“The way to see what looks good and understand the reasons it looks good, and to be at one with this goodness as the work proceeds, is to cultivate an inner quietness, a peace of mind so that goodness can shine through.”
–Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values.
In the last two months, through various angles, we have explored ways of taking up the path of the bard, one of the three paths of the druid tradition. Topics have included the cultivation and flow of awen, cultural challenges surrounding taking up the path of the bard, and tips for how to cultivate the bardic arts. In my last post, we also explored some of what industrialization had us lose in terms of the bardic arts–both to those who create them and those who use them and how we might regain some of those things individually and in our communities. Today, we delve deeply into what I believe is the deeper wisdom in studying the bardic arts: using the bardic arts one means to of self enfoldment, self-betterment, and self-discovery.
Shifting from Product to Process
A few posts back in this series, I talked about the commodification and commercialization of the bardic arts in our age of hyper-consumerism. In this age, if you are good enough to sell your work, you should be doing so, and if you aren’t good enough to sell it, you shouldn’t be making it. This belief, of course, suggests that the point of the bardic arts is producing a product that has a commercial value: a story that people will pay to listen to, a song that people will download on Itunes, a painting or wooden bowl that people will buy, and so on. And our culture makes it hard to be a bard if something else is your goal–the pressure to do this, as your work improves, is really intense at times. The problem with this mentality is that it focuses on the end product: that the bardic art has produced a particular thing that has some kind of value to other people such that people would pay to see it/hear it/own it. Of course, in a society that is oriented to consume products of all kinds (including non-physical ones), the privileging of this mentality makes a lot of sense. But in emphasizing this product, we lose the value of the bardic arts as a process–a process of deepening, of unfolding, of development.
The point of pursuing the bardic arts, as part of a spiritual path, is the same reason we pursue the spiritual path itself: because we want to go on a journey. Not because we want to achieve enlightenment or achieve any otherworldly accomplishment–rather, it is to develop, to grow, to unfold. In this view, then, it doesn’t matter how talented or skilled you are in your bardic art(s) of choice because the point is to gain a deeper understanding of self, of craft, of spirit and of the connections between those things. The real “work” of the piece from a spiritual perspective is unfolded in the act of creation. If the point is to express yourself and learn more about yourself as part of the journey, the end product is almost like a bonus. The bardic art journey is its own kind of journey, an incredible one, and one well worth pursuing.
The Bardic Arts and the Cultivation of the Self
“Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristic of quality.”– Robert Pirsig
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Robert Pirsig describes how the main character, Phaedrus, has an older motorcycle that he has learned to service himself and throughout the story, he “listens” to the engine and fine tunes it to his great satisfaction and joy–to him, this work on his motorcycle is an art in and of itself. Another character, John Sutherland, prefers to allow experts to fix his motorcycle, and often gets frustrated and is forced to hire professional mechanics. This interplay between Phaedrus and Sutherland offers a rich exploration of what constitutes craft, quality, and value. For Phaedrus, the point isn’t to fix the motorcycle, rather, fixing the motorcycle helps him better understand himself. It is in the interplay between the honing of his own craft, addressing challenges, and the focus and dedication of that work that he grows to deeply understand himself and his own life.
The bardic arts have a way of doing this kind work on the self like few other things do. This comes through embodiment, cultivating a richer identity and self-love, being in relationship, connecting to spirit, and striving for excellence.
For one, many bardic arts require intensive focus, where we simply are present with our own bodies in ways that we are rarely present at other times. The bardic arts demand our hand-eye coordination, our voices, our vision, our sense of touch and smell, and many of our other physical faculties. Westernized culture is largely a disembodied one–our minds are the focus, and much of the pastimes of modern humans have us going off into various fantasy worlds (through games, television, movies) rather than being present and centered in our bodies. This embodiment, then, helps us recognize what our physical bodies are capable of and helps us re-orient ourselves back into our bodies. This has the benefit of grounding us back into the here and now, slowing us down, and helping us be fully present, among many other things.
Second, the bardic arts help us cultivate a deeper sense of identity and of self. Engaging in a bardic art, and the practice of that art often requires you to work solitary–spending time with the self. Even if you do some kind of performance or collaborative art that requires a group (like playing an instrument in a band or acting), practice by yourself is still a regular part of that experience. This time spent with yourself strengthens your own self-love and bonds with yourself because you are taking the inherent time to simply be with yourself and enjoy that time. We often don’t take much time for ourselves–but I believe we need to get to know ourselves and develop relationships with ourselves in the same way we might develop relationships with any other friend. This time, then, helps us better understand ourselves.
Three, interacting with the instruments of the bardic art (your voice, the media, an instrument, even for dancers, the earth itself), creates an interplay between you and your tools/environment. It ultimately teaches us about relationship and how to be in relationship to some other thing. My words, as I write them, shape me and hone my thinking in ways that without writing them, I wouldn’t experience. My watercolors, likewise, help paint my soul with color and joy as I use them to paint the page in front of me. This interplay, this interaction, becomes part of the self-unfoldment of the bardic arts. When you carve wood–are you carving the wood or is the wood carving you? The answer is simply, “yes.”
Finally, creation of the bardic arts connects us with some of the most important aspects of humanity: when we think about what gets preserved in most museums, what remains of a culture, it is rarely their businesses, their stock market, their tallies of grain or ore. It is their arts: plays, music, literature, statues, architecture, jewelry, stories, songs. In fact, the study of the things that humans create is called the humanities, where literature, art, philosophy, music, theater, dance, and so on have their place. These are human things, things we create with our hands, our hearts, and our minds. The oldest things that survive ancient pre-humans are cave paintings. Creating is something that humans do, and have done even before we were human. The bardic arts, then, allow us to reconnect with our own humanity, our humanness.
Arete and the Strive for Excellence
As the opening quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance suggested, learning how to work on something with care, precision, and a sense of wanting to do “good work” helps you cultivate that care in other aspects of your life. If you develop a sense of wanting to produce quality work, that gives you an inherent sense of care. That same care can be cultivated into other aspects of life–and part of that cultivation is learning how to do it well in one area. The Ancient Greeks had a concept of “arete” (Greek: ἀρετή) which has a few translations: excellence of all kinds and in all things, living up to one’s potential in life, or having a high quality. It was synonymous with the idea of “moral virtue” suggesting that excellence was tied to morality and potential. The Greeks believed that people and the things people created could both have arete.
I don’t see arete as an external quality, something to be judged against the “experts” or “professionals” who make a living doing a certain thing. Arete is also inherently different than perfectionism. Arete is about personal potential and fulfillment–my personal best may not be someone else’s, based on my own skill, tools available, mindset towards the work, where I’m creating it, and any innate talent I may bring to the situation. The Greeks understood this, and maybe, in the druid tradition, we understand it too. More, arete is in line with doing the best work you can, engaging in your bardic art to the best of your ability, and in doing so, becoming a more virtuous and fulfilled self.
I think cultivating Arete through the bardic arts this is particularly important as we are being subjected to a wide range of cultural values that suggest that cheaper, quicker, and easier is always better. In many cases, it is not, and learning how to do the best work we can, so that we can strive for excellence is a worthy goal. It is through this striving for excellence in one thing that excellence comes in many other areas of life as well.
Embracing the Flow and the Unconscious
I had a dear friend and mentor visit me some years ago. A few months prior to his visit, I had moved my art studio to a different room in the house; the old studio space became a spare bedroom. My friend, who was very much dedicated to his own druid practices each day, was staying in that room. After spending a day or two there, he asked me if that room was where I had done my daily spiritual work, because the room had focused energy. I said no, that was where I painted. And that one interchange has had me thinking, and reflecting, since–noting the similarities between my painting and my other kinds of spiritual work, particularly, meditation of all kinds (movement, stillness, discursive, etc).
In speaking to many who pursue the bardic arts with regularity and dedication, there seems to be this moment when the intensity of modern living sheds from us and we enter into a place of focus, quietude, and flow. Many very much see it as a meditation, a chance to go deeper and connect. After immersing oneself for some time within that bardic art, one comes out of the experience more relaxed, calm, and grounded. This is not any different, for me at least, than spending time in ritual or quiet meditation: the effect is the same. A calmness, a sense of fulfillment, and of serenity come over me after time working on my bardic arts, whether that is fine arts, crafts, or writing. I will say though, it takes a level of skill and practice to get to the point where the flow comes–it is after some period of practice.
Above, I talked about the unfoldment that happens in the self. I think a lot of that work is semi-conscious or even unconscious. Our rational minds lose their vice grip and things can flow to the surface as the bardic arts flow. I often find that when I paint, carve, or engage in other work with my hands, by the end of that session, I’ll have come to an understanding of an issue that I didn’t have clarity on when I started. This experience is a powerful reminder that there are many levels to consciousness, and tapping into the bardic arts, when you are at that point of flow, allows you to tap into deeper ones than before.
“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.” – Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The bardic arts can also give us a sense of joy that is hard to find in other ways. We can engage in the bardic arts because they make our souls sing–and finding how to use them to cultivate happiness is an important part of this spiritual work. For many, part of this comes in sharing your work with others (one of the reasons that the Eisteddfod, or Bardic Circle) is so critically important. But for others, it simply means tackling a difficult piece and feeling a sense of accomplishment, or learning an important skill through repeated practice.
Making things is personally empowering and gets us into a creative, skilled mode where we function best as humans. There is nothing like a happy group of people learning how to carve spoons, make their own tools, raise a barn, build a rocket stove, or grow their own food. There is a radiant joy that emerges when we learn how to make our own things.