Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, often wrote about ecstasy. He saw ecstasy in all things. He saw it in love, in nature, in people, in music, in Allah. He believed that ecstasy was divine, that it not only flowed from the divine but it connected us to it (tawhid). For him, music, poetry, and dance were stairways to divinity and spiritual paths in their own right.
The whirling dervishes are his most iconic contribution to this tradition. They are Sufi Muslims who practice Sama, a form of meditation with spinning and music meant to focus one’s energy on God and release the grip of ego. Music, dance, and poetry coalesce to release the whirlers from themselves, to steal them into that scared space where flesh and eternity unite.
Rumi, Sufis, and the whirling dervishes are part of a historic and radical spiritual tradition. The tradition and its beliefs, icons, and practices have taken many names over the centuries. Today, the tradition is widely known as Visionary Art. According to one of its more famous exponents, Alex Grey, Visionary Art aims to “make the soul perceptible,” and its devotees use creativity to “make inner truths visible, audible, or sensible in some way, by manifesting them in the external, material world (through drawing, painting, song, etc.).” There are a number of well known visionary artists whose works have permeated the mainstream, slowly picking up traction and drawing new practitioners. The Society for Art of Imagination spreads their work throughout the world, along with the Visionary Art message and ethos.
I was fortunate to meet Alex Grey and his wife, Allyson Grey, in their upstate New York home (The Chapel of Sacred Mirros, or CoSM) for Mother’s Day. They posted an open invitation to celebrate mothers, motherhood, and the “infinite goddess.” Alex and Allyson led a ceremony that abounded with anecdotes from every person present. Some were warm and loving, others hinted at disconnect and unresolved questions, while others careened between love and doubt. It was a melting pot of experiences that opened our eyes, brought us closer together, and allowed Alex and Allyson to promote their visionary sanctuary, Entheon, which I was lucky enough to walk through.
Entheon is part church, part gallery, part location of confluence for what is now an international spiritual movement. There are many ghosts present in Entheon. William Blake, Hieronymous Boch, ancient Egyptian sculptors, Kupka, Klee, Frida Khalo, Kandinsky, and others—all visionary artists by modern standards. It’s a space and a tradition where “all religions are one,” and it’s not doctrine that dictates behavior, but rather creativity and imagination. Everywhere there will be depictions of discarnate beings, of cosmic realms, of religious symbols, of ecstasy, wisdom, oneness, and of praise for imagination and our ability to create. It’s a tradition for a new age that has already canonized its saints, amassed practitioners, spread its wings throughout the world, and officially begun the edification of its place of worship.
The sanctuary itself registers more like a labyrinthine museum than a chapel. It’s designed to showcase artistic works in different mediums, like murals, videos, performance, paintings, drawings, and interactive pieces. At the top is a large room with vaulted ceiling, multifaceted angels bearing up enormous columns, and—as of right now—the outlines where Alex Grey’s 21-piece series, Sacred Mirrors, will reside. This is the only area reminiscent of a conventional sacred space. But even it challenges our conceptions of divinity, sanctity, and religion.
The Sacred Mirrors are aptly described as encyclopedic. They map our knowledge, our lineage, our relationship to the cosmos, and the world’s evolutionary history. Every part of the frames that enshrine the mirrors is meant to capture and evoke our chaotic linkages to the terrestrial, to the unseen, and to the imagination. It’s a tribute to humans as cosmic beings capable of god-like creation and destruction, in spite of our mortal coil.
The Visionary Art movement is emerging at precisely the right time. The world, and particularly the Western world, has grown hungry for spirituality devoid of doctrine, guilt, metaphysics, and exclusions. We are jaded by the sordid history of the world’s major religions, yet mystified by their kaleidoscopic and masterful elucidations of the indescribable contours of humanity.
Many have looked East to satisfy their hunger. Buddhist teachings and practices have gained widespread popularity even in science, piggybacking on our fascination with yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. Now one can find yoga studios and meditations groups across the United States; research groups and physicians investigating the neurosomatic benefits of mindfulness practice; and hear the vernacular characteristic of those traditions used to explain and explore the human condition. Experts and practitioners have distilled and presented their traditions for a secular audience, filtering out metaphysical or doctrinal burdens. And that is what the Visionary Art movement aims to be.
Visionary Art’s calling is creation. It enjoins us to express our innermost life however we choose. When do we know that we are doing it right? When we create and act with honesty and self-reflection. Whether it be writing, drawing, singing, dancing, 3D printing and design, we should create with an eye toward revealing what lies within us. It is inherently cosmic and spiritual, it demands mindfulness and self-truth, and it requires that we honor humanity in all its complexity and variety.
I see this as a spiritual practice for the digital age. For all the talk about connectivity, content creation, open source and open collaboration, and the makers movement, there is little talk of the spiritual element in those activities. And what the Visionary Art movement highlights is that any appearance of incongruence between spirituality and the digital age is a fallacy. The Sacred Mirrors make this and other commonalities perceptible. Despite the lines in the sand that we draw, we share a common history, common origins, common evolutionary timelines, common biology, common aspirations, all of which superficially seem irreconcilably different but aren’t. Those commonalities are the foundations of this new spirituality.
It isn’t reductionist or an oversimplification. It isn’t the denial of difference. It’s a radical push toward a communion as transcendence. For the visionary artist, transcendence means plunging into humanity not escaping it. By going beyond the surface and deeper into ourselves, we learn to live the commonalities that compose the fabric of humanity.
There are concrete and practicable systems founded on this core belief. Non-violent communication, mindfulness therapy and psychology, art therapy, social justice for the mentally disabled, alternative schooling (Montessori, Waldorf), anger management, polyamory, and a number of other often derided systems accused of coddling us when in reality they create avenues for the once repressed to add their voices to the world chorus.
This is a radical proposition. For the majority of human history we have drawn lines in the sand, both figurative and literal. We continue to do so. We praise the false idols of our forefathers and champion their territorialism. Why did we create the Internet? Why do we nurture the narrative of diversity and community just to fall back on intuitions of separation, difference, and othering? To continue this way is to choose business as usual.
Business as usual is our inheritance to refuse; if we so choose.
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