Sean Voisen

Woody Allen once said that .“Eighty percent of success is showing up”.  I suspect the same thing could be said of Practice of any kind.  If so, perhaps the man pictured above can help you “show up” more often for practice.  Read on and find out more about this interesting fellow.

In the past, my Zen teacher, weary of slogging through my wordy essays, has asked me to sum up my understanding in a short Zen-like phrase.  If asked to do this for the past few posts on “practice”, I’d probably say that their main message is “just practice“.

Whether we are talking about artistic practice, meditation, or anything else, this is easier said than done.  Sean Voisen, a fellow member of The Vista Zen Center, has offered one solution to this problem in a post on his new blogsite called “The Koan”.  As I work on my next essay, which will focus on comedic improvisation, I think it fitting that I refer you to Sean’s site for a very different, but complementary perspective on Zen practice in contemporary society.

A Why in the Road

Sean, who works for Adobe, received a Master’s degree in the Art Computation Engineering Program at the University of CA, Irvine.   This program focuses on the interstitial areas between art and technology.  Drawing on this background, Sean offers a unique perspective on his study of Zen.  His blog posts offer fresh ways of thinking about Zen practice which I see as highly relevant to what I have been trying to express in my posts.

Below is a series of excerpts from a post titled “Quantified Awareness” which will give you a taste of what you will find on his site.

"Insight Timer", IPhone App.

“Over the past few weeks, I’ve used an iPhone app designed specifically for measuring meditation every time I’ve sat on my cushion. The app is called Insight Timer. And I don’t intend to stop using it any time soon for one simple reason: statistics. Using charts and graphs, Insight Timer provides a detailed look at how often (or how little) you’ve been practicing in the last week, the last month, and the last year.”

“……..measuring my practice has assured a consistency of daily meditation more than any other methodology I have tried. And with meditation, consistency is key.”

“……Meditation, after all, is ultimately about developing greater awareness, and metrics simply offer another path. ……..Statistics shed light on phenomena we may otherwise never observe. Perhaps the great and ancient sages of Buddhist lore never recommended recording your daily practice down to the minute. But then again, they didn’t have iPhones.”

I’m certain that you will find this and Sean’s other posts of interest  I’d also suggest that you check out some of his art/technology projects at:   Below are some pictures and the descriptions of  Sean’s past projects, which I think provide a view of the intriguing spaces where art and technology overlap.  I’m delighted to see that Sean is now folding his Zen studies into this mix.  This, I think, will help bring Zen into the 21st century, which is one of the aims here at  Art and Zen Today.


“Bluenumi”   began with the idea of creating an easy to assemble open-source kit clock that had nixie tube aesthetics, but without the associated cost or potentially dangerous high voltage. The result is a small, functional, and beautiful desktop clock featuring 100% through-hole electronic components that looks like a nixie clock, but can be built at a fraction of the price.”



“The Uncanny Dream Machine is an exploration in computer-generated

Uncanny Dream Machine

dreamlike narrative. …… Embodied as a 1940′s-era wooden Philco radio, viewers listen to the machine as it reads its dreams over the airwaves. Knobs on the radio allow viewers to “tune in” to streams of consciousness delineated by various emotions — fear, anger, curiosity, joy, anxiety, worry, etc. — provoking conversations about the nature of emotion and consciousness in an otherwise unemotional, unconscious, and disembodied machine.”

Uncanny Dream Machine

“Mercury Retrograde is a hand-built nixie tube alarm clock……. The clock is an exploration of the role of intentionality in everyday objects, as well as an experiment in resistentialist behavior. In order to function correctly, it demands physical attention. Ignore it for too long and it begins to rebel, intentionally slowing its internal oscillations and waking its owner at inconvenient hours of the night.”

Mercury Retrograde

“Students achieving Oneness will move on to Twoness.”

Woody Allen

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I just spent a week in Texas visiting my grandsons and and then another week at The Vista Zen Center for a meditation retreat.  So, I am a bit behind in my blogging.  While I work on my next installment of the series on “practice”, I would like for you to visit with Piotr Krysiak, a  painter and Zen student from Poland.  Piotr has sent me several comments regarding Art And Zen Today and I have spend time roaming around his website (see address at  bottom).

Below  I have copied Piotr’s statement about his Zen and artistic practices as well as his background.  All of the pictures on this page are images of Piotr’s acrylic paintings, but these are just a few of many and I would suggest you visit his website to see all of his paintings as well as some interesting videos.  One of the things I like about his paintings is that they have both an ancient and contemporary quality to them: Zen art for the 21st century.

Piotr’s Statement

I’ve been practicing zazen for several years. Two times a day. Every day. Mainly to unprogram myself from what I have been suggested as good, bad, right, wrong, important, unimportant, fashionable, desirable, expected, valuable, mine. Unprogram from all that reaches me constantly – all the variable ideas that are only subsequent interpretations of reality.


Zazen causes disappearance of these conditions. The result is serenity. The combination of artistic practice and zazen gives the possibility to balance on the
edge which on one side enables to be consciously in the now while on the other leaves behind artifacts reminding of coming back to the now.

Copied from an email from Piotr 

About three years ago I went to a lecture about Zen. After the lecture there was a proposal to try zazen ourselves. I can’t really explain what happened but it just worked with me, just like that, simply sitting and thinking not thinking. Since then, I’ve been doing zazen twice a day, every day. I’ve noticed slow changes in my life. Like I was freeing myself from limitations I wasn’t aware of. I read a couple of books about zen and they simply pointed what I felt that day during my first zazen trial. I do believe zen is a constant work. I don’t have a teacher.


MA – Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow

2011 – Salted Candy, collective exhibition – Poznanska Galeria Nowa
2011 – II Triennial of Contemporary Polish Painting – Jesienne Konfrontacje,
collective exhibition – BWA Rzeszow, BWA Zamosc
2010 – New things, solo exhibition – Museum in Bielsko-Biala
2010 – Under, collective exhibition – Cellar Gallery, Krakow
2005 – Piotr Krysiak – painting, solo exhibition – Schindler Factory, Krakow


Museum in Bielsko-Biala
Dave Bown Collection, USA




The Artist is Present

I happened to see “Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present” on HBO the other night and would highly recommend it to this crowd of readers.  It is a documentary that follows the Serbian performance artist as she prepares for a retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art inNew York.  It is available on Netflixs.

The retrospective included either videos of or reenactments (using hired artists) of performances carried out by Abramovic over the course of her career.  Photos of some of those early performance pieces are included below, along with some commentary.

Marina plays "game" stabbing knife between fingers rapidly for hours.

“The main problem in this relationship was what to do with the two artists’ egos. I had to find out how to put my ego down, as did he, to create something like a hermaphroditic state of being that we called the death “ self”

Marina on her relationship with Ulay.



Ulay and Marina screaming at one another as Performance Art


Performance piece with Ulay

   Abramovic lived on three connected platforms in full view of audience for 12 days.IN 2002 Marina lived for 12 days on three platforms in full view of the public. the ladders leading down from the platforms had rungs made of butcher knives.

A large part of the MOMA retrospective consisted of videos or reenactments of these and many other past performances by Abramovic.  However,the main attraction was the artist herself who sat motionless in a chair in the museum while gazing into the eyes of whoever wanted to sit across from her.  Thus, the title of the exhibit (and the documentary), “The Artist is Present”, was based on the fact that Marina was in the museum during every moment that the Museum was open during the 3 month exhibit; 7 1/2 hours a day, 6 days a week.

The title seems to have a double meaning.  Not only was she present in the sense that she was there at  her show every hour of every day- something, I’m sure, no other artist has accomplished- but she was totally “present” with everyone who sat before her.

In the film, Klaus Bresanbach , the curator for the exhibit, said:

What is so beautiful about the MOMA performance, she’s treating actually every human being she is encountered with the same attention and the same respect.


As you can see from the photos, many of those who waited in long lines to be in Abromovic’s presence were profoundly affected.  Many people openly wept and I found one person online who descibed herself as having an “out of body experience” while gazing into the artist’s eyes.  In the film Marina says of those who sat with her:

  Some of them are really open and you feel this incredible pain…….when they are sitting in the front of me, it’s not about me any more.  It’s very soon, that I’m just mirror of their own self.

 In other words,Marina was being “in the present” in the sense that I talked about this concept in the earlier post “What the ______was that Video About?  In the film, Marina tells us:  It doesn’t matter what kind of work you are doing as an artist.  The most important is from which state of mind you are doing what you are doing, and performance is all about state of mind.

 It is clear from the film and from other interviews with Marina that she sees her art as a means of transforming herself.  By confronting challenges and fears, she is able to create, not a new art object but a new self.  This reminds me of Suzuki’s statement as follows: The Zen-man is an artist to the extent that, as the sculptor chisels out a great figure deeply buried in a mass of inert matter, the Zen-man transforms his own life into a work of creation.  (D.. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture)


Zen Meditation

There is much about Abramovic’s art practice and her life that reminds me of  serious Zen practioners.  Consider this quote from the movie:

The hardest thing is to do something that is close to nothing.  It’s demanding all of you because there is no story anymore to tell.  There’s no objects to hide behind.  You have to rely on your own pure energy and nothing else.

I am sure that any Zen student who has sat for hours in a prolonged meditation retreat can relate to her description.

Although it is clear that Abramovic is aware of and has practiced various meditiation

Marina at the end of a day of sitting.

techniques, she does not identify herself as a spiritual seeker. As she said in a joint interview with Ulay:

…as we speak about a reserve of energy, about our bodies, you might think Zen Buddhism is behind our work, or other philosophies, but we’re really interested  only in  experience.” (

Whether or not Abramovic’s art  is spiritual, it involves a practice that resembles what seems to be required in all genuine spiritual pursuits; the practice of raising ones awareness to the point where something new is a possible outcome.  This is nicely summed up in the movie when Marina says:

Artists have to be warriors.  Have to have this determination and have to have the stamina to conquer not just new territory, but also to conquer himself and his weaknesses.

This overlapping of spiritual and artistic practices is the central focus of this blog.


The title of a Documentary film about Sun Ra


In my last post I explored the creative benefits of being an alien from another planet, which is how the jazz musician Sun Ra saw himself.  In this post, I will examine how my creativity was affected by a “close encounter” with this alien.  In the next post I’ll look at what Jonas Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works) says about the importance of such “close encounters” to the creative process, in general.  (Also see the “Caption Challenge” at the end of this post.)

Sun Ra and I both lived in or around Philadelphia in the 1980s.  A friend and I decided

Sun Ra with Mask

to go to a Sun Ra concert in neighboringCamden N.J.  It was held in a run down Community Center in the middle of one of Camden’s poorest neighborhoods.  There were supposed to be refreshments before the concert, but by the time we arrived the Arkestra had eaten their way through the goodies.  The concert was held in a small basement room with a tiny stage crammed with the band members wearing weird costumes.  I was not really a big fan of Ra’s music (and am still not) so what I remember best is just the sheer weirdness of the spectacle.

Tibetian Monks

At one point, about mid-way through the concert, Sun Ra got up from the keyboards and came down into the audience.  Shortly , each member of the band stopped playing and followed him down the stairs.  Soon the whole band was walking up and down the aisles chanting something  in unison. I could not make out the words at first since the band members were on the far side of the auditorium.  It was a simple, non-melodic refrain,  that had a hypnotic quality to it.  Because it was chanted in unison and Sun Ra and the band maintained a serious demeanor , I felt like I was witnessing some sort of mysterious ritual.  As the line of musicians came closer to where we were sitting,  I began to figure out what they were chanting with such solemnity.  This was the chant:  “Gonna rip the mask, rip the mask off Batman.  Look out Robin, gonna get you too”.

That scene has stuck with me over the years and, as you will see,served as an inspiration for my first music video.  Click on the link below to see the short video on YouTube.  At the end of the video, click on return arrow to finish reading this post and to respond to today’s “Caption Challenge

After watching this video you may have the same kind of response as you did to the video featured in What the ____ is that Video About?, namely: “What the _____is this video about?”  Fair enough.  I’ll try to tackle that in my next post where we’ll return to some of the ideas put forth in Lehrer’s book.  Be sure to send in your caption for the image below, which will pop up again in future posts.



(Click on “Forums” on the menu at the top for a in-depth response to comments from Jane on “What the ____was that Video about?”.)

Of all the early jazz musicians, Sun Ra had to be one of the most “far out”.  He claimed that he was from Saturn, not from earth, and used cosmic philosophies and lyrical poetry to preach awareness and peace. The notion that he came from Saturn seems to be connected to a profound altered state of consciousness experience he had while  in college.  Here is how he chose to describe it:

my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up … I wasn’t in human form … I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me……..They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.   Szwed, John F. (August 21, 1998). Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-80855-5


He abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra (Ra is the Egyptian God of the Sun) and formed his “Arkestra” to help him spread his message through his music. The band members wore colorful  outfits that were a combination of African garb and space suits and  Sun Ra usually wore an outfit, with a headdress and flowing cloak.

The music they played was very complex and often atonal.  . But being in the Arkestra

House in Phila. where the Arkestra lived and rehearsed.

was a difficult way of life. The band members never made much money, and Ra demanded discipline and hard work. He banned drugs, alcohol, and women, and band members had to be available for practice around-the-clock.  This monastic atmosphere seemed to have been something close to what one might find in a Zen monastery.

One band member who had studied Zen before joining Sun Ra said that the leader’s use of non sequiturs and absurd replies to questions seemed to resemble the use of Koans and other responses observed among Zen Masters.       According to John Szwed, Ra’s biographer, the drummer Art Jenkins admitted that Sun Ra’s “nonsense” sometimes troubled his thoughts for days until inspiring a profound change in outlook.    Drummer Andrew Cyrille said Sun Ra’s comments were;

 ”very interesting stuff … whether you believed it or not. And a lot of times it was humorous, and a lot of times it was ridiculous, and a lot of times it was right on the money.”Szwed, John F. , 1998). Space Is the Place.)

In addition, I’ve found numerous quotes from Sun Ra, like the one below, that could have just as easily come from the mouth of a Zen master.

“I’ve been to a zone where there is no air, no light, no sound, no life, no death, nothing. There’s five billion people on this planet, all out of tune. I’ve got to raise their consciousness, tell them about the wonderful potential to bypass death.”

Szwed, 1998

I’ve never been a big fan of Sun Ra’s music but was prompted to write about him for

Van Gogh, Self Portrait

several reasons.  One is to reiterate an observation I made in an earlier post (Waikiki, Dylan, Zen and the Spanking Monk) about the thin line that exists between madness creative genius and spirituality.  In that post I pointed out the problems in using such terms when talking about creative people, whether ourselves or others.

Secondly, his case seems to nicely illustrate what I have been writing about in the past few posts; namely “aliens”.  While I don’t believe Sun Ra came from Saturn or was teleported by aliens, he does seem to be someone who has consciously and adopted the position of  an extreme “alien” in society to support his creativity and spirituality.

Finally, I recently found myself influenced by a “close encounter” that I had with Sun Ra back in the mid 1980s, when he and I both lived in the Philadelphia area.  A friend and I attended a Sun Ra concert where I witnessed something that became the inspirational seed for one of my music videos.  I’ll tell the story and show the video in the next post. Peace!



Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naïveté’, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.     Steve Martin, Born Standing Up

In my previous post (Aliens from Inner Space), I suggest that the term “alien” refers to whoever or whatever appears to be strange, foreign or different from oneself.  Generally, we do not want to be “alien” or “alienated” but the fact is that we all, at times, experience the discomfort and awkwardness of being a stranger in a strange land.  The concept of  “inner alien” is simply a metaphor that calls attention to that fact and to the positive possibility of such experiences.

Steve Martin's "Wild and Crazy Guy"

Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works) begins his Chapter called “The Outsider” with this quote from Steve Martin’s book Born Standing Up.  The chapter provides numerous cases where someone outside a field of knowledge is more successful at solving problems in the field than the so-called experts and where people having an interest in but no past knowledge about a problem come up with the most creative solutions.  This is why young people often appear to be more creative than old folks.  But, Dean Simonton, a psychologist studying creativity says that getting older does not inevitably lead to a loss of creativity. Lehrer quotes him as saying:

If you can keep finding new challenges, then you can think like a young person even when you’re old and gray.

Waikiki Creativity QuestLehrer also refers to considerable evidence that living in foreign cultures and being bilingual can stimulate creativity.  Such experiences, says Lehrer ….”endows the traveler with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier for him or her to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings (p. 129). Lehrer ends this chapter with the following observation:

Knowledge can be a subtle curse. when we learn about the world, we also learn all the reason why the world cannot be changed…….We become numb to the possibilities of something new.  In fact, the only way to remain creative over time–not to be undone by our expertise–is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand.  (p. 135)

To cultivate the “inner alien” takes courage as you must always catch yourself getting comfortable and consciously take risks by immersing yourself in situations that seem challenging.  I would suggest that artists, and anyone else who want to foster and maintain creativity, must make this process an integral part of their “practice”.  In the next post I will suggest that this is the main ingredient of any “spiritual practice. PLEASE









I’ve been thinking a lot about “aliens” recently.  Primarily because my brother Jim and I, who comprise the “band” called Shrink Wrap, were asked to play at an opening of an exhibition at the Oceanside Museum of Art called “Beneath Alien Seas”.  The exhibit consisted of “Light Sculptures created by William Leslie, in collaboration with Alessandra Colfi and Nathan Harrenstein.  Since it is hard to describe these beautiful and mysterious pieces in words, I’ve included a short video of clips and stills taken at the Opening.

I suggest you check out the video before reading on.

After we played for the Opening, my brother wrote on his facebook page:


       This was the first time I can remember being

       asked to be as “out there” as possible.

       “Alieness” accomplished (I think) and great fun playing for

       such a progressive crowd.

This was the first gig we had played in a long time where we both felt completely free to play the “weird” music that we both enjoy. We don’t play together often but coming together to create music is how we have been bonding together as brothers for many years.

Like many kids with no siblings, I had an imaginary playmate, who I called “Jim”.  So, when my brother came into the world, when I was 5, my parents decided to named him after my ”playmate”.  I think for most kids at that age, the sudden appearance of a sibling seems pretty incomprehensible and miraculous.  This was all the more the case for me as it seemed that I, somehow, had something to do with the Jim’s manifestation (perhaps my first “ego trip”).

As a toddler, Jim slept in a crib like that pictured above, with bars all around and wheels on the legs. Whenever he woke up, Jim used to grab onto the bars and shake the bed furiously, like a disgruntled prisoner hoping to shake loose the bars of his cell.  If you read my brother’s posts on Face Book, you will see that things have not changed much.

My first memory of my brother is being awaken in the middle of the night by the sound of Jim’s shaking  crib.  Not being fully awake, I opened my eyes and saw him moving the crib  across the wooden floor, inching closer and closer with every violent shake.  In my memory, he had sort of maniacal grin and bright gleaming eyes.  Peering through the bars of the crib he looked like something from “elsewhere”.  He was from “elsewhere” but it turned out that he just wanted to play with someone in the middle of the night.


Before we took up instruments, our play together usually consisted of  putting on shows for the family or friends.  This flair for the dramatic was perfected in capers designed to torture a long series of babysitters.

Having materialized my own personal playmate out of my imagination, it was only natural that I directed these events. I was the schemer and instigator and poor Jim, always the “team player,” would carry out my plots and usually get the blame when caught.  Our most famous caper was when I talked him into letting me tie a rope around him and lower him from an upper story window.  I don’t recall how I secured him, but Jim managed to swing back and forth in front of the large picture window in the living room below where the sitter was watching TV.  I imagined him looking like Mary Martin flying across the stage in the play Peter Pan, but to our elderly babysitter it was a reason to retire from the babysitting business.


When Jim and I periodically come together as Shrink Wrap,  weirdness usually ensues, and so it was extremely gratifying to be able to draw upon our “inner aliens” and feel that we fit right in at the “Under Alien Seas” event.  As you can see from his design for the cover of a Shrink Wrap CD, my brother’s “inner alien” is not far beneath the surface.

The term “alien” refers to whoever or whatever appears to be strange, foreign or different from oneself.  In my last post, I mentioned that Theolonious Monk was part of a subculture that valued being “far out”.  We all have stories about hearing music or a musician when we were young that had a life-changing effect on our lives.  Monk was one of those musicians.  When I was 10 or 11, I often listened to  a crystal radio set that I had build in bed under the covers.  The set was able to pick up stations from an incredible distance away.  One station I listened to was WLAC (I think) in NashvilleTennessee, where I first heard blues and what was, at the time, called “race music”.  I also recall hearing Monk on a station that played jazz and probably was located in Cleveland.  Hearing any jazz at that time was a novel experience but when I heard the melancholy yet joyously weird sounds of Monk, I realized for the first time that there was a whole other world “out there” beyond the boundaries of Fremont, Ohio that  needed to be explored.

In the next post, I’ll explore the importance of deveoping our “inner alien” in the practice of Art and Zen. By the way, do you know who is posing in the photo below?  Another Brother from Another Planet?  Maybe.  I’ll reveal his identity as I further explore the realm of “inner space” in upcoming posts.



The Monk by Bob Dylan

Last week I was sitting on the beach at Waikiki, re-reading Lehrer’s Imagination: How Creativity Works, looking for a way to answer my own questions posed in my last post about the bizarre behavior of Thelonious Monk .  Lehrer writes:


creativity isn’t just about relaxing showers and remote associations. That’s how Dylan wrote “Like a Rolling Stone”, but that’s not the only way to make something new.  The imagination, it turns out, is multifaceted.  And so, when the right hemisphere has nothing to say, when distractions are just distractions, we need to rely on a very different circuit of cells.. We can’t always wait for the insights to find us; sometimes , we have to search for them. (p. 56)


Lehrer points to two kinds of creative processes “divergent” or Dionysian and “convergent” or Apollonian-generally right and left brain processes.  Different art forms may require more of one than the other and different artists may emphasize one over the other, but it appears that any creative process utilizes both.  For instance “aha” moments usually are followed by long periods of refinements and revisions.

Waikiki Beach

So, there I was in a definite “Dionysian” mode but with a problem that seemingly called for an Apollonian, left brain solution to a problem of my own making.  In my “Waikiki State of Mind” I could not muster the concentrative powers that Lehrer says is necessary for right brain creativity.  I did have a series of points in mind but to tie them all together would have required writing a dissertation and violate Rule Number One for Bloggers: “Be Brief”.

Fortunately an  ”aha” moment came the next night while watching the sunset and drinking  a  Mai Tai in the Hula Lounge at the  OutRigger Waikiki Hotel.  Here is what I said to myself:  “Why don’t I just provide the essential facts of the case and let each reader come to his or her own conclusion?  It is a bit lazy on my part (see exchange between Jane and me in Comments)  but it should be more fun to write and perhaps to read as well.  Of course, there is always the chance that the readers won’t understand it at all”.

This last thought made no dent at all in my “Waikiki State of Mind”.  Rather, I convinced myself that if the blog made no sense at all, I might be dubbed  the “Bob Dylan of  Modern Blogging”.  You gotta love the Waikiki State of Mind.

Hula Lounge

So here are some essential “facts”.  See  where they lead your mind.


Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.               Mark Twain


1.  The first set of facts were contained in the last blog  post describing my being

spanked on stage by Thelonious.

2.   Lehrer’s book provides the following information:

a)  Artists who don’t rely on left-brain dominant processes of creativity often use benzedrine or amphetamines to  help keep focused.  He uses the poet Auden as an example.

b)  Subjects in a research study whose  moods were experimentally manipulated to be sad, produced more creative art than those who were not sad.

c) 80% of the writers at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop had depressive disorders.

d) 40 % of a sample of creative people had been diagnosed as bi-polar.


3) Monk was diagnosed with all sorts of mental disorders but the most recent and credible assessment I could find was that he suffered from “bi-polar disorder”.

4)  Unbeknownst to Thelonius, his personal physician regularly give him vitamin shots laced with amphetamines.

5) One source suggested that Monk was just generally tired  from having to play night after night during the time period I saw him.

6)  When I played in bands, I found the creative aspects of collectively coming up with new tunes and arrangements to be more creatively fulfilling than performing those tunes over and over before an audience.

7) Monk was known as a hard worker and a devoted family man.

Monk and Dizzy

8)  Monk was an inveterate performer who was surrounded by other jazz musicians who valued being “far out”.  Lehrer devotes a chapter to the importance of social influences in creativity.


8)  Some scholars maintain that roots of contemporary theater and show business is Shamanism.

Cab Calloway

Sly Stone

Lady Gaga

9)  Slapstick comedy has been one of the oldest and simplest forms of entertainment, and is a type of entertainment that tries to reach people by the most basic forms – physical comedy. Whether it is a pratfall, a pie in the face, somebody turning and hitting someone in the head or any number of other forms of physical comedy, slapstick comedy is one form of entertainment that can be understood without words.

Punch and Judy Puppet Show

A Slapstick

Do you know the origins of the phrase “pleased as Punch”?  See

10) Zen literature is full of instances of teachers striking students or monks hitting one another as a means of communication considered more direct and effective than spoken language.


Mu Chou asked a monk, “Where have you just come from?” The monk immediately shouted. Mu Chou said, “I’ve been shouted at by you once. ”Again the monk shouted.  Mu Chou said, “After three or four shouts, then what?” The monk had nothing to say. Mu Chou then hit him and said, “What a thieving phony you are!”

The master of the Chinese monk Shui-lao kicked him in the chest, and it resulted in a satori [enlightenment]. Afterwards the monk said,  “Ever since the master kicked me in the chest I have been unable to stop laughing.”

11)  In Zen, and many other spiritual traditions, there are accounts of what is often referred to as “crazy wisdom”.  Here is how novelist and Zen advocate, Tom Robbins describes the term:

For want of a precise definition, we might consider that crazy wisdom is a philosophical worldview that recommends swimming against the tide, cheerfully seizing the short end of the stick, embracing insecurity, honoring paradox, courting the unexpected, celebrating the unfamiliar, shunning each and every orthodoxy, volunteering for those tasks nobody else wants or dares to do, and perhaps above all else, breaking taboos in order to destroy their power. It’s the wisdom of those who turn the tables on despair by lampooning it, and who neither seek authority nor submit to it.

Whirling Dervish

12) All great comedians are Buddhist monks in disguise. In this spirit, I submit to you that the secret Zen masters of American pop culture are the Three Stooges.  April 08, 2012|By Ty Burr

The Three Stooges

The Old Pie in the Face Gag

13)  A)The distinction between psychological illness and creative thinking is wafer thin, new Swedish research confirms, arguing that there is a feasible explanation for why the age-old myth of genius bordering on insanity could in fact be true.

     B)The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success. Bruce Feirstein. Read more:


A. Monk

Another Monk

14)  Thelonious Monk is famous for his jazz stylings which frequently bent the rules of music. Monk’s jazz is famous for its rebellious use of broken chords and skewed scales. Monk had the uncanny ability to “play the wrong notes right” and mixed it with backbeats that gracefully stumbled into brilliant surprises around every bend.
Read more:

Congratulations. You’ve made it to the end, which means that you rank way above average on the “The Blog Reader Attention Span Index”.  Although ostensibly this was an exercise in understanding Monk’s behavior, it, hopefully, also had some personal relevance as well.  I said at the beginning that I was not going to draw any conclusions from the so called “facts”. However, I feel compelled to simply say that the main thing I took away from this collection of “facts” is  that while concepts like “creative genius”, “enlightenment” and “left or right brain” are necessary for communicating, they can also be limiting in ways that are problematic.  This is behind the emphasis on “non-duality” in Zen. I’ve touched on that theme in earlier blogs and it will certainly crop up again.  But, an even more “bottom line take-away” from this exercise is beautifully expressed in one of my all time favorite quotes by Howard Thurman:

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.



Monk On the Cover of Time Magazine

I would love to be able to see the mental images conjured up in readers’ heads by the title of today’s post.  Was I really spanked by a Monk?  Yes, by Thelonious Monk to be precise.

Monk was one of the first jazz artist I heard as a kid and is regarded by many to be one of the early geniuses of modern jazz.  The incident I am about to relay came to mind several times while reading Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Here is the story of my intimate encounter with Monk’s creativity.

Soon after my wife and I moved to Philadelphia in 1967, Thelonius and his band played at “The Showboat” on Lombard St. for three straight nights. We attended all three nights and became friendly with Charlie Rouse, Monk’s sax player and the other band members.  Over the course of three nights, we also spent time drinking with Baroness Nica Von Koenighswarter, who was friend, patron and caretaker to both Charlie Parker and Monk.

The stage in the Showboat was behind the bar and behind the bar stools, separated by a narrow walkway, were stadium-like seats fitted with tables.  To get to the stage, musicians enter the club like any customer, and climb a short flight of stairs at one end of the bar.  For all three nights we sat at the bar with the Baroness and other avid Monk fans.                                                              

Baroness “Nica” and Monk

The first night of the series, Monk arrived about an hour late, long after his band had gone up on stage ready  to play.  When Thelonius finally entered the club, he carried a long-handled shoe horn from his hotel.  As he stepped through the door, he immediately tucked the shoe horn under his arm, like a riding crop or swagger stick, and began marching around the club.  For another 30 minutes he strutted around with the shoe horn – back and forth along the bar, and up and down the bleachers- like a general in the Prussian army.  At first it was entertaining but as the club owner got more and more irradiated, the audience began to grow impatient as well.  All the while, his band watched their leader from the stage with their instruments ready.

Eventually, after much pleading from Rouse, the Baroness and the owner, Monk went to the stage and started playing the first tune.  He placed the shoehorn on the music stand of the piano and began playing as if nothing unusual had happened.  However, when it came time for his solo, Monk stood up, grabbed the shoehorn and used it to peck out his solo, one key at a time.

If you know Monks music, you can imagine that the solo did not really sound that unusual as he sometimes played one-fingered solos.  After, his solo was finished,  instead of sitting back down, he backed up a bit, knocking over the piano bench.  He then moved away from the piano, doing his little “Monk dance” across the stage (see short video clip below).

That night I was sitting near the end of the bar, close to the steps going to the stage. Fueled by the many cocktails consumed during the long wait, I charged up the stairs with the intention of picking up the toppled piano bench, while Monk did his dance.  As soon as I leaned over to pick it up, I felt a sharp sting of the shoe horn across my rear end.  Much to the delight of the audience, I had been touched by genius.  As would be expected from Thelonious Monk, the Melodious Thunk of the spank fit right into the tune they were playing.

The next night, in talking with the band members, it was revealed that Monk had been high on “speed” and that , after the gig, he had been remorsefully “crying like a baby”, according to Rouse.  I’ve thought a lot about that night since then, wondering exactly what  we had witnessed.  Was it:  Drug abuse?  Monk’s creative genius?  Showmanship? Psychological disorder?


I will take a stab at my interpretation in the next blog.  To get to the bottom of this(excuse me-I couldn’t resist), I’ll be going back to Lehrer’s Imagination: How Creativity Works for some help.  In the meantime, let me hear your interpretations, theories, reactions and stories.