Zen Creativity: Working with Nothing
While I'm in Nashville, I asked several friends to guest post. Here's the first one, from the wonderful Welsh Zen master Derek Ayre. Be sure to visit his blog and tell him you read him here!
by Derek Ayre
Zen practice is not for everyone and it is important to realize that the article that follows is my interpretation of my experiences with Zen. As we are all unique my views may differ greatly to the views of other Zen practitioners. This I believe is because Zen can be found everywhere, and viewed from every perspective.
“Live with the question” – this is a statement that has stuck with me from a Zen workshop on creativity that I attended a few decades ago, and through the years the meaning of this statement seems to have transformed along with my creative potential. It took me a few years to realise that Zen does not give an answer to any spiritual enquiry, but only provides me with the means to discover my own authentic answer; but the question always remains, as it cannot be answered with the analytical mind. The question I believe is pure, raw creativity that defies reason. Even as I am writing now, because I am writing about Zen, reason seems to fly out of the window, so what follows may not make a lot of sense, but if it elicits a new and unreasonable experience in the reader, then Zen is doing its work through these words. So I invite you to be aware of such an experience arising and whatever may happen afterwards.
I have read so often of Zen masters sending their students back to their meditating cushions to keep working on their koans. A koan in Japanese Zen, is a question with no logical answer, because the answer is the question. For instance, “what is nothing?” One cannot answer because to answer would make nothing something and it would therefore no longer be nothing! Nothing is pure emptiness, the source of all creativity. Nothing is the ultimate context. Self is the context in which life is created on a day-to-day basis. Self is therefore empty, with no meaning. Self is nothing; Self is potential creativity.
The essence of Self is created on a day-to-day basis, this is what makes life itself pure creativity. So whether we know it or not, we create life. True Self is beyond logic, it is a realm of nothingness, a realm with no-meaning, a realm that gives birth to all existence. From this realm we can create whatever we want to create. But there’s a little catch here… When we immerse ourselves in any creation, we will become what we have created, we will identify with it, and therefore lose the truth that we are the creators of our creation and not the creation itself. And so in this way, we live with an illusion that we are not empty, we are not without meaning; we are writers, doctors, lawyers, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters etc. In fact we are Self, pretending to be what we have trained ourselves to do, and doing is not being. At this point we cease to own our talents, they own us! Not that there is anything wrong with this. In Zen there is no right or wrong, but we have an opportunity to be aware where we are coming from and enjoy the game.
Having had glimpses of this transcendent consciousness many times, it is amazing how my mind still continues to challenge my creative ability. In reality, my mind is the tool of creativity but it does not want to be merely the tool of creativity. It wants to be the master every time! Whatever skill I identify with is my mind’s doing, but Zen practice supports me from time to time, by asking with that silent inner voice, “is your mind your servant or your master?”
As a Zen practitioner, it took me a many years to really understand that Zen does not give answers, it only poses questions, and there is always a question that comes up again and again. This is because answers are just beliefs and beliefs reinforces the rational, illusory mind. Zen is not rational. Then one day, out of the blue, I really got to see that the answer was the question – an understanding beyond understanding. And then that understanding was gone! I tried to get it back, but that was futile. Zen is not reasonable in that way. In Zen, there is no formula to attain such realizations other than the practice of zazen (Zen meditation) where I focus my mind and look for nothing. When I am not looking, when I am not knowing, when I am empty, realization will come again and then I will experience that I am the creator of my own experiences.
Zen and The Art of Writing: Coming from Not Knowing
Like all writers I have spoken to – especially when I am writing about Zen – there are times I have found myself staring at the blank page on the screen, feeling paralysed and unable to write a word. I would ask myself “why can’t I write today?” or “I had some great original ideas yesterday! Why do they sound so much like nonsense today?” Then I would realise that Zen is nonsense and I don’t know anything! And then suddenly the words would flow so fast that I could barely type them! I would begin feel that I was writing with passion and expression, creating my voice, and somehow it was making some sort of crazy sense to me. But where had this creativity come from?
It soon became very apparent that my daily zazen was making a difference. My focus in zazen is on my breathing; inhaling and exhaling mindfully, excluding all other thoughts, aspiring to that state of not knowing. This mindful emptiness is the objective in zazen and it is impossible for most people to do for long periods of time, but the intent to do so must be strong and it is the intent that is enough to make a tremendous difference in the realization of Self as a creator.
Perhaps it’s a paradox that occurs when I attempt to still my mind in this way; my mind seems to be forced to create new ways of grabbing my attention away from the imagined threat of that emptiness or no mind, and some of those distracting thoughts and feelings can be very profound. I believe this is the energy of no-mind – all-knowing yet not-knowing – filtering through to awareness. Is it nothing giving birth to something? Is this the essence of creativity? I live with the question.
If I consider the subconscious mind, I can regard it is a vast storehouse of knowledge that would make the most powerful computer in the world appear crude and primitive. My subconscious mind already knows what I want to create in my life, without me having to think about it consciously all the time. The intent to create is already there and I know from experience that the practice of zazen definitely enhances my creativity by expanding my awareness into and beyond the capabilities of the mind.
Through Zen discipline I am transcending my mind and making it more like my servant than my master, but my mind always resists. There are many, many reasons for why it behaves like this, but I believe that because I aspire to transcendence in zazen, the discipline allows the mind’s capabilities to expand into other “spaces” that are infinite, and such transcendence is negating the belief systems that the mind is so wrapped up in. I use the word infinite, because creativity never finds its limits; there is always more to write about, more ways of saying things, more characters to give life to.
Beliefs are not experiences but concepts of experiences and they are often very limiting. For instance a simple thought attached to a belief that I cannot do something, will act immediately! On the other hand, a positive thought can also act in the same way but I will tend to be less aware of such positive thoughts as they often pass unnoticed because they are non-confronting. Before I practiced Zen, I noticed how I would always produce my best work when I was in a state of conflict or stress. No wonder procrastination was a great problem to me with my creative endeavours! My mind is not interested in enhancing true Self, but in reinforcing it’s own belief systems. Whether they be negative or positive is irrelevant, the mind will just run the software.
As my Zen practice has evolved through the years, I have come to the conclusion that ultimately the mind and its tricks have to be transcended, but not resisted. If I don’t seek too hard, because seeking too hard is trying to escape from and change, the here-and-now experience, I can get a small glimpse of that space of no-mind that transcends reason and understanding; existing in a realm of no thought. It is nothing: a state of not knowing.
Words Are Inadequate
The state of not-knowing is beyond reason, it is all but impossible to translate into words. It is pure experience. You know it when it happens, but try and explain it to somebody else and you would find that it is near impossible.
However, if you practice any creative art, you can communicate your experience through your art, whether it is painting, music, writing or anything else that is creative. True communication I believe is when you can elicit an experiential response in others..
However, Zen is beyond absolutes and words when used skilfully can also elicit an experience – so, just when you think you’ve understood the Way of Zen, everything just got turned on its head! Good writing can elicit an experience in the reader without naming that experience. Many great poets can do this. I have attended many writing workshops where the question has been, “what do we think the author meant when he wrote this?” How every Zen!
Procrastination has always been a barrier for me and again I would say that it’s because the mind feels threatened by the emptiness of no-mind. Ego (mind) rattles on persistently… My writing isn’t good enough. I am going to make a complete fool of myself. How is anybody going to be inspired with what I write? What if I make a mistake? I don’t know how to spell! What does that word mean? I don’t make any sense, what sort of writer does that make me? And on and on and on, and Zen practice exposes more and more of the mind’s tricks so that I can resolve them. If I am procrastinating, and I sit in zazen, the urge to procrastinate will grow even stronger as my enhanced awareness will drag it up by its roots. It may not seem like it, but I am getting closer and closer to a resolution as more and more of it explodes into my awareness.
I have talked to many writers who have experienced such barriers. I would say that they are in touch with their own Zen, their own creativity, The stronger the barrier the closer their creativity will be. They are in that space of no-mind that the ego fears so much if they do nothing but witness the roots of their barriers as they get closer to the surface of awareness.
How Transcendence Comes
When I am feeling challenged with thoughts like… do it later, you are not in the best frame of mind, you’re not making sense, and other such excuses. I need to take care at this point of resistance and not obey its demands, but I also need to fully acknowledge the mind’s objections and continue working anyway. For instance, from the beginning and up to approximately half-way through writing this essay, the mind kept whispering to me this is senseless. This is a waste of time! Nobody is going to be interested in this load of &!%$! I simply responded in agreement… everything in life is senseless, everything is a waste of time and a few lines by Shakespeare came to mind. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day…. [life is] told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Signifying nothing? Exactly! There’s that nothingness again! It seems Shakespeare had some good Zen!
When I am playing my music or doing my writing, I have come to habitually produce the mindfulness of zazen, whilst giving my ego the space to yell and scream, and I will get breakthroughs. And just like a sitting in zazen, I feel as if I am coming through a dark night and slowly emerging into the dawn as creativity starts to flow. But if I give in to mind’s demands and don’t create at all, then whilst I may not get to feel vulnerable in showing my creation, I would not get to feel that creative bliss either, and how dull life would be!
Derek is a hypnotherapist now in semi-retirement. He is also a writer and Zen practitioner. Visit his blog, Pieces of Zen.