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.

To leave a comment, click on the white bubble at the right of the title.  To make an anonymous comment, write “anonymous” when prompted for a name.


  1. In this week’s blog Manoj points out to us that “reframing” is may be a great skillful means when it comes possible creative solutions. From my perspective (which, hopefully keeps increasing in all the ten directions) reframing is a skill I hope will be learned by all Zen students. Breathing practices, koans, compassionate activities, and shikantaza (“just sitting”) all owe their success to the Zen students realizing reframing never ceases being one of the cornerstones of our practice. In any of the practice strategies suggested by Zen teachers, the ability to step outside the normative frames of said practices becomes a crucial lesson to be learned.

    As “reframing” becomes part and parcel of one’s creative/spiritual practice it may show it’s greatest value when we’re thrown into a totally unique situation that is extremely challenging. These situations can be of any nature – physical, emotional, intellectual, and/or spiritual – or all of the above. When my Mother passed away and I spent several hours sitting with her by her bed waiting for the University to come pick up her body I was fortunate I had years of spiritual practices to rely on to help me through this very difficult situation. The greatest teaching in that moment for me was just to let go of what I thought should be happening and to allow whatever needed to arise to arise. I let go of all frames and just sat with her. I experienced going through several different “frames”, but I also experienced each new frame allowed me come to greater peace with the stark reality of the moment. In fact, finally, the “stark reality” changed and became the “new reality” and I was able to be with my Mother in a completely new and inspiring way and I knew I was able to move forward with my life at that point.

    What I have learned over time is that reframing can be a process in-and-of itself and in this situation with my Mother I allowed the process to flow and reveal what I needed to know and do.

    So, how about that! Here we are! Back to the flow!

    Thanks Manoj.

    • This is a comment from Jiyu Roshi on an earlier post called “Are you a Flow Addict?”. Somehow his comment got deleted. Since I referred to these
      comments in my contribution to Discussion #3 on the FORUM page, I wanted to reprint it here.

      No, “flow” is not addictive. And you cannot become a “flow” addict. “Flow” is living in a place of complete freedom. You cannot be addicted to freedom. That’s an oxymoron.

      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. A concrete example of this would be the person making a choice to do something they had never done before which they know will be very difficult to even try to do. Perhaps they know their efforts will result in greater freedom in the future, or perhaps it is something they know they need to do right now to avert a crisis. An addict wouldn’t be able to make those choices.

      I must make clear the “flow” I am talking about is the life of the awakened person. An awakened person is no longer addicted to the most dangerous of conditions – belief in the self. We live in a state of ignorance when we believe in the self and that belief binds like no other addiction. 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. In Zen we call this state of mind the “hungry ghost”. Manoj does an excellent job of discussing this type of person and some of the activities people may become addicted to and their consequences.

      True “flow” only exists when you are spontaneously in the moment and you live your life from that place which is the opposite of addiction. Our Zen practice is an ancient tradition which successfully leads to living a life which is flowing naturally and spontaneously. When a person practices Zen in a dedicated manner, he or she, will learn how to live in a balanced way because it is a creative practice that will reward people as well as challenge them to the utmost. Zen practice is hard and very few people actually devote themselves to the challenges and rewards it offers.

      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 discusses. Zen is a good resource and environment to start, or continue, the journey. Are you up for it?

  2. Or could it be the case that the awakened life is not continuous reframing but no-framing? I know, this sounds like annoying zen cliche; so I better give some context. The Diamond Sutra addresses the problem of creating a perception of a being, which I would equate with (re)framing.

    The Buddha said to him, “Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should thus give birth to this thought: ‘However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether born from an egg or born from a womb,…, in whatever conceivable realm of being one might conceive of beings, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.’
    “And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva’. And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.”

    The reframing of a situation would be the creation of the perception of new beings—added patterns to a painting, anger transformed to kindness, a dead person instead of a living one. But now we find ourselves in a new situation that subsequently needs to be reframed. This has an eerie similarity to rounds of rebirth. Buddhist liberation is freedom from such rounds. Thus reframing may be counter to liberation. In fact, it may be the very activity that is preventing liberation!

    The bodhisattva wants to liberate all beings. Eventually she does this. But, alas, no beings have been liberated at all, “not a single being liberated”. Why? Because she created beings that needed to be liberated in the first place; i.e., she created a situation that needed to be reframed.

    So are there no beings? Are there no new situations that need to be reframed? Is creativity actually binding and not liberating? I am not awakened, so I do think there are beings, etc. But this is where I think zen diverges from art, creativity and psychology. The best these things can do is reframe recursively, forever; zen tells us (or seems to always want to tell me) that the trick is not to frame at all—no beings; no patterns; no emotions; no dead people, no living people; no birth, no death.

    This sounds insane. Where is my mistake?

    Thanks for the post Manoj.

    • Hi Neil, Thank for your thoughtful reply. I haven’t read the Sutra you are quoting from but you provide enough information, that I should be able to
      “frame” a reply. I guess in my mind this was the kind of issue I would get into after about a year of posts, laying out some ground work. But, having
      a dialogue ( I’m guessing there will be some back and forth, perhaps including others) about this now could also be helpful in thinking about all of this. Here is what I propose. Sometime in the not so distant future, I will
      post a rely on my FORUMs page. This is probably a better place for protracted discussions. When relevant I can refer to whatever discussion developes on the Forum in my
      regular posts.

  3. “Reframing” is a passable word for some of the experiences I have had to deal with. The crises, disappointments and challenges that have appeared in my life have (mostly) taught me valuable lessons.

    When my wife died I felt my grief, and allowed it to go to its deepest level. I held nothing back. Ultimately there was nothing left. No grief, no feeling. Just emptiness. A lesson in the impermanence of even the most intense feelings.

    Because of my long history with the San Diego Chargers, my acquaintance with Barron Hilton and Sid Gilman, I have had a strong reaction to their current miserable season. I was upset, feeling miserable after each game they lost. My temptation was to walk away, ignore, disengage from the team and its troubles. But, Roshi reminded me that it is necessary to face our feelings rather than turn away, or “stuff” them. He made it clear that detachment was not a lack of involvement. That practice was not about ignoring the difficulties of life.

    For me,”reframing” is finding a new point of view. Difficulties are only a matter of attitude. Practice is about freedom, letting go of old ideas.

    Football is a sport, not a necessity. It is a recreation, and if I use that word correctly I can us it to recreate my viewpoint. I can have compassion for Norv Turner and the young men who are over matched by their opponents. I can move out of my own self interest and have concern for others. After all, that is the first step on the path of the the First Vow.