TRUTH AND FAITH AND “B.S.” IN ART AND ZEN

 

THE GOLDEN RATIO OR GOLDEN MEAN

The post titled “The Evolution of Adagio: A Therapeutic Motion Machine” by guest blogger James Wilson, has quickly become the most viewed on Art and Zen Today during the past 90 days.  A comment on that article from Charlie from Mass. raised some interesting questions about validity of some of the theoretical foundations used by James in the evolution of his “machine”. Specifically, the validity of the “golden mean” or “golden ratio” was questioned.  (Click here to read “The Evolution of Adagio: A therapeutic Motion Machine.”)

 

THE GOLDEN GINGERBREAD BOY


 This got me thinking about the place of “truth” and “faith” in the artistic and spiritual systems we use to guide our practices.  James later penned a response to Charlie’s comment but it could not be posted because I have placed a time limit on comments in order to cut down on the “robo-spam” sent to the blogsite.  

So today’s post consists of: 1) Charlie’s comment on “The Evolution of Adagio”; 2) James’ response; 3) some additional material intended to  help the reader follow along, and finally; 4) some comments by me on how I see the discussion relating to the practices of art and Zen.  Because this post consists of ideas expressed by several different people, I have physically separated each authors contributions to make it easier to follow.  I’d like to thank Charlie and James for inspiring me to sit down and think about all of this. 

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First is the comment by Charles that was published soon after the post on Adagio by appeared in Art and Zen Today.  In his post, James had written about the use of the “golden ratio” in the development of his invention.

Charles wrote:

“The golden ratio is like religion—it’s an old theory which doesn’t hold up under scientific scrutiny. I googled “skeptic ‘golden ratio” and came up with a nice quote from a comment by Phil in Australia:

Beauty like love is one of life’s greatest mysteries. Numbers can’t explain it.

Comment by Phil, Sydney Australia, from the following link:

http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4325

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SENT IN BY CHARLIE

The comment by Phil, referred to above by Charles, was in response to an article titled “The Golden Ratio” published on the website Skeptoid:Critical analysis of Pop Phenomena .  Below is one paragraph from the original article that prompted Phil’s comment.  I include it here to help put Phil’s comment into some context.

φ, the golden ratio, and the Fibonacci series are mathematically interesting and do have natural manifestations. That doesn’t mean everything, or even anything else, is based on them. The popularity and “big name” of the “divine proportion” has been the real driver of its pseudoscientific assignment to just about anything and everything. Those whose brains’ pattern-matching software is in overdrive have probably heard of the golden ratio, and so it’s the one they think of whenever they see a rectangle, or a great work of art (like the Mona Lisa, which is not based on the golden ratio), or patterns in the stock market (which don’t exist at all, let alone at the golden ratio), or in the numerology of the Bible (unless any other number is allowed to be considered just as significant). Not every claim about the golden ratio is the result of hyperactive pattern matching, but most are. At a minimum, such a claim is always a good tipoff that you should be skeptical.

The entire article and comments, including the one referenced by Charlie, can be seen at:

http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4325

 

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In this section, I have copied James’ response to the comment made by Charlie.  This was not previously published on Art and Zen Today.

 

Charlie,

I agree that discussions around the “Golden Mean” can sometimes lapse into a matter of “faith”.  From what I can tell, science has neither proven anything about it (except it has some pretty amazing mathematical properties), but it hasn’t really dis-proven anything either. 

The way I think of it, and use it, is that when starting a creative project, like a piece of music or painting, it is helpful to the composer or artist or designer to create some kind of “limits”; otherwise the possibilities are infinite and can result in artistic paralysis.  Take 12 tone compositions for example.    Here’s a definition:

Twelve-tone technique—also known as dodecaphonytwelve-tone serialism, and (in British usage) twelve-note composition—is a method of musical composition devised by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951). The technique is a means of ensuring that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another in a piece of music while preventing the emphasis of any one note[3] through the use of tone rows, an ordering of the 12 pitches. All 12 notes are thus given more or less equal importance, and the music avoids being in a key. The technique was influential on composers in the mid-20th century.

To me, Twelve-tone is basically a lot of BS, and it really doesn’t “avoid being in a key”, which was its primary purpose in life.  However, it did get a lot of people to write a lot of music (some good, some not) simply because it gave them a “system” to work within. I.e., it got them to initiate the creative process! 

And, if nothing else, this is the magic of using the Golden Means, or any other system for that matter, particularly in the arts, where, as I said above, the possibilities are basically infinite.  It imposes enough limits that the artist/musician can get his/her hand/head around it. 

If in fact artists and/or architects have and do use these ratios in their work, it is probably for this reason more than any other.  It’s almost like; in absence of any other confining system, why NOT use it?  Yes, it may just be BS, but, then again, it might not!   

James Wilson

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Ok.  Now it is my turn to chime in as Editor of Art and Zen Today.

It is pretty well known that artist’s of all kind often impose systems on their practice that challenge them to go beyond their usual boundaries and possibly attain to highly creative results. I covered this topic in some detail in the post titled “Buddha as a Performance Artist?”  I believe that it is possible to say that these artistic or spiritual systems may be said to foster “mindful creativity” as the term is used by Langer (see   “On Becoming Mindful“  )  But, the “mindfully creative artist is able to use the restrictions imposed by whatever system they are using to foster new ways of imagining that inevitably go beyond that system.

 Often the “systems” evoked for such purpose, whether artistic or spiritual, do not really “make sense” to others and if the system is touted by the user as some sort of “truth”, the chances are that someone will find way to poke holes in it.  I think that this is along the lines of what James is saying in his comment above.

About a year ago I did some googling around the internet looking for artists who explicitly used the Golden Mean concept in their work.  I found one painter who made a big deal of his dedication to the Golden mean ratios in constructing his painting.  It was my impression that he was consciously trying to appeal to buyers who were into new agey “sacred geometry”.   I found his work to be rather boring, predictable and not very creative.  This, I think, speaks to the problem of any “systems” that we impose upon ourselves.  As Jim seems to say in his comment,  “systems” that impose restrictions can lead to greater creativity but not when followed slavishly (i.e. without mindfulness).

The quote from Phil that Charlie included in his reply is actually the last line of a quite long comment response to the article debunking the use of the Golden Mean.  In the next segment,I have included all of Phils’ comment because it seems to me that he provides an example that reinforces my notion that genuine creativity is not found in the “truth” of the system but rather in how an artist uses this system (see insert below). 

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Here I have copied the full comment made by Phil in his response to the article debunking the use of the Golden Mean.  Charlie referred only to the last line of this comment, but the rest of it seems to provide an example of my main point.

 I had a violin maker friend who made every instrument in accordance with golden section proportions. This included sound post positioning, the ratio of string length above and below the bridge, neck length, and the actual proportions of the body themselves.

He had a great deal of success and believed that the proportions were common in some historical violin making.

He also considered the setting of the violin to be very critical and that most violinists hadn’t a clue how to do it. One major difference between a Strad and a cheaper violin, he said, is that if you pay millions of dollars for an instrument, you just might be keen to set it up properly – sound post position, bridge positioning and shape etc

Whether or not Golden proportions help – he was convinced they did – the real magic was in the hands of the maker who completed the task and the final adjustments. I am sure that applies equally to everything from architecture to furniture. Sometimes I think that in attributing success to the golden section the creator of a masterpiece is perhaps a little too modest – or his critic a little too coldly scientific

Beauty like love is one of life’s greatest mysteries. Numbers can’t explain it.

Phil, Sydney Australia
August 22, 2013 11:15pm

http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4325

 

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Ok, this is me again.

Ellen Langer’s Book On Becoming an Artist consistently prompts the reader to question any existing artistic systems that they encounter as they embark on their creative journey.( see ELLEN LANGER ON THE “TALENT MYTH” ).   Especially when we are beginners in any realm, we tend to look for some “system” that provides us guidelines for how to proceed.  There is nothing wrong with this, but to the extent that we get “stuck” in the system, our creativity will suffer.  I think that this also  applies to artists who have been creative enough to evolve their own “systems”, so to speak, of making art.  When they are no longer mindful and begin automatically doing what has been successful for them in the past, there is no creative growth.  The ability to push beyond even self- imposed boundaries is why artists like Picasso, Miles Davis and Bob Dylan, to name a few,  are acknowledged as creative geniuses. And, so it goes, I would suggest, in the realm of the spirit.  This brings me to Zen, and most forms of Buddhism generally. 

 

 

Buddhist thought and practices inevitably entail boundaries or limitations.  Furthermore, they often don’t make rational sense and I have heard myself and fellow Zen students refer to various teachings as “B.S.”  The non-rational aspects of the teaching require that the student develop a degree of “faith”, to use the term that Jim seems to use derogatively.  I would suggest that “faith” is only problematic when it stifles mindfulness.  It is important to point out that Buddhist practice does not demand “blind faith”.  Rather it requires a willingness (i.e. “necessary “faith”) to try out a certain viewpoint and set of practices to see whether or how they work in one’s own life.  Buddha famously said something along the lines of the quote below (I don’t have “faith” that Buddha actually said everything attributed to him):

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

 

The Zen literature is especially contradictory and difficult to make sense of because it points out again and again, that Zen is simply a system, and that if you use the system wisely you end up transcending the system itself.  This does not seem “rational”, at least to most beginners. It requires some degree of “faith” to continue with Buddhist practice until one can develop an understanding of how this works.  Eventually, the student sees that there is no set view which is considered to be true and there is no end to discovering this; that is, as you discover new ways of seeing your life, you find that you can not rely (i.e. have “faith in” ) on that viewpoint forever.

 

 To the extent that Buddhist practice leads to a constant re-visioning of one’s self and reality, it could be seen as the ultimate creative practice.  Dale Wright makes this point in his recent book, The Six Perfections.   Interestingly, Wright uses language that is consistent with Langer’s where “mindfulness” and “creativity” are equated. Wright’s book examines the various conventions and guidelines for attaining enlightened “Wisdom” as they have been passed down in Buddhist literature.  However, Wright makes a point of reminding the reader over and over that blind conformity to these strictures is not what the journey is all about.  “Wisdom” says Wright “is the ability to recognized what is and what is not an appropriate guide for dealing with situations skillfully.”  (pg. 233).

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GAINING TIME AND MINDFULNESS

BHANTE HENEPOLA GUNARATANA

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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MINDFULNESS WARS: LANGER VERSUS BUDDHA?

 

Mindfulness Wars: Langer Versus Buddha?

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

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

Is the glass half mindful or half mindless?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kabut-Zinn goes on to say: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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.