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.

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.

ARE YOU A FLOW ADDICT?

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

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

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

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

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

IPhone Addiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To leave a comment, click on the white cloud to the right of the title of this post.

TO KNOW FLOW OR NO FLOW?

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

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

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

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

 

Dr. C,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————————————————————————————————————–

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

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

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

Commitment unlocks the doors of imagination, allows vision, and gives us the “right stuff” to turn our dreams into reality.
James WomackTo comment on this post, click on the white cloud or ballon to the right of the post title at the top of the page.

PERFORMER-AUDIENCE COMMUNICATION

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

//www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/audience.html#GdctRZgTiqQWiiuS.99

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

To comment on this post, click on the white cloud or ballon to the right of the post title at the top of the page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

BUDDHA AS A PERFORMANCE ARTIST?

 

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

Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Montano and Hsieh Performance Piece

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SUN RA, THE ALIEN: THE THIN LINE BETWEEN GENIUS, SPIRITUALITY AND CRAZY.

(Click on “Forums” on the menu at the top for a in-depth response to comments from Jane on “What the ____was that Video about?”.)

Of all the early jazz musicians, Sun Ra had to be one of the most “far out”.  He claimed that he was from Saturn, not from earth, and used cosmic philosophies and lyrical poetry to preach awareness and peace. The notion that he came from Saturn seems to be connected to a profound altered state of consciousness experience he had while  in college.  Here is how he chose to describe it:

my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up … I wasn’t in human form … I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me……..They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.   Szwed, John F. (August 21, 1998). Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-80855-5

 

He abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra (Ra is the Egyptian God of the Sun) and formed his “Arkestra” to help him spread his message through his music. The band members wore colorful  outfits that were a combination of African garb and space suits and  Sun Ra usually wore an outfit, with a headdress and flowing cloak.

The music they played was very complex and often atonal.  . But being in the Arkestra

House in Phila. where the Arkestra lived and rehearsed.

was a difficult way of life. The band members never made much money, and Ra demanded discipline and hard work. He banned drugs, alcohol, and women, and band members had to be available for practice around-the-clock.  This monastic atmosphere seemed to have been something close to what one might find in a Zen monastery.

One band member who had studied Zen before joining Sun Ra said that the leader’s use of non sequiturs and absurd replies to questions seemed to resemble the use of Koans and other responses observed among Zen Masters.       According to John Szwed, Ra’s biographer, the drummer Art Jenkins admitted that Sun Ra’s “nonsense” sometimes troubled his thoughts for days until inspiring a profound change in outlook.    Drummer Andrew Cyrille said Sun Ra’s comments were;

 ”very interesting stuff … whether you believed it or not. And a lot of times it was humorous, and a lot of times it was ridiculous, and a lot of times it was right on the money.”Szwed, John F. , 1998). Space Is the Place.)

In addition, I’ve found numerous quotes from Sun Ra, like the one below, that could have just as easily come from the mouth of a Zen master.

“I’ve been to a zone where there is no air, no light, no sound, no life, no death, nothing. There’s five billion people on this planet, all out of tune. I’ve got to raise their consciousness, tell them about the wonderful potential to bypass death.”

Szwed, 1998

I’ve never been a big fan of Sun Ra’s music but was prompted to write about him for

Van Gogh, Self Portrait

several reasons.  One is to reiterate an observation I made in an earlier post (Waikiki, Dylan, Zen and the Spanking Monk) about the thin line that exists between madness creative genius and spirituality.  In that post I pointed out the problems in using such terms when talking about creative people, whether ourselves or others.

Secondly, his case seems to nicely illustrate what I have been writing about in the past few posts; namely “aliens”.  While I don’t believe Sun Ra came from Saturn or was teleported by aliens, he does seem to be someone who has consciously and adopted the position of  an extreme “alien” in society to support his creativity and spirituality.

Finally, I recently found myself influenced by a “close encounter” that I had with Sun Ra back in the mid 1980s, when he and I both lived in the Philadelphia area.  A friend and I attended a Sun Ra concert where I witnessed something that became the inspirational seed for one of my music videos.  I’ll tell the story and show the video in the next post. Peace!

BLOGGER’S BOTTOM SPANKED BY MONK

Monk On the Cover of Time Magazine

I would love to be able to see the mental images conjured up in readers’ heads by the title of today’s post.  Was I really spanked by a Monk?  Yes, by Thelonious Monk to be precise.

Monk was one of the first jazz artist I heard as a kid and is regarded by many to be one of the early geniuses of modern jazz.  The incident I am about to relay came to mind several times while reading Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Here is the story of my intimate encounter with Monk’s creativity.

Soon after my wife and I moved to Philadelphia in 1967, Thelonius and his band played at “The Showboat” on Lombard St. for three straight nights. We attended all three nights and became friendly with Charlie Rouse, Monk’s sax player and the other band members.  Over the course of three nights, we also spent time drinking with Baroness Nica Von Koenighswarter, who was friend, patron and caretaker to both Charlie Parker and Monk.

The stage in the Showboat was behind the bar and behind the bar stools, separated by a narrow walkway, were stadium-like seats fitted with tables.  To get to the stage, musicians enter the club like any customer, and climb a short flight of stairs at one end of the bar.  For all three nights we sat at the bar with the Baroness and other avid Monk fans.                                                              

Baroness “Nica” and Monk

The first night of the series, Monk arrived about an hour late, long after his band had gone up on stage ready  to play.  When Thelonius finally entered the club, he carried a long-handled shoe horn from his hotel.  As he stepped through the door, he immediately tucked the shoe horn under his arm, like a riding crop or swagger stick, and began marching around the club.  For another 30 minutes he strutted around with the shoe horn – back and forth along the bar, and up and down the bleachers- like a general in the Prussian army.  At first it was entertaining but as the club owner got more and more irradiated, the audience began to grow impatient as well.  All the while, his band watched their leader from the stage with their instruments ready.

Eventually, after much pleading from Rouse, the Baroness and the owner, Monk went to the stage and started playing the first tune.  He placed the shoehorn on the music stand of the piano and began playing as if nothing unusual had happened.  However, when it came time for his solo, Monk stood up, grabbed the shoehorn and used it to peck out his solo, one key at a time.

If you know Monks music, you can imagine that the solo did not really sound that unusual as he sometimes played one-fingered solos.  After, his solo was finished,  instead of sitting back down, he backed up a bit, knocking over the piano bench.  He then moved away from the piano, doing his little “Monk dance” across the stage (see short video clip below).

http://youtu.be/-Dz6AqP-LKg

That night I was sitting near the end of the bar, close to the steps going to the stage. Fueled by the many cocktails consumed during the long wait, I charged up the stairs with the intention of picking up the toppled piano bench, while Monk did his dance.  As soon as I leaned over to pick it up, I felt a sharp sting of the shoe horn across my rear end.  Much to the delight of the audience, I had been touched by genius.  As would be expected from Thelonious Monk, the Melodious Thunk of the spank fit right into the tune they were playing.

The next night, in talking with the band members, it was revealed that Monk had been high on “speed” and that , after the gig, he had been remorsefully “crying like a baby”, according to Rouse.  I’ve thought a lot about that night since then, wondering exactly what  we had witnessed.  Was it:  Drug abuse?  Monk’s creative genius?  Showmanship? Psychological disorder?

 

I will take a stab at my interpretation in the next blog.  To get to the bottom of this(excuse me-I couldn’t resist), I’ll be going back to Lehrer’s Imagination: How Creativity Works for some help.  In the meantime, let me hear your interpretations, theories, reactions and stories.