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

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.  You can also send comments to me directly.

 

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.

————————————————————————————————————————-

 

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.

—————————————————————————————————————————–

 

 

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


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.  You can also send comments to me directly.

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.

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.  You can also send comments to me directly.

 

THE ISSUE OF CHOICE IN ART AND ZEN IMPROVISATION

Over the past month or so my posts have focused on improvisation in the arts and Zen.  This was spurred on by Peter Hershock’s suggestion that the outcome of Zen practice resembles jazz improvisation.  This is consistent with much of the Zen literature which paints a picture of the awakened life as one of openness, spontaneity, “choiceless awareness” etc. , that results from a “letting go” of the rational mind and the “self”.  Relying on more contemporary writers, I have suggested that there is some scientific basis for understanding this process of “letting go”.  However, I also started questioning some aspects of this way of understanding what happens during improvisation.  This includes improvisation in the arts or in the “social virtuosity” that Herschock says characterizes Zen enlightenment.  In this post I continue in this direction and hope to clarify why it is important to be careful about how we talk about this process.

In my last post (The Practice of Yes/No), I suggested that while, to both the performer and the audience, it may seem, that there is an absence of left-brain processes with attendant decision or choice-making during improvisation, this is not a completely accurate account of what is happening.  Here I want to go further  and suggest that, when it comes to the practice of Zen, individuals who subscribe to this traditional  idea that “I am no longer making choices”, could end up creating more suffering for him or herself and for others.  Although he is not a Zen student, Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah about his use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs provides an example of the kind of thinking that can lead to the kind of suffering I am talking about here.

In the interview Armstrong said: “At the time, it was easy, it just flowed. I was in the zone like athletes get”.

As seen from earlier posts, the Zone or the “flow experience” is one where one temporarily loses the usual sense of self and of being the author of decision-making. It appears that in Armstrong’s case this sense of being free of the usual constraints of selfhood, also was experienced as evidence that he could do no wrong and was not responsible for his own actions.  In a recent talk, Jiyu Roshi suggested that something similar often occurs among advanced Zen practioners and their counterparts in other spiritual disciplines and provided examples from his own life.

 

Jiyu "Jake" Roshi

Think of John Coltrane improvising,  Jackson Pollack flinging drips of paint over a canvas or Robin Williams doing a stand up routine.  They are totally absorbed in what they are doing, manipulating their “tools” with such rapidity that there appears to be no conscious thought involved.  It is not uncommon to hear of such performances described by witness or the performers themselves as being “possessed”, “channeled” , “in a trance” or as being expressions of an “inner self”.  In all cases, I think, the intention is to convey the idea that whatever is being expressed is not emanating from that performer’s personhood but rather some other source beyond whatever it is we see as responsible for ordinary behavior.  The implication is that there is no conscious thought or conscious choice involved.  This sort of language is also used in the Zen literature, as well as in other spiritual disciplines” to describe the state of consciousness and conduct of the awakened life.

The social scientific literature on the experience of “trance” is helpful here.  From this perspective a hypnotic trance is viewed as a situation where one person agrees to allow another to direct his or her behavior.  Anthropologists have found that “trances” are common in most non-Western societies and are collectively understood to be instances where some external  entity (e.g. a spirit) is directing the behavior of an individual.  In most cases, when trance is manifested, the person is not held responsible for their actions and becomes eligible for special consideration from the other members of society and especially those designated as healers.  The literature indicates that trance is a learned behavior that requires normal mental facilities.  What appears to be a relinquishing of normal mental facilities and a sense of self-control is a culturally agreed upon understanding that entails often rather sophisticated mental capacities and maneuvers and does not entail a diminishing of rational thought.

What I take from this literature is that there is a propensity to explain the sense that “I” (i.e. my “self”) is not “in charge” by attributing ones seemingly automatic and spontaneous conduct to some external entity or “agent” (to use the language of post-modern scholars), or force or spirit.  Now, according to Buddhist philosophy and post-modern theory (Buddha might be seen as the first post-modern theorist) , whatever it is we call our self is a social fiction; a convenient fiction that we acquire during socialization to allow us to take part in the social activities of our culture.  Associated with this “sense of self” comes an important and necessary (at least for the larger society) sense of responsibility and accountability for one’s own actions.  This is what allows “societies” to exist.  Those who seemly do not have these qualities are considered sociopaths. The actual experience of this absence of a substantial self is seen as essential for the progress of the Zen student. But this experience carries with it the possibility of conduct, which may not be fully “sociopathic” but can lead to suffering of others.

While the language used to describe what is occurring may differ in describing trance,  jazz improvisation, comedic improv , expressionistic painting or those who have become awake/alive/present through spiritual practice, these descriptions commonly  give the impression  that what is happening is not the result of “self-control” or of conscious choice.  I suggest that it is necessary to make a distinction between appearances of what is occurring and what is, actually happening.  I believe it is possible to preserve the wonder and wonderfulness of improvised performances without fully buying into those explanations that place “agency” somewhere outside (God, spirits, muse etc) or  “inside” the person as in references to “inner self”, “real self”, “Buddha Nature” and so forth.

"The Devil Made me Do IT" Comedian Flip Wilson

Following my argument in the previous post, I see such “inspired” performances as not something other-worldly but rather the result of someone who has practiced their craft to the point where thoughts or choices are executed with such rapidity that they appear to be manifesting from somewhere other than the “self”.  Such improvised behavior is not a result of somehow replacing left-brain processes with “right-brain” processes but rather an integration of the two, resembling the expanded state of awareness that Fehmi called “Opened-Focus Attention”.  It widens the range of information to be used in decision-making to include various signals or sensations not usually considered to be part of cognition.

I suggest that, whether we are talking about improvised behaviors in the arts or as a result of spirtual practice (a la Hershock’s contention that Zazen can lead to “social virtuosity”), the performer is making conscious choices.  They are simply being made with such rapidity that it seems that this is not the case. When asked how they do what they do, most Improvisors, in all fields of the arts, will point to extensive bouts of practice that were necessary to be able to improvise.

In his book, Ways of the Hand, Sudow describes looking at his hand while improvising and not being able to predict what it was going to do next, and talking about his hands as having an intentionality of their own.  But, the majority of the book consists of detailed description of the practice regimen that he, Sudnow, underwent to get to that point.  Basically, he describes how he learned to recognize, through trial and error,  which possible notes to strike in order to sound good at any point of the songs being played at breakneck speed. My reading of this is that he, and other jazz musicians are making choices all during a solo,  but they are happening so rapidly that they seem as if there is no choosing and no one doing the choosing.

In the post titled “Yeah Man: Improvisation in Jazz, Improv and Zen“, we saw how comedic impov requires that actors “say yes” to each new possibility from others on stage in order to keep the skit moving.  Although Hershock used jazz improvisation as a metaphor for understanding the awakened Zen practioner, I believe that comedy Improv is is a better metaphor because the nature of the verbal exchange is closer to what we encounter in everyday social interaction.

The accomplished  Improv actor may improvise with such rapidity that it seems that he or she is not thinking.  However, the actors must not only think up a possible response to what someone else says but must also think ahead far enough to see whether or not it has the possibility of moving the skit forward or squelching it.  In other words, to say “yes” to the antics of another actor, he or she must filter through possibilities and reject those that may lead to a “no” ( that is, behaving in ways that would put a damper on the other actors and the overall flow of the skit).  Let’s imagine that an professional improv actor could within a nano- second come up with a response which he is fairly certain will help keep the skit alive but, almost simultaneously, realizes that the audience consists of young kids and so decides against saying what first comes to mind and allows another response (maybe from another actor) to be expressed instead.  In other words, even the heat of frantic improvisation, actors have the capacity to say “no“.

So where is all of this leading?  Throughout the centuries that Zen has been developed, the idea that the conduct of the of the enlightened practioner is beyond thought and choice has been accepted.  The way that this is generally understood is much more sophisticated than that associated with Spirit possession of Shamanism where an outside entity or force is seen as taking over agency of the person.

Yet even among the most pragmatic of the Zen philosophers, there is a tendency to rely on the language of mysticism to account for awakened conduct.  This is, in itself, not really a problem, because the kinds of “performances”  I have been talking about among arts and Zen adepts is truly wondrous and mysterious. However, it does appear that within Zen and other spiritual disciples, problems can arise when the experience of awakening, the sense of no longer being “self”-directed, results in actions which create suffering for the person and others.

 

In his book on creativity, Lehrer talks about the thin line between creativity and other pathological states.  I looked at this in depth in my post called “Sun Ra: The Thin line between Genius, Crazy and Spirituality”.   We all know of artists who fit this category.  It is also the case that Artists can become addicted to the flow of their improvisations processes (see “Are You A Flow Addict?”) because they cannot flow in activities outside of their specialty.  In Zen, however, the aim is to extend the flow of what Hershock calls “social virtuosity” to all aspects of life.  It is here where the sense that “I”  am not the actor, the chooser or the “decider” could lead to problems if they buy into the believe that they can not or need not say “NO”.

 

 

Although the Zen practioner may not understand their sense of acting without a “self” as indicating a possession of some sort, they do have to come to terms with what is happening to them.  A thorough understanding that whatever was originally experienced as having “a self” is, from a Buddhist perspective, erroneous can help provide one with a grounded sense of being OK with their new way of being.  However, it appears that it is not uncommon for someone who has opened up such experiences to begin seeing their actions as part of the natural order of things, (expressions of “Buddha Nature”) and thus inherently valid.  The number of spiritual teachers that have supposedly reached an awakened state who and gone on to commit actions that create suffering for themselves and others is staggering.  It is for this reason, that over the centuries of it’s development, Zen teachers have placed heavy emphasis on the precepts, which maybe seen as ethical guidelines for practioners.(For a nice discussion of the precepts and their relevance to the Lance Armstrong case, see Sean Voisen’s latest article “Zen and the Art of”.

 

Although these guidelines are not seen as moralistic absolutes (and violations are not considered as “sins”), the fact that they have existed so long in the Zen tradition seems consistent with the view of enlightenment that I am outlining where each action one takes is a matter of making-decisions and choices (albeit very rapidly) and not some supernatural state where actions are dictated from beyond.

 

So I am suggesting that in all types of improvisation choices are being made.  However, in the case of true awakened improvisation, choice is even more salient because being awake/present/alive means the person is capable of attending to a wider range of data to inform his or her decision-making.  Because the left-brain processes never really go away, there  is always the possibility of making choices that are self-enhancing and possibly result in suffering for oneself and others.  Because of this there is no end  to practice and it is my opinion that those who choose to follow this difficult path do so because they find this constant practice to be a source of flow, finding satisfaction in life by constantly challenging themselves through practice.

THE PRACTICE OF “YES/NO” IN ART AND ZEN

 

This post was inspired by and builds upon comments from Sean and Jiyu Roshi on my last post (“YEAH MAN!”: IMPROVISATION IN JAZZ, COMEDY AND ZEN”).  In posts leading up to that one I had explored the idea that improvised behavior, that is spontaneous responses in the present moment, involves “forgetting” or “ignoring” the “inner voice”  that reflects the imagined reactions of others.  The idea behind these posts was that such thoughts prevent one from acting spontaneously in response to whatever is happening in the present moment.  In jazz, comedic improv or the various arts (such as archery) associated with Zen, practice is often described as helping one to learn to act without first consulting the “rational mind”, “the inner voice”, the “ego mind”, the “left-brain” or whatever you want to call it.  In “Yeah Man”, I suggested that this can be faciliated by practicing “Yes” in situations where you usually say “no”.

 

The more I think about what I just summarized in the paragraph above, the more I believe that while it is correct metaphorically,  it  probably not a totally accurate description of how things work..  I think a better way to put it is to say that practice helps develop an integrative communication between left and right brain processes that allows the practioner to respond to whatever is happening in the moment more quickly.  This is different from the idea that there is no rational or left brain processes at all going on during improvisation, which is implied in my earlier posts.  It also differs from the prevailing view amongst both Zen and non-Zen writers, that improvisation entails no thinking whatsoever.  My alternative view is that the practioner (music, Improv, Zen or whatever) has learned to “reframe/refocus”  and learns to rapidly consider any thoughts that may be called forth by the current situation and either act on those or drop them. This is done so quickly that it appears, to both the performer and observer, that choices are  instantaneous, entailing no thinking at all. (See “CREATIVE REFRAMING” IN ART AND ZEN”  AND “CREATIVE RE-FOCUSING“.)  It entails developing an expanded awareness or what Lester Fehmi calles “opened-focus” where both right and left-brain processes work together.  (see HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY OPENED-FOCUSED EXPERIENCE WHILE READING THIS POST.)

Being fully awake and present (as during improvisation) doesn’t mean that there is no thinking, even though it may seem like that to observers or the performer himself or herself.   As my previous coverage of both jazz and comedic improvisation indicates, a key component of successful improvisation is being aware of what is going on amongst the other performers.  It does not mean being totally devoid of  any thoughts that could possibly be seen as putting a damper on one’s creative expressiveness.   Rather it means being able to ignore or act upon these thoughts, (very quickly) depending on the nature of the situation.  It means being able to find a balance between “letting go” and being attuned to the surroundings.  This attunement is what may differentiate creative expressiveness from craziness (See.”.Sun Ra, The Alien: The Thin Line Between, Genius, Spirituality and Crazy”.)

A key reason for my introducing terms like “creative reframing” and “refocusing” in earlier posts was that they allow for seeing how we can learn, though practice, to incorporate both left and right brain processes; being able to decide almost instantaneously which of the many choices that arise moment by moment should be acted upon  This includes “information” that is best characterized as “a felt sense”, “intuition” or “internal wisdom”.  In my last post “Yeah Man: Improvisation in Jazz, Comedy and Zen“, I suggested that improvisation in music, theater or daily life is facilitated by adopting an attitude of saying “yes” to whatever is happening in the moment.  By saying “yes” to or not resisting whatever is going on because it does not fit some idealized notion of what you think should be happening, you not only allow for personal flow, but facilitate flow in others as well.  When this happens it often seems as if there is no thinking, decision-making or choices involved. In Zen and other literature this is even referred to as “choiceless awareness”.

What I want to do now is provide an argument that even in highly improvised actions, choices are being made.  To help with this I want use a comment sent in by Sean in response to “Yeah Man: Improvisation in Jazz, Comedy and Zen”.  So let’s start with Sean’s remark and then I will riff on this for a while.  You can read the original post by clicking here.

——————————————————————————————————————–

On Feb. 20th, Sean wrote:

“After I my divorce and move to San Francisco, for the first year I made it a personal rule that I had to say “yes” to all social invitations and calls to adventure. Oftentimes, it’s far easier to hole up and stay home, but even when I was tired or “not feeling it” I still said yes. This practice paid with substantial dividends. It’s the same with zazen. Sometimes you just don’t feel like sitting on the cushion, but you do it anyway. You say “yes, and …,” and then you sit down. It pays dividends.

It’s strange the interplay of practice and improvisation, which I think goes back to your previous post. Sometimes you have to force yourself to practice,  which in turn leads to a kind of better unforced spontaneity. So I love this idea of “yes, and …” We can just say “yes, and …” to whatever arises, even not wanting to sit. And then do it anyway.”

Sean

—————————————————————————————————————

Now I’m going to take some liberties with Sean’s remarks and go beyond what he actually says in order to make some points about the nature of practice and improvisation.  What I say may or may not exactly characterize Sean’s specific process, but I think it reflects a more general process.

When we say “yes” to one thing we are also saying “no” to another and this is what makes the practice of “yes” a powerful practice.  Sean doesn’t actually say it. but I would imagine that in the past he had rather quickly turned down the kinds of invitations that he is now saying “yes” to.  I’m guessing that the response “I’m too tired” or “Maybe some other time” had become rather automatic in the face of such invitations.  For whatever reason, it is likely that he came to realize a some point that these automatic responses were perhaps keeping him from living a more fulfilling life and so he decided to practice his version of “just say yes”.  Now based on personal experience, I am also guessing that for a while, perhaps a long time, the old reactions of “no” came up automatically whenever an invitation was directed his way.  And, I would imagine that part of what went on in Sean’s thinking process entailed “overriding” (saying  “no” to ) these automatic thoughts as to why the invitation should be refused, by remembering that he has decided to practice this attitude of “yes”.

 

It is significant that Sean links his practice of embracing invitations with his practice of Zazen.  This is because the essence of Zazen is watching one’s thoughts as they arise and deciding to not get caught up in them.  I might be tempted to say that Zazen entails “saying” no to thoughts but that phrase can be confusing.  Since thoughts will always arise, it is not the thoughts that are seen as problematic from a Zen perspective.  And, I know from experience that trying not to think while practicing Zazen is futile and leads to internal tensions.  So the skill that is developed during Zazen is being able to objectively look at these thoughts and making a decision as to whether to allow yourself to float away from the present moment along with these thoughts or to bring yourself back into being fully present.  The fact is that there are times when thinking is necessary and you always have the choice.  I’m pretty sure that Sean would say “no” to an offer to go out and snort cocaine and then shoot people on the street.

By remembering (becoming mindful) again and again in daily Zazen, one developes the “muscles”, so to speak, to remember and wake up in everyday circumstances, such as those described by Sean, where important choices must be made very rapidly.

Let’s imagine that one day after a hard day at the office a co-worker asks Sean to go out on the town.  In the split second that human thinking requires, Sean may have the thought “oh I’m too tired”, followed by “Oh, but what about my practice of yes?”, followed by ” No I really am too tired and need to sleep”.  The point is that Sean has a choice and it is a richer choice than before he began his “practice of yes”.  Presumably he is not only able to say “no” to his old habitual thoughts that were not rewarding but could also say “no” to his practice of “yes” and consider how he is actually feeling before deciding on a course of actions.  In the movie “Yes Man” the character played by Jim Carrey begins to expand and enrich his life by saying “yes” to circumstances and  opportunities that he previously would have missed.  But, a major lesson of the story is that he also learns than there some situations where saying “no” is a wiser choice than automatic “yeses”.  By practicing “yes” the character has expanded his choices and learned how to make better decisions, including saying “no” to “yes”.  Any practice necessarily expands awareness and as practice continues,  decision-making processes becomes easier and quicker one until it reaches a point where it becomes improvisational flow.

In his comments on the previous post, Jiyu Roshi wrote that our

Zen practice, …….is centered on becoming more aware of all of our choices and the reasons behind them, our life is really a dance of moving between, and along with, yes and no responses. My point here is that it’s important to see as much of the whole picture as possible and understand all sides to an ultimate “yes or no” decision.”

(See Jiyu Roshi’s full comments on previous post.)

Now you may wonder why I am making such a big deal about seeing improvisation as involving choices and seeing left-brain processes as being part of the decision-making process.  It may seem that I have spent a lot of your time writing about a minor shift in how we understand improvisation, but I think that there are some real problems with seeing improvisation as entailing no thought and no choice, especially for the Zen practioner.  Since this piece has already violated the lenth guidelines for bloggers,  I have chosen to follow up with this in my next post.  But, let me leave you with a hint of where I plan to go next and something to think about in the meantime.

In his interview with Oprah, Lance Armstrong offered as an explanation for his cheating

IT'S NOT MY FAULT. I'M INBRED.

and the massive suffering it caused others by saying: “It was easy. It just flowed. I was in a zone, like athletes get”.  This sense of flow is what we all would like to experience but what happens when it is experienced and understood as “I was not responsible for my choices”?

 

 

 

“YEAH MAN!”: IMPROVISATION IN JAZZ, COMEDY AND ZEN

 

Ensoe #1, Steve Wilson

In two previous posts, I expounded and expanded upon Peter Hershock’s use of jazz improvisation as a metaphor for what he calls the “social virtuosity” that can be developed through many years of practicing Zen.  He seems to be trying to paint a picture of the phenomenon called “enlightenment” or “awakening” that counters the widespread notion that these concepts refer to a purely personal or individual achievement.  As you will recall, Hershock makes the case that in jazz, as well as everyday life, this improvisational  virtuosity has a social as well as a personal dimension.  I see this improvisational “letting go” as something that is “catchy” and “shareable” and so we all, with practice, can help each other “let go”.  I want to follow up with this idea in the next couple of posts because it is one that is hard for most of us to fathom. It runs counter to our basic assumptions about who or what we are and why we might practice a spiritual discipline.   Frankly, I want to work through this material as I think it may be helpful for me in clarifying what Zen practice is all about.  If you haven’t already, I suggest you go back and read the following before proceeding with this post as it builds on that earlier material.( GREAT UNEXPECATIONS: JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATIONJAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION: SOCIAL VIRTUOSITY AND PRACTICE )

To begin, let us revisit the work of Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works) which provided a jumping off point for my very first posts on Art And Zen Today.  Dealing with jazz improvisation as a form of creative expression, Lehrer cites several studies where scientists were able to observe brain activity while musicians improvised.  One of the findings is that while improvising the brains of the musicians showed “a surge of activity in the  medial prefontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain associated with self-expression.’” ( p.90)  This was to be expected, but they also found shifts in the part of the brain associated with impulse control.  When improvising, as opposed to playing a familiar melody, “the musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions, slipping off those mental hand cuffs.” (p.91). For Lehrer, this is another example of situations where creativity is associated with a process of “letting go”, especially regarding letting go of thoughts about what other people may think about what you are doing.

Lehrer argues that the “letting go” process can be learned and he provides some insight into how this can occur by describing what goes on in classes in “Comedic Improv” at the Second City training center.  First Lehrer observed that this kind of training involved playing children’s games and just generally acting like kids on clue.  He quotes Andy Cobb, one of the instructors:

it’s about putting people in a state of mind where they’re going to say the first thing that pops into their head, even if it seems silly or stupid.  Because that inner voice, that voice telling you not to do something –that’s the voice that kills improv” (p. 102)

Secondly, says Lehrer, the prospective actors “must become aware of everything that is happening on stage…….. “Comic improv, after all, is an ensemble performance: every joke is built on the line that came before.” ( p.103)   So after they learn to stop worrying about saying the wrong thing, they begin practicing a technique called ‘Yes, and…..’ . The basic premise is simple: When performing together, improvisers can never question what came before.  The need to instantly agree –that’s the “yes” part — and then start setting up the next joke. ” (p.103)

Writing about the same phenomenon, Susan Murphy, the author of Upside Down Zen,  provides an example of this process from a book called Improv by Keith Johnstone. Writing about Johnstone’s book, Murphy says:

“….. in one of his examples, the first actor might say, “Ohh!’. and clutch their leg; the second actor might say, ‘Oh my god’, there something wrong with your leg!’ The first actor says, ‘yes, I’ve got a pain in my leg’.  The second one says, ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to remove it.’  The first actor then says, ‘Oh, don’t take my leg, I’m rather attached to it.’  Now at that point it’s starting to go dead.  ‘No’ has been said; the offer has not been caught.  But how about the second time?  It goes through the same moves.  ‘O, my leg!’ ‘Oh no, not your leg, I’ll have to remove it’  and the second actor says ‘But that’s the leg you took last time!’ So the first actor says, ‘Oh, this is serious’ The second actors says, ‘not…woodworm?’  And so it rolls.  The play is alive because all offers are being accepted.’  (pg. 50)

When we are fully present/awake/alive, not only are we less concerned with how others are evaluating us but simultaneously more fully aware of how we are a part of a larger social unit that is mutually creating whatever is to happen next.  As mentioned in the earlier posts, our part in any social improvisational “performance” may,  at first glance seem rather insignificant.  But as Murphy shows, such performances can struggle or die if we either say “no” or signify “no” through our demeanor.  So, the key to any successful joint improvisational performance is for all involved to express an attitude of “yes”. I recall the following two incidents when I think about the “power of yes”

 

I played drums in bands while in high school and college but didn’t play for about 25 years after that. Shortly after I started playing drums again as an adult, I had the chance to sit in with a band consisting of very accomplished musicians and accepted the invitation with some trepidation.  I was especially intimidated by the leader who played the trumpet.  Mid-way into the song, he turned to me and indicated I should take a solo.  For some reason, I found myself playing the solo striking the drums in a way that did not allow the sticks to bounce; producing a muffled sound instead of the usual resonant ring.  I recall that once I started the solo, I conjectured that the leader would not like what I was doing.  However, right after that thought, I heard him shout “yeah man”, which gave me “permission” to finish the solo with confidence following my instincts.  After the song ended , he looked at me briefly and said “fresh!”.

 

After the incident described above I was motivated to find a jazz group in Philadelphia to play with full time.  One of the members of the band was a rhythm guitarist who I and the others judged as not being a good as the rest of the band.  During one of our performances, maybe a year after I joined the band, he was taking a solo and I found myself being much more attuned than usual to what he was playing; almost as if he and I were one musician.  What was coming from this guy’s guitar was leaps and bounds beyond anything I had heard him play before. As he continued, I opened my eyes, (I usually close them when fully absorbed in what is happening) and saw that all the other members were watching him intently and exchanging glances as if to say “what’s going on here?”.  As the guitarist’s solo continued, the others began to utter “yeah man” type of responses and when it was their turn to solo each seemed to perform at a level beyond their usual.  Something happened that night, not just at the individual level, but at the group level as well.  After that, due to the “power of “yeah man”, we were a better, freer and more cohesive band than we were before.

I think something like this can happen in a variety of everyday situations and plan to explore further how this may work in the next post. While jazz and comedic improvisation is a useful metaphor for understanding the kind of every day “social viruosity” that can stem from Zen practice, they are not the same.  So, I also plan to comment on the differences.  At least that is the plan.  But, who knows?  I’m just making this up as I go along.  Improvisation or lack of focus?????  In the meantime, don’t feel that you have to say “yeah man” to every proposal or opportunity that presents itself.  Use common sense and take a look at the movie  “ Yes Man” starring Jim Carrey.

“CREATIVE REFRAMING” IN ART AND LIFE

UNRESOLVED By Steve Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Zen help one get in touch with the body?

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

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

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

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.

TO KNOW FLOW OR NO FLOW?

A major focus in past posts has been the connection between being “present-alive-awake” and creativity in both art and spiritual practices.  The fact that being “present-alive-awake” is so often held up as something to attain, implies that it is somehow beyond the grasp of us mortals.  But, it that really true?  Look at the description below and see if you can think of times when you have experienced something like this.

             My mind isn’t wandering. I am not  thinking of something  

             else. I am  totally involved  in what I am doing. My body feels

              good. My concentration is like breathing; I never think of it.

 

Dr. C,

This description has been used in research looking into what Dr.Mihaly Csikszentimaihalyi calls the “flow experience”.  According to Dr. C.’s research  everyone has  experienced “flow” (sometimes referred to as “being in the zone”) at some point; usually while doing something we find interesting, fun and challenging; (skiing, surfing, dancing or gardening are activities where flow is commonly experienced).  Generally, during flow, we lose track of time and experience a “loss of reflective self-consciousness”.  During such times our internal dialogue drops away and there is a heighten awareness of our somatic and sensory “selves”.   In other words, we are temporarily “present-alive-awake” in such experiences.

What Dr. C calls the “flow experience” is best thought of as occurring along a continuum of experiences ranging from what Maslow called “peak experiences” to what Dr. C. later coined as “micro-flows” (e.g. during eating or having a pleasant conversation with someone).  In other words, there are different degrees of being “present-alive-awake”.  Also, Dr. C. recognized that some people (“autotelic personalities”) flow more often than others.  What this means is that the objective situation is not the sole determinate of whether flow happens or not; more important is the mental set of the actors in these situations.  And, this means that we all have the capacity to flow more often, in a wider variety of situations.

So what must a person bring to the situation in order to experience flow and be fully present?  Dr. C.’s research provides some suggestions.  Flow is most likely in situations where there is a balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and one’s own perceived skills. If one is overwhelmed by the demands of the activity, or is underwhelmed and bored by these demands, flow will not occur.

Now, think of some situations in your life where you have found yourself having thoughts that go something like this:  “ This is too hard…. I can’t handle this” or “This is so boring…. I wish I were doing_______”.  My guess is that you came up with more instances of this than you did of instances of where you have been fully in the present moment (i.e. flow).  I would also guess, that if asked to, you could come up with a list of things that you could or should  have done, internally and/or externally, to bring yourself more into the present moment in such situations.

We all have the capability to make  such flow-inducing adjustments in our everyday situations, but frequently do not.  Why?  Because in the “heat of the moment”, so to speak, we forget that we have the capacity to “redefine” or “reframe” the situation.  The solution?  Remembering to Remember.

For the artist, this means remembering how one’s creative process works.  Remembering that creative breakthroughs require going through boring and stressful periods of work, as Lehrer points out.   It means “trusting the process” and remembering that fighting the process (wanting things to be other than they are) simply leads to unnecessary and unproductive suffering, thus forestalling creative breakthroughs.  As one engages in artistic practice over time, this understanding gradually sets in, and one remembers to remember more often and thus is able to remain present at all stages of the creative process.  And, as I’ve suggested in the last post, this presence can be communicated to one’s audience

The main practice for most spiritual seekers is meditation which, at the most basic level, is a means of learning to catch yourself as you drift into thoughts which take you out of the present moment.   In other words it is  learning to pay attention.  By practicing this over and over again for years, the seeker gradually builds the “remembering muscles” that allow them to make adjustments, and exercise the flexibility (creativity) necessary  to redefine his or her life, momentary situation by momentary situation.

Like the artist’s process, mentioned in the paragraph above, the spiritual practioner is also trying to eliminate unnecessary suffering; the self –created suffering that results from trying to make one’s life unfold in ways other than it is naturally unfolding.  The spiritual seeker’s creativity is manifested in his ability to let go of expectations and allow his or her life to evolve in unscripted or unanticipated ways.

—————————————————————————————————————–

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

—————————————————————————————————————–
I ended my post entitled “Buddha as a Performance Artist”? by wondering why both creative and spiritual artists seek creative freedom by counterintuitively placing more and more restrictions on themselves.  By placing restrictions in one’s own path, the artist or spiritual seeker maintains the balance between challenges and skills that Dr. C. says is necessary to maintain flow. In order to be present, one must constantly redefine the situation in ways that keeps them challenged.  One way of thinking about this is they create situations where they must adopt “beginner’s mind”.

Furthermore committment to self-imposed obstacles provides a concrete way of becoming aware of the unbalance in one’s life.  By making committments or vows to act in a particular manner (see references to The Four Vow and Precepts in previous post)  provides fertile ground for exploring the nature of the discrepancies between demands and one’s inner resources that are preventing one from being “present-alive-awake”.  By making such commitments it is more difficult to get lost in throughts, dreams and fantasies of being anywhere other than where you are, doing what you are doing right now.

Commitment unlocks the doors of imagination, allows vision, and gives us the “right stuff” to turn our dreams into reality.
James WomackTo comment on this post, click on the white cloud or ballon to the right of the post title at the top of the page.

THE ART OF “RIPPING OFF”: SUN RA, DYLAN AND CREATIVITY

See entries to the “Caption Challenge” at the end of Post.

In last weeks post, you saw a video which was built on Sun Ra’s cryptic chant ” Gonna rip the mask, Rip the mask off batman.  Look out Robin, gonna get you too.”  At the time, I had no clue what the chant was about.  Similarly, when I made the video (over a year ago), I was not clear what meaning, if any, I was trying to convey (for a more in- depth discussion of the place of meaning in art read the exchange on the Forum page of this blog.)  In writing this post, I may have some to a better understanding of both the original chant and my video.  Let me know what you think of my interpretations.

As I looked at this video last week, I was struck by the realization that it would never have existed if I had not had my close encounter with Sun Ra over 20 years ago.  This realization, was sparked, in part, by having read Jonas Lehrer’s Imagination: How Creativity Works.  Lehrer starts off talking about the importance of the brain in the creative process.  But, the bulk of the book is about how we enhance one another’s creativity by being interconnected.  Lehrer refers to Bob Dylan’s compositions to make his point:

….the original folk compostion is obviously there, a barely concealed inspiration. While it would be easy to dismiss such songs as mere rip-offs–several of them would almost certainly violate current copyright standards–Dylan was able to transform his folk sources into pop masterpieces.  (pg. 246)

I’m not comparing myself to Dylan but “ripping-off” Sun Ra’s “rip off” chant was the start of a chain of associations that led to the final creation.  When I started the video, I felt that visual images of just Batman and Robin would get boring.  The Lone Ranger was an obvious addition, since he was a childhood hero for me and he wore a mask to rip off.  I had no idea what Sun Ra thought his chant was about but to me it entailed stripping superheros of their authoritative mystique. If so, I thought, why not incorporate other figures who might be seen as superhero, even though they don’t wear actual masks.  So Bush and Obama came to mind first and then Buddha and then Christ.  Now clearly, all these “superheros” are not the same.  They don’t all have actual masks and for others the mask is simply a metaphor for our conditioned persona.  One might argue that Buddha and Christs, as “authentic persons”, should not have any masks at all to be ripped off.  In their cases, I believe that the mask stands for all the expectations and perceptions that are piled on them by many of their “followers”.  Within the Zen tradition, it was legendary Chinese Zen master Lin Chi, who encouraged his students rip the mask off the historical Buddha (See Quotes from Lin Chi to the right) .

Having entered into issue of spiritual authority, I realized that the essence of most spiritual disciplines is to strip/rip off the conditioned trappings that make up our persona (ego) and that it made complete sense to include myself among the heros needing a mask removal.  The last part of the video attempts to convey that beneath our individual masks, we are all the same and we are all “authentic”, like Christ and Buddha.

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to substitute ”creative” for “authentic”.  Free of conditioned expectations or assumption about who we have to be, we can be truely creative in fashioning our own lives.

 

I’ll bet that that is the meaning behind Sun Ra’s silly chant.

 

Caption Challenge Results

This picture shows performance artists Hsieh and Linda Montano who spent one year between 4 July 1983 and 4 July 1984 tied to each other with an 8-foot-long rope. They had to stay in a same room while not allowed to touch each other until the end.  Below are the captions sent in for this image.  The next post begins a series on performance art

1. Being in a relationship.

2. Married Bliss.

3. “Give me two more inches please.”

4. “Let go that rope”.

5. The tug of war event was not very popular at this year’s picnic.

6. “Want to jump rope?”

7. “Coz I’m so tied, tied of waiting-

Tied of waiting for youuuuuu.”

8.  “Whatever.”

.

 

 

 

 

 

MY CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH A CREATIVE ALIEN.

The title of a Documentary film about Sun Ra

 

In my last post I explored the creative benefits of being an alien from another planet, which is how the jazz musician Sun Ra saw himself.  In this post, I will examine how my creativity was affected by a “close encounter” with this alien.  In the next post I’ll look at what Jonas Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works) says about the importance of such “close encounters” to the creative process, in general.  (Also see the “Caption Challenge” at the end of this post.)

Sun Ra and I both lived in or around Philadelphia in the 1980s.  A friend and I decided

Sun Ra with Mask

to go to a Sun Ra concert in neighboringCamden N.J.  It was held in a run down Community Center in the middle of one of Camden’s poorest neighborhoods.  There were supposed to be refreshments before the concert, but by the time we arrived the Arkestra had eaten their way through the goodies.  The concert was held in a small basement room with a tiny stage crammed with the band members wearing weird costumes.  I was not really a big fan of Ra’s music (and am still not) so what I remember best is just the sheer weirdness of the spectacle.

Tibetian Monks

At one point, about mid-way through the concert, Sun Ra got up from the keyboards and came down into the audience.  Shortly , each member of the band stopped playing and followed him down the stairs.  Soon the whole band was walking up and down the aisles chanting something  in unison. I could not make out the words at first since the band members were on the far side of the auditorium.  It was a simple, non-melodic refrain,  that had a hypnotic quality to it.  Because it was chanted in unison and Sun Ra and the band maintained a serious demeanor , I felt like I was witnessing some sort of mysterious ritual.  As the line of musicians came closer to where we were sitting,  I began to figure out what they were chanting with such solemnity.  This was the chant:  “Gonna rip the mask, rip the mask off Batman.  Look out Robin, gonna get you too”.

That scene has stuck with me over the years and, as you will see,served as an inspiration for my first music video.  Click on the link below to see the short video on YouTube.  At the end of the video, click on return arrow to finish reading this post and to respond to today’s “Caption Challenge

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkAPFPLiNoI&feature=plcp

After watching this video you may have the same kind of response as you did to the video featured in What the ____ is that Video About?, namely: “What the _____is this video about?”  Fair enough.  I’ll try to tackle that in my next post where we’ll return to some of the ideas put forth in Lehrer’s book.  Be sure to send in your caption for the image below, which will pop up again in future posts.

YOUR CAPTION HERE