The MonA LIENa

(Results of the “Caption Challenge” are found at the end of this post).

In the last post, “The Inner-Alien and Creativity”, I reviewed evidence from Lehrer’s book Imagine suggesting that being a non-expert in a particular field or endeavor can actually make one more creative.  It is not much of a jump from this discussion of what Lehrer called “outsiders” to the quote below from Zen Master, Shunryn Suzuki.

The non-dual approach of Zen requires that we be able to maintain multiple perspectives on any problem, whether artistic, scientific or our own life-problems. This means constantly putting oneself into the unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations.

This requires practice.

Research suggests that living in a foreign culture can foster creativity but I would suggest that meditation can serve the same purpose.   A key skill learned in  Zen meditation is to  constantly interrupt the habitual stream of thoughts that occupy our consciousness most of the time.  These streams of thought make things familiar and provide us with a familiar sense of who we are.


When we plunge into the unfamiliar, we experience discomfort at times but also the exhilaration of greater adaptability and responsibility.  This is how one becomes “refreshed”, “alive” and “awake”.






Through practice, one will find him or herself becoming more non-reactive, more flexible or open.  And so more creative in responding to daily “problems” as they arise.

This “inner alien” is available to us all but it does require being willing to constantly explore your “inner space” and to accept  that the “inner alien” is truely a part of who you are.

Caption Challenge Results

Listed below, in the order received, are the creative responses to this caption-less image I found online.


1. Oh good! More potential converts.

2. OK, OK, I’ll be your leader already!

3. Skewered or nailed, we’re all in jail.

4. Oh Lord, you misunderstood. I prayed for a 100 Gs for the Rectory, not a 100 E.T.s to hector me.

5. How can I tell the truth if you all look Alien to me

6. Ok, maybe now is the time to reconsider the ban on birth control

7. STOP! Just maybe “The Pope” needs to be “EXORCISED” from this normal group of Aliens…

8. Heavenly host at a Papal roast.

Thanks for Your Participation!









I’ve been thinking a lot about “aliens” recently.  Primarily because my brother Jim and I, who comprise the “band” called Shrink Wrap, were asked to play at an opening of an exhibition at the Oceanside Museum of Art called “Beneath Alien Seas”.  The exhibit consisted of “Light Sculptures created by William Leslie, in collaboration with Alessandra Colfi and Nathan Harrenstein.  Since it is hard to describe these beautiful and mysterious pieces in words, I’ve included a short video of clips and stills taken at the Opening.

I suggest you check out the video before reading on.

After we played for the Opening, my brother wrote on his facebook page:


       This was the first time I can remember being

       asked to be as “out there” as possible.

       “Alieness” accomplished (I think) and great fun playing for

       such a progressive crowd.

This was the first gig we had played in a long time where we both felt completely free to play the “weird” music that we both enjoy. We don’t play together often but coming together to create music is how we have been bonding together as brothers for many years.

Like many kids with no siblings, I had an imaginary playmate, who I called “Jim”.  So, when my brother came into the world, when I was 5, my parents decided to named him after my “playmate”.  I think for most kids at that age, the sudden appearance of a sibling seems pretty incomprehensible and miraculous.  This was all the more the case for me as it seemed that I, somehow, had something to do with the Jim’s manifestation (perhaps my first “ego trip”).

As a toddler, Jim slept in a crib like that pictured above, with bars all around and wheels on the legs. Whenever he woke up, Jim used to grab onto the bars and shake the bed furiously, like a disgruntled prisoner hoping to shake loose the bars of his cell.  If you read my brother’s posts on Face Book, you will see that things have not changed much.

My first memory of my brother is being awaken in the middle of the night by the sound of Jim’s shaking  crib.  Not being fully awake, I opened my eyes and saw him moving the crib  across the wooden floor, inching closer and closer with every violent shake.  In my memory, he had sort of maniacal grin and bright gleaming eyes.  Peering through the bars of the crib he looked like something from “elsewhere”.  He was from “elsewhere” but it turned out that he just wanted to play with someone in the middle of the night.


Before we took up instruments, our play together usually consisted of  putting on shows for the family or friends.  This flair for the dramatic was perfected in capers designed to torture a long series of babysitters.

Having materialized my own personal playmate out of my imagination, it was only natural that I directed these events. I was the schemer and instigator and poor Jim, always the “team player,” would carry out my plots and usually get the blame when caught.  Our most famous caper was when I talked him into letting me tie a rope around him and lower him from an upper story window.  I don’t recall how I secured him, but Jim managed to swing back and forth in front of the large picture window in the living room below where the sitter was watching TV.  I imagined him looking like Mary Martin flying across the stage in the play Peter Pan, but to our elderly babysitter it was a reason to retire from the babysitting business.


When Jim and I periodically come together as Shrink Wrap,  weirdness usually ensues, and so it was extremely gratifying to be able to draw upon our “inner aliens” and feel that we fit right in at the “Under Alien Seas” event.  As you can see from his design for the cover of a Shrink Wrap CD, my brother’s “inner alien” is not far beneath the surface.

The term “alien” refers to whoever or whatever appears to be strange, foreign or different from oneself.  In my last post, I mentioned that Theolonious Monk was part of a subculture that valued being “far out”.  We all have stories about hearing music or a musician when we were young that had a life-changing effect on our lives.  Monk was one of those musicians.  When I was 10 or 11, I often listened to  a crystal radio set that I had build in bed under the covers.  The set was able to pick up stations from an incredible distance away.  One station I listened to was WLAC (I think) in NashvilleTennessee, where I first heard blues and what was, at the time, called “race music”.  I also recall hearing Monk on a station that played jazz and probably was located in Cleveland.  Hearing any jazz at that time was a novel experience but when I heard the melancholy yet joyously weird sounds of Monk, I realized for the first time that there was a whole other world “out there” beyond the boundaries of Fremont, Ohio that  needed to be explored.

In the next post, I’ll explore the importance of deveoping our “inner alien” in the practice of Art and Zen. By the way, do you know who is posing in the photo below?  Another Brother from Another Planet?  Maybe.  I’ll reveal his identity as I further explore the realm of “inner space” in upcoming posts.





Last April was the 20th anniversary of the LA riots that flared up after the acquittal of the policemen accused of beating Rodney King.  Last week, Rodney King died.  Usually information like the foregoing is followed by a call to reflect and remember.  So why would I add “forgetting” to the title of this blog?

Hearing of King’s death while I was reading  Lehrer’s book  Imagination: How Creativity Works, reminded me of a video I created last year called “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees”, which references the king beating.  What is the connection between Rodney King and Creativity?  Well, it is a bit of a leap, but I thought it might be fun to take it together.  If you’re game, you need to watch the video which is sort of a hybrid between a psychology experiment and an artsy music video (Music composed and created by Jim Wilson).

Here’s what I suggest.  Watch the video first and then use the questions  below to reflect on your experience.  If you have already seen the video, I don’t think that will spoil the experiment.  Those watching it for the first time may want to watch it again after going over the questions.

In the next post I will attempt to tie things together, referring back to Lehrer, Zen literature, Shamanism, Yo Yo Ma and contemporary artist Robert Irwin.



1) Did you come to realize that segments (#2-5) before and after the original news clip of the beating (#1) were abstractions or distortions of the news clip?

2) At what point in the video did this happen?

3) How did you feel when you viewed #1 (the original clip)?

4) After you came to the original clip in this video, did you continue to see images of the beating and how long did that last?

5) Towards the end were you able to “forget” about the images in the middle of the video or did you try to hold on to  the images from the original news clip?

6) If you felt some sense of unease while watching the news clip (#1), how long did that last?

7)  Did you feel manipulated by the video?

8)  Should art manipulate our emotions?

9) Which of the following statements best reflects your opinion:

A)  Art should help the audience forget their own and others’ suffering for a while.       B)  Art should heighten our awareness of our own and other’s                                  suffering for a while.                                                                                                   C) Both A and B above.                                                                                                  D)  Neither A or B above.














In my last two posts, I’ve been exploring some key points made by Jonah Lehrer in his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works.  At the end of this post I  will provide the answer to one of the word problems  (Marsha and Marjorie) that researchers have used to study how the brain comes up with creative solutions to problems. (By the way, there is a hint word contained in the body of this post, just in case you did not solve the problem.)

But, first want to take a slight detour.  Feedback (thank you, by the way) from some readers suggests  that it might not be so obvious to everyone as  to how or why creativity is relevant to either art or spiritual practices.

What Lehrer, and most others, mean by creativity is the creation of something that is new or novel.  Artist, by definition, create objects of art, but these objects vary widely in terms of their creativeness, in the sense that we are talking about it here.  There are a few artists, like Picasso, who, have  prompted “paradigm shifts” in art.  However, any particular piece of art , whether produced  by beginners or masters, could be judged to be more or less creative, depending on whether its creator found ways of introducing novel features into the artwork or not.

Those who regularly surprise themselves (and others) with works that are different in some way from what has been their norm, may be said to be more creative.  It should be said, however, that there is no direct correlation between an artist’s creativity, as defined above, and it’s  appreciation or demand by those who view, read or listen to it.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Ok.  What about the relationship between creativity and spiritual practices?

I will focus on Zen here, because that is what I know the best.  Generally Zen can be described as a way of life (a set of practices) intended  to minimize the suffering of the practitioner and others.  The process of moving towards this goal is often described as an “awakening” or “liberating” process. Art and Zen are not the same thing, but I find it helpful to see both as involving the possibilities of becoming more creative.

Suffering in the Buddhist tradition is seen as caused by ignorance.  This not does not mean the same thing as stupid.  Rather it refers to the tendency for us humans to be unable to see and thus ignore the fact that we are intimately interconnected with everything else.  Thus, we go throughout life with our self-centered notions of how our lives should flow and inevitably these plans and expectations clash with reality.  Because of this limited perspective, we suffer.  This is an oversimplified discussion but the length of this post would be tripled if I were to go into the topic with any depth.

Homer by Picasso

In the arts, creativity entails finding ways of going beyond limiting old habits and perspectives.  I would suggest that this is exactly what happens by practicing various spiritual disciplines.  In Zen and similar Buddhist meditative practices, the goal is to go beyond the limited viewpoints bound around the notion that the self is separate from others around us.

A key component of Zen meditation  is learning how to let go of the left-brain problem-solving processes that Lehrer says limits creative insights.  Zen Koans like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” also entail “giving up” looking for rational solutions.

For the Zen practitioner, the goal is not to produce a new product but to produce a new self which is capable of meeting each new life situation, as it arises, by responding creatively rather than reacting through old patterns of behavior.  Throughout the hundreds of years that Zen was developed in China and then Japan, Zen students have also practiced various arts. It seems likely that the general creativity developed through Zen practice could “spill over” into artistic practice as well and vice. versa.

I think this is the same idea that D.T Suzuki was trying to express in rather awkward and sexist language in this quote from his renown book Zen and Japanese Culture :

The Zen-man is an artist to the extent that, as the sculptor chisels out a great figure deeply buried in a mass of inert matter,  the Zen-man transnsforms his own life into a work of creation.…..” (pg. 17).

PUZZLE ANSWER:  Marsha and Marjorie were triplets.  Lehrer reports that the researchers using these kinds of insight problems found that indirect hints often help the subject find the solution.  That’s why I included the work “tripled” above. Let us know how you worked with the problem.





Last time (“Sudden Insight and Creativity”) I left you with a problem to solve from a cross word puzzle.  Before giving you the answer, let us go back to Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).

The author takes us through a number of experimental studies, using “insight” problems, designed to look at what happens in the brain as people solve them.  Here is one example of a problem used in these kind of studies:

Marsha and Marjorie were born on the same day of the same month of the same year to the same mother and the same father, yet they are not twins.  How is that possible?

If you are like most people, you are already trying to figure it out.  Also, if you are like most of the subjects in the studies, you are or will begin to feel frustrated.  According to Lehrer, the subjects in these studies complained to the scientists about the difficulties of the problems and even threatened to quit the study.  Lehrer goes on to say:

But these negative feelings are actually an essential part of the process because they signal that it’s time to try a new search strategy.  Instead of relying on the literal associations of the left hemisphere, the brain needs to shift activity to the other side, to explore a more unexpected set of associations.  It is the struggle that focuses to try something new. (p. 17)

Based on various art projects I have worked on and based on my practice of Zen meditation, I recognize the process being described here.  I’m sure you do too, even if you are not an artist or a Zenny.  Valuable insights and bursts of creative solutions to problems seem to require slogging through periods of right brain analysis until one gives up.  And then, if you are lucky, you experience a breakthrough.

According to Lehrer:

One of the surprising lessons of this research is that trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight.  While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind comes with a hidden cost: it inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs. (p.33)

What I take from this is that struggle is part of the creative process.  Lehrer doesn’t say it directly, but implies that, over time (with practice?), one learns to trust or, at least tolerate the process.  This is one way of thinking about what both creative and spiritual practices are all about.  When we first become artists, we are likely to assume that creative people should not struggle; creativity just comes naturally. Likewise, those on a spiritual path often assume that, through practice, they will reach a state where  all seeking or searching ceases.  I think both views are unrealistic.

In both cases there is a continual searching for ways of self-expression that go beyond what we are now. And, this may involve struggle. What practice can do is to ease the struggle about the struggle.  If we understand how the creative process or the self-transformation process works, we are less prone to suffer whenever we are not “advancing” in ways we would hope.  We develop faith that, through continued practice, the unresolved issue will become resolved.

I’ll return to Lehrer’s book in the next post.  If you haven’t read the previous post and want to solve the cross word puzzle I mention there, do not read any further.


You’ll recall that the answer to the clue “shopping center” was “pees”.

As to why that was the correct answer, simply look at the letters in the middle (the center) of the word “shopping”. When we were working on the cross-word puzzle, the term “shopping center” conjured up the image of a collection of retail stores.  Not knowing that this was a “trick” question, I had to let go of that association before realizing that there had to be another way of approaching it. When I stopped struggling to figure out what pees had to do with a commercial site, the solution became possible.


I just finished reading a new book titled Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, an editor for Wired Magazine.  Lehrer has a knack for combing through a lot of highly technical material on the major factors affecting creativity and bringing this information to life for the reader.

I want to start with the flashy and mysterious aspect of creativity; those moments where new insights, inspirations or ideas suddenly appear out of the blue.  As an artist and a Zen student, I think this material is highly relevant to my practices.

Looking at both antidotal and experimental evidence, Lehrer found that these moments of insight nearly always happen once we relax and stop trying to solve whatever problem we are working on.  I’ll say some more about the scientific evidence behind this observation in a later post, but at this point I want to tell you about a personal experience with insight problem-solving.

Everyday during lunch, my 97 year old mother and I work on one of the three cross word puzzles she tackles per day.  Prior to her moving in with us, I had no interest at all in doing cross word puzzles, mainly because I could never get them started.  However, by lunch time, my mother usually has a pretty good start on a puzzle and with some letters present, I’m able to give her some help, especially on clues that related to pop culture or technical terminology. She good at coming up with words that are no longer used much and she knows many French terms.  Anyway, together we make a pretty good team and usually manage to cooperatively solve each day’s puzzle.

The other day we had completed a puzzle but were unsettled by one of the answers we provided.  The clue for a four word Across was “Shopping Center”.  Based on all the words we had answered going Down, the answer to this clue ended up being “pees”.  We were certain that our vertical answers were correct and could not understand how “pees” would be the correct answer to “Shopping Center”.  Not only did it not make sense but it also seemed a bit risqué for a cross word puzzle.

After a while, we both agreed that the puzzle creator had simply made a mistake and I went into the kitchen to clean up the dishes.  For a few minutes I thought about whatever it was I was going to be doing next, but then, all of a sudden,  it came to me why our answer was correct.

See if you can get it.  When you do, please leave a comment and describe how you came up with the answer.   I’ll provide the answer in my next blog post and say a little about why I think this kind of problem-solving is related to art and spiritual practices.To leave a comment, click on the title of this post (written in red) under “Recent Posts”  in the upper right hand corner of this page.