My father was a Mad Man.
And he passed that madness on to me. He spent the bulk of his career on Madison Avenue in the sort of Mid-20th Century ad agency shown in AMC’s Mad Men TV series. He was trained as an artist but ended up in the commercial world. He worked, as all Mad Men do, in the office of the mind; earning a living by generating creative ideas and bringing them to life; by story telling and relationship building and influence. I would do the same.
The breadcrumb trail marking my father’s path began on the walls of our 1960s suburban starter home in Stamford, CT – a 40-minute Metro North train commute from New York City. Our house was decorated with my father’s artwork – drawings, watercolors, oils, etchings, and even painted pieces of discarded wood. The walls in one room - our little den - were different. They were wood-paneled and lined with bookshelves.
Words, Words, Words.
On a lumpy brown couch beneath the bookshelves, my mother – an elementary school teacher - would quiz me on vocabulary and spelling words. Say the word. Spell it. Is it a noun, verb, adjective or adverb? Define it. Use it in a sentence. Share a synonym and an antonym. And as my affinity for words grew, I started mining the shelves above – standing tiptoe on a staircase of brown bolsters so I could reach the grown-up books on top.
On that nubby couch, John Steinbeck welcomed me to “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream” that was Cannery Row. It was there that I discovered artist books about photographers like Harry Callahan and sculptors like Alexander Calder. I learned there, too, about the playwrights Arthur Miller and Neil Simon and humorists like James Thurber and SJ Perelman. These creators became my heroes but is was another book from those shelves that rises above the rest in my memory. Applied Imagination by Alex Osborn gave me tools with which I could put my own creative ideas into practice.
Osborn was one of THE OG Mad Men. He was the O in the mega-ad-agency BBDO and the inventor of “brainstorming.” First published in 1953, Applied Imagination explained the now commonplace brainstorming idea generation technique. Osborn provided detail instructions on how a group of colleagues can generate a flow of concepts for solving a specific problem - expressed and recorded without judgement - in order to ensure a large volume of output which can later be culled and filtered for the most on-target, high-quality solutions. “Quantity breeds quality,” he wrote. The book went far beyond brainstorming, too.
Osborn outlined a process for creativity that begins with problem definition and ideation and runs all the way to solution selection and execution. He pointed out creativity hinderances and accelerants and provided suggestions for managing each. He also described scores of other ways to increase idea production. He classified these provocation devices under headers like questions, deadlines, quotas, adaptation, modification, substitution, rearrangement, reversal, combination, addition, multiplication, subtraction, division, maximization, minimization and periods of incubation (which, he proffered, invite illumination). Words and ideas: play with them, flip them upside down, turn them inside out, break them, mate them, invent them, spin them.
Even now that there are over 50,000 creativity books available on Amazon.com, Applied Imagination still feels fresh and as well-articulated as any recent book on the subject. In the early 1970s, when I first encountered his writing, Osborn’s approach was an epiphany. I didn’t have to wait for the muse to strike but could rouse different ways of thinking – I could control production of ideas – I could create on demand – I could be a freakin’ idea factory. Creativity could be my competitive advantage. Of course, I wouldn’t grow gonads big enough to act on that advantage for another 30 years.
A Lot of Images
There were four doors in and out of the little den with the lumpy couch. One led to the kitchen, one to the garage, one to the foyer and one to the basement where – in the far recesses – was a wooden dresser stuffed with art materials. It was like an art store consolidated in a chest of drawers – pens, pencils, quills, brushes, charcoals, pastels, papers, drafting tools, wood burning tools, etching tools, gauche, watercolors, acrylics, oils, canvas, a complete set of the Famous Artist course books. Somehow, when that program opened in 1948, my father scraped together $200 to sign up even though he was already enrolled in University of Colorado’s art school.
I tried my hand again and again at every item in that bottomless dresser but I could never quite match my father’s natural and highly practiced skill. He could, it seemed, glance at anything and instantly that image flowed from eyes to hand to pen to page. Loose. Confident. Me, not so much. I couldn’t stay mentally still enough for long enough to truly see nor remain patient long enough to translate what I saw accurately to the page. Instead, I gravitated to quick, sketchy, cartoony impressions. It didn’t occur to me that my father’s fluid gifts had been sharpened through years of practice and training. In my mind at the time, though, if it wasn’t coming out of me like an immaculately conceived miracle, I just wasn’t good enough.
“Not good enough” was a boogey man who lurked in our house and whose ineffable definition was hinted at in ongoing parental chatter about the successes and failures of others. “Did you hear about the son of So-and-So? Oooh, such a success! Such wealth! He graduated from Brown and Harvard Business and then, only thirty years old yet, he started the world’s largest hotel chain!” Or, “Oy, such a shame! She walked out on the poor schlub and their four kids to take up with another woman!” Winners or losers. Successes or scandals. No in-betweens. My life options were simple, it seemed. I could either be a shooting star or a smoking hole in the ground.
Drawing was a refuge for me.
Back in my teens, I still liked to goof around with brush and pen, doodling or copying drawings from my father’s books. Drawing was a pause. It was a time for me to lose myself. But, I focused my creative attention on writing and acting. I was instantly good…at first. In the first week of my Freshman year at University of Michigan – September 1980 - I landed the lead role in a show that would later become a Broadway musical, Spring Awakening. Soon though, thinking too much and trying too hard, my performance in rehearsals became stiff and contrived. The script morphed into a wall of inert words. Trying to shake me loose, the director handed me a paperback copy of Zen in the Art of Archery which I absorbed with mild confusion. The book helped.
I performed well enough in Spring Awakening that, after the run ended, the Dean of the theatre and drama department offered me the inaugural spot in a new five-year program combining both a Bachelor and Master of Fine Arts degree. That scared me. I saw only the risk of exposing that I wasn’t as creative or talented as I liked to imagine. What if I failed to “make it” in the entertainment industry? How could I handle the shame? How could I recover if that happened? So I turned down the opportunity and, instead, applied to University of Michigan’s business school.
Zen would wait for another day…or decade…or two.
Over the next twenty years, my relationship with Zen was confined to reading books and intellectualizing its tenets not on the meditation practice and embodied experience that are Zen’s core teachers. My relationship with creativity and innovation was relegated to one of sideline interest.
Acting should simply be a hobby. Leave it alone. Set art aside.
Combining words with ideas shouldn’t be a career. Instead, they should be fuel for entrepreneurship. To be respectable, those assets should be money making tools.
Creativity in the business world should mean the path of media and advertising and sales, the way of my father. So, upon graduation in 1984, I returned to Connecticut and took an ad sales job for a magazine company in Manhattan…a long mental, physical and temporal distance from North Georgia and Western North Carolina.
Words, words, words.
Fast forward forty years. All that facility with words – all that training – and now I can’t turn them off. October 2018. I am in Hayesville, NC - just over the North Georgia border - in Western North Carolina. I am at a friend’s farm for a silent retreat with the Silent Thunder Order’s Atlanta Soto Zen Center. Meditation hour after hour. No talking. Sometimes I sit facing the wooden wall of the rustic zendo (meditation hall) in the woods. Sometimes, I sit on the sagging plank porch of that zendo which overlooks a rushing stream that won’t shut up.
When you make an initial commitment to study Zen with a certain degree of intensity, your teacher assigns you a “Dharma” name – an aspirational reminder of your ongoing Zen practice. Mine is Keisei – a Japanese word for “sounds of the river valley.” Now, this North Carolina river valley is burbling and yapping nonstop and noisily. Or, is it my mind that is yapping? Everything is labeled – tree, water, leaves, foot, sunlight. Words! Everything explained, interpreted, judged, pushed away, pulled forward and all at once. Not everything – some are ignored – at least momentarily forgotten – flickering in and out of my mind like the flitting shadow of candlelight. To sit in real silence must really terrify me, at least as some unconscious level, or I wouldn’t continuously turn away when I come too close to quiet. There is such a thing as Sedatephobia – the fear of silence. Now, I’m afraid I might have that.
Though no one is talking out loud – there is a cacophony. Perhaps I will exhaust all the clattering words in my head soon and the quiet will come with ease? “Like running the puppy around until eventually it settles down to nap,” Sensei says. This is true and I eventually approach equipoise.
Until the fly shows up.
It is hovering around my nostrils. I try blowing it away without moving from my meditation posture. The little bugger sways slightly and returns to front and center. It wants my blood, I know it does. I feel itchy already. It zips towards my right ear and I can hear it whiz by. Ok, just a fly. No big deal. Breathe. Breathe. In breath. One. Out breath. Two. In breath. Three. Out breath. Four. In breath…I flick my hand at the stubborn Skeeter. I think, “Maybe my Dharma name should be changed to “Swats at Flys.” Then, “Words, let go of words. What does this feel like without words?” I encourage myself.
Wait. What if words ARE the path?
I remember a meditation instructor saying that it can be helpful to “label” thoughts with a word before releasing them. That can raise awareness rather than just being unintentionally swept away by thoughts and sensations. OK. “Fly.” “Fly.” Spell it. F-L-Y. Fly. Definition? At least two. Fly, verb, to move through the air. Fly, noun, a zipper or other clothing fastener. Or, Fly, noun, a winged insect. Urban dictionary version? Fly, adjective, stylish or fashionable or cool. Use it in a sentence. “Look at that fly fly. Man, that’s some fly ass fly! That fly wouldn’t hurt a fly. Unless it was unzipped.” Yeah, this labeling thing isn’t working for me too well.
I leave the porch, go inside, sit down and face the wall. Here and there I am able to drop away and sit. I can’t stop the words from flowing but they shift to background. Or, I take the backward step and the words remain where they are but no longer a disturbance.
As I walk the muddy stream-side path back to the farmhouse after Zazen, I realize that it has been exactly one year since I’ve been to a retreat at this farm. It was October last year when we attempted our first multi-day Zen & Creativity retreat. “Please join us for our multi-day meditation retreat in the mountains just north of Georgia,” the Zen Center web page said. “Watershed Retreat Center is located on 60 acres in a pastoral farm setting highly conducive to finding, or returning to our true nature, in the embrace of Mother Nature.” It was to be “a retreat in which Zen meditation will be combined with exercises in creativity, illuminating the connections between Zen and the Bauhaus method of training our senses through action.”
We held that workshop in the Watershed farm’s rickety barn - where the ghosts of loft doors, long lost, left big rectangular gaps open to the elements. Sitting on rough hewn wood plank floors or a stray chair, we sketched and painted on butcher block paper clipped to drawing boards. We scrawled our signatures in 100 varied ways, we did contour drawings of each other, we played visual acuity and pattern recognition card games that Sensei - Elliston Roshi - handmade. We did writing exercises and haiku and played guitar and banged makeshift drums and sang.
This wasn’t the first Zen and creativity workshop we attempted. It was, at five days, just the longest one so far. Sensei had previously led a one weekend day creativity workshop without meditation at the Zen Center in Atlanta. He had done several breakfast sessions for my clients focused on creativity and a couple of cocktail hour events on drawing and visual thinking – meditation not included.
Together, we ran a one-day writing and meditation workshop along the lines of one I had attended in Taos, NM by famed writer and Zen practitioner, Natalie Goldberg. We promoted that one as, “Sit, walk, write, read, repeat. The silence of Zazen can unleash the thunder of creative ideas. During this one-day session, participants will intersperse zazen and kinhin (walking meditation) practice with writing periods, readings and discussions of our raw creations developed through this process.”
We fiddled with a bunch of approaches - sporadically spaced over at least a ten-year period. Still we hadn’t quite pinpointed the most effective package of meditation, exercises, length, location and language for these workshops. We variously named these sessions Zen and Creativity, Zen+Bauhaus Design, Zen+Design Thinking and Zenovation. None stuck.
Zen Mad Men
What were we really trying to get done with these workshops? There is a Buddhist path - a state of being, really - called Crazy Wisdom. This is when the teacher’s spontaneous actions seem outrageous, counter-intuitive, mind-bending, paradox flinging or even flat-out slapstick - a form of “skillful means” to crack the shell off of students’ delusional thinking. Crazy wisdom is associated with famous Buddhist teachers from Tibetan-born, Shambala founder Chogyam Trungpa to the koan-slinging original Rinzai Zen Master, Hakuin. Maybe, we hoped our Zen and approach would pack a dose of Crazy Wisdom punch?
For me, the hope was to provoke others who have pushed away the creative inheritance which is rightfully theirs to reclaim that generative treasure – and to encourage them to stop thrusting forward to “will” breakthrough ideas into being and, instead, let the ten thousand creative things step forward and reveal themselves.
The ideas that Osborn shared in Applied Creativity are provocations. The Bauhaus-infused exercises that Elliston Roshi shared are provocations. Zen koans are provocations. These are all intentional, guided provocations meant to break our set thinking so that something new can evolve. In these provocations, there is not just a shaking of mind, there is ultimately a stopping. Crazy wisdom provocation, done well, causes a chasm between old habitual thinking and an open, beginner’s mind.
At the same time, we live in world of constant, unintentional, chaotic provocation with little room to stop and let the jumble sort itself. We hope that intellect will push through the noise. As it turns out, of all the elements that can spark creativity – help you dive deeper - pausing may matter most. There are many ways that we can pause which benefit creativity – take a walk, a nap, a vacation - just sitting in Zazen meditation is one of the most helpful, intentional pause. Zazen is dropping everything – full stop. Zazen is time to say enough and to drop burdensome striving. In this stopping, there is not just silence. There is provocation - the chance to see the everything in a new way.
Like thunder and silence, provocation and pause each contains the other. Our next incarnation of the Zen and creativity workshop will be called Provocative Pause.