. This image of our lives being of service as spiritual companions comes pointedly to the fore in a throwaway remark Swami Nisreyasnanda shared with me after I had been with him for ten years:

When someone comes walking towards me with a need, I say silently to myself: O Lord, You, who creates whole universes, have such a sense of humor! You come walking towards me pretending a need that I can pretend to fill!

When someone approaches us with a need, we can acknowledge that by being omnipresent. The Divine is resident in each one of us, from the tips of our hair to the tips of our nails. Our spiritual seeing of them allows us to invite the presence from within our mutual indwelling and our shared interbeing. None is separate, all is one.

—ooOoo—
I still seek everywhere
For rest, for a resting place,
But you shout,
Into the rushing silence
Of my inward heart:
“But can’t you see, there is
No resting place, no refuge,
No place to hide,
To be comfortable with your own small mercies,
Your tender thoughts,
Your spiritual shop-keeping.
NO!
You are, I AM the
Burning bush!
You are, I AM the
Lighted sepulcher,
You are, I AM the
Wonder and beauty
That all seek to know!
Stop,
Stop it all!
Stop
This pleasure-seeking in
The houses of good repute,
In the temples of holier-than-thou,
In the schools and churches
Where the false doctrine,
of sinners to be saved
and a world to be rescued
Is taught…
I AM, you are,
In the quietness of
The inner sanctum,
Far from the clacking lips,
And hollow words of teachers,
Of holy men sought for,
In the company of saved souls—the rest be damned,
Far from even the good men and women
Serving the good-of-all,
I AM, you are, hidden
In the marketplace,
In the midst and sight of all.

—ooOoo—

Your True Self is who you objectively are from the beginning, in the mind and heart of God, “the face you had before you were born,” as the Zen masters say. It is your substantial self, your absolute identity, which can neither be gained or lost by any technique, group affiliation, morality, or formula whatsoever. The surrendering of our false self, which we have usually taken for our absolute identity, yet is merely a relative identity, is the necessary suffering needed to find “the pearl of great price” that is hidden inside this lovely but passing shell.

(Rohr)

Companioning Myself through Art

© 1989 “Hunting Party.” Charcoal, pastel on paper, 84" x 60". Collection, Bloemfontein Municipal Gallery, South Africa. Andre van Zijl retains copyright.

The fertile field of spiritual awareness we cultivate as sacred companions begins with ourselves. From a very young age, this process has been deeply integrated into my life as an artist. Being an artist in the world is not a choice. It flows from the creative faculty we are each born with. At art school, my professor told me that there were three kinds of artists: those who made art as a way to alleviate or exorcise the pain of life; those driven to share a particular belief or point of view; and those who had no pain, or anything particular to say through their art, but just made art beautifully. These divisions are not absolute, and all artists carry these three characters within them, with one or the other being more prominent at any one time.

My story is that art chose me to actively deal with the bleeding wound of my human insufficiency. I first used my gift to shutter out the awkwardness and pain of my inability to interact with a world that made no sense to me. I always felt like an outsider, because I felt too much and saw too much. I found it difficult to connect to people. Still do. The only cure for this constantly seeping soul wound of hypersensitivity, it turns out (for me), is making art. Always creating. Drawing, writing, sculpting, and designing pottery simply to maintain core functionality as a human being. Making art was the only thing that ever made sense to me. In my mind, I was forever comparing myself to others. I always felt something essential was lacking in me.

Of necessity, I have since made friends with this core sense of something lacking that nothing external could “fix” or “fill.” My fluid and unreliable personhood, and my apparent inability to secure lasting “success” in the usual understanding of success as a professional artist, and the desperate need to belong to something wilder, wider, and freer, has forced me to dive deeper into my soul to discover the root of infinity itself. The unavoidable existential challenge seems to have been, for me, the only way to have been pressed, like wine, into sacred usefulness.

And now, art has finally become for me a tool and expression of personal transformation.

As a child, art began as “Look at what I can do!”

I won first place in an under-thirteen children’s national art competition. Heart beating wildly, I approached the dais to receive my prize at the S. Rhodesian National Gallery in front of five hundred consequential adults. I was suddenly brutally crushed when I was informed, live over the microphone, by the National Gallery director stridently saying, “NO NO NO, we cannot give YOU this prize. You are far too young to have done such mature work without adult help!” And so, the prize was given to someone else.

Thus my serious spiritual education began in earnest. This education continued beyond the University of Cape Town where I taught for many years before creating my own art and design studio. In the 1970s, during apartheid in South Africa, art had become my sword of righteousness. My work as an antiapartheid activist was recognized and published in Resistance Art in South Africa, and at this juncture of my career, my art had been placed in over thirty museums and public collections, including the South African National Gallery.

Immigrating to the United States was the ego’s attempt to become a bigger fish in a bigger pond. I naturally thought that this was the next logical step in the given script of never-ending ascendance. This dream was further supported when I entered a national competition for a memorial for the Los Angeles Police Academy with significant financial and career implications and found a place in the finals (one of five artists), out of a field of over six hundred entrants. Even this did nothing to allay my rising professional and personal anxiety.

—ooOoo—
Only stillness may find me, and
Only God announce me.
Yet I seek hidden-ness and obscurity, as protection from myself.
I seek to burnish the shine on my face with the blood of sorrow,
For what pleases men, displeases me, who am
Content even as I appear small, weak, frightened,
Lonely, powerless, seeking, desiring, not sleeping, worrying,
Feeling great sword thrusts of self-pity
In my side,
Yet
Wonder!
You and I, I and You
Can never be parted,
Can never disappear,
Can never be known in its entirety of fullness,
In its undivided wholeness of
Walking the path of gratitude
In the face of nothing to be grateful for,
For joy in the face of sorrow, struggle, and loss.
Walking the path of firmness and resolve
In the face of two mindedness,
Two heartedness,
And two sightedness—
For I am the One
The True,
The Pure, Now
And here, and in all ways
Only yours,
As you are in all ways,
Now, and here,
Only Mine.

—ooOoo—

Years then passed in the quiet desperation of public invisibility until the bottom finally fell out in my mid-fifties. Art had been my dependable defense against an unthinking, blind, and unconscious world of constant existential uncertainty, and now, at the end of my rope, the coherence of my personal narrative utterly unraveled.

I took myself off to a private retreat at the local Vedanta Monastery to try to avoid the depth of spiritual anguish in which I was drowning. Instead, I discovered that the only way out of it was to go deeper into the inner abyss—more deeply inward than I had ever dared to go before, to finally defuse my demons by facing their clamorous voices in my soul.

A flashback comes to mind. At the age of twenty-five, I became a monastic member leading the community and its many friends musically (on the harmonium) in three daily arati services. In the ensuing periods of deep meditation, I regularly lost body consciousness and fell into a condition of conditionless absolute bliss. My father (a born-again Christian priest) disowned me at this juncture. Fast-forward several decades, when my only possible plea was for the spiritual paramedics to come and save me from my collapsing sense of self! A process of self-quarantining led to the practice of intense one-pointed meditation over a period of three weeks, when, on the week before Good Friday 2007, I felt an intensifying inner turmoil reaching a terrifying and unavoidable pitch. I fled to my monastic cell, locked the door, and collapsed into a fetal position on the bed, confident I was about to die.

Instead of physically dying, I came out of the darkness of personal extinction to awake to the sight of a brand new world, never before thought possible by my “doubting Thomas” mind.

I was as physically weak as a newborn but astonished by wonder at witnessing the pristine beauty of a world bathed in the tenderness of infinite love in all its details.

—ooOoo—
Though stillness may find me,
Only God announces me.
I seek hidden-ness and obscurity, as protection from myself,
I seek to burnish the shine on my face with the blood of sorrow, For what pleases men, displeases me, who am
Content even as I appear small, weak, frightened,
Lonely, powerless, seeking, desiring, not sleeping, worrying. Feeling great sword thrusts of self-pity
In my side,
Yet
Wonder!
You and I,
I and You
Can never be parted,
Can never disappear,
Can never be known in its entirety
Of fullness,
In its undivided wholeness of
Walking the path of gratitude
In the face of nothing to be grateful for,
For joy in the face of sorrow, struggle, and loss.
Walking the path of
Firmness and resolve
In the face of two mindedness,
Two heartedness,
And two sightedness –
For I am the One
The True,
The Pure, Now
And here, and in all ways
Only yours,
As you are in all ways,
Now, and here,
Only Mine.

—ooOoo—

I stumbled around for the next three weeks in a serious intoxication of impersonal love, filled with a heart incapable of the least defense because all I could feel, no matter what my senses told me, was that everything and everyone was bathed in a never-ceasing flood of cosmic love beyond all possible expectation.

I thought, “This is what is meant by standing barefoot on Holy Ground!”

Trying to process the spiritual turmoil I was experiencing at the time I wrote,

I cannot separate one moment from another, even while doing the most ordinary things most take for granted without thought, everything has taken on a momentousness I can hardly believe. At times I feel buoyed up, a thousand feet high, and with each movement of the body, the sensation is of ‘surfing’ the crest of a cosmic tsunami.

It seems as if I do nothing but follow the perfume of the divine’s presence wherever I am and wait for Its word to emerge. I have no meaning or purpose I can call my own—I know it is not arrogance—just simple fact. I do not need to tell anyone, not even my wife. I do not feel the least doubt or anxiety. More comfortable in my skin than I could ever conceive of being, I have nothing to prove or demonstrate (even to myself). All questions of any nature have utterly ceased.

An immense stillness resides here, where before the calamitous waves of the gunas held sway.

I have to stop writing now. This body is tired and I need to work tomorrow.

I want to keep loving everything that passes before this “station-master” witness—seeing the waking, dream, and sleepless dream trains come and go,—and blessing it all in secret, holding it safe in secret, cherishing it in secret without needing to or even wanting to.

© 2015 “Held in Your Hands/The Dance of Stillness.” 9" x 6" ink & watercolor on paper by Andre van Zijl

Being fairly long-toothed, I have come through many tumultuous times when the possibility of any future was seriously doubted. Yet, even in this now, I feel the deep assurance of an abiding divine tenderness that will never let us go. Never.

No matter what may come.

—ooOoo—
I say—
Lord, even as I seek joy
I am drowning in an ocean of Joy, Lord,
Even as I seek purity,
I am drowning in Thy sea of Purity,
Even as I seek teachers,
You, the supreme teacher of all that exists, sitting
Huge as a boulder in my throat,
Breathing me,
Teaching me,
Instructing me,
Even being me! Thy most reluctant student.
What wondrous madness is this!
—ooOoo—
You say—
Do not look to others
To save you or condemn you,
Do not wait for divine orders
To be whispered in your
Precious, observant ear,
Do not wait for purpose to seize
Your paralyzed doubting limbs,
Do not wait for the money to come
Before you build my temple,
For you have no time to pretend,
To imagine what you still need to learn,
You have no time to tell anyone anything!
Just be!
Just Be!
Just be
The Holy ground upon which
You walk.

—ooOoo—

The very gift of consciousness is blessing enough.

Each day’s birthing into being and taking up the cross of the divided self to bear is yet another opportunity to know the inherent blessing and privilege of being in human form so that the spirit of cosmic emptiness might fill us with its infinite abundance of reasonless joy and a peace beyond understanding. A sense of peace and abundance we can share with those whom we serve, all embraced by a conditionless love that is not our own, but which lives in us, breathing us into being.

And so, we can see the creative process of making art informing the richness of spiritual companioning as a celebration of the open space where spirit meets awareness. It is a space of sacred emptiness into which we carry nothing but the raw hunger for a living sacred connection. Returning to the promise of the white canvas, we create the receiving space of spiritual communing when we allow spirit to guide our intuitional understanding and we surrender in trust to the flow of inner stillness.

Guided by the natural generosity of spirit and emptied of the expectations of the transactional mind, we celebrate the essential act of worship and divine exchange that spiritual companioning can be. We are all ultimately artists creating sacred space.

© 2015 “The Mandela Story.” Ink on paper by Andre van Zijl

References

Lawrence, Brother. The Practice of the Presence of God. Revell, Baker Publishing Group, 1958, 1967. E-book edition, 2012, available through the Santa Monica Public Library Hoopla app.

Ramakrishna, Sri. “The Winds of God’s Grace.” Digital image. AZ Quotes. Accessed January 18, 2021. https://www.azquotes.com/picture-quotes/quote-the-winds-of-god-s-grace-are-always-blowing-it-is-for-us-to-raise-our-sails-ramakrishna-70-27-55.jpg.

Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life—A Companion Journal. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013.

This Article Appears In

AN INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SPIRITUAL DIRECTION

Volume 27, Number 1 – March 2021

 

Author & Artist

Rev. Andre van Zijl is a cofounder and codirector of All Paths Divinity School, an online interfaith seminary promoting and nurturing sacred community through the arts. He is a spiritually inspired, award-winning artist, poet, published author, and non-dual philosophy teacher. Andre is also the founder and director of Van Zijl Art and Design Studios. He can be reached at andre@allpathsdivinityschool.org.