I teach movement and stillness.  I want my students to gain access to increasing amounts of perceptual and spatial awareness so that they also have access to the profound tools of improvisation and whole body expression.

I've been following the development of mindfulness curricula over the past ten years with rather tepid interest. Growing up Zen, I've met a lot of gentle mindless Buddhists, in a word: boring. I've also met a lot of people who practice non-reactiveness which creates an illusion of calm. That seems fine at first glance, but a facade of calm based on not-reacting is not very robust. When the calm breaks under spontaneous pressures it tends to either become wimpy and impotent, or extremely aggressive.  The bumper-sticker version: Beware of nice people.

But what if the limited goal of mindfulness training is the creation of available awareness as a conditioned habit?  Now that is a much more interesting goal.

To get at the questions of, what is available awareness? and how does one condition it? We first have to deal with the twin stress responses:  Distraction and disassociation.

Distraction and disassociation are opposite sides of the same coin. Distraction in an educational environment is often called difficulty focusing (meiyou jingshen, in Mandarin). But more generally it is the mind's tendency to be sucked into one input after another.  Think of it as lots of little focuses. Distraction is clearly not available awareness.

Disassociation on the other hand is highly valued in most educational environments. Disassociation is a powerful focusing tool. Disassociation is the ability to put one's mind to a task and disregard all other needs, interests, or inputs. People with strong tendencies for disassociation can learn languages without visiting a country where that language is spoken, can learn to play a musical instrument with minimal guidance, they can read and assimilate vast swaths of knowledge. We as a society may value it, but it isn't available awareness. It might better be called mind training (samatha in Sanskrit) or skillful trance.

I'm not confident that I have a convincing definition of available awareness.  It is sort of like enlightenment, I know it when I see it.  More importantly, I notice when it isn't there in other people.  It is the fashion these days to talk about how cool it is to think outside the box, but frankly I'm delighted when I meet someone who can think inside the box.  That ability is rare enough.  

The most powerful teaching tool I know of is called taking responsibility. Giving someone responsibility and supporting them in making decisions and taking actions might be a good strategy for conditioning the habit of creating available awareness.

I would think that anyone trying to teach mindfulness would want to create a list of all the intermediate steps one might utilize in attempting to create a nourishing environment for getting others to take responsibility.  I would like to see that list.

This may or may not be funny, but people with available awareness tend to love criticism.  "What the #@$% is wrong with you SCOTT?"  "Wow, yeah? cool. WHAT THE #@$% IS WRONG WITH ME???"  

Perhaps available awareness is knowing that one has blind-spots and wanting other people to point them out.  Perhaps available awareness is simply a recognition of the human tendency to firmly assign the causes of failures (and successes) or obstacles (and opportunities) to discrete actions.  There is obvious utilitarian value in making these firm assignments of causation, but the unconscious habit creates blind-spots.

There may be some relationship between available awareness and what is called in the commercial world multi-area competence, being good a many things. 

There are almost certainly a wide array of sensory-motor and perception-action stimuli that help establish available awareness. And perhaps even more key, a person needs enough time and an appropriate environment to process those experiences. People need rest, safety, alone time, nutrition, to be listened to, group bonding, and most profoundly: opportunities to fail and enjoy it.  Without all of those things humans tend to be highly reactive, or over-reactive.  Stressed out people may be distracted, or they may be focussed, but they are unlikely to have available awareness.  

People often find comfort and safety in established hierarchies, we are social animals after all.  Architecture can help with this.  Knowing one's place, having a role and fulfilling that role, may be an important first step to establishing available awareness.   

Available awareness is the potential to respond to multiple inputs with full access to one's emotions, intellect, and physicality. It sometimes manifests as comfort with ambiguity, and a dynamic relationships to chaotic forces or complex influences.

I'm all for including meditation tools in schools, businesses, government, hospitals, any institutions which might benefit. I do worry a bit that we might be applying a band-aid to a gaping wound, but a serious meditation practice can produce real insight.  Yet I think it is important to keep in mind that the ultimate fruition is not to make people less reactive, nor it to make them better at focusing. It is to give them the option of creating available awareness. Without it we will have a hard time ever having political discussions of any consequence, developing any real freedom in movement traditions, or experiencing intimacy.

Trying to teach movement, experience intimacy, or have a political discussion of any consequence, without having first fostered or discovered some available awareness is like trying to start a fire by hoping lightning will strike at one's feet.  

"How long has it been since normal seemed normal?"  


How I became Enlightened

So if you have some time for entertainment watch the video of this 11 year old kid's TED talk.  His story is here! and worth a quick read too.  He is not actually a kid, he is an emanation of the Dao!  The take away from his talk is very simple, STOP LEARNING!


Of course the obvious corollary to this kid's video is: stop teaching.

The common response to someone who says, I'm not interested in learning, is, you're so arrogant everyone can benefit from learning.  Not true.  In learning, as in fighting, time is damage.

Particularly when it comes to meeting new experts or masters, everyone will tell you to show up with an empty cup. How can you learn if your cup is already full? they say.  The propagators of upright conduct will tell you that if you show up with an agenda it will obscure your ability to see what is there.

But I say nay! show up with a full cup and if you are lucky it will get spilled! The purpose of a class is to compare what is in your cup to what is in the cups of other people in the class, including the teacher.  It is a place to compare notes, to test your experiences against the experiences of others.  Who wants to teach people with empty cups?  That's boring.

I've spent the last three months working on a book while staying and clearing brush at a Buddhist Retreat Center.  There is a substantial library here and I've had a chance to interact with lots of people on the subject of enlightenment.  But actually I already had incredible resources among my friends and family.  

One of the many arguments spinning around is whether one needs to be subordinate to a teacher in order to pick up enlightenment skills.  The best argument is that the default relationship in our society is equality and friendship.  But to become enlightened your teacher may need to tell you that you are an idiot, a blind fool and a moral disgrace, for example.  In our cultural milieu of equality as a default, those kinds of words would end the relationship, so you need to be subordinate to the teacher.  Interestingly however, all of these enlightenment traditions come from Asia where hierarchy is the default relationship.  This creates all kinds of confusion.  They obviously have to overcome the hierarchy thing to become enlightened.  So my conclusion is that whatever ones default relationship to a teacher or a teaching is, has to be overcome.  It has to be overcome because it is an illusion and illusions take an enormous amount of effort to maintain.  However, if it is a default illusion, one everyone else in your culture shares, than that effort is a BLIND SPOT, and you won't even know you are exerting that effort!

The other interesting argument spinning around is about how you might know if someone is enlightened.

Here is a talk by the Buddhist Geek Society about the science of enlightenment:


What a mess!  What a mess!  Here is my take.  The only test we have for enlightenment that has any meaning has to do with how a person handles change.  Particularly changes to ones identity.  So to test for enlightenment we have to confront a person with a direct challenge to their world view.  We push them past their limits and see how they adapt.  Facing death head on would be good but perhaps impractical.  We could perhaps have them talk to a rapist who not only loves raping but thinks it is the funniest thing he has ever done or will ever do in his life.  It kind of depends on the person, I can think of a lot of things that would shock other people into an identity coma, but it's much harder to think of such a thing for myself.  Anyway, once we solve the sampling problem (from the mp3 talk) and the control problem (also from the mp3) then we can come up with a list of things likely to knock someone's identity into next Thursday and see if they react differently then people who have not had 5+ years of enlightenment hazing.

That's all folks!  




Failing at the Beginning and the End

International living treasure, Keith Johnstone.  

If you haven't read his book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre  ...well, you're missing out on one of the best books ever written.  But then maybe I'm biased.  I'm not a freaking robot, automaton, empty shirt!  Then again, how would I know if I was one?  

When I finally got Sgt. Rory Miller to read Johnstone, he wrote back to me, "Martial arts are to fighting as acting is to improvisation."

There is a little bit of new material in these videos, stuff that isn't in Impro.  I only know that because I've read the book countless times.  One thing that is new, is that he defines trance simply as the absence of a little voice in the back of our heads analyzing, strategizing, calculating and attempting to steer our actions.  

Having had a bit of time on my trip to read some Buddhist texts with my wife, I realized that I reached enlightenment. My wife says that regardless of this achievement, I'm still responsible for washing the dishes. Unfortunately, being an unlicensed immortal, there has been no one around to give me a certificate of completion.  Buddhists and Daoists alike, use various description to describe the same experience.  One calls it a view, another calls it a base, and another calls it a pervasive awareness, complete emptiness, a limitless release of the spatial mind.  The Zen tradition, Dzogchen (Tibetan Buddhism), Zuowang (Daoism), all refer to transcending duality via a non-conceptual method.  

I hear it reported that some people have trouble getting non-conceptual methods to work, so they try other stuff.  It is really out of all this other stuff that someone came up with the term 'enlightened,' because if you just do the non-conceptual thing, well...it doesn't lead to that kind of naming.

If I were to get up on a stage and start explicitly teaching non-conceptuality, I would use the stage itself as my metaphor.  The experience is like an empty stage.  You can put anything on it.  It doesn't change the stage or make it go away.  You can easily be so involved in what is on the stage that you forget there is a stage there.

So I would hazard that everything on the stage is a sort of trance.  I haven't squared this with Keith Johnstone's explanation.  But I'm working on it.

Something he says in the 6th video in this series is that movement experts as they age can get really grumpy and crotchety in general and tend to have a hard time improvising.  This is because their bodies know what to do.  That's a bit close to home.

I mean, I'm tapped into the flow and all, but the process of teaching what is right, what is correct movement-wise, is a double edged spear.  It is imperative for us as teachers that we let go of knowing.  It is imperative that we keep returning to 'beginner's body;' to uncoordinated, clumsy, wild and empty.

As a student, I have mostly held improvisation as the fruition of practice.  I studied with Johnstone when I was 15 and the damage was permanent.  

It is dreadfully important for teachers to create situations where they themselves fail. Otherwise we condition ourselves to believe we are correct.  If we are conditioned to a belief, we will be insulated from reality.  We have to keep creating new tests.  And if we want to condition our students to be free fighters, then they also need to experience us, their teachers, failing miserably.  Did you know that if coffee makes you sleepy, it is diagnostic for ADHD?

Probably not great business advice huh?  Still, I'm going to get yinyang t-shirts printed that say 'Sometimes I'm a Loser,' and make a go of it.  I heard that the Italians named weak coffee Americano, because they wanted to make fun of us weak Americans.  Like taking on the insult Yankee, which meant one who masturbates a lot, I think we as teachers can try to find some actual humility.  Like the stage, it's always there, it's always available...

There is an imperative for us to figure out how to put improvisation at the very beginning and keep it at the center of martial arts training at every level.  


Johnstone says we are a culture that fears trance.  Perhaps we could say, wherever modernity arises trance goes into hiding.  When we talk about the art of improvisational movement we are talking about going into different types of trance.  There are many, many way to do this, setting a rhythm, catching a feeling, imagining a scene.  

Isn't it interesting that there is a parallel between Johnstone talking about the central challenge of knowing what the person we are on stage with wants, and the Taijiquan classics (Sunzi too) talking about knowing your adversary better than she knows herself?  

Martial Arts forms and stances are really like scripts that we extemporize off of, we use them to spin off into chaos and then we fight our way back to them.   In a pure improvisation we wouldn't know them, we might not even remember them.  

This body forgetting is a great challenge.  Are tension and remembering one and the same?