“Bodhi Tree Leaf”, John Gage (http://jmgage.com/)


Here is a new tune called “What Was It?”.  It was inspired by Stephen Levine’s One Year to Live Project, which I learned about in William Lesley’s lecture entitled “Remembering Stephen Levine”. You can see this lecture by clicking on this link:


Since we are moving into uncharted waters with this new music, we are interested in hearing from you about your listening experiences.  Happily, some of you have taken the time to provide some responses.  Below are some of the more elaborate comments I received on the first two tunes we released. They seem to confirm that the listening experience is enhanced by following the Suggestions For Listening (see below). Two people mentioned difficulties with hearing and understanding the words. It is not clear where in the tunes this happened but there are some points where the voice levels were intentionally recorded at a very low volume. As per item # 4 in the Suggestions For Listening, I would suggest that you treat the voices as just another ” instrument” and pay attention to this sonic experience rather than any associated meaning.

Below the Comments is are the Suggestions For Listening and the link to “What Was it?
——————————————————————————————————————–COMMENTS ON “RIDE THE SOUND CURRENT” AND “IMPERMANENCE”.
I listened and I think it’s great. I like the beat and found myself dancing to it. Also conducive to samadhi.
Keep up the good work!

WOW!!!! I just listened to this again with no distractions and not as ‘easy listening’ but rather as ‘meditation’ as u suggest Maybe because of the title I had the thought “Oh just go through couple of deaths within 8 months of each other and then you will know about impermanence … then I tried to release my preconceived notion…however, as I listened the music and words totally took me to the process of releasing my mother and the events of her last few days in her body….including the end where it sounded like her essence was being whisked away by a helicopter…I was rocking and totally into the main body of the work very very compelling…maybe because I have been listening to you and Jim for so long, but I feel this is your best collaboration EVER… Only change I would make is I found it kind of hard to hear what you were saying in one of the longer sentences ( kind of in the middle)..maybe it is aging ears on my part and wouldn’t be a problem for most people..also I listened with my ear buds and not ear phones as suggested. Simply the best

Loved the words throughout the first piece (Ride the sound current?), and longed to hear more vocals in the 2nd half of this piece. Great, nevertheless.

I’m replying by email because I couldn’t find a comment button on the website, but I want to actually rave blissfully about “Ride the Sound Current” your collaboration with your brother. I find it to be wonderful, for oh so many reasons, starting with the conception, and forward from there through the spoken messages set to music, the amazing ecstatic sax, the rhythms, and on and on.
I found it wonderful to listen mindfully w/ headphones, and am especially loooking forward to moving improvisationally to it, with eyes closed, as in moving meditation. I have been participating in an Authentic Movement class which uses this format, which does not use music. I think moving to this kind of music would be a valuable variation as well.
Very cool tune and idea!!
.impressive. Wonderful stuff!!!!!
I loved this track, too. I am addressing these very things at present.. with Pema Chodron’s, When Things Fall Apart. Tough stuff. For me anyway. Sometimes I yell at poor Pema, mentally throwing her book at the wall. But still… I return to the swim. Thank you for your music.

Wonderful, Steve. I like the way the sax dances on a very compelling back beat. Keep up the good work!


Great idea. Could take a lifetime to fully illustrate. Musically I find it satisfying, as I do all of your recent recordings. For me, after stopping to put in my two new snazzy hearing aids, the voices could be cleaner and more dominating as they fade in and out. That might just be my ptsd from years of straining to hear conversation in restaurants.

Here are some suggestions for listening:

1) Play the music when you have enough time to mindfully listen without worrying about being distracted by other issues.

2) Use whatever rituals you usually use when preparing  to move out of the  flow of ordinary life.

3) The music was especially created to be heard through headphones.  Try to avoid earplugs, if possible.

4)  As you listen, focus on your bodily reactions (i.e. sensations, feelings, emotions etc., whether positive or negative) rather than the meaning of what you are hearing.

5)  Try listening to the piece more than once be open to having different experiences with each exposure.  Try dancing/moving while you listen!

COMMENTS.  The comment feature has been turned off due to massive amounts of Robo-Spam.  However, please send any comments to my personal email address or to the following address at G mail;



     “Jim Drumming”, Photo by Ann Pirruccello.

Like most people, I am constantly running across written quotes, videos, podcasts etc. that contain ideas that I would like to incorporate into my life.  Often these “lessons” are difficult to hear, let alone embody.  About a year ago, it occurred to me that I might be open to hear these ideas if they were embedded in music that I liked.   And, so I began accumulating spoken messages that seemed to fit those criteria and create music to help make these messages more “hearable” on my part.

Recently it occurred to me that the music I had come up with might be enhanced by including contributions from my brother James, who is an accomplished saxophonist and composer. Collectively we are known as “Wilson Bros/Shrink Wrap”.

The tune introduced below, “Ride the Sound Current”, is the first of a series based on my experiment that will be released at Art and Zen Today.

 Here are some suggestions for listening:

1) Play the music when you have enough time to mindfully listen without worrying about being distracted by other issues.

2) Use whatever rituals you usually use when preparing  to move out of the  flow of ordinary life.

3) The music was especially created to be heard through headphones.  Try to avoid earplugs, if possible.

4)  As you listen, focus on your bodily reactions (i.e. sensations, feelings, emotions etc., whether positive or negative) rather than the meaning of what you are hearing.

5)  If you listen to the piece more than once be open to having different experiences with each exposure.  Try dancing while you listen!

Over time I have become increasingly interested in how listening and sound (and music) have been used in various meditative practices over the ages.  This is no place for an exhaustive review but below the video link, I have included a number of sources below dealing with this topic for those who may be interested in exploring further.

To hear “Ride the Sound Current” click below.



Hazrat Inayaat Khan  The Music of Life: The Inner Nature and

Effects of Sound  and The Mysticism of Sound and Music: The Sufi Teaching of Hazaart Inayat Khan.

Joachim-Ernest Berendt,  The World is Sound: Nada Brahama.


3 Reasons to Listen to Music Mindfully


Mindfulness, Music Appreciation and Empathy


Video on Listening Meditation by Stephen Batchelor


 Music, Trance and Mindfulness:  http://artandzentoday.com/?p=4292

Aaron Copeland on Mindful Listening: http://artandzentoday.com/?p=4211

What are You Presently Listening To?  http://artandzentoday.com/?p=4091


This post starts off with a short video I took several weeks ago at the Coyote Bar and Grill in Carlsbad, which is where my wife and like to go dancing. On this night, one of my favorite singers (Valerie Pierce) was singing one of my favorite tunes (“This is How We Do It”) with one of my favorite local bands (SmokeStaxx).  Before I get into my usual pontification, I’d suggest that you watch the video now.  Unfortunately, I was not quick enough to capture the whole song, but I got the best part.


Click here to see video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zw7bciE7F2U&feature=c4-overview&list=UUVRR6l491Aafe34H23PwdNA

I had talked briefly with Valerie after she had performed this rap at an earlier date.  I asked whether she would be OK with me recording her the next time they did this tune and she said “yes”. I also asked her what her state of mind was while she was performing that night.  Her answer was ” I don’t know where I went”. (Valerie was recently named “#1 Ranking New Jazz Artist in the Hollywood Talent Quest”.  See more at ValeriePierce.com)

 The idea of being somewhere else (or not being one’s self) is common among musicians when trying to describe their state of mind while improvising.  The same language is common among those witnessing such performances (e.g. “like he’s gone, man”  or “He’s possessed”).(see Improvization in Jazz and Zen).  I would suggest that such performances are good examples of what Dr.Mihaly Csikszentimaihalyi calls the “flow experience” where the experiencer  “forgets the conceptual self” and loses a sense of time.  (See To Know Flow or No Flow?).  The idea of being “far out” was also the topic of an earlier blog “The thin line between”  and “aliens”


While it is common to refer to such performancer as not being here, in other posts (for instance  “The Artist Is Present”, I also suggest that the performer is totally here in the present in the moment.  The language we use to describe and try to understand these kinds of experiences could, at first blush,  be seen as contradictory.  Is the performer “gone” or is she “totally here in the present moment?  Is the performer “far out” or “present”. The problem lies in trying to describe human experiences that lie outside the commonplace or “normal”  These kinds of experiences are simply not easy to describe in words because they involve a dropping away of the usual thought processes (predominately “left brain” processes) that we use for making distinctions and understanding what is happening.  As I have shown before, these are the very kinds of experiences that spawn creativity (See “Sudden Insight and Creativity“)

As I look at Valerie in this video, I see both someone who is “gone” and “fully present”.  She is gone in the sense that she is not exactly her usual self, but she is present in that she is responding immediately and quickly to what is going on around her; making split-second decisions that can only occur when one is fully focused in the present moment.


I was talking with my brother recently about all of this and he said that when he is improvising (he is a jazz saxaphonist) the audience can tell when he is in the state of being Gone/Present and they let him know by their response.  When someone is in this state (whether a performer or not) they have a “Presence”. (see Performer-Audience Communication” ).  How is this “presence” communicated?  I would suggest that it is conveyed as much visually as through sound.  I have played drums while my brother is improvising and I can always tell when he is “into it”; it is conveyed by facial expressions and various other forms of body language (try watching the video of Valerie again, with your volume turned down).

Monk and Diz


There is reason to believe that this is true of performers in the relatively subdued and staid classical music. I just read about some surprising research that seems consistent with this idea.  Chia-Jung Tsay is both a classical pianist and a psychologist who conducted a study where she showed both amateur and professional musicians clips from classical-music competitions. She asked her volunteers to guess the winners.  But, some saw videos with recording, some listed only to audio and others watched silent videos.  What she found is that it was only in the silent videos, the videos without any sound, that participants were best able to identify the actual winners.



Chia-Jung Tsay


My interpretation of Tsay’s results is that the “presence” of the winners was largely conveyed visually.  Interestingly, Ellen Langer’s studies on creativity and mindfulness also suggest that “presence” may be conveyed from artist to viewer even when the artist is not physically present.  In a series of experiments where volunteers were either encouraged to create art pieces mindfully or allowed to create with no intervention, she found that artist who created more mindfully were judged to be more “authentic or charismatic based on viewers perceptions of their work.  Now “presence” is one of those words that are difficult to define but I think that “authenticity’ and “charisma” are elements of what we generally mean when using the term.

What Langer calls the “authenticity” and “charisma”, (which can be seen as part of “presence”) of painters can be conveyed to viewers through what they see on the canvas.  Generally, I would say, we are drawn to art of all types when it conveys the presence of the artist, even if the artist is not physically present.

In the most general sense “presence” means that others are impressed by a person”s appearance and manner.  But, as I discussed above, the term often implies the existence of  something or someone not physically present.  Different people will have different interpretations of the “something” or “someone” but I think the quote from Wikihow below best sums up my position:

“In some spiritual circles, presence and spirit are one in the same. Meditation, contemplation, dance, chant, all seek to connect with something deeper. Presence is the result of getting in contact with your deeper self.”



Even the nature of “your deeper self” can be debated but I would suggest that this is what is often referred to in the Zen literature as “realizing one’s Buddha nature”.  That is, it is in our nature to be “present/awake/alive” but for most people, this must be realized through practice.  The term “Buddha nature” is one of those that can be difficult to grasp but I think that author William Westney may provide some insight into it’s meaning.

Westney, author of “The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self” suggests that if you watch 3 year olds engaging with music you get a sense of the inherent joy that can be evoked from playing and listening to music.  Artists with “presence”, I would suggest, allow the enthusiasm and involvement of the child to shine through their performances.  To use Westney’s worlds: ..”there is  total involvement, every fiber, sinew and nerve-ending alter to the musical impulse…” (pg. 17).  This is what I see when watching the video of Valerie.

Westney suggests that this inherent joy, in most cases, is sufficated by lessons and other adult demands until most of us forget or deny it and we become convinced that we do not have the talent to either perform or fully listen music (see “Ellen Langer on “The Talent Myth). 

 Westney goes on to say:

“The energized, fluid creativity of play, for example is a childhood treasure that is often lost later. People happily forget themselves when they are absorbed in play, and at the same time they are acutely aware” (p. 22).  In other words they are simultaneously “there” and “here”.  Dale Wright’s deconstruction of the Buddhist  Six Perfections, designed to provide students with the “goals” of practice suggests that a sense of joy is a key element of spiritual practice as well.  It makes sense to me that this joy would develop as one breaks through the conditioning that has stiffled the joyousness of childhood. It seems to me that what Westney is describing as the three year old’s natural inclination to play and musicality is very similar to “Buddha nature” in that both are inherent and both usually need to be re-discovered or realized in later life.

From all accounts it appears that the historic Buddha, after years of spiritual practice,  had a presence that others could acknowledge and were drawn to.  At the same time I would guess that had Buddha been around during the early days of jazz, he would certainly have been seen as “real gone”.  The Heart Sutra, seen as one of the most important of Buddha’s teachings ends with  the phrases “gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha” which is translated as “ gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond“.  Gone, as gone beyond ordinary egjo-based consciousness and suffering.  From what I can tell, Buddha conveyed his “goneness” to those he met but  was also very much present; present enough to effectively convey his teaching, organize an order of monks to succeed him and become engaged in civil society.  According to the Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera, “The Buddha had gone beyond all worldly affairs, but still gave advice on good government” (http://www.saigon.com/~anson/ebud/whatbudbeliev/229.htm)

So, the historic Buddha was gone but not gone.  Neither “here” or “there”.  Interestingly  Buddha uses terms similar to this in the following quote attributed to him:

When for you there is only the seen in the seen, only the heard in the heard, only the sensed in the sensed, only the cognized in the cognized, then you will not be reckoned by it.  When you are not reckoned by it, you will not be in it.  When you are not in it, you will be neither “here” nor “there” nor between the two.

This, just this, is the end of suffering.

Buddha Gautama (563-483 BC)

 When I am dancing to a great band like Smokestaxx or watching/listening to a great performer like Valerie Pierce, I am often temporarily “neither here nor there” and I get at least a taste of what it might be like to realize my “Buddha Nature”.  Does Booty Shaking = Buddha Nature ?  I’m not sure but I intend to keep up my booty shaking practice and I’ll let you know when I find out.


 I don’t understand capri pants. They seem like neither here nor there.

Jesse Eisenberg

Lyrics from Neither Here Nor There by Eleisha Eagle

The secret of life
now I’ve got the key,
I’ve got the key,
I’ve got the key
but I can’t find the lock
so it’s no use to me

La Dee Da Da Da
I’m not worried
La Dee Da Da Da
Happen to care?
La Dee Da Da Da
I’m happy though I’m
Neither here nor there
I’m neither here nor there

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A customer approaches a small table set up among the produce booths at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market.  A small sign on the table reads:

                                                        Poem Store

                                               Your Subject, Your Price


The poet, who sits behind the table asks her customer for a topic and is told “Since Wednesday”.  In about 3 minutes she types and then reads the following poem to her customer:

Time has moved along

slowly, inching with heat

and asking us to understand

what can happen in a single

day, in the rise of a week…..

The customer, with tears in his eyes tells the poet:  “So Martha started chemo on Wednesday” and the poet simply nods.

This above exchange was described in a recent article by Deborah Netburn in the LA Times titled “Poems While You Wait”.  The article focuses on the unusual occupation/practice of a poet by the name of Jacqueline Suskin.  Jacqueline can be found most days set up at a small booths at Farmer’s markets and similar events . The payment is up to the customers but most pay around $5 for their poem.  Suskin always asks if she can read her poem because she considers poetry to be an “oral art”. Some people try to think up far out topics but most ask for a poem that somehow relates to current events in their lives.  She has a lot of repeat customers and newcomers are usually surprised at how relevant and poignant their personal poems turn out.  .

Jacqueline is quoted as saying: “The thing I like about Poem Store is that it is not about me.  I’m not thinking about myself. I’m writing about my interaction with a person, and I want to give them something that is just theirs.”

Because she understands that her customers are wanting to buy  vegetables and get right home, she works very quickly.. According to Jacqueline: “Part of the exercise is to get down immediately what comes to me.  They are like little mantras, little prayers that get handed out”.

Jacqueline thinks that people generally ask for poems that might provide them help with or insight into personal problems:  “They want hope, or confidence, or they just need someone to see who they are.. Half the time I feel like I am a therapist or a psychic”.

The poet doesn’t know how she manages to write poems so quickly.  “There is just this blurry area there.  There is no answers to how I can do it so quickly, so I don’t question it”. She goes on to say, however that it is exhausting work:  “This is the most physically draining thing I’ve ever done in my life.  When I’m done writing poems for four hours for people I don’t know, I’m like a zombie.  My brain is mush”.

Those of you who have been reading my past blogs, can probably see why I was intrigued by this article.  The quickness of her responses to requests for poems resembles the improvisational skills of jazz musicians and the storied shenanigans of traditional Zen  masters (see  YEAH MAN: IMPROVISATION IN JAZZ, COMEDY AND ZEN) ).  Although Jacqueline seems to be making a living writing poems, there is a selfless element to what she does. One of the elements of the Buddhist, Eightfold Path is right livelihood, which essentially means that a practioner should make a living in a job that is consistent with Buddhist ethics and ideals.  Certainly, Suskin’s Poem Store seems to be an example of this.

 Jacqueline Suskin’s interactions with the public also remind me a lot of Marina Abramovic’s performance piece at MOMA where she sat staring into the eyes of museum visitors during opening hours for a month.  In a post called  The Artist is Present”, I admired the Zen-like quality of Abramovic’s art.  Both Marina and Jacqueline attest to the strain of having to “be present” with strangers for hours on end, but both also seem to draw an immense degree of satisfaction from their actions.

I think many artists become depressed or cynical because they feel that the public does not appreciate their creativity to the degree that they would wish for.  They suffer alone and are not able to feel that they can find a way to use their creative skills to benefit others.  It seems that Jacqueline has found a unique means for accomplishing this, while still supporting herself doing the thing she loves to do..  I wonder whether the Poem Store concept, might  be  something that other artists could, with some creative “tweaking”,  utilize to energize their own practices?  I’d love to hear reactions from some of my artist readers (or anyone else for that matter) about their take on this article.  To read the original article, use the following address: 


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Over the past month or so my posts have focused on improvisation in the arts and Zen.  This was spurred on by Peter Hershock’s suggestion that the outcome of Zen practice resembles jazz improvisation.  This is consistent with much of the Zen literature which paints a picture of the awakened life as one of openness, spontaneity, “choiceless awareness” etc. , that results from a “letting go” of the rational mind and the “self”.  Relying on more contemporary writers, I have suggested that there is some scientific basis for understanding this process of “letting go”.  However, I also started questioning some aspects of this way of understanding what happens during improvisation.  This includes improvisation in the arts or in the “social virtuosity” that Herschock says characterizes Zen enlightenment.  In this post I continue in this direction and hope to clarify why it is important to be careful about how we talk about this process.

In my last post (The Practice of Yes/No), I suggested that while, to both the performer and the audience, it may seem, that there is an absence of left-brain processes with attendant decision or choice-making during improvisation, this is not a completely accurate account of what is happening.  Here I want to go further  and suggest that, when it comes to the practice of Zen, individuals who subscribe to this traditional  idea that “I am no longer making choices”, could end up creating more suffering for him or herself and for others.  Although he is not a Zen student, Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah about his use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs provides an example of the kind of thinking that can lead to the kind of suffering I am talking about here.

In the interview Armstrong said: “At the time, it was easy, it just flowed. I was in the zone like athletes get”.

As seen from earlier posts, the Zone or the “flow experience” is one where one temporarily loses the usual sense of self and of being the author of decision-making. It appears that in Armstrong’s case this sense of being free of the usual constraints of selfhood, also was experienced as evidence that he could do no wrong and was not responsible for his own actions.  In a recent talk, Jiyu Roshi suggested that something similar often occurs among advanced Zen practioners and their counterparts in other spiritual disciplines and provided examples from his own life.


Jiyu "Jake" Roshi

Think of John Coltrane improvising,  Jackson Pollack flinging drips of paint over a canvas or Robin Williams doing a stand up routine.  They are totally absorbed in what they are doing, manipulating their “tools” with such rapidity that there appears to be no conscious thought involved.  It is not uncommon to hear of such performances described by witness or the performers themselves as being “possessed”, “channeled” , “in a trance” or as being expressions of an “inner self”.  In all cases, I think, the intention is to convey the idea that whatever is being expressed is not emanating from that performer’s personhood but rather some other source beyond whatever it is we see as responsible for ordinary behavior.  The implication is that there is no conscious thought or conscious choice involved.  This sort of language is also used in the Zen literature, as well as in other spiritual disciplines” to describe the state of consciousness and conduct of the awakened life.

The social scientific literature on the experience of “trance” is helpful here.  From this perspective a hypnotic trance is viewed as a situation where one person agrees to allow another to direct his or her behavior.  Anthropologists have found that “trances” are common in most non-Western societies and are collectively understood to be instances where some external  entity (e.g. a spirit) is directing the behavior of an individual.  In most cases, when trance is manifested, the person is not held responsible for their actions and becomes eligible for special consideration from the other members of society and especially those designated as healers.  The literature indicates that trance is a learned behavior that requires normal mental facilities.  What appears to be a relinquishing of normal mental facilities and a sense of self-control is a culturally agreed upon understanding that entails often rather sophisticated mental capacities and maneuvers and does not entail a diminishing of rational thought.

What I take from this literature is that there is a propensity to explain the sense that “I” (i.e. my “self”) is not “in charge” by attributing ones seemingly automatic and spontaneous conduct to some external entity or “agent” (to use the language of post-modern scholars), or force or spirit.  Now, according to Buddhist philosophy and post-modern theory (Buddha might be seen as the first post-modern theorist) , whatever it is we call our self is a social fiction; a convenient fiction that we acquire during socialization to allow us to take part in the social activities of our culture.  Associated with this “sense of self” comes an important and necessary (at least for the larger society) sense of responsibility and accountability for one’s own actions.  This is what allows “societies” to exist.  Those who seemly do not have these qualities are considered sociopaths. The actual experience of this absence of a substantial self is seen as essential for the progress of the Zen student. But this experience carries with it the possibility of conduct, which may not be fully “sociopathic” but can lead to suffering of others.

While the language used to describe what is occurring may differ in describing trance,  jazz improvisation, comedic improv , expressionistic painting or those who have become awake/alive/present through spiritual practice, these descriptions commonly  give the impression  that what is happening is not the result of “self-control” or of conscious choice.  I suggest that it is necessary to make a distinction between appearances of what is occurring and what is, actually happening.  I believe it is possible to preserve the wonder and wonderfulness of improvised performances without fully buying into those explanations that place “agency” somewhere outside (God, spirits, muse etc) or  “inside” the person as in references to “inner self”, “real self”, “Buddha Nature” and so forth.

"The Devil Made me Do IT" Comedian Flip Wilson

Following my argument in the previous post, I see such “inspired” performances as not something other-worldly but rather the result of someone who has practiced their craft to the point where thoughts or choices are executed with such rapidity that they appear to be manifesting from somewhere other than the “self”.  Such improvised behavior is not a result of somehow replacing left-brain processes with “right-brain” processes but rather an integration of the two, resembling the expanded state of awareness that Fehmi called “Opened-Focus Attention”.  It widens the range of information to be used in decision-making to include various signals or sensations not usually considered to be part of cognition.

I suggest that, whether we are talking about improvised behaviors in the arts or as a result of spirtual practice (a la Hershock’s contention that Zazen can lead to “social virtuosity”), the performer is making conscious choices.  They are simply being made with such rapidity that it seems that this is not the case. When asked how they do what they do, most Improvisors, in all fields of the arts, will point to extensive bouts of practice that were necessary to be able to improvise.

In his book, Ways of the Hand, Sudow describes looking at his hand while improvising and not being able to predict what it was going to do next, and talking about his hands as having an intentionality of their own.  But, the majority of the book consists of detailed description of the practice regimen that he, Sudnow, underwent to get to that point.  Basically, he describes how he learned to recognize, through trial and error,  which possible notes to strike in order to sound good at any point of the songs being played at breakneck speed. My reading of this is that he, and other jazz musicians are making choices all during a solo,  but they are happening so rapidly that they seem as if there is no choosing and no one doing the choosing.

In the post titled “Yeah Man: Improvisation in Jazz, Improv and Zen“, we saw how comedic impov requires that actors “say yes” to each new possibility from others on stage in order to keep the skit moving.  Although Hershock used jazz improvisation as a metaphor for understanding the awakened Zen practioner, I believe that comedy Improv is is a better metaphor because the nature of the verbal exchange is closer to what we encounter in everyday social interaction.

The accomplished  Improv actor may improvise with such rapidity that it seems that he or she is not thinking.  However, the actors must not only think up a possible response to what someone else says but must also think ahead far enough to see whether or not it has the possibility of moving the skit forward or squelching it.  In other words, to say “yes” to the antics of another actor, he or she must filter through possibilities and reject those that may lead to a “no” ( that is, behaving in ways that would put a damper on the other actors and the overall flow of the skit).  Let’s imagine that an professional improv actor could within a nano- second come up with a response which he is fairly certain will help keep the skit alive but, almost simultaneously, realizes that the audience consists of young kids and so decides against saying what first comes to mind and allows another response (maybe from another actor) to be expressed instead.  In other words, even the heat of frantic improvisation, actors have the capacity to say “no“.

So where is all of this leading?  Throughout the centuries that Zen has been developed, the idea that the conduct of the of the enlightened practioner is beyond thought and choice has been accepted.  The way that this is generally understood is much more sophisticated than that associated with Spirit possession of Shamanism where an outside entity or force is seen as taking over agency of the person.

Yet even among the most pragmatic of the Zen philosophers, there is a tendency to rely on the language of mysticism to account for awakened conduct.  This is, in itself, not really a problem, because the kinds of “performances”  I have been talking about among arts and Zen adepts is truly wondrous and mysterious. However, it does appear that within Zen and other spiritual disciples, problems can arise when the experience of awakening, the sense of no longer being “self”-directed, results in actions which create suffering for the person and others.


In his book on creativity, Lehrer talks about the thin line between creativity and other pathological states.  I looked at this in depth in my post called “Sun Ra: The Thin line between Genius, Crazy and Spirituality”.   We all know of artists who fit this category.  It is also the case that Artists can become addicted to the flow of their improvisations processes (see “Are You A Flow Addict?”) because they cannot flow in activities outside of their specialty.  In Zen, however, the aim is to extend the flow of what Hershock calls “social virtuosity” to all aspects of life.  It is here where the sense that “I”  am not the actor, the chooser or the “decider” could lead to problems if they buy into the believe that they can not or need not say “NO”.



Although the Zen practioner may not understand their sense of acting without a “self” as indicating a possession of some sort, they do have to come to terms with what is happening to them.  A thorough understanding that whatever was originally experienced as having “a self” is, from a Buddhist perspective, erroneous can help provide one with a grounded sense of being OK with their new way of being.  However, it appears that it is not uncommon for someone who has opened up such experiences to begin seeing their actions as part of the natural order of things, (expressions of “Buddha Nature”) and thus inherently valid.  The number of spiritual teachers that have supposedly reached an awakened state who and gone on to commit actions that create suffering for themselves and others is staggering.  It is for this reason, that over the centuries of it’s development, Zen teachers have placed heavy emphasis on the precepts, which maybe seen as ethical guidelines for practioners.(For a nice discussion of the precepts and their relevance to the Lance Armstrong case, see Sean Voisen’s latest article “Zen and the Art of”.


Although these guidelines are not seen as moralistic absolutes (and violations are not considered as “sins”), the fact that they have existed so long in the Zen tradition seems consistent with the view of enlightenment that I am outlining where each action one takes is a matter of making-decisions and choices (albeit very rapidly) and not some supernatural state where actions are dictated from beyond.


So I am suggesting that in all types of improvisation choices are being made.  However, in the case of true awakened improvisation, choice is even more salient because being awake/present/alive means the person is capable of attending to a wider range of data to inform his or her decision-making.  Because the left-brain processes never really go away, there  is always the possibility of making choices that are self-enhancing and possibly result in suffering for oneself and others.  Because of this there is no end  to practice and it is my opinion that those who choose to follow this difficult path do so because they find this constant practice to be a source of flow, finding satisfaction in life by constantly challenging themselves through practice.



This post was inspired by and builds upon comments from Sean and Jiyu Roshi on my last post (“YEAH MAN!”: IMPROVISATION IN JAZZ, COMEDY AND ZEN”).  In posts leading up to that one I had explored the idea that improvised behavior, that is spontaneous responses in the present moment, involves “forgetting” or “ignoring” the “inner voice”  that reflects the imagined reactions of others.  The idea behind these posts was that such thoughts prevent one from acting spontaneously in response to whatever is happening in the present moment.  In jazz, comedic improv or the various arts (such as archery) associated with Zen, practice is often described as helping one to learn to act without first consulting the “rational mind”, “the inner voice”, the “ego mind”, the “left-brain” or whatever you want to call it.  In “Yeah Man”, I suggested that this can be faciliated by practicing “Yes” in situations where you usually say “no”.


The more I think about what I just summarized in the paragraph above, the more I believe that while it is correct metaphorically,  it  probably not a totally accurate description of how things work..  I think a better way to put it is to say that practice helps develop an integrative communication between left and right brain processes that allows the practioner to respond to whatever is happening in the moment more quickly.  This is different from the idea that there is no rational or left brain processes at all going on during improvisation, which is implied in my earlier posts.  It also differs from the prevailing view amongst both Zen and non-Zen writers, that improvisation entails no thinking whatsoever.  My alternative view is that the practioner (music, Improv, Zen or whatever) has learned to “reframe/refocus”  and learns to rapidly consider any thoughts that may be called forth by the current situation and either act on those or drop them. This is done so quickly that it appears, to both the performer and observer, that choices are  instantaneous, entailing no thinking at all. (See “CREATIVE REFRAMING” IN ART AND ZEN”  AND “CREATIVE RE-FOCUSING“.)  It entails developing an expanded awareness or what Lester Fehmi calles “opened-focus” where both right and left-brain processes work together.  (see HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY OPENED-FOCUSED EXPERIENCE WHILE READING THIS POST.)

Being fully awake and present (as during improvisation) doesn’t mean that there is no thinking, even though it may seem like that to observers or the performer himself or herself.   As my previous coverage of both jazz and comedic improvisation indicates, a key component of successful improvisation is being aware of what is going on amongst the other performers.  It does not mean being totally devoid of  any thoughts that could possibly be seen as putting a damper on one’s creative expressiveness.   Rather it means being able to ignore or act upon these thoughts, (very quickly) depending on the nature of the situation.  It means being able to find a balance between “letting go” and being attuned to the surroundings.  This attunement is what may differentiate creative expressiveness from craziness (See.”.Sun Ra, The Alien: The Thin Line Between, Genius, Spirituality and Crazy”.)

A key reason for my introducing terms like “creative reframing” and “refocusing” in earlier posts was that they allow for seeing how we can learn, though practice, to incorporate both left and right brain processes; being able to decide almost instantaneously which of the many choices that arise moment by moment should be acted upon  This includes “information” that is best characterized as “a felt sense”, “intuition” or “internal wisdom”.  In my last post “Yeah Man: Improvisation in Jazz, Comedy and Zen“, I suggested that improvisation in music, theater or daily life is facilitated by adopting an attitude of saying “yes” to whatever is happening in the moment.  By saying “yes” to or not resisting whatever is going on because it does not fit some idealized notion of what you think should be happening, you not only allow for personal flow, but facilitate flow in others as well.  When this happens it often seems as if there is no thinking, decision-making or choices involved. In Zen and other literature this is even referred to as “choiceless awareness”.

What I want to do now is provide an argument that even in highly improvised actions, choices are being made.  To help with this I want use a comment sent in by Sean in response to “Yeah Man: Improvisation in Jazz, Comedy and Zen”.  So let’s start with Sean’s remark and then I will riff on this for a while.  You can read the original post by clicking here.


On Feb. 20th, Sean wrote:

“After I my divorce and move to San Francisco, for the first year I made it a personal rule that I had to say “yes” to all social invitations and calls to adventure. Oftentimes, it’s far easier to hole up and stay home, but even when I was tired or “not feeling it” I still said yes. This practice paid with substantial dividends. It’s the same with zazen. Sometimes you just don’t feel like sitting on the cushion, but you do it anyway. You say “yes, and …,” and then you sit down. It pays dividends.

It’s strange the interplay of practice and improvisation, which I think goes back to your previous post. Sometimes you have to force yourself to practice,  which in turn leads to a kind of better unforced spontaneity. So I love this idea of “yes, and …” We can just say “yes, and …” to whatever arises, even not wanting to sit. And then do it anyway.”



Now I’m going to take some liberties with Sean’s remarks and go beyond what he actually says in order to make some points about the nature of practice and improvisation.  What I say may or may not exactly characterize Sean’s specific process, but I think it reflects a more general process.

When we say “yes” to one thing we are also saying “no” to another and this is what makes the practice of “yes” a powerful practice.  Sean doesn’t actually say it. but I would imagine that in the past he had rather quickly turned down the kinds of invitations that he is now saying “yes” to.  I’m guessing that the response “I’m too tired” or “Maybe some other time” had become rather automatic in the face of such invitations.  For whatever reason, it is likely that he came to realize a some point that these automatic responses were perhaps keeping him from living a more fulfilling life and so he decided to practice his version of “just say yes”.  Now based on personal experience, I am also guessing that for a while, perhaps a long time, the old reactions of “no” came up automatically whenever an invitation was directed his way.  And, I would imagine that part of what went on in Sean’s thinking process entailed “overriding” (saying  “no” to ) these automatic thoughts as to why the invitation should be refused, by remembering that he has decided to practice this attitude of “yes”.


It is significant that Sean links his practice of embracing invitations with his practice of Zazen.  This is because the essence of Zazen is watching one’s thoughts as they arise and deciding to not get caught up in them.  I might be tempted to say that Zazen entails “saying” no to thoughts but that phrase can be confusing.  Since thoughts will always arise, it is not the thoughts that are seen as problematic from a Zen perspective.  And, I know from experience that trying not to think while practicing Zazen is futile and leads to internal tensions.  So the skill that is developed during Zazen is being able to objectively look at these thoughts and making a decision as to whether to allow yourself to float away from the present moment along with these thoughts or to bring yourself back into being fully present.  The fact is that there are times when thinking is necessary and you always have the choice.  I’m pretty sure that Sean would say “no” to an offer to go out and snort cocaine and then shoot people on the street.

By remembering (becoming mindful) again and again in daily Zazen, one developes the “muscles”, so to speak, to remember and wake up in everyday circumstances, such as those described by Sean, where important choices must be made very rapidly.

Let’s imagine that one day after a hard day at the office a co-worker asks Sean to go out on the town.  In the split second that human thinking requires, Sean may have the thought “oh I’m too tired”, followed by “Oh, but what about my practice of yes?”, followed by ” No I really am too tired and need to sleep”.  The point is that Sean has a choice and it is a richer choice than before he began his “practice of yes”.  Presumably he is not only able to say “no” to his old habitual thoughts that were not rewarding but could also say “no” to his practice of “yes” and consider how he is actually feeling before deciding on a course of actions.  In the movie “Yes Man” the character played by Jim Carrey begins to expand and enrich his life by saying “yes” to circumstances and  opportunities that he previously would have missed.  But, a major lesson of the story is that he also learns than there some situations where saying “no” is a wiser choice than automatic “yeses”.  By practicing “yes” the character has expanded his choices and learned how to make better decisions, including saying “no” to “yes”.  Any practice necessarily expands awareness and as practice continues,  decision-making processes becomes easier and quicker one until it reaches a point where it becomes improvisational flow.

In his comments on the previous post, Jiyu Roshi wrote that our

Zen practice, …….is centered on becoming more aware of all of our choices and the reasons behind them, our life is really a dance of moving between, and along with, yes and no responses. My point here is that it’s important to see as much of the whole picture as possible and understand all sides to an ultimate “yes or no” decision.”

(See Jiyu Roshi’s full comments on previous post.)

Now you may wonder why I am making such a big deal about seeing improvisation as involving choices and seeing left-brain processes as being part of the decision-making process.  It may seem that I have spent a lot of your time writing about a minor shift in how we understand improvisation, but I think that there are some real problems with seeing improvisation as entailing no thought and no choice, especially for the Zen practioner.  Since this piece has already violated the lenth guidelines for bloggers,  I have chosen to follow up with this in my next post.  But, let me leave you with a hint of where I plan to go next and something to think about in the meantime.

In his interview with Oprah, Lance Armstrong offered as an explanation for his cheating


and the massive suffering it caused others by saying: “It was easy. It just flowed. I was in a zone, like athletes get”.  This sense of flow is what we all would like to experience but what happens when it is experienced and understood as “I was not responsible for my choices”?






Ensoe #1, Steve Wilson

In two previous posts, I expounded and expanded upon Peter Hershock’s use of jazz improvisation as a metaphor for what he calls the “social virtuosity” that can be developed through many years of practicing Zen.  He seems to be trying to paint a picture of the phenomenon called “enlightenment” or “awakening” that counters the widespread notion that these concepts refer to a purely personal or individual achievement.  As you will recall, Hershock makes the case that in jazz, as well as everyday life, this improvisational  virtuosity has a social as well as a personal dimension.  I see this improvisational “letting go” as something that is “catchy” and “shareable” and so we all, with practice, can help each other “let go”.  I want to follow up with this idea in the next couple of posts because it is one that is hard for most of us to fathom. It runs counter to our basic assumptions about who or what we are and why we might practice a spiritual discipline.   Frankly, I want to work through this material as I think it may be helpful for me in clarifying what Zen practice is all about.  If you haven’t already, I suggest you go back and read the following before proceeding with this post as it builds on that earlier material.( GREAT UNEXPECATIONS: JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATIONJAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION: SOCIAL VIRTUOSITY AND PRACTICE )

To begin, let us revisit the work of Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works) which provided a jumping off point for my very first posts on Art And Zen Today.  Dealing with jazz improvisation as a form of creative expression, Lehrer cites several studies where scientists were able to observe brain activity while musicians improvised.  One of the findings is that while improvising the brains of the musicians showed “a surge of activity in the  medial prefontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain associated with self-expression.’” ( p.90)  This was to be expected, but they also found shifts in the part of the brain associated with impulse control.  When improvising, as opposed to playing a familiar melody, “the musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions, slipping off those mental hand cuffs.” (p.91). For Lehrer, this is another example of situations where creativity is associated with a process of “letting go”, especially regarding letting go of thoughts about what other people may think about what you are doing.

Lehrer argues that the “letting go” process can be learned and he provides some insight into how this can occur by describing what goes on in classes in “Comedic Improv” at the Second City training center.  First Lehrer observed that this kind of training involved playing children’s games and just generally acting like kids on clue.  He quotes Andy Cobb, one of the instructors:

it’s about putting people in a state of mind where they’re going to say the first thing that pops into their head, even if it seems silly or stupid.  Because that inner voice, that voice telling you not to do something –that’s the voice that kills improv” (p. 102)

Secondly, says Lehrer, the prospective actors “must become aware of everything that is happening on stage…….. “Comic improv, after all, is an ensemble performance: every joke is built on the line that came before.” ( p.103)   So after they learn to stop worrying about saying the wrong thing, they begin practicing a technique called ‘Yes, and…..’ . The basic premise is simple: When performing together, improvisers can never question what came before.  The need to instantly agree –that’s the “yes” part — and then start setting up the next joke. ” (p.103)

Writing about the same phenomenon, Susan Murphy, the author of Upside Down Zen,  provides an example of this process from a book called Improv by Keith Johnstone. Writing about Johnstone’s book, Murphy says:

“….. in one of his examples, the first actor might say, “Ohh!’. and clutch their leg; the second actor might say, ‘Oh my god’, there something wrong with your leg!’ The first actor says, ‘yes, I’ve got a pain in my leg’.  The second one says, ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to remove it.’  The first actor then says, ‘Oh, don’t take my leg, I’m rather attached to it.’  Now at that point it’s starting to go dead.  ‘No’ has been said; the offer has not been caught.  But how about the second time?  It goes through the same moves.  ‘O, my leg!’ ‘Oh no, not your leg, I’ll have to remove it’  and the second actor says ‘But that’s the leg you took last time!’ So the first actor says, ‘Oh, this is serious’ The second actors says, ‘not…woodworm?’  And so it rolls.  The play is alive because all offers are being accepted.’  (pg. 50)

When we are fully present/awake/alive, not only are we less concerned with how others are evaluating us but simultaneously more fully aware of how we are a part of a larger social unit that is mutually creating whatever is to happen next.  As mentioned in the earlier posts, our part in any social improvisational “performance” may,  at first glance seem rather insignificant.  But as Murphy shows, such performances can struggle or die if we either say “no” or signify “no” through our demeanor.  So, the key to any successful joint improvisational performance is for all involved to express an attitude of “yes”. I recall the following two incidents when I think about the “power of yes”


I played drums in bands while in high school and college but didn’t play for about 25 years after that. Shortly after I started playing drums again as an adult, I had the chance to sit in with a band consisting of very accomplished musicians and accepted the invitation with some trepidation.  I was especially intimidated by the leader who played the trumpet.  Mid-way into the song, he turned to me and indicated I should take a solo.  For some reason, I found myself playing the solo striking the drums in a way that did not allow the sticks to bounce; producing a muffled sound instead of the usual resonant ring.  I recall that once I started the solo, I conjectured that the leader would not like what I was doing.  However, right after that thought, I heard him shout “yeah man”, which gave me “permission” to finish the solo with confidence following my instincts.  After the song ended , he looked at me briefly and said “fresh!”.


After the incident described above I was motivated to find a jazz group in Philadelphia to play with full time.  One of the members of the band was a rhythm guitarist who I and the others judged as not being a good as the rest of the band.  During one of our performances, maybe a year after I joined the band, he was taking a solo and I found myself being much more attuned than usual to what he was playing; almost as if he and I were one musician.  What was coming from this guy’s guitar was leaps and bounds beyond anything I had heard him play before. As he continued, I opened my eyes, (I usually close them when fully absorbed in what is happening) and saw that all the other members were watching him intently and exchanging glances as if to say “what’s going on here?”.  As the guitarist’s solo continued, the others began to utter “yeah man” type of responses and when it was their turn to solo each seemed to perform at a level beyond their usual.  Something happened that night, not just at the individual level, but at the group level as well.  After that, due to the “power of “yeah man”, we were a better, freer and more cohesive band than we were before.

I think something like this can happen in a variety of everyday situations and plan to explore further how this may work in the next post. While jazz and comedic improvisation is a useful metaphor for understanding the kind of every day “social viruosity” that can stem from Zen practice, they are not the same.  So, I also plan to comment on the differences.  At least that is the plan.  But, who knows?  I’m just making this up as I go along.  Improvisation or lack of focus?????  In the meantime, don’t feel that you have to say “yeah man” to every proposal or opportunity that presents itself.  Use common sense and take a look at the movie  “ Yes Man” starring Jim Carrey.


The chart above was sent to me by James “The Sax Guy” who also adds some interesting comments  to the previous post.

In the last post “Great Unexpectations: Jazz/Zen improvisation“,  I pointed to some parallels between jazz and the awakened life, as described by Peter Hershock in his book “Liberating Intimacy”.  Hershock points out that Zen practice can lead to a  “social virtuosity” which entails being attuned to the needs of others and being willing and able to spontaneously respond in ways that allow for a harmonious social discourse.  He points out that while jazz musicians are provided a great deal of creative freedom, each is also oriented towards enhancing the overall quality of the band’s performance and suggests that the practice of Zen can also lead to conduct that somehow enhances the larger social whole.

Hershock goes on to point out that this “awakened virtuosity” includes the understanding that one will often not be the center of attention.  This willingness to “sacrifice” for the larger performance of our collective lives is what he sees as the essence of the Zen enterprise.  According to Hershock:….the sincere practitioner must be willing to ‘do’ nothing at all and simply allow his or her life to proceed unchecked.  Anything else amounts to holding on (obsessive attachment) and holding off (the arrogance of aversion).  Like a piece of improvised music, practice is something other than the sum of its individually experienced, factual or behavioral parts, and there are times when the part ‘we’ play in it seems so infinitesimal as to be no part at all.  To extend the musical analogy, practice sometimes puts us in the position of playing a simple rhythmic pattern again and again, subtlety opening up the field of time and space on which we find others soloing, expressing the infinite degrees of their freedom.  There is no glamour in this “repetition” no exalted sense of individual accomplishment, and yet it is precisely what is needed at times for the music to come fully to life.

While being in the spotlight, as a soloist, is part of what it means to play jazz, it is only one momentary aspect of the whole scene. Equally, if not more important, is being able to provide harmonic support for other soloist and the group as a whole.  In jazz, as in other fields, “showboaters” usually do not last very long.  Hershock seems to be saying that the so-called “enlightened life”, as it evolves through Zen practice, involves “playing second fiddle” in ways that support the free expression of others” as much, if not more than, being in the spotlight.

Having played drums in a variety of improvisational groups, I relate to the role of providing unglamorous “repetition”.  Except for the rare drum solo, the drummer’s main role is to support the other musicians as they play the melody and take their solos.  Primarily this entails maintaining a steady beat, but especially in jazz, it can also involve adding embellishments that add to the overall performance of the group.  An accent on the bass drum,  a change in dynamics or a riff that responds to what the soloist is doing can add a vibrancy to the performance and can affect where the soloist goes in his or her improvisation.  I found that I needed to learn to find a sense of accomplishment in providing this supporting role for the group as a whole and forgo the natural inclination to be “in the spotlight”. The most satisfying compliments I received as a drummer were those from fellow musicians who acknowledged that I was both listening to them and providing support or fodder for their improvisations.  In a sense, the appreciation was for my being fully present with the other musicians, doing my part to help them be fully present and doing my part to help “the music to come fully to life” (Hershock).

When this happens, says Hershock:

………. our simple contribution is heard in a completely new and always unanticipated way, becoming something much more sublime than we could ever have imagined.  In the same way, as  long as we are fully engaged in practicing Ch’an, even though we may from an objective point of view be doing nothing out of the ordinary, the meaning of our activity - our conduct- is undergoing continual transformation.  Even though we are doing nothing special, our relationships become progressively more open and truthful. (pg. 120)


Hershock’s term “social virtuosity” may be misleading.  It does not necessarily refer to being what we often call “socially adept” and it does not refer to an attitude of concern about social injustices or other societal maladies.  The awakened person may certainly possess these characteristics, but they are not the essence of what Zen practice is all about. Zen students are encouraged to take the vow of “freeing” all sentient beings” which seems to be a clear message that, as in Jazz,  the goal of Zen practice should not conceived as a personal or selfish one, but one that is social, in a certain sense. (See “Four Vows” as practiced at The Vista Zen Center”. http://www.vistazencenter.com/vows-and-precepts)

Understandably, this vow raises also sorts of interpretations as to  what is meant by “freeing” (often the word “saving” is used) and what is meant by “sentient beings”, as well as questions about the feasibility of such a task.  There has been a great deal of discussion about what exactly this vow calls for on the part of a Zen student. However, Hershock seems to argue that, whatever is involved in fulfilling this vow, it does not entail “doing something”.  It does not involve the usual, goal- directed orientation that most people adopt when trying to perfect their behavior.    Rather it is the Zen practice of “not-doing” that allows one to fulfill this vow; the “not doing” of spontaneously responding to what is in the moment, of improvisation grounded in years of practice. For a more,in-depth and lenthy theoretical/Zen/philosophical discussion of this topic, click on the FORUMs tab at the top of the page and see Discussion #3, COMMENT D.

For Hershock, “social viruosity” or “awakened conduct” consists of spontaneous responses to what is happening in the moment.  It is being present/awake/alive, in a way that also allows or encourages others the freedom to be present with the “business” of jointly carrying on their lives in ways that minimizes suffering.

“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.”

Howard Thurmond

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In comments on my post titled “Practicing Zen/Trumpet: Part 2”  Jiyu Roshi wrote the following: …….for practice to work you have to be open to the unexpected, either in an answer you’ve arrived at, or in whatever may be a new question to which you are trying to find an answer. It’s the unexpected which is reality and the reason for practicing.

This quote reminded me of something that happened at one of my trumpet lessons.  While Nathan, my teacher, and I were warming up before the lesson, he played an incredible complex exercise in the upper register.  I asked him how likely it was that he would ever encounter any written music where he would have to playing anything that complex.  He answered that it was very unlikely, but that since he played improvisational jazz, he wanted to be able to play whatever he was “hearing” during solos. ( He may have used the word “feeling” instead of “hearing”).

Nathan Mills

In playing jazz or other improvisational music, each piece has a distinct series of chords that provide a common structure for the musicians.  During a solo, the players are free to create their own melody as long as it fits with the chord progressions of the song and whatever they play is in harmony with what others in the band are doing.  In other words, each musician is free to spontaneously play whatever sounds right in the context of what everyone else in the group is doing.  Instantaneously, all the others in the band are responding to whatever is being created by the soloist.


It is through constant practice that the improviser prepares himself or herself to respond instantaneously to whatever others in the band are doing moment by moment. Accomplished improvisers will tell you that true improvisation is accomplished only after one has so thoroughly mastered their instrument that they no longer have the need to think or plan as they solo. But, having superb technique is not enough.  To learn to improvise, musicians must also throw themselves into musical situations where improvisation is expected.  This is beyond the comfort zone for most musicians and so is avoided, even by those who have superior musical skills.


Using the language developed in my past posts, we can say that jazz virtuosos are able to “be present-awake-alive” so that they can spontaneously do what is necessary to contribute to the  collective creation of the piece being performed.  It is this aspect of improvisation that Peter Hershock emphasizes when he attempts to use jazz improvisation as a metaphor for the enlightened or awaken Zen life. (“Liberating Intimacy: Enlightenment and Social Virtuosity in Ch’an Buddhism.”)

Rather than seeing Zen practice as an attempt to attain a special experience or state of consciousness, Hershock writes about enlightened or awakened conduct; a distinct “social virtuosity” which entails being attuned to the needs of others and being willing and able to respond in ways that allow for a harmonious social discourse.  He points out that while jazz musicians are provided a great deal of creative freedom, each is also oriented towards enhancing the overall quality of the band’s performance. But, this responsiveness is not calculated or rule-driven.   Rather it is based on a spontaneous and expanded awareness of what is needed, moment by moment, allowing the musical band to “pull off” it’s performance as a whole unit.

According to Hershock: “Whenever a solo appears, it is not conceived and then executed in seriality, but courses through the musician and his instrument, flowing from that unlocated, unlocateable source of the unexpected lying outside of every horizon, every name and form.”….This flow comes about when the musician stops checking, when he stops figuring out what to play and abandons the projection of the known, the hunger for closure, for sense.  ….The aim of improvisation is not to negotiate or regulate an agreement about how thing are, but rather the creation of a novel harmony through jointly articulating a new world- be it musical., poetic, choreographic or erotic. (pg. 76)


Note my underlining of the word “jointly” in the last line of this quote.  Whether we are talking about music or ordinary life we are always affecting and being affected by others.

Whenever an instrumentalist in a jazz group plays a solo, he or she is instantaneously influencing the other players, whose responses, in turn, help shape the direction of the solo.  At any moment something new or unplanned may appear and each musician, and the group as a whole, finds itself going in an unexpected directions.  When the musicians have practiced and mastered their instruments, the conditions (a balance between challenge and skill) that Csikszentimihalyi  says are necessary for “flow” can occur.  (See Are You a Flow Addict and So Can an Average Joe Learn to Flow).  When all the members of a band get into a flow state, it is often referred to as “getting into a groove” and I recall one musician describing that experience as “being the most fun a person can have with their pants on”.

In everyday life, change, and thus the unexpected, generally stems from other people around us.  Most social groups and even our personalities are geared towards reducing the unexpected and probably Zen’s most important insight into human behavior is that such efforts are fruitless and lead to suffering.  This leads us back to Roshi’s last point in the quote at the beginning of this essay: It’s the unexpected which is reality and the reason for practicing.

When we sit in Zazen, hour after hour, we observe that whatever or whoever we think we are changes from moment to moment.  We learn to see how change is the only constant and we learn how to simply flow with whatever is happening.  Working with a Zen Koan involves learning how to let go our ordinary ways of responding to problems and allowing ourselves to move into the realm of the “unexpected”.  Zen teachers have traditionally been known to respond enigmatically to questions from their students in order to thrust them out of the ordinary mode of consciousness.  The goal in all of these practices is to prepare the students to be comfortable with the unexpected, and thus, to be masters of improvisation.  This entails extending one’s comfort zone.


Some of you may be wondering what all of this has to do with the Buddhist vow of “saving all sentient beings” which is central to the Zen tradition.  I will offer an opinion on that  in Part 2.