WAIKIKI, DYLAN, ZEN AND THE SPANKING MONK

The Monk by Bob Dylan

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

 

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

 

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

Waikiki Beach

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

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

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

Hula Lounge

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

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

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

spanked on stage by Thelonious.

2.   Lehrer’s book provides the following information:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Monk and Dizzy

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

shaman

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

Cab Calloway

Sly Stone

Lady Gaga

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

Punch and Judy Puppet Show

A Slapstick

http://www.phonydiploma.com/The-Guide-to-Slapstick-Comedy.aspx

Do you know the origins of the phrase “pleased as Punch”?  See http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/as-pleased-as-punch.html

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

Keisaku

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

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

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

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

Whirling Dervish

12) All great comedians are Buddhist monks in disguise. In this spirit, I submit to you that the secret Zen masters of American pop culture are the Three Stooges.  April 08, 2012|By Ty Burr  http://articles.boston.com/2012-04-08/movies/31292643_1_three-stooges-buddhist-monks-cultural-elite

The Three Stooges

The Old Pie in the Face Gag

13)  A)The distinction between psychological illness and creative thinking is wafer thin, new Swedish research confirms, arguing that there is a feasible explanation for why the age-old myth of genius bordering on insanity could in fact be true. http://www.thelocal.se/26708/20100518/

     B)The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success. Bruce Feirstein. Read more: http://www.finestquotes.com/select_quote-category-Insanity-page-0.htm#ixzz21hWEK02g

 

A. Monk

Another Monk

14)  Thelonious Monk is famous for his jazz stylings which frequently bent the rules of music. Monk’s jazz is famous for its rebellious use of broken chords and skewed scales. Monk had the uncanny ability to “play the wrong notes right” and mixed it with backbeats that gracefully stumbled into brilliant surprises around every bend.
Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_made_thelonious_monk_famous#ixzz21hUrZ6Kd

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

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

                                                          

BLOGGER’S BOTTOM SPANKED BY MONK

Monk On the Cover of Time Magazine

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

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

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

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

Baroness “Nica” and Monk

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

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

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

http://youtu.be/-Dz6AqP-LKg

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

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

 

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

 

 

WHAT THE______ WAS THAT VIDEO ABOUT?

I’ve received lots of feedback on the video contained in the the last blog post, and none said anything like  ”I loved your video, I couldn’t stop playing it over and over”.  Most of the comments I received I’ve placed in one of two categories:

1) What a Yucky experience!

2)  What the ______ was that all about?

The two are interrelated but let me start with “What the ____was that all about?”  I relate to this question as I imagine that I’ll be thinking something like that to myself during my final minutes here on earth. I think this is another way of asking “what does it all mean?” Whether talking about art, Zen or life in general, this is an important question and one that is hard to answer.

Whenever I’m asked what my art means, I think of Choreographer Isadora Duncan’s response to a similar question.  She said “If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”

Or, what about this?  People say that what we are all seeking is meaning for life. I think what we are really seeking is an experience of being  alive……Joseph Campbell.

I  get it. There are things in life and art that are hard to put into words.  On the other hand, we humans need to communicate about things- that is how we connect- and so I can not completely dismiss such queries.  Even though he disputes the importance of meaning, Campbell’s quote above provides meaning. As Lehrer points out in Imagination: How Creativity Works, both the right and left brain is integral to creativity. Often we artists don’t want to explain ourselves because we are just lazy.

Ok, so I’m  going to try to energize my left brain and try to provide an answer to “What the ________was that all about?”  For this video, the meaning for me is something that  evolved over time.  The best I can do is tell the story of how it evolved.

Most of my paintings have been abstractions using forms and colors etc. that I found pleasant or attractive.  I was not concerned with telling a story or with making commentaries on suffering.  There were a couple of exceptions, one of which was a collage/painting of a woman who looked very sad.  Most of the woman was painted except for the nose, eyes and mouth.  For these features, I pasted on cut-outs of these parts from an enlarged photograph’s of my wife’s face. My wife is not a sad person but the result was a very sad looking woman.  That prompted me to glue dowel rods vertically on the frame so she looked like she was in jail.  When finished, I concluded that , in some vague way, the piece said something about the way we all restrict ourselves by putting up conceptual barriers;  nothing very original and based primarily on my study of Zen.  I called it “Zenda Gets Blue Sometimes” (see painting below).

Sometime later, a group of artists at The Vista Zen Center were asked to put on an art show at the annual Anti-Trafficking Awareness Walk” sponsored by Soroptimists International of Vista.  Not having ever thought of depicting or commenting on human trafficking in my art work, I chose a couple of paintings, including “Zenda Gets Blue Sometimes” to display at the exhibit. A picture of the painting was included in an article on the Walk published in the Union-Tribune..  In a backhanded way, I had produced art that meant something and not a particularly pleasant something.  I was left with the weirdness of having a painting constructed out of parts of my wife’s face as a poster for the victims of human trafficking.

The artist’s at the rally also set up a tent intending to call to mind the reality of human trafficking.  The tent contained a circle of chairs around a small empty bed with a teddy bear on it.  Viewers were invited to sit in the tent and “bear witness” to the horrors  of human trafficking.  Again, I saw that art can be something more than just pretty pictures and that there may be some value in creating yucky images; bearing witness to the reality of horrors that our culture would rather forget.

Later, when I started making art videos I began working with abstract and engaging imagery combined with spacey music, similar to my paintings.  However, I was struck by the narrative potential of video and began wondering how I could combine pleasant and unpleasant images in the same video.  Life consists of both of these poles and, as a Zen student, I felt that I needed to embrace both. The video in question is one of my experiments in this vein.

The title of my video “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing one Sees” is also the title of Lawrence Weschler’s biography of artist Robert Irwin. It is clear from this book that Irwin believed that the viewer is the key ingredient in the “seeing” of art and that he hoped to create art that had a “presence” for the viewer.  For Irwin this meant that the art should help the viewer let go of or “forget” about its meaning.

Garden Designed by Robert Irwin

What does the video mean?  Life is sometimes Yucky?  More than one viewer tried to speed up the video or turn in off turning the realistic beating clip.

So, yes the video was supposed to be yucky.  But, as the title suggests, there is more.  I was interested in whether  I (and others) could basically forget the Yucky feelings and thoughts, if presented with something comparatively pleasant and distracting.?

In the art world, as well as the Zen world, we talk a lot about being in the present moment which inevitable means letting go of thoughts and expectations about the past or future. Zen writer Eithe Dogen wrote

To understand the Buddha Way is to understand the

Self.  To understand the self is to forget the self.

                                                   

When we forget the internal dialogue that fuels our sense of self, we actually are remembering something as well.  We remember the joy of doing something just for the pleasure of it.  Yo Yo Ma told  Lehrer that he always tells professional musicians to aspire to the state of the beginne where one plays only because it feels good.  This sounds a lot like Suzuki’s “Beginner’s Mind.  But, we might also remember the unpleasant sensations of earlier times.  In fact, I will argue in future postings, that we need to experience the unpleasant as well as the pleasantness of being in our bodies.

The kind of remembering that happens by forgetting the ordinary self reminds me of the Shamanic use of the term “remembering”.  According to Eliade, prospective shamans in a variety of cultures have a dream-like experience, either while sleeping or triggered by illness or hallucinogens of being torn apart (“de-membered”) by a spirit or wild animal.   Later the person with have a “re-membering” experience, ” which leads to a feeling of being whole again and becoming a shaman. By facing the unpleasantness of our somatic being, we are free to experience the joy of the same.

In “forgetting” self-concepts, we open ourselves to a wider, more wholistic experience of whatever is happening.  Lehrer, who sees this forgetting as an important component of creativity, cites Yo Yo Ma as having the ability to forget himself when performing and remember the joy of simply playing the cello.

Most artist speak of their practice as their meditation where they can forget themselves by playing in the present moment and hoping that those who view or hear their work will also forget their ordinary selves and “be in the moment” if only momentarily.

That’s the reason the video begins and ends in a museum or gallery.  In-between are potentially positive and negative experiences that mirror our everyday lives.  But as I’m sure you know, no song or painting or performance can pull us into the present if we are not willing or able.  A new painting hanging in our house may transfix us for a while but before long it is likely to become another piece of furniture.

Meditation and other spiritual disciplines can help us learn techniques for being in the present moment at more and more times as both pleasant and unpleasant  present moments roll by.  In so doing Life becomes Art.

 

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