WOULD YOU MIND WAlKING THIS WAY?

“Would You Mind Walking this Way?” is the latest video produced by Art and Zen Today and the One Mind Artist Coalition.  It speaks to the notion of being on what is variously referred to as an “inner journey”, a “trip” or a “Path”.  What I tried to convey in this video is that the Path entails  being in the moment while on the journey, no matter where it takes us.  The idea is to let go of concerns of where we are going or when we are going to get there and become fully immersed in the journey itself.  To do this we must let go of excessive conceptualization and allow the shift away from left brain processes that I spoke of in the previous post (Music, Trance and  Mindfulness ).  Although most of us have had experiences involving this type of shift, it is often not a comfortable one because it may feel that our sense of being in control,( which is the basis of our sense of self), is being lost (see previous blog post).  To find earlier posts on “left-brain process” or other concepts, use as key words in the search engine of this site at the top of the page.

On the other hand, when we allow such experiences to happen, it can often be quite liberating; liberating in the sense that one learns that there are other ways of being that are free of stress and strife.  I remember my father, who one health professional described  as a “Type Triple A Personality”, telling me about having  such an experience while on vacation in Puerto Rico.  He found that, even far away from his practice (he was an M.D), he could not stop thinking about his work.  According to him, after several days of not being able to relax, my mother gave him a pencil and pad and told him to go draw something on the beach.  This, he told me, finally allowed him  to “let go” of his thoughts, be more fully present and he enjoyed the remainder of his vacation.  As he told me this story, it was clear from his voice and the tears in his eyes that this had been a major “realization” in his life.

The roots of the word “vacation” are variously described as “free of occupation” and “to be empty”.  In my Dad’s case he was “preoccupied” with thoughts about his work and unable to experience his moments on the beach and elsewhere in Puerto Rico by being fully there.  Ideally, the novelty of the places we visit on vacation allow us to become fully present and this can only happen by “forgetting” our left-brain/self-sustaining thoughts.  This is why, I think, that Dogen famously wrote that “to study the Buddha Way is to forget the self” and why Csikszentimihali said that “flow experiences” happen when we forget the “conceptual  self, but not what Langer calls the “experiencing self”.

In Zen, sitting mediation is the key practice in studying the Buddha Way; the way of reality-i.e. being with whatever is happening in your life rather than what you want to be happening.  Zazen may be thought of as a practice time where one goes on a brief vacation under conditions that facilitate practicing the difficult task of “vacating” or “emptying”. But, Zen, along with other Spiritual disciplines also emphasize the need to eventually extend this practice into all aspects of life.  One way this has been emphasized in Zen is by incorporating “kinhin” or “walking meditation” into the routines of those practicing sitting meditation.   When correctly practicing walking meditation one is fully absorbed in the waking process with no thought of going anywhere.  When you watch the video look for instances of such mindful walking; the title of the video alludes to such mindfulness. The music that accompanies this video is a remix of the song “Caravan”, which is a jazz standard composed by Juan Tizol and first performed by Duke Ellington in 1936.   See the video below.

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.  To avoid robo-spam, comments are not allowed after two weeks of the article being posted.  To comment on older posts, respond to the current post and reference which article you are writing about.

WHAT ARE YOU PRESENTLY LISTENING TO?

WHAT ARE YOU PRESENTLY LISTENING TO?

My guess is that most people answering this question would remove their headphones and provide the name of the bands currently cued up on their listening device.  But based on some articles I have been reading lately, the question is somewhat deeper than that (more like “what is the sound of one hand clapping” deep).  It points to how we respond to music (and sound in general) and trying to answer it can help us better understand both creative and spiritual practices.

It has been a while since my last post.  It’s not that my left brain hasn’t been coming up with stuff to write (maybe I should call it my “Write Brain”).  Rather it is that my right brain has been “compelling” me to spend time learning how to use the new music production software I purchased several months ago.  I have spend most of my “creative time” playing with this program, happily trying out all kinds of wild stuff, not at all concerned about whether it will ever be heard or liked by others.

Much of what I have come up with in my experimental creations does not neatly fit into most of the categories used to describe music; in fact it is not even clear that it is music.  So, recently the left brain started pestering me to find some sort of label for whatever it is I am doing.  By the way, this questioning seems to be rooted in the basic left brain concerns about whether what I was doing was worthwhile or “good” or whether it would be understandable to others.  Anyway, I started to do some research on the internet and so this, and subsequent blog posts, will be inspired by the reading I have done.  I’ll be quoting and paraphrasing heavily from some of the articles I’ve discovered. And, as always, I will try to point to some links with the practice of Zen, where I can.

An article by Robert Worby titled “An Introduction to Sound Art” suggests that maybe what I have been doing is best categorized as “Sound Art”. (http://www.robertworby.com/writing/an-introduction-to-sound-art)   In reality, it probably doesn’t matter how my work is labeled.  At some point I may post some examples and let you decide what it is, but, for now, let’s look at what Worby has to say about ”sound art”.  I think his ideas are relevant  to those interested in any kind of artistic practice or any kind of spiritual practice where one attempts to be more in touch with the senses.

Worby starts off by examining the nature of sound (it is extremely impermanent as you Zen practioners might suspect) and by differentiating between the process of “hearing” and the process of “listening”.  According to Worby:

Sound is constantly pouring into our ears. Most of it goes unnoticed because we are not listening to it. Listening occurs when we become conscious of sound and connect with it. We hear it and we engage our intellect, our emotions, our memory and many other faculties. Hearing is a physical process, listening is a psychological act. And when we listen to sound we are beginning the process of generating meaning with it. If we are listening properly our curiosity is aroused and we might begin to ask questions about the sound; not just the usual questions about what produced the sound but questions about what we are hearing: How loud is it? For how long does it continue? Is it pitched? If it is pitched, how high is it? How low is it? How far away is it? Is it moving? In which direction? How fast? Is it changing? How is it changing? What is changing? And, if there is more than one sound, how many sounds are there? How do they relate to one another? How do individual sounds relate to the mass of sound? There are many, many questions of this type we can ask and, if we ask them, they help us to perceive sounds with greater clarity. This aroused perception generates more detail and raises our consciousness. We have more to say about sound and we can comprehend it in greater detail. All of this may, in turn, help us to generate feelings about what we can hear and it may help to generate meaning from what we are able to hear.(Underlines are mine.)

Worby goes on to say:

Listening is an art. It is an art just as composing and performing are arts. Listening involves action, we cannot listen and remain passive. If we are passive and uninvolved then we are only hearing. Listening is creative and it is this auditory creativity that has given rise to what is now called sound art.

Although Worby looks at a variety of historical sources of “sound art”, he pays particular attention to the work of John Cage, who expressly connected his art and his practice of Zen (Search for previous posts on this topic by entering keywords Cage or Duchamp).  In general, I think, Cage’s work, even if he called it “music” rather than “sound art” can be seen as raising the kinds of questions that Worby says in the previous quotation are raised when we really start to listen to sounds.  According to Worby:

 Cage’s most notorious piece is commonly known as ‘4’ 33”’. It is in three movements (a very conventional Western musical structure) and the notation for each movement simply reads ‘Tacet’. This is the musical term meaning ‘Be silent’. Cage is asking the performer to be silent for three consecutive movements. The piece does not instruct the performer to ‘do nothing’ (a common misconception) but it does require the performer to ‘be silent’. During the first performance, in 1952, the pianist, David Tudor, indicated the passage of the three movements by closing the piano lid at the beginning of each movement and opening it at the end. Hopefully he made no sound. But there was plenty to hear. Four minutes thirty three seconds is quite a long time, for an unsuspecting public, to sit and listen. The sound of the audience twitching, coughing and nervously shuffling filled the space and sounds drifted into the auditorium from outside. Cage had outlined a situation in which sound could be heard but he had no control over those sounds. The conventional roles of composer, performer and listener had been completely subverted. It was difficult to say who was the composer or who was the performer or who was the listener. The listeners were making the sounds so, in conventional terms, they were the performers. The performer, David Tudor, was also a listener. The composer had no hand in crafting what was heard, this was done entirely by the listeners, so, in effect, they were the composers. Cage had turned conventional music making inside out.

———————————————————————————————-

Composing is one thing, performing is another, listening is yet a third. What can they have to do with one another?”  John Cage

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

From today’s perspective, the performance of Cage’s 4′ 33″ seems rather contrived and passé, much like Duchamp’s hanging of an urinal at an art show (Search for previous posts on this topic using the keyword “Cage” or “Duchamp”).  Although those attending the first performance of Cage’s piece may have been shocked into pondering questions about the nature of sound and music, most people today would attend because it was the cool thing to do.  However contrived they seem now, both Cage and Duchamp managed to call attention to the importance of the mental attitude of the audience and both had a profound effect on how artists approached their practices since then.  I think that it is no accident that both of these guys were influenced by their knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Cage with D. T. Suzuki

It’s not clear to me whether Cage actually used the term “sound art” to describe his work but the term has consistently been used that way by others.  So, exactly what is sound art?  

At this point it appears that the term “sound art” refers to a diverse set of practices (ranging from Dada nonsense poetry to recording of natural sounds at various sites) and there is still no clear distinction between “sound art” and “music”. (Below I have links to 3 short videos to provide some examples of  “sound art”.)  The term “experimental music” is often used to characterize musical compositions that veer away from conventional ideas about music, but I would be hard pressed to describe the distinction.  In Worby’s words:

 The multiple threads of sound art practice weave a fabulously rich tapestry. It celebrates the ear in a world that we mostly perceive with our eyes. Language, our tool for thought, is very much orientated towards what we can see. Sound art encourages us to listen, it sharpens the ears and the imagination and so develops what it is to be human.

Cage at the Piano

While any piece of music can have these effects, it seems that “sound artists” see the main goal of their creative endeavor as encouraging real listening.  Whether someone truly “listens” to music or any other sounds depends upon the person’s mental set.  Sound art, as I understand it, is designed to make it induce listening as Worby has defined it.  In future posts I will consider the writings of other authors who have used the terms “deep listening” and “mindful listening” to seemly capture the essence of what Worby is saying.

Since Zen and other spiritual disciplines encourage practioners to be mindfully present and aware and a wide variety of situations, I would suggest that these disciplines share a common goals with much of what might be called sound art (this is most clear in the case of John Cage).  In future post’s I’ll be exploring how music/sound can become a mindfulness practice and looking material suggesting that mindfulness practice can enhance our listening to sounds/music and that listening can increase our mindfulness.

Personally, although I can appreciate the goal of making me more active in the process of listening, I find a lot of sound art and experimental music to be rather irritating; I’m sure I would have been one of the first people out the door at the first performance of Cage’s 4′ 33″.  Doing all of this reading and thinking (thanks left brain!) has led me to wonder whether I can create sounds that are musical and yet can raise listerner’s awareness in the manner that Worby has described.  That is, can sound art be engaging/entertaining and still be consciousness expanding? Maybe it really doesn’t matter as long as I am having fun doing it (thank you right brain!)

 Check out these short videos showing some examples of “sound art”.  Also see my previous post titled “Border Music by Glenn Weyant”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23dBLgKTw0s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6bZWfrKmIg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNM37dnKnyc&list=PLMrY5LKrAJRrsRzb9OSPbneiUzshjkyfi&index=4

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.

FLOW OF LIGHT AND MUSIC: A VIDEO EXPERIENCE BY JAMES WILSON

This post starts off with a visual and auditory experience for you that will work best if I don’t provide any “up front” information.  Below you will see a link to a short video that will provide that experience.  It is best if you watch the video before reading on.

To view video, click on link:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYDW9lOnuwM

 

Now that you’ve watched the video, please take a moment to briefly let  James, the artist, know what you experienced.  It would be helpful for him to know what you thought or felt at various points in the video.  You can provide this feedback by clicking on the bubble at the right of the picture at the top of the post.  If you want your comment to remain anonymous, just write in “anonymous” when prompted for a name.

Below is an interview with James which I think you will find interesting.  My intention was to find out more about how this particular artistic experience came about.

A&Z TODAY: Most of your current music, music videos, and of course your visual device, “The Adagio”,  seem to tap into a sort of slow motion in conjunction with music.  How did you get started along this line of thinking?

James:  I can remember the circumstances pretty vividly.  It was a while ago, probably around 1966 or 1967 when I was a music student at Boston University.  One evening, a weekend night I’m pretty sure since I had nothing pending the next day, I was chilling out at my apartment with some friends, listening to jazz, mainly Miles Davis.  One of my friends shared some weed, and I probably had had a few beers by that point in the evening.  I think it is pretty common when “high”, either on just life or with the assistance of some mind-altering substance, one gets into a state of mind where he/she is somewhat removed from oneself; almost like you become an “observer” observing oneself. 

Miles was playing “Solea” from his “Sketches of Spain” album.  I was very much in the “observer” state of mind at the time, and looked down to notice my hand was moving very slowly to the music, kind of in an up and down fashion along with the characteristic  “arcs” that Miles plays during his solos. ( If you listen carefully to this piece in particular, you will notice that he hits high points, then his trumpet lines slowly descend to a low point.  He then begins to build the tension, and overall pitch, back up, etc. etc. )  My hand was following that, the up and down motion, but also moving very slowly in a smooth arc, not at all as part of any of the rhythmic elements of the piece.    I was hearing/feeling some other motion in the music that no one was talking about.   It was not anything you could consider “rhythmic”. 

Fortunately, I hadn’t partied too hearty that night, and the next day I remembered the evening’s experience pretty vividly.  I thought about it off and on for the next several years, and in 1969 I built the first prototype of “The Adagio”.  It was pretty crude, but it worked, and was my first attempt to capture what I had experienced, and something I could work with in more detail.

A&Z TODAY: In a previous A&Z article, you discussed some of the thinking that led to the actual building of the Adagio. 

Yes, I won’t repeat that here again.  Anyone interested can go HERE to read the article in your blog.  I did go into some detail at that time about how and why I came up with using the sine curve to measure the up and down motion.  Using a slowly rotating cylinder, that was speed adjustable from 0 rpm up to about 3 rpm allowed me to create a slow moving, continuously flowing arc of light across the viewer’s vision.  

A&Z TODAY: At one point, you used Adagio in a biofeedback experiment.  How did that evolve?

After I built the first Adagio, I spent a lot of my free time watching it while listening to music.  I also began to notice certain patterns that might someday be of interest to music theorists.  From working with Adagio and music over the years, several patterns have emerged:

 1.   Most music falls within several rotation speeds: roughly 1 rpm, and 1 rev. every 90 seconds.  Some outliers do occur, for example Gregorian Chant which moves incredibly slow, like 1 rev every 3 minutes, and Bartok’s piece for Celeste, Orchestra  – adagio movement, also crawls along at a barely perceptible pace.

2.  Most music, esp. classical such as Mozart and Bach, has cadences every ¼ rotation.  In other words, 8 or 16 measures of music usually equal ¼ rotations of the cylinder, or on the sine curve, at the 90, 180, 270, and 360/0 degree marks.  You can get an idea of this here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrnhYnNqjzU , along with a Mozart piece.  Note that the Adagio is at 180 degrees rotation when the piece cadences at around 47 seconds.  Coincidence?  Maybe, but then maybe not.

 3. Much good music (including Bach, Bartok, and oddly, Gil Evans – esp. Sketches of Spain with Miles Davis), follow the arch of the curve.  I.e., it builds up during the first ¼ rotation, then releases down to ¾ rotation, etc.   I have used these theories in my own compositions.  This video you included at the start of this article,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isvcRjRauSU uses an ambient piece I composed that was constructed specifically for use with the Adagio.  The rising and falling ball/”moon” follows the sine curve across the screen, with a cylinder rotation speed of 1 rev/90 seconds.  Hopefully you get a sense that the music is moving “upwards”, during the upward cycle of the Adagio, then “downwards”, etc.   That’s what I intended anyway.

 If you work with the Adagio long enough, it can affect you psychologically.  You almost feel a little “stoned”.  I think it slows your sense of time down, and you begin to notice things that perhaps you never noticed before.  Of course the study talks about the fact that it activates the right hemisphere, etc.  And so that kind of ties in with the altered-state one gets from viewing the Adagio over a period of time.

Of course the sensation of an altered-state is what eventually led to the biofeedback study.  I definitely noticed a change in how I was feeling and seeing things and I had several of my friends try it as well.  They also remarked on a change in their perceptions, a sense of “time slowed down”.  

 

In 1978 I was taking a few courses at Nova University in Florida, and also teaching some of the students there computer skills.  One of the doctoral students, a friend of mine, Joyce Keen, became interested in using the Adagio as part of a left brain/right brain activation experiment she was proposing.  She was able to get some heavy hitters of the time, such as Dr. Joe Kamiya, to be on the dissertation committee.  Anyway, the experiment produced some very strong and statistically conclusive results; namely, that the Adagio, and music, reduced stress in the experimental subjects.  The general conclusion is that the Adagio and music activated the right hemisphere, thus allowing the left hemisphere, which is the side of the brain that brings our “fight/flight” response back under control, to concentrate on that task.  In other words, while the right brain was engaged, the left brain had available “down time” so that it could more efficiently address the stressors that were being administered to the subjects.   A few weeks after the initial sessions, Joyce repeated just one session.  Evidently the effect did not seem to diminish over time, as the experimental group still recovered significantly faster than the control group.

Some interesting non-scientific results also occurred.  For example, one student swore she was being levitated in her chair while watching the Adagio.  Another student that suffered from insomnia, said he had started sleeping normally again. 

A&Z TODAY: The study was done a while ago, in 1978.  What has transpired since?

Well, for better or worse a something called “life” got in the way of my doing much else with it since that time.  I got off on a number of tangents, making a living, etc., so I really haven’t done much with it until recently.   I know this seems like a stretch, but I have become very interested in politics over the last 5-10 years, and am very concerned about the direction the country, and the world is taking.  The human race faces at best an uncertain future, and, according to the majority of climate scientists, quite possibly extinction.   What seems to be lacking most in our business leaders and politicians is a little thing called “empathy”.    Nobody seems to care about anyone else not within their immediate family or sphere of influence, much less the fate of future generations.   As long as they are OK, as long as they are comfortable,  who cares about anyone else?  That seems to be the current trend, the current way of thinking, especially here in the United States. 

Empathy emanates from the right brain.  It is a right brain attribute.  Well, you can probably guess where this is going.  In short, what the world needs most is a little  right brain activation, a little more right brain thinking.   What was that popular song “What the world needs now is love sweet love”?     - a  Burt Bacharach song from the mid-1960s if I recall.  Unfortunately it is truer now than ever.

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 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.

JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION: “SOCIAL VIRTUOSITY” AND PRACTICE

The chart above was sent to me by James “The Sax Guy” who also adds some interesting comments  to the previous post.

In the last post “Great Unexpectations: Jazz/Zen improvisation“,  I pointed to some parallels between jazz and the awakened life, as described by Peter Hershock in his book “Liberating Intimacy”.  Hershock points out that Zen practice can lead to a  “social virtuosity” which entails being attuned to the needs of others and being willing and able to spontaneously respond in ways that allow for a harmonious social discourse.  He points out that while jazz musicians are provided a great deal of creative freedom, each is also oriented towards enhancing the overall quality of the band’s performance and suggests that the practice of Zen can also lead to conduct that somehow enhances the larger social whole.

Hershock goes on to point out that this “awakened virtuosity” includes the understanding that one will often not be the center of attention.  This willingness to “sacrifice” for the larger performance of our collective lives is what he sees as the essence of the Zen enterprise.  According to Hershock:….the sincere practitioner must be willing to ‘do’ nothing at all and simply allow his or her life to proceed unchecked.  Anything else amounts to holding on (obsessive attachment) and holding off (the arrogance of aversion).  Like a piece of improvised music, practice is something other than the sum of its individually experienced, factual or behavioral parts, and there are times when the part ‘we’ play in it seems so infinitesimal as to be no part at all.  To extend the musical analogy, practice sometimes puts us in the position of playing a simple rhythmic pattern again and again, subtlety opening up the field of time and space on which we find others soloing, expressing the infinite degrees of their freedom.  There is no glamour in this “repetition” no exalted sense of individual accomplishment, and yet it is precisely what is needed at times for the music to come fully to life.

While being in the spotlight, as a soloist, is part of what it means to play jazz, it is only one momentary aspect of the whole scene. Equally, if not more important, is being able to provide harmonic support for other soloist and the group as a whole.  In jazz, as in other fields, “showboaters” usually do not last very long.  Hershock seems to be saying that the so-called “enlightened life”, as it evolves through Zen practice, involves “playing second fiddle” in ways that support the free expression of others” as much, if not more than, being in the spotlight.

Having played drums in a variety of improvisational groups, I relate to the role of providing unglamorous “repetition”.  Except for the rare drum solo, the drummer’s main role is to support the other musicians as they play the melody and take their solos.  Primarily this entails maintaining a steady beat, but especially in jazz, it can also involve adding embellishments that add to the overall performance of the group.  An accent on the bass drum,  a change in dynamics or a riff that responds to what the soloist is doing can add a vibrancy to the performance and can affect where the soloist goes in his or her improvisation.  I found that I needed to learn to find a sense of accomplishment in providing this supporting role for the group as a whole and forgo the natural inclination to be “in the spotlight”. The most satisfying compliments I received as a drummer were those from fellow musicians who acknowledged that I was both listening to them and providing support or fodder for their improvisations.  In a sense, the appreciation was for my being fully present with the other musicians, doing my part to help them be fully present and doing my part to help “the music to come fully to life” (Hershock).

When this happens, says Hershock:

………. our simple contribution is heard in a completely new and always unanticipated way, becoming something much more sublime than we could ever have imagined.  In the same way, as  long as we are fully engaged in practicing Ch’an, even though we may from an objective point of view be doing nothing out of the ordinary, the meaning of our activity - our conduct- is undergoing continual transformation.  Even though we are doing nothing special, our relationships become progressively more open and truthful. (pg. 120)

 

Hershock’s term “social virtuosity” may be misleading.  It does not necessarily refer to being what we often call “socially adept” and it does not refer to an attitude of concern about social injustices or other societal maladies.  The awakened person may certainly possess these characteristics, but they are not the essence of what Zen practice is all about. Zen students are encouraged to take the vow of “freeing” all sentient beings” which seems to be a clear message that, as in Jazz,  the goal of Zen practice should not conceived as a personal or selfish one, but one that is social, in a certain sense. (See “Four Vows” as practiced at The Vista Zen Center”. http://www.vistazencenter.com/vows-and-precepts)

Understandably, this vow raises also sorts of interpretations as to  what is meant by “freeing” (often the word “saving” is used) and what is meant by “sentient beings”, as well as questions about the feasibility of such a task.  There has been a great deal of discussion about what exactly this vow calls for on the part of a Zen student. However, Hershock seems to argue that, whatever is involved in fulfilling this vow, it does not entail “doing something”.  It does not involve the usual, goal- directed orientation that most people adopt when trying to perfect their behavior.    Rather it is the Zen practice of “not-doing” that allows one to fulfill this vow; the “not doing” of spontaneously responding to what is in the moment, of improvisation grounded in years of practice. For a more,in-depth and lenthy theoretical/Zen/philosophical discussion of this topic, click on the FORUMs tab at the top of the page and see Discussion #3, COMMENT D.

For Hershock, “social viruosity” or “awakened conduct” consists of spontaneous responses to what is happening in the moment.  It is being present/awake/alive, in a way that also allows or encourages others the freedom to be present with the “business” of jointly carrying on their lives in ways that minimizes suffering.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Howard Thurmond

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.

HOW CREATIVITY WORKS.

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.

ANSWER:

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.