December 06 Newsletter » That Crazy Dancing
Zen and Aliveness Part II: Creativity


At the beginning of the second “Zen and Aliveness” workshop, this one focusing on creativity, Sensei Barbara Joshin O’Hara described the upcoming exercises as “an adventure.”

She wasn’t kidding.

I hadn’t touched a crayon in about 30 years. But Joshin fixed that, leading our group of 13 in experimenting with all sorts of art forms. We wrote, we listened to Bach, we drew, we made collages.

And, to my mortification, we danced.

I am not a dancer. At least, not in public, not in the daytime, and not in the Zendo.

But that was one of the purposes of the workshop: To challenge our inner censor, the voice that says “no!” and commands us to retain some measure of dignity. The voice that tells us to avoid embarrassment at all costs.

As one of the participants put it, our inhibitions choke off our creativity. So not only did we work to express ourselves through various means, we also tried to break those inhibitions, and share our writings, our artwork, and of course that crazy dancing.

During the writing exercise, Joshin asked us to really listen to the world around us, and to write down whatever that listening inspired. We were told to continually go deeper, to listen to ourselves as well. The result for many of us were essays that reflected not only the rhythm of the rain on the windows or the car horns in the street, but also our struggles with the death of loved ones, the joy and uncertainty in our own lives, or the pain of current events.

We drew designs on cards that represented ourselves, and wound up with an astonishing array of artwork, from the purely abstract to the representational. In small groups, we discussed each design, the viewers offering their interpretations before the artist explained his or her motivations.

Joshin showed us some samples of haiku, the Japanese poetry form that uses just a few words to grasp the essence of a moment. Joshin asked us to maintain awareness during our lunch break, so we could create our own haiku upon our return -- an exercise that produced reflections on everything from shoppers in the street, to children jumping a puddle, to smoking a cigarette.

We made collages, using an assortment of images of clouds, plants, water, Asian art, or whatever we cared to create using colored paper and pencils.

It was a bit like kindergarten, admittedly. But one of the tragedies of becoming an adult is that we lose the childlike impulse to create without censoring. Children don’t think, “Gee, if I draw this, people might laugh or misunderstand.” They just draw.

We took our cue from children, but produced, I think, some pretty sophisticated results, given the materials at hand.

Then there was the dancing. Joshin put on rhythm-heavy music, including some urban hip-hop. She asked us to become something else: Change gender, or race, or become an animal. People became tigers and snakes. They hissed and roared.

I’m not sure what I became. But the experience opened a door to a kind of freedom, and by the end of what I thought would be a mortifying exercise, I was smiling and panting with everyone else.

Joshin used the following words to open the workshop, but I think they make a fitting closing as well. They come from Franz Kafka, on the importance of listening in the process of creation.

“You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

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