The Path of the Sensuous Mystic: Chiaroscuro

Dana Klisanin

Blossoms are the ornaments of trees, it is flashes of lightning that adorn the big rain clouds, the lakes are adorned by lotuses and waterlilies with their intoxicated bees: but virtues brought to perfection are the proper ornaments of living beings.

— Inscription, Ajanta Caves, India


In the previous essay, I introduced the soul elements as catalysts through which Spirit develops Presence in our lives. In an attempt to call attention to their importance, and unite the oft-disparate poles of science and spirit, I created the Perpetual Blossom of Soul Elements, a construct designed as a variation upon the Periodic Table of Elements. Many of us have heard some variation of the Chinese philosopher, Laozi’s expression, “A journey of thousand miles begins with a single step.” Journeying forth on the Sensuous Path requires selecting a single soul element with which to engage one’s attention for a full month or more.  You may be instinctively, or intuitively drawn toward one, if so, that’s the one you’ll want to work with first. On the other hand, you may be feeling indecisive and need a bit of guidance. Which brings me to chiaroscuro.

In art, the term, chiaroscuro, refers to the use of strong contrasts between light and dark. In the Sensuous Path, I’m using this term to refer to the action of looking closely at our lives—specifically, looking at the contrasts between what we want in life and what we have—physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can all think of at least one thing (in any of the above areas) we’ve wanted to do, feel, understand, or experience, for a long time, but haven’t because we’ve been unable to summon the initiative, or we lack courage, or we’ve lost hope (substitute any soul element). In other words, there is a contrast between our lived experience and our desired experience. In many spiritual traditions, desire has become synonymous with vice, taking on negative connotations, undeservedly. In it’s pure form, desire is simply a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen. It is what we desire, not desire itself that has the potential to cause us harm.

To engage in chiaroscuro you must liberate desire and see where your musing take you. Drift into a state of mind open to all possibilities. Chiaroscuro isn’t about getting lost in the dark places of your psyche—it’s about recognizing contrasts and investigating them. Engage in chiaroscuro as if you were reviewing your day before falling asleep at night. Rather than getting stuck in the difficult moment at the expense of pleasant moments, move through as an observer. Use chiaroscuro as a thought tool to become more conscious, or present to your whole being. Rather than fixating on our darkness, our shadow, our disappointments, or our failures, we’re simply exploring the contrast between what we want in our lives versus what we have. Do this holistically, across the spectrum—physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual—and make a list of what you find.  Sometimes the places of contrast in our lives are very obvious, for example, we may desire to be in better physical shape, or we may desire a relationship that is more supportive.


Once you have found places of contrast in your life, look back at the list of soul elements and write down those that you feel would help you come closer to experiencing your heart’s desires. You might find that a cluster of soul elements all vie for your attention (as in the earlier example), begin with any one of these. If you still have trouble deciding, begin with the one at the top of the list. You’ll have plenty of time to work with the others in the months to come.

In the next essay, you’ll begin placing your attention on the soul element you’ve selected through engaging in a Tantric treasure hunt, a two-fold spiritual adventure involving an inner treasure hunt (self-reflective process) and an exterior, or external treasure hunt (outer directed process) — in which you’ll search the treasury of the Arts for various representations of the soul element in question across time and culture. In the coming weeks, you’ll need a handful of art supplies, but from this point forward you’ll need a journal, preferably a large journal with unlined pages, as well as access to the Internet, a printer, glue, and a pair of scissors. You may be tempted to keep your journal on a computer, and, if that’s your preferred mode of expression please feel free to use it.  I strongly suggest using a physical journal because the act of writing connects us to our childhood—our first experiences communicating via doodles, scribbles, letters, and eventually, words.  Because the Path of Sensuous Mystic is a contemporary Path of integration, there will be plenty of opportunity to use new media as a research tool and to express or enhance your creativity. Rather than focusing on one form of communication or art form, we will be engaging across time and culture—using our senses and ancient, modern, and contemporary Arts as portals to the Divine.

About the Author

Dana KlisaninDana Klisanin is a psychologist exploring the impact of digital technologies on the mythic and moral dimensions of humanity; passionately curious about the conscious use of interactive technologies to advance secular ethics and spirituality qualities such as altruism and compassion. Integral scholar and Dzogchen practitioner.