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.



 Click on link to see Video by Gwyn Henry:


“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



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.



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.


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.

I know Gwyn.



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?” 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.

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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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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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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:

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

 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” (

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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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.



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.




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?”)

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………… 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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The quote above was embedded in my post “Mindfulness Wars: Langer Versus Buddha?”  It was not until I was proofreading the post that I realized how profound these 5 sentences were.   Interestingly, Jiyu Roshi used this quote as a basis for a talk at the Vista Zen Center a few days after the post had been published and  I found myself feeling a bit embarrassed as I had not printed author’s name, mainly because I did not take the time to look for it.  I later learned that the quote is attributed to Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, whose excellent book “Mindfulness In Plain English” I had read years ago. 

In “Mindfulness Wars”, I described  mindfulness training as a process where one learns to catch themselves (“remembering to remember”) as they drift into prolonged thought-sequences and then refocus their attention on internal  sensations. (See Creative Refocusing)  This kind of training may be viewed as one where a person learns to “awaken” themselves again and again from the “sleep” or “hypnosis” of ordinary consciousness which consists primarily of what might be called “internal dialogue”.  These internal dialogues are necessarily oriented towards either past or future experiences and to the extent that we can awaken ourselves, however briefly, we become aware of (or are in) the present moment as experienced through our somatic awareness. (see The Artist is Present)

Through meditation or some other form of mindfulness training, one can learn, over time, to also “awaken” more often in the midst of daily activities and interactions.  So the “time” that Guraratana is speaking of in the above quote, is the spit second that one gains when momentarily remembering/catching/awakening themselves before reacting automatically and mindlessly to whatever is going on around them.  This split second allows for a consideration of the consequences (for oneself and others) of any mindless reactions and for a creative (i.e. new ) response instead.  This is the choice that Guraratana says is won when we have time to mindfully consider our responses to what is happening to us in any moment.

Although, as seen in “Mindfulness Wars”, Langer’s approach to mindfulness is slightly different, the above description seems consistent with how she describes personal “reinvention” through engaging oneself in various artistic pursuits.  Late in the book is a Chapter entitled ” The Mindful Choice” which begins with a quote from Picasso saying ” I don’t know in advance what I am going to put on canvas any more than I decide beforehand what colors I am going to use”Langer goes on to say the following:

It’s time to get started.  Now that we understand that we shouldn’t worry about what other will think about our first painting, poem, or whatever it is we choose to do, that comparing ourselves with others is not in our best interest, that talent is not necessary, in short, that we are going to engage our creativity mindfully, it is time to go to the store and get whatever we need.  Once we are there however, the simple task of getting ready often quickly becomes daunting.  How do we decide what we need  ….In the face of such uncertainty, we perhaps ought to pay close attention to Picasso’s words, if we are to proceed mindfully, perhaps we shouldn’t be interested in knowing the answers to these question in advance.  We should just buy whatever colors appeal to us, whatever bushes we think interesting, and some surface on which to paint.  (pg. 212)


The remainder of her chapter echoes this same advice – decisions are made in ignorance because if we knew what to do we would just do it. Decisions are problematic, says Langer only when we think that we should know, up front, what the right choice is. She goes on to provide an interesting  analysis ( too lengthy to discuss in detail here) of what occurs during decision-making.  The essence of what she says sounds very Buddhist, although she eschews Buddhist terminology.  Her main point is that since we never can know the outcome of any decision we make and since conditions are constantly changing, the best we can do is make whatever decision is called for based on whatever information we have at hand and whatever makes sense to us in the moment.  So, whether we are talking about creating art or any other areas of life, we can always make new decisions based on whatever is happening in that later moment.  Langer argues that neither forestalling decisions (deliberating endlessly with the hope that new information will become available) nor automatically relying on some external rule or advice encourage mindful living.

At one point Langer declares “For some people , then decision-making is not stressful at all, because they are content with whatever consequences result” (pg. 217) .  This, and other comments, sounds very much like they are expressing the Buddhist ideal of equanimity; that is, not being attached to certain outcomes. A famous Chinese Zen poem begins with the line “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences”.  (Third Ch’an Patriarch Chien-chih Seng-ts’an)  Langer would probably say that letting go of comparing oneself with others, and concerns about how one is being evaluated will lead to one taking themselves “less seriously” and thus, less concerned about always making the “right” decision or choice.

Based on my own experiences with painting, I agree with Langer that this type of activity can  help one to learn not to take things so seriously.  So-called “mistakes” (i.e. “bad” decisions”) can often lead  to later decisions that result in one going in directions never imaged. Furthermore, one can always white-out the canvas and simply begin again, hopefully having learned something from the so called “mistake”.   To the extent that one can gradually drop concerns about how well one is doing according to some set of arbitrary external standards, one can let go and enjoy the process of creating and any choices or decisions that need to be made can become less stressful.

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I want to reiterate what I said in “Mindfulness Wars”.  The process that Langer refers to as “Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity” can be strengthened  by the kind of mindfulness meditation recommended by Gunaratana in “Mindfulness in Plain English


In the long Langer quote, printed above, she seems to suggest that after reading the earlier chapters on letting go of self-evaluation and various anxieties about our creative practice, the reader should now be ready to dive in and start creating mindfully.  But her next sentence suggests that she knows it is not that easy.  Having painted for a period of ten years, I can attest to the fact that every time I approach my studio, I am confronted (i.e. I confront myself) with all sorts of thoughts and worries that can undermined the enjoyment of painting as well as restrict my creativity.


 I have read interviews with artists of all sorts and have concluded that such thoughts and worries are simply part of the creative process.  I believe, along with Langer,  that simply engaging in artistic practices for a long period of time can help a practitioner  learn to live with this fact.  But, I also believe that daily mindfulness training can facilitate and deepen this process. 


The time that Gunaratana says is gained when we practice mindfulness can allow us to nip in the bud all the creativity-defeating thoughts such as those covered in Langer’s early chapters.  These kinds of thoughts infuse themselves into all aspects of our lives and it may seem surprising that they appear even when we are engaged in activities that we love to do.  I would suggest however, that it may be easier to become mindful about them, and eventually let go of them, when we are doing things we are passionate about.

In the literature promoting mindfulness training, authors commonly emphasize how the practitioner can use the time gained in mindfulness to re-channel  angry reactions into responses that lead to less suffering for themselves and others.  I do not think that it is far fetched to consider such redirection as a form of mindful creativity since the alternative, bought by time, allow for a novel response.  Pairing daily mindfulness training with a mindful approach to fun activities, such as the arts, can provide a practicum of sorts for developing creative mindfulness in the widest sense of the term.  Here one may learn how to extend his or her mindfulness training into activities which require moment by moment decision-making.  By learning to “gain time” through practicing mindfulness in such situations, the practitioner is also gaining skills that can be used in situations where the consequences of his or her choices are perceived as being more “serious.  And, there is reason to believe that the time necessary to make skillful choices diminishes with mindfulness practice (see “Yeah Man: Improvisation in Jazz, Comedy and Zen).

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Mindfulness Wars: Langer Versus Buddha?

Reading this post might make you more mindful.  Here is how.  The term “mindfulness” is used differently by Langer and by those in the Buddhist tradition.  Langer says one way to become more mindful is to see “similarities in things thought different and the differences in things taken to be similar” (pg. 16, On Becoming An Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity).  Here is an opportunity for you to play with that notion and hopefully become more mindful.  Or, you could choose, mindfully of course, to check out what has gone viral on YouTube today.

In my last blog post I described the Genjo Practice at the Vista Zen Center as having certain parallels to Ellen Langer’s “program” for “personal reinvention”.  The arts have long been associated with Zen practice and, although I don’t have any hard evidence to support this, I suspect that these art practices have been used as sort of a practicum where Zen Monks could apply what they learn sitting on a cushion to everyday life.  As Langer points out, learning to make mindful choices is easier when these choices are regarding activities that are seen as not having “serious” consequences. (See last blog).  I also asserted my belief that engagement in so called non-serious activities as a way of developing creative mindfulness is likely to be more effective (at least for most people) if carried out as a complement to more formal meditation practice. 

Is the glass half mindful or half mindless?

Here, I want to lay out why I think this may be the case, but to do so I need to deal with the fact that not everyone agrees on what the term “mindfulness” means.  Almost every contemporary review of the mindfulness literature suggests that Langer’s concept and that developed within the context of Buddhism are not the same.

For Langer, creative mindfulness is a way of making choices that are not determined by from old established “rules, routines and mind-sets” (pg.16) , to use her words.  She recognizes that her understanding of the concept has some relationship to the term “mindfulness” as it has developed in the Buddhist tradition but does not feel that two are the same.  According to Langer:

“For me the two way of  becoming mindful are not at odds with each other.  Becoming more mindful does not involve achieving some altered stat of consciousness through year of meditation.  It requires, rather, learning to switch modes of thinking about ourselves and the world.  It is very easy to learn to be mindful, which makes doing so appealing to those unwilling to sit for twenty minutes twice a day.  Mindfulness is simply the process of noticing new things.” (pg. 16)

I am not certain why Langer associates Buddhist mindfulness practice with “altered states of consciousness, unless she sees what I have been referring to in this blog as being “alive/awake/present” as an altered stated.  In some way it is an altered state in the sense that most of us, most of the time are not fully alive/awake/present.  Yet as I look throughout Langer’s book, it seems to me that when she describes people acting mindfully, she is describing precisely someone who is alive/awake/present and so is talking about the same thing that I see as the ideal of most spiritual disciplines.

When Langer writes about her (and others’) experiences when she started creating art, she uses terms like “enlivening”, “engaging” “being there” and “being fully present” as she describes mindfully making choices required in such projects.  She presents evidence from experiments that suggest that engaging in mindful creativity leads to the creators to feel more “authentic, and prompts others to perceive the mindful creators as more “charismatic” and their creations as “more interesting”.  All of this suggests that Langer’s concept of mindfulness is closely related, if not the same as what I have been referring to as being alive/awake/present. Since I see becoming more alive/awake/present as being the ideal of the kinds meditation practices that have been associated with Buddhism, including Zen, I would suggest that the process Langer calls “Reinventing Yourself through Mindful Creativity” is in accord with this ideal.

Langer argues that immersing oneself in a creative practice , like painting, can lead to a gradual development (“Reinventing Yourself”) of mindfulness in all areas of one’s life.  I do not dispute this possibility but would suggest that for many people, the generalization of mindfulness into other aspects of life will be limited.  One need only point to the biographies of numerous creative people who also lead miserable self-destructive lives as evidence to support my contention.  I also know from my own experience that simply doing art does not generally make one consistently mindful in either art or other areas of life.  I am also aware of many people who have taken up an artistic practice and are satisfied to produce pieces over and over again, that may display their new-found skills, but not much in the way of “mindful creativity”. This is why I suggested in my last post that for most people a creative practice, as prescribed by Langer,  plus mindfulness meditation/training would be more effective in leading to the development of more widespread and consistent mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation is the central practice in the Hinayana  branch of Buddhism and these techniques have recently found their way into Western psychotherapy.   Kabat-Zinn, who has been a leader in this development defines “mindfulness as :”the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment — non-judgmentally.”  There are various techniques for doing this but they all require setting aside a time for a meditative practice in order to foster and learn to consistently apply this purpose.  The Zen literature does not often use the term “mindfulness” but it seems to me that the practice of Zazen, often referred to as “just sitting” also fosters this non-evaluative attention that Kabut-Zinn describes above. 

Kabut-Zinn goes on to say: 

Mindfulness isn’t about getting your way or meditating so that you can be better at something. My definition of healing is coming to terms with things as they are, so that you can do whatever you can to optimize your potential, whether you are living with chronic pain or having a baby. You can’t control the universe, so mindfulness involves learning to cultivate wisdom and equanimity— not passive resignation—in the face of what Zorba the Greek called the full catastrophe of the human condition.

Read more:

This sounds very much as a way of describing the ideals of Zen as well as those put forth by Langer.  Langer’s work seems to focus on making decisions that are based on being awake/alive/present, while the meditation routines described as mindfulness training and Zazen, may be seen as a practice for acquiring the micro-skills necessary to learn to become awake/alive/present moment by moment.  One way of thinking about what happens in mindfulness training is that one acquires the skills to awaken or enliven themselves over and over again in meditation, when demands are few, with the idea that eventually these skills will “spill over” into more active situations.

 In Zazen and other mindfulness meditation practices, the practioner learns to “catch” themselves as they drift off into protracted thought-trains and learn to refocus their attention on bodily sensations that are happening in the moment.  In earlier articles I referred to this as “remembering to remember”.   Having such skill would help immensely in making the kind of mindful decisions that Langer calls for in her book.

In comparing Langer’s notion of “mindfulness” with how that term is used in Buddhist meditation and the subsequent uses in Western therapy, Scott Bishop says the following”

Langer’s mindfulness involves the active construction of new categories and meaning when one pays attention to the stimulus properties of primarily external situations.  While our own definition emphasizes the inhibition of such elaborate processes as one pays attention to primarily internal stimuli (thoughts , feeling and sensations).  Bishop et. al.   pg. 6 (.

I think it is possible to see the interconnection between these two facets of mindfulness if we remember that creativity involves dropping old ideas or approaches as well as developing new ones.  The literature on creativity shows again and again that new ideas and solutions are most likely to develop when we stop engaging in rational thought processes See( Sudden Insight)

What is learned in mindfulness training is how to let go of old persisting thoughts, ideas, rules, mind-sets etc. by expanding one’s awareness into the somatic realm, as described by in To Know Flow or No Flow. This form of meditation is sometimes referred to as “insight meditation.”  The idea here is that new ways of seeing things can result from letting go of thoughts, mirroring the results of studies in the creativity literature.(Sudden Insight and Creativity)

In previous posts on refocusing and reframing, I argued that this skill makes in easier for people to make creative choices in everday situations.  So someone who has consistently honed the ability to “drop” out of the “thought realm” and into the “realm of bodily sensations” by practicing meditation, should have an advantage of making mindful decisions in the heat of everyday life, whether making art or making a living.

 Langer’s focus seems to be on what happens when people are actively engaged in daily activities and does not really write about the mechanism of “letting go” that is the essence of  mindfulness training.  Yet, if you look closely at what she says, there is nothing to contradict or dispute the importance of this “letting go”.  In fact she speaks directly about the importance of dropping social comparisons and subsequent self evaluations, – a process she describes as replacing our “evaluating self” with our “experiencing self”.  This latter term seems to refer to our innate capabilities to pay attention to the kind somatic awareness that is emphasized in mindfulness training/meditation.  What she is writing about here is the importance of becoming “non-judgmental” in the same sense as practiced in the daily  practice of mindfulness meditation/training (see Kabat-Zinn’s quote earlier).

In her experiments Langer prompts some subjects into becoming more mindful by asking them to look for things that they would not  otherwise look for before making decisions.  Langer’s assumption is that by engaging in artistic pursuits, people can learn to do this on their own.  I believe that this can happen but have doubts about often and how consistently the general population will be able to learn to “awaken” themselves from being caught up in old habitual thought forms so they can discover mindfully creative solutions to everyday problems.

I believe that some people may naturally have developed these self-awakening skills naturally. and find it easy to move mindfully into new activities with no need for mindfulness training.  However, most of us have not   I suspect that Langer is one of those who may not feel the need from a daily regime of mindfulness training based on what she says in the quote below (and others in the book)–which would help explain why she has little interest in meditation practice:

To my good fortune, I’ve never thought to ask myself whether I have the talent to do something.  If the activity- academic, artistic , or physical- seemed interesting, I tried it.  If I didn’t quite get it, I tried it differently.  Why should I know how to do something I’ve never done before?”

Langer says  that it is easy to learn to be mindful because it is simply the process of noticing new things, and it is easier than meditating twice a day.  However,  I would argue that most of the population will not find themselves becoming significantly more mindful in all areas of their lives simply by taking up painting or gardening.  On the other hand I feel that such “creative pursuits can be excellent ways of allowing one’s growing mindfulness as developed in meditation to “spill over” into daily life activities.  By engaging in activities that are generally perceived as “less serious”, there is the opportunity to face challenges that will help reveal one’s degree of mindfulness or mindlessness moment by moment without worrying as much about whether one is making right or wrong decisions.

 I agree with Langer’s general idea that engaging in various forms of creative endeavors can help propel one on a path of self-regeneration. Langer seems to say that we can become more mindful simply by “learning to switch modes of thinking about ourselves and the world.”  This “switching” for Langer can occur simply by remembering : 1) that any rules were made by a person at some point and that those rules may not apply in the present situation and 2) to look for differences in similarities and similarities in differences.  But this is not always easy when we are in the midst of everyday interactions and activities. Most of us, most of the time do not “remember to remember”, which I see as key to this “switching” process that Langer refers to.

This is why the techniques learned in meditation practices like Zazen can help in this process ofRemembering to Remember”. One who has spent the necessary time in meditation practice, watching how his or her thoughts form and disappear and learning techniques that allow “refocusing/reframing” when they catch themselves can help them to “remember to remember” in a wide range of situations.  This ability to “awaken” oneself before getting caught up in the thought- streams that reinforce the perceptual and thinking habits that foster mindless reactions is not really the focus of Langer’s work, although nothing she writes contracticts it’s importance. However, this skill is exactly what Zazen and other mindfulness training practices could provide to add depth to the kind of self-reinvention that Langer purposes.

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If you have been following my last few posts, you know that I have been riffing on the book On Becoming an Artist by Ellen Langer, a professional psychologist and amateur painter.  Langer suggests that painting and other creative arts can be a way of developing mindfulness and the path to a richer, more authentic and satisfying life.  As I mentioned in my last post, the author sees our tendency to compare ourselves with others and evaluate ourselves according, as the biggest block to developing creative mindfulness.  In this post, I will focus on one chapter where Langer tackles what she sees as the most damaging belief that prevents people from engaging in new activities such as painting.  Even though we understand that engaging in new activities can lead to a more rewarding life, we often avoid doing so because we are convinced that we have no talent in that area.   The name of the chapter from Langer’s book dealing with this is called “The Myth of Talent”.


In this chapter, Langer makes the bold declaration that: “Everybody has an equal talent for everything” ( pg. 171). Drawing upon the biographies of successful artists, and studies of artists, she concludes that creations by people generally seen as creative artists are more a product of learned skills rather the result of some inherited quality.  In other words, what we usually consider to be some innate or inner quality, is largely a matter of learned skills.  According to Langer:

“we usually impute to people who are very talented, like Picasso, a knowingness that he wouldn’t recognize as he embarked on a new work.  It isn’t that the talented “know” what they are about to do as much that they are willing to start something and see where it leads them.  We, however, tend to focus on their results and ignore the struggles, uncertainties and false starts.” (pg. 150)

Langer points to recent laboratory studies of Mondrian’s work that showed that he constantly scraped his canvases to revised his paintings until he was satisfied.  According to Langer, “Like all of us, Mondrian painted step-by-step, despite how he or anyone else might describe his work”  (pg. 159) The final product and the statements of critics and/or the artist, leave the impression that the work could only be the product of a quality (genius or talent) that most of us do not processes. The failure to grasp this error in logic, prevents countless numbers of people from trying activities that they might find rewarding and which could lead to their developing their own unique talent in that area.

 As the author points out, most of the artists now considered to be talented were not seen as such at first or even during their lifetimes.  Langer asks:

“Would we want to say these artists were not talented because they lacked audience appreciation?  Of course not, yet many of us consider their works and can only feel inferior by comparison……..By definition, “everyone can’t be great at something” if we think that is so. No. everyone can’t be equally great if we hold still a single criterion for evaluation.  But criteria can and do vary” (pg. 172)

With "mindless judging" most of us become convinced that we have no talent.

When we subscribe to a single rule or set of criteria, we are reacting mindlessly.  If the artists that are now considered talented had mindlessly accepted the current cannons on what constituted talent, they would never have begun their practice.  The whole point of Langer book is to  help her readers break through the kind of mindlessness that will deter them from trying something new and potentially rewarding; new activities that could possibly help the readers learn to become more mindfully creative.  One way Langer attempts to do this is by suggesting that they mindfully consider the consequences of exploring new creative pursuits This is nicely summed up when she asks:

“If I try, and fail, am I any worse off?  It is interesting exercise to attempt to do things we think we can’t do, but would like to try just for fun.  If we don’t globalize the result and conclude “I can’t paint (or more global still, I can’t do anything artistic) because I can’t draw this dog,”  for example, what is lost?  Whose affection is at risk?  What opportunity that we’ve counted on will not be ours? … (pg. 172)

I have personally found in my own painting process, that my most “creative” painting occurs when I am willing to take risks- doing something that I’d never seen done before or something that I knew could end up being considered “a mistake”.  Taking such “risks” is not easy and these kinds of risk never seem to go away as you develop as a painter.  Risking “failure”  is part of the territory but is also what makes painting (or anything else) a challenge and fun.  It requires a fundamental shift in one’s world view where we put our choices and our actions into perspective and to stop taking ourselves so seriously.

Now, dear readers, “for your moment of Zen” (apologies to The Daily Show’s John Stewart) we will include one more quotation from Langer’s book.  It is a continuation of the quote I included immediately above where she is talking about taking chances to do something like painting which you have never done before.  Below she continues by  applying the same principles to life in general:

“Someone might point out that these examples are mere avocations, so with them there’s not much at stake,  Fine, now do the same exercise with matters we take to be more serious.  The results are not all that different.

To my good fortune, I’ve never thought to ask myself whether I have the talent to do something.  If the activity- academic, artistic , or physical- seemed interesting, I tried it.  If I didn’t quite get it, I tried it differently.  Why should I know how to do something I’ve never done before?”

Wow!  Is she saying that we can stop worrying so much about how everything we do in life is evaluated and take risks to try new ways of being without worrying about whether we are judged by others to be a failure?  I think that is exactly what she is saying and I also think this is one of the key lessons that can be learned from practicing meditative disciplines like Zen.  I agree with Langer’s approach of starting your mindful practice in the so called “avocations” or “less serious” pursuits such as art.   As we learn to become more mindful in these areas, we are “practicing” so to speak for other areas of life where the stakes seem to be or actually are higher. It is for this reason that, at The Vista Zen Center, in addition to Formal Zen Practice a more informal practice is also emphasized. This informal practice is described on The Vista Zen Center Website as follows:

The second approach, “Genjo Practice” is concerned with a student’s engagements outside the traditional Zen setting. The students everyday lives become the focus of their Zen practice.

To facilitate “Genjo Practice” Jiyu Sensei encourages students to work with him focusing on a specific aspect of their lives. Often this will be something they love to do and will probably continue to do no matter what else is going on in their lives. For some students, this might be the time spent in working in a creative domain such as painting, poetry, or music. Or it might be home-schooling one’s children, taking care of the garden, or the livelihood that puts food on the table and a roof over their heads. 

Note that at The Vista Zen Center the “Genjo Practice”, which could be viewed as encouraging what Langer calls “creative mindfulness”, is practiced in conjunction with Zazen which is a more formal and specific mindfulness training.  In future posts, I will look at why I think this combined training program is probably more effective, at least for most people, than Langer’s approach.

And so there, ladies and gentlemen is Art and Zen Today’s moment of ZEN.

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