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.
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.
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.