GAINING TIME AND MINDFULNESS

BHANTE HENEPOLA GUNARATANA

The quote above was embedded in my post “Mindfulness Wars: Langer Versus Buddha?”  It was not until I was proofreading the post that I realized how profound these 5 sentences were.   Interestingly, Jiyu Roshi used this quote as a basis for a talk at the Vista Zen Center a few days after the post had been published and  I found myself feeling a bit embarrassed as I had not printed author’s name, mainly because I did not take the time to look for it.  I later learned that the quote is attributed to Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, whose excellent book “Mindfulness In Plain English” I had read years ago. 

In “Mindfulness Wars”, I described  mindfulness training as a process where one learns to catch themselves (“remembering to remember”) as they drift into prolonged thought-sequences and then refocus their attention on internal  sensations. (See Creative Refocusing)  This kind of training may be viewed as one where a person learns to “awaken” themselves again and again from the “sleep” or “hypnosis” of ordinary consciousness which consists primarily of what might be called “internal dialogue”.  These internal dialogues are necessarily oriented towards either past or future experiences and to the extent that we can awaken ourselves, however briefly, we become aware of (or are in) the present moment as experienced through our somatic awareness. (see The Artist is Present)

Through meditation or some other form of mindfulness training, one can learn, over time, to also “awaken” more often in the midst of daily activities and interactions.  So the “time” that Guraratana is speaking of in the above quote, is the spit second that one gains when momentarily remembering/catching/awakening themselves before reacting automatically and mindlessly to whatever is going on around them.  This split second allows for a consideration of the consequences (for oneself and others) of any mindless reactions and for a creative (i.e. new ) response instead.  This is the choice that Guraratana says is won when we have time to mindfully consider our responses to what is happening to us in any moment.

Although, as seen in “Mindfulness Wars”, Langer’s approach to mindfulness is slightly different, the above description seems consistent with how she describes personal “reinvention” through engaging oneself in various artistic pursuits.  Late in the book is a Chapter entitled ” The Mindful Choice” which begins with a quote from Picasso saying ” I don’t know in advance what I am going to put on canvas any more than I decide beforehand what colors I am going to use”Langer goes on to say the following:

It’s time to get started.  Now that we understand that we shouldn’t worry about what other will think about our first painting, poem, or whatever it is we choose to do, that comparing ourselves with others is not in our best interest, that talent is not necessary, in short, that we are going to engage our creativity mindfully, it is time to go to the store and get whatever we need.  Once we are there however, the simple task of getting ready often quickly becomes daunting.  How do we decide what we need  ….In the face of such uncertainty, we perhaps ought to pay close attention to Picasso’s words, if we are to proceed mindfully, perhaps we shouldn’t be interested in knowing the answers to these question in advance.  We should just buy whatever colors appeal to us, whatever bushes we think interesting, and some surface on which to paint.  (pg. 212)

 

The remainder of her chapter echoes this same advice – decisions are made in ignorance because if we knew what to do we would just do it. Decisions are problematic, says Langer only when we think that we should know, up front, what the right choice is. She goes on to provide an interesting  analysis ( too lengthy to discuss in detail here) of what occurs during decision-making.  The essence of what she says sounds very Buddhist, although she eschews Buddhist terminology.  Her main point is that since we never can know the outcome of any decision we make and since conditions are constantly changing, the best we can do is make whatever decision is called for based on whatever information we have at hand and whatever makes sense to us in the moment.  So, whether we are talking about creating art or any other areas of life, we can always make new decisions based on whatever is happening in that later moment.  Langer argues that neither forestalling decisions (deliberating endlessly with the hope that new information will become available) nor automatically relying on some external rule or advice encourage mindful living.

At one point Langer declares “For some people , then decision-making is not stressful at all, because they are content with whatever consequences result” (pg. 217) .  This, and other comments, sounds very much like they are expressing the Buddhist ideal of equanimity; that is, not being attached to certain outcomes. A famous Chinese Zen poem begins with the line “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences”.  (Third Ch’an Patriarch Chien-chih Seng-ts’an)  Langer would probably say that letting go of comparing oneself with others, and concerns about how one is being evaluated will lead to one taking themselves “less seriously” and thus, less concerned about always making the “right” decision or choice.

Based on my own experiences with painting, I agree with Langer that this type of activity can  help one to learn not to take things so seriously.  So-called “mistakes” (i.e. “bad” decisions”) can often lead  to later decisions that result in one going in directions never imaged. Furthermore, one can always white-out the canvas and simply begin again, hopefully having learned something from the so called “mistake”.   To the extent that one can gradually drop concerns about how well one is doing according to some set of arbitrary external standards, one can let go and enjoy the process of creating and any choices or decisions that need to be made can become less stressful.

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I want to reiterate what I said in “Mindfulness Wars”.  The process that Langer refers to as “Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity” can be strengthened  by the kind of mindfulness meditation recommended by Gunaratana in “Mindfulness in Plain English

 

In the long Langer quote, printed above, she seems to suggest that after reading the earlier chapters on letting go of self-evaluation and various anxieties about our creative practice, the reader should now be ready to dive in and start creating mindfully.  But her next sentence suggests that she knows it is not that easy.  Having painted for a period of ten years, I can attest to the fact that every time I approach my studio, I am confronted (i.e. I confront myself) with all sorts of thoughts and worries that can undermined the enjoyment of painting as well as restrict my creativity.

 

 I have read interviews with artists of all sorts and have concluded that such thoughts and worries are simply part of the creative process.  I believe, along with Langer,  that simply engaging in artistic practices for a long period of time can help a practitioner  learn to live with this fact.  But, I also believe that daily mindfulness training can facilitate and deepen this process. 

 

The time that Gunaratana says is gained when we practice mindfulness can allow us to nip in the bud all the creativity-defeating thoughts such as those covered in Langer’s early chapters.  These kinds of thoughts infuse themselves into all aspects of our lives and it may seem surprising that they appear even when we are engaged in activities that we love to do.  I would suggest however, that it may be easier to become mindful about them, and eventually let go of them, when we are doing things we are passionate about.

In the literature promoting mindfulness training, authors commonly emphasize how the practitioner can use the time gained in mindfulness to re-channel  angry reactions into responses that lead to less suffering for themselves and others.  I do not think that it is far fetched to consider such redirection as a form of mindful creativity since the alternative, bought by time, allow for a novel response.  Pairing daily mindfulness training with a mindful approach to fun activities, such as the arts, can provide a practicum of sorts for developing creative mindfulness in the widest sense of the term.  Here one may learn how to extend his or her mindfulness training into activities which require moment by moment decision-making.  By learning to “gain time” through practicing mindfulness in such situations, the practitioner is also gaining skills that can be used in situations where the consequences of his or her choices are perceived as being more “serious.  And, there is reason to believe that the time necessary to make skillful choices diminishes with mindfulness practice (see “Yeah Man: Improvisation in Jazz, Comedy and Zen).

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

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

                                                        Poem Store

                                               Your Subject, Your Price

                                                              Yes

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

Time has moved along

slowly, inching with heat

and asking us to understand

what can happen in a single

day, in the rise of a week…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ARE YOU A FLOW ADDICT?

In the last post “Know Flow or No Flow?”, I looked at the characteristics of what is called the “flow experience” and equated it with being fully “present-alive-awake”.  Both in the arts and in various spiritual traditions, “being fully present” is held out as a desirable goal.  As I said in that post, we all know what it is like to flow and be in the present moment.  However, most of us can be in the present moment only when we are in certain situations, carrying out specific activities.  Since we have all had some experiences of being present-alive-awake, we all have the capacity to be this way more often and in a broader range of situations in our lives.  Whether we are talking about the conventional arts or the “spiritual arts”, I believe this is a process of increasing one’s “creativity”. This and several future posts will look at this creative process.

Most people seek out those activities or situations where they flow and avoid those where they don’t.  So a person who flows while skiing, for example, may become a “skier” meaning that he or she will try to ski as much as possible.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this but it can lead an unbalanced life organized around one’s flow activities.

A person who can only be present while, skiing, is likely to become a   “ski fanatic” and will spend enormous time and energy trying to repeat the feeling of past skiing-flow experiences.  As they gets more proficient , they will need to find more and more challenging slopes to avoid boredom and experience flow.  Such a skiing fanatic is likely to be miserable when he or she is not skiing and spend much of their time dreaming about past skiing experiences as well as fantasizing about future experiences.  This means, that when they are not skiing they are no where close to being “in the moment”.

More importantly, they are not likely to develop other skills or interests that can provide the “fun” found in skiing, which makes them all the more “addicted” to skiing.  In other words, they suffer when they are not skiing and this fuels even greater need to ski.  In addition, they are likely to make life miserable for those around them (e.g.. the “ski widow”).

I believe that what Dr.Mihaly Csikszentimaihalyi (Dr. C.) calls “autotelic or flow personalities” have the capacity to flow in a wide variety of situations and activities and

IPhone Addiction

thus are not dependent on any single one to experience flow.  But, I do not think that such individuals are always “high” or “having fun” as the literature on flow might suggest.  In the last post I found it useful to link the concept of “flow” to the concept of “being present-alive-awake”, but we need to be careful of taking this similarity too far.

Most have us are able to be fully present when we are in situations where we are having fun.  But, I believe that it is also possible to be present in situations which are not characterized as being “fun”.  We can do this, but usually we can we just don’t want to.  There is plenty of evidence, for instance,  that people can become fully present while experiencing physical pain or danger and become addicted. The “addiction” that some military people develop to combat and sadomasochistic relationships are a couple of extreme examples that come to mind.  However, generally, in situations which we define as “not fun”, we are absorbed in our thoughts; thoughts of how to get out of that situation and thoughts about what we would rather be doing etc.  In other words we are anything but “present”.

Marina Abramovic is not having "fun" in her piece "The Artist is Present".

But, it is not just these negative extremes that are likely to dampen our “presence”.  Most of us, most of the time, are somewhere in-between having fun and non-fun and find these times to be anything but flow-inducing.  I believe that this is where what Dr. C. calls the “autotelic personality” is able to be more present more often than the general population.  They have the creative skills to define whatever situations they find themselves in ways that allow them to be “present-alive-awake”.

Creativity is basically the ability to look at things in a new way.  This, I believe is what distinguishes what Dr. C. calls “autotelic personalities” from others.  They have the capacity to redefine or reframe situations they face in ways that provide for a greater balance between the “perceived demands” and their “resources or skills” (see Know Flow or No Flow?).

The term “autotelic” refers to the process of doing something for it’s own sake, that is doing something because it is “intrinsically” rewarding rather than “extrinsically” rewarding.  This suggests that the “autotelic personality” then is capable of being fully present in situations that they, according to their definition, (importantly, not others definitions) are able to find rewarding.  This implies that such individuals are capable of casting off conventional understandings of situations and provide a personalized meaning of what is demanded and what is required to be “successful”.  To me this is the essence of “creativity”.

The outcome may be a great piece of art or a solution to a societal problem but for the person in question the reward is being “present-alive-awake”.  And, as I suggested in my post called “Performer-Audience Communication”, others can be positively affected by such creativity because it reminds them that they too can be “present-alive-awake”.

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PERFORMER-AUDIENCE COMMUNICATION

As a follow up to “Buddha as a Performance Artist?”, I was going to talk about the “flow experience” as a way of understanding why artists and spiritual seekers often impose restrictions on themselves.  But I received a comment on that article from my Zen teacher that made me decide to abandon my agenda of writing about flow and “go with the flow” instead.  Among other things, he wrote:

 I would like to suggest that it might be as important to be a performance audience. (You can see the whole comment in Discussion #2 of the FORUM).

Now, frankly I’m not altogether sure what he meant by this but decided to not worry so much about the intended meaning and riff off of this statement just to see where it went. Notice that the emphasis on the word “PLAY” in the description of this blog   If you listen in when young kids are playing together you will notice a lot of apparent “non-sequiturs” where one will pick up on what one says and responds spontaneously without being concerned whether he or she is sharing the same meanings as their playmates.  In play, the objective is simply to keep the play going and to have fun, which is actually one of the defining  charticteristic of “flow”.  So what follows is my response to Jiyu’s Roshi’s comments even thought I’m not sure what he meant or intended.

 

In the FORUM PAGE of this blogsite there is a rather long discussion about the place of meaning in art.  Artists may have a variety of meaningful intentions or inspirations in art (e.g. religious, political, comments on the art world etc.) or they may have none at all. However, it seems that the nature of communication in the arts is that we can never be sure that the artist’s meaning is shared isometrically by the audience (see examples in the FORUM).  However, I do believe that when an artist in any field is creating in the present moment, that some portion of the audience will share this experience; that is, witnessing that art can bring a person into the present moment  (i.e. to become more alive or awake, as suggested in the previous post).  What is the difference between those that do and those that do not?  All we can say is that those who do are willing and able to be transported, at least temporarily, into the present moment themselves.  Something about viewing or hearing the art piece moves them to share that state of mind with the artist, but they must be open to that happening.

Remember this quote from Marina Abramovic regarding those who sat across from her during her performance at MOMA?

Some of them are really open and you feel this incredible pain…….when they are sitting in the front of me, it’s not about me any more. It’s very soon, that I’m just mirror of their own self.

Those who had profound experiences in Marina’s presence were, for whatever reason, open to having such experiences, while others in the exact same situation were not.

The historical Buddha, who according to Robert Thurman, was the consumate “performance artist” supposedly held up a white flower during one of his meetings with his disciples.  One, Mahakasyapa, is said to have silently gazed at the flower and smiled.  The Buddha then acknowledge that Mahakasyapa had attained enlightenment; in other words he shared with the Buddha a profound experience of being present, alive and awake.

Who knows why this happened to Mayakasyapa and no one else.  Jiyu Roshi often says that the reason for Zen practice is to become enlightenment prone.  By consistently and persistently carrying out activities (chiefly meditation) that can provide temporary experience of being fully present, one prepares oneself for more permanent shifts in this direction.  Most likely Mahakasyapa had done the work necessary in order to be open to that shared experience with Buddha.  The Zen literature is full of similar stories about such “awakenings”.

 

Likewise, by engaging in artistic practices and/or opening oneself to art that requires”presence”, one can begin to see through the cultural and mental patterns that keep us from experiencing this on an ongoing basis.

It requires wisdom to understand wisdom: the music is nothing  if the audience is deaf. Walter Lippmann

//www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/audience.html#GdctRZgTiqQWiiuS.99

For a more in-depth and theorectical discussion of this topic click on the FORUM page in the menu at the top of this page.  Then scroll down to “Discussion #2″ 

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The Artist is Present

I happened to see “Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present” on HBO the other night and would highly recommend it to this crowd of readers.  It is a documentary that follows the Serbian performance artist as she prepares for a retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art inNew York.  It is available on Netflixs.

The retrospective included either videos of or reenactments (using hired artists) of performances carried out by Abramovic over the course of her career.  Photos of some of those early performance pieces are included below, along with some commentary.

Marina plays "game" stabbing knife between fingers rapidly for hours.

“The main problem in this relationship was what to do with the two artists’ egos. I had to find out how to put my ego down, as did he, to create something like a hermaphroditic state of being that we called the death “ self”

Marina on her relationship with Ulay.

 

 

Ulay and Marina screaming at one another as Performance Art

 

Performance piece with Ulay

   Abramovic lived on three connected platforms in full view of audience for 12 days.IN 2002 Marina lived for 12 days on three platforms in full view of the public. the ladders leading down from the platforms had rungs made of butcher knives.

A large part of the MOMA retrospective consisted of videos or reenactments of these and many other past performances by Abramovic.  However,the main attraction was the artist herself who sat motionless in a chair in the museum while gazing into the eyes of whoever wanted to sit across from her.  Thus, the title of the exhibit (and the documentary), “The Artist is Present”, was based on the fact that Marina was in the museum during every moment that the Museum was open during the 3 month exhibit; 7 1/2 hours a day, 6 days a week.

The title seems to have a double meaning.  Not only was she present in the sense that she was there at  her show every hour of every day- something, I’m sure, no other artist has accomplished- but she was totally “present” with everyone who sat before her.

In the film, Klaus Bresanbach , the curator for the exhibit, said:

What is so beautiful about the MOMA performance, she’s treating actually every human being she is encountered with the same attention and the same respect.

 

As you can see from the photos, many of those who waited in long lines to be in Abromovic’s presence were profoundly affected.  Many people openly wept and I found one person online who descibed herself as having an “out of body experience” while gazing into the artist’s eyes.  In the film Marina says of those who sat with her:

  Some of them are really open and you feel this incredible pain…….when they are sitting in the front of me, it’s not about me any more.  It’s very soon, that I’m just mirror of their own self.

 In other words,Marina was being “in the present” in the sense that I talked about this concept in the earlier post “What the ______was that Video About?  In the film, Marina tells us:  It doesn’t matter what kind of work you are doing as an artist.  The most important is from which state of mind you are doing what you are doing, and performance is all about state of mind.

 It is clear from the film and from other interviews with Marina that she sees her art as a means of transforming herself.  By confronting challenges and fears, she is able to create, not a new art object but a new self.  This reminds me of Suzuki’s statement as follows: 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 transforms his own life into a work of creation.  (D.. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture)

 

Zen Meditation

There is much about Abramovic’s art practice and her life that reminds me of  serious Zen practioners.  Consider this quote from the movie:

The hardest thing is to do something that is close to nothing.  It’s demanding all of you because there is no story anymore to tell.  There’s no objects to hide behind.  You have to rely on your own pure energy and nothing else.

I am sure that any Zen student who has sat for hours in a prolonged meditation retreat can relate to her description.

Although it is clear that Abramovic is aware of and has practiced various meditiation

Marina at the end of a day of sitting.

techniques, she does not identify herself as a spiritual seeker. As she said in a joint interview with Ulay:

…as we speak about a reserve of energy, about our bodies, you might think Zen Buddhism is behind our work, or other philosophies, but we’re really interested  only in  experience.” (http://www.flashartonline.com/interno.php?pagina=articolo_det&id_art=197&det=ok&title=MARINA-ABRAMOVIC-AND-ULAY)

Whether or not Abramovic’s art  is spiritual, it involves a practice that resembles what seems to be required in all genuine spiritual pursuits; the practice of raising ones awareness to the point where something new is a possible outcome.  This is nicely summed up in the movie when Marina says:

Artists have to be warriors.  Have to have this determination and have to have the stamina to conquer not just new territory, but also to conquer himself and his weaknesses.

This overlapping of spiritual and artistic practices is the central focus of this blog.