Impartiality implies a neutral, unprejudiced attitude when considering an idea or event. It entails a temporary suspension of whatever dispositions we may have towards something, and acts as a stabilizing technique in the midst of the diverse influences impinging on our actions. As such, it is a useful and often necessary cognitive and/or behavioral tool in a wide variety of circumstances that require accurate, trustworthy information as a means of working towards a desired result. For example: Adopting an impartial point of view acts as a safeguard against bias when conducting scientific work or learning new skills, and it provides a measure of equality when organizing and managing socially responsible regulatory practices, as in civic administration and legal systems.
However, because it entails distancing ourselves from our personal traits and experiences, impartiality does not reflect a complete engagement with life: it does not ground us in the universal intersubjectivity of life, in our natural and often chaotic interdependence. As the word itself implies, impartiality pertains to a partial, situationally specific type of behavior, not a fundamental engagement with life. Nevertheless, it is an indispensable behavior in terms of setting the stage for being creatively involved with life.
Creative activities and relationships involve us as active participants in the circumstances they present to us. This implies that we act most creatively when we can express our personal ideas and inclinations in the context of our fundamental interdependence. In this sense—in the context of the wholeness of our activities and relationships—impartiality provides an initial and particularly fruitful perspective. By temporarily holding our personal dispositions in check (as impartiality implies), we offset whatever tendency we might have to put our individual interests and inclinations first, which removes a huge obstacle to genuine participation. Impartiality can be thought of as a kind of cleansing technique, a way of wiping away conditioned or biased patterns of behavior so that we can welcome whatever comes to us in a manner that accepts it as part of the wholeness of life, and therefore part of who we are.
Because interdependence is the fundamental ground within which we live, we need to keep it well-nourished as a means of contributing most beneficially to the health and well-being of ourselves and our world. Impartiality helps us to do this by preparing us to have a genuinely open mind. A mind that is cleared of biased thoughts and emotions is a mind that is ready to receive new thoughts and emotions or rejuvenate old ones. In this sense, impartiality acts like a gateway into our innate creativity.
“If we want to make our lives as creative as possible, we need to honor our
interdependence by submitting to it in our daily lives. . . . By moving forward
in ways that free us from the demands of individualistic objectives, we sensitize
ourselves to the entire spectrum of possibilities available to us within a chosen activity.”
From P.D. Crawford, At Home in Infinity (p.55).
To a greater or lesser extent, all genuinely creative experiences express the presence of a world of infinite potential within the finite world of our everyday experiences. The poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) once referred to music (and by extension, all artistic endeavors) as a kind of revelation, “a sort of nebulous mediator” between spirit and matter. However, it is important to note that the mediation involved here is not between two different worlds (spirit and matter). Rather, it is a kind of opening up our awareness to the profound unity of life, the indistinguishability between things we perceive in a material way (such as sounds, sights, and movements) and the largely unfathomable reality from which these things emerge and into which they return (which can be symbolized by silence). This confluence of the finite and infinite aspects of our lives is beautifully illustrated by a compositional technique known as tinntinnabuli, developed by Estonian composer, Arvo Part (b. 1935).
For Part, the word “tinntinnabuli” evokes the nature of ringing bells. When a bell is struck, its sound continues indefinitely, in the sense that our ears cannot detect the point at which it ceases. So, the sound of a bell provides a compelling image of something material merging into infinity, returning to the mysterious wholeness of reality, symbolized by silence. Part’s compositional method, which evolved after many years of experimentation with other techniques, is a concrete expression of this idea of experiencing sound in the context of its immersion in infinity.
Briefly, the tinntinnabuli style involves an interplay between two musical voices. One voice is derived from a simple consonant musical triad and reflects the infinite, universal “ground” or context for all sound. The other voice is based on a distinctive musical element, such as a specific type of scale, and reflects the world within which we conduct our lives. The relationship between these two voices is expressed in some specific way throughout a composition, and it is this specific and constant relationship that gives each piece of music its unique character.
In various interviews and writings about this compositional technique, Part has made it clear that he considers the two voices are in reality one voice. In fact, he uses the short formula 1+1=1 as a succinct description of everything involved with creating a piece of music in the tinntinnabuli style. Included in the word “everything” are states of mind that Part says he “wanders into” when he is searching for answers about his life and work and how intimately they are entwined. These remarks reflect the composer’s deeply spiritual, even mystical, orientation towards life, and to my mind provide as fine a glimpse as one is likely to find of a life that integrates one’s chosen field of activity with one’s deepest personal beliefs.
Clearly, for Arvo Part, his tinntinnabuli music is a manifestation of his way-of-being in our world. And whenever I hear one of his pieces composed in this style—such as Fur Alina (1976) or Spiegel im Spiegel (1978)—I am reminded of the profound serenity that accompanies life-experiences that are genuinely spiritual in the sense of being grounded in the unity of all things. Such serenity is possible, I believe, because, when we can sense the presence of infinite life in the midst of whatever we are doing, we can also accept the limitations of being involved with finite things and events.
“We have minds that are “at home” in the unfathomableness of our world:
minds that can be inspired by the infinite variety of our universe simply by
looking at a star-filled sky, or a tiny insect traveling across a leaf, or by listening
to the sound of water splashing against a shore, or someone performing a
beautiful piece of music.”
P. D. Crawford, from At Home in Infinity (p. 90)
The great physicist Max Planck once wrote that science, like music and art, is essentially an attempt “to solve or at least express” the mystery of nature, and the more we progress in any of these fields of endeavor “the more we are brought into harmony with all nature itself.” [See: Quantum Questions, ed. Ken Wilber (Boston: Shambhala, 1985), p.153.] These words reflect the overarching unity that is at the heart of any genuinely creative activity: a unity that encompasses both what is expressible and what is inexpressible—what we can discern through the physical processes of our bodies, and what we can perceive through our imaginative and intuitive capacities.
Human creativity is our way of taping into the life-giving energy that sustains our universe (the wholeness to which we belong). And because each of us is a unique individual, we tap into this energy in uniquely personal ways. When we act creatively, we are expressing both our individualities and our participation in a reality that is infinitely beyond the edges of our particular selves: a reality that is both tangible—something we can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell—and intangible—something that we sense is beyond our full understanding because it exists as an all-encompassing context for whatever we experience.
It is this blending of our unique, personal selves with the wholeness of universal life that gives our creative endeavors a sense of being ultimately significant for us. And this is why I believe we can rightly refer to any genuinely creative activity as a spiritual experience. What is spirituality if not an ultimate or fundamental way of expressing our participation in the unity of life, the “breath” or energy that sustains everything that exists?
Because the spiritual quality of creativity manifests itself whenever we sense our participation in the wholeness of life, we do not have to be engaged in any particular kind of activity in order to be creative and give expression to our innate spirituality. By paying close attention to whatever we are doing or experiencing at any given time, we are submitting ourselves to a way-of-being that takes us beyond our self-centered interests into the world of authentic participation. And when this happens, we are acting in a truly creative way because we are contributing to the ongoing creative flow of universal life.
When it comes to expressing our sense of belonging to the whole of life, all we need to do is to be as fully present in a situation as possible. So, the scope for expressing ourselves creatively and spiritually is virtually limitless, because it embraces whatever we may be involved with, be it our jobs, household chores, talking with a friend, composing a poem or piece of music, practicing a skill, building a piece of furniture, writing or reading an essay.
Sometimes we have the good fortune to be touched in a deeply creative way by something that comes to us by chance. I recall, for instance, a little scene from the first season of the popular TV series This is Us that reminded me of a simple but often overlooked truth about ourselves and our world, namely, that any kind (or quality) of artistic expression can be profoundly moving teacher when it originates from a person’s deep sense of interconnectedness with our world.
In this scene, one of the lead characters, Kevin, has a bedtime interaction with his two young nieces in which he shows them an artistic rendering of his reaction to a Broadway play he is rehearsing. The picture is a seemingly chaotic, Jackson-Pollock-like splash of colorful patches covering the entire page, which Kevin describes as a depiction of what life is all about. In a previous scene, there was a rather awkward discussion about death and dying involving Kevin, the two young girls, and their grandfather, who is dying of cancer. In this context, Kevin’s words are a way of saying as simply as possible, that, even though we can’t always explain, or even talk about some subjects coherently—like the topic of death, or how one feels about doing something (like acting in a play)—everything that happens is part of who we are: everything in some way is “us.”
Can any idea point more directly or poignantly to who we are as individuals than one that places each of us where we ultimately belong: in the wholeness of reality? And can there be any lesson with greater import? A poem comes to mind, written by someone who spent a lifetime creating wonderfully nurturing lessons from the material of everyday life.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different,
or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the
fishes, the brutes,
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this
globe or any globe,
All lives and deaths, all the past, present, and future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,
All shall forever span them and compactly hold and
Walt Whitman, from On the Beach at Night Alone
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Living in the middle of things involves a willingness