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.

SO, CAN AVERAGE JOE GROW AND LEARN TO FLOW?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HOW CREATIVITY WORKS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Lehrer:

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

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

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

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

ANSWER:

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

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