SPIRITUALITY AND ART

Here are two articles that align themselves very well with the focus of Art and Zen Today.  One deals with visual art; the other with music.  I hope you enjoy them.

Meditations on canvas

By Ollie Reed Jr. / Journal Staff Writer
Sunday, November 26th, 2017 at 12:02am
Meditations on canvas

Titus O’Brien, assistant curator of art at the Albuquerque Museum, sits in front of two of the paintings he will highlight during the upcoming program, “The Zen of Abstraction.” Immediately behind O’Brien is Mark Rothko’s “Old Gold Over White.” At right is Kenzo Okada’s “Abstraction No. 7.” Both works are in the museum’s “When Modern Was Contemporary” show. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

 

Rooted in front of the 1957 Mark Tobey abstract titled “Lyric,” Titus O’Brien talked about the influence the Chinese art of calligraphy played in Tobey’s paintings.

Titus O'Brien talks about Mark Tobey's painting "Lyric," an example of the influence Chinese calligraphy played in the artist's workTitus O’Brien talks about Mark Tobey’s painting “Lyric,” an example of the influence Chinese calligraphy played in the artist’s work. O’Brien, an artist and a Zen instructor, will discuss the influence of Asian philosophies and religions on avant-garde painters of the 1940s to the 1960s. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“Many of his paintings are much more dense than this,” said O’Brien, assistant curator of art at the Albuquerque Museum. “Here there are no characters, no letters. The energy of the mark making, inspired by calligraphy, is the message. It is radically non-symbolic.”

Tobey’s painting, tempera on board, is among the 50 works in the Albuquerque Museum show “When Modern Was Contemporary,” which continues through Dec. 31.

“Lyric” is an uninhibited shout out of color – pale yellows, whites, squiggles of red, patches of olive green. The effect on O’Brien is to make him pause for a moment, to reflect.

“It’s painted in difficult colors, weird, strange colors, awkward colors,” he said. “I like paintings that resist you. They are sort of like Zen meditation. It’s not so easy to sit still.”

Integrated and engaged

In O’Brien’s view, all works of art should be objects of meditation. But he noted that this is especially so in the works by artists of the avant-garde movement of the 1940s to the 1960s – painters such as Tobey (1890-1976), Kenzo Okada (1902-1982), Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and the composer and music theorist John Cage (1912-1992). Unlike artists who poured out their souls onto their canvases, O’Brien said Tobey, Okada, Rothko and Pollock, all of whom have works in “When Modern Was Contemporary,” shifted the emphasis in their paintings from their own feelings to the objects depicted in the work.

Clarence Giese and Ingrid Vollnhofer check out Mark Rothko’s “Old Gold Over White,” left, and Kenzo Okada’s “Abstraction No. 7” during a recent visit to the Albuquerque MuseumClarence Giese and Ingrid Vollnhofer check out Mark Rothko’s “Old Gold Over White,” left, and Kenzo Okada’s “Abstraction No. 7” during a recent visit to the Albuquerque Museum.

He said that’s due in part to the fact that these trailblazers were very much influenced by Asian philosophies and religions, especially Zen Buddhism.

“Zen is about your whole body and your whole mind integrated and engaged,” he said. “Many of the artists in this exhibit were looking for ways to expand beyond materialism, consumerism and militarism. These artists are not depicting the world, they are organizing color, line and shape.”

On Saturday morning,O’Brien will lead a brief guided meditation followed by a tour of select works in “When Modern Was Contemporary.”

He is especially well suited to the task. He is an artist, a sculptor and a painter who does abstracts in casein (milk tempera). But he has also studied Zen for three decades and is an instructor in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. On most days, he meditates in the morning and again in the evening.

“My tradition is just sitting and allowing sensation and thought to arrive and depart without manipulation and engagement,” he said.

And that works just fine for looking at abstract paintings.

‘Here I am’

O’Brien, 50, grew up in Littleton, Colo., and early on was unsure as to what path he would follow.

“I had a grandfather who was a painter and a grandfather who was a biological scientist,” he said. “I wanted to be both. I was drawn to medicine, and I was also interested in anthropology. But the art won out in high school.”

He earned a bachelor of fine arts from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1991 and master of fine arts from the Yale University School of Art in 1993. He was introduced to Zen when composer Cage was a visiting professor in Kansas City in the late 1980s.

Cage was born in Los Angeles and died in Manhattan, but his major influences were East and South Asian cultures. Cage attended D.T. Suzuki’s lectures on Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s and early 1950s and used the ancient Chinese text the “I Ching’ as a tool for creating his musical compositions.

O’Brien attended lectures Cage presented in Kansas City and interacted with the composer during one of those sessions.

“He was saying really interesting stuff about the non-existence of the self,” O’Brien said. “I said, ‘What do you mean I don’t exist? Here I am.’ He said, ‘Yes, exactly. And what is that?’ My brain couldn’t make anything of it.

“He had this Cheshire cat smile and these twinkling eyes. It was a beautiful, transforming experience. I connected with him very strongly. He was a singular and radiant individual. He singled me out, and he started talking to me about Zen.”

While doing graduate work at Yale, O’Brien studied at the New Haven Zen Center. Between 1995 and 2000, he spent time at Zen centers in Rhode Island, Kentucky and Northern California.

“Now, I use the ‘I Ching’ to compose my paintings,” he said.

Organized activity

Just as Cage helped form O’Brien’s zeal for Zen, Tobey’s interest in Eastern religions – he converted to the Bahá’i faith – may have influenced Cage to some degree. The men were friends and Tobey studied piano and music theory with Cage. And there are those who suggest that Tobey’s oriental brushwork and calligraphic strokes prompted Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.

One of those Pollock paintings, “Number 8, 1949,” is in the show. O’Brien refers to the piece – a roiling, twisted mass of oil, enamel and aluminum paint on canvas – as organized activity.

“All art is a mediation between order and chaos,” he said. “But Pollock was clearly the most chaotic of his generation.”

But that doesn’t mean his work is not Zen.

“Zen tradition is full of rogues, raconteurs and radicals,” he said. “Zen is not just the eternally beatific, monks and monastics.”

Kenzo Okada was born in Yokohama, Japan, and was a realist painter before he moved to New York City in 1950.

“Then he got swept up in the heated, abstract atmosphere,” O’Brien said. Even so, his abstract paintings retain a powerful Japanese sensibility and appreciation of form. His 1953 oil on canvas, “Abstraction No. 7” is part of the exhibit. Large shapes and smaller ones stand out against a desert-sand background.

“Notice the numbered title,” O’Brien said. “You are not supposed to be able to tease out any kind of story. Clearly Okada wants you to view that painting on its own merits. You are approaching these elements in their relationship to each other. He leaves these sort of wonderful negative spaces – landscapes of the mind and heart.”

Floating in space

Okada and Rothko were friends. Did Okada’s Japanese-flavored abstracts influence Rothko? Maybe. Maybe not.

But Rothko’s 1956 oil on canvas, “Old Gold Over White,” might just be the most Zen work in the show. O’Brien describes the painting as hazy rectangles floating in space.

“Do you fall into them, or do they come out and get you?” he said. “The best description of Rothko’s paintings is meditative. They are not promoting any Zen doctrine. They are just inviting you to meditate on them, on your experience with them.

“You can come back to a Rothko painting forever and have different experiences each time. You can say the same of Zen meditation.”

If you go
WHAT: “The Zen of Abstraction.” Art curator and Zen practitioner Titus O’Brien guides visitors through a brief meditation, followed by a tour.
WHEN: 10-11:15 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 2
WHERE: Albuquerque Museum, 2000 Mountain NW
COST: Program is free with regular museum admission of $1-$4.

 

 

 

 

 

A Few Questions (New blog article)

Paint as you like and die happy
– Henry MillierAchieving success and fulfillment as an artist takes more than hard work. It requires the:
* Perception to see your world (inner and outer) as it is
* Discernment to choose a course of action
* Focus to stay the courseThe following questions may help you find this perception, discernment, and focus. Write down your answers in a journal. Some of the challenging questions will ask you to dig deep.
* When are you fully self-expressed and connected as a musician?
+ Identify specific moments. Where were you? Who were you playing with? Who was in the audience? What did the music sound like?
+ How can design more of these experiences?* What artists/performances/recordings most resonate with you at a core level? Art that flips a switch emotionally and/or spiritually.* Does the music you play resonate in the same way?
* If not, what can you change about your practice to connect with your own music on a deeper level?

* Imagine yourself ten years from now playing ideal music under perfect conditions. Where are you? Who is there? What does it sound like? What’s stopping you from doing this right now?

* Choose your audience: Who are the people who will connect and resonate with the music you create? What do they value? What type of experience do the seek? Where do they connect with each other?

* If you never performed again, who would miss you?

* What limiting beliefs get in your way? These biases and narratives may be hard to uncover, because they can be ingrained into our view of the world. A few examples:
+ I’m not naturally talented enough to ______  (a.k.a. “fixed mindset” (https://stevetres.us7.list-manage.com/track/click?u=e48deb90ce850347108686725&id=1c3a55781d&e=ae2503bdd2) )
+ I’ll never be as good as ______, so why bother
+ “Work” is inherently unenjoyable
+ Artists can’t earn a good living without selling out

* In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield outlines strategies for fighting “the resistance”—our biological need to feel safe and secure. This can sabotage our art. How does the resistance interfering with your best work? Some examples:
+ Talking yourself out of a project because of the fear of failure
+ Avoiding listening to recordings/watching film of your performances
+ Stage fright
+ Obsessive perfectionism
+ Procrastinating because you don’t “feel ready”

* Have you defined success and fulfillment for yourself, or are you stuffing your journey into somebody else’s model/expectations?
* If money wasn’t a barrier, what projects would you initiate?
* What’s an exciting project you initiate with little or no cost?

Ignore the resistance and start now.

– ST

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Comments:

 Thanks for sharing this.  It’s funny, looking back at how I began to appreciate art, I took a similar approach. I was drawn to abstract and minimal art because it allowed space for viewer to enter the work without the need for historical contextualization or symbolic analysis.  Rothko and Ad Reinhardt were influential for me.  Have you been to the Rothko chapel?  Definitely worth it if you haven’t.
     Great website. I will look forward to future posts. Hope all is well.
A.
—————————————————————————————
That was beautifully said.

Thank you for sharing it with us.
D.
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Thanks Steve for posting these articles!

I’d love to go see the exhibit in Albuquerque.
G.

“WHAT WAS IT? ” NEW RELEASE BY WILSON BROS/SHRINK WRAP

 

“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:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=eF-Qhm306w0&t=7s

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.
Thanks,
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!

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artandzentoday@

RIDE THE SOUND CURRENT: NEW MUSIC FROM SHRINK WRAP

     “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.

 

BOOKS

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.

 ONLINE SOURCES

3 Reasons to Listen to Music Mindfully

http://www.wildmind.org/background/can-anyone-meditate/music

Mindfulness, Music Appreciation and Empathy

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-groneman/mindfulness-practice_b_3894331.html

Video on Listening Meditation by Stephen Batchelor

http://www.stephenbatchelor.org/index.php/en/guided-meditation-on-listening

 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

An Incantation to Time’s Disintegration of Memory: The Art of Gwyn Henry

 

Sudie by Gwyn Henry

I often feature artistists whose work seems to exemplify the perspectives on  art and spirtiual practices that I have developed over the years on this site.  As I have pointed out in previous posts, art practice can often be meditative in nature but it also seems to inevitable bring up “issues” which, if faced fully, can be transformitive.  A good example of this, I think, can be found in the work of Gwyn Henry of Excondido CA.  This post consists of a video, a series of images and a short statement  by Gwyn.  My suggestion is that you watch her short video first and then scroll down to see the still images and her account of how her work has evolved.       http://choctaw44.wixsite.com/gwynart

 

 

 Click on link to see Video by Gwyn Henry:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIKNnFjtKac&feature=youtu.be

 

“An Incantation to Time’s Disintegration of Memory”

                         by Gwyn Henry

When I acquired software that allowed my computer to communicate with an old-school VCR player, I was eager to put my parents’ vintage home movie footage into my film editing application for viewing. The footage was in VHS cassette format, and had been stored for over half a century. Once the frames began to move in front of me, I suddenly became aware of, and shocked by, the way those cherished images of my childhood, were decomposing. They had become a chaos of fragments, like shards from a broken mirror…. a disembodied head here, an arm there, torsos flitting briefly across the sceene. What images were still discernable held striations, static, their colors fading fast, and large sections were already and simply gone.

This disintegration struck me as a profound metaphor for what happens to human memories. In the same way one might discover, years after a loved one dies, calling their face to mind has become strangely impossible; or we have forgotten the ending of one of our life’s important narratives; or have confused one long-ago friend with another…

 

Watching my childhood flicker and sputter before me, it was as if the most fundamental connections to other humans… my parents, grandparents, brother, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins… were literally, before my eyes, saying good by, breaking up & vanishing. More than a few times I reached to touch the screen, as if to stay them, as if I could hold them in my hand to keep them from leaving.

 

Yet even as I experienced this human aversion to the way Nature imposes a time limit on the stuff of this world, I must admit to finding Beauty within that disintegration and vanishment. The nascent Images of my life, preserved by this outmoded technology, reveal an eloquence that speaks to many things: the fading of the history of our lives as it exists in memory, the temporary nature of our lives, the physical decay of the tapes themselves, and just as much, the conceptual worlds of technologies that come and go with the quickness of ephemera: Today’s high-cachet iphone is tomorrow’s rubbish.

Immersed in making video art at the time, I created and produced a “video poem” from the home movie footage, presenting the images as art as well as artifact. The video poem was intended to be an abstraction, or embodiment, of the essential qualities of my discovery of the connection between the loss of memory, and the loss of the vintage tapes. An attempt to show the way I experienced it. It is titled, AN INCANTATION TO

 

TIME’S DISINTEGRATION OF MEMORY.

A few years later, I revisited the video poem, which resulted in me excising single frames, “stills”, from it (perhaps, unknowingly, another attempt to keep the images from disappearing!). After adding more digital effects, then printing and framing them, to my surprise they became icon-like in their stillness, images frozen for contemplation. Like icons, they offer entry to the world of the subject (my family and my childhood).. a world where discovery and revelation can be found and explored.

I have determined that not only traditional religious icons can lead to revelation. A single human life also encompasses its own world of personal iconic images which, if entered, offers a path to deeper knowledge and understanding of that individual world. Those images can allow us to see and feel even more keenly what we have lived.

—Gwyn

NOTE:

Some of the images carry a visual conversation between my inked traces, and the landscape of the image. I found this process to be meditative, and evocative of feelings and impressions that were often beyond words. Each ended with a sense of a completed entirety….something had been brought full circle. –g,

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1) “wow, I felt it as a dissolution of the Self…
thank you for this Steve”  A.

2)

Thanks for that Steve… I don’t often take the time to ponder and reflect regarding where I have been and where I am going as a result of where I have been… Yet, when I do, very much like Gwyn, I am apt to walk through doors which have been closed for years or perhaps doors that I never even stood in front of before – Deep stuff, my man!!! again, thanks for sharing.  S.
3)

I know Gwyn.
Jon

 

REMEMBER TO FORGET THE SELF

In my last blog (some time in the distant past) I promised to delve further into the topic of active or mindful listening.  I still want to do this but in the meantime, this music video came about (see  below).  It was inspired, in part, through reading Zen Master Dogen, but it is not necessarily a “zen video”.  Like everything else (art or otherwise) this video is something that is available for engaging mindfully if you want to.  It’s up to you.  I’d suggest using stereo headphones and watching when you are not busy with other stuff.

 

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WOULD YOU MIND WAlKING THIS WAY?

“Would You Mind Walking this Way?” is the latest video produced by Art and Zen Today and the One Mind Artist Coalition.  It speaks to the notion of being on what is variously referred to as an “inner journey”, a “trip” or a “Path”.  What I tried to convey in this video is that the Path entails  being in the moment while on the journey, no matter where it takes us.  The idea is to let go of concerns of where we are going or when we are going to get there and become fully immersed in the journey itself.  To do this we must let go of excessive conceptualization and allow the shift away from left brain processes that I spoke of in the previous post (Music, Trance and  Mindfulness ).  Although most of us have had experiences involving this type of shift, it is often not a comfortable one because it may feel that our sense of being in control,( which is the basis of our sense of self), is being lost (see previous blog post).  To find earlier posts on “left-brain process” or other concepts, use as key words in the search engine of this site at the top of the page.

On the other hand, when we allow such experiences to happen, it can often be quite liberating; liberating in the sense that one learns that there are other ways of being that are free of stress and strife.  I remember my father, who one health professional described  as a “Type Triple A Personality”, telling me about having  such an experience while on vacation in Puerto Rico.  He found that, even far away from his practice (he was an M.D), he could not stop thinking about his work.  According to him, after several days of not being able to relax, my mother gave him a pencil and pad and told him to go draw something on the beach.  This, he told me, finally allowed him  to “let go” of his thoughts, be more fully present and he enjoyed the remainder of his vacation.  As he told me this story, it was clear from his voice and the tears in his eyes that this had been a major “realization” in his life.

The roots of the word “vacation” are variously described as “free of occupation” and “to be empty”.  In my Dad’s case he was “preoccupied” with thoughts about his work and unable to experience his moments on the beach and elsewhere in Puerto Rico by being fully there.  Ideally, the novelty of the places we visit on vacation allow us to become fully present and this can only happen by “forgetting” our left-brain/self-sustaining thoughts.  This is why, I think, that Dogen famously wrote that “to study the Buddha Way is to forget the self” and why Csikszentimihali said that “flow experiences” happen when we forget the “conceptual  self, but not what Langer calls the “experiencing self”.

In Zen, sitting mediation is the key practice in studying the Buddha Way; the way of reality-i.e. being with whatever is happening in your life rather than what you want to be happening.  Zazen may be thought of as a practice time where one goes on a brief vacation under conditions that facilitate practicing the difficult task of “vacating” or “emptying”. But, Zen, along with other Spiritual disciplines also emphasize the need to eventually extend this practice into all aspects of life.  One way this has been emphasized in Zen is by incorporating “kinhin” or “walking meditation” into the routines of those practicing sitting meditation.   When correctly practicing walking meditation one is fully absorbed in the waking process with no thought of going anywhere.  When you watch the video look for instances of such mindful walking; the title of the video alludes to such mindfulness. The music that accompanies this video is a remix of the song “Caravan”, which is a jazz standard composed by Juan Tizol and first performed by Duke Ellington in 1936.   See the video below.

To leave a comment, click on the white bubble at the right of the title.  To make an anonymous comment, write “anonymous” when prompted for a name.  You can also send comments to me directly.  To avoid robo-spam, comments are not allowed after two weeks of the article being posted.  To comment on older posts, respond to the current post and reference which article you are writing about.

DRONOLOGY 101: TONGUE IN CHEEK – DROOL ON DESK

A Didgeridoo; a droning wind instrument developed by Indigenous Austrailians

The Drones are coming!  The Drones are coming!  The video below called “Dronology 101: Tongue in Cheek – Drool on Desk” is the first attack.

 As you know my recent posts have been about the general topic of mindful listening.  One thread of this exploration will entail playing with the nature of “drones” and how they relate to mindful listening. What kind of drones am I talking about? The dictionary provides a number of definitions for this term, some of which I’ve listed below.

 1. an unmanned aircraft that can navigate autonomously.

2. a low monotonous sound; hum or buzz

3.  to speak in a monotonous tone

4. to proceed in a dull, monotonous manner.

5.  a continuous low tone produced by a musical instrument like bagpipes.

6.  a genre of music using drone like instruments.

7.  the male of  the honeybee, stingless and making no honey.

8. a person who lives on the labor of others; a drudge.

 Well, the answer is that I will most likely end up touching on all of these forms of drones.  However, my investigation will always focus on musical droning. 

Drone music is a minimalist style, that emphasizes the use of sustained or repeated sound, notes, or tone-clusters-called drones.  It is typically characterized by lengthy audio programs with relatively slight harmonic variations.  Some examples of ethnic or spiritual music which contains drones includes bagpipe traditions, didgeridoo music in Australia, South Indian classical music, Japanese Gagaku tradition, and medieval European chants.  Today, drone music is primarily created using digital processes; check out the online station, The Drone Zone at Soma FM.

The fact that this form of music, both traditional and contemporary, is seen as having a spiritual or consciousness- altering effect makes me wonder whether it can help induce what I have been calling “mindful listening”.  This is of interest to me because typically, any sound that is unvarying can certainly induce boredom or sleepiness. Is it, I wonder, possible to produce art that has elements of this repetitiveness and monotony and still provide opportunities for the audience to attend mindfully?  At this point I am not sure of the answer and so future posts will play with this question.  As always, your comments will help with my investigation.

 It seems appropriate to begin with the short music video which I have titled “Dronology 101- Tongue in Cheek – Drool on Desk.  Let me know what your experience of this piece was like in the Reply Box. Be sure to turn up your volume and for better results use stereo speakers or headphones.

 In case you were wondering about the phrase “Drool on Desk”, check out the wonderful film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. 

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HAIKU IN FOUR SEASONS

Today’s post features a video entitled “Haiku In Four Seasons” by James Wilson.

A traditional Japanese haiku is a three-line poem with seventeen syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count. Often focusing on images from nature, haiku emphasizes simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression. Although not all original haiku poets were Zen adherents, some of those considered to be the best were. 

Zen is a school of Buddhism concerned with the cultivation of a profound down-to-earth awareness of this ‘suchness’, unmediated by doctrine or other concepts. Haiku are the most thoroughgoing expression of literary Zen. They are also one of the several meditative ‘Ways’ (like calligraphy and the minimal ink paintings, zenga and haiga) whose form both gives expression to insight and helps to deepen it.

The ‘haiku moment’ is thus no less than a tiny flash of an ultimate reality which in fact is just what is under our noses. These brief poems also distill what is the essential “truth” of Zen; namely that all is impermanent.

This theme is clear in the video below, which adds music and visuals to spoken words.  Enjoy!

 

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NEITHER HERE NOR THERE AT THE COYOTE BAR AND GRILL

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.

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(http://www.npr.org/2013/08/20/213551358/how-to-win-that-music-competition-send-a-video)

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.”

 http://www.wikihow.com/Have-Presence

 

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.

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 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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WHAT IS PERFECTION IN ART AND ZEN?

 

 

Since the publication of “Evolution of The Adagio – a therapeutic motion machine” there has been quite a bit of discussion about the importance of the Golden Ratio in the creation of art and music ( see “Truth , and Faith and B. S. in Art and Zen”).  The advocates of this approach contend  that art based on the proportions called the Golden ratio is somehow more aesthetically perfect or pleasing than others.  One of my readers, Charlie from Massachusetts, suggested that we do a little experiment on Art and Zen Today to test that idea.  I thought that sounded like fun and so asked Charlie to work on that for this Post.  After the experimental quiz, found below, I have added a few comments about how all of this could be seen as related to Zen practice.  The “right answers” to the quiz are contained in my comments.

Thanks Charlie for your contribution.

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Since the series of post on the Golden Ratio I have consciously looked at objects to see whether or not I found those based on the Ratio to be more asthetically pleasing.  For instance, I went through a couple stores with my wife and I started seeing things in the stores through a prism of the golden rectangle. For example there was a sox display in the shape of the golden rectangle, a bench in the entryway to a store. and a couple other things. I kept saying to myself—is that shaped correctly? I think there is something to it.  Maybe the Renaissance was a more enlightened time—they were more in tune with a sense of beauty. Today few people care about whether things are shaped correctly to achieve a balance.”  I thought it might be interesting for your readers to see whether or not objects based on Golden Ratio were more pleasing to them.

In his article James took a wider view and discussed many applications of the golden mean. Here, I’m only focusing on the appearance of the front view of standing furniture. And now, starting from the very beginning, what is a golden rectangle? It’s a rectangle standing up like a sign whose width is 1.618 times bigger than the side. See below.

Ratio of Height to Width is .61 (Golden Mean)

The next image shows a man looking at a golden rectangle. According to the artists from the past, we should appreciate that the golden rectangle is a more pleasing to the eye than other rectangles.

Looking only at the front of a piece of furniture, let’s say, a bench (see below); someone may be able to convince you that a bench built to the dimensions of the golden ratio looks more pleasing than a wider one or a narrower version of the same bench.  To illustrate that, we see below a golden rectangle placed in back of a bench. You can see that the bench matches the golden rectangle—same width, same height off the floor. The front view of the bench is built to the dimensions of the golden rectangle.

The Bench is same proportion as Golden Ratio

 

Now, test your own preferences of what you think is more pleasing. Below are three pairs of furniture.  Without much thought, choose the one you find most pleasing.  Then check below to see if you picked those that were built to the dimensions of the golden ratio.  Make your choices before checking the answers below.

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When I took Charlie’s test, I choose the furniture that conformed to the Golden Ratio in two of the three sets.  I could imagine making other choices if the objects had varied in color, decoration or if I had to place the furniture in a spot with unique space requirements.  In other words, I am guessing that the “ideal” specified by the mathematics of the Golden Ratio, may have some validity but the “pull” towards this notion of what is aesthetically pleasing is not a strong one.  A study by psychologists McManus, Cook and Hunt seems to back up this view ( See “Beyond the Golden Section and Normative Aesthetics: Why Do IndividualsDiffer so Much in Their Aesthetic Preferences for Rectangles?”)

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/medical-education/publications/Reprints2010/2010-PACA-BeyondTheGoldenSection.pdf

In all three cases, the pieces on the right were proportioned in accord with the Golden Ratio.  I’d be very interested in how you did and what your process was like.  Any ideas on this topic would be welcomed. Take the time to write a comment.

Speaking of ideals, I just happened to have just finished reading Dale Wright’s The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character.   Wright sees the six perfections ( generosity, morality, tolerance, energy , mediation and wisdom) as traits which, throughout the evolution of Buddhist thought, have been seen as the most important and useful in defining or describing the “enlightened person”.  These ideals are understood to be those towards which practitioners should strive.  Although Wright provides the reader with a sense of how and why these “perfections” or ideals evolved over time, he also offers a critique of each and asks how our understanding of each should change to fit with our contemporary lifestyles. 

Wright points out that in the West, values are largely based on a Platonic tendency to see ideals as “timeless, fixed forms to which human lives must conform”(pg. 270).   I think this is true for many adherents of the “golden ratio” theory of aesthetics, who seem to be looking for an objective unchanging notion of what is beautiful.  Wright points out some difficulties with this approach:

What Plato did not see, or was not able to concede, is that human history is the story of the unfolding of visions of “the good, the true, and the beautiful” as they have come to be experienced throughout the variegated history of human cultures.  Rather than being fixed in character and given to us in advance of our quest, these ideals stand out ahead of us as the horizons that inspire our striving and that recede into the future as we approach them……..   “Enlightenment” and all of its components, from generosity to wisdom, are moving targets” (pg. 270)

Charlie may have been on to something when he seemed to suggest above that during the   Renaissance the allure of the Golden Ratio may have been stronger. In that artists and craftspersons during that time would have been well advised to utilize this ideal in their creations.

 In TRUTH AND FAITH AND “B.S.” IN ART AND ZEN, James suggests that without accepting the “truth” of theories that specify aesthetic ideals, they can be used as  jumping off points for creative endeavors.  I believe that the same may be said for schemes like the “six perfections” in the realm of spiritual transformation.  Wright suggest that in practices like Zen, students need some sense of what they are doing  (“the idea of enlightenment”),  and this requires the same sort of imagination that is essential to the creativity of artists and innovative thinkers. (see “HOW CREATIVITY WORKS”).  [ By the way, he differentiates between imagination and fantasy; in the latter we may entertain possibilities for the future but "they are not our possibilities". (pg.211)  He points out that existing (traditional) theories, whether they  deal with aesthetic ideals or ideals of personal traits,should not be blindly followed.  But, he also says that we should not throw them out.   According to Wright:

We understand only by virtue of standing within and upon traditions of understanding……The role of traditions, therefore…………..is to provide points of departure for advancing into the future.  Creative thinking does not overthrow the past so much as stand upon it and use it for purposes of renewal, continually amending, rethinking, and reconstituting ideals suitable for current circumstances.  (pg. 211)

Whether creating a new painting, piece of music, a new garden, a new job project or an new life, it makes sense to pay attention to what has come before us and mindfully use this knowledge as we respond  to our present circumstances. 

Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.
Winston Churchill


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