the psychic power of art: absorption
If you find yourself at home in the art scene, you might have been labeled by others some time or another as an “artistic” person. Or if you haven’t, surely you’ve experienced times when art seems to make you come alive, something you take in as “really real.” What does all of that mean, exactly? How can a person be “artistic”? What does that elevated sense of life look like in the mind?
In her psychological analysis of charismatic Christian spirituality, anthropologist T.L. Luhrmann includes a discussion about the Tellegen Absorption Scale (pp. 195-196). Originally designed to inform studies in hypnotism, this test captures one’s experience of nature, sight and sound. Item 16 provides a helpful connection between the scale overall and the art world: “It is sometimes possible for me to be completely immersed in nature or in art and to feel as if my whole state of consciousness has somehow been temporarily altered.”
In other words, it’s all about measuring how much you find yourself overwhelmed by aesthetics. Absorption, the absorptive power of your senses to soak up and steep the brimming, bustling world of beauty. It records your fellowship with that which is at once mystical and earthy, caught up between transcendent immanence and immanent transcendence. A life submerged in a sea of sensation.
The scale strikes all kinds of areas of your mind. It remarks what lures your attention towards otherwise hidden elegance: “the five-pointed star shape that appears when you cut an apple across the core or the colors in soap bubbles.” It recognizes that your memory, even, may be specially attuned to pick up and hold dear the sights and sounds around you. Or that your imagination is powerful enough to forge detailed realities in your head—and you feel it as such.
In her research Luhrmann found that people who scored high on this scale also fared well in prayer. Her subjects reported that they could sense the presence of God during prayer, they “felt lost” as they communed with the divine, and they could even better understand God as a person. Such immersive prayer rituals aren’t just limited to charismatic Christianity, of course—traditions in all sorts of cultures and locations lay out avenues of sensational religious connection. Shamanist rituals, Sufi Muslim ecstasy, Buddhist visualization, Ignatian readings, and charismatic evangelical prayer all activate this access between one’s mind-body and world-divine.
In some cases, though, these roads are hidden by the powers that be and lay overgrown with unreflective thinking. Brain-work, after all, doesn’t always, or even usually, occur within the prefrontal cortex, and that can be a truly enlightening thing on all its own. The persecution of visionaries and destruction of meditative icons is an unfortunately common historical phenomenon. Those equipped with the mental fortitude to imagine and act upon a better future are a formidable and threatening force indeed.
So, this absorption is powerful stuff. What’s more, it’s you. This is the way that you taste your place in the universe. It’s your birthright, your blessing. Yet, it’s not just an aptitude formed within you—it’s a skill that you also further develop. A calling. So use it, enjoy it, thrive in this sensational immersion. Pay attention to the way you absorb your surroundings. This is how you partake in the cosmos and its divinity. This is how you experience the world around you and change it for the better, too.