5 Ways of Self-Knowing Through Art

Makapu‘u Point, Honolulu, HI © David Ulrich

Makapu‘u Point, Honolulu, HI © David Ulrich

Adapted from Art and Spiritual Practice: A Pathway Towards Consciousness by David Ulrich

Working with an art or craft, or engaging any activity with passion and care, can be a path toward self-knowledge. What gifts and challenges can creativity offer an individual on the way toward self-knowledge?

1.)  Art is a search for what is our own—our essential nature, the kernel of our true individuality. Our genuine beliefs, innate talents, and deepest inclinations can be discovered and seen clearly through the lens of a creative medium. The inherent longing to become who we are, the sheer discovery of what rings true to ourselves represent the initial stages of the artist’s way. To know what feeds our unique nature, helping it thrive and grow, is an art of the highest order.

In a society that values materialism and rational thought, a healthy percentage of artists strive to preserve and protect creative endeavors as a haven of integrity. Our truest works and most significant accomplishments grow out of our inmost predilections. When we align with who we really are, a subtle change begins to occur; a new-found quality of both freedom and responsibility makes its long-awaited appearance.

An inner measure exists. We know or sense in some part of ourselves when the work is true. We must discover this finely tuned discrimination. The closer we come to ourselves, the more we know, in some essential yet unknown parts of ourselves when the outer expression mirrors the inner direction. Content and form correlate directly with our beliefs, attitudes, and every element of our being.

2.)  Not only does art mirror our essential characteristics, it is also a means of observing our conditioned personality—the legacy of our upbringing, education, and the unique compilation of our experiences. Creative work reflects the whole of our personality. What we experience in our lives will eventually make its way into our creative expression. All art is autobiographical, to one degree or another, and has its seeds in the particular nature of the artist’s experience. The way it shows itself is highly instructive. For example, the deeper meaning of an event or an experience is not always immediately apparent — we must turn to the unconscious to reveal its significance. The hidden parts of our nature communicate through dreams, waking visions, and works of art. We may examine our works of art with the same kind of analysis that we give to our dreams. Often, they arise from the same place within and speak a similar language.

Many times I have observed mysterious elements finding their way into my work—even in works and projects that are inherently outer directed. Upon closer examination, or assisted by the response of others, I may see that these elements mirror some condition of my life in the present, past, or future. Giving careful attention to details of my work often leads toward greater understanding of myself and the meaning of my experiences. Our affinities and repulsions contain important clues to self-knowing.

Creative work is a form of self-portrayal. No matter what our mode of inquiry—autobiography, realism, fiction, or non-representation—we often see a good deal of ourselves reflected in our works.

3.) The creative process asks that we strive toward a balanced development. While a correlation may exist between creativity and madness, the greatest art arises from the search for wholeness of body and spirit. Artists encounter their world deeply and intensely—extending well beyond neurosis.

An active engagement with art reveals the nature of our balance or imbalance. One of the very first things we observe is the dominant features of our constitution. Body, mind, and feelings; each must be equal participants in the creative act. And for most of us, these are out of balance and unequally developed. One or another of these core elements is prioritized and favored. In western civilization, many individuals sharpen their mind at the expense of the rest of their being. Here in Hawai‘i, with the prevalence of surfers, divers, and outdoor enthusiasts, there are countless adventurers with highly developed hard-bodies, but who shirk from the disciplined work of the mind. Likewise, artists are often at the mercy of their feeling nature, prioritizing this function over the rigor of the mind or the knowledge of the body.

There is a natural intelligence of each part of our nature: mind, body, and feelings. Through work with a creative medium, our natural talents and limitations come into full view. We are given hints of wholeness while suffering the nature of our fragmentation and lack of balance. Gaining mastery of an art or craft compels us to observe clearly which of our parts are inherently more evolved and which are in need of attention and development. The objective demands of an art medium will not let us off the hook — asking that we attend to our inner development in a balanced manner.

4.)  Art reveals our cultural heritage and collective conditions, allowing us to observe the societal attitudes as well as generational standards that have influenced us literally from birth. Among today’s artists and critics, massive attention is paid to the connotative signs in works of art that, when deconstructed through a rigorous theoretical matrix, treat images as a cultural text. That is to say, images are about images — the fashions, tastes, and attitudes of contemporary society are witnessed through media, advertising, and pop culture. Art then becomes a simultaneous mirror and critique of the culture-at-large.

Critical theory examines how both the overt content and the underlying, contextual elements of our expression are deeply influenced by the external aspects of our identity: our upbringing, ethnic background, economic status, gender roles, sexual orientation, or health conditions.  We must admit a self-evident, but easily overlooked truth: we are children of our epoch. There can be no doubt that cultural factors drive many aspects of our creative expression, and these elements are exceedingly difficult to recognize because they are so deeply ingrained into our conditioned personalities. But it is a highly useful exercise to observe our artistic efforts through the lens of our cultural attitudes.

5.)  Art is a means toward the discovery and expression of Self. At its deepest level, the creative process transports us into universal, transpersonal realms. It is highly paradoxical. Through creativity we may be privileged with moments of realization of life’s unity. Yet we also deeply recognize our embodied nature, the forms that grow from our unique individuality. Formlessness and form are two sides of the same stick. We empty the cup to reveal the inherent contents. We discover the self — world-born and earth-bound — to challenge and transcend it, revealing the Self — unborn and unbound. As a child, I remember knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that “I” am not my name, do not live only in my body and personality, that “I” reside here only temporarily and am vaster than my particular conditions. Yet “I” incorporate — and somehow need — my unique personal conditions. Creativity helps us find our way back to what we already know, already are, always have been, and always will be.

The discovery of the higher parts of our nature—our dharma, our true path, our Self our own particular place of giving and receiving—that can come only from us—may be discovered and expressed through art.

A moment comes for the artist, often late in a career of continual research and experimentation, that the work becomes distinctively one’s own, infused with one’s very being. Walt Whitman was an unknown writer and journalist, generating unremarkable prose, until the undocumented bold awakening from which bloomed the unparalleled, epic poem Leaves of Grass. And the elegant, silence-filled, color field paintings of Mark Rothko followed decades of unimpressive, awkward work inspired by his interest in the myths of antiquity.

Constance Hale, in Sin and Syntax, observes: “Be simple but go deep. The exquisite “cutouts” of Matisse and the elegant line drawings of Picasso came late in long careers of painstaking work and wild experimentation. In writing, as in painting, simplicity often follows considerable torment.”

It is nothing less than a form of alchemy. We cannot hasten the long, slow, simmering process that brings boldness, economy, and elegance to the forefront. Something passes through us cleanly and directly.  Yes — we exclaim — this is closer to the truth. This is something of our birthright. We know it when we see it, yet could not predict it in advance.

The answers lie within. The voice of the true teacher within is separated from us by the thinnest of veils, but for most of us, it takes a lifetime of work to penetrate the masks that hide us from ourselves.

 In The De-Definition of Art, art critic Harold Rosenberg writes:

“…With its accumulated insights, its disciplines, its inner conflicts, painting (or poetry, or photography, or music) provide a means for the active self-development of individuals—perhaps the only means. Given the patterns in which mass behavior, including mass education, is presently organized, art is the one vocation that keeps a space open for the individual to realize himself in knowing himself. A society that lacks the presence of self-developing individuals—but in which passive people are acted upon by their environment—hardly deserves to be called a human society. It is the greatness of art that it does not permit us to forget this.”



  1. I have been exploring the art and yoga interconnection by giving workshops such as Sculpting in Clay with Yoga poses and Yoga for the Chakras. In both workshops we use yoga asana, sketching, ceramic sculpting and mandala designing.
    There is little emphasis on the outcome and no masterpeices are made. We stumble onto the divine and smile.

    1. Thanks Heather. Your work sounds interesting . . . Might we all stumble, hopefully with some intention and some inner work, on to the divine.

Comments are closed.