Stack 1, Flapjack 2
I arrive at The Original Pancake House this Friday morning ahead of Sensei - my Zen teacher and creativity guru, Zenkai Taiun Michael Elliston Roshi. I settle into Booth 4, open my palm-sized, Moleskine-knockoff notebook, flatten out a page and doodle.
I present to you (above) the stack of pancakes I drew. Look at them please. Making you hungry?
Go ahead. Eat. What, you don’t like my cooking? Or maybe you resonate with the Zen saying: “A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger.”
I asked my daughters recently, "Do you remember when you were little and I used to make you pancakes from scratch?" They said, "We still dream about those pancakes." So, I made a batch the next morning because why should any of us have to completely let go of childhood?
We start off life in a state of unadulterated wonder - dreaming of pancakes. If you were still a child, you might pretend to gobble up my pancake drawing and, while your stomach might not be satisfied, your imagination could be. As grown-ups, a painting of a rice cake or pancake no longer satisfies our imagination, no less our hunger.
Though my expanding belly may tell a different story, I've been hungry a long time. At my pancake-laden breakfast table growing up, conversations focused on the winners and the losers. "Oh, he's quite a wealthy man, that one, and so handsome!" or "Oy, such a shame that poor schlemiel with the wandering eye. His wife just left him you know." Lesson learned: perfection = good, get parental love; schlemiel = bad, cause parental embarrassment. For me, the hunger to be viewed as a success has always been loaded and indigestible.
Fifteen years ago, as I started a new business, a financially successful entrepreneur asked me, "Do you believe in the asshole theory of success?" In other words, if you're too nice you can't be a big shot and he implied that I'm not asshole enough to grab the golden ring. "Hey, I'm an enormous asshole, I told him," but perhaps that didn't come out quite right. Trying to gobble a heaping portion of success is like swallowing a puff of cloud only to find out it is actually lingering cigarette smoke. It is like eating a cake painting.
Zazen (just sitting in meditation) is a path back to our open, non-judging encounter with things as they are. Zen practitioners sit in a vigorous, cross-legged posture, quietly facing the wall and confront the chatter that runs through their minds without flinching. Counterintuitively, the more you face your preferences and aversions, the more your adulterated mind gives way to the unadulterated presence you never actually lost. Sitting still and silent, the words, images and objects that confine us can drop away by themselves. If we sit still enough long enough, there's no more painting, no more pancake, no more eating, no more hungry. "If we sit still enough long enough," Sensei says, "Everything changes. Dramatically."
It is that faith in "everything changes" that brings me back to the meditation cushion at the Zen center and to the vinyl bench cushion at The Original Pancake House. Sensei arrives and while we wait for our food (real, not painted), I ask him to describe his own unadulterated beginnings in the mid-20th Century All-American town of Centralia, IL.
“I was born in 1941 and grew up on a 20-acre farm in Southern Illinois that my parents rented. My room was on the second floor in the back of the house next to the attic," Sensei said. "No one else stayed up there. So, from very early on I spent a lot of time in a kind of isolation.” The silent solitude of his remote room was a proving ground for the imagination.
“I got into all kinds of things, like crossing my legs and walking around on my knees and standing on my head. I would walk around with my eyes closed to see what its like to be blind," he said. "I would wake up in the morning lying in bed on my back, looking up at the wallpaper. I couldn’t see anything but the sloped ceiling and there was nothing to give me a sense of orientation. I would stare at the bumps in the wallpaper and I would see figures and shapes and patterns. After a while they would start to move. I didn’t know the difference between imagination and real so I would just stay there for a while looking, just curious.”
Music was central to life in the Elliston's Centralia farmhouse. Sensei’s father played keyboard and xylophone at night in a jazz band. His older brother, by eight years old, was a recognized piano prodigy and later became an acclaimed jazz performer and a professor of music. “I spent a lot of time at the end of a keyboard watching him play. He tried to teach me but it was frustrating because I couldn’t keep up with him,” Sensei remembered. It was natural, then, that Sensei moved out of his brother's shadow to find a spotlight of his own. A war and a mouse led him there.
World War II had taken many of Sensei’s relatives into the military but the shadow of war left behind boxes of curiosities that his battle-bound uncles stored in the Elliston’s attic. “Amongst those curios were cartons of exotic art supplies, such as fine drawing pencils and erasers, the smell of which I can remember to this day. Nothing like this had ever been seen in the small town we lived in, and cannot even be found there today. This was big-city, heady stuff,” Sensei later wrote in a Memorial Day dharma teaching. “It may be that early exposure to what, in my world, were rare, mysterious items, that later led to my interest in art; and fostered my higher education and professional career in art and design. I was, of course, aware of the ubiquitous #2 pencil we used in school, but 2B, H, 4H, and other, dark green, fine pencils, were out of another world.”
There was another "other world" opening at the same time for Sensei. On the heels of success from Walt Disney Studio's first full-length film in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney completed a string of full-length animated films through the 1940s and early 1950s. From Bambi, Song of the South, and Cinderella, to Alice in Wonderland and the rerelease of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a Disney trademark was adorable, woodland cartoon critters. "Seeing Walt Disney’s animated movies had a big influence in training my vision and senses," he said.
After school, I had a mile walk home alone and that took me through the woods. Even with snow and ice on ground, I would often sit down out there in the cold and just look around. Something very compelling happened. I began to see the woods differently; seeing the real thing but in my mind's eye overlaying the Snow White animated version to work out how the drawings were made. That was a turning point in my visual awareness,” he said. It was fuel for fantasy which, combined with his uncle's art supplies, challenged young Mickey Elliston to see if he could replicate the Disney drawings on his own. He was a natural.
Back in booth 4, the waiter has cleared the table and our conversation shifts to the Zen, Design and Innovation workshop we’re planning. After a career teaching and doing creative design work, Sensei has developed a repertoire of what he calls set-breaking exercises. These are short interactive interventions meant to break the participants out of their set, fixed or habitual approach to creative problem solving. We want to weave these through a well-accepted design thinking process and enhance the entire experience with meditative moments.
“To have all this make sense to workshop participants, how should we organize the content?” I ask. Sensei suggests structuring the program based on how we communicate innovations and ideas – through media. He doesn’t mean radio, TV and Internet. He means the basics: words, images, objects and events. Words, he says, are the least complex of the media while events are the most complex – incorporating the other three. This is how, it seems, curriculum came to him at design school – pushing him to reenvision words, reframe images and retool his brain. About the same time that Sensei was going through design school, he coincidentally discovered that the "everything changes" of Zen meditation also follows a progression from words, images and objects to events or, rather, experience – the raw, unfiltered experience of existence. In Zen, though, the progression is not about increasing complexity, it is about dropping away complexity.
We will talk more about this soon and I will unpack the complexity of this story as it continues its meander. In the next pancake episode, though, I will share with you a bit more about what led me down this particular river of meditation and innovation. Meanwhile, try these...
Three Original Pancake Challenges
Eat a pancake – a real one, not a painted one – and, afterwards, express the essence of pancake without using words or images.
Lie down on your back, stare silently at the ceiling and see what shows up.
Take a slow walk outside, suspend judgment, become subtly aware and, when you see woodland creatures, imagine them as animated characters.