CREATIVE REFOCUSING

This summer, while wandering about WaikikI Beach,  I happened into a gallery featuring large photographs of landscapes and was struck by their “presence”.  To begin with they were nicely framed (see last weeks post) but there was something else about them that I couldn’t put my finger on.  In talking to one of the salespersons I learned that the photographer had figured out a way to solve the “depth of field problem” facing photographers, so that everything in the pictures, from foreground to background was “in focus”, that is they were equally clear or  sharp (like the photo on the right,above).Typically, because of the mechanics of cameras, photographers are confronted with a choice of whether to focus on subjects in the foreground (leaving the background looking blurry or unfocused) or focusing on the background, which necessarily means that objects up front will appear fuzzy. The photo on the left above and the one in the middle reflect these two extremes.  Generally when we view photos we are used to seeing images that approximate one or the other of these two.  However there are techniques (see “hyperfocusing” and “photo stacking” ) that can be used to try to produce photos where both the foreground and background objects are equally in focus and clear.  In the world of photography, this outcome in rare.

I started thinking about all of this while writing my last post (Creative Reframing in Art and Life ) since much of what I said was derived from Eugene Gendlin’s book called “Focusing” (1978).  The essence of his therapeutic technique is helping patients focus on, (pay attention to) a “felt sense” of whatever issues or problems they are dealing with.  I argued that “creative reframing” entails learning to shift attention to somatic processes that are not in our awareness and  that this can lead to new ways of seeing ( more accurately “creating” ) our reality.  This time I want to play with a “sister metaphor” which I call “creative refocusing”.  It is basically looking at the same process as reframing but I find that using more than one metaphor to describe the same thing or process can be useful.  “Listening” to our “felt sense” of a problem entails a refocusing of attention.

Years ago I took a biofeedback seminar from Dr. Lester Fehmi and have found his theoretical ideas on attentional focus to be helpful in thinking about personal transformation.  According to an article by Fehmi and Fritz, most of us, most of the time, are operating in what he calls “Left Hemisphere Narrow Focus” modes of attention, which he describes as the “most habitual and most generally reinforced attentional mode in our society” (24) . In other words,  we focus narrowly on our internal thoughts and in extreme cases this can manifests as obsessive worry and preoccupation with recurrent throughts.   They go on to say “This refers to the wakeful state in which mental effort is expended to exclude certain aspects of experience through a narrowing or constriction in the some of attention”(p. 24). As in photography, when our reoccurring thoughts are the focus of attention, background objects (somatic signals, including our “felt sense”), although present, are “out of focus”.

Much of his research involves trying to train subjects and patients to shift to what he calls “Right Hemisphere Open Focus” modes and this is what I refer to as “refocusing”.  Using biofeedback equipment, subjects learn to attend to what I have referred to earlier as internal somatic signals that are not in our awareness while in a narrow focus mode.  The biofeedback machine is programmed to emit a particular sound whenever subjects shift from narrow focus to open focus so they can learn to include these somatic signals into their awareness.  Here is what I find to be most fascinating about this research :  Fehmi and Fritz state that “….after succeeding in the biofeedback training many trainees report that they had proceeded to the point in training at which they had given up on the task altogether, only to discover that the feedback tone would occur even more frequently after they had stopped actively trying”.  This seems to parallel what Lehrer (see the first three blog posts) reports happening in folks that have had creative insights as well as my own experiences in practicing Zen meditation.

It is this fundamental shift in attention that I see as being the basis of what I called “creative reframing”.  Being able to get out from under the view of reality that is perpetuated by our internal dialogue, allows for the emergence of new perspectives or insights. This “refocusing” of attention, then is what allows truely “creative reframing” and it seems that this skill is learnable with biofeedback training.  I would suggest that this is a key skill that can be learned by practicing Zen as well.

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“Focusing is not Zen, nor is it the only mind-body practice that can assist our explorations of Zen. But because it is so close to the process we follow in zazen, it is exceptionally helpful as a tool to assist us in the ultimate work of Zen, which is the surrender of self”. See “Zen and Focusing” by Janet’s Jiryu Abels Sensei

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Another important idea that comes our of Fehmi’s writings is that the attentional shifts he talks about are not what we typically hear about as in the literature regarding left brain functioning versus right brain functioning.  Moving into the Open Focus mode does not necessarily involve shutting out our thoughts and cogitive processes associated with Left Brain functioning.  Rather, it is different from the narrow focus mode in that it does not exclude the internal bodily signals that are ignored when narrowly focused on our own thoughts.  This observation runs contrary to statements I have heard by both artists and Zen practioners suggesting that their goals is  to function exclusively in their right brains.  As I showed earlier,(the first 3 posts on this blog) the research in creativity suggests that this probably not useful or even possible for  those interested in becoming more creative.  As for Zen;  James Austin, who has exhaustively studied the psychophysiology of Zen, states…”the proposals that a meditator becomes wholly “right-brained” can not be supported” ( Zen and the Brain, pg. 365).

To return to the photographic metaphor, creative “refocusing” is not moving from extreme foreground focus (with background ignored) to one where the background information is the focus of attention while ignoring the foreground.  Rather it is more like the third picture above where foreground (our internal dialogue) and background (internal sensations) are equally clear and salient.  In this open mode we are able to appreciate all aspects of our lives and are better able to respond to each new situation as it arises, because we have more information to work with.  This seems to be essential to creativity in both life and art.

“CREATIVE REFRAMING” IN ART AND LIFE

UNRESOLVED By Steve Wilson

Most visual artists would agree that how a picture is framed can alter its effect on viewers.  Likewise, performing artists have learned to take into consideration the larger context or setting on their performances.  Here I want to explore the concept of creative reframing as an essential element of “creativity”, both in the arts and everyday life.

The process of painting “Unresolved” (see photo above), was long and tortuous. When creating abstract expressionist paintings,  the artist must apply paint, look at the result and then, based on what is present on the canvas, add more paint or do whatever he or she feels necessary to move towards something they are pleased with.  A common issue for such painters is that they find different  aspects or sections of the canvas to be pleasing but feel that these elements do not work together to provide a finished piece.  My favorite painting teacher, Sally Pearce, used to say that paintings at this stage are “unresolved”; a diplomatic way of saying “get back to work”.

As I recall, the painting that I subsequently titled “Unresolved” was stuck at this stage for what seemed like a long time.  I liked it, but it just didn’t seem to be finished.  After many weeks of being unresolved (staring at it and thinking about it), I got the idea of putting the canvas on a large frame; once I had done that it occured to me to paint the word “Unresolved” on the frame.  That seemed to do the trick; I felt “resolved” and others, including Sally, liked the results.

I don’t recall this resolution coming in the form of an “eureka”-”sudden insight”  moment of the type discussed by Joshua Lehrer (see “Sudden Insight and Creativity“).  What I do recall is that eventually I put the painting aside for a while, and started working on others.  In other words, I “forgot about it”.  I stopped thinking about it and, according to Lehrer, that seems to be a necessary step for creative breakthroughs (or creative resolutions) of all types. Not thinking about my unresolved painting not only allowed me to be more present with my other paintings, it also set the stage for creative reframing.  In this case, it was literaly reframed, but this term can be used as a metaphor for a more basic psychological shift that can lead to creative solutions.

The term “reframing” has been a part of Western psychology and psychotherapeutic literature for some time now.  It is based on the rather simple idea that we “define” or “make sense” of each new situation we face based on past experiences in similar situations.  We “get stuck” or “have problems”  to the extent that our reactions to new situations are based on old experiences which are no longer useful or appropriate.  This is similar to the Buddhist explanation of how and why we “suffer”.  According to the reframing perspective, we “solve” whatever our problem is by shifting our perception and understanding of the situation we face.  To do this means to “let go of” our old frames, (i.e. our old perceptions and understandings).

Sometimes this “letting go” can happen by conceptual reorganization of the nature suggested in the old aphorism “when life hands you lemons, make lemonaide”.  Work with positive affirmations is an example of this kind of reframing.  However, more sophisticated approaches, such as that found in a variety of psychotherapies, provides an additional step; becoming aware of the “felt sense” of the problem.  An interesting article by David Rome  provides an overview of this approach with efforts to relate it to Buddhist Practice.    What seems to be the common factor in all the techniques of this types is

Gendlin's concept of "felt-sense" is introduced in his book "Focusing," (1978

learning to expand ones’ awareness to include bodily sensations.  By shifting ones attention to somatic and perceptual “signals” it becomes easier to “let go of the internal dialogue (or left-brain processing) that, in the name of “problem solving” tends to reinforce old perceptions and understandings that are based on our past experiences.

I’m convinced that creative artists, learn through practice to allow “creative reframing” to happen naturally.  They learn that bumping up against unresolved work (feeling frustrated when slogging through times of unresolvedness) is part of the creative process.  They learn to “trust the process”, finding ways of letting go of their preexisting frameworks and allowing an alternative frame to develop.  What they learn is to “drop into their bodies”, so to speak, and fully feel what is going on at each moment of the creative process and learn to trust that the process is progressing exactly as it should.  This entails fully feeling or being fully present with one’s “unresolvedness” at that point of the creative process.  Having this skill allows them to mitigate the nagging thoughts that support beliefs such as “I will never be creative again” or  thought like “when is this going to be finished?”.  In an earlier post called “Performer-Audience Communication”, I suggested that the artist’s “presence” can be felt by the audience, and being fully present with all aspects of the creative process should help this happen more often.

Can Zen help one get in touch with the body?

It should be of no surprise to readers who have seen earlier posts, that I find some interesting parallels in the practice of Zen and other spiritual pursuits. The chief tool for the Zen practitioner is Zen meditation or Zazen.  The essence of Zazen is letting go of the internal dialogue or thought trains ,which generally are the focus of our attention,

especially when we feel unresolved.  As with the Western psychotherapeutic techniques alluded to above, Zazen entails a shift in attention away from the mind to include bodily sensations that are always present but often ignored in each and every moment of our lives.  According to Will Johnson,  “The sitting posture itself can be a kind of crucible for burning off the tensions and restrictions to body and breath that all too often keep us lost in thought and unaware of feeling presence.”

While this is easy to talk about, being able to do this on a consistent basis, in a variety of situations, requires years of practice. The result, however is the “awakened person” referred to by Jiyu Roshi or the “autotelic personality” as described by Dr. C.  For me, all these terms refer to someone who has developed “creative reframing” or “refocusing” skills; skills that allow them to circumvent or, at least, minimize suffering as they move from situation to situation.  The ability to “let go” of or “forget” old ways of reacting based on past situations, allow them to  be flexibly adaptive as new situations arrive.  In other words, they become more creative; able to respond rather than react to each new moment.  Rather than holding on to old experiences that allowed them a momentary experience of “flow”, having these skills allows for a natural life flow of the type described by Jiyu Roshi, a flow based on being present-awake-alive, no matter what situations arise.

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SO, CAN AVERAGE JOE GROW AND LEARN TO FLOW?

In my last post “Are You A Flow Addict?”, I suggested that most of us become attached to those experiences of being “present-awake-alive”- experiences that Dr.Mihaly Csikszentimaihalyi (Dr. C.)  has called “flow experiences”.  I received a reply from Jiyu Roshi regarding my article saying:  No, “flow” is not addictive. And you cannot become a “flow” addict. ”Flow” is living in a place of complete freedom. ”I must make clear the “flow” I am talking about is the life of the awakened person.  This comment may seem to contradict the main point of the original post, but I believe it is really saying what I said in a slightly different way.

This blog is a work in process and I am constantly discovering for myself what my goals are in writing it.  It became clear a couple of months back that one thing I was doing was trying to see whether or not I could stretch the term “creativity” to apply to both artistic and spiritual practices.  As I thought about Roshi’s comments to my last post, it also occurred to me that I am exploring alternative ways of talking about the purpose and practice of Zen.  So I am thankfull to him for raising my awareness about this.

Since Zen comes from a non-Western tradition, I personally find that the language used in the Zen literature often obfuscates rather than clarifies; this is confounded by that fact that many Zen writers do this purposely. In Zen there are frequent references to the “awakened”, “enlightened” or “liberated person”, as Roshi has done in his reply.  Western Zen scholars such as Dale Wright and Peter Hershock suggest that these terms conjure up, for many Western readers, images of persons possessing a special, often “supernatural” state that is simultaneously not comprehensible, not personally attainable and a magical way of being that will deliver one, once and for all, from all of one’s problems.

Unfortunately such a view can lead to conditions which actually are an impediment to the “life flow” that Roshi says is enjoyed by such persons.  To the extent that one fosters a dream of some unattainable, wonderful way of being, that person will find difficulty in being present-awake-alive, moment by moment in his or her life.  It is my assumption that this is why many Zen writers have said that one should not practice Zen in order to attain enlightenment.

I’m not sure whether my exploration of alternative “languages” will help Westerners to better understand Zen or not.  But, I can only find out by trying it out and that is the purpose of this Blog.  Needless to say, I will be dependent upon your responses to help me evaluate this endeavor.

When I think of “flow” I picture myself floating down a river on a raft.  Although I can paddle and steer the raft to some degree, the speed and direction of the raft are largely determined by the flow of the water in the river.  Sometimes the raft may move at a speed I find fun; at other times it may be too fast or too slow.  When it is just right, I have fun;  I have a “flow experience”. I’m am present-awake-alive.  When it is too fast or slow, I am not in the moment because I want my experience to be other than what it is.  To the extent that I become attached to a particular kind of rafting experience; that is, one where I am fully present, I suffer when that is not happening.  This is the point I was trying to make in the previous post using Dr. C’s theory.

Now regardless of how much I may struggle to speed up or slow down the raft, it keeps on moving according to the flow of the river.  No matter how much I want to repeat a particular fun experience (maybe an exhilarating dive through some rapids) that I had in the past, the flow of the river, the raft and my life continues.  As long as I’m on the raft I am flowing, whether or not I like what is happening and whether or not I am “present-awake-alive” to what is happening. So it is possible to say that as long as I am alive, my life is naturally in a state of flow; that is I am always flowing.  This seems to be the way that flow is used in the saying that I quoted in “To Know Flow or No Flow” and is repeated below.  For me the ghist of Lao Tzu’s saying is that if our life is naturally a flow, we might as well be fully present as it is happening.

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Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. Lao Tzu

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Things flow naturally and we can avoid suffering by “going with the flow”.   Roshi seems to have this idea of flow in mind when he says that flow is not addictive.  In his comments, Roshi indicates that he is using a slightly different definition of “flow” than Dr. C’s when he says:

“I must make clear the “flow” I am talking about is the life of the awakened person.  True freedom doesn’t “feel” good or bad. True freedom is that place where you are able to adjust instantly to whatever arises and you no longer worry about making the right or wrong decision.”

What Roshi refers to as the “awakened person” is presumably someone who is “present-awake-alive” almost all the time.  Such individuals can go with the flow of their particular life, regardless of where it takes him or her.  This was my point in the article when I said that the “autotelic personality” was better able to flow in a variety of situations, regardless of whether or not they defined them as “fun”.    My point was that such a person would not be addicted to particular experiences in their lives.  So I was trying, using somewhat different language, to make the same point as Roshi: that is, that “awakened persons” are not addicted to flow.  The problem for those of us who are not “awakened” is that whenever we separate out some aspect of the flow of our life as being an experience we want to repeat or avoid, we are struggling against the natural flow of our lives.

When most people have a certain kind of experience, good or bad, it is always relative to other experiences they have had or may be dreaming of.  To have an experience, requires “getting into one’s head”, so to speak: getting involved in making comparisons with other “experiences” and making plans to try to either repeat or avoid similar experiences in the future.  To the extent that one’s self becomes the focus of attention, one becomes separate from that flow of life as it is happening right here now.  When an experience becomes something to attain or avoid, one is ignoring the fact that change is the essence of life. As Roshi says “Our mistake is in believing the self is permanent and we become attached (and sometimes addicted) to things we think will make the self happy, or fulfilled, so we keep trying one thing after another to satisfy this self.”

Having a self or being a self entails trying to control our experiences in ways that corresponds to what we think we are or should be (i.e how our life should be).  This thwarts the natural flow that is our life as it is unfolding moment by moment.  “Letting go of the self” or “becoming One with everthing”  or “becoming an awakened person”are terms that often are used  in Zen literature to refer to allowing one’s life to flow without resisting it.   Many people find these terms to be either unfathomable or frightening, and this is one reason that I wanted to write about all of this using terms such as “flow experience”  “being present”. We have all had such experiences, it may be easier for us to imagine what it would be like to be a part of this natural flow of life, that is, to use Roshi’s terms, to be an “awakened person”.  I wanted to use Dr. C’s term “autotelic personality” because it seems much less intimidating than “awakened person” and I plan to use elements of his theory to show how it relates to the idea of creativity, as it has been used in prior posts.

On my raft, I may paddle faster to avoid polluted waters or steer to avoid oncoming rocks; being in the flow of the river doesn’t mean not responding to what is happening moment by moment.  But, if I am truly responding to each present moment as it unfolds I am not suffering because things are not going the way I want them to.  Suffering, in this sense, can be eliminated by learning to be present-awake-alive in each moment and all situations and practicing Zen is one way this learning can take place.

I’ll end by quoting the last few lines of Jiyu Roshi’s comments:

If you are serious about understanding and living a flowing, free life you will need to be willing to do the creative work/play Manoj (Steve) discusses.

The focus of this blogsite is “creativity” and little has been said about this in the past few blogs.  Coming up I will look at the “creative work/play” process involved in overcoming our separation from our natural life flow.

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