from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

zen mindfulness & creativity

My life, in which I include my work, has been underpinned since I was a student by my Zen practice of meditation and mindfulness. I've written something of this elsewhere in my blog, but as I include the word 'Zen' in my subtitle for this blog I thought I'd pick up on this a little today, partly as a 'way back in' to here, wherever 'here' is – inner and outer home, I suppose I mean; of which blogging forms a part.

This has partly arisen because I have been thinking about my programme of courses for the winter, and had been intending to run the postponed 'Zen and poetry' weekend. Instead, I find myself thinking again about single days focusing similarly on mindfulness and creative writing. In the past I've led a number entitled 'Writing the Bright Moment' (which became the title of a creative writing handbook I published in 2005); and I find myself wanting to focus more on these. So I'm putting one in place (Sunday October 16, near Totnes in Devon, in case you might be interested); and I'm thinking about how I might offer this as a regular meeting.

Zen practice as mindfulness powerfully locates one in the present moment. In this, it teaches us to really see (and hear and listen, and sense and smell and taste); it teaches us that this moment is the one we have, the only one we ever really have, and how to pay full attention to it. It teaches us, cliché though it is, to be. Just to be with how things are.

It's about cutting through surface perception, habituated thought patterns, behavioural 'tics' and expectations to perceive and experience essential nature; and to dwell in it, freshly, as if for the first time. 'So much of what we hear' (substitute see, smell, taste, touch, think, feel etc) 'is what we expect, and we tune out the rest', said someone wise (wish I could remember who).

For me, this connects so powerfully with creative expression both as a process or container for and result of the art of truly paying attention.

Thinking about all this this morning it's natural for me to turn to a book given me by my friend Susie: The Zen of Creativity: cultivating your artistic life, one of the five treasures that live on my bedside table. John Daido Loori, erstwhile Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, and founder of the Mountains and Rivers Zen order, offers so much wisdom in this book. (Loori died last year, and is greatly missed in the Zen community.)

Loori summarises the relationship between Zen and creativity clearly in his intro. He tells us that during the Sung dynasty in China around 1000 years ago poet-priests and painter-priests broke tradition with all the previous forms of religious and secular representational art. When Chinese Zen (Chan) travelled to Japan in the C13th, it thrived in a ground within the Taoist tradition that had been fertilised already by an artistic legacy, developed largely by courtesans in Japan in the previous few hundred years, that naturally and easily transmuted into what is now the Zen aesthetic. The spontaneous verse developed by these brilliant women, as Loori describes them, put down the roots of haiku.

The Zen aesthetic is specifically about pointing to the nature of reality, and becoming aware of our place in the universe.  It implies a new way of being and seeing that takes us to the heart of being fully human and fully alive. 'Zen art, as sacred art,' says Loori, 'touched artists and audiences deeply, expressed the ineffable, and helped to transform the way we see ourselves in the world.' These Zen arts don't exist primarily as art, but rather as a method for opening the creative process, training the mind, living our lives and communicating spiritual insight.

The Taoist roots combined with the Zen poetic express a deep appreciation of the natural world, and an awareness of impermanence. Qualities that have become synonymous with the Zen aesthetic grew out of this period (the Heian, 795–1185), says Loori. Here we see the emergence of four key ideas – wabi: solitude (and sometimes expressed as loneliness or a sense of disconnection); sabi: the 'suchness' or 'isness' of things; aware, which is a kind of yearning or nostalgia; and yugen: mystery, the hidden, the ineffable or numinous.

So these Zen training methods, the 'artless arts', offered 'ways in' to essential nature. Zen painting is visual communication, designed to point to 'essence'; Zen poetry uses words to point to that which is essentially wordless. But this is not an abstract experience. We start with being right here, right now, in the present moment and in the body, living within this beautiful universe as part of the natural world; but not that alone. The approach is whole-body-and-mind, moving beyond either/or ways of thinking to try and live and express that living in a free, generous, spontaneous and what Zen calls 'unconditioned' way.

Over and over we re-experience this one long moment: its simplicity, its mystery, its spontaneity, its suchness. The joy of it. And in this immersion everything changes, and nothing changes. 'Before enlightenment: chopping wood, carrying water. After enlightenment: chopping wood, carrying water,' goes one of the teachings. It's all, and only, about waking up.

'Only that day dawns to which we are awake,' says Thoreau.

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