A play about attendees at a Silent Retreat?  What would that look/sound like?  What are the chances of my reading the article below a day before attending a week long Zen retreat conducted in silence?  Reading about art is not the same as experiencing it first hand, but I think you will find this article/ interview of interest.  It is about the playwright Bess Wohl and her play “Small Mouth Sounds”.  Most of my blog posts have to do with the interconnection between the visual or performing arts but I’ve not written much about the dramatic arts.  I haven’t seen the play but I’m guessing my experience of silence over the next week will be affected by this article.
“Play’s silence speaks for itself” LA Times Jan. 11, 2018

A minute of silence onstage feels like an eternity. So imagine what 100 minutes of silence would feel like. That’s exactly what playwright Bess Wohl did when she set out to write “Small Mouth Sounds,” which makes its Los Angeles-area debut at the Broad Stage on Thursday.

Set at a silence retreat in the woods, the play explores the lives of six people as they struggle to connect, and find inner peace, without uttering a word. The play has a few moments of speech, but the only substantial dialogue comes from the person running the retreat — a bodiless voice offstage.

For a writer who admits to relying on witty banter for some of her best work, the play proved a dramatic challenge and a creative triumph for Wohl and director Rachel Chavkin, the latter fresh off the raves she earned on Broadway for her inventive “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.”

As part of a national tour that will take “Small Mouth Sounds” to Dallas, Miami and Philadelphia, Wohl talked with The Times about her process and explained why silence is sometimes louder than words.

What made you want to write this play?

The idea came when I was on a silence retreat. I had been — I wouldn’t say dragged — but encouraged to come by a close friend. I didn’t realize we were going to be in silence. I thought it was going to be a girls bonding weekend. I brought snacks and wine.

But on the first night of silence I simultaneously realized, “Wow, this might be fertile ground for a play.” I had this impulse based on observing other people and thinking they would be great characters to explore, but I didn’t know anything about them because I hadn’t spoken to them.

So the whole thing became this projection of my fantasy about who they might be. I got really interested in the way we project fantasy on each other all the time, and I was interested in engaging the audience in that process.

Did you do more research?

I went back to a bunch of silence retreats. I went to one with my mom, but we only lasted about halfway through. I just got deeper and deeper into this idea. There was a part of me that really enjoyed the perversity of trying to make a play where people don’t speak, and what that would be like. It was all a great experiment.

I started it in 2012, and there were series of workshops with actors. I wrote a bunch of drafts. My first draft, I couldn’t help myself and all the characters immediately started talking and breaking the rules. Then in the second draft nobody spoke ever, and that felt kind of false. What I ended up finding was balance.

I did a lot of workshopping — putting the play in front of groups of 20 or 30 people, so I could understand what information they needed to follow the plot. There was lots of testing with other people, which was part of the joy of a silent play. You have to see it in bodies and spaces.

What does the script look like?

The beginning is about 12 pages of character descriptions. I felt if I were going to ask actors to play characters that barely spoke, I had to give them enormous backstories to ground them. My hope is that the audience can intuit that there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. After that there’s about 40 pages of stage direction, and there are some monologues in the play. The other piece of perversity is that the character who speaks the most is never seen in the play.

I was interested in creating these obstacles in both directions. What is it like to hear and not see, and vice versa.

I realized how hard it is for me to personally sit in silence. The play begins in silence. You watch someone in silence for a full minute, which onstage feels like a very long time. So when I watch I go through a whole arc of anticipation and agony. Part of the project is teaching myself to slow down and sit in silence with something I made. As a playwright it’s hard to evaluate your work because the voices in your head are so loud. In part I was trying to quiet those voices.

I always think any kind of change or growth is jagged — but I definitely have moments now when I can access the quiet I didn’t have before. And then a minute later the voices are back.

How did you hook up with Rachel Chavkin to direct?

I got so lucky with Rachel. We had a coffee, and she had read the play and came to the first meeting with such a clear vision of what she wanted the audience to feel by the end of the play. She wanted them to feel as if they had been at a silence retreat. She said they should leave the theater in a different metabolic state than they came in with.

How would you describe the plot?

It’s tricky to put it into one sort of nugget because every time I watch the play, I see it in a different way depending on whatever I’m going through in my life. What’s interesting about a silent play is that the audience brings a lot of perspective. The audience can project their own experiences and ideas onto the characters.

The play is a lot about the question of inner peace. A character asks whether peacefulness is a worthy goal right now given the chaos of the world. He says maybe we shouldn’t be at peace in a world that has so much difficulty.

How do you feel about the cast that will be performing at the Broad Stage?

I have the greatest respect for this company of actors. Part of what’s hard about this play as an actor is that it’s impossible to perform without being fully present, because there’s no dialogue to coast on. You can’t be saying the words while thinking about the hamburger you’re going to eat at the bar afterwards. Being present is all there is.

Do you think the show will play differently in L.A. than in New York?

I’m really excited to see it in Los Angeles. L.A. has a great community of spiritual seekers and yoga practitioners and people who have been on a lot of these retreats. I wanted to make something accessible whether you’d been on a million retreats or had no idea what one was about.

I’m hoping that people in L.A. can see themselves and laugh a little bit and also engage with the ideas.

What’s next for “Small Mouth Sounds”?

This play is going to continue to tour, and that will be really fun to keep sharing it with people around the country. When I first started this play — as my little experiment, will people engage with this, will people fall asleep — I never imagined it would be a multi-city tour. It was such a tiny, weird idea. We had auditions where we just had actors come in and sit in silence and leave.

What’s next for you?

I have a new play that I’ve been working on that tries to look at questions surrounding climate change. I’ve been working on it for years and am figuring out how to tackle it. Hopefully there will still be a planet next season.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Small Mouth Sounds’

Where: The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; ends Jan. 28.


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Here are two articles that align themselves very well with the focus of Art and Zen Today.  One deals with visual art; the other with music.  I hope you enjoy them.

Meditations on canvas

By Ollie Reed Jr. / Journal Staff Writer
Sunday, November 26th, 2017 at 12:02am
Meditations on canvas

Titus O’Brien, assistant curator of art at the Albuquerque Museum, sits in front of two of the paintings he will highlight during the upcoming program, “The Zen of Abstraction.” Immediately behind O’Brien is Mark Rothko’s “Old Gold Over White.” At right is Kenzo Okada’s “Abstraction No. 7.” Both works are in the museum’s “When Modern Was Contemporary” show. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)


Rooted in front of the 1957 Mark Tobey abstract titled “Lyric,” Titus O’Brien talked about the influence the Chinese art of calligraphy played in Tobey’s paintings.

Titus O'Brien talks about Mark Tobey's painting "Lyric," an example of the influence Chinese calligraphy played in the artist's workTitus O’Brien talks about Mark Tobey’s painting “Lyric,” an example of the influence Chinese calligraphy played in the artist’s work. O’Brien, an artist and a Zen instructor, will discuss the influence of Asian philosophies and religions on avant-garde painters of the 1940s to the 1960s. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“Many of his paintings are much more dense than this,” said O’Brien, assistant curator of art at the Albuquerque Museum. “Here there are no characters, no letters. The energy of the mark making, inspired by calligraphy, is the message. It is radically non-symbolic.”

Tobey’s painting, tempera on board, is among the 50 works in the Albuquerque Museum show “When Modern Was Contemporary,” which continues through Dec. 31.

“Lyric” is an uninhibited shout out of color – pale yellows, whites, squiggles of red, patches of olive green. The effect on O’Brien is to make him pause for a moment, to reflect.

“It’s painted in difficult colors, weird, strange colors, awkward colors,” he said. “I like paintings that resist you. They are sort of like Zen meditation. It’s not so easy to sit still.”

Integrated and engaged

In O’Brien’s view, all works of art should be objects of meditation. But he noted that this is especially so in the works by artists of the avant-garde movement of the 1940s to the 1960s – painters such as Tobey (1890-1976), Kenzo Okada (1902-1982), Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and the composer and music theorist John Cage (1912-1992). Unlike artists who poured out their souls onto their canvases, O’Brien said Tobey, Okada, Rothko and Pollock, all of whom have works in “When Modern Was Contemporary,” shifted the emphasis in their paintings from their own feelings to the objects depicted in the work.

Clarence Giese and Ingrid Vollnhofer check out Mark Rothko’s “Old Gold Over White,” left, and Kenzo Okada’s “Abstraction No. 7” during a recent visit to the Albuquerque MuseumClarence Giese and Ingrid Vollnhofer check out Mark Rothko’s “Old Gold Over White,” left, and Kenzo Okada’s “Abstraction No. 7” during a recent visit to the Albuquerque Museum.

He said that’s due in part to the fact that these trailblazers were very much influenced by Asian philosophies and religions, especially Zen Buddhism.

“Zen is about your whole body and your whole mind integrated and engaged,” he said. “Many of the artists in this exhibit were looking for ways to expand beyond materialism, consumerism and militarism. These artists are not depicting the world, they are organizing color, line and shape.”

On Saturday morning,O’Brien will lead a brief guided meditation followed by a tour of select works in “When Modern Was Contemporary.”

He is especially well suited to the task. He is an artist, a sculptor and a painter who does abstracts in casein (milk tempera). But he has also studied Zen for three decades and is an instructor in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. On most days, he meditates in the morning and again in the evening.

“My tradition is just sitting and allowing sensation and thought to arrive and depart without manipulation and engagement,” he said.

And that works just fine for looking at abstract paintings.

‘Here I am’

O’Brien, 50, grew up in Littleton, Colo., and early on was unsure as to what path he would follow.

“I had a grandfather who was a painter and a grandfather who was a biological scientist,” he said. “I wanted to be both. I was drawn to medicine, and I was also interested in anthropology. But the art won out in high school.”

He earned a bachelor of fine arts from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1991 and master of fine arts from the Yale University School of Art in 1993. He was introduced to Zen when composer Cage was a visiting professor in Kansas City in the late 1980s.

Cage was born in Los Angeles and died in Manhattan, but his major influences were East and South Asian cultures. Cage attended D.T. Suzuki’s lectures on Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s and early 1950s and used the ancient Chinese text the “I Ching’ as a tool for creating his musical compositions.

O’Brien attended lectures Cage presented in Kansas City and interacted with the composer during one of those sessions.

“He was saying really interesting stuff about the non-existence of the self,” O’Brien said. “I said, ‘What do you mean I don’t exist? Here I am.’ He said, ‘Yes, exactly. And what is that?’ My brain couldn’t make anything of it.

“He had this Cheshire cat smile and these twinkling eyes. It was a beautiful, transforming experience. I connected with him very strongly. He was a singular and radiant individual. He singled me out, and he started talking to me about Zen.”

While doing graduate work at Yale, O’Brien studied at the New Haven Zen Center. Between 1995 and 2000, he spent time at Zen centers in Rhode Island, Kentucky and Northern California.

“Now, I use the ‘I Ching’ to compose my paintings,” he said.

Organized activity

Just as Cage helped form O’Brien’s zeal for Zen, Tobey’s interest in Eastern religions – he converted to the Bahá’i faith – may have influenced Cage to some degree. The men were friends and Tobey studied piano and music theory with Cage. And there are those who suggest that Tobey’s oriental brushwork and calligraphic strokes prompted Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.

One of those Pollock paintings, “Number 8, 1949,” is in the show. O’Brien refers to the piece – a roiling, twisted mass of oil, enamel and aluminum paint on canvas – as organized activity.

“All art is a mediation between order and chaos,” he said. “But Pollock was clearly the most chaotic of his generation.”

But that doesn’t mean his work is not Zen.

“Zen tradition is full of rogues, raconteurs and radicals,” he said. “Zen is not just the eternally beatific, monks and monastics.”

Kenzo Okada was born in Yokohama, Japan, and was a realist painter before he moved to New York City in 1950.

“Then he got swept up in the heated, abstract atmosphere,” O’Brien said. Even so, his abstract paintings retain a powerful Japanese sensibility and appreciation of form. His 1953 oil on canvas, “Abstraction No. 7” is part of the exhibit. Large shapes and smaller ones stand out against a desert-sand background.

“Notice the numbered title,” O’Brien said. “You are not supposed to be able to tease out any kind of story. Clearly Okada wants you to view that painting on its own merits. You are approaching these elements in their relationship to each other. He leaves these sort of wonderful negative spaces – landscapes of the mind and heart.”

Floating in space

Okada and Rothko were friends. Did Okada’s Japanese-flavored abstracts influence Rothko? Maybe. Maybe not.

But Rothko’s 1956 oil on canvas, “Old Gold Over White,” might just be the most Zen work in the show. O’Brien describes the painting as hazy rectangles floating in space.

“Do you fall into them, or do they come out and get you?” he said. “The best description of Rothko’s paintings is meditative. They are not promoting any Zen doctrine. They are just inviting you to meditate on them, on your experience with them.

“You can come back to a Rothko painting forever and have different experiences each time. You can say the same of Zen meditation.”

If you go
WHAT: “The Zen of Abstraction.” Art curator and Zen practitioner Titus O’Brien guides visitors through a brief meditation, followed by a tour.
WHEN: 10-11:15 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 2
WHERE: Albuquerque Museum, 2000 Mountain NW
COST: Program is free with regular museum admission of $1-$4.






A Few Questions (New blog article)

Paint as you like and die happy
– Henry MillierAchieving success and fulfillment as an artist takes more than hard work. It requires the:
* Perception to see your world (inner and outer) as it is
* Discernment to choose a course of action
* Focus to stay the courseThe following questions may help you find this perception, discernment, and focus. Write down your answers in a journal. Some of the challenging questions will ask you to dig deep.
* When are you fully self-expressed and connected as a musician?
+ Identify specific moments. Where were you? Who were you playing with? Who was in the audience? What did the music sound like?
+ How can design more of these experiences?* What artists/performances/recordings most resonate with you at a core level? Art that flips a switch emotionally and/or spiritually.* Does the music you play resonate in the same way?
* If not, what can you change about your practice to connect with your own music on a deeper level?

* Imagine yourself ten years from now playing ideal music under perfect conditions. Where are you? Who is there? What does it sound like? What’s stopping you from doing this right now?

* Choose your audience: Who are the people who will connect and resonate with the music you create? What do they value? What type of experience do the seek? Where do they connect with each other?

* If you never performed again, who would miss you?

* What limiting beliefs get in your way? These biases and narratives may be hard to uncover, because they can be ingrained into our view of the world. A few examples:
+ I’m not naturally talented enough to ______  (a.k.a. “fixed mindset” (https://stevetres.us7.list-manage.com/track/click?u=e48deb90ce850347108686725&id=1c3a55781d&e=ae2503bdd2) )
+ I’ll never be as good as ______, so why bother
+ “Work” is inherently unenjoyable
+ Artists can’t earn a good living without selling out

* In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield outlines strategies for fighting “the resistance”—our biological need to feel safe and secure. This can sabotage our art. How does the resistance interfering with your best work? Some examples:
+ Talking yourself out of a project because of the fear of failure
+ Avoiding listening to recordings/watching film of your performances
+ Stage fright
+ Obsessive perfectionism
+ Procrastinating because you don’t “feel ready”

* Have you defined success and fulfillment for yourself, or are you stuffing your journey into somebody else’s model/expectations?
* If money wasn’t a barrier, what projects would you initiate?
* What’s an exciting project you initiate with little or no cost?

Ignore the resistance and start now.

– ST


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 Thanks for sharing this.  It’s funny, looking back at how I began to appreciate art, I took a similar approach. I was drawn to abstract and minimal art because it allowed space for viewer to enter the work without the need for historical contextualization or symbolic analysis.  Rothko and Ad Reinhardt were influential for me.  Have you been to the Rothko chapel?  Definitely worth it if you haven’t.
     Great website. I will look forward to future posts. Hope all is well.
That was beautifully said.

Thank you for sharing it with us.
Thanks Steve for posting these articles!

I’d love to go see the exhibit in Albuquerque.

Zen Buddhism and Japanese Art: the Inspirational Life of Hakuin Ekaku


As you know, most of the posts at Art and Zen Today deal with contemporary art practices.  However, it is helpful to have some understanding of how the various arts have traditionally been connected with various meditative disciplines.  Below is an article that provides a nice look at that connection in Zen.  This article was called to my attention by Jake Roshi, an avid supporter of Art and Zen Today.  If you come across any articles that you think might make a good post on the site, please let me know. Also, we are always looking for “guest editors” so if you have some prose or art work that you think our readers would like, please let me know.
By the way, you may find two previously published articles on Sumi-e painting practice by Beth Moskal Milligan (Esho) to be of interest.  Click on the links below to read these articles.

Zen Buddhism and Japanese Art: the Inspirational Life of Hakuin Ekaku

 Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The holy Buddhist monk Hakuin Ekaku revived the school of Rinzai Buddhism based on taking Zen Buddhism far and wide. Indeed, his upbringing meant that he never lost touch with people at the bottom of the ladder, in terms of wealth. Also, despite Hakuin being outspoken towards other Buddhist sects, he never sought to alter the non-Zen Buddhist ways of people residing in the countryside. Hence, the roots of his early life meant that Hakuin could reach out both culturally and religiously to ordinary people in rural communities.

In other words, many lay people throughout the countryside fused the various aspects of rural Shintoism, Confucianism, and the ways of Buddhism. Hakuin fully understood the rich fusions of ideas that impacted on rural society and the religious – and philosophical dimensions – that remained like a rock during times of hardship.

True to nature, Hakuin declined to serve the most prestigious Buddhist monasteries in Kyoto that impacted greatly on high culture – just like other centers of power including Nara. Instead, Hakuin took the teachings of Rinzai Buddhism to the rural poor and extolled the virtues of Zen Buddhism based on lectures to other classes in society.

Hakuin said, “At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully.”

Another saying, close to the heart of Hakuin, was “Contemplation within activity is a million times better than contemplation within stillness.”

In the world of art, calligraphy, and literature related to Zen Buddhism, then Hakuin fused these elements in order to reach out to the masses in multiple ways. Indeed, he wrote with great passion and in haste during the late stages of his life. Similarly, despite Hakuin being deemed one of the greatest Zen Buddhist painters of Japan, he only focused seriously on this area of his life when he was nearing sixty years of age.

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Below I have reprinted an inspiring article sent to me by Jake Roshi.  The article very much supports what Jake has been saying for years; that a mindful commitment to any activity that requires practice can be a “teacher”.  This may include what we traditionally define as “art” but can include any activity (cooking, gardening, accounting etc.) that entails practice with the goal of doing it “artfully”.
Below are links to past articles published in Art and Zen Today that speak directly to this connection between artistic practice and “meditative” practice.  There are many more and I suggest you explore the Archives.
http://artandzentoday.com/?p=3179   Myths about the nature of “Talent”

http://artandzentoday.com/?p=3121 Art and Mindfulness

http://artandzentoday.com/?p=3121  Improvization in music and Zen.

http://artandzentoday.com/?p=1830  Trumpet practice and Zen  practice  #2

http://artandzentoday.com/?p=1788  Trumpet practice and Zen Practice #1

http://artandzentoday.com/?p=1147 The Art of being present.

http://artandzentoday.com/?p=124  Art, Zen and Creativity


And now to the article, which was originally printed in The Washington Post.

Why making art is the new meditation

By Maia Gambis August 25, 2015

Photo by iStock

Many of us have heard about the benefits of meditation, but sometimes find it hard to do.  Fewer of us know about the profound benefits of artistic expression. Creating art, however, is another way to access a meditative state of mind and the profound healing it brings. 

“Art is a guarantee to sanity,” said Louise Bourgeois, a French-American artist who died in 2010 at the age of 98. She even went on to add, “…This is the most important thing I have said.” For Bourgeois, art — making art — was a tool for coping with overwhelming emotion. She says she remembers making small sculptures out of bread crumbs at the dinner table when she was a little girl – as a way of dealing with her dominating father. Art was more than an escape – it kept her sane.

Art therapy has a healing effect for a variety of ailments, including depression, trauma and illness. and is effective across age, gender or ethnicity. In a recent study of cancer patients, an art therapy intervention — in conjunction with conventional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation — not only diminished symptoms typically associated with cancer such as pain, fatigue and anxiety, but also enhanced life expectancy. The study, its authors said, was based on the belief that “the creative process involved in the making of art is healing and life-enhancing. It is used to help patients, or their families, increase awareness of self, cope with symptoms, and adapt to stressful and traumatic experiences.” 

Art is not only healing for individuals suffering from severe illness. Here are four reasons why creative activity is such a potent recipe for psychological well-being:

1. Art is a vehicle for meditation and self-connection

Most of us can understand that art provides an escape to a sometimes harsh reality, but where does art’s healing potential come from? It impacts the state of our minds: Enjoying emotional stability is largely about taking responsibility for how we feel.

Research has shown the power of meditation and the science behind it. One of the reasons it is so powerful is that it fosters acceptance. Creating art is a type of meditation, an  active training of the mind that increase awareness and emphasizes acceptance of feelings and thoughts without judgment and relaxation of body and mind.

Art, like meditation, allows us to create space between our often negative, anxious thoughts and connect with our true selves – as opposed to with the fleeting or false sense of identity we sometimes have when we are caught up in our thoughts and emotions. Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher, writes: “Identification with thoughts and the emotions that go with those thoughts creates a false mind-made sense of self, conditioned by the past… This false self is never happy or fulfilled for long. Its normal state is one of unease, fear, insufficiency, and non-fulfillment.” Creating art is about reaching a state of consciousness and breaking free from the constant debilitating chatter of the mind.

Similarly to meditation, art can help us tap into a deeper and more quiet part of ourselves. We enter into a state of flow and present-moment awareness. “All true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness,” Tolle writes. Artists experience that creative activity has the potential to tap into a space of true consciousness of being, void of interpretation. In this space, there can be a sense of having no physical parameters; no body, or form to separate one from the other. 

3. Art allows for true self-expression

The process of making art overrides the need for verbal communication. Creativity is its own language and enables humans to connect with one another — and themselves — on a non-verbal level. In therapy it can be an effective way of saying the unspeakable as is shown through the use of creative therapies with children. This also explains how we can be moved to the core when looking at a work of art, or even listening to music, without necessarily knowing the specifics about its origin. Art exists within its own non-verbal parameter and thus frees us up for unadulterated self-expression.

4. Art helps us become steady and centered

As a plus, it is interesting to note that Bourgeois, when asked to comment on her extensive body of work spanning her entire lifetime, says what impresses her most  “is how constant [I] have been.” Perhaps we need to redefine what we consider to be a storybook happy ending. Happiness may be less a matter of experiencing sharp highs (often followed by deep lows), and more a matter of nurturing a space that provides stability and a constant connection to our true selves.



There is reason to believe that many people are feeling depressed about the state of the nation and the state of the world.  If you relate to this, you might find the short statement below to be a useful reminder of some rather simple coping mechanisms.

Below is an excerpt from what a Rwandan told Western writer, Andrew Solomon about his experience with Western mental health and depression.  Thanks to Alessandra, a good friend and avid Art and Zen Today reader for calling my attention to this statement, as published on a Blog called “Under The Blue Door”. ( https://underthebluedoor.org/)  By the way, you can learn more about Alessandra by typing her name into the search box at the upper right- just doing that may help with your depression.

The Rwandan Prescription for Depression: Sun, Drum, Dance, Community.

~A Rwandan talking to a western writer, Andrew Solomon, about his experience with western mental health and depression.

“We had a lot of trouble with western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide and we had to ask some of them to leave. They came and their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better, there was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again, there was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy, there was no acknowledgement of the depression as something invasive and external that could actually be cast out again. Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave.”


“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.

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My last post  contained a music video called “Dronology 101: Tongue in Cheek – Drool on Desk” (scroll down to read) and prompted a couple of interesting responses from readers.  In this post I want to start to address these remarks.  You can read the comments by Charles and James by looking in the Replies Section to the Right.

I can’t tell you how many times I feel asleep while working on this music video; often waking up with a smile on my face at the irony of me falling asleep during an art piece that I hoped would capture the interest of an audience.  Granted, unlike Charlie, I did not usually work on this after drinking coffee.  For me, the video was a metaphor for the painful process of waking up (i.e. becoming perpetually mindful) in the Buddhist’s sense.  So having practiced Zen for over 10 years, I identified with each and every one of the people and animals in the  video.  However, as an artist I am also interested in whether art and music can and should strive to induce mindfulness among viewers/listeners and this interest is behind the current series of posts.


Like Charlie, I have difficulty with most minimalist music, finding that I either tune it out and start thinking about something else, fall into reverie or physically fall asleep.  On the other hand, like James, I like the use of drones if and when there is something else going on in the music.  This, of course, is just my opinion and could see someone making the argument that even in the most  repetitive of music, one should be able to mindfully find variety and nuisance enough to maintain their attention (See Langer’s take on “mindfulness by using the Search feature on this site).  I once attended an Aftican Drum class where the instructor had each of us playing a simple repetitive pattern over and over.  As a jazz drummer, I kept hearing complicated riffs that I wanted to play.  Not being allow to do this I, at first, become bored and wanted to leave.  However, after about 15 minutes of this process, I suddenly became aware of what other drummers were doing and how my simple part contributed to the larger whole.  As I let go of my personal needs and interests, I shifted temporarily into a non-ordinary state of consciousness, a trance, to use a term that Charles brought up in his comment.

Because drones and repetitive drum patterns often accompany trance states in traditional societies, Westerner scholars have spent a lot of ink trying to account for the relationship between music and trance.  Part of the problem is that the term “trance” has no universally agreed upon definition and the nature of the trance state (both external behavior and phenomenology) varies greatly from culture to culture. Efforts to find a universal psycho physiological marker of trance has lead only  to the observation that in a trance a person is deeply relaxed but not asleep.   Summaries of studies of the music-trance connection suggest that  the most that can be said is that music can lead  to trance if and when those participating (ie. playing instruments, singing, dancing or simply witnessing,) want to and expect to go into a trance. If you play a drone instrument within hearing distance of someone, for instance, they will not automatically go into a trance. 

This is similar to hypnosis; a subject will go into a trance only if he or she allows that to happen.  I once volunteered to be a subject in a class  I was taking in hypnosis.  The teacher guided me through a variety of relaxing procedures and I willingly allowed myself to become completely relaxed, although I was aware of the teacher’s voice and aware that other students were watching.  Once relaxed, I felt very comfortable and did not worry about what I was going be asked to do or about what the others were thinking about me.  The usual thought processes slowed down and although I was aware of the teacher’s voice, I felt like I was in a state of “semi-awareness” (to use the term in Dronology 101).  At some point she told me that she was going to ask me my address and that I would not be able to remember it.  I recall briefly thinking to myself something like: “I could remember that if I wanted to but it would take too much effort and would require moving out of this wonderful relaxed state”.  So there was a conscious decision on my part to play along with the hypnotist’s request and not try to come up with my address, even if others might think that my inability to do so meant that I was deficient in some way.


As I said the term “trance” is not well defined and seems to refer to a wide range of situations where, temporarily, the usual left brain process slow down or stop completely. Since our left brain processes are responsible for how we define ourselves, we often strive to keep them going and view any shift away from their dominance as a cause for concern.  This can happen in minor ways when we forget something we should know or do something absentmindedly.  However, sometimes, more than most people acknowledge, we experience marked shifts of this nature.  In Western culture, where left brain dominance is almost universally considered to be the norm, shifts in consciousness of this nature are viewed as signs of mental illness or procession or some other undesirable phenomenon.  It is generally agreed that a person’s specific experience during such shifts of consciousness and their understanding and reaction to it afterwards, depends on their mental set and the setting during the incident.  This idea was especially useful in understanding altered states attained by using psychotropic drugs, but has also been used to describe shifts occurring under non-drug induced situations.

With regard to “setting”, a person who has this kind of experience in a church may well experience it and understand it as a “religious” experience of some sort.  In some cultures, such experiences a viewed as instances of possession by some foreign entity or spirit.  In traditional societies where trance is common and accepted, it is not seen as a big deal.  However, in the West, where there is no appropriate set and setting, it can be frightening.

When the Set and Setting is Right, even Westerners can enjoy TRANCE.

Apparently it is rather common in the West for youth to have such experiences spontaneously but as Maslow found most end up denying or forgetting them since they were experienced as a dangerous loss of self-control.  I recall when I was around 10 or 11 having two experiences of this type; they both took place when I was on my own and in a large crowd of strangers.  I did not freak out but, I remember being concerned about what was going on afterwards.  As it turns out, my best childhood friend, a guy who was mature,  smart and creative for his age, also had had similar experiences and also had a name (“trance”) for them.  And so we would sometimes sit around and discuss our trance experiences.  I recall that it was quite comforting to me to have a name for these experiences and to know that I was not the only one who had them.   Although I did not think in these terms back then, I believe that my friend and I realized, at a rather early age, that what most people accept as normal consciousness is a limited way of being.  I feel grateful to my friend for helping me attain this insight at such an early age; most kids seem to discover this later through the use of psychotropic drugs or not at all.  I like to think that this friend was also responsible for my later academic interest in altered states of consciousness and in Eastern meditation practices.


So does meditation involve going into a trance?  Again, it depends upon your definition but in Eastern spiritual disciplines the state is referred to as Samadhi and is sometimes translated as “trance”.  It is understood that Samadhi is something that can vary in intensity but essentially involves the kind of slowing down or diminishing of left-brain thought processes that I described above.  When this happens, one expands awareness or consciousness beyond the internal dialogue that is thought to be normal consciousness.  From my understanding of the literature, this mode of consciousness, the awakened consciousness, will gradually become the normal, everyday consciousness of those who consistently practice meditation and other practices.  Using the word trance to describe this state is misleading because of what we usually associate with this term (stupor, unconscious, sleep etc.).  The Zen state does not necessarily entail a curtailing of left-brain activities but rather an opening up (See Fehmi’ on “Open focused experiences” by using SEARCH on this Site) to right brain activities in a balanced form (see James Olson”s  The Whole-Brain Path To Peace).  Doing so allows one to respond to whatever is happening in the present moment and not be “ruled”, so to speak by old conditioned responses that govern the left-brain. This is what “mindfulness” is all about.

Whether or not we use the term “trance” to refer to these kinds of shifts in consciousness, I believe it is accurate to say that they can vary in intensity. It may be best to avoid that word altogether simply because it carries some negative connotations in the West where generally, at least until recently, right-brain thinking has been considered normal and variations away from this as problematic.  I should add that such a shift can be problematic depending on the situation.  As Charles rightly points out, moving out of right-brain attentiveness to a lecture can negatively affect a student’s grade.  Stopping to groove to music being played in a department store while there is a fire is not a mindful choice.  So, yes, what we are referring to as trances could be dangerous under certain circumstances.  On the other hand, vigilantly maintaining a self-protective left-brained orientation can be harmful to one’s health  


This leads back to the issues raise by both James and Charles regarding the function of repetitiveness in music and how this may affect mindful listening.  However, the “Dronometer” on my computer is alerting me to the fact that this post has gone on too long.  So, I plan to return to this at a later date.  Before I sign off, let me just say that I believe that someone listening to music can experience this left to right brain shift that I have been talking about.  There has to be a reason the music is a dominate form of entertainment in almost all cultures. The term “entertaining” has come to refer to anything that “engages or keeps our attention”.  If we are attentive to (mindful of) what we are listening to we are not attending to (or listening to) the internal dialogue that comprises our left-brain thought processes.  And so the degree to which we become entranced or mindful of a musical performance can vary greatly.  In the next post, I want to look at what it might look like to consciously practice mindful listening and riff a little bit about James’ comment on the use of repetition in music.




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Evolution of The Adagio – a therapeutic motion machine





Most of you remember a post from the past that looked at the interesting ways that Sean Voisen found to immerse himself in the interstitial areas between art, technology and spirituality.  (See ” Art, Zen and Technology: A Visit With Sean Voisen”)  Today’s post is written by guest blogger James Wilson, who is playing in the same field and looking at similar overlapping areas.

  Yes this is the same James Wilson whose appearance here on earth was largely orchestrated by me in an effort to manifest a life-long playmate. (See “Aliens From Inner Space”)  This is the same guy who used to give me nightmares by shaking his crib all night long in his efforts to “escape” it’s material and confining nature.  He’s been rattling his crib all his life and the post below provides a look at the wondrous possibilities “beyond the crib”.

By James Wilson

When I was still a student in music school at Boston University, I became aware of what I felt to be a subtle motion, or flow, in music that nobody was talking about. It was something slow, smooth, and not a direct component of the usual suspects: rhythm and harmony. At the same time, since I was a student of composition, I was studying the theories of Heinrich Schenker and others who suggested that the great Masters constructed their music with a conscious implementation of “tension and release” within their musical structures. In other words, their compositions would build to a climax, then release the built up tension, repeat again, and so on, taking us, the listener, on a virtual musical and emotional roller-coaster ride. This was also in alignment with what I felt and heard in music.


Dr. Norden

Also during this time, I was studying with a wonderful professor at Boston U., Dr. Hugo Norden, who was considered the foremost authority on J.S. Bach, counterpoint, and also on the topic of using the Golden Ratio in music, art, and architecture (“Form: the silent language”, is one of his books on the topic).

The “Golden Ratio”” (also often referred to as: extreme and mean ratio, medial section, divine proportion, divine section (Latin: sectio divina), golden proportion, golden cut, and golden number) is exactly that, a mathematical ratio, which is 1:1.618. In music, Dr. Norden theorized that it was used by the Masters (again, consciously), when laying out the form of the piece they were about to write. Basically, the idea is to lay out a piece of music as a function of time. In other words, if you plan for the piece to last, say, 5 minutes, then at minute 3:06 (1/1.618 = .618 * 5 minutes = 3.1, or 3:06 minutes) the composer would make some extraordinary event occur at 3:06 to divide the time line. This might be a jarring modulation, a loud chord, introduction of a second theme, etc.


This ratio was also used heavily in architecture, especially during Greek and Roman periods, and even way before the Greeks! Often this ratio was used as the ratio of width to height, i.e.

1 .618: 1.00 = width:height.













This ratio is also often found in nature!:



Further discussion of the Golden Ratio in nature can be found in a book by Jay Hambidge, entitled “The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry”.









Authors such as Matila Ghyka, postulate that the Golden Ratio was used by well-known artists:








With these forces at work, I wanted to design and build a device that would:

  • Visually display the subtle “motion” I was experiencing when listening to music
  • Visually display the up-and-down/tension-release in music,
  • Incorporate the design principles of the Golden Ratio.


To do this, I incorporated another concept that has held fascination for me; the sine curve. The sine curve occurs often in pure and applied mathematics, as well as physics, engineering, signal processing and many other fields. Its most basic form as a function of time (t) is:


BTW: For those interested in religious symbols, the key idea here is that the sine curve is formed by the circle as a function of time. Circles commonly represent unity, wholeness, and infinity. Without beginning or end, without sides or corners, the circle is also associated with the number one. In other words, “perfection”, when brought into the flow of time = the sine curve!


Original "Adagio"

All this put together, resulted in my building a visual device that moves very slowly in front of the viewer’s eyes. I have named it “The Adagio”. A Video of the Adagio in action, along with a piece by Mozart, can be seen HERE.

The Adagio incorporates the sine curve, as well as Golden Ratios in the dimensions of the container, and in the angle of inclination of the sine curve itself. The slow moving line can be speed adjusted to the correct “flow” of the music, and the upward and downward movement of the lighted line follows the tension and release of the music being played while you watch.

As stated above, the original construction of Adagio was purely as a means to visualize motion-in-music, and to encapsulate the up/down emotional tension in music. It has done this beyond my expectations.

However, almost by accident, the Adagio was used in a biofeedback study at Nova University, in 1978. It was a very well conducted scientific experiment designed to differentiate between activities associated with our right brain hemisphere, and our left-brain hemisphere. It was discovered that by activating the right hemisphere of the experimental subjects, the Adagio has stress-reducing characteristics! A summary of the study can be seen HERE.

I finally have time to explore usage of my invention and am doing a “crowd funding” to build a commercial version of The Adagio. My goal is to:

  • Produce a production model that will be more aesthetically pleasing than the original prototype,
  • Produce a production model with greater durability suitable for consumer use, and
  • A production model constructed with readily available components.

Here’s a concept drawing of what I envision this new commercial version of the Adagio to look like:






(Click the image above to activate)

You can watch the video about Adagio’s history and potential uses here:

Adagio Therapeutic Motion Lamp – Uses in Dance, Music, Yoga, Meditation


I would appreciate any comments/observations you might have.

Readers may be interested in a follow-up post called  “Truth, Faith and B.S. in Art and Zen”  Also past post on the flow experience can be located by typing “flow” into the Search Window.( Or see “To Know Flow or No Flow” and subsequent posts on Flow)




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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Mindfulness Wars: Langer Versus Buddha?

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

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

Is the glass half mindful or half mindless?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kabut-Zinn goes on to say: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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