WOULD YOU MIND WAlKING THIS WAY?

“Would You Mind Walking this Way?” is the latest video produced by Art and Zen Today and the One Mind Artist Coalition.  It speaks to the notion of being on what is variously referred to as an “inner journey”, a “trip” or a “Path”.  What I tried to convey in this video is that the Path entails  being in the moment while on the journey, no matter where it takes us.  The idea is to let go of concerns of where we are going or when we are going to get there and become fully immersed in the journey itself.  To do this we must let go of excessive conceptualization and allow the shift away from left brain processes that I spoke of in the previous post (Music, Trance and  Mindfulness ).  Although most of us have had experiences involving this type of shift, it is often not a comfortable one because it may feel that our sense of being in control,( which is the basis of our sense of self), is being lost (see previous blog post).  To find earlier posts on “left-brain process” or other concepts, use as key words in the search engine of this site at the top of the page.

On the other hand, when we allow such experiences to happen, it can often be quite liberating; liberating in the sense that one learns that there are other ways of being that are free of stress and strife.  I remember my father, who one health professional described  as a “Type Triple A Personality”, telling me about having  such an experience while on vacation in Puerto Rico.  He found that, even far away from his practice (he was an M.D), he could not stop thinking about his work.  According to him, after several days of not being able to relax, my mother gave him a pencil and pad and told him to go draw something on the beach.  This, he told me, finally allowed him  to “let go” of his thoughts, be more fully present and he enjoyed the remainder of his vacation.  As he told me this story, it was clear from his voice and the tears in his eyes that this had been a major “realization” in his life.

The roots of the word “vacation” are variously described as “free of occupation” and “to be empty”.  In my Dad’s case he was “preoccupied” with thoughts about his work and unable to experience his moments on the beach and elsewhere in Puerto Rico by being fully there.  Ideally, the novelty of the places we visit on vacation allow us to become fully present and this can only happen by “forgetting” our left-brain/self-sustaining thoughts.  This is why, I think, that Dogen famously wrote that “to study the Buddha Way is to forget the self” and why Csikszentimihali said that “flow experiences” happen when we forget the “conceptual  self, but not what Langer calls the “experiencing self”.

In Zen, sitting mediation is the key practice in studying the Buddha Way; the way of reality-i.e. being with whatever is happening in your life rather than what you want to be happening.  Zazen may be thought of as a practice time where one goes on a brief vacation under conditions that facilitate practicing the difficult task of “vacating” or “emptying”. But, Zen, along with other Spiritual disciplines also emphasize the need to eventually extend this practice into all aspects of life.  One way this has been emphasized in Zen is by incorporating “kinhin” or “walking meditation” into the routines of those practicing sitting meditation.   When correctly practicing walking meditation one is fully absorbed in the waking process with no thought of going anywhere.  When you watch the video look for instances of such mindful walking; the title of the video alludes to such mindfulness. The music that accompanies this video is a remix of the song “Caravan”, which is a jazz standard composed by Juan Tizol and first performed by Duke Ellington in 1936.   See the video below.

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MUSIC, TRANCE AND MINDFULNESS

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

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FLOW OF LIGHT AND MUSIC: A VIDEO EXPERIENCE BY JAMES WILSON

This post starts off with a visual and auditory experience for you that will work best if I don’t provide any “up front” information.  Below you will see a link to a short video that will provide that experience.  It is best if you watch the video before reading on.

To view video, click on link:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYDW9lOnuwM

 

Now that you’ve watched the video, please take a moment to briefly let  James, the artist, know what you experienced.  It would be helpful for him to know what you thought or felt at various points in the video.  You can provide this feedback by clicking on the bubble at the right of the picture at the top of the post.  If you want your comment to remain anonymous, just write in “anonymous” when prompted for a name.

Below is an interview with James which I think you will find interesting.  My intention was to find out more about how this particular artistic experience came about.

A&Z TODAY: Most of your current music, music videos, and of course your visual device, “The Adagio”,  seem to tap into a sort of slow motion in conjunction with music.  How did you get started along this line of thinking?

James:  I can remember the circumstances pretty vividly.  It was a while ago, probably around 1966 or 1967 when I was a music student at Boston University.  One evening, a weekend night I’m pretty sure since I had nothing pending the next day, I was chilling out at my apartment with some friends, listening to jazz, mainly Miles Davis.  One of my friends shared some weed, and I probably had had a few beers by that point in the evening.  I think it is pretty common when “high”, either on just life or with the assistance of some mind-altering substance, one gets into a state of mind where he/she is somewhat removed from oneself; almost like you become an “observer” observing oneself. 

Miles was playing “Solea” from his “Sketches of Spain” album.  I was very much in the “observer” state of mind at the time, and looked down to notice my hand was moving very slowly to the music, kind of in an up and down fashion along with the characteristic  “arcs” that Miles plays during his solos. ( If you listen carefully to this piece in particular, you will notice that he hits high points, then his trumpet lines slowly descend to a low point.  He then begins to build the tension, and overall pitch, back up, etc. etc. )  My hand was following that, the up and down motion, but also moving very slowly in a smooth arc, not at all as part of any of the rhythmic elements of the piece.    I was hearing/feeling some other motion in the music that no one was talking about.   It was not anything you could consider “rhythmic”. 

Fortunately, I hadn’t partied too hearty that night, and the next day I remembered the evening’s experience pretty vividly.  I thought about it off and on for the next several years, and in 1969 I built the first prototype of “The Adagio”.  It was pretty crude, but it worked, and was my first attempt to capture what I had experienced, and something I could work with in more detail.

A&Z TODAY: In a previous A&Z article, you discussed some of the thinking that led to the actual building of the Adagio. 

Yes, I won’t repeat that here again.  Anyone interested can go HERE to read the article in your blog.  I did go into some detail at that time about how and why I came up with using the sine curve to measure the up and down motion.  Using a slowly rotating cylinder, that was speed adjustable from 0 rpm up to about 3 rpm allowed me to create a slow moving, continuously flowing arc of light across the viewer’s vision.  

A&Z TODAY: At one point, you used Adagio in a biofeedback experiment.  How did that evolve?

After I built the first Adagio, I spent a lot of my free time watching it while listening to music.  I also began to notice certain patterns that might someday be of interest to music theorists.  From working with Adagio and music over the years, several patterns have emerged:

 1.   Most music falls within several rotation speeds: roughly 1 rpm, and 1 rev. every 90 seconds.  Some outliers do occur, for example Gregorian Chant which moves incredibly slow, like 1 rev every 3 minutes, and Bartok’s piece for Celeste, Orchestra  – adagio movement, also crawls along at a barely perceptible pace.

2.  Most music, esp. classical such as Mozart and Bach, has cadences every ¼ rotation.  In other words, 8 or 16 measures of music usually equal ¼ rotations of the cylinder, or on the sine curve, at the 90, 180, 270, and 360/0 degree marks.  You can get an idea of this here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrnhYnNqjzU , along with a Mozart piece.  Note that the Adagio is at 180 degrees rotation when the piece cadences at around 47 seconds.  Coincidence?  Maybe, but then maybe not.

 3. Much good music (including Bach, Bartok, and oddly, Gil Evans – esp. Sketches of Spain with Miles Davis), follow the arch of the curve.  I.e., it builds up during the first ¼ rotation, then releases down to ¾ rotation, etc.   I have used these theories in my own compositions.  This video you included at the start of this article,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isvcRjRauSU uses an ambient piece I composed that was constructed specifically for use with the Adagio.  The rising and falling ball/”moon” follows the sine curve across the screen, with a cylinder rotation speed of 1 rev/90 seconds.  Hopefully you get a sense that the music is moving “upwards”, during the upward cycle of the Adagio, then “downwards”, etc.   That’s what I intended anyway.

 If you work with the Adagio long enough, it can affect you psychologically.  You almost feel a little “stoned”.  I think it slows your sense of time down, and you begin to notice things that perhaps you never noticed before.  Of course the study talks about the fact that it activates the right hemisphere, etc.  And so that kind of ties in with the altered-state one gets from viewing the Adagio over a period of time.

Of course the sensation of an altered-state is what eventually led to the biofeedback study.  I definitely noticed a change in how I was feeling and seeing things and I had several of my friends try it as well.  They also remarked on a change in their perceptions, a sense of “time slowed down”.  

 

In 1978 I was taking a few courses at Nova University in Florida, and also teaching some of the students there computer skills.  One of the doctoral students, a friend of mine, Joyce Keen, became interested in using the Adagio as part of a left brain/right brain activation experiment she was proposing.  She was able to get some heavy hitters of the time, such as Dr. Joe Kamiya, to be on the dissertation committee.  Anyway, the experiment produced some very strong and statistically conclusive results; namely, that the Adagio, and music, reduced stress in the experimental subjects.  The general conclusion is that the Adagio and music activated the right hemisphere, thus allowing the left hemisphere, which is the side of the brain that brings our “fight/flight” response back under control, to concentrate on that task.  In other words, while the right brain was engaged, the left brain had available “down time” so that it could more efficiently address the stressors that were being administered to the subjects.   A few weeks after the initial sessions, Joyce repeated just one session.  Evidently the effect did not seem to diminish over time, as the experimental group still recovered significantly faster than the control group.

Some interesting non-scientific results also occurred.  For example, one student swore she was being levitated in her chair while watching the Adagio.  Another student that suffered from insomnia, said he had started sleeping normally again. 

A&Z TODAY: The study was done a while ago, in 1978.  What has transpired since?

Well, for better or worse a something called “life” got in the way of my doing much else with it since that time.  I got off on a number of tangents, making a living, etc., so I really haven’t done much with it until recently.   I know this seems like a stretch, but I have become very interested in politics over the last 5-10 years, and am very concerned about the direction the country, and the world is taking.  The human race faces at best an uncertain future, and, according to the majority of climate scientists, quite possibly extinction.   What seems to be lacking most in our business leaders and politicians is a little thing called “empathy”.    Nobody seems to care about anyone else not within their immediate family or sphere of influence, much less the fate of future generations.   As long as they are OK, as long as they are comfortable,  who cares about anyone else?  That seems to be the current trend, the current way of thinking, especially here in the United States. 

Empathy emanates from the right brain.  It is a right brain attribute.  Well, you can probably guess where this is going.  In short, what the world needs most is a little  right brain activation, a little more right brain thinking.   What was that popular song “What the world needs now is love sweet love”?     - a  Burt Bacharach song from the mid-1960s if I recall.  Unfortunately it is truer now than ever.

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Evolution of The Adagio – a therapeutic motion machine

 

 

 

 

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

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

By James Wilson

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

 

Dr. Norden

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

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

 

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

1 .618: 1.00 = width:height.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This ratio is also often found in nature!:


 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Original "Adagio"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

(Click the image above to activate)

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

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

 

I would appreciate any comments/observations you might have.

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

 

THE ISSUE OF CHOICE IN ART AND ZEN IMPROVISATION

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

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

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

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

 

Jiyu "Jake" Roshi

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

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

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

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

"The Devil Made me Do IT" Comedian Flip Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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On Feb. 20th, Sean wrote:

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

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

Sean

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

PRACTICING ZEN/TRUMPET: PART 2

In part 1, I described how both Zen and trumpet practice requires developing a general “somatic awareness” that can only be indirectly taught by a teacher.  The parallels between these two practices hit home when one day Nathan, my trumpet teacher, said something about my needing to remove my “self” from my blowing. That sounded a lot like what any traditional Zen teacher might say to a student performing a particular task whether it be cooking, washing the laundry, archery, ink painting or serving tea.  I think the Zen idea of “removing the self ” in activities closely relates to points I made in earlier posts where I suggested that only by “forgetting” and “letting go” of preconceptions about what you should be doing, will a natural expression of one’s self or one’s creativity be allowed to happen.  (See What the _____was that Video About?) When trying too hard to accomplish a goal, we often create physical tensions for ourselves, which makes the goal all the more difficult to reach.

When playing the trumpet, my efforts often manifest in a tightening of facial and mouth muscles that inhibit my lips from serving the function of a flexible and pliable reed.  It is the vibration of lips which is the source of the sound in the trumpet and to the extent that the lips are tense or restricted, the resulting tone is also tense and restricted.  In daily life, our internal tensions restrict our natural expressions of spontaneity and compassion by verbal clues and body-language, of which we are largely unaware.  Such unintended signals can stand in the way of developing healthy relationships with others and act as obstacles in achieving life-goals. Both trumpet playing and Zen Playing require tremendous commitment to practice, but both also seem to require a healthy letting go of excessive self-consciousness and the physical tensions that ensue

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Before going further, I’d like you to take a look at a short and amusing video. It consisting of clips taken from a documentary on Wynton Marsalis rehearsing with opera star Kathleen Battle in preparation for a joint recording. Marsalis is the Artistic Director of Jazz at  Lincoln Center and has won Grammys for his trumpet playing on both Jazz and Classical recordings.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwZSjasqPuk

Nathan wanted me to watch this video so I could see Wynton’s teacher demonstrate the proper method of pushing air though a trumpet.  Although I found this instructive, I was more struck by the question of why someone of Marsalis’ caliber would need to have a teacher following him around providing such elementary instruction. In the video his teacher, Bill Fields, is using the kinds of indirect metaphors that I spoke of in Part 1 to get his student to relax and blow naturally; i.e. without “putting too much self” into it.  At every lesson I have had  so far, Nathan uses this, or some similar technique, to help me to attain a relaxed sound.  The fact that Wynton is still practicing such techniques was mind-boggling to me at first, but the more I thought about it, the more understandable it became.

 

Although the aim of trumpet playing and Zen are not the same, both disciplines seem to require methods of practice that help one to diminish self-consciousness and the accompanying tensions that impede natural expression.  Furthermore, it seems that the practice of basics or fundamentals is never dropped.  Nathan says he practices about 3 hours everyday and much of what he practices is similar to the fundamental exercises that I am working on as a beginner.  Our local Public Radio station recently had a series on “practice” and one episode focused on a new cellist with one of the major symphony orchestras.  She related that when she was chosen to join the orchestra she felt a sense of humbleness and awe at being surrounded by so much talent and so was extremely surprised to discover that, during warm up periods, all of the other musicians played very simple basic exercises.

Jiyu Roshi tells the story of visiting his teacher, Maezumi Roshi, who told Jiyu that he had been practicing “breath counting”, the exercise that is first given to all new Zen students.  As Jiyu says, all the basic breathing counting exercises can become a part of one’s “bag of tricks” to be used anytime whenever appropriate.  Although Zen students may go on to practice more challenging techniques, breath counting remains as a foundation, perhaps much like the simples exercises practiced by professional musicians all throughout their careers.

Both Zen and trumpet playing seem to involve developing the kind of “somatic awareness” that I have been talking about in articles leading up to this one.  In order to attain a relaxed and natural sound on the trumpet, I will need to develop an awareness of what is happening in my tongue, my facial muscles, my lips, my posture and my breath.  It seems that much of what is learned in practicing Zazen also involves this kind of “somatic awareness”, although it is not often emphasized. Here are two sources that are consistent with this view:  (Loori )  and (Will Johnson) .

Let me mention one final common point between Zen and trumpet practice.  I find any semblance of progress in both to be painfully slow and as a result have had constant doubts about whether or not these practices are worth the effort.  So why do I persist?  A “left brain” sort of answer is that I am aware of research showing that exercises that require paying attention and forming new habits can slow the aging process of  the brain.   However, probably more important is the fact that, for reasons I’m unclear about, I seem to be attracted to practice.  It may be simply that  I tend  to become easily bored.  It has occurred to me that by committing to a discpline requiring constant practice, I am alway being challenged without being overwhelmed.  As you will recall, these are the conditions that may facillitate flow. (See “Are you a Flow Addict?”  and  “So Can an Average Joe learn to Flow?” ).

A common belief of many beginning Zen students (myself included) is that after practicing for years, they will eventually reach a state (enlightenment?) where they no longer need to do it any more.  Based on my observations and reading (particularly the work of Dogen), it seems that this is not the case.  It appears that in any discipline, music, Zen, golf or whatever, the body/mind needs to be continually “reminded”, through practice, of how to allow us to “get out of our own way” so our natural “tone” can be expressed.  The nature of practice may change over time but there is no end to practice. More about this in future posts.

 

 

HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY OPENED- FOCUS EXPERIENCE WHILE READING THIS POST!

SINO-SCAPE #1

“The reader can experiment with developing a more inclusive attentional orientation even while continuing to be engaged in the act of reading. Is it possible for you now to permit your various somatic sensations to be also present in your awareness while you read? That is, can you imagine yourself reading and also simultaneously experiencing the volume of your whole body? Perhaps you will need to pause for a moment to allow your body feelings to emerge in your field of attention. Can you imagine, however, that you can proceed with reading and simultaneously attend to these body feelings? Can you imagine that when you feel a sense of effortlessness about reading with your whole body that you can then gradually expand your attention to include any thoughts, emotions, peripheral visual experiences, tastes, smells and sounds which may be simultaneously occurring as you read? Can you image that you need not scan in an effortful or sequential fashion among your various experiences in order to attend to them ? Is it possible for you, while allowing your attentional field to broaden to include simultaneously occurring experiences, that you can attend equally or without any particular bias to the various experiences surrounding the act of reading?” That is, can

SINO-SCAPE #2

you permit your attention to be equally and simultaneously spread out among body feelings, thoughts, emotions, sounds, etc., while you continue to read further?     The material in quotes above, was taken from an article titled “Open Focus: The Attentional Foundation of Health and Well-Being” by Lester Fehmi and George Fritz?  What you are reading at this point is not actually from the article but you can continue allowing yourself to simultaneously attend to the meaning being conveyed in this article as well as whatever else is going on internally and externally.  It may have crossed your mind that you are multi-tasking, but I am wondering whether that is really true.  I have read that the mind can only focus on one thing at a time.  When we are asked to focus attention simultaneously on what we are reading and what we are sensing, are we really doing that?  Or, is the mind shifting back and forth between various object so quickly that it just seems simultaneous?  If you have been able to experience an Open Focus as you read this, what is your perception of what is happening  to you?  As you think about that, try to focus as well on any bodily feelings, sensations and emotions.  If you have practiced meditation, do you think that that has affected how you carry on the task you are being asked to do here?  If so, how?  Have you found yourself holding this opened focus orientation in other situations in your life?  Are there situations where you think doing so would be useful?  Fehmi and Fritz do not talk about spiritual practice and personal transformation, but I’m guessing that such practices facilitate what the authors call “Open Focus modes of attention attention”.  This fits with what James Olsen says in

SINO-SCAPE #3

his book The Whole-Brain Path to Peace as well as with the emphasis in the Zen literature on integrating Absolute and Relative modes of consciousness.  Are you still aware of your internal signals as you read and think about all of this?  I know that after I read stuff like this, certain parts of my body are tense. It might be a tightness in my jaw, the top of my head , my shoulders or my legs.  Sometimes it is felt in my stomach.  Generally, when I read I’m caught up in thoughts of the past (how does what the author says relate to my past experiences?) or thoughts of the future (how can I use this information in my life?).  In other words, in this narrow focued mode, I’m not fully present. (Are you, right now, feeling whatever somatic sensations are present?) (Wouldn’t it be nice if everything we read, had these little reminders interspersed throughout the text?) Lately I have noticed that I have become better able to sense any tension in my body as I am reading. I am hopeful that ,if this continues to happen,  I will be able to relax those area of tension more quickly.  I attribute this change to practicing Zazen, where over and over again, I catch myself moving out of the present moment and bring my attention back to internal

SINO-SCAPE #4

and sensory sensations.  Zazen and similar meditative methods are primarily  techniques for “remembering to remember“.

Since this is an experiential post, it would be useful for readers to hear from others about their experiences. Please consider leaving a comment telling us how this exercise went for you (and while you write your comments, remember to ” permit your attention to be equally and simultaneously spread out among body feelings, thoughts, emotions, sounds, etc.).  STAY OPEN!

To leave a comment, click on the white bubble at the right of the title.  To make an anonymous comment, write “anonymous” when prompted for a name.  You can also send comments to me directly.

“CREATIVE REFRAMING” IN ART AND LIFE

UNRESOLVED By Steve Wilson

Most visual artists would agree that how a picture is framed can alter its effect on viewers.  Likewise, performing artists have learned to take into consideration the larger context or setting on their performances.  Here I want to explore the concept of creative reframing as an essential element of “creativity”, both in the arts and everyday life.

The process of painting “Unresolved” (see photo above), was long and tortuous. When creating abstract expressionist paintings,  the artist must apply paint, look at the result and then, based on what is present on the canvas, add more paint or do whatever he or she feels necessary to move towards something they are pleased with.  A common issue for such painters is that they find different  aspects or sections of the canvas to be pleasing but feel that these elements do not work together to provide a finished piece.  My favorite painting teacher, Sally Pearce, used to say that paintings at this stage are “unresolved”; a diplomatic way of saying “get back to work”.

As I recall, the painting that I subsequently titled “Unresolved” was stuck at this stage for what seemed like a long time.  I liked it, but it just didn’t seem to be finished.  After many weeks of being unresolved (staring at it and thinking about it), I got the idea of putting the canvas on a large frame; once I had done that it occured to me to paint the word “Unresolved” on the frame.  That seemed to do the trick; I felt “resolved” and others, including Sally, liked the results.

I don’t recall this resolution coming in the form of an “eureka”-”sudden insight”  moment of the type discussed by Joshua Lehrer (see “Sudden Insight and Creativity“).  What I do recall is that eventually I put the painting aside for a while, and started working on others.  In other words, I “forgot about it”.  I stopped thinking about it and, according to Lehrer, that seems to be a necessary step for creative breakthroughs (or creative resolutions) of all types. Not thinking about my unresolved painting not only allowed me to be more present with my other paintings, it also set the stage for creative reframing.  In this case, it was literaly reframed, but this term can be used as a metaphor for a more basic psychological shift that can lead to creative solutions.

The term “reframing” has been a part of Western psychology and psychotherapeutic literature for some time now.  It is based on the rather simple idea that we “define” or “make sense” of each new situation we face based on past experiences in similar situations.  We “get stuck” or “have problems”  to the extent that our reactions to new situations are based on old experiences which are no longer useful or appropriate.  This is similar to the Buddhist explanation of how and why we “suffer”.  According to the reframing perspective, we “solve” whatever our problem is by shifting our perception and understanding of the situation we face.  To do this means to “let go of” our old frames, (i.e. our old perceptions and understandings).

Sometimes this “letting go” can happen by conceptual reorganization of the nature suggested in the old aphorism “when life hands you lemons, make lemonaide”.  Work with positive affirmations is an example of this kind of reframing.  However, more sophisticated approaches, such as that found in a variety of psychotherapies, provides an additional step; becoming aware of the “felt sense” of the problem.  An interesting article by David Rome  provides an overview of this approach with efforts to relate it to Buddhist Practice.    What seems to be the common factor in all the techniques of this types is

Gendlin's concept of "felt-sense" is introduced in his book "Focusing," (1978

learning to expand ones’ awareness to include bodily sensations.  By shifting ones attention to somatic and perceptual “signals” it becomes easier to “let go of the internal dialogue (or left-brain processing) that, in the name of “problem solving” tends to reinforce old perceptions and understandings that are based on our past experiences.

I’m convinced that creative artists, learn through practice to allow “creative reframing” to happen naturally.  They learn that bumping up against unresolved work (feeling frustrated when slogging through times of unresolvedness) is part of the creative process.  They learn to “trust the process”, finding ways of letting go of their preexisting frameworks and allowing an alternative frame to develop.  What they learn is to “drop into their bodies”, so to speak, and fully feel what is going on at each moment of the creative process and learn to trust that the process is progressing exactly as it should.  This entails fully feeling or being fully present with one’s “unresolvedness” at that point of the creative process.  Having this skill allows them to mitigate the nagging thoughts that support beliefs such as “I will never be creative again” or  thought like “when is this going to be finished?”.  In an earlier post called “Performer-Audience Communication”, I suggested that the artist’s “presence” can be felt by the audience, and being fully present with all aspects of the creative process should help this happen more often.

Can Zen help one get in touch with the body?

It should be of no surprise to readers who have seen earlier posts, that I find some interesting parallels in the practice of Zen and other spiritual pursuits. The chief tool for the Zen practitioner is Zen meditation or Zazen.  The essence of Zazen is letting go of the internal dialogue or thought trains ,which generally are the focus of our attention,

especially when we feel unresolved.  As with the Western psychotherapeutic techniques alluded to above, Zazen entails a shift in attention away from the mind to include bodily sensations that are always present but often ignored in each and every moment of our lives.  According to Will Johnson,  “The sitting posture itself can be a kind of crucible for burning off the tensions and restrictions to body and breath that all too often keep us lost in thought and unaware of feeling presence.”

While this is easy to talk about, being able to do this on a consistent basis, in a variety of situations, requires years of practice. The result, however is the “awakened person” referred to by Jiyu Roshi or the “autotelic personality” as described by Dr. C.  For me, all these terms refer to someone who has developed “creative reframing” or “refocusing” skills; skills that allow them to circumvent or, at least, minimize suffering as they move from situation to situation.  The ability to “let go” of or “forget” old ways of reacting based on past situations, allow them to  be flexibly adaptive as new situations arrive.  In other words, they become more creative; able to respond rather than react to each new moment.  Rather than holding on to old experiences that allowed them a momentary experience of “flow”, having these skills allows for a natural life flow of the type described by Jiyu Roshi, a flow based on being present-awake-alive, no matter what situations arise.

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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.