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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