Zen and Creativity

Twitter guy @slingertale recently asked me if Zen was harmonious with creative activity. He said he wondered if Zen was in fact the opposite of creative activity. Here’s my answer:

Based on my studies and experience, Zen is not at all the opposite of creativity. Zen is one of the most creatively inspiring philosophies one can expose oneself to. The backbone of Zen is Zazen meditation, which builds mindfulness through self-discipline, outcome independence, and an embracing of the absurd.

This embrace comes as a result of sitting in silence and confronting nothingness for X amount of minutes each day. Zazen trains the mind to “let thoughts in and out, but not serve them tea”. Over time, the Zen mind comes to treat all thoughts with irreverence and lightness; all conceptualizations become unimportant. All of our mental and social hierarchies drift away under long-term Zen practice.

This is a remarkably liberating shift in perception for the creative person. If you practice meditation for long enough, everything becomes interesting. A little paint splotch on a wall becomes a work of art. A tree becomes a sort-of organic miracle. The realization that we are all of one source and will never disappear from the earth, even in death, is about as inspiring as it gets. When you’re fully detached and not concerned about results or any sort of payoff, great work seems to appear on its own volition.

Similarly, Zen practice encourages the artist to be disciplined, to work at his craft each day. Just as one practices meditation for its own sake, the meditating artist learns to apply this dictum to the creative process. Some of the most intriguing artistic innovations have come out of art for art’s sake.

My favorite example is the avant-garde composer John Cage. He studied Zen with DT Suzuki. His work represents a fascination with the randomness of nature, “chance operations”, and finding beauty in the seemingly mundane. His most famous piece, 4’33”, is a Zen masterwork of sorts. An orchestra simply sits in “silence” for four minutes and 33 seconds. It’s an organized meditation on silence, simple yet provocative.

We soon realize there is no such thing as silence, and the world isn’t quite as artistically predictable as we think it is. The sounds that arise spontaneously and unintentionally, like from the orchestra members shuffling in their seats, embody Zen’s lack of discrimination in regards to intrigue.

Another one of the 20th century’s most shattering artistic innovators, Marcel Duchamp, gave up art almost entirely to pursue a retired life and his favorite hobby, chess. He sums up a certain Zen attitude (albeit unintentionally) in this quote:

“I like living, breathing better than working…my art is that of living. Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral, it’s a sort of constant euphoria.”

This constant euphoria of complete presentness and intrigue is basically Zen enlightenment. If you ponder something long enough, it becomes interesting and weird— even beautiful. It’s all a matter of perspective and mindfulness. In this respect, Zen is a profoundly creative way of approaching the world. It makes every moment and every breath an artistic experience, whether you produce a tangible artistic “thing” or not.

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