Over the past month or so my posts have focused on improvisation in the arts and Zen. This was spurred on by Peter Hershock’s suggestion that the outcome of Zen practice resembles jazz improvisation. This is consistent with much of the Zen literature which paints a picture of the awakened life as one of openness, spontaneity, “choiceless awareness” etc. , that results from a “letting go” of the rational mind and the “self”. Relying on more contemporary writers, I have suggested that there is some scientific basis for understanding this process of “letting go”. However, I also started questioning some aspects of this way of understanding what happens during improvisation. This includes improvisation in the arts or in the “social virtuosity” that Herschock says characterizes Zen enlightenment. In this post I continue in this direction and hope to clarify why it is important to be careful about how we talk about this process.
In my last post (The Practice of Yes/No), I suggested that while, to both the performer and the audience, it may seem, that there is an absence of left-brain processes with attendant decision or choice-making during improvisation, this is not a completely accurate account of what is happening. Here I want to go further and suggest that, when it comes to the practice of Zen, individuals who subscribe to this traditional idea that “I am no longer making choices”, could end up creating more suffering for him or herself and for others. Although he is not a Zen student, Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah about his use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs provides an example of the kind of thinking that can lead to the kind of suffering I am talking about here.
In the interview Armstrong said: “At the time, it was easy, it just flowed. I was in the zone like athletes get”.
As seen from earlier posts, the Zone or the “flow experience” is one where one temporarily loses the usual sense of self and of being the author of decision-making. It appears that in Armstrong’s case this sense of being free of the usual constraints of selfhood, also was experienced as evidence that he could do no wrong and was not responsible for his own actions. In a recent talk, Jiyu Roshi suggested that something similar often occurs among advanced Zen practioners and their counterparts in other spiritual disciplines and provided examples from his own life.
Think of John Coltrane improvising, Jackson Pollack flinging drips of paint over a canvas or Robin Williams doing a stand up routine. They are totally absorbed in what they are doing, manipulating their “tools” with such rapidity that there appears to be no conscious thought involved. It is not uncommon to hear of such performances described by witness or the performers themselves as being “possessed”, “channeled” , “in a trance” or as being expressions of an “inner self”. In all cases, I think, the intention is to convey the idea that whatever is being expressed is not emanating from that performer’s personhood but rather some other source beyond whatever it is we see as responsible for ordinary behavior. The implication is that there is no conscious thought or conscious choice involved. This sort of language is also used in the Zen literature, as well as in other spiritual disciplines” to describe the state of consciousness and conduct of the awakened life.
The social scientific literature on the experience of “trance” is helpful here. From this perspective a hypnotic trance is viewed as a situation where one person agrees to allow another to direct his or her behavior. Anthropologists have found that “trances” are common in most non-Western societies and are collectively understood to be instances where some external entity (e.g. a spirit) is directing the behavior of an individual. In most cases, when trance is manifested, the person is not held responsible for their actions and becomes eligible for special consideration from the other members of society and especially those designated as healers. The literature indicates that trance is a learned behavior that requires normal mental facilities. What appears to be a relinquishing of normal mental facilities and a sense of self-control is a culturally agreed upon understanding that entails often rather sophisticated mental capacities and maneuvers and does not entail a diminishing of rational thought.
What I take from this literature is that there is a propensity to explain the sense that “I” (i.e. my “self”) is not “in charge” by attributing ones seemingly automatic and spontaneous conduct to some external entity or “agent” (to use the language of post-modern scholars), or force or spirit. Now, according to Buddhist philosophy and post-modern theory (Buddha might be seen as the first post-modern theorist) , whatever it is we call our self is a social fiction; a convenient fiction that we acquire during socialization to allow us to take part in the social activities of our culture. Associated with this “sense of self” comes an important and necessary (at least for the larger society) sense of responsibility and accountability for one’s own actions. This is what allows “societies” to exist. Those who seemly do not have these qualities are considered sociopaths. The actual experience of this absence of a substantial self is seen as essential for the progress of the Zen student. But this experience carries with it the possibility of conduct, which may not be fully “sociopathic” but can lead to suffering of others.
While the language used to describe what is occurring may differ in describing trance, jazz improvisation, comedic improv , expressionistic painting or those who have become awake/alive/present through spiritual practice, these descriptions commonly give the impression that what is happening is not the result of “self-control” or of conscious choice. I suggest that it is necessary to make a distinction between appearances of what is occurring and what is, actually happening. I believe it is possible to preserve the wonder and wonderfulness of improvised performances without fully buying into those explanations that place “agency” somewhere outside (God, spirits, muse etc) or “inside” the person as in references to “inner self”, “real self”, “Buddha Nature” and so forth.
Following my argument in the previous post, I see such “inspired” performances as not something other-worldly but rather the result of someone who has practiced their craft to the point where thoughts or choices are executed with such rapidity that they appear to be manifesting from somewhere other than the “self”. Such improvised behavior is not a result of somehow replacing left-brain processes with “right-brain” processes but rather an integration of the two, resembling the expanded state of awareness that Fehmi called “Opened-Focus Attention”. It widens the range of information to be used in decision-making to include various signals or sensations not usually considered to be part of cognition.
I suggest that, whether we are talking about improvised behaviors in the arts or as a result of spirtual practice (a la Hershock’s contention that Zazen can lead to “social virtuosity”), the performer is making conscious choices. They are simply being made with such rapidity that it seems that this is not the case. When asked how they do what they do, most Improvisors, in all fields of the arts, will point to extensive bouts of practice that were necessary to be able to improvise.
In his book, Ways of the Hand, Sudow describes looking at his hand while improvising and not being able to predict what it was going to do next, and talking about his hands as having an intentionality of their own. But, the majority of the book consists of detailed description of the practice regimen that he, Sudnow, underwent to get to that point. Basically, he describes how he learned to recognize, through trial and error, which possible notes to strike in order to sound good at any point of the songs being played at breakneck speed. My reading of this is that he, and other jazz musicians are making choices all during a solo, but they are happening so rapidly that they seem as if there is no choosing and no one doing the choosing.
In the post titled “Yeah Man: Improvisation in Jazz, Improv and Zen“, we saw how comedic impov requires that actors “say yes” to each new possibility from others on stage in order to keep the skit moving. Although Hershock used jazz improvisation as a metaphor for understanding the awakened Zen practioner, I believe that comedy Improv is is a better metaphor because the nature of the verbal exchange is closer to what we encounter in everyday social interaction.
The accomplished Improv actor may improvise with such rapidity that it seems that he or she is not thinking. However, the actors must not only think up a possible response to what someone else says but must also think ahead far enough to see whether or not it has the possibility of moving the skit forward or squelching it. In other words, to say “yes” to the antics of another actor, he or she must filter through possibilities and reject those that may lead to a “no” ( that is, behaving in ways that would put a damper on the other actors and the overall flow of the skit). Let’s imagine that an professional improv actor could within a nano- second come up with a response which he is fairly certain will help keep the skit alive but, almost simultaneously, realizes that the audience consists of young kids and so decides against saying what first comes to mind and allows another response (maybe from another actor) to be expressed instead. In other words, even the heat of frantic improvisation, actors have the capacity to say “no“.
So where is all of this leading? Throughout the centuries that Zen has been developed, the idea that the conduct of the of the enlightened practioner is beyond thought and choice has been accepted. The way that this is generally understood is much more sophisticated than that associated with Spirit possession of Shamanism where an outside entity or force is seen as taking over agency of the person.
Yet even among the most pragmatic of the Zen philosophers, there is a tendency to rely on the language of mysticism to account for awakened conduct. This is, in itself, not really a problem, because the kinds of “performances” I have been talking about among arts and Zen adepts is truly wondrous and mysterious. However, it does appear that within Zen and other spiritual disciples, problems can arise when the experience of awakening, the sense of no longer being “self”-directed, results in actions which create suffering for the person and others.
In his book on creativity, Lehrer talks about the thin line between creativity and other pathological states. I looked at this in depth in my post called “Sun Ra: The Thin line between Genius, Crazy and Spirituality”. We all know of artists who fit this category. It is also the case that Artists can become addicted to the flow of their improvisations processes (see “Are You A Flow Addict?”) because they cannot flow in activities outside of their specialty. In Zen, however, the aim is to extend the flow of what Hershock calls “social virtuosity” to all aspects of life. It is here where the sense that “I” am not the actor, the chooser or the “decider” could lead to problems if they buy into the believe that they can not or need not say “NO”.
Although the Zen practioner may not understand their sense of acting without a “self” as indicating a possession of some sort, they do have to come to terms with what is happening to them. A thorough understanding that whatever was originally experienced as having “a self” is, from a Buddhist perspective, erroneous can help provide one with a grounded sense of being OK with their new way of being. However, it appears that it is not uncommon for someone who has opened up such experiences to begin seeing their actions as part of the natural order of things, (expressions of “Buddha Nature”) and thus inherently valid. The number of spiritual teachers that have supposedly reached an awakened state who and gone on to commit actions that create suffering for themselves and others is staggering. It is for this reason, that over the centuries of it’s development, Zen teachers have placed heavy emphasis on the precepts, which maybe seen as ethical guidelines for practioners.(For a nice discussion of the precepts and their relevance to the Lance Armstrong case, see Sean Voisen’s latest article “Zen and the Art of”.
Although these guidelines are not seen as moralistic absolutes (and violations are not considered as “sins”), the fact that they have existed so long in the Zen tradition seems consistent with the view of enlightenment that I am outlining where each action one takes is a matter of making-decisions and choices (albeit very rapidly) and not some supernatural state where actions are dictated from beyond.
So I am suggesting that in all types of improvisation choices are being made. However, in the case of true awakened improvisation, choice is even more salient because being awake/present/alive means the person is capable of attending to a wider range of data to inform his or her decision-making. Because the left-brain processes never really go away, there is always the possibility of making choices that are self-enhancing and possibly result in suffering for oneself and others. Because of this there is no end to practice and it is my opinion that those who choose to follow this difficult path do so because they find this constant practice to be a source of flow, finding satisfaction in life by constantly challenging themselves through practice.
This post was inspired by and builds upon comments from Sean and Jiyu Roshi on my last post (“YEAH MAN!”: IMPROVISATION IN JAZZ, COMEDY AND ZEN”). In posts leading up to that one I had explored the idea that improvised behavior, that is spontaneous responses in the present moment, involves “forgetting” or “ignoring” the “inner voice” that reflects the imagined reactions of others. The idea behind these posts was that such thoughts prevent one from acting spontaneously in response to whatever is happening in the present moment. In jazz, comedic improv or the various arts (such as archery) associated with Zen, practice is often described as helping one to learn to act without first consulting the “rational mind”, “the inner voice”, the “ego mind”, the “left-brain” or whatever you want to call it. In “Yeah Man”, I suggested that this can be faciliated by practicing “Yes” in situations where you usually say “no”.
The more I think about what I just summarized in the paragraph above, the more I believe that while it is correct metaphorically, it probably not a totally accurate description of how things work.. I think a better way to put it is to say that practice helps develop an integrative communication between left and right brain processes that allows the practioner to respond to whatever is happening in the moment more quickly. This is different from the idea that there is no rational or left brain processes at all going on during improvisation, which is implied in my earlier posts. It also differs from the prevailing view amongst both Zen and non-Zen writers, that improvisation entails no thinking whatsoever. My alternative view is that the practioner (music, Improv, Zen or whatever) has learned to “reframe/refocus” and learns to rapidly consider any thoughts that may be called forth by the current situation and either act on those or drop them. This is done so quickly that it appears, to both the performer and observer, that choices are instantaneous, entailing no thinking at all. (See “CREATIVE REFRAMING” IN ART AND ZEN” AND “CREATIVE RE-FOCUSING“.) It entails developing an expanded awareness or what Lester Fehmi calles “opened-focus” where both right and left-brain processes work together. (see HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY OPENED-FOCUSED EXPERIENCE WHILE READING THIS POST.)
Being fully awake and present (as during improvisation) doesn’t mean that there is no thinking, even though it may seem like that to observers or the performer himself or herself. As my previous coverage of both jazz and comedic improvisation indicates, a key component of successful improvisation is being aware of what is going on amongst the other performers. It does not mean being totally devoid of any thoughts that could possibly be seen as putting a damper on one’s creative expressiveness. Rather it means being able to ignore or act upon these thoughts, (very quickly) depending on the nature of the situation. It means being able to find a balance between “letting go” and being attuned to the surroundings. This attunement is what may differentiate creative expressiveness from craziness (See.”.Sun Ra, The Alien: The Thin Line Between, Genius, Spirituality and Crazy”.)
A key reason for my introducing terms like “creative reframing” and “refocusing” in earlier posts was that they allow for seeing how we can learn, though practice, to incorporate both left and right brain processes; being able to decide almost instantaneously which of the many choices that arise moment by moment should be acted upon This includes “information” that is best characterized as “a felt sense”, “intuition” or “internal wisdom”. In my last post “Yeah Man: Improvisation in Jazz, Comedy and Zen“, I suggested that improvisation in music, theater or daily life is facilitated by adopting an attitude of saying “yes” to whatever is happening in the moment. By saying “yes” to or not resisting whatever is going on because it does not fit some idealized notion of what you think should be happening, you not only allow for personal flow, but facilitate flow in others as well. When this happens it often seems as if there is no thinking, decision-making or choices involved. In Zen and other literature this is even referred to as “choiceless awareness”.
What I want to do now is provide an argument that even in highly improvised actions, choices are being made. To help with this I want use a comment sent in by Sean in response to “Yeah Man: Improvisation in Jazz, Comedy and Zen”. So let’s start with Sean’s remark and then I will riff on this for a while. You can read the original post by clicking here.
On Feb. 20th, Sean wrote:
“After I my divorce and move to San Francisco, for the first year I made it a personal rule that I had to say “yes” to all social invitations and calls to adventure. Oftentimes, it’s far easier to hole up and stay home, but even when I was tired or “not feeling it” I still said yes. This practice paid with substantial dividends. It’s the same with zazen. Sometimes you just don’t feel like sitting on the cushion, but you do it anyway. You say “yes, and …,” and then you sit down. It pays dividends.
It’s strange the interplay of practice and improvisation, which I think goes back to your previous post. Sometimes you have to force yourself to practice, which in turn leads to a kind of better unforced spontaneity. So I love this idea of “yes, and …” We can just say “yes, and …” to whatever arises, even not wanting to sit. And then do it anyway.”
Now I’m going to take some liberties with Sean’s remarks and go beyond what he actually says in order to make some points about the nature of practice and improvisation. What I say may or may not exactly characterize Sean’s specific process, but I think it reflects a more general process.
When we say “yes” to one thing we are also saying “no” to another and this is what makes the practice of “yes” a powerful practice. Sean doesn’t actually say it. but I would imagine that in the past he had rather quickly turned down the kinds of invitations that he is now saying “yes” to. I’m guessing that the response “I’m too tired” or “Maybe some other time” had become rather automatic in the face of such invitations. For whatever reason, it is likely that he came to realize a some point that these automatic responses were perhaps keeping him from living a more fulfilling life and so he decided to practice his version of “just say yes”. Now based on personal experience, I am also guessing that for a while, perhaps a long time, the old reactions of “no” came up automatically whenever an invitation was directed his way. And, I would imagine that part of what went on in Sean’s thinking process entailed “overriding” (saying “no” to ) these automatic thoughts as to why the invitation should be refused, by remembering that he has decided to practice this attitude of “yes”.
It is significant that Sean links his practice of embracing invitations with his practice of Zazen. This is because the essence of Zazen is watching one’s thoughts as they arise and deciding to not get caught up in them. I might be tempted to say that Zazen entails “saying” no to thoughts but that phrase can be confusing. Since thoughts will always arise, it is not the thoughts that are seen as problematic from a Zen perspective. And, I know from experience that trying not to think while practicing Zazen is futile and leads to internal tensions. So the skill that is developed during Zazen is being able to objectively look at these thoughts and making a decision as to whether to allow yourself to float away from the present moment along with these thoughts or to bring yourself back into being fully present. The fact is that there are times when thinking is necessary and you always have the choice. I’m pretty sure that Sean would say “no” to an offer to go out and snort cocaine and then shoot people on the street.
By remembering (becoming mindful) again and again in daily Zazen, one developes the “muscles”, so to speak, to remember and wake up in everyday circumstances, such as those described by Sean, where important choices must be made very rapidly.
Let’s imagine that one day after a hard day at the office a co-worker asks Sean to go out on the town. In the split second that human thinking requires, Sean may have the thought “oh I’m too tired”, followed by “Oh, but what about my practice of yes?”, followed by ” No I really am too tired and need to sleep”. The point is that Sean has a choice and it is a richer choice than before he began his “practice of yes”. Presumably he is not only able to say “no” to his old habitual thoughts that were not rewarding but could also say “no” to his practice of “yes” and consider how he is actually feeling before deciding on a course of actions. In the movie “Yes Man” the character played by Jim Carrey begins to expand and enrich his life by saying “yes” to circumstances and opportunities that he previously would have missed. But, a major lesson of the story is that he also learns than there some situations where saying “no” is a wiser choice than automatic “yeses”. By practicing “yes” the character has expanded his choices and learned how to make better decisions, including saying “no” to “yes”. Any practice necessarily expands awareness and as practice continues, decision-making processes becomes easier and quicker one until it reaches a point where it becomes improvisational flow.
In his comments on the previous post, Jiyu Roshi wrote that our
“Zen practice, …….is centered on becoming more aware of all of our choices and the reasons behind them, our life is really a dance of moving between, and along with, yes and no responses. My point here is that it’s important to see as much of the whole picture as possible and understand all sides to an ultimate “yes or no” decision.”
(See Jiyu Roshi’s full comments on previous post.)
Now you may wonder why I am making such a big deal about seeing improvisation as involving choices and seeing left-brain processes as being part of the decision-making process. It may seem that I have spent a lot of your time writing about a minor shift in how we understand improvisation, but I think that there are some real problems with seeing improvisation as entailing no thought and no choice, especially for the Zen practioner. Since this piece has already violated the lenth guidelines for bloggers, I have chosen to follow up with this in my next post. But, let me leave you with a hint of where I plan to go next and something to think about in the meantime.
In his interview with Oprah, Lance Armstrong offered as an explanation for his cheating
and the massive suffering it caused others by saying: “It was easy. It just flowed. I was in a zone, like athletes get”. This sense of flow is what we all would like to experience but what happens when it is experienced and understood as “I was not responsible for my choices”?