Monday 16 November 2009

The Role of the Self in Arts Practice and Spiritual Practice

A while back I was invited to give a talk with above title to members of an artists' group who are all actively travelling on a spiritual path. Unfortunately the talk has been cancelled but having thought about the topic for some time I want to put my thoughts on paper, or rather screen, because many times I don’t really know what I think until I write about it, and the topic is no doubt of great interest to me.

Maybe I should start with sharing the nature of my spiritual practice. I am a Muslim who follows a particular Sufi path, the Shadhdhuliyya tariqa, which goes back to the 13th century beloved of God, Shaykh Abu l-Hasan ash-Shadhdhuli. He was known for only accepting students who had learned a trade and were able to make a living in the world. He wanted his students to live in the world like everybody else while their hearts were permanently turned towards their Creator. As a Muslim I perform the five daily ritual prayers- their times are fixed according to the cycle of the sun – and I fast during the month of Ramadan. There are of course many other obligations upon a Muslim but most of them are not unique to Muslims, like the display of mercy, compassion, patience, forgiveness, generosity, kindness; virtues that are demanded in all spiritual traditions. Although I try and perform my daily prayers in a state of surrender and humility, quite often the main struggle is to stop what I am doing and get up and pray when the time for prayer has arrived. It can happen that during the whole five to ten minutes of the prayer I am not really focussing on God but am preoccupied with something else, and yes, even with mundane things like the shopping list. There is a joke, or maybe it is a true story, that one day in the mosque the Imam prayed only three rak’as instead of four during the evening prayer. A rak’a is one cycle of movements that will be repeated twice, three times or four times, depending on what prayer of the day it is. The community was quarrelling how many rak’as had been prayed. One man finally stood up and declared, ‘We only prayed three rak’as. I know for certain because I have four shops and in every rak’a I go through the earnings of one of the shops in my head. I had not come to the forth shop yet.’ God does not say that distraction during the prayer makes the prayer invalid. He is the Merciful. As long as you stand on the prayer mat for His sake He will reward you.

On the spiritual path, however, the shaykh or teacher will ask of the student a greater commitment. He wants you to remember God more often than five times a day, and in different ways. There is a silent solitary remembrance, dhikr, as well as a communal one that often is accompanied by movement and voice. Many of you may have heard of the whirling dervishes of the Mevlevi tariqa for example.

My silent dhikr is the repetition of the Name of God, Allah. We are asked to repeat it on a daily basis, sitting on the prayer mat or wherever we can. I usually fall asleep when sitting or kneeling on the prayer mat, be it in the early morning or in the evening before going to bed. For me the best way to be in the remembrance is during my walks. The moving and silent repetition of the Name puts me in a state of receptivity. My sense of hearing is heightened. My mind is still and I can hear God, if you want. Not as a voice of course, but He can speak to me nevertheless, and guide me, and show me the answer to questions that have been troubling my mind.

The resulting inner state of this spiritual practice is very close to the state I am in when I sit down to write a novel. The characters of the novel will have visited me for a long time beforehand; they will fill my head with ideas. They will tell me who they are and where they are from, and they will insist that I write down their stories. I have written three novels so far, and in every case the characters pestered me for years until I was ready to write their stories. They usually know that they are winning when I start reading up on the background information that I need to tell their stories.

When I feel that I know enough about the background of the story I will sit down at the computer and get into that state of receptivity. I can’t tell you how I do it. It is a kind of killing of the self for the duration of the writing. It is difficult to come out of that state when I am interrupted. For that reason I prefer to write when nobody is in the house. Recently that has become a problem because my husband has moved his office to the home. It is not that he has a habit of disturbing me but his physical presence makes it more difficult for me to enter this state of complete surrender of the self.

I have just finished reading Sara Maitland’s Book of Silence. She has committed herself to a life of silence and prayer, and has found that she has stopped writing fiction. Her explanation is that when you seek silence, when you give yourself over to God, your goal is the extinction of the self. In fiction, however, you need a strong self, a self that is creating, almost putting herself beside God. This is obviously not how I experience myself when writing. If you asked me whether there is a difference between writing and dhikr, I would say no. In both cases I am turned towards God. I have no other goal but to be His slave, to surrender, to let go of my self and to manifest what God wants to manifest. I don’t believe for one moment that what I write are revelations. What I aim for is that the story I am telling is told without interference of my lower self, my ego. I don’t want to show off, neither my knowledge nor my way with words, nor make a point, or preach. I only want to tell a story, from my heart to the heart of the reader. I want the story to be true. Not a true story, like all the misery memoirs or autobiographies that are so fashionable at the moment, because most of them are not true in the sense I understand the word. Truth is eternal and unsentimental and lifts the spirit. It points to God who is the Truth, the essence within every human being that unites us all. I want my novels to be pointing to the divine within, no matter how weakly and timidly.

I have a simple test when I am writing. Usually before I continue writing on a story or a novel, I read what I have written during my last session. Most of the time I don’t remember anything of it. I read it like somebody else’s work. If I can remember it, I pay attention. It is very likely that my “ego-self” has interfered and tried to manipulate the story. Of course there has to come a point when this self is allowed to voice her concerns. After all we want sentences that are clear, we want the narrative to be flowing, the characters well formed; we want to have a sense of place and time. I am not a writer who overwrites, rather the opposite. I am more likely to be too sparse with my information. Adding some extra colour and flavour is often the task of my “ego-self”.

After having told you all of the above I have to be honest and admit that what has worked well so far is not working any more. No characters are visiting me. Nobody wants me to tell a story. At the same time it doesn’t feel like writer’s block because another yearning has taken hold in my heart. I want to immerse myself in a different time than the one we inhabit at the moment. I want to explore a time when one of the prophets of God walked on earth, want to imagine how it could have felt to have such pure light in one's midst. Having studied Islamic studies the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is the one I know most about, and about whom numerous historical sources exist. Never having written a historic novel before I will be grateful for all the background material easily accessible that I can use in my research.

The characters prove to be a challenge this time. Some days I want to write about a historical figure and fictionalise her life. Then I have doubts and wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to let a fictional woman experience the time of the arrival of the last prophet, let her meet some of my heroes of that time. I am in the stage of conception. I don’t know yet what the outcome of it will be. Unlike my spiritual practices my writing does not happen on a daily basis. Some writers sit at their desk every day for eight hours, or so they claim in interviews, making the likes of me feel bad. I compare writing to giving birth. While you are pregnant you don’t do much to make the baby grow. You get on with daily life and wait. When the time is right the baby will be born. The giving birth stage, the writing down of the story, lasts usually a few months with me, but the pregnancy can last for years. To not give up hope during this time of pregnancy, to trust that everything will come right, is the most important quality the novelist has to hone. Premature births often don’t survive. Patience is the only way forward. Only patience allows you to taste those elusive and rare moments of bliss, moments where you touch eternity, whether they be during a writing session or during prayer or dhikr. During these moments the self has disappeared, but in both cases it will have to be resurrected again. “After the ecstasy the laundry”, as one Buddhist traveller on the path put it. Writing is no exception. The laundry is the rewriting, the ordering of the chapters, the editing, the weeding out of all the scenes that impede the flow of the story. Like on the spiritual path the self that is needed for this task in its best form is the self that is cleansed from its selfish desires and has surrendered to a greater authority, in the case of a novel the wisdom and heart of the story that is being told.


Unknown said...

although i agree with and believe what you say concerning the role of the artist and his work, im worried that this is too idealistic. how about the works of people that can't wait around on maternity leave whilst they prepare for birth? what about the artists that must give birth on a sometimes daily basis? is their work less 'Truth' more 'Ego'? Maybe its possible to write when you dont think youre ready? It might be that you write differently but still face Allah?

Fatima Martin said...

I understand your objection but I maintain that the pregnacy stage is relevant to all artists. If you are a performer, be it a musician, actor, dancer, whatever, you will go through this phase while learning a new piece of music or role, figuring out its "truth" for you, making it your own. Giving birth to it afterwards on a daily basis may seem laborious but is in fact no more so than the countless rewritings and edits of the first draft of a novel.