SO, CAN AVERAGE JOE GROW AND LEARN TO FLOW?

In my last post “Are You A Flow Addict?”, I suggested that most of us become attached to those experiences of being “present-awake-alive”- experiences that Dr.Mihaly Csikszentimaihalyi (Dr. C.)  has called “flow experiences”.  I received a reply from Jiyu Roshi regarding my article saying:  No, “flow” is not addictive. And you cannot become a “flow” addict. ”Flow” is living in a place of complete freedom. ”I must make clear the “flow” I am talking about is the life of the awakened person.  This comment may seem to contradict the main point of the original post, but I believe it is really saying what I said in a slightly different way.

This blog is a work in process and I am constantly discovering for myself what my goals are in writing it.  It became clear a couple of months back that one thing I was doing was trying to see whether or not I could stretch the term “creativity” to apply to both artistic and spiritual practices.  As I thought about Roshi’s comments to my last post, it also occurred to me that I am exploring alternative ways of talking about the purpose and practice of Zen.  So I am thankfull to him for raising my awareness about this.

Since Zen comes from a non-Western tradition, I personally find that the language used in the Zen literature often obfuscates rather than clarifies; this is confounded by that fact that many Zen writers do this purposely. In Zen there are frequent references to the “awakened”, “enlightened” or “liberated person”, as Roshi has done in his reply.  Western Zen scholars such as Dale Wright and Peter Hershock suggest that these terms conjure up, for many Western readers, images of persons possessing a special, often “supernatural” state that is simultaneously not comprehensible, not personally attainable and a magical way of being that will deliver one, once and for all, from all of one’s problems.

Unfortunately such a view can lead to conditions which actually are an impediment to the “life flow” that Roshi says is enjoyed by such persons.  To the extent that one fosters a dream of some unattainable, wonderful way of being, that person will find difficulty in being present-awake-alive, moment by moment in his or her life.  It is my assumption that this is why many Zen writers have said that one should not practice Zen in order to attain enlightenment.

I’m not sure whether my exploration of alternative “languages” will help Westerners to better understand Zen or not.  But, I can only find out by trying it out and that is the purpose of this Blog.  Needless to say, I will be dependent upon your responses to help me evaluate this endeavor.

When I think of “flow” I picture myself floating down a river on a raft.  Although I can paddle and steer the raft to some degree, the speed and direction of the raft are largely determined by the flow of the water in the river.  Sometimes the raft may move at a speed I find fun; at other times it may be too fast or too slow.  When it is just right, I have fun;  I have a “flow experience”. I’m am present-awake-alive.  When it is too fast or slow, I am not in the moment because I want my experience to be other than what it is.  To the extent that I become attached to a particular kind of rafting experience; that is, one where I am fully present, I suffer when that is not happening.  This is the point I was trying to make in the previous post using Dr. C’s theory.

Now regardless of how much I may struggle to speed up or slow down the raft, it keeps on moving according to the flow of the river.  No matter how much I want to repeat a particular fun experience (maybe an exhilarating dive through some rapids) that I had in the past, the flow of the river, the raft and my life continues.  As long as I’m on the raft I am flowing, whether or not I like what is happening and whether or not I am “present-awake-alive” to what is happening. So it is possible to say that as long as I am alive, my life is naturally in a state of flow; that is I am always flowing.  This seems to be the way that flow is used in the saying that I quoted in “To Know Flow or No Flow” and is repeated below.  For me the ghist of Lao Tzu’s saying is that if our life is naturally a flow, we might as well be fully present as it is happening.

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Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. Lao Tzu

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Things flow naturally and we can avoid suffering by “going with the flow”.   Roshi seems to have this idea of flow in mind when he says that flow is not addictive.  In his comments, Roshi indicates that he is using a slightly different definition of “flow” than Dr. C’s when he says:

“I must make clear the “flow” I am talking about is the life of the awakened person.  True freedom doesn’t “feel” good or bad. True freedom is that place where you are able to adjust instantly to whatever arises and you no longer worry about making the right or wrong decision.”

What Roshi refers to as the “awakened person” is presumably someone who is “present-awake-alive” almost all the time.  Such individuals can go with the flow of their particular life, regardless of where it takes him or her.  This was my point in the article when I said that the “autotelic personality” was better able to flow in a variety of situations, regardless of whether or not they defined them as “fun”.    My point was that such a person would not be addicted to particular experiences in their lives.  So I was trying, using somewhat different language, to make the same point as Roshi: that is, that “awakened persons” are not addicted to flow.  The problem for those of us who are not “awakened” is that whenever we separate out some aspect of the flow of our life as being an experience we want to repeat or avoid, we are struggling against the natural flow of our lives.

When most people have a certain kind of experience, good or bad, it is always relative to other experiences they have had or may be dreaming of.  To have an experience, requires “getting into one’s head”, so to speak: getting involved in making comparisons with other “experiences” and making plans to try to either repeat or avoid similar experiences in the future.  To the extent that one’s self becomes the focus of attention, one becomes separate from that flow of life as it is happening right here now.  When an experience becomes something to attain or avoid, one is ignoring the fact that change is the essence of life. As Roshi says “Our mistake is in believing the self is permanent and we become attached (and sometimes addicted) to things we think will make the self happy, or fulfilled, so we keep trying one thing after another to satisfy this self.”

Having a self or being a self entails trying to control our experiences in ways that corresponds to what we think we are or should be (i.e how our life should be).  This thwarts the natural flow that is our life as it is unfolding moment by moment.  “Letting go of the self” or “becoming One with everthing”  or “becoming an awakened person”are terms that often are used  in Zen literature to refer to allowing one’s life to flow without resisting it.   Many people find these terms to be either unfathomable or frightening, and this is one reason that I wanted to write about all of this using terms such as “flow experience”  “being present”. We have all had such experiences, it may be easier for us to imagine what it would be like to be a part of this natural flow of life, that is, to use Roshi’s terms, to be an “awakened person”.  I wanted to use Dr. C’s term “autotelic personality” because it seems much less intimidating than “awakened person” and I plan to use elements of his theory to show how it relates to the idea of creativity, as it has been used in prior posts.

On my raft, I may paddle faster to avoid polluted waters or steer to avoid oncoming rocks; being in the flow of the river doesn’t mean not responding to what is happening moment by moment.  But, if I am truly responding to each present moment as it unfolds I am not suffering because things are not going the way I want them to.  Suffering, in this sense, can be eliminated by learning to be present-awake-alive in each moment and all situations and practicing Zen is one way this learning can take place.

I’ll end by quoting the last few lines of Jiyu Roshi’s comments:

If you are serious about understanding and living a flowing, free life you will need to be willing to do the creative work/play Manoj (Steve) discusses.

The focus of this blogsite is “creativity” and little has been said about this in the past few blogs.  Coming up I will look at the “creative work/play” process involved in overcoming our separation from our natural life flow.

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ARE YOU A FLOW ADDICT?

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

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

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

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

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

IPhone Addiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TO KNOW FLOW OR NO FLOW?

A major focus in past posts has been the connection between being “present-alive-awake” and creativity in both art and spiritual practices.  The fact that being “present-alive-awake” is so often held up as something to attain, implies that it is somehow beyond the grasp of us mortals.  But, it that really true?  Look at the description below and see if you can think of times when you have experienced something like this.

             My mind isn’t wandering. I am not  thinking of something  

             else. I am  totally involved  in what I am doing. My body feels

              good. My concentration is like breathing; I never think of it.

 

Dr. C,

This description has been used in research looking into what Dr.Mihaly Csikszentimaihalyi calls the “flow experience”.  According to Dr. C.’s research  everyone has  experienced “flow” (sometimes referred to as “being in the zone”) at some point; usually while doing something we find interesting, fun and challenging; (skiing, surfing, dancing or gardening are activities where flow is commonly experienced).  Generally, during flow, we lose track of time and experience a “loss of reflective self-consciousness”.  During such times our internal dialogue drops away and there is a heighten awareness of our somatic and sensory “selves”.   In other words, we are temporarily “present-alive-awake” in such experiences.

What Dr. C calls the “flow experience” is best thought of as occurring along a continuum of experiences ranging from what Maslow called “peak experiences” to what Dr. C. later coined as “micro-flows” (e.g. during eating or having a pleasant conversation with someone).  In other words, there are different degrees of being “present-alive-awake”.  Also, Dr. C. recognized that some people (“autotelic personalities”) flow more often than others.  What this means is that the objective situation is not the sole determinate of whether flow happens or not; more important is the mental set of the actors in these situations.  And, this means that we all have the capacity to flow more often, in a wider variety of situations.

So what must a person bring to the situation in order to experience flow and be fully present?  Dr. C.’s research provides some suggestions.  Flow is most likely in situations where there is a balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and one’s own perceived skills. If one is overwhelmed by the demands of the activity, or is underwhelmed and bored by these demands, flow will not occur.

Now, think of some situations in your life where you have found yourself having thoughts that go something like this:  “ This is too hard…. I can’t handle this” or “This is so boring…. I wish I were doing_______”.  My guess is that you came up with more instances of this than you did of instances of where you have been fully in the present moment (i.e. flow).  I would also guess, that if asked to, you could come up with a list of things that you could or should  have done, internally and/or externally, to bring yourself more into the present moment in such situations.

We all have the capability to make  such flow-inducing adjustments in our everyday situations, but frequently do not.  Why?  Because in the “heat of the moment”, so to speak, we forget that we have the capacity to “redefine” or “reframe” the situation.  The solution?  Remembering to Remember.

For the artist, this means remembering how one’s creative process works.  Remembering that creative breakthroughs require going through boring and stressful periods of work, as Lehrer points out.   It means “trusting the process” and remembering that fighting the process (wanting things to be other than they are) simply leads to unnecessary and unproductive suffering, thus forestalling creative breakthroughs.  As one engages in artistic practice over time, this understanding gradually sets in, and one remembers to remember more often and thus is able to remain present at all stages of the creative process.  And, as I’ve suggested in the last post, this presence can be communicated to one’s audience

The main practice for most spiritual seekers is meditation which, at the most basic level, is a means of learning to catch yourself as you drift into thoughts which take you out of the present moment.   In other words it is  learning to pay attention.  By practicing this over and over again for years, the seeker gradually builds the “remembering muscles” that allow them to make adjustments, and exercise the flexibility (creativity) necessary  to redefine his or her life, momentary situation by momentary situation.

Like the artist’s process, mentioned in the paragraph above, the spiritual practioner is also trying to eliminate unnecessary suffering; the self –created suffering that results from trying to make one’s life unfold in ways other than it is naturally unfolding.  The spiritual seeker’s creativity is manifested in his ability to let go of expectations and allow his or her life to evolve in unscripted or unanticipated ways.

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Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t  resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow  naturally forward in whatever way they like.     Lao Tzu

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I ended my post entitled “Buddha as a Performance Artist”? by wondering why both creative and spiritual artists seek creative freedom by counterintuitively placing more and more restrictions on themselves.  By placing restrictions in one’s own path, the artist or spiritual seeker maintains the balance between challenges and skills that Dr. C. says is necessary to maintain flow. In order to be present, one must constantly redefine the situation in ways that keeps them challenged.  One way of thinking about this is they create situations where they must adopt “beginner’s mind”.

Furthermore committment to self-imposed obstacles provides a concrete way of becoming aware of the unbalance in one’s life.  By making committments or vows to act in a particular manner (see references to The Four Vow and Precepts in previous post)  provides fertile ground for exploring the nature of the discrepancies between demands and one’s inner resources that are preventing one from being “present-alive-awake”.  By making such commitments it is more difficult to get lost in throughts, dreams and fantasies of being anywhere other than where you are, doing what you are doing right now.

Commitment unlocks the doors of imagination, allows vision, and gives us the “right stuff” to turn our dreams into reality.
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PERFORMER-AUDIENCE COMMUNICATION

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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BUDDHA AS A PERFORMANCE ARTIST?

 

Buddha as a performance artist?  Not so far fetched according to Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman:

Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama

Say you are a buddha and you’re free of suffering and you feel totally great–as happy as a bee and a clam and at one with the universe- and then you see all of these miserable people.  Yet what good would it do for you to go and give them a big grin and a hug, or smother them with joyfulness?  They’ll just get freaked out and be paranoid and say, ‘What does this person want?  So instead, a buddha has to develop some strategies – some art – to, first  of all, open that person’s imagination to the fact that there is a world where they don’t have to be miserable all the time.  And then he has to help them with a method of how to move from their paranoid corner of misery into the great ocean of the bliss of the universe that you, a buddha, perceive. (The Wonderful Ambiquity of Art, Inquiring Mind, Spring 2002, pg. 7)

Thurman points out that the term upaya is usually used in Buddhist literature to refer to the “means by which compassion- the universal compassion of an enlightened being- manifests in action to enable other beings to find freeedom from suffering”  (pg. 7)  Usually translated as “skillful means”, Thurman suggests that upaya is best translated as “art”; art in the broadest sense, as in “liberal arts”.

One of the simplest definitions of “art” that I have seen says essentially that it is a set of skills learned to create something.  This is a pretty broad and useful definitionas it allows us to talk about artful skills in all aspects of life, not just what we traditionally think of as “the arts”.  It should also be pointed out that whatever it is that is being created, whether a painting, a garden, a dinner or one’s self/life, there can be variations in how creatively it is done.

 

 

 

Interestingly, even in “the arts”, the definition of art is constantly changing.  Back in 1917, when Marcel Duchamp entered a urinal in a prestigious art exhibit the boundaries of art were being challenged.  Since then, as creativity, as I defined it ( See Art, Zen and Creativity) has become an integral value in the art world, artist have been coming up with new ways of expanding the boundaries of this world. It is commonplace today to hear comments such as “That’s interesting but it is really art”.

So, given all this, it does not seem too far fetched to consider Buddha, Christ and a variety of other spiritual leaders as performance artists.  Like Marina Abramovic, they realized that their insights were better demonstrated than talked about.  What are the insights to be shared or taught?  Essentially, to be present, alive or awake.  But, this is not easily conveyed through didatic teaching and, as Thruman says in the quote above, people need to know that it is possible to be present, alive or awake and what that might look like.

What all of these “performance artists” have in common is that they found it necessary

Montano and Hsieh Performance Piece

to supplement didatic teachings with demonstrations of their realizations by performing them in their everyday lives.

The other thing all of these artists (the spiritual artists as well as the performance artists) have in common is that their practices consist of setting up obstacles that provide them with challenges that, when overcome, can lead to self-transformation.  Usually these take the form of some sort of  ”rules” governing their performances.

Montano and Hsieh restricted how far apart they could get, the time they would remain teathered, and specified that they could not touch.  My last post on Abravovic specifies many of the rules that she set up for herself during various performance pieces.

In fact, the taking on of restrictions or obstacles is something found among all creative people.  It is common in all of the arts to hear of people setting up certain boundaries or restrictions for themselves as means for challenging themselves to greater creativity.  In fact, I think that committing oneself to any creative pursuit necessarily involves confronting barriers.  For instance, I commonly hear painters say something to the effect of “my painting is going badly” which simply means they are in the midst of resolving some issue in the activity that they voluntarily have decided to take on; one that can lead to a “creative breakthrough” later on.

So called spiritual artists do the same thing by, for instance, committing to a certain amount of time for meditation or committing to follow certain vows or codes.  For example, in formally becoming a Zen student a person commits to following four vows and to following 16 precepts.  Within Zen these “restrictions” are not seen as equivalent of “sins” in that transgressions will lead to going to hell or something like this.  Rather they are restrictions that one voluntarily takes on in “performing” everyday life and like the “obstacles” set up by artists like Abramovic are ultimately designed to help heighten self awareness; in other words to become more alive, awake or present.

In the next post I will look at this phenomena more closely and see how it relates to both artists in the conventional sense as well as “spiritual artists”.

 

The Artist is Present

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

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

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

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

Marina on her relationship with Ulay.

 

 

Ulay and Marina screaming at one another as Performance Art

 

Performance piece with Ulay

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 It is clear from the film and from other interviews with Marina that she sees her art as a means of transforming herself.  By confronting challenges and fears, she is able to create, not a new art object but a new self.  This reminds me of Suzuki’s statement as follows: The Zen-man is an artist to the extent that, as the sculptor chisels out a great figure deeply buried in a mass of inert matter, the Zen-man transforms his own life into a work of creation.  (D.. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture)

 

Zen Meditation

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

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

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

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

Marina at the end of a day of sitting.

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

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

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

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

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

ART, ZEN AND CREATIVITY

 

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

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

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

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

Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

Homer by Picasso

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

HOW CREATIVITY WORKS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Lehrer:

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

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

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

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

ANSWER:

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

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

SUDDEN INSIGHT AND CREATIVITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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