THE PRACTICE OF “AS IF”. FAKING IT TILL YOU MAKE IT?

Today’s “post-modern” society is characterized by a dwindling confidence in any authority (religious, political scientific etc.) purporting to offer “the truth” on some topic.  Since the term “author” is derived from the word “authority”, writers, such as myself, are also suspect.  I recently read an article called “Beyond Postmodernism? Towards a Philosophy of Play” by Robert Miller, who points out that it should be understood that what authors (including himself) have to say should be best understood as something to be “played with” rather than some statement of truth.  Further he suggests that this is exactly what is encouraged through Zen practice.  Accordingly, I see my posts as being more like an art pieces than articles, where whatever is said is hopefully seen as fodder for “mind play”.  Even though I’m not sure whether or not there is any validity to what I am thinking,  I continue to write as if  I know what I am doing; as if  I was an real author.

———————————————————————————————————————————An essential characteristic of

child’s play is a dimension of pretend—that is, an action

and interaction in an imaginary, “as if” situation.

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In the past several posts I have been playing with the concept of “as if” and have tried to connect it to both art and spiritual practices.  The extent to which I can mine the idea of “as if” may be coming to an end but want to provide readers with one final “play date” on this topic.  This will take the form of a series of entries or cases, written by others, that relate to the concept of “as if”.  Rather than try to tie these together for you, (as if I was an authority with the truth), I’ll let you play with them relatively unfettered by my commentaries.

1. The first case is a review of the documentary movie KUMARE. by Roger Ebert    http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/kumare-2012  A number of members of The Vista Zen Center watched this film and it has been the object of a great deal of discussion afterwards.

“Growing up in New Jersey, Vikram Gandhi was a typical American kid who resented the way his family tried to enforce Hindu beliefs and practices. He found it ironic that Americans began to popularize gurus and yoga just at the time he was growing away from such things. On a trip to India, he says, he found that “real” gurus were no more real than the American frauds who copied them.

That led him into the deliberate deception that he filmed in “Kumare.” He grew a long beard and a pony-tail, exchanged his shoes for sandals, switched his slacks and suits to flowing orange robes, and started carrying an ornate walking stick. Then he moved toArizona, hired an expert to teach him yoga and a PR woman to promote him as a guru, and began to attract followers in meetings at shopping malls, community centers and around the swimming pools of his affluent clients. His accent was modeled on the way his grandmother spoke English. His teachings were deliberate gibberish: talk of inner blue lights, “finding the guru within,” and chants of fabricated mantras.

At this point in the film, it takes an odd turn. Kumare’s followers believe him without question. They share their deepest secrets with him and visibly appear to benefit from him. These people are not dummies. Mostly middle-aged, they take their health seriously, are somewhat skilled at yoga and follow schedules of meditation. “Kumare” seems to establish that a guru can be a complete fraud and nevertheless do a certain amount of good, because what matters is not the sincerity of the guru but that of his followers.

Gandhi narrates the documentary (in an ordinary American voice), introduces us to followers he’s grown close to, and begins to believe he may have started something that was out of his control.  He tells his followers the time has come for him to leave them. Now they are on their own. He returns toNew Jersey, cuts his hair, shaves his beard, and begins to practice a speech in the mirror: “I am not who you think I am.” Whether he ever says this, and how the movie ends, I will leave for you to discover.

It seems to me that “Kumare” reflects a truth that is often expressed in three words: “Act as if.” If you can act as if something is true, in a sense that makes it true. It doesn’t matter if a teacher’s spiritual teachings have any basis. It doesn’t matter if the supernatural even exists (Gandhi believes it does not). His followers benefit by acting ‘as if’.”

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2.  I discovered that a number of research and therapists in psychology have incorporated the ideas put forth by Hans Vaihinger in his book The Philosophy of “As If”.   Below is an excerpt from  a blog called “Mindfulness Muse” which provides a description of this approach in psychology:

“Most of us have some aspect of our lives or ourselves that we would like to change. Perhaps you have a clear vision in your mind of how you would like to be “different” in some way, yet all of the facts and positive self-talk in the world doesn’t seem to be enough to turn your vision into reality. It is not uncommon to know what we could do to be “better” in regards to some aspect of who we believe/wish ourselves to be, yet knowledge and piles of self-help books don’t seem to be enough. These are the times when it is more important take a step back and try a different approach. The first step is to get out of your mind and take action.

Do you really want to change? Attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors are so closely intertwined that the truth about change is that in many ways you can become different when you start acting as if you are different. This concept is at the heart of Dialectical Behavior Therapy’s (DBT) principle of opposite action.

How to Change Your Life by Choosing New Behaviors

Take a moment to reflect on an aspect of yourself that you deeply wish to change. This type of self-transformation is one that is positive in nature and intended to move you closer toward living your life in accordance with your true values. Consider the person that you believe yourself to be today – in this very moment. Now reflect on the aspects of your core identity that you wish to materialize in your life. Do you wish you were more […..]? You can be. Stop thinking about it and starting acting as if you already are.

(1) Happiness: Smile

Do you wish that you felt happier? Less depressed? You have indirect control over your emotions through consciously choosing new ways of behaving. Research has found that the simple behavioral choice to activate your facial muscles into a smile is enough to genuinely make you feel happier. Even if you feel a bit silly the first time you give this exercise a try, do it anyway! That’s what making actual changes through behavioral choices is all about.”

This is one of 10 examples of this approach.  You can read more by clicking here.

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 A while back an artist friend showed me her business card which had “Aspiring Artist” after her name.  I told her that I felt that she was doing herself a disservice by not billing herself as an artist, but had no convincing rationale for my response.  Since learning about “as if”, I think that my response to her made some sense.  Below are a couple of online articles that have to do with becoming an artist.  The first (A) is from The Daily Painter Blog .  The second (B) is from a site called Lateral Action.

(A)

How to Become an Artist, “Fake It”

Tuesday/08/2012 August Filed in: Art Marketing

Becoming an artist is easy. You just proclaim you are. You can not do this if you want to be a Brain Surgeon. You do not need a degree to be an artist. Heck, the best artist are children until a sibling or some bully says their art stinks. Some stop and never return until they realize what happened. That’s what I like about my job. Getting people hooked on art, again. I’m sort of a art pusher, I lurk in the back of art stores looking for people to turn on to art who gave up the dream.

(B)

How to Fake It As an Artist

Have you ever walked into an art gallery and thought “I could do better than that!”?

Or are you a contemporary art enthusiast, tired of hearing people criticize things they don’t understand?

Whichever side of the fence you’re on, you’re bound to have an opinion on the story of Paul O’Hare, a painter and decorator fromLiverpool,UK, who was given just four weeks to transform himself into a fine artist and attempt to fool the critics at aLondon art gallery.

Paul’s story was featured in one of my all-time favorite documentary series, Faking It. In each program, a member of the public was given a month’s intensive training at an improbably difficult profession – and then put through a competitive test alongside experienced pros, to see if they could ‘fake it’ by convincing the judges they were the real deal.

The final test was an exhibition at a London gallery, where Paul’s work was displayed alongside three artists who had been exhibiting and selling work for several years. The work was judged by three respected critics, who also interviewed each of the artists, to see how convincingly they could discuss their work.

 

Paul was clearly feeling the pressure as he was grilled by the judges, and his performance wasn’t perfect. But in the event, one of the genuine artists did an even worse job of explaining his own work – it just goes to show you can’t always tell from appearances. And neither could the judges – out of three of them, only one spotted Paul as the fake.

Takeaway: There comes a point where you have to step out confidently and present yourself to the world as the person you want to be – even though you’re feeling terrified inside. And there are no guarantees that the world will buy your bluff.

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4. The last case is based on an article entitled “Zazen as Enactment Ritual” (by Taigen Dan Leighton) which is published in Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice by Steve Heine and Dale Wright .  The rest of this post presents a series of excerpts from Leighton’s article and Editor Wright’s comments on the article.

Leighton’s article is about Zazen, the practice often referred to as “just sitting”.  Most people, including practioners, tend  to see “just sitting” as a technique that is practiced in order to become awakened.  Eihei Dogen, one of the most influential Zen philosophers and writing in the 1200s, vigorously argued against this view.  Leighton points out that “the zazen practice, espoused by Dogen “is not one of the traditional meditations programs that one can study and learn step-by-step” (170 ).  but rather, “zazen is seen as the expression and function of buddhas, rather than buddhahood being a function, or consequence, of zazen”. (172)  Awakening is not some one time future event attained through zazen but rather the expression of whatever enlightenment is at hand.

Wright, commenting on Leighton’s article, points out that Leighton builds upon and elaborates on Dogen’s views by treating zazen as a ritual. Here is how Wright interprets Leighton’s main point:

” As Taigen Dan Leighton (Chaper 5) puts it, Zazen practitioners understand this ritual as one that ‘enacts’ the enlightenment of the Buddha already resident within the pracitioner.  When you ‘enact’ something, you act it out as if it (italics are Wright’s) were already the case.  If you act out that pattern attentively and long enough, then, to some extent at least, it becomes true of your mind through the pattern we can see clearly in Stanley Tambiah’s sophisticated work on Buddhist ritual. (pg. 12)……The practices of Zen ritual are forms of practical understanding and knowledge.  They constitute a particular way of acting  and being in the world that defines Zen.” (pg. 13)

Based on all of this evidence it certain does seem as if……………………  Ooops! I forgot that I promised no interpretation or commentary.

 

 

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BEING PRESENT: ZEN AND TRANSUBSTANTIATION

In my last post, “Art, Zen and Transubstantiation: It’s Like Kind of Crazy”  I discussed Marcel Duchamp’s fascination with “transubstantiation” and provided an interpretation concerning the meaning/impact of “Fountain”.  To quote a little known authority on not much of anything, (i.e. myself):

When Duchamp entered the urinal in a art show, he was obviously raising the question “What is it?”, or more to the point, “Is it art?” His point seems to be that it all depends on how “it” is seen by the spectators. If it is defined and perceived as art, (as if it were art) by viewers, then it will be perceived and responded to differently than if it is seen as “just a urinal”. If something is seen as “art” it brings forth a special mode of attention that is different from something seen as part of “everyday life”.

What is the special kind of attention associated with art? Those of you who have been reading my previous post know that is what I have been calling being “present/awake/alive”. (From “Art, Zen and Transubstantiation: It’s Like Kind of Crazy”)

I ended the last blog post with the assertion that Buddhist and more specifically Zen philosophers had been making similar proclamations for thousands of years; not specifically about “art” but life in general.  So I want to play some more with the concept of “transubstantiation” focusing on spiritual practices.

 

Let me start first with Christianity, since this is where the term “transubstantiation” was first developed. As I said in the previous post, the term refers to the idea that in Communion, the bread and wine are not just symbols of Christ’s body and blood but are his body and blood, although in another form. I went on to suggest that, later interpretations allow that the bread and body are symbols or metaphors for Christ consciousness and that what makes this real or true is the faith of the participants in Communion. In other words it is as if the wine was Christ’s blood.

 

The general idea of my last post was that by shifting our perception so that everyday life is seen “as if” it is “art”, we are more likely to be “present/awake/alive” with it.  Similarly, spiritual traditions can help foster this “as if” attitude and help practitioners develop a more comprehensive shift in consciousness.

However, It seems to me that the teachings in all spiritual traditions often foster a tendency to view a particular event or phenomenon as “fact” rather than as a metaphor/similie  (i.e. “as if”).  I can imagine that a great deal of confusion might have been spared, if over the years, Christ was seen “as if” he were the son of god” or that it was understood that that his teaching could lead to one’s transformation “as if” one was being “reborn” or “resurrected”.  It is my opinion that most enlightened Christians have discovered this “as if” perspective on their own and understand that their aim is to live their lives “as if ” they were Christ; in other words to develop “Christ Consciousness”.

I think the same kind of confusion can be found in some varieties of Buddhism as well, and much of this might be due to what the historical Buddha said or was said to have said.  For instance,let us look again at the Sutra, I mentioned in the last blog, where Buddha supposedly said the following to his student Subhuti, :

And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva’. And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.  I agree with my fellow student’s reaction to this when he said it “sounds insane”(see previous post and Discussion #3 in FORUMS).

The historic Buddha would often not answer questions such as “Is there a Self?”, presumably because he understood that by answering either “yes” or “no”, the interlocker could misunderstand the true nature of things…  I wonder whether if Buddha’s advice to his student Subhuti would seem less “insane” if he had said something like “a Bodhisattava should act as if both he or she, and all others, have no perception of a self………?”  My guess is that, if the words above is truly what the Buddha said to Subhuti, he was using language fitting for his students advanced understanding at the time and perhaps did not feel the need to signal that he was talking metaphorically.

I am currently reading “The Embodied Mind” which was suggested to me by fellow blogger Sean Voisen (The Koan).  This fascinating book draws on elements of Buddhist philosophy to solve several theoretical dead ends that current scientist’s working in the area of Cognitive Science have run into.  Their main point is  similar to that made by Buddha in the Sutra above; i.e. there is no scientific evidence pointing to anything substantial that we could call a “self”.  Their careful review of research and theory in the Cognitive Sciences leads to the same conclusion that is summed up by the authors in a quote from Tsultrim Gyamtso:

 Buddhism is not telling anyone that he should believe that he has a self or that he does not have a self.  It is saying that when one looks at the way one suffers and the way one thinks and responds emotionally to life, it as if one believed that there were a self  (Underline is mine) that was lasting, single and independent and yet on closer analysis no such self can be found.  ” (The Embodied Mind, pg 72)

Note the use of the term “as if”. What I have taken away from The Embodied Mind  is that we all tend to ignore the moment to moment variations in our thoughts, feelings, experiences etc. because of our need to have something stable to provide a sense of meaning.  It is this grasping which is the cause of suffering that Buddha said that we can overcome.  It is through meditation that we slowly come to see and accept then fact that our notion of being a Self is just a convenient fiction. And, when we begin to see this in ourselves we realize that this is also  the case for so called other “selves” as well, which seems to be what Subhuti was being taught by Buddha in the Sutra in queston.

 

Now even if one were to come to this understanding about the nature of the Self, he or she would still need to act, in some cases, as if selves exist.  This is why, I am guessing that the historic Buddha frequently refused to answer one way or the other when asked whether there was or was not a Self.  However, all of this suggests that we are  capable of holding both of these perspectives (the “self exists” and “does not exist”) and can become free to shift our perceptions regarding selfhood depending upon what is required by the current situation.

For instance, if you and I are together and I am fully present/awake/alive with you, I am not concerned about our past or our present and so, for all practicable purposes, neither you or I have or are “selves” in that moment.  I think that Buddha’s advice to Subhuti could be easily translated to simply say “to be a Bodhistava, “be present/awake/alive.” (Be sure to read “The Artist is Present“)

In the next post, I plan to look once more at the concept of transubstantiation and explore the possibilities more of incorporating the attitude of “as if” into our daily lives.

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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”?

 

 

 

“YEAH MAN!”: IMPROVISATION IN JAZZ, COMEDY AND ZEN

 

Ensoe #1, Steve Wilson

In two previous posts, I expounded and expanded upon Peter Hershock’s use of jazz improvisation as a metaphor for what he calls the “social virtuosity” that can be developed through many years of practicing Zen.  He seems to be trying to paint a picture of the phenomenon called “enlightenment” or “awakening” that counters the widespread notion that these concepts refer to a purely personal or individual achievement.  As you will recall, Hershock makes the case that in jazz, as well as everyday life, this improvisational  virtuosity has a social as well as a personal dimension.  I see this improvisational “letting go” as something that is “catchy” and “shareable” and so we all, with practice, can help each other “let go”.  I want to follow up with this idea in the next couple of posts because it is one that is hard for most of us to fathom. It runs counter to our basic assumptions about who or what we are and why we might practice a spiritual discipline.   Frankly, I want to work through this material as I think it may be helpful for me in clarifying what Zen practice is all about.  If you haven’t already, I suggest you go back and read the following before proceeding with this post as it builds on that earlier material.( GREAT UNEXPECATIONS: JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATIONJAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION: SOCIAL VIRTUOSITY AND PRACTICE )

To begin, let us revisit the work of Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works) which provided a jumping off point for my very first posts on Art And Zen Today.  Dealing with jazz improvisation as a form of creative expression, Lehrer cites several studies where scientists were able to observe brain activity while musicians improvised.  One of the findings is that while improvising the brains of the musicians showed “a surge of activity in the  medial prefontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain associated with self-expression.'” ( p.90)  This was to be expected, but they also found shifts in the part of the brain associated with impulse control.  When improvising, as opposed to playing a familiar melody, “the musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions, slipping off those mental hand cuffs.” (p.91). For Lehrer, this is another example of situations where creativity is associated with a process of “letting go”, especially regarding letting go of thoughts about what other people may think about what you are doing.

Lehrer argues that the “letting go” process can be learned and he provides some insight into how this can occur by describing what goes on in classes in “Comedic Improv” at the Second City training center.  First Lehrer observed that this kind of training involved playing children’s games and just generally acting like kids on clue.  He quotes Andy Cobb, one of the instructors:

it’s about putting people in a state of mind where they’re going to say the first thing that pops into their head, even if it seems silly or stupid.  Because that inner voice, that voice telling you not to do something –that’s the voice that kills improv” (p. 102)

Secondly, says Lehrer, the prospective actors “must become aware of everything that is happening on stage…….. “Comic improv, after all, is an ensemble performance: every joke is built on the line that came before.” ( p.103)   So after they learn to stop worrying about saying the wrong thing, they begin practicing a technique called ‘Yes, and…..’ . The basic premise is simple: When performing together, improvisers can never question what came before.  The need to instantly agree –that’s the “yes” part — and then start setting up the next joke. ” (p.103)

Writing about the same phenomenon, Susan Murphy, the author of Upside Down Zen,  provides an example of this process from a book called Improv by Keith Johnstone. Writing about Johnstone’s book, Murphy says:

“….. in one of his examples, the first actor might say, “Ohh!’. and clutch their leg; the second actor might say, ‘Oh my god’, there something wrong with your leg!’ The first actor says, ‘yes, I’ve got a pain in my leg’.  The second one says, ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to remove it.’  The first actor then says, ‘Oh, don’t take my leg, I’m rather attached to it.’  Now at that point it’s starting to go dead.  ‘No’ has been said; the offer has not been caught.  But how about the second time?  It goes through the same moves.  ‘O, my leg!’ ‘Oh no, not your leg, I’ll have to remove it’  and the second actor says ‘But that’s the leg you took last time!’ So the first actor says, ‘Oh, this is serious’ The second actors says, ‘not…woodworm?’  And so it rolls.  The play is alive because all offers are being accepted.’  (pg. 50)

When we are fully present/awake/alive, not only are we less concerned with how others are evaluating us but simultaneously more fully aware of how we are a part of a larger social unit that is mutually creating whatever is to happen next.  As mentioned in the earlier posts, our part in any social improvisational “performance” may,  at first glance seem rather insignificant.  But as Murphy shows, such performances can struggle or die if we either say “no” or signify “no” through our demeanor.  So, the key to any successful joint improvisational performance is for all involved to express an attitude of “yes”. I recall the following two incidents when I think about the “power of yes”

 

I played drums in bands while in high school and college but didn’t play for about 25 years after that. Shortly after I started playing drums again as an adult, I had the chance to sit in with a band consisting of very accomplished musicians and accepted the invitation with some trepidation.  I was especially intimidated by the leader who played the trumpet.  Mid-way into the song, he turned to me and indicated I should take a solo.  For some reason, I found myself playing the solo striking the drums in a way that did not allow the sticks to bounce; producing a muffled sound instead of the usual resonant ring.  I recall that once I started the solo, I conjectured that the leader would not like what I was doing.  However, right after that thought, I heard him shout “yeah man”, which gave me “permission” to finish the solo with confidence following my instincts.  After the song ended , he looked at me briefly and said “fresh!”.

 

After the incident described above I was motivated to find a jazz group in Philadelphia to play with full time.  One of the members of the band was a rhythm guitarist who I and the others judged as not being a good as the rest of the band.  During one of our performances, maybe a year after I joined the band, he was taking a solo and I found myself being much more attuned than usual to what he was playing; almost as if he and I were one musician.  What was coming from this guy’s guitar was leaps and bounds beyond anything I had heard him play before. As he continued, I opened my eyes, (I usually close them when fully absorbed in what is happening) and saw that all the other members were watching him intently and exchanging glances as if to say “what’s going on here?”.  As the guitarist’s solo continued, the others began to utter “yeah man” type of responses and when it was their turn to solo each seemed to perform at a level beyond their usual.  Something happened that night, not just at the individual level, but at the group level as well.  After that, due to the “power of “yeah man”, we were a better, freer and more cohesive band than we were before.

I think something like this can happen in a variety of everyday situations and plan to explore further how this may work in the next post. While jazz and comedic improvisation is a useful metaphor for understanding the kind of every day “social viruosity” that can stem from Zen practice, they are not the same.  So, I also plan to comment on the differences.  At least that is the plan.  But, who knows?  I’m just making this up as I go along.  Improvisation or lack of focus?????  In the meantime, don’t feel that you have to say “yeah man” to every proposal or opportunity that presents itself.  Use common sense and take a look at the movie  ” Yes Man” starring Jim Carrey.

ART, ZEN AND TECHNOLOGY: A VISIT WITH SEAN VOISEN

Sean Voisen

Woody Allen once said that .“Eighty percent of success is showing up”.  I suspect the same thing could be said of Practice of any kind.  If so, perhaps the man pictured above can help you “show up” more often for practice.  Read on and find out more about this interesting fellow.

In the past, my Zen teacher, weary of slogging through my wordy essays, has asked me to sum up my understanding in a short Zen-like phrase.  If asked to do this for the past few posts on “practice”, I’d probably say that their main message is “just practice“.

Whether we are talking about artistic practice, meditation, or anything else, this is easier said than done.  Sean Voisen, a fellow member of The Vista Zen Center, has offered one solution to this problem in a post on his new blogsite called “The Koan”.  As I work on my next essay, which will focus on comedic improvisation, I think it fitting that I refer you to Sean’s site for a very different, but complementary perspective on Zen practice in contemporary society.

A Why in the Road

Sean, who works for Adobe, received a Master’s degree in the Art Computation Engineering Program at the University of CA, Irvine.   This program focuses on the interstitial areas between art and technology.  Drawing on this background, Sean offers a unique perspective on his study of Zen.  His blog posts offer fresh ways of thinking about Zen practice which I see as highly relevant to what I have been trying to express in my posts.

Below is a series of excerpts from a post titled “Quantified Awareness” which will give you a taste of what you will find on his site.

"Insight Timer", IPhone App.

“Over the past few weeks, I’ve used an iPhone app designed specifically for measuring meditation every time I’ve sat on my cushion. The app is called Insight Timer. And I don’t intend to stop using it any time soon for one simple reason: statistics. Using charts and graphs, Insight Timer provides a detailed look at how often (or how little) you’ve been practicing in the last week, the last month, and the last year.”

“……..measuring my practice has assured a consistency of daily meditation more than any other methodology I have tried. And with meditation, consistency is key.”

“……Meditation, after all, is ultimately about developing greater awareness, and metrics simply offer another path. ……..Statistics shed light on phenomena we may otherwise never observe. Perhaps the great and ancient sages of Buddhist lore never recommended recording your daily practice down to the minute. But then again, they didn’t have iPhones.”

I’m certain that you will find this and Sean’s other posts of interest  http://thekoan.org/.  I’d also suggest that you check out some of his art/technology projects at:  http://sean.voisen.org   Below are some pictures and the descriptions of  Sean’s past projects, which I think provide a view of the intriguing spaces where art and technology overlap.  I’m delighted to see that Sean is now folding his Zen studies into this mix.  This, I think, will help bring Zen into the 21st century, which is one of the aims here at  Art and Zen Today.

Bluenumi

“Bluenumi”   began with the idea of creating an easy to assemble open-source kit clock that had nixie tube aesthetics, but without the associated cost or potentially dangerous high voltage. The result is a small, functional, and beautiful desktop clock featuring 100% through-hole electronic components that looks like a nixie clock, but can be built at a fraction of the price.”

Bluenumi

 

“The Uncanny Dream Machine is an exploration in computer-generated

Uncanny Dream Machine

dreamlike narrative. …… Embodied as a 1940′s-era wooden Philco radio, viewers listen to the machine as it reads its dreams over the airwaves. Knobs on the radio allow viewers to “tune in” to streams of consciousness delineated by various emotions — fear, anger, curiosity, joy, anxiety, worry, etc. — provoking conversations about the nature of emotion and consciousness in an otherwise unemotional, unconscious, and disembodied machine.”

Uncanny Dream Machine

“Mercury Retrograde is a hand-built nixie tube alarm clock……. The clock is an exploration of the role of intentionality in everyday objects, as well as an experiment in resistentialist behavior. In order to function correctly, it demands physical attention. Ignore it for too long and it begins to rebel, intentionally slowing its internal oscillations and waking its owner at inconvenient hours of the night.”

Mercury Retrograde

“Students achieving Oneness will move on to Twoness.”

Woody Allen

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JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION: “SOCIAL VIRTUOSITY” AND PRACTICE

The chart above was sent to me by James “The Sax Guy” who also adds some interesting comments  to the previous post.

In the last post “Great Unexpectations: Jazz/Zen improvisation“,  I pointed to some parallels between jazz and the awakened life, as described by Peter Hershock in his book “Liberating Intimacy”.  Hershock points out that Zen practice can lead to a  “social virtuosity” which entails being attuned to the needs of others and being willing and able to spontaneously respond in ways that allow for a harmonious social discourse.  He points out that while jazz musicians are provided a great deal of creative freedom, each is also oriented towards enhancing the overall quality of the band’s performance and suggests that the practice of Zen can also lead to conduct that somehow enhances the larger social whole.

Hershock goes on to point out that this “awakened virtuosity” includes the understanding that one will often not be the center of attention.  This willingness to “sacrifice” for the larger performance of our collective lives is what he sees as the essence of the Zen enterprise.  According to Hershock:….the sincere practitioner must be willing to ‘do’ nothing at all and simply allow his or her life to proceed unchecked.  Anything else amounts to holding on (obsessive attachment) and holding off (the arrogance of aversion).  Like a piece of improvised music, practice is something other than the sum of its individually experienced, factual or behavioral parts, and there are times when the part ‘we’ play in it seems so infinitesimal as to be no part at all.  To extend the musical analogy, practice sometimes puts us in the position of playing a simple rhythmic pattern again and again, subtlety opening up the field of time and space on which we find others soloing, expressing the infinite degrees of their freedom.  There is no glamour in this “repetition” no exalted sense of individual accomplishment, and yet it is precisely what is needed at times for the music to come fully to life.

While being in the spotlight, as a soloist, is part of what it means to play jazz, it is only one momentary aspect of the whole scene. Equally, if not more important, is being able to provide harmonic support for other soloist and the group as a whole.  In jazz, as in other fields, “showboaters” usually do not last very long.  Hershock seems to be saying that the so-called “enlightened life”, as it evolves through Zen practice, involves “playing second fiddle” in ways that support the free expression of others” as much, if not more than, being in the spotlight.

Having played drums in a variety of improvisational groups, I relate to the role of providing unglamorous “repetition”.  Except for the rare drum solo, the drummer’s main role is to support the other musicians as they play the melody and take their solos.  Primarily this entails maintaining a steady beat, but especially in jazz, it can also involve adding embellishments that add to the overall performance of the group.  An accent on the bass drum,  a change in dynamics or a riff that responds to what the soloist is doing can add a vibrancy to the performance and can affect where the soloist goes in his or her improvisation.  I found that I needed to learn to find a sense of accomplishment in providing this supporting role for the group as a whole and forgo the natural inclination to be “in the spotlight”. The most satisfying compliments I received as a drummer were those from fellow musicians who acknowledged that I was both listening to them and providing support or fodder for their improvisations.  In a sense, the appreciation was for my being fully present with the other musicians, doing my part to help them be fully present and doing my part to help “the music to come fully to life” (Hershock).

When this happens, says Hershock:

………. our simple contribution is heard in a completely new and always unanticipated way, becoming something much more sublime than we could ever have imagined.  In the same way, as  long as we are fully engaged in practicing Ch’an, even though we may from an objective point of view be doing nothing out of the ordinary, the meaning of our activity – our conduct- is undergoing continual transformation.  Even though we are doing nothing special, our relationships become progressively more open and truthful. (pg. 120)

 

Hershock’s term “social virtuosity” may be misleading.  It does not necessarily refer to being what we often call “socially adept” and it does not refer to an attitude of concern about social injustices or other societal maladies.  The awakened person may certainly possess these characteristics, but they are not the essence of what Zen practice is all about. Zen students are encouraged to take the vow of “freeing” all sentient beings” which seems to be a clear message that, as in Jazz,  the goal of Zen practice should not conceived as a personal or selfish one, but one that is social, in a certain sense. (See “Four Vows” as practiced at The Vista Zen Center”. http://www.vistazencenter.com/vows-and-precepts)

Understandably, this vow raises also sorts of interpretations as to  what is meant by “freeing” (often the word “saving” is used) and what is meant by “sentient beings”, as well as questions about the feasibility of such a task.  There has been a great deal of discussion about what exactly this vow calls for on the part of a Zen student. However, Hershock seems to argue that, whatever is involved in fulfilling this vow, it does not entail “doing something”.  It does not involve the usual, goal- directed orientation that most people adopt when trying to perfect their behavior.    Rather it is the Zen practice of “not-doing” that allows one to fulfill this vow; the “not doing” of spontaneously responding to what is in the moment, of improvisation grounded in years of practice. For a more,in-depth and lenthy theoretical/Zen/philosophical discussion of this topic, click on the FORUMs tab at the top of the page and see Discussion #3, COMMENT D.

For Hershock, “social viruosity” or “awakened conduct” consists of spontaneous responses to what is happening in the moment.  It is being present/awake/alive, in a way that also allows or encourages others the freedom to be present with the “business” of jointly carrying on their lives in ways that minimizes suffering.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Howard Thurmond

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GREAT UNEXPECTATIONS: JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION

In comments on my post titled “Practicing Zen/Trumpet: Part 2”  Jiyu Roshi wrote the following: …….for practice to work you have to be open to the unexpected, either in an answer you’ve arrived at, or in whatever may be a new question to which you are trying to find an answer. It’s the unexpected which is reality and the reason for practicing.

This quote reminded me of something that happened at one of my trumpet lessons.  While Nathan, my teacher, and I were warming up before the lesson, he played an incredible complex exercise in the upper register.  I asked him how likely it was that he would ever encounter any written music where he would have to playing anything that complex.  He answered that it was very unlikely, but that since he played improvisational jazz, he wanted to be able to play whatever he was “hearing” during solos. ( He may have used the word “feeling” instead of “hearing”).

Nathan Mills

In playing jazz or other improvisational music, each piece has a distinct series of chords that provide a common structure for the musicians.  During a solo, the players are free to create their own melody as long as it fits with the chord progressions of the song and whatever they play is in harmony with what others in the band are doing.  In other words, each musician is free to spontaneously play whatever sounds right in the context of what everyone else in the group is doing.  Instantaneously, all the others in the band are responding to whatever is being created by the soloist.

 

It is through constant practice that the improviser prepares himself or herself to respond instantaneously to whatever others in the band are doing moment by moment. Accomplished improvisers will tell you that true improvisation is accomplished only after one has so thoroughly mastered their instrument that they no longer have the need to think or plan as they solo. But, having superb technique is not enough.  To learn to improvise, musicians must also throw themselves into musical situations where improvisation is expected.  This is beyond the comfort zone for most musicians and so is avoided, even by those who have superior musical skills.

 

Using the language developed in my past posts, we can say that jazz virtuosos are able to “be present-awake-alive” so that they can spontaneously do what is necessary to contribute to the  collective creation of the piece being performed.  It is this aspect of improvisation that Peter Hershock emphasizes when he attempts to use jazz improvisation as a metaphor for the enlightened or awaken Zen life. (“Liberating Intimacy: Enlightenment and Social Virtuosity in Ch’an Buddhism.”)

Rather than seeing Zen practice as an attempt to attain a special experience or state of consciousness, Hershock writes about enlightened or awakened conduct; a distinct “social virtuosity” which entails being attuned to the needs of others and being willing and able to respond in ways that allow for a harmonious social discourse.  He points out that while jazz musicians are provided a great deal of creative freedom, each is also oriented towards enhancing the overall quality of the band’s performance. But, this responsiveness is not calculated or rule-driven.   Rather it is based on a spontaneous and expanded awareness of what is needed, moment by moment, allowing the musical band to “pull off” it’s performance as a whole unit.

According to Hershock: “Whenever a solo appears, it is not conceived and then executed in seriality, but courses through the musician and his instrument, flowing from that unlocated, unlocateable source of the unexpected lying outside of every horizon, every name and form.”….This flow comes about when the musician stops checking, when he stops figuring out what to play and abandons the projection of the known, the hunger for closure, for sense.  ….The aim of improvisation is not to negotiate or regulate an agreement about how thing are, but rather the creation of a novel harmony through jointly articulating a new world- be it musical., poetic, choreographic or erotic. (pg. 76)

 

Note my underlining of the word “jointly” in the last line of this quote.  Whether we are talking about music or ordinary life we are always affecting and being affected by others.

Whenever an instrumentalist in a jazz group plays a solo, he or she is instantaneously influencing the other players, whose responses, in turn, help shape the direction of the solo.  At any moment something new or unplanned may appear and each musician, and the group as a whole, finds itself going in an unexpected directions.  When the musicians have practiced and mastered their instruments, the conditions (a balance between challenge and skill) that Csikszentimihalyi  says are necessary for “flow” can occur.  (See Are You a Flow Addict and So Can an Average Joe Learn to Flow).  When all the members of a band get into a flow state, it is often referred to as “getting into a groove” and I recall one musician describing that experience as “being the most fun a person can have with their pants on”.

In everyday life, change, and thus the unexpected, generally stems from other people around us.  Most social groups and even our personalities are geared towards reducing the unexpected and probably Zen’s most important insight into human behavior is that such efforts are fruitless and lead to suffering.  This leads us back to Roshi’s last point in the quote at the beginning of this essay: It’s the unexpected which is reality and the reason for practicing.

When we sit in Zazen, hour after hour, we observe that whatever or whoever we think we are changes from moment to moment.  We learn to see how change is the only constant and we learn how to simply flow with whatever is happening.  Working with a Zen Koan involves learning how to let go our ordinary ways of responding to problems and allowing ourselves to move into the realm of the “unexpected”.  Zen teachers have traditionally been known to respond enigmatically to questions from their students in order to thrust them out of the ordinary mode of consciousness.  The goal in all of these practices is to prepare the students to be comfortable with the unexpected, and thus, to be masters of improvisation.  This entails extending one’s comfort zone.

 

Some of you may be wondering what all of this has to do with the Buddhist vow of “saving all sentient beings” which is central to the Zen tradition.  I will offer an opinion on that  in Part 2.

PAINTING AND ZEN PRACTICE IN POLAND: A VISIT WITH PIOTR KRYSIAK

I just spent a week in Texas visiting my grandsons and and then another week at The Vista Zen Center for a meditation retreat.  So, I am a bit behind in my blogging.  While I work on my next installment of the series on “practice”, I would like for you to visit with Piotr Krysiak, a  painter and Zen student from Poland.  Piotr has sent me several comments regarding Art And Zen Today and I have spend time roaming around his website (see address at  bottom).

Below  I have copied Piotr’s statement about his Zen and artistic practices as well as his background.  All of the pictures on this page are images of Piotr’s acrylic paintings, but these are just a few of many and I would suggest you visit his website to see all of his paintings as well as some interesting videos.  One of the things I like about his paintings is that they have both an ancient and contemporary quality to them: Zen art for the 21st century.

Piotr’s Statement

I’ve been practicing zazen for several years. Two times a day. Every day. Mainly to unprogram myself from what I have been suggested as good, bad, right, wrong, important, unimportant, fashionable, desirable, expected, valuable, mine. Unprogram from all that reaches me constantly – all the variable ideas that are only subsequent interpretations of reality.

 

Zazen causes disappearance of these conditions. The result is serenity. The combination of artistic practice and zazen gives the possibility to balance on the
edge which on one side enables to be consciously in the now while on the other leaves behind artifacts reminding of coming back to the now.

Copied from an email from Piotr 

About three years ago I went to a lecture about Zen. After the lecture there was a proposal to try zazen ourselves. I can’t really explain what happened but it just worked with me, just like that, simply sitting and thinking not thinking. Since then, I’ve been doing zazen twice a day, every day. I’ve noticed slow changes in my life. Like I was freeing myself from limitations I wasn’t aware of. I read a couple of books about zen and they simply pointed what I felt that day during my first zazen trial. I do believe zen is a constant work. I don’t have a teacher.

 Resume

MA – Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow

SELECTED EXHIBITIONS
2011 – Salted Candy, collective exhibition – Poznanska Galeria Nowa
2011 – II Triennial of Contemporary Polish Painting – Jesienne Konfrontacje,
collective exhibition – BWA Rzeszow, BWA Zamosc
2010 – New things, solo exhibition – Museum in Bielsko-Biala
2010 – Under, collective exhibition – Cellar Gallery, Krakow
2005 – Piotr Krysiak – painting, solo exhibition – Schindler Factory, Krakow

 

SELECTED COLLECTIONS
Museum in Bielsko-Biala
Dave Bown Collection, USA

Website:     http://piotrkrysiak.com/

Email:                   piotr.krysiak@gmail.com

 

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

.

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.