teacher and artist

“Now the expression of vision, of reality, of beauty, at an artist’s hands—the creation of new life in all forms—has two factors: the living molding creative spirit, and the material in which it works. Between these two there is inevitably a difference of tension. The material is at best inert, and merely patient of the informing idea; at worst, directly recalcitrant to it. Hence, according to the balance of these two factors, the amount of resistance offered by stuff to tool, a greater or lesser energy must be expended. … You, accepting the wide deep universe of the mystic, and the responsibilities that go with it, have by this act taken sides once and for all with creative spirit: with the higher tension, the unrelaxed effort, the passion for a better, intenser, and more significant life. The adoration to which you are vowed is not an affair of red hassocks and authorized hymn books; but a burning and consuming fire.” ~Evelyn Underhill

The Task of the Artist

I find it curious that many people seem to thin that the life of the artist is one of leisure, barely working at all, hardly exerting himself. As one who has dappled in art at various times throughout my life (oil painting, soapstone carving, wood burning, etc.) I know there is considerable work involved in making art.

The task of the artist is to take raw material of some sort, and turn it into something else. Often, the goal is to make something beautiful out of something plain or ordinary, though it can also be to make a social or philosophical comment.

The Task of the Teacher

If you think about it, you can see that the task of the teacher, especially the spiritual teacher, is very similar to the task of the artist. The teacher takes someone raw, untrained, uncouth, and tries to improve him or her. In some cases, the teacher is only teaching a very limited subject, so the student isn’t exactly transformed by the process, but is still changed in some way, hopefully for the better.

When it comes to general education, especially public education, I think in some ways we were better off when students spend all day for a year, or even several years, with the same teacher. That allowed the teacher to get to know the student and know exactly how gently or how hard to strike that forming chisel with the hammer. Yes, we would lose the ability to have specialists teach specific subjects that one teacher isn’t capable of learning and sharing, but the true purpose of a teacher should be awaken and encourage the students desire for knowledge and not just to memorize state-approved “facts”.

The Spiritual Teacher

In a spiritual school, it is still generally true that the student does stay with one teacher for years. And the teacher can apply different methods, different encouragements, to get the student to learn the lessons.

Sometimes these methods can seem quite strange to outsiders. The teacher might assign the student to read some books and report his thoughts on them. After the student does so, the teacher might tell him those books, and the opinions in them are completely useless and should be immediately forgotten. He would do that as a method of teaching certain students the pointlessness of a conventional education, or on relying upon books to provide knowledge and truth instead of awakening their own spiritual faculties and learning by experience.

Sometimes the methods can seem harsh. We have probably all heard the stories of Tibetan monks who, at a certain point in their training, were soaked in cold water and sent to sit outside on a cold winter night. When the teacher came out the next morning to get him, he not only had to be alive, but his robe had to be perfectly dry, or he failed the test. Such a thing seems impossible to most of us, but it was real.

The Difference between Teacher and Artist

While there are many similarities, there are also differences between the work of the artist and that of the teacher. First, the teacher is generally dealing with students who have come to him voluntarily, while the artist does not consult the raw material before she uses it (but who knows, maybe the stone being carved into a great statue has dreamed of having that happen to him.) Also, the student has some say over what he studies and what he learns, but generally speaking, the material of the artist does not (though I once say a demonstration of ice carving where the block of ice split during the process and the artist was forced to quickly change the intended subject.) Finally, the student, if pushed too hard, or if influenced too much by the dark ones, can give up and leave, but the material of the artist can still do that.

Still, it might be good to think of the spiritual teacher as the artist carving the superman of the future, the spiritual man who will take over when material man is done for.


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