Shuso Hossen Ceremony: Eric Kuniholm Reads Short Story “Ziggy”.

Today’s posting is a video of Eric Kuniholm reading a short story called “Ziggy”.  It is a part of a novel that Eric is writing that is about dog detectives.  Eric has been associated with theVistaZenCenterfor 20 years and brings his Zen insights to his writings.  You can see this video  at the link below:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2DzjK6b9hk

 

Recent posts on the Art and Zen Today site have involved segments from my Shuso Hossen Ceremony in March of 2016.  The last post was a video of the last of my musical performance during the ceremony. Last I looked, the count of those viewing the video was unusually low. So, if you haven’t already, you may want to view this one as it is really the most straightforward response to the Shuso Koan of all my performances.  (See this video , titled “Art and the Four Vows” at:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cr_1080EtN8

 

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NEITHER HERE NOR THERE AT THE COYOTE BAR AND GRILL

This post starts off with a short video I took several weeks ago at the Coyote Bar and Grill in Carlsbad, which is where my wife and like to go dancing. On this night, one of my favorite singers (Valerie Pierce) was singing one of my favorite tunes (“This is How We Do It”) with one of my favorite local bands (SmokeStaxx).  Before I get into my usual pontification, I’d suggest that you watch the video now.  Unfortunately, I was not quick enough to capture the whole song, but I got the best part.

 

Click here to see video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zw7bciE7F2U&feature=c4-overview&list=UUVRR6l491Aafe34H23PwdNA

I had talked briefly with Valerie after she had performed this rap at an earlier date.  I asked whether she would be OK with me recording her the next time they did this tune and she said “yes”. I also asked her what her state of mind was while she was performing that night.  Her answer was ” I don’t know where I went”. (Valerie was recently named “#1 Ranking New Jazz Artist in the Hollywood Talent Quest”.  See more at ValeriePierce.com)


 The idea of being somewhere else (or not being one’s self) is common among musicians when trying to describe their state of mind while improvising.  The same language is common among those witnessing such performances (e.g. “like he’s gone, man”  or “He’s possessed”).(see Improvization in Jazz and Zen).  I would suggest that such performances are good examples of what Dr.Mihaly Csikszentimaihalyi calls the “flow experience” where the experiencer  “forgets the conceptual self” and loses a sense of time.  (See To Know Flow or No Flow?).  The idea of being “far out” was also the topic of an earlier blog “The thin line between”  and “aliens”

 

While it is common to refer to such performancer as not being here, in other posts (for instance  “The Artist Is Present”, I also suggest that the performer is totally here in the present in the moment.  The language we use to describe and try to understand these kinds of experiences could, at first blush,  be seen as contradictory.  Is the performer “gone” or is she “totally here in the present moment?  Is the performer “far out” or “present”. The problem lies in trying to describe human experiences that lie outside the commonplace or “normal”  These kinds of experiences are simply not easy to describe in words because they involve a dropping away of the usual thought processes (predominately “left brain” processes) that we use for making distinctions and understanding what is happening.  As I have shown before, these are the very kinds of experiences that spawn creativity (See “Sudden Insight and Creativity“)

As I look at Valerie in this video, I see both someone who is “gone” and “fully present”.  She is gone in the sense that she is not exactly her usual self, but she is present in that she is responding immediately and quickly to what is going on around her; making split-second decisions that can only occur when one is fully focused in the present moment.

 

I was talking with my brother recently about all of this and he said that when he is improvising (he is a jazz saxaphonist) the audience can tell when he is in the state of being Gone/Present and they let him know by their response.  When someone is in this state (whether a performer or not) they have a “Presence”. (see Performer-Audience Communication” ).  How is this “presence” communicated?  I would suggest that it is conveyed as much visually as through sound.  I have played drums while my brother is improvising and I can always tell when he is “into it”; it is conveyed by facial expressions and various other forms of body language (try watching the video of Valerie again, with your volume turned down).

Monk and Diz

 

There is reason to believe that this is true of performers in the relatively subdued and staid classical music. I just read about some surprising research that seems consistent with this idea.  Chia-Jung Tsay is both a classical pianist and a psychologist who conducted a study where she showed both amateur and professional musicians clips from classical-music competitions. She asked her volunteers to guess the winners.  But, some saw videos with recording, some listed only to audio and others watched silent videos.  What she found is that it was only in the silent videos, the videos without any sound, that participants were best able to identify the actual winners.

.

(http://www.npr.org/2013/08/20/213551358/how-to-win-that-music-competition-send-a-video)

Chia-Jung Tsay

 

My interpretation of Tsay’s results is that the “presence” of the winners was largely conveyed visually.  Interestingly, Ellen Langer’s studies on creativity and mindfulness also suggest that “presence” may be conveyed from artist to viewer even when the artist is not physically present.  In a series of experiments where volunteers were either encouraged to create art pieces mindfully or allowed to create with no intervention, she found that artist who created more mindfully were judged to be more “authentic or charismatic based on viewers perceptions of their work.  Now “presence” is one of those words that are difficult to define but I think that “authenticity’ and “charisma” are elements of what we generally mean when using the term.

What Langer calls the “authenticity” and “charisma”, (which can be seen as part of “presence”) of painters can be conveyed to viewers through what they see on the canvas.  Generally, I would say, we are drawn to art of all types when it conveys the presence of the artist, even if the artist is not physically present.

In the most general sense “presence” means that others are impressed by a person”s appearance and manner.  But, as I discussed above, the term often implies the existence of  something or someone not physically present.  Different people will have different interpretations of the “something” or “someone” but I think the quote from Wikihow below best sums up my position:

“In some spiritual circles, presence and spirit are one in the same. Meditation, contemplation, dance, chant, all seek to connect with something deeper. Presence is the result of getting in contact with your deeper self.”

 http://www.wikihow.com/Have-Presence

 

Even the nature of “your deeper self” can be debated but I would suggest that this is what is often referred to in the Zen literature as “realizing one’s Buddha nature”.  That is, it is in our nature to be “present/awake/alive” but for most people, this must be realized through practice.  The term “Buddha nature” is one of those that can be difficult to grasp but I think that author William Westney may provide some insight into it’s meaning.

Westney, author of “The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self” suggests that if you watch 3 year olds engaging with music you get a sense of the inherent joy that can be evoked from playing and listening to music.  Artists with “presence”, I would suggest, allow the enthusiasm and involvement of the child to shine through their performances.  To use Westney’s worlds: ..”there is  total involvement, every fiber, sinew and nerve-ending alter to the musical impulse…” (pg. 17).  This is what I see when watching the video of Valerie.

Westney suggests that this inherent joy, in most cases, is sufficated by lessons and other adult demands until most of us forget or deny it and we become convinced that we do not have the talent to either perform or fully listen music (see “Ellen Langer on “The Talent Myth). 

 Westney goes on to say:

“The energized, fluid creativity of play, for example is a childhood treasure that is often lost later. People happily forget themselves when they are absorbed in play, and at the same time they are acutely aware” (p. 22).  In other words they are simultaneously “there” and “here”.  Dale Wright’s deconstruction of the Buddhist  Six Perfections, designed to provide students with the “goals” of practice suggests that a sense of joy is a key element of spiritual practice as well.  It makes sense to me that this joy would develop as one breaks through the conditioning that has stiffled the joyousness of childhood. It seems to me that what Westney is describing as the three year old’s natural inclination to play and musicality is very similar to “Buddha nature” in that both are inherent and both usually need to be re-discovered or realized in later life.

From all accounts it appears that the historic Buddha, after years of spiritual practice,  had a presence that others could acknowledge and were drawn to.  At the same time I would guess that had Buddha been around during the early days of jazz, he would certainly have been seen as “real gone”.  The Heart Sutra, seen as one of the most important of Buddha’s teachings ends with  the phrases “gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha” which is translated as “ gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond“.  Gone, as gone beyond ordinary egjo-based consciousness and suffering.  From what I can tell, Buddha conveyed his “goneness” to those he met but  was also very much present; present enough to effectively convey his teaching, organize an order of monks to succeed him and become engaged in civil society.  According to the Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera, “The Buddha had gone beyond all worldly affairs, but still gave advice on good government” (http://www.saigon.com/~anson/ebud/whatbudbeliev/229.htm)

So, the historic Buddha was gone but not gone.  Neither “here” or “there”.  Interestingly  Buddha uses terms similar to this in the following quote attributed to him:

When for you there is only the seen in the seen, only the heard in the heard, only the sensed in the sensed, only the cognized in the cognized, then you will not be reckoned by it.  When you are not reckoned by it, you will not be in it.  When you are not in it, you will be neither “here” nor “there” nor between the two.

This, just this, is the end of suffering.

Buddha Gautama (563-483 BC)

 When I am dancing to a great band like Smokestaxx or watching/listening to a great performer like Valerie Pierce, I am often temporarily “neither here nor there” and I get at least a taste of what it might be like to realize my “Buddha Nature”.  Does Booty Shaking = Buddha Nature ?  I’m not sure but I intend to keep up my booty shaking practice and I’ll let you know when I find out.

——————————————————————————————-

 I don’t understand capri pants. They seem like neither here nor there.

Jesse Eisenberg

Lyrics from Neither Here Nor There by Eleisha Eagle

The secret of life
now I’ve got the key,
I’ve got the key,
I’ve got the key
but I can’t find the lock
so it’s no use to me

La Dee Da Da Da
I’m not worried
La Dee Da Da Da
Happen to care?
La Dee Da Da Da
I’m happy though I’m
Neither here nor there
I’m neither here nor there

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WHAT IS PERFECTION IN ART AND ZEN?

 

 

Since the publication of “Evolution of The Adagio – a therapeutic motion machine” there has been quite a bit of discussion about the importance of the Golden Ratio in the creation of art and music ( see “Truth , and Faith and B. S. in Art and Zen”).  The advocates of this approach contend  that art based on the proportions called the Golden ratio is somehow more aesthetically perfect or pleasing than others.  One of my readers, Charlie from Massachusetts, suggested that we do a little experiment on Art and Zen Today to test that idea.  I thought that sounded like fun and so asked Charlie to work on that for this Post.  After the experimental quiz, found below, I have added a few comments about how all of this could be seen as related to Zen practice.  The “right answers” to the quiz are contained in my comments.

Thanks Charlie for your contribution.

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Since the series of post on the Golden Ratio I have consciously looked at objects to see whether or not I found those based on the Ratio to be more asthetically pleasing.  For instance, I went through a couple stores with my wife and I started seeing things in the stores through a prism of the golden rectangle. For example there was a sox display in the shape of the golden rectangle, a bench in the entryway to a store. and a couple other things. I kept saying to myself—is that shaped correctly? I think there is something to it.  Maybe the Renaissance was a more enlightened time—they were more in tune with a sense of beauty. Today few people care about whether things are shaped correctly to achieve a balance.”  I thought it might be interesting for your readers to see whether or not objects based on Golden Ratio were more pleasing to them.

In his article James took a wider view and discussed many applications of the golden mean. Here, I’m only focusing on the appearance of the front view of standing furniture. And now, starting from the very beginning, what is a golden rectangle? It’s a rectangle standing up like a sign whose width is 1.618 times bigger than the side. See below.

Ratio of Height to Width is .61 (Golden Mean)

The next image shows a man looking at a golden rectangle. According to the artists from the past, we should appreciate that the golden rectangle is a more pleasing to the eye than other rectangles.

Looking only at the front of a piece of furniture, let’s say, a bench (see below); someone may be able to convince you that a bench built to the dimensions of the golden ratio looks more pleasing than a wider one or a narrower version of the same bench.  To illustrate that, we see below a golden rectangle placed in back of a bench. You can see that the bench matches the golden rectangle—same width, same height off the floor. The front view of the bench is built to the dimensions of the golden rectangle.

The Bench is same proportion as Golden Ratio

 

Now, test your own preferences of what you think is more pleasing. Below are three pairs of furniture.  Without much thought, choose the one you find most pleasing.  Then check below to see if you picked those that were built to the dimensions of the golden ratio.  Make your choices before checking the answers below.

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When I took Charlie’s test, I choose the furniture that conformed to the Golden Ratio in two of the three sets.  I could imagine making other choices if the objects had varied in color, decoration or if I had to place the furniture in a spot with unique space requirements.  In other words, I am guessing that the “ideal” specified by the mathematics of the Golden Ratio, may have some validity but the “pull” towards this notion of what is aesthetically pleasing is not a strong one.  A study by psychologists McManus, Cook and Hunt seems to back up this view ( See “Beyond the Golden Section and Normative Aesthetics: Why Do IndividualsDiffer so Much in Their Aesthetic Preferences for Rectangles?”)

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/medical-education/publications/Reprints2010/2010-PACA-BeyondTheGoldenSection.pdf

In all three cases, the pieces on the right were proportioned in accord with the Golden Ratio.  I’d be very interested in how you did and what your process was like.  Any ideas on this topic would be welcomed. Take the time to write a comment.

Speaking of ideals, I just happened to have just finished reading Dale Wright’s The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character.   Wright sees the six perfections ( generosity, morality, tolerance, energy , mediation and wisdom) as traits which, throughout the evolution of Buddhist thought, have been seen as the most important and useful in defining or describing the “enlightened person”.  These ideals are understood to be those towards which practitioners should strive.  Although Wright provides the reader with a sense of how and why these “perfections” or ideals evolved over time, he also offers a critique of each and asks how our understanding of each should change to fit with our contemporary lifestyles. 

Wright points out that in the West, values are largely based on a Platonic tendency to see ideals as “timeless, fixed forms to which human lives must conform”(pg. 270).   I think this is true for many adherents of the “golden ratio” theory of aesthetics, who seem to be looking for an objective unchanging notion of what is beautiful.  Wright points out some difficulties with this approach:

What Plato did not see, or was not able to concede, is that human history is the story of the unfolding of visions of “the good, the true, and the beautiful” as they have come to be experienced throughout the variegated history of human cultures.  Rather than being fixed in character and given to us in advance of our quest, these ideals stand out ahead of us as the horizons that inspire our striving and that recede into the future as we approach them……..   “Enlightenment” and all of its components, from generosity to wisdom, are moving targets” (pg. 270)

Charlie may have been on to something when he seemed to suggest above that during the   Renaissance the allure of the Golden Ratio may have been stronger. In that artists and craftspersons during that time would have been well advised to utilize this ideal in their creations.

 In TRUTH AND FAITH AND “B.S.” IN ART AND ZEN, James suggests that without accepting the “truth” of theories that specify aesthetic ideals, they can be used as  jumping off points for creative endeavors.  I believe that the same may be said for schemes like the “six perfections” in the realm of spiritual transformation.  Wright suggest that in practices like Zen, students need some sense of what they are doing  (“the idea of enlightenment”),  and this requires the same sort of imagination that is essential to the creativity of artists and innovative thinkers. (see “HOW CREATIVITY WORKS”).  [ By the way, he differentiates between imagination and fantasy; in the latter we may entertain possibilities for the future but "they are not our possibilities". (pg.211)  He points out that existing (traditional) theories, whether they  deal with aesthetic ideals or ideals of personal traits,should not be blindly followed.  But, he also says that we should not throw them out.   According to Wright:

We understand only by virtue of standing within and upon traditions of understanding……The role of traditions, therefore…………..is to provide points of departure for advancing into the future.  Creative thinking does not overthrow the past so much as stand upon it and use it for purposes of renewal, continually amending, rethinking, and reconstituting ideals suitable for current circumstances.  (pg. 211)

Whether creating a new painting, piece of music, a new garden, a new job project or an new life, it makes sense to pay attention to what has come before us and mindfully use this knowledge as we respond  to our present circumstances. 

Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.
Winston Churchill


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GAINING TIME AND MINDFULNESS

BHANTE HENEPOLA GUNARATANA

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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THE POEM STORE: ZEN AT THE FARMER’S MARKET?

A customer approaches a small table set up among the produce booths at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market.  A small sign on the table reads:

                                                        Poem Store

                                               Your Subject, Your Price

                                                              Yes

The poet, who sits behind the table asks her customer for a topic and is told “Since Wednesday”.  In about 3 minutes she types and then reads the following poem to her customer:

Time has moved along

slowly, inching with heat

and asking us to understand

what can happen in a single

day, in the rise of a week…..

The customer, with tears in his eyes tells the poet:  “So Martha started chemo on Wednesday” and the poet simply nods.

This above exchange was described in a recent article by Deborah Netburn in the LA Times titled “Poems While You Wait”.  The article focuses on the unusual occupation/practice of a poet by the name of Jacqueline Suskin.  Jacqueline can be found most days set up at a small booths at Farmer’s markets and similar events . The payment is up to the customers but most pay around $5 for their poem.  Suskin always asks if she can read her poem because she considers poetry to be an “oral art”. Some people try to think up far out topics but most ask for a poem that somehow relates to current events in their lives.  She has a lot of repeat customers and newcomers are usually surprised at how relevant and poignant their personal poems turn out.  .

Jacqueline is quoted as saying: “The thing I like about Poem Store is that it is not about me.  I’m not thinking about myself. I’m writing about my interaction with a person, and I want to give them something that is just theirs.”

Because she understands that her customers are wanting to buy  vegetables and get right home, she works very quickly.. According to Jacqueline: “Part of the exercise is to get down immediately what comes to me.  They are like little mantras, little prayers that get handed out”.

Jacqueline thinks that people generally ask for poems that might provide them help with or insight into personal problems:  “They want hope, or confidence, or they just need someone to see who they are.. Half the time I feel like I am a therapist or a psychic”.

The poet doesn’t know how she manages to write poems so quickly.  “There is just this blurry area there.  There is no answers to how I can do it so quickly, so I don’t question it”. She goes on to say, however that it is exhausting work:  “This is the most physically draining thing I’ve ever done in my life.  When I’m done writing poems for four hours for people I don’t know, I’m like a zombie.  My brain is mush”.

Those of you who have been reading my past blogs, can probably see why I was intrigued by this article.  The quickness of her responses to requests for poems resembles the improvisational skills of jazz musicians and the storied shenanigans of traditional Zen  masters (see  YEAH MAN: IMPROVISATION IN JAZZ, COMEDY AND ZEN) ).  Although Jacqueline seems to be making a living writing poems, there is a selfless element to what she does. One of the elements of the Buddhist, Eightfold Path is right livelihood, which essentially means that a practioner should make a living in a job that is consistent with Buddhist ethics and ideals.  Certainly, Suskin’s Poem Store seems to be an example of this.

 Jacqueline Suskin’s interactions with the public also remind me a lot of Marina Abramovic’s performance piece at MOMA where she sat staring into the eyes of museum visitors during opening hours for a month.  In a post called  The Artist is Present”, I admired the Zen-like quality of Abramovic’s art.  Both Marina and Jacqueline attest to the strain of having to “be present” with strangers for hours on end, but both also seem to draw an immense degree of satisfaction from their actions.

I think many artists become depressed or cynical because they feel that the public does not appreciate their creativity to the degree that they would wish for.  They suffer alone and are not able to feel that they can find a way to use their creative skills to benefit others.  It seems that Jacqueline has found a unique means for accomplishing this, while still supporting herself doing the thing she loves to do..  I wonder whether the Poem Store concept, might  be  something that other artists could, with some creative “tweaking”,  utilize to energize their own practices?  I’d love to hear reactions from some of my artist readers (or anyone else for that matter) about their take on this article.  To read the original article, use the following address: 

http://www.latimes.com/includes/sectionfronts/A1.pdf

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MINDFULNESS WARS: LANGER VERSUS BUDDHA?

 

Mindfulness Wars: Langer Versus Buddha?

Reading this post might make you more mindful.  Here is how.  The term “mindfulness” is used differently by Langer and by those in the Buddhist tradition.  Langer says one way to become more mindful is to see “similarities in things thought different and the differences in things taken to be similar” (pg. 16, On Becoming An Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity).  Here is an opportunity for you to play with that notion and hopefully become more mindful.  Or, you could choose, mindfully of course, to check out what has gone viral on YouTube today.

In my last blog post I described the Genjo Practice at the Vista Zen Center as having certain parallels to Ellen Langer’s “program” for “personal reinvention”.  The arts have long been associated with Zen practice and, although I don’t have any hard evidence to support this, I suspect that these art practices have been used as sort of a practicum where Zen Monks could apply what they learn sitting on a cushion to everyday life.  As Langer points out, learning to make mindful choices is easier when these choices are regarding activities that are seen as not having “serious” consequences. (See last blog).  I also asserted my belief that engagement in so called non-serious activities as a way of developing creative mindfulness is likely to be more effective (at least for most people) if carried out as a complement to more formal meditation practice. 

Is the glass half mindful or half mindless?

Here, I want to lay out why I think this may be the case, but to do so I need to deal with the fact that not everyone agrees on what the term “mindfulness” means.  Almost every contemporary review of the mindfulness literature suggests that Langer’s concept and that developed within the context of Buddhism are not the same.

For Langer, creative mindfulness is a way of making choices that are not determined by from old established “rules, routines and mind-sets” (pg.16) , to use her words.  She recognizes that her understanding of the concept has some relationship to the term “mindfulness” as it has developed in the Buddhist tradition but does not feel that two are the same.  According to Langer:

“For me the two way of  becoming mindful are not at odds with each other.  Becoming more mindful does not involve achieving some altered stat of consciousness through year of meditation.  It requires, rather, learning to switch modes of thinking about ourselves and the world.  It is very easy to learn to be mindful, which makes doing so appealing to those unwilling to sit for twenty minutes twice a day.  Mindfulness is simply the process of noticing new things.” (pg. 16)

I am not certain why Langer associates Buddhist mindfulness practice with “altered states of consciousness, unless she sees what I have been referring to in this blog as being “alive/awake/present” as an altered stated.  In some way it is an altered state in the sense that most of us, most of the time are not fully alive/awake/present.  Yet as I look throughout Langer’s book, it seems to me that when she describes people acting mindfully, she is describing precisely someone who is alive/awake/present and so is talking about the same thing that I see as the ideal of most spiritual disciplines.

When Langer writes about her (and others’) experiences when she started creating art, she uses terms like “enlivening”, “engaging” “being there” and “being fully present” as she describes mindfully making choices required in such projects.  She presents evidence from experiments that suggest that engaging in mindful creativity leads to the creators to feel more “authentic, and prompts others to perceive the mindful creators as more “charismatic” and their creations as “more interesting”.  All of this suggests that Langer’s concept of mindfulness is closely related, if not the same as what I have been referring to as being alive/awake/present. Since I see becoming more alive/awake/present as being the ideal of the kinds meditation practices that have been associated with Buddhism, including Zen, I would suggest that the process Langer calls “Reinventing Yourself through Mindful Creativity” is in accord with this ideal.

Langer argues that immersing oneself in a creative practice , like painting, can lead to a gradual development (“Reinventing Yourself”) of mindfulness in all areas of one’s life.  I do not dispute this possibility but would suggest that for many people, the generalization of mindfulness into other aspects of life will be limited.  One need only point to the biographies of numerous creative people who also lead miserable self-destructive lives as evidence to support my contention.  I also know from my own experience that simply doing art does not generally make one consistently mindful in either art or other areas of life.  I am also aware of many people who have taken up an artistic practice and are satisfied to produce pieces over and over again, that may display their new-found skills, but not much in the way of “mindful creativity”. This is why I suggested in my last post that for most people a creative practice, as prescribed by Langer,  plus mindfulness meditation/training would be more effective in leading to the development of more widespread and consistent mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation is the central practice in the Hinayana  branch of Buddhism and these techniques have recently found their way into Western psychotherapy.   Kabat-Zinn, who has been a leader in this development defines “mindfulness as :”the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment — non-judgmentally.”  There are various techniques for doing this but they all require setting aside a time for a meditative practice in order to foster and learn to consistently apply this purpose.  The Zen literature does not often use the term “mindfulness” but it seems to me that the practice of Zazen, often referred to as “just sitting” also fosters this non-evaluative attention that Kabut-Zinn describes above. 

Kabut-Zinn goes on to say: 

Mindfulness isn’t about getting your way or meditating so that you can be better at something. My definition of healing is coming to terms with things as they are, so that you can do whatever you can to optimize your potential, whether you are living with chronic pain or having a baby. You can’t control the universe, so mindfulness involves learning to cultivate wisdom and equanimity— not passive resignation—in the face of what Zorba the Greek called the full catastrophe of the human condition.

Read more: http://healthland.time.com/2012/01/11/mind-reading-jon-kabat-zinn-talks-about-bringing-mindfulness-meditation-to-medicine/#ixzz2ZuGSEOXG

This sounds very much as a way of describing the ideals of Zen as well as those put forth by Langer.  Langer’s work seems to focus on making decisions that are based on being awake/alive/present, while the meditation routines described as mindfulness training and Zazen, may be seen as a practice for acquiring the micro-skills necessary to learn to become awake/alive/present moment by moment.  One way of thinking about what happens in mindfulness training is that one acquires the skills to awaken or enliven themselves over and over again in meditation, when demands are few, with the idea that eventually these skills will “spill over” into more active situations.

 In Zazen and other mindfulness meditation practices, the practioner learns to “catch” themselves as they drift off into protracted thought-trains and learn to refocus their attention on bodily sensations that are happening in the moment.  In earlier articles I referred to this as “remembering to remember”.   Having such skill would help immensely in making the kind of mindful decisions that Langer calls for in her book.

In comparing Langer’s notion of “mindfulness” with how that term is used in Buddhist meditation and the subsequent uses in Western therapy, Scott Bishop says the following”

Langer’s mindfulness involves the active construction of new categories and meaning when one pays attention to the stimulus properties of primarily external situations.  While our own definition emphasizes the inhibition of such elaborate processes as one pays attention to primarily internal stimuli (thoughts , feeling and sensations).  Bishop et. al.   pg. 6 (.http://www.prevention.psu.edu/projects/documents/Bishopetal.article.pdf)

I think it is possible to see the interconnection between these two facets of mindfulness if we remember that creativity involves dropping old ideas or approaches as well as developing new ones.  The literature on creativity shows again and again that new ideas and solutions are most likely to develop when we stop engaging in rational thought processes See( Sudden Insight)

What is learned in mindfulness training is how to let go of old persisting thoughts, ideas, rules, mind-sets etc. by expanding one’s awareness into the somatic realm, as described by in To Know Flow or No Flow. This form of meditation is sometimes referred to as “insight meditation.”  The idea here is that new ways of seeing things can result from letting go of thoughts, mirroring the results of studies in the creativity literature.(Sudden Insight and Creativity)

In previous posts on refocusing and reframing, I argued that this skill makes in easier for people to make creative choices in everday situations.  So someone who has consistently honed the ability to “drop” out of the “thought realm” and into the “realm of bodily sensations” by practicing meditation, should have an advantage of making mindful decisions in the heat of everyday life, whether making art or making a living.

 Langer’s focus seems to be on what happens when people are actively engaged in daily activities and does not really write about the mechanism of “letting go” that is the essence of  mindfulness training.  Yet, if you look closely at what she says, there is nothing to contradict or dispute the importance of this “letting go”.  In fact she speaks directly about the importance of dropping social comparisons and subsequent self evaluations, – a process she describes as replacing our “evaluating self” with our “experiencing self”.  This latter term seems to refer to our innate capabilities to pay attention to the kind somatic awareness that is emphasized in mindfulness training/meditation.  What she is writing about here is the importance of becoming “non-judgmental” in the same sense as practiced in the daily  practice of mindfulness meditation/training (see Kabat-Zinn’s quote earlier).

In her experiments Langer prompts some subjects into becoming more mindful by asking them to look for things that they would not  otherwise look for before making decisions.  Langer’s assumption is that by engaging in artistic pursuits, people can learn to do this on their own.  I believe that this can happen but have doubts about often and how consistently the general population will be able to learn to “awaken” themselves from being caught up in old habitual thought forms so they can discover mindfully creative solutions to everyday problems.

I believe that some people may naturally have developed these self-awakening skills naturally. and find it easy to move mindfully into new activities with no need for mindfulness training.  However, most of us have not   I suspect that Langer is one of those who may not feel the need from a daily regime of mindfulness training based on what she says in the quote below (and others in the book)–which would help explain why she has little interest in meditation practice:

To my good fortune, I’ve never thought to ask myself whether I have the talent to do something.  If the activity- academic, artistic , or physical- seemed interesting, I tried it.  If I didn’t quite get it, I tried it differently.  Why should I know how to do something I’ve never done before?”

Langer says  that it is easy to learn to be mindful because it is simply the process of noticing new things, and it is easier than meditating twice a day.  However,  I would argue that most of the population will not find themselves becoming significantly more mindful in all areas of their lives simply by taking up painting or gardening.  On the other hand I feel that such “creative pursuits can be excellent ways of allowing one’s growing mindfulness as developed in meditation to “spill over” into daily life activities.  By engaging in activities that are generally perceived as “less serious”, there is the opportunity to face challenges that will help reveal one’s degree of mindfulness or mindlessness moment by moment without worrying as much about whether one is making right or wrong decisions.

 I agree with Langer’s general idea that engaging in various forms of creative endeavors can help propel one on a path of self-regeneration. Langer seems to say that we can become more mindful simply by “learning to switch modes of thinking about ourselves and the world.”  This “switching” for Langer can occur simply by remembering : 1) that any rules were made by a person at some point and that those rules may not apply in the present situation and 2) to look for differences in similarities and similarities in differences.  But this is not always easy when we are in the midst of everyday interactions and activities. Most of us, most of the time do not “remember to remember”, which I see as key to this “switching” process that Langer refers to.

This is why the techniques learned in meditation practices like Zazen can help in this process ofRemembering to Remember”. One who has spent the necessary time in meditation practice, watching how his or her thoughts form and disappear and learning techniques that allow “refocusing/reframing” when they catch themselves can help them to “remember to remember” in a wide range of situations.  This ability to “awaken” oneself before getting caught up in the thought- streams that reinforce the perceptual and thinking habits that foster mindless reactions is not really the focus of Langer’s work, although nothing she writes contracticts it’s importance. However, this skill is exactly what Zazen and other mindfulness training practices could provide to add depth to the kind of self-reinvention that Langer purposes.

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ELLEN LANGER ON THE “TALENT MYTH”

If you have been following my last few posts, you know that I have been riffing on the book On Becoming an Artist by Ellen Langer, a professional psychologist and amateur painter.  Langer suggests that painting and other creative arts can be a way of developing mindfulness and the path to a richer, more authentic and satisfying life.  As I mentioned in my last post, the author sees our tendency to compare ourselves with others and evaluate ourselves according, as the biggest block to developing creative mindfulness.  In this post, I will focus on one chapter where Langer tackles what she sees as the most damaging belief that prevents people from engaging in new activities such as painting.  Even though we understand that engaging in new activities can lead to a more rewarding life, we often avoid doing so because we are convinced that we have no talent in that area.   The name of the chapter from Langer’s book dealing with this is called “The Myth of Talent”.

WHO IS TO SAY WHO IS TALENTED OR CREATIVE?

In this chapter, Langer makes the bold declaration that: “Everybody has an equal talent for everything” ( pg. 171). Drawing upon the biographies of successful artists, and studies of artists, she concludes that creations by people generally seen as creative artists are more a product of learned skills rather the result of some inherited quality.  In other words, what we usually consider to be some innate or inner quality, is largely a matter of learned skills.  According to Langer:

“we usually impute to people who are very talented, like Picasso, a knowingness that he wouldn’t recognize as he embarked on a new work.  It isn’t that the talented “know” what they are about to do as much that they are willing to start something and see where it leads them.  We, however, tend to focus on their results and ignore the struggles, uncertainties and false starts.” (pg. 150)

Langer points to recent laboratory studies of Mondrian’s work that showed that he constantly scraped his canvases to revised his paintings until he was satisfied.  According to Langer, “Like all of us, Mondrian painted step-by-step, despite how he or anyone else might describe his work”  (pg. 159) The final product and the statements of critics and/or the artist, leave the impression that the work could only be the product of a quality (genius or talent) that most of us do not processes. The failure to grasp this error in logic, prevents countless numbers of people from trying activities that they might find rewarding and which could lead to their developing their own unique talent in that area.

 As the author points out, most of the artists now considered to be talented were not seen as such at first or even during their lifetimes.  Langer asks:

“Would we want to say these artists were not talented because they lacked audience appreciation?  Of course not, yet many of us consider their works and can only feel inferior by comparison……..By definition, “everyone can’t be great at something” if we think that is so. No. everyone can’t be equally great if we hold still a single criterion for evaluation.  But criteria can and do vary” (pg. 172)

With "mindless judging" most of us become convinced that we have no talent.

When we subscribe to a single rule or set of criteria, we are reacting mindlessly.  If the artists that are now considered talented had mindlessly accepted the current cannons on what constituted talent, they would never have begun their practice.  The whole point of Langer book is to  help her readers break through the kind of mindlessness that will deter them from trying something new and potentially rewarding; new activities that could possibly help the readers learn to become more mindfully creative.  One way Langer attempts to do this is by suggesting that they mindfully consider the consequences of exploring new creative pursuits This is nicely summed up when she asks:

“If I try, and fail, am I any worse off?  It is interesting exercise to attempt to do things we think we can’t do, but would like to try just for fun.  If we don’t globalize the result and conclude “I can’t paint (or more global still, I can’t do anything artistic) because I can’t draw this dog,”  for example, what is lost?  Whose affection is at risk?  What opportunity that we’ve counted on will not be ours? … (pg. 172)

I have personally found in my own painting process, that my most “creative” painting occurs when I am willing to take risks- doing something that I’d never seen done before or something that I knew could end up being considered “a mistake”.  Taking such “risks” is not easy and these kinds of risk never seem to go away as you develop as a painter.  Risking “failure”  is part of the territory but is also what makes painting (or anything else) a challenge and fun.  It requires a fundamental shift in one’s world view where we put our choices and our actions into perspective and to stop taking ourselves so seriously.

Now, dear readers, “for your moment of Zen” (apologies to The Daily Show’s John Stewart) we will include one more quotation from Langer’s book.  It is a continuation of the quote I included immediately above where she is talking about taking chances to do something like painting which you have never done before.  Below she continues by  applying the same principles to life in general:

“Someone might point out that these examples are mere avocations, so with them there’s not much at stake,  Fine, now do the same exercise with matters we take to be more serious.  The results are not all that different.

To my good fortune, I’ve never thought to ask myself whether I have the talent to do something.  If the activity- academic, artistic , or physical- seemed interesting, I tried it.  If I didn’t quite get it, I tried it differently.  Why should I know how to do something I’ve never done before?”

Wow!  Is she saying that we can stop worrying so much about how everything we do in life is evaluated and take risks to try new ways of being without worrying about whether we are judged by others to be a failure?  I think that is exactly what she is saying and I also think this is one of the key lessons that can be learned from practicing meditative disciplines like Zen.  I agree with Langer’s approach of starting your mindful practice in the so called “avocations” or “less serious” pursuits such as art.   As we learn to become more mindful in these areas, we are “practicing” so to speak for other areas of life where the stakes seem to be or actually are higher. It is for this reason that, at The Vista Zen Center, in addition to Formal Zen Practice a more informal practice is also emphasized. This informal practice is described on The Vista Zen Center Website as follows:

The second approach, “Genjo Practice” is concerned with a student’s engagements outside the traditional Zen setting. The students everyday lives become the focus of their Zen practice.

To facilitate “Genjo Practice” Jiyu Sensei encourages students to work with him focusing on a specific aspect of their lives. Often this will be something they love to do and will probably continue to do no matter what else is going on in their lives. For some students, this might be the time spent in working in a creative domain such as painting, poetry, or music. Or it might be home-schooling one’s children, taking care of the garden, or the livelihood that puts food on the table and a roof over their heads. 


Note that at The Vista Zen Center the “Genjo Practice”, which could be viewed as encouraging what Langer calls “creative mindfulness”, is practiced in conjunction with Zazen which is a more formal and specific mindfulness training.  In future posts, I will look at why I think this combined training program is probably more effective, at least for most people, than Langer’s approach.

And so there, ladies and gentlemen is Art and Zen Today’s moment of ZEN.

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ON BECOMING MINDFUL

In my last post titled “ZEN AND THE ART OF MINDFULNESS/CREATIVENESS/BEINGNESS“, I drew upon the personal experiences of  composer/artist John Cage, LA Times music critic Adam Baer and myself to argue that actively exposing ourselves to new musical experiences can broaden our listening experiences.  I used some of the ideas from Ellen Langer’s book “On Becoming an Artist” to argue that by allowing ourselves to have new listening experiences we are becoming more “mindful”.  Personal testimonies such as those used in that post are great, but as a retired experimental social psychologist (like Langer), I appreciate it when I find more rigorous evidence to support my assertions.  When I wrote that post I had not read all of Langer’s book and so was later delighted to find that she has conducted some experiments that provide support for the ideas developed there.

Let me first provide a brief overview of “On Becoming an Artist” and then provide a summary of some of Langer’s reseach findings. For Langer, creativity and mindfulness go hand in hand.  As I wrote in my previous post: According to Langer:   Mindfulness is simply the process of noticing new things. It is seeing the similarities in things thought different and the differences in things taken to be similar” (p. 16).   She goes on to say: “the more mindful we are, the more choices we have and the less reactive we become.  We don’t realize when we are mindless.  We’re not there to notice.  If, however we allowed ourselves to become fully engaged in some new activity, over time, we could more easily compare how we feel when we are mindfully engaged with how we feel at other times.  The more experience we have with being mindfully creative, the sooner we will recognize when we are simply acting out a script and the sooner we can return to being centered.  When we are mindfully engaged, we essentially are writing our own script and are free to choose to make changes at any point.  When we are mindfully creative, we are being authentic.” (p. 10-20)  

Based on her research, Langer has concluded that there are two main ways that we “teach ourselves to become mindless”. (pg 10)  The first is by learning a skill until it becomes “second nature” such as when we go on “autopilot while driving.  The problem with this, says Langer, is that it might not occur to us to question the way we are doing things when in fact it may be to our advantage to do so.  The second way of learning mindlessness is to accept something we read or hear without question.  This is the way we learn many of our cultural norms and values.  The problem with this, says Langer is that “we unwittingly lock ourselves into a single understanding of that information”. ( pg 11)   In other words we become “set in our way” and this prevents us from engaging each new situation mindfully or creatively.  Langer provides evidence that this results in general failure to appreciate life and I will provide some of this in later posts,

What I especially like about Langer’s book is that what she has to say about mindfulness applies to all aspects of life, not just painting or other so called “artistic practices”. But, let’s go back to my  previous post, where I wrote about how most of us, most of the time, limit our appreciation of music through mindless listening (e.g. Tom likes Punk Rock and listens to nothing else).  As I said above, although I used Langer’s ideas to discuss this topic, I had not yet read the chapter of her book that most directly relates to the topic.  The remainder of this post will do so. For Langer, mindfulness primarily entails taking notice of things and this, she suggests “expands our appreciation of them”. (p. 197)  This view is based on a series of social psychological experiments conducted by Langer and her students at Harvard.  For instance, in one study that directly connects to my last post on John Cage, experimental subjects were convinced to listen to music they said they did not like (either rap or classical).  Some of the students were asked to note a number of  new things about the  music as they listened and others were not asked to make any new distinctions.  The experimenters found that the more new things the participants found, the more they said they liked the previously disliked music.  In a related experiment, women who thought watching football was boring came to like football more if they were instructed to notice new things about a football game they watched in the experimental laboratories. Similar results were found among students exposed to a painting they were unfamiliar with and with chocolates, regardless of whether they were given samples of inexpensive chocolate or Godiva.  When prompted to make distinctions or to find something new about whatever they were doing, students showed greater appreciation for the activity.

Going further, Langer conducted similar kinds of experiments to see whether mindfulness could affect her subjects’ perceptions of other people.  According to Langer: “Asking subjects to make mindful distinctions about people tended to mitigate their negative assessments of them…Mindfully drawing new distinctions, thus, helps us to come to know and like others.” ( p200)

 

Although Langer is not a Buddhist and declares that she is not using the term “mindfulness” in exactly the same way as it is in Buddhism, these results suggest and interesting line of thought.  One of the values in all strains of Buddhism (probably in all spiritual/religious perspectives) is the importance of developing Compassion and I know plenty of Zen students, including myself, who feel overwhelmed by idea of having to live up to the Buddhist vow to be compassionate towards all people.  Langer’s book led me to a thought train that makes this vow somewhat less daunting. There are studies that show that people are more likely to experience compassion towards another person to the extent that they see this other as similar to them.(  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/opinion/sunday/the-science-of-compassion.html?_r=0)

Extrapolating from Langer’s experiments, it seems reasonable to say that being present with another person and fully “listening” to (i.e. being “Present” with) that person would allow us to become aware of ways in which they are not different from us and make it more likely that we experience compassion for them. (See “The Artist is Present”)  By allowing ourselves to perceive the other in depth, we can come to see the arbitrary nature of any single criterion we may have been using to judge and separate ourselves from that person. We come to see that there is no single viewpoint that can capture the other, allowing us to acknowledge that they are not, then, so different from ourselves. If so, compassion is not so much an isolated trait to be somehow “worked on” or “acquired”  but rather a natural consequence of becoming more mindful.  Just as mindful listening to music or mindful viewing of art allows us to break out of restricting perspectives, we can also learn to mindfully include and thus accept a wider range of humanity.

I think Langer is correct that engaging oneself in a creative practice is a safe way to begin practicing mindfulness and that this mindfulness will expand to other areas of life.  But, I also see the practice of Zazen (zen meditation) as providing a similar, perhaps  complementary experience.  In a later post, I will explore some of the differences between the path that Langer suggests and Zen; for now I will emphasize the similarities.

Langer says that mindfulness is “simply the process of noticing new things“  In Zazen, the student practices noticing whatever is happening internally or externally moment by moment which seems to be the essence of mindfulness.  According to Langer, when we are mindful we are not “self-conscious.  By learning to “let go” of the thoughts that reinforce self-consciousness the Zen meditator is learning the basics of mindfulness.  Most of the thoughts we experience during Zazen entail the kinds of comparisons with others and the self-evaluations that Langer says block us from Mindfulness and true creativity (to be looked at further in later posts).  To the extent that we can learn to “be still” and fully experience a wider range of situations, activities and people, we chip away at the narrow egocentric viewpoints that keep us feeling separated and unengaged from life.

ZEN AND THE ART OF MINDFULNESS/CREATIVENESS/BEINGNESS

A couple of months ago my favorite Delta Airline headphones finally fell apart and I found myself at Fries Electronics looking at an long isle stocked full of possible replacements.  I did not want to pay too much but I was keen on buying a pair that would seal off outside noise.  Since there was no way  to try the sets in the store, all I could do is peer though the clear plastic packaging and try to guess which ones might be highly insulated.  Based on looks and a low price, I made my pick and hoped for the best.

When I took my new headphones to the fitness center the next day, I knew right away that I should have paid more.  Not only did my new phones not muffle outside noise, they seemed to actually amplify it.  The music pumped over the fitness center’s sound system, the clanking of barbells and other equipment, nearby conversations, as well as the shouts of encouragement from the spin class instructor all seemed to be funneled into my ear, along with the music on my MP3 player.   For a week or so I compensated to some degree by turning up the music on my player to an uncomfortable volume.  That usually allowed me to tune out the outside noises and focus on my music. Mostly however, I just complained silently to myself for not immediately returning the headphones and for being so cheap in the first place.

Most of the tunes I  have on my MP3 player have been recorded from a internet radio station that plays non-traditional jazz.  Many of the compositions I listen to involve blips and beeps on electronic instruments as well as both musical and spoken samples from other sources.  One day I suddenly realized that sounds that I thought were part of the composition I was listening to on my MP3 player were actually sounds coming from the outside world of the fitness center.  Surprisingly, it sounded pretty cool, even those sounds I had initially found to be annoying.  After that, I was never certain which of the sounds I was hearing were part of the music and which were extraneous.

At one point, I remembered Jiyu Roshi telling me about an interview with John Cage on Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.  Here is a excerpt from the interview taking off from where Cage and Terry Gross are talking about noises in New York City, burglar alarms specifically:

CAGE: …and they may last three or four hours. It’s quite, that’s quite a problem. I think

CAGE WITH SUZUKI ROSHI

that our, we almost have an instinct to be annoyed by a burglar alarm. But as I pay attention to them they’re curiously slightly varying.

GROSS: What if you’re paying attention to something else at the same time?

CAGE: Well, I think that one of our most accessible disciplines now is paying attention to more than one thing at a time. And if we can do that with equanimity, then I would suggest paying attention to three things at the same time. And you can practice that as a discipline. I think it’s more effective than sitting cross-legged. I mean to say cross-legged in relation to…

 GROSS: In meditation.

CAGE: Yes. It opens the – I think the meaning of meditation is to open the doors of the ego from a concentration on itself to a flow with all of creation, wouldn’t you say? And if we can do this through the sense perceptions, through multiplying the things to which we’re able at one in the same time to pay attention, I think we accomplish much of the same thing. At least that’s my faith.  

Cage at Piano

Cage, whose centennial was celebrated all over the world last year, is perhaps best known for his composition titled 4″ 33″.  It consists of the pianist going to the piano, and not hitting any keys for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  (He used a stopwatch to time this.)  In other words, the entire piece consists of silence from the stage but someone in the audience could, if they allowed themselves to, hear sounds from the street, sounds from the audience, and even internal sounds.  What you hear when you listen to 4’33″ is more a matter of chance than with any other piece of music — nothing of what you hear is anything the composer wrote.

The idea was to show the arbitrariness of the distinction between “musical” sounds and “other” types of sounds and show the richness of going beyond the usual boundaries of our attention.  According to Cage: “If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego. You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.” John Cage

Upon remembering this interview,  I  realized that my “special” headphones were providing a similar experience for me and this realization allowed for an interesting shift in perspective on what I was hearing. Whereas before I judged the extraneous sounds as “noise” and internally fought against them, when I remembered Cage’s work, and acted “as if” I were Cage, I was able to relax and be more inclusive.  I don’t know that allowing these external sounds into my “mix”, so to speak, necessarily made for “better music” but I sure found my listening experience to be much more engaging; in short I was listening with more attention than I usually did at the fitness center.

It is interesting that as I was working on this blog, Adam Baer, a music critic, published an article in the LA Times called “A Resonance on Dissonance” which is his account of an experiment to see whether he could come to like musical pieces that he had long disliked by listening to them regularly.  His experiment had mixed results but Baer seems to endorse the idea that exposing ourselves to experiences that we usually avoid is a good thing.  This is not exactly the same as what I’ve been talking about, but it seems to deal with the same general principle.

I’ve done some of this kind of experimenting myself with music genres that I generally don’t listen to and have been, on occasion, pleasantly surprised.  More consistently I have tried to do something like this with visual art.  Some time ago, whenever I would enter an art gallery or museum, I would scope out the pieces hanging on the walls and instead of gravitating towards those that appealed to me from a distance, I would first look (spending at least 2 minutes with each one)  at those that did not.

As with Baer, I can’t say that mere exposure to such works brought about an instant reevaluation, but there were always a couple of pieces that I came to appreciate, which would not have happened had I proceeded on my initial instinct to ignore them.   I think what happens in such experiments is that by taking some time really looking at a piece of art, (or listening to music) one comes to appreciate that the artist make choices in the creative process that made sense to him or her.  Such realizations allowed me to somehow connect with the artist as a person and a fellow artist. This kind of insight has occurred rather dramatically, on more than one occasion ,after being exposed to a docent’s tour of art I didn’t particularly care for at the Oceanside Museum of Art.  Being informed about details of the artist’s life and how he or she approached art somehow made me more accepting of  and more appreciative of what they had produced.

Is the intent of such “experiments” to come to love all art and music?  On this, I think I agree with Baer, who, although finding some value in exposing himself to unfavored music, goes on to say the following:   Obviously, no one, regardless of exposure, training or even a role as a public music appreciator, need to like anything, and that’s a sentiment that should be embraced more in the still-rigid concert hall.  Hate Mahler’s seventh symphony?  Walk out like you would at the Viper Room.  Find Liszt unbearable? Shout or fight about it.  We’re allowed to seize up to more than the thorny stuff, and a lot of these composers never suffered a fool or composer they couldn’t stomach.  Let’s be human, real about the subject, just like the people who wrote the tunes”

The universe, it seems, has good taste. Here is a painting it did. Or rather, here is a painting John Cage allowed to happen, letting the I-Ching direct his brushstrokes if true to form.

So, if learning to like everything isn’t the point of such experiments, what is?  I’d suggest that they can help us to become more mindful in the sense of the term used by Ellen Langer, an experimental social psychologist who has devoted her career to its study.  To explore Langer’s ideas, I now turn to her latest book “On Becoming An Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity”, (purchased for $0.04 plus shipping) which will be the basis for several blog posts in the future.

 According to Langer:   Mindfulness is simply the process of noticing new things. It is seeing the similarities in things thought different and the differences in things taken to be similar” (p. 16).   She goes on to say: “the more mindful we are, the more choices we have and the less reactive we become.  We don’t realize when we are mindless.  We’re not there to notice.  If, however we allowed ourselves to become fully engaged in some new activity, over time, we could more easily compare how we feel when we are mindfully engaged with how we feel at other times.  The more experience we have with being mindfully creative, the sooner we will recognize when we are simply acting out a script and the sooner we can return to being centered.  When we are mindfully engaged, we essentially are writing our own script and are free to choose to make changes at any point.  When we are mindfully creative, we are being authentic.” (p. 10-20)  

What Langer calls “mindfulness” seems to be the same thing as being “awake/present/alive” as I have used this term (see THE ARTIST IS PRESENT) and so the importance of exposing oneself to new experiences is essentially a way of becoming engaged and pulling oneself out of the habit of relying on  self-imposed and conditioned expectations and rules.  Expectations and rules that are no long relevant or useful in our lives can be responsible for suffering in Buddhist sense of the term.

In  “TO KNOW FLOW OR NO FLOW?” we saw that some degree of challenge or difficulty is necessary in order to have a  flow experience.  So called flow personalities are likely to be consistently engaging in the kinds of personal experiments that I have been talking about here, not just in relating to art but in all aspects of life.

In my next post I’ll delve deeper into  Langer’s book.  In the meantime, I am talking with several venture capitalists about the development of my “Mindfulness HeadPhones” into a commercial product..  I can’t share the details with you yet, but you can be sure that they will be really, really cheap.

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WHAT IS IT (MARCEL DUCHAMP)?

Today’s post is just a video entitled “What is it (Marcel Duchamp)?”
After Duchamp tried to submit a urinal as a sculpture to a pretigious art show in 1917, the art world was never the same.
Several scholars have argued that Duchamp was a closet Buddhist and my video tries to make the case that his submission
of the urinal as a piece of art is a pure expression of Zen.  Please watch the video when you are not distracted by other things
and see if you agree.  The link below will take you to the video on youtube.  If an advertisement comes up, you can skip it and go straight
to the video but, oddly, the one I saw was sort of amusing and seems to fit with the video.  If possible listen through headphones
to maximize the stereo quality of the music.
Regards,
Steve
Click below to go to Youtube to see the video.