Thursday, 9 March 2017

Shovelling Peas Into Your Pants

In 1975, British artists Brian Eno (a musician) and Peter Schmidt (a painter) developed a formal system for smashing "creative block" (i.e., writer's block, except for everyone). They called it Oblique Strategies (deck: "Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas"), and it caused quite a stir in that decade's famously vivacious art scene.

The mechanism is deceptively simple: Eno and Schmidt wrote sentences on index cards and stacked them up. Then each time they smacked into a brick wall, or found themselves churning out the same old same-old, they turned over the top card and did whatever it said.

Most bear commands, such as:
State the problem in words as clearly as possible
Cut a vital connection
Humanise something free of error

 A few ask questions (hello, Zen!):
What were you really thinking about just now?
When is it for? Who is it for?
What mistakes did you make last time?

And many rival the best koanic poetry:
Remember those quiet evenings
Lost in useless territory
If eating peas improves virility, shovel them into your pants

For decades the card decks were only released in limited editions, expensive at the time and stupid now. To his credit, Eno recently released a production edition (some 150 prompts), but even that costs £40.00. While it would be a cool thing to own (I much prefer real, tactile tools to digital ones) we're not all hip enough even for those prices.

Fortunately, admirers have compiled OS prompts into online "strategy generators": web pages that randomly produce a meditation each time you reload them.

The two I used to write this post are:

http://stoney.sb.org/eno/oblique.html
http://www.oblicard.com/


So why am I writing about such artsy-fartsy stuff on a Zen site? Because "practice" is a synonym for "rut".

Yeah, I know: we Zenners love us our forms. We're inordinately – illogically – proud to do everything exactly as the Ancestors did.

And that's fine. But it does co-arise two dependencies:

1. It's crap. Nobody here and now is doing what they did in the mountains of China in the 13th century.

and

2. That's a good thing, because "consistent" is a synonym for "dead".

Therefore, as a guy who supervises his own practice, I find it worthwhile to shake things up from time to time. Examine my actions. Analyse my intent. (I was going to add "Vet my results", but since that word has recently become an instrument of torture, I'll "appraise" them instead.)

And – possibly the only trait we hold in common – this system is almost as effective for hermits as it is for rock stars. Fact is, even monasteries and Zen centres could stand the periodic administration of one such kyôsaku:

1. Everybody meditates in the zendo.
2. Someone (OK, a specially-ordained monk with a task-specific Sino-Japanese title) turns over the top card and reads it to the sangha
3. Everybody meditates again
4. The sangha discusses the prompt, with a view to implementing one or two of the practice adjustments it inspires.

(If this procedure is too Buddhic for your sangha, you could empower your teacher or non-profit board to impose the adjustments instead.)

Such a practice, faithfully applied, might go a long way toward busting the staleness and inertia that institutions breed by their very nature. It might also clear out some of the hierarchical congestion that generates and sustains abuses large and small.

Be advised that since OS was developed specifically for artists, some prompts may not be germane to enlightenment practice. (Or even Tito or Michael.) But I would caution fellow seekers to look deeply before discarding one.

It may be that "The tape is now the music" has a monastic application after all.


(Photo of a man performing water calligraphy in front of Beijing's Temple of Heaven courtesy of Immanuel Giel and Wikimedia Commons.)
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