BETH MOSKAL MILLIGAN ON SUMI-E PAINTING AND ZEN PRACTICES

Ensoes by Beth Moskal Milligan

 


(The 2000 year-old art form of Japanese brush painting is spiritually rooted in Zen Buddhism.  My friend and fellow Zen student, Beth Moskal Milligan has practiced both Zen and Sumi-e and finds that the two disciplines are mutually supportive in her spiritual growth.  I have asked Beth to be a “guest blogger” for this post.  I think you will find her piece, found below,  a fun, informative and inspiring read. It is also a great example of the “Genjo Practice”, as described in the previous post. Steve Wilson)

Leaping Fish by Beth Moskal Milligan


 

 

Zen tells us to wake up! How does one do that?  One way is to leave a totally familiar environment and move to a strange, new one. That’s the way I started the process-leaving almost heaven-West Virginia for heaven-Southern California. Ocean, desert, palm trees, odd flowering plants, low humidity, altered seasons, day after day of sunshine, multiculturalism, surfing, avocados, abundant wealth (seemingly). I knew 2 people-the friends I was renting from. The rest was an adventure awaiting. But first I had to fall apart. And then in the process of finding the pieces and putting them together in a new way, I came to Zen, specifically the Vista Zen Center.  My son, Ryan, came to live with me and was a practicing Zen student of the San Francisco Zen Center. He had his sitting practice and I was intrigued. I was from a strong Lutheran background and had been involved in the Christian charismatic movement and later became very interested in meditation and the labyrinth, both of which introduced me to the value of silence. When I entered the Vista Zendo (meditation hall)  for the first time, I knew I belonged. A welcoming, strong silence was present there and there were people who believed in its value. I knew this was a place where I could grow from the bottom up, and explore the possibilities that had presented themselves in my new world. The pieces began to come together.

Landscape by Beth Moskal Milligan

One of those pieces was art.  I had been an art major for a year in college but had dropped out after my freshman year. I dabbled in drawing and watercolor a little bit in my adult life but always had a problem with being too judgmental of the work and not able to enjoy the process except for a few brief periods of inspiration. But the desire to create was there, just buried. It was awakened in an art workshop taught by Alessandra at the Zen center and the spark became a flame when I discovered Japanese sumi-e painting. Minimalist and nature-inspired, a technique where every brush stroke counts and taught in a classroom in which the Japanese teacher, Takashi Ijichi,  creates a peaceful and concentrated environment, the focus of which is finding your vision and putting it on paper. The focus is on the process, the result is fun and interesting and occasionally  even looks good. Everyone’s creation is different and uniquely theirs. It is a discipline but it is not onerous.

I take Tuesdays as a day off from work and attend painting class in the afternoon and sit at the Zendo in the evening. The two complement each other;  PRACTICE, DISCIPLINE, FOCUS, DISCOVERY—AND JOY.

Practice Ensoes by Beth Moskal Milligan

PRACTICE  Practice, practice, practice”  my Sumi-e painting teacher, Takashi Ijichi tells us.

“Practice, practice, practice”  my Zen teacher, Jiyu Roshi tells us.

Practice is repetition, repetition is practice.

Practice Bird Heads by Beth Moskal Milligan

"Three Cranes" by Beth Moskal Milligan

DISCIPLINE   Discipline enables the practice, it brings us to the practice in time and in place. It makes the decision for us to come to the practice.  Make the time, prepare a place, enable the process: the painting, the sitting, in the art room, in the Zen Center, at home where the place is ready and waiting, for painting, for sitting.

Beth's Meditation Space

Beth's Painting Space

FOCUS  Pay attention. Be the hawk perched and watching, the flower blooming,  the horse galloping, the mountain standing, the fish swimming and leaping, the enso circling. Be one in the moment with the subject of the painting. Be one in the moment in the stillness of sitting. Practice and Be.

"Bodhidharma Bird in Contemplation" by Beth Moskal Milligan

There are 3 main elements to both my painting practice and my Zen meditation practice. The teacher, the meditation practice, and the Sangha (spiritual community) .  One on one relationship with my teachers is a very valuable part of both practices. During our Zazen sessions, I meet individually with Jiyu Roshi to discuss my practice and progress. During my painting classes, I meet individually with Takashi Ijichi to carefully observe his painting technique as he paints on my individual tablet and answers any questions I might have about the subject.    Sitting meditation occurs in the quiet Zendo. Sumi-e painting is also a form of meditation, we practice in a community library setting.    And each activity involves a Sangha, a group of people dedicated to practicing that unique meditative discipline and who become intertwined with each other through that unique practice.

DISCOVERY   I have discovered that the process, not the results is the important part of these activities. Living in the process and not living for the results enables me to live in the present moment, immersed in the activity. This is very refreshing for body, soul and spirit. And the results are not completely under my control and the results are more often than not, surprising. In a painting, the ink may be absorbed by the paper in a very interesting way or the lights and darks of the ink formed a wave of water or a flower petal that I did not plan.  In Zazen practice, calmness in the face of a difficult situation or a solution to a previously unsolvable problem may present itself unexpectedly.   The terms ‘beginner’s mind’ and ‘non-grasping’ come to mind to describe these occurrences.

"Ocean Waves and Rocks" by Beth Moskal Milligan

JOY   Joy results in being in the process, in creating, in relationship with my teachers and in relationship with the other students and Sangha members, being a part of a long and honored tradition, passed on person to person, no technology needed! Simplicity indeed! Learning, growing, focusing, practicing, discovering. relating—Life.

" Galloping Colt" by Beth Moskal Milligan

 

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ELLEN LANGER ON THE “TALENT MYTH”

If you have been following my last few posts, you know that I have been riffing on the book On Becoming an Artist by Ellen Langer, a professional psychologist and amateur painter.  Langer suggests that painting and other creative arts can be a way of developing mindfulness and the path to a richer, more authentic and satisfying life.  As I mentioned in my last post, the author sees our tendency to compare ourselves with others and evaluate ourselves according, as the biggest block to developing creative mindfulness.  In this post, I will focus on one chapter where Langer tackles what she sees as the most damaging belief that prevents people from engaging in new activities such as painting.  Even though we understand that engaging in new activities can lead to a more rewarding life, we often avoid doing so because we are convinced that we have no talent in that area.   The name of the chapter from Langer’s book dealing with this is called “The Myth of Talent”.

WHO IS TO SAY WHO IS TALENTED OR CREATIVE?

In this chapter, Langer makes the bold declaration that: “Everybody has an equal talent for everything” ( pg. 171). Drawing upon the biographies of successful artists, and studies of artists, she concludes that creations by people generally seen as creative artists are more a product of learned skills rather the result of some inherited quality.  In other words, what we usually consider to be some innate or inner quality, is largely a matter of learned skills.  According to Langer:

“we usually impute to people who are very talented, like Picasso, a knowingness that he wouldn’t recognize as he embarked on a new work.  It isn’t that the talented “know” what they are about to do as much that they are willing to start something and see where it leads them.  We, however, tend to focus on their results and ignore the struggles, uncertainties and false starts.” (pg. 150)

Langer points to recent laboratory studies of Mondrian’s work that showed that he constantly scraped his canvases to revised his paintings until he was satisfied.  According to Langer, “Like all of us, Mondrian painted step-by-step, despite how he or anyone else might describe his work”  (pg. 159) The final product and the statements of critics and/or the artist, leave the impression that the work could only be the product of a quality (genius or talent) that most of us do not processes. The failure to grasp this error in logic, prevents countless numbers of people from trying activities that they might find rewarding and which could lead to their developing their own unique talent in that area.

 As the author points out, most of the artists now considered to be talented were not seen as such at first or even during their lifetimes.  Langer asks:

“Would we want to say these artists were not talented because they lacked audience appreciation?  Of course not, yet many of us consider their works and can only feel inferior by comparison……..By definition, “everyone can’t be great at something” if we think that is so. No. everyone can’t be equally great if we hold still a single criterion for evaluation.  But criteria can and do vary” (pg. 172)

With "mindless judging" most of us become convinced that we have no talent.

When we subscribe to a single rule or set of criteria, we are reacting mindlessly.  If the artists that are now considered talented had mindlessly accepted the current cannons on what constituted talent, they would never have begun their practice.  The whole point of Langer book is to  help her readers break through the kind of mindlessness that will deter them from trying something new and potentially rewarding; new activities that could possibly help the readers learn to become more mindfully creative.  One way Langer attempts to do this is by suggesting that they mindfully consider the consequences of exploring new creative pursuits This is nicely summed up when she asks:

“If I try, and fail, am I any worse off?  It is interesting exercise to attempt to do things we think we can’t do, but would like to try just for fun.  If we don’t globalize the result and conclude “I can’t paint (or more global still, I can’t do anything artistic) because I can’t draw this dog,”  for example, what is lost?  Whose affection is at risk?  What opportunity that we’ve counted on will not be ours? … (pg. 172)

I have personally found in my own painting process, that my most “creative” painting occurs when I am willing to take risks- doing something that I’d never seen done before or something that I knew could end up being considered “a mistake”.  Taking such “risks” is not easy and these kinds of risk never seem to go away as you develop as a painter.  Risking “failure”  is part of the territory but is also what makes painting (or anything else) a challenge and fun.  It requires a fundamental shift in one’s world view where we put our choices and our actions into perspective and to stop taking ourselves so seriously.

Now, dear readers, “for your moment of Zen” (apologies to The Daily Show’s John Stewart) we will include one more quotation from Langer’s book.  It is a continuation of the quote I included immediately above where she is talking about taking chances to do something like painting which you have never done before.  Below she continues by  applying the same principles to life in general:

“Someone might point out that these examples are mere avocations, so with them there’s not much at stake,  Fine, now do the same exercise with matters we take to be more serious.  The results are not all that different.

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?”

Wow!  Is she saying that we can stop worrying so much about how everything we do in life is evaluated and take risks to try new ways of being without worrying about whether we are judged by others to be a failure?  I think that is exactly what she is saying and I also think this is one of the key lessons that can be learned from practicing meditative disciplines like Zen.  I agree with Langer’s approach of starting your mindful practice in the so called “avocations” or “less serious” pursuits such as art.   As we learn to become more mindful in these areas, we are “practicing” so to speak for other areas of life where the stakes seem to be or actually are higher. It is for this reason that, at The Vista Zen Center, in addition to Formal Zen Practice a more informal practice is also emphasized. This informal practice is described on The Vista Zen Center Website as follows:

The second approach, “Genjo Practice” is concerned with a student’s engagements outside the traditional Zen setting. The students everyday lives become the focus of their Zen practice.

To facilitate “Genjo Practice” Jiyu Sensei encourages students to work with him focusing on a specific aspect of their lives. Often this will be something they love to do and will probably continue to do no matter what else is going on in their lives. For some students, this might be the time spent in working in a creative domain such as painting, poetry, or music. Or it might be home-schooling one’s children, taking care of the garden, or the livelihood that puts food on the table and a roof over their heads. 


Note that at The Vista Zen Center the “Genjo Practice”, which could be viewed as encouraging what Langer calls “creative mindfulness”, is practiced in conjunction with Zazen which is a more formal and specific mindfulness training.  In future posts, I will look at why I think this combined training program is probably more effective, at least for most people, than Langer’s approach.

And so there, ladies and gentlemen is Art and Zen Today’s moment of ZEN.

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ON BECOMING MINDFUL

In my last post titled “ZEN AND THE ART OF MINDFULNESS/CREATIVENESS/BEINGNESS“, I drew upon the personal experiences of  composer/artist John Cage, LA Times music critic Adam Baer and myself to argue that actively exposing ourselves to new musical experiences can broaden our listening experiences.  I used some of the ideas from Ellen Langer’s book “On Becoming an Artist” to argue that by allowing ourselves to have new listening experiences we are becoming more “mindful”.  Personal testimonies such as those used in that post are great, but as a retired experimental social psychologist (like Langer), I appreciate it when I find more rigorous evidence to support my assertions.  When I wrote that post I had not read all of Langer’s book and so was later delighted to find that she has conducted some experiments that provide support for the ideas developed there.

Let me first provide a brief overview of “On Becoming an Artist” and then provide a summary of some of Langer’s reseach findings. For Langer, creativity and mindfulness go hand in hand.  As I wrote in my previous post: According to Langer:   Mindfulness is simply the process of noticing new things. It is seeing the similarities in things thought different and the differences in things taken to be similar” (p. 16).   She goes on to say: “the more mindful we are, the more choices we have and the less reactive we become.  We don’t realize when we are mindless.  We’re not there to notice.  If, however we allowed ourselves to become fully engaged in some new activity, over time, we could more easily compare how we feel when we are mindfully engaged with how we feel at other times.  The more experience we have with being mindfully creative, the sooner we will recognize when we are simply acting out a script and the sooner we can return to being centered.  When we are mindfully engaged, we essentially are writing our own script and are free to choose to make changes at any point.  When we are mindfully creative, we are being authentic.” (p. 10-20)  

Based on her research, Langer has concluded that there are two main ways that we “teach ourselves to become mindless”. (pg 10)  The first is by learning a skill until it becomes “second nature” such as when we go on “autopilot while driving.  The problem with this, says Langer, is that it might not occur to us to question the way we are doing things when in fact it may be to our advantage to do so.  The second way of learning mindlessness is to accept something we read or hear without question.  This is the way we learn many of our cultural norms and values.  The problem with this, says Langer is that “we unwittingly lock ourselves into a single understanding of that information”. ( pg 11)   In other words we become “set in our way” and this prevents us from engaging each new situation mindfully or creatively.  Langer provides evidence that this results in general failure to appreciate life and I will provide some of this in later posts,

What I especially like about Langer’s book is that what she has to say about mindfulness applies to all aspects of life, not just painting or other so called “artistic practices”. But, let’s go back to my  previous post, where I wrote about how most of us, most of the time, limit our appreciation of music through mindless listening (e.g. Tom likes Punk Rock and listens to nothing else).  As I said above, although I used Langer’s ideas to discuss this topic, I had not yet read the chapter of her book that most directly relates to the topic.  The remainder of this post will do so. For Langer, mindfulness primarily entails taking notice of things and this, she suggests “expands our appreciation of them”. (p. 197)  This view is based on a series of social psychological experiments conducted by Langer and her students at Harvard.  For instance, in one study that directly connects to my last post on John Cage, experimental subjects were convinced to listen to music they said they did not like (either rap or classical).  Some of the students were asked to note a number of  new things about the  music as they listened and others were not asked to make any new distinctions.  The experimenters found that the more new things the participants found, the more they said they liked the previously disliked music.  In a related experiment, women who thought watching football was boring came to like football more if they were instructed to notice new things about a football game they watched in the experimental laboratories. Similar results were found among students exposed to a painting they were unfamiliar with and with chocolates, regardless of whether they were given samples of inexpensive chocolate or Godiva.  When prompted to make distinctions or to find something new about whatever they were doing, students showed greater appreciation for the activity.

Going further, Langer conducted similar kinds of experiments to see whether mindfulness could affect her subjects’ perceptions of other people.  According to Langer: “Asking subjects to make mindful distinctions about people tended to mitigate their negative assessments of them…Mindfully drawing new distinctions, thus, helps us to come to know and like others.” ( p200)

 

Although Langer is not a Buddhist and declares that she is not using the term “mindfulness” in exactly the same way as it is in Buddhism, these results suggest and interesting line of thought.  One of the values in all strains of Buddhism (probably in all spiritual/religious perspectives) is the importance of developing Compassion and I know plenty of Zen students, including myself, who feel overwhelmed by idea of having to live up to the Buddhist vow to be compassionate towards all people.  Langer’s book led me to a thought train that makes this vow somewhat less daunting. There are studies that show that people are more likely to experience compassion towards another person to the extent that they see this other as similar to them.(  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/opinion/sunday/the-science-of-compassion.html?_r=0)

Extrapolating from Langer’s experiments, it seems reasonable to say that being present with another person and fully “listening” to (i.e. being “Present” with) that person would allow us to become aware of ways in which they are not different from us and make it more likely that we experience compassion for them. (See “The Artist is Present”)  By allowing ourselves to perceive the other in depth, we can come to see the arbitrary nature of any single criterion we may have been using to judge and separate ourselves from that person. We come to see that there is no single viewpoint that can capture the other, allowing us to acknowledge that they are not, then, so different from ourselves. If so, compassion is not so much an isolated trait to be somehow “worked on” or “acquired”  but rather a natural consequence of becoming more mindful.  Just as mindful listening to music or mindful viewing of art allows us to break out of restricting perspectives, we can also learn to mindfully include and thus accept a wider range of humanity.

I think Langer is correct that engaging oneself in a creative practice is a safe way to begin practicing mindfulness and that this mindfulness will expand to other areas of life.  But, I also see the practice of Zazen (zen meditation) as providing a similar, perhaps  complementary experience.  In a later post, I will explore some of the differences between the path that Langer suggests and Zen; for now I will emphasize the similarities.

Langer says that mindfulness is “simply the process of noticing new things”  In Zazen, the student practices noticing whatever is happening internally or externally moment by moment which seems to be the essence of mindfulness.  According to Langer, when we are mindful we are not “self-conscious.  By learning to “let go” of the thoughts that reinforce self-consciousness the Zen meditator is learning the basics of mindfulness.  Most of the thoughts we experience during Zazen entail the kinds of comparisons with others and the self-evaluations that Langer says block us from Mindfulness and true creativity (to be looked at further in later posts).  To the extent that we can learn to “be still” and fully experience a wider range of situations, activities and people, we chip away at the narrow egocentric viewpoints that keep us feeling separated and unengaged from life.

ZEN AND THE ART OF MINDFULNESS/CREATIVENESS/BEINGNESS

A couple of months ago my favorite Delta Airline headphones finally fell apart and I found myself at Fries Electronics looking at an long isle stocked full of possible replacements.  I did not want to pay too much but I was keen on buying a pair that would seal off outside noise.  Since there was no way  to try the sets in the store, all I could do is peer though the clear plastic packaging and try to guess which ones might be highly insulated.  Based on looks and a low price, I made my pick and hoped for the best.

When I took my new headphones to the fitness center the next day, I knew right away that I should have paid more.  Not only did my new phones not muffle outside noise, they seemed to actually amplify it.  The music pumped over the fitness center’s sound system, the clanking of barbells and other equipment, nearby conversations, as well as the shouts of encouragement from the spin class instructor all seemed to be funneled into my ear, along with the music on my MP3 player.   For a week or so I compensated to some degree by turning up the music on my player to an uncomfortable volume.  That usually allowed me to tune out the outside noises and focus on my music. Mostly however, I just complained silently to myself for not immediately returning the headphones and for being so cheap in the first place.

Most of the tunes I  have on my MP3 player have been recorded from a internet radio station that plays non-traditional jazz.  Many of the compositions I listen to involve blips and beeps on electronic instruments as well as both musical and spoken samples from other sources.  One day I suddenly realized that sounds that I thought were part of the composition I was listening to on my MP3 player were actually sounds coming from the outside world of the fitness center.  Surprisingly, it sounded pretty cool, even those sounds I had initially found to be annoying.  After that, I was never certain which of the sounds I was hearing were part of the music and which were extraneous.

At one point, I remembered Jiyu Roshi telling me about an interview with John Cage on Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.  Here is a excerpt from the interview taking off from where Cage and Terry Gross are talking about noises in New York City, burglar alarms specifically:

CAGE: …and they may last three or four hours. It’s quite, that’s quite a problem. I think

CAGE WITH SUZUKI ROSHI

that our, we almost have an instinct to be annoyed by a burglar alarm. But as I pay attention to them they’re curiously slightly varying.

GROSS: What if you’re paying attention to something else at the same time?

CAGE: Well, I think that one of our most accessible disciplines now is paying attention to more than one thing at a time. And if we can do that with equanimity, then I would suggest paying attention to three things at the same time. And you can practice that as a discipline. I think it’s more effective than sitting cross-legged. I mean to say cross-legged in relation to…

 GROSS: In meditation.

CAGE: Yes. It opens the – I think the meaning of meditation is to open the doors of the ego from a concentration on itself to a flow with all of creation, wouldn’t you say? And if we can do this through the sense perceptions, through multiplying the things to which we’re able at one in the same time to pay attention, I think we accomplish much of the same thing. At least that’s my faith.  

Cage at Piano

Cage, whose centennial was celebrated all over the world last year, is perhaps best known for his composition titled 4″ 33″.  It consists of the pianist going to the piano, and not hitting any keys for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  (He used a stopwatch to time this.)  In other words, the entire piece consists of silence from the stage but someone in the audience could, if they allowed themselves to, hear sounds from the street, sounds from the audience, and even internal sounds.  What you hear when you listen to 4’33” is more a matter of chance than with any other piece of music — nothing of what you hear is anything the composer wrote.

The idea was to show the arbitrariness of the distinction between “musical” sounds and “other” types of sounds and show the richness of going beyond the usual boundaries of our attention.  According to Cage: “If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego. You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.” John Cage

Upon remembering this interview,  I  realized that my “special” headphones were providing a similar experience for me and this realization allowed for an interesting shift in perspective on what I was hearing. Whereas before I judged the extraneous sounds as “noise” and internally fought against them, when I remembered Cage’s work, and acted “as if” I were Cage, I was able to relax and be more inclusive.  I don’t know that allowing these external sounds into my “mix”, so to speak, necessarily made for “better music” but I sure found my listening experience to be much more engaging; in short I was listening with more attention than I usually did at the fitness center.

It is interesting that as I was working on this blog, Adam Baer, a music critic, published an article in the LA Times called “A Resonance on Dissonance” which is his account of an experiment to see whether he could come to like musical pieces that he had long disliked by listening to them regularly.  His experiment had mixed results but Baer seems to endorse the idea that exposing ourselves to experiences that we usually avoid is a good thing.  This is not exactly the same as what I’ve been talking about, but it seems to deal with the same general principle.

I’ve done some of this kind of experimenting myself with music genres that I generally don’t listen to and have been, on occasion, pleasantly surprised.  More consistently I have tried to do something like this with visual art.  Some time ago, whenever I would enter an art gallery or museum, I would scope out the pieces hanging on the walls and instead of gravitating towards those that appealed to me from a distance, I would first look (spending at least 2 minutes with each one)  at those that did not.

As with Baer, I can’t say that mere exposure to such works brought about an instant reevaluation, but there were always a couple of pieces that I came to appreciate, which would not have happened had I proceeded on my initial instinct to ignore them.   I think what happens in such experiments is that by taking some time really looking at a piece of art, (or listening to music) one comes to appreciate that the artist make choices in the creative process that made sense to him or her.  Such realizations allowed me to somehow connect with the artist as a person and a fellow artist. This kind of insight has occurred rather dramatically, on more than one occasion ,after being exposed to a docent’s tour of art I didn’t particularly care for at the Oceanside Museum of Art.  Being informed about details of the artist’s life and how he or she approached art somehow made me more accepting of  and more appreciative of what they had produced.

Is the intent of such “experiments” to come to love all art and music?  On this, I think I agree with Baer, who, although finding some value in exposing himself to unfavored music, goes on to say the following:   Obviously, no one, regardless of exposure, training or even a role as a public music appreciator, need to like anything, and that’s a sentiment that should be embraced more in the still-rigid concert hall.  Hate Mahler’s seventh symphony?  Walk out like you would at the Viper Room.  Find Liszt unbearable? Shout or fight about it.  We’re allowed to seize up to more than the thorny stuff, and a lot of these composers never suffered a fool or composer they couldn’t stomach.  Let’s be human, real about the subject, just like the people who wrote the tunes”

The universe, it seems, has good taste. Here is a painting it did. Or rather, here is a painting John Cage allowed to happen, letting the I-Ching direct his brushstrokes if true to form.

So, if learning to like everything isn’t the point of such experiments, what is?  I’d suggest that they can help us to become more mindful in the sense of the term used by Ellen Langer, an experimental social psychologist who has devoted her career to its study.  To explore Langer’s ideas, I now turn to her latest book “On Becoming An Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity”, (purchased for $0.04 plus shipping) which will be the basis for several blog posts in the future.

 According to Langer:   Mindfulness is simply the process of noticing new things. It is seeing the similarities in things thought different and the differences in things taken to be similar” (p. 16).   She goes on to say: “the more mindful we are, the more choices we have and the less reactive we become.  We don’t realize when we are mindless.  We’re not there to notice.  If, however we allowed ourselves to become fully engaged in some new activity, over time, we could more easily compare how we feel when we are mindfully engaged with how we feel at other times.  The more experience we have with being mindfully creative, the sooner we will recognize when we are simply acting out a script and the sooner we can return to being centered.  When we are mindfully engaged, we essentially are writing our own script and are free to choose to make changes at any point.  When we are mindfully creative, we are being authentic.” (p. 10-20)  

What Langer calls “mindfulness” seems to be the same thing as being “awake/present/alive” as I have used this term (see THE ARTIST IS PRESENT) and so the importance of exposing oneself to new experiences is essentially a way of becoming engaged and pulling oneself out of the habit of relying on  self-imposed and conditioned expectations and rules.  Expectations and rules that are no long relevant or useful in our lives can be responsible for suffering in Buddhist sense of the term.

In  “TO KNOW FLOW OR NO FLOW?” we saw that some degree of challenge or difficulty is necessary in order to have a  flow experience.  So called flow personalities are likely to be consistently engaging in the kinds of personal experiments that I have been talking about here, not just in relating to art but in all aspects of life.

In my next post I’ll delve deeper into  Langer’s book.  In the meantime, I am talking with several venture capitalists about the development of my “Mindfulness HeadPhones” into a commercial product..  I can’t share the details with you yet, but you can be sure that they will be really, really cheap.

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THE PRACTICE OF “AS IF”. FAKING IT TILL YOU MAKE IT?

Today’s “post-modern” society is characterized by a dwindling confidence in any authority (religious, political scientific etc.) purporting to offer “the truth” on some topic.  Since the term “author” is derived from the word “authority”, writers, such as myself, are also suspect.  I recently read an article called “Beyond Postmodernism? Towards a Philosophy of Play” by Robert Miller, who points out that it should be understood that what authors (including himself) have to say should be best understood as something to be “played with” rather than some statement of truth.  Further he suggests that this is exactly what is encouraged through Zen practice.  Accordingly, I see my posts as being more like an art pieces than articles, where whatever is said is hopefully seen as fodder for “mind play”.  Even though I’m not sure whether or not there is any validity to what I am thinking,  I continue to write as if  I know what I am doing; as if  I was an real author.

———————————————————————————————————————————An essential characteristic of

child’s play is a dimension of pretend—that is, an action

and interaction in an imaginary, “as if” situation.

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In the past several posts I have been playing with the concept of “as if” and have tried to connect it to both art and spiritual practices.  The extent to which I can mine the idea of “as if” may be coming to an end but want to provide readers with one final “play date” on this topic.  This will take the form of a series of entries or cases, written by others, that relate to the concept of “as if”.  Rather than try to tie these together for you, (as if I was an authority with the truth), I’ll let you play with them relatively unfettered by my commentaries.

1. The first case is a review of the documentary movie KUMARE. by Roger Ebert    http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/kumare-2012  A number of members of The Vista Zen Center watched this film and it has been the object of a great deal of discussion afterwards.

“Growing up in New Jersey, Vikram Gandhi was a typical American kid who resented the way his family tried to enforce Hindu beliefs and practices. He found it ironic that Americans began to popularize gurus and yoga just at the time he was growing away from such things. On a trip to India, he says, he found that “real” gurus were no more real than the American frauds who copied them.

That led him into the deliberate deception that he filmed in “Kumare.” He grew a long beard and a pony-tail, exchanged his shoes for sandals, switched his slacks and suits to flowing orange robes, and started carrying an ornate walking stick. Then he moved toArizona, hired an expert to teach him yoga and a PR woman to promote him as a guru, and began to attract followers in meetings at shopping malls, community centers and around the swimming pools of his affluent clients. His accent was modeled on the way his grandmother spoke English. His teachings were deliberate gibberish: talk of inner blue lights, “finding the guru within,” and chants of fabricated mantras.

At this point in the film, it takes an odd turn. Kumare’s followers believe him without question. They share their deepest secrets with him and visibly appear to benefit from him. These people are not dummies. Mostly middle-aged, they take their health seriously, are somewhat skilled at yoga and follow schedules of meditation. “Kumare” seems to establish that a guru can be a complete fraud and nevertheless do a certain amount of good, because what matters is not the sincerity of the guru but that of his followers.

Gandhi narrates the documentary (in an ordinary American voice), introduces us to followers he’s grown close to, and begins to believe he may have started something that was out of his control.  He tells his followers the time has come for him to leave them. Now they are on their own. He returns toNew Jersey, cuts his hair, shaves his beard, and begins to practice a speech in the mirror: “I am not who you think I am.” Whether he ever says this, and how the movie ends, I will leave for you to discover.

It seems to me that “Kumare” reflects a truth that is often expressed in three words: “Act as if.” If you can act as if something is true, in a sense that makes it true. It doesn’t matter if a teacher’s spiritual teachings have any basis. It doesn’t matter if the supernatural even exists (Gandhi believes it does not). His followers benefit by acting ‘as if’.”

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2.  I discovered that a number of research and therapists in psychology have incorporated the ideas put forth by Hans Vaihinger in his book The Philosophy of “As If”.   Below is an excerpt from  a blog called “Mindfulness Muse” which provides a description of this approach in psychology:

“Most of us have some aspect of our lives or ourselves that we would like to change. Perhaps you have a clear vision in your mind of how you would like to be “different” in some way, yet all of the facts and positive self-talk in the world doesn’t seem to be enough to turn your vision into reality. It is not uncommon to know what we could do to be “better” in regards to some aspect of who we believe/wish ourselves to be, yet knowledge and piles of self-help books don’t seem to be enough. These are the times when it is more important take a step back and try a different approach. The first step is to get out of your mind and take action.

Do you really want to change? Attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors are so closely intertwined that the truth about change is that in many ways you can become different when you start acting as if you are different. This concept is at the heart of Dialectical Behavior Therapy’s (DBT) principle of opposite action.

How to Change Your Life by Choosing New Behaviors

Take a moment to reflect on an aspect of yourself that you deeply wish to change. This type of self-transformation is one that is positive in nature and intended to move you closer toward living your life in accordance with your true values. Consider the person that you believe yourself to be today – in this very moment. Now reflect on the aspects of your core identity that you wish to materialize in your life. Do you wish you were more […..]? You can be. Stop thinking about it and starting acting as if you already are.

(1) Happiness: Smile

Do you wish that you felt happier? Less depressed? You have indirect control over your emotions through consciously choosing new ways of behaving. Research has found that the simple behavioral choice to activate your facial muscles into a smile is enough to genuinely make you feel happier. Even if you feel a bit silly the first time you give this exercise a try, do it anyway! That’s what making actual changes through behavioral choices is all about.”

This is one of 10 examples of this approach.  You can read more by clicking here.

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 A while back an artist friend showed me her business card which had “Aspiring Artist” after her name.  I told her that I felt that she was doing herself a disservice by not billing herself as an artist, but had no convincing rationale for my response.  Since learning about “as if”, I think that my response to her made some sense.  Below are a couple of online articles that have to do with becoming an artist.  The first (A) is from The Daily Painter Blog .  The second (B) is from a site called Lateral Action.

(A)

How to Become an Artist, “Fake It”

Tuesday/08/2012 August Filed in: Art Marketing

Becoming an artist is easy. You just proclaim you are. You can not do this if you want to be a Brain Surgeon. You do not need a degree to be an artist. Heck, the best artist are children until a sibling or some bully says their art stinks. Some stop and never return until they realize what happened. That’s what I like about my job. Getting people hooked on art, again. I’m sort of a art pusher, I lurk in the back of art stores looking for people to turn on to art who gave up the dream.

(B)

How to Fake It As an Artist

Have you ever walked into an art gallery and thought “I could do better than that!”?

Or are you a contemporary art enthusiast, tired of hearing people criticize things they don’t understand?

Whichever side of the fence you’re on, you’re bound to have an opinion on the story of Paul O’Hare, a painter and decorator fromLiverpool,UK, who was given just four weeks to transform himself into a fine artist and attempt to fool the critics at aLondon art gallery.

Paul’s story was featured in one of my all-time favorite documentary series, Faking It. In each program, a member of the public was given a month’s intensive training at an improbably difficult profession – and then put through a competitive test alongside experienced pros, to see if they could ‘fake it’ by convincing the judges they were the real deal.

The final test was an exhibition at a London gallery, where Paul’s work was displayed alongside three artists who had been exhibiting and selling work for several years. The work was judged by three respected critics, who also interviewed each of the artists, to see how convincingly they could discuss their work.

 

Paul was clearly feeling the pressure as he was grilled by the judges, and his performance wasn’t perfect. But in the event, one of the genuine artists did an even worse job of explaining his own work – it just goes to show you can’t always tell from appearances. And neither could the judges – out of three of them, only one spotted Paul as the fake.

Takeaway: There comes a point where you have to step out confidently and present yourself to the world as the person you want to be – even though you’re feeling terrified inside. And there are no guarantees that the world will buy your bluff.

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4. The last case is based on an article entitled “Zazen as Enactment Ritual” (by Taigen Dan Leighton) which is published in Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice by Steve Heine and Dale Wright .  The rest of this post presents a series of excerpts from Leighton’s article and Editor Wright’s comments on the article.

Leighton’s article is about Zazen, the practice often referred to as “just sitting”.  Most people, including practioners, tend  to see “just sitting” as a technique that is practiced in order to become awakened.  Eihei Dogen, one of the most influential Zen philosophers and writing in the 1200s, vigorously argued against this view.  Leighton points out that “the zazen practice, espoused by Dogen “is not one of the traditional meditations programs that one can study and learn step-by-step” (170 ).  but rather, “zazen is seen as the expression and function of buddhas, rather than buddhahood being a function, or consequence, of zazen”. (172)  Awakening is not some one time future event attained through zazen but rather the expression of whatever enlightenment is at hand.

Wright, commenting on Leighton’s article, points out that Leighton builds upon and elaborates on Dogen’s views by treating zazen as a ritual. Here is how Wright interprets Leighton’s main point:

” As Taigen Dan Leighton (Chaper 5) puts it, Zazen practitioners understand this ritual as one that ‘enacts’ the enlightenment of the Buddha already resident within the pracitioner.  When you ‘enact’ something, you act it out as if it (italics are Wright’s) were already the case.  If you act out that pattern attentively and long enough, then, to some extent at least, it becomes true of your mind through the pattern we can see clearly in Stanley Tambiah’s sophisticated work on Buddhist ritual. (pg. 12)……The practices of Zen ritual are forms of practical understanding and knowledge.  They constitute a particular way of acting  and being in the world that defines Zen.” (pg. 13)

Based on all of this evidence it certain does seem as if……………………  Ooops! I forgot that I promised no interpretation or commentary.

 

 

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BEING PRESENT: ZEN AND TRANSUBSTANTIATION

In my last post, “Art, Zen and Transubstantiation: It’s Like Kind of Crazy”  I discussed Marcel Duchamp’s fascination with “transubstantiation” and provided an interpretation concerning the meaning/impact of “Fountain”.  To quote a little known authority on not much of anything, (i.e. myself):

When Duchamp entered the urinal in a art show, he was obviously raising the question “What is it?”, or more to the point, “Is it art?” His point seems to be that it all depends on how “it” is seen by the spectators. If it is defined and perceived as art, (as if it were art) by viewers, then it will be perceived and responded to differently than if it is seen as “just a urinal”. If something is seen as “art” it brings forth a special mode of attention that is different from something seen as part of “everyday life”.

What is the special kind of attention associated with art? Those of you who have been reading my previous post know that is what I have been calling being “present/awake/alive”. (From “Art, Zen and Transubstantiation: It’s Like Kind of Crazy”)

I ended the last blog post with the assertion that Buddhist and more specifically Zen philosophers had been making similar proclamations for thousands of years; not specifically about “art” but life in general.  So I want to play some more with the concept of “transubstantiation” focusing on spiritual practices.

 

Let me start first with Christianity, since this is where the term “transubstantiation” was first developed. As I said in the previous post, the term refers to the idea that in Communion, the bread and wine are not just symbols of Christ’s body and blood but are his body and blood, although in another form. I went on to suggest that, later interpretations allow that the bread and body are symbols or metaphors for Christ consciousness and that what makes this real or true is the faith of the participants in Communion. In other words it is as if the wine was Christ’s blood.

 

The general idea of my last post was that by shifting our perception so that everyday life is seen “as if” it is “art”, we are more likely to be “present/awake/alive” with it.  Similarly, spiritual traditions can help foster this “as if” attitude and help practitioners develop a more comprehensive shift in consciousness.

However, It seems to me that the teachings in all spiritual traditions often foster a tendency to view a particular event or phenomenon as “fact” rather than as a metaphor/similie  (i.e. “as if”).  I can imagine that a great deal of confusion might have been spared, if over the years, Christ was seen “as if” he were the son of god” or that it was understood that that his teaching could lead to one’s transformation “as if” one was being “reborn” or “resurrected”.  It is my opinion that most enlightened Christians have discovered this “as if” perspective on their own and understand that their aim is to live their lives “as if ” they were Christ; in other words to develop “Christ Consciousness”.

I think the same kind of confusion can be found in some varieties of Buddhism as well, and much of this might be due to what the historical Buddha said or was said to have said.  For instance,let us look again at the Sutra, I mentioned in the last blog, where Buddha supposedly said the following to his student Subhuti, :

And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva’. And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.  I agree with my fellow student’s reaction to this when he said it “sounds insane”(see previous post and Discussion #3 in FORUMS).

The historic Buddha would often not answer questions such as “Is there a Self?”, presumably because he understood that by answering either “yes” or “no”, the interlocker could misunderstand the true nature of things…  I wonder whether if Buddha’s advice to his student Subhuti would seem less “insane” if he had said something like “a Bodhisattava should act as if both he or she, and all others, have no perception of a self………?”  My guess is that, if the words above is truly what the Buddha said to Subhuti, he was using language fitting for his students advanced understanding at the time and perhaps did not feel the need to signal that he was talking metaphorically.

I am currently reading “The Embodied Mind” which was suggested to me by fellow blogger Sean Voisen (The Koan).  This fascinating book draws on elements of Buddhist philosophy to solve several theoretical dead ends that current scientist’s working in the area of Cognitive Science have run into.  Their main point is  similar to that made by Buddha in the Sutra above; i.e. there is no scientific evidence pointing to anything substantial that we could call a “self”.  Their careful review of research and theory in the Cognitive Sciences leads to the same conclusion that is summed up by the authors in a quote from Tsultrim Gyamtso:

 Buddhism is not telling anyone that he should believe that he has a self or that he does not have a self.  It is saying that when one looks at the way one suffers and the way one thinks and responds emotionally to life, it as if one believed that there were a self  (Underline is mine) that was lasting, single and independent and yet on closer analysis no such self can be found.  ” (The Embodied Mind, pg 72)

Note the use of the term “as if”. What I have taken away from The Embodied Mind  is that we all tend to ignore the moment to moment variations in our thoughts, feelings, experiences etc. because of our need to have something stable to provide a sense of meaning.  It is this grasping which is the cause of suffering that Buddha said that we can overcome.  It is through meditation that we slowly come to see and accept then fact that our notion of being a Self is just a convenient fiction. And, when we begin to see this in ourselves we realize that this is also  the case for so called other “selves” as well, which seems to be what Subhuti was being taught by Buddha in the Sutra in queston.

 

Now even if one were to come to this understanding about the nature of the Self, he or she would still need to act, in some cases, as if selves exist.  This is why, I am guessing that the historic Buddha frequently refused to answer one way or the other when asked whether there was or was not a Self.  However, all of this suggests that we are  capable of holding both of these perspectives (the “self exists” and “does not exist”) and can become free to shift our perceptions regarding selfhood depending upon what is required by the current situation.

For instance, if you and I are together and I am fully present/awake/alive with you, I am not concerned about our past or our present and so, for all practicable purposes, neither you or I have or are “selves” in that moment.  I think that Buddha’s advice to Subhuti could be easily translated to simply say “to be a Bodhistava, “be present/awake/alive.” (Be sure to read “The Artist is Present“)

In the next post, I plan to look once more at the concept of transubstantiation and explore the possibilities more of incorporating the attitude of “as if” into our daily lives.

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THE ISSUE OF CHOICE IN ART AND ZEN IMPROVISATION

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

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

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

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

 

Jiyu "Jake" Roshi

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

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

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

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

"The Devil Made me Do IT" Comedian Flip Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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On Feb. 20th, Sean wrote:

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

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

Sean

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

Ensoe #1, Steve Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

ART, ZEN AND TECHNOLOGY: A VISIT WITH SEAN VOISEN

Sean Voisen

Woody Allen once said that .“Eighty percent of success is showing up”.  I suspect the same thing could be said of Practice of any kind.  If so, perhaps the man pictured above can help you “show up” more often for practice.  Read on and find out more about this interesting fellow.

In the past, my Zen teacher, weary of slogging through my wordy essays, has asked me to sum up my understanding in a short Zen-like phrase.  If asked to do this for the past few posts on “practice”, I’d probably say that their main message is “just practice“.

Whether we are talking about artistic practice, meditation, or anything else, this is easier said than done.  Sean Voisen, a fellow member of The Vista Zen Center, has offered one solution to this problem in a post on his new blogsite called “The Koan”.  As I work on my next essay, which will focus on comedic improvisation, I think it fitting that I refer you to Sean’s site for a very different, but complementary perspective on Zen practice in contemporary society.

A Why in the Road

Sean, who works for Adobe, received a Master’s degree in the Art Computation Engineering Program at the University of CA, Irvine.   This program focuses on the interstitial areas between art and technology.  Drawing on this background, Sean offers a unique perspective on his study of Zen.  His blog posts offer fresh ways of thinking about Zen practice which I see as highly relevant to what I have been trying to express in my posts.

Below is a series of excerpts from a post titled “Quantified Awareness” which will give you a taste of what you will find on his site.

"Insight Timer", IPhone App.

“Over the past few weeks, I’ve used an iPhone app designed specifically for measuring meditation every time I’ve sat on my cushion. The app is called Insight Timer. And I don’t intend to stop using it any time soon for one simple reason: statistics. Using charts and graphs, Insight Timer provides a detailed look at how often (or how little) you’ve been practicing in the last week, the last month, and the last year.”

“……..measuring my practice has assured a consistency of daily meditation more than any other methodology I have tried. And with meditation, consistency is key.”

“……Meditation, after all, is ultimately about developing greater awareness, and metrics simply offer another path. ……..Statistics shed light on phenomena we may otherwise never observe. Perhaps the great and ancient sages of Buddhist lore never recommended recording your daily practice down to the minute. But then again, they didn’t have iPhones.”

I’m certain that you will find this and Sean’s other posts of interest  http://thekoan.org/.  I’d also suggest that you check out some of his art/technology projects at:  http://sean.voisen.org   Below are some pictures and the descriptions of  Sean’s past projects, which I think provide a view of the intriguing spaces where art and technology overlap.  I’m delighted to see that Sean is now folding his Zen studies into this mix.  This, I think, will help bring Zen into the 21st century, which is one of the aims here at  Art and Zen Today.

Bluenumi

“Bluenumi”   began with the idea of creating an easy to assemble open-source kit clock that had nixie tube aesthetics, but without the associated cost or potentially dangerous high voltage. The result is a small, functional, and beautiful desktop clock featuring 100% through-hole electronic components that looks like a nixie clock, but can be built at a fraction of the price.”

Bluenumi

 

“The Uncanny Dream Machine is an exploration in computer-generated

Uncanny Dream Machine

dreamlike narrative. …… Embodied as a 1940′s-era wooden Philco radio, viewers listen to the machine as it reads its dreams over the airwaves. Knobs on the radio allow viewers to “tune in” to streams of consciousness delineated by various emotions — fear, anger, curiosity, joy, anxiety, worry, etc. — provoking conversations about the nature of emotion and consciousness in an otherwise unemotional, unconscious, and disembodied machine.”

Uncanny Dream Machine

“Mercury Retrograde is a hand-built nixie tube alarm clock……. The clock is an exploration of the role of intentionality in everyday objects, as well as an experiment in resistentialist behavior. In order to function correctly, it demands physical attention. Ignore it for too long and it begins to rebel, intentionally slowing its internal oscillations and waking its owner at inconvenient hours of the night.”

Mercury Retrograde

“Students achieving Oneness will move on to Twoness.”

Woody Allen

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