This post starts off with a short video I took several weeks ago at the Coyote Bar and Grill in Carlsbad, which is where my wife and like to go dancing. On this night, one of my favorite singers (Valerie Pierce) was singing one of my favorite tunes (“This is How We Do It”) with one of my favorite local bands (SmokeStaxx). Before I get into my usual pontification, I’d suggest that you watch the video now. Unfortunately, I was not quick enough to capture the whole song, but I got the best part.
Click here to see video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zw7bciE7F2U&feature=c4-overview&list=UUVRR6l491Aafe34H23PwdNA
I had talked briefly with Valerie after she had performed this rap at an earlier date. I asked whether she would be OK with me recording her the next time they did this tune and she said “yes”. I also asked her what her state of mind was while she was performing that night. Her answer was ” I don’t know where I went”. (Valerie was recently named “#1 Ranking New Jazz Artist in the Hollywood Talent Quest”. See more at ValeriePierce.com)
The idea of being somewhere else (or not being one’s self) is common among musicians when trying to describe their state of mind while improvising. The same language is common among those witnessing such performances (e.g. “like he’s gone, man” or “He’s possessed”).(see Improvization in Jazz and Zen). I would suggest that such performances are good examples of what Dr.Mihaly Csikszentimaihalyi calls the “flow experience” where the experiencer “forgets the conceptual self” and loses a sense of time. (See To Know Flow or No Flow?). The idea of being “far out” was also the topic of an earlier blog “The thin line between” and “aliens”
While it is common to refer to such performancer as not being here, in other posts (for instance “The Artist Is Present”, I also suggest that the performer is totally here in the present in the moment. The language we use to describe and try to understand these kinds of experiences could, at first blush, be seen as contradictory. Is the performer “gone” or is she “totally here in the present moment? Is the performer “far out” or “present”. The problem lies in trying to describe human experiences that lie outside the commonplace or “normal” These kinds of experiences are simply not easy to describe in words because they involve a dropping away of the usual thought processes (predominately “left brain” processes) that we use for making distinctions and understanding what is happening. As I have shown before, these are the very kinds of experiences that spawn creativity (See “Sudden Insight and Creativity“)
As I look at Valerie in this video, I see both someone who is “gone” and “fully present”. She is gone in the sense that she is not exactly her usual self, but she is present in that she is responding immediately and quickly to what is going on around her; making split-second decisions that can only occur when one is fully focused in the present moment.
I was talking with my brother recently about all of this and he said that when he is improvising (he is a jazz saxaphonist) the audience can tell when he is in the state of being Gone/Present and they let him know by their response. When someone is in this state (whether a performer or not) they have a “Presence”. (see Performer-Audience Communication” ). How is this “presence” communicated? I would suggest that it is conveyed as much visually as through sound. I have played drums while my brother is improvising and I can always tell when he is “into it”; it is conveyed by facial expressions and various other forms of body language (try watching the video of Valerie again, with your volume turned down).
Monk and Diz
There is reason to believe that this is true of performers in the relatively subdued and staid classical music. I just read about some surprising research that seems consistent with this idea. Chia-Jung Tsay is both a classical pianist and a psychologist who conducted a study where she showed both amateur and professional musicians clips from classical-music competitions. She asked her volunteers to guess the winners. But, some saw videos with recording, some listed only to audio and others watched silent videos. What she found is that it was only in the silent videos, the videos without any sound, that participants were best able to identify the actual winners.
My interpretation of Tsay’s results is that the “presence” of the winners was largely conveyed visually. Interestingly, Ellen Langer’s studies on creativity and mindfulness also suggest that “presence” may be conveyed from artist to viewer even when the artist is not physically present. In a series of experiments where volunteers were either encouraged to create art pieces mindfully or allowed to create with no intervention, she found that artist who created more mindfully were judged to be more “authentic or charismatic based on viewers perceptions of their work. Now “presence” is one of those words that are difficult to define but I think that “authenticity’ and “charisma” are elements of what we generally mean when using the term.
What Langer calls the “authenticity” and “charisma”, (which can be seen as part of “presence”) of painters can be conveyed to viewers through what they see on the canvas. Generally, I would say, we are drawn to art of all types when it conveys the presence of the artist, even if the artist is not physically present.
In the most general sense “presence” means that others are impressed by a person”s appearance and manner. But, as I discussed above, the term often implies the existence of something or someone not physically present. Different people will have different interpretations of the “something” or “someone” but I think the quote from Wikihow below best sums up my position:
“In some spiritual circles, presence and spirit are one in the same. Meditation, contemplation, dance, chant, all seek to connect with something deeper. Presence is the result of getting in contact with your deeper self.”
Even the nature of “your deeper self” can be debated but I would suggest that this is what is often referred to in the Zen literature as “realizing one’s Buddha nature”. That is, it is in our nature to be “present/awake/alive” but for most people, this must be realized through practice. The term “Buddha nature” is one of those that can be difficult to grasp but I think that author William Westney may provide some insight into it’s meaning.
Westney, author of “The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self” suggests that if you watch 3 year olds engaging with music you get a sense of the inherent joy that can be evoked from playing and listening to music. Artists with “presence”, I would suggest, allow the enthusiasm and involvement of the child to shine through their performances. To use Westney’s worlds: ..”there is total involvement, every fiber, sinew and nerve-ending alter to the musical impulse…” (pg. 17). This is what I see when watching the video of Valerie.
Westney suggests that this inherent joy, in most cases, is sufficated by lessons and other adult demands until most of us forget or deny it and we become convinced that we do not have the talent to either perform or fully listen music (see “Ellen Langer on “The Talent Myth).
Westney goes on to say:
“The energized, fluid creativity of play, for example is a childhood treasure that is often lost later. People happily forget themselves when they are absorbed in play, and at the same time they are acutely aware” (p. 22). In other words they are simultaneously “there” and “here”. Dale Wright’s deconstruction of the Buddhist Six Perfections, designed to provide students with the “goals” of practice suggests that a sense of joy is a key element of spiritual practice as well. It makes sense to me that this joy would develop as one breaks through the conditioning that has stiffled the joyousness of childhood. It seems to me that what Westney is describing as the three year old’s natural inclination to play and musicality is very similar to “Buddha nature” in that both are inherent and both usually need to be re-discovered or realized in later life.
From all accounts it appears that the historic Buddha, after years of spiritual practice, had a presence that others could acknowledge and were drawn to. At the same time I would guess that had Buddha been around during the early days of jazz, he would certainly have been seen as “real gone”. The Heart Sutra, seen as one of the most important of Buddha’s teachings ends with the phrases “gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha” which is translated as “ gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond“. Gone, as gone beyond ordinary egjo-based consciousness and suffering. From what I can tell, Buddha conveyed his “goneness” to those he met but was also very much present; present enough to effectively convey his teaching, organize an order of monks to succeed him and become engaged in civil society. According to the Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera, “The Buddha had gone beyond all worldly affairs, but still gave advice on good government” (http://www.saigon.com/~anson/ebud/whatbudbeliev/229.htm)
So, the historic Buddha was gone but not gone. Neither “here” or “there”. Interestingly Buddha uses terms similar to this in the following quote attributed to him:
When for you there is only the seen in the seen, only the heard in the heard, only the sensed in the sensed, only the cognized in the cognized, then you will not be reckoned by it. When you are not reckoned by it, you will not be in it. When you are not in it, you will be neither “here” nor “there” nor between the two.
This, just this, is the end of suffering.
Buddha Gautama (563-483 BC)
When I am dancing to a great band like Smokestaxx or watching/listening to a great performer like Valerie Pierce, I am often temporarily “neither here nor there” and I get at least a taste of what it might be like to realize my “Buddha Nature”. Does Booty Shaking = Buddha Nature ? I’m not sure but I intend to keep up my booty shaking practice and I’ll let you know when I find out.
I don’t understand capri pants. They seem like neither here nor there.
Lyrics from Neither Here Nor There by Eleisha Eagle
The secret of life
now I’ve got the key,
I’ve got the key,
I’ve got the key
but I can’t find the lock
so it’s no use to me
La Dee Da Da Da
I’m not worried
La Dee Da Da Da
Happen to care?
La Dee Da Da Da
I’m happy though I’m
Neither here nor there
I’m neither here nor there
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