After twenty-year-old Stephen Asma had the good fortune to play guitar as an opening act for blues legends like B.B. King, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy and Bo Diddley, Diddley hired him for a gig in Chicago. After rigorous personal preparation, Asma discovered that he had it all wrong. Diddley simply walked onstage, plugged into his amp and launched into a loud, rhythmic riff.

He never bothered to tell me what song we were playing, what chord changes were coming, what key we were in, or anything. But, as every blues and jazz musician knows, that’s how it goes.

After the first tune, he realized that I could follow him, and he cryptically shouted,

“This monkey is tied, now let’s skin it!

(Video link here.)

Rarely knowing what he’d be playing next as he followed the leads of the greats he played with, Asma began to understand the art of improvisation with the masters. In his recent Times OpEd, Was Bo Diddley a Buddha?, he tells us what he learned. Here are essential hunks that could make a Primer on Improvising (though it’s worth reading the entire piece). We’ve rarely seen anyone get it, or express it, so well:

Improvising is the act of composing and performing simultaneously, and it is difficult to master. But it is also universal, and despite the powerful human impulse to plan and program, integral to nearly every aspect of our lives. No matter who you are — a welder, philosopher, a guitarist or a president — you are in some sense simultaneously making the map of your life and following it. …


…the meaning of life is not found in rules, formulas, commandments, categorical imperatives and cultural norms…

David Dawson

The key to successful improvisation is getting your self out of the way. Usually the ego tries to coordinate everything, but good improvisers dial down the ego and let the embodied system act, play and respond with reduced ego supervision. In the lingo of recent cognitive science, improv reduces the brain’s “executive control” function, allowing the more associational mind to take over. This fosters certain kinds of creative expression, but also allows the motor-sensory system to read the outside environment better. Without the loud and constant theorizing of the ego, the embodied mind can more accurately read and respond to the environment. So, improvisation is as adaptive as it is expressive…



The improvisational mind is typically an underappreciated source of wisdom. It can sense subtle unconscious cues in others, and can, in the words of Evans, show a person “a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise.” Maybe that’s why some of the great blues and jazz improvisers I’ve spent time with seem like.….roughneck Buddhas. They train first, then create spontaneously. And when they make mistakes, they learn from them…


Calder Foundation, NY / Art Resource, NY
© 2015 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London

Good improvisation is empathic. It is not just unrehearsed innovation, but apt and fitting contributions to a social or collective project. You cannot improvise well unless you’re a good listener — a fact as true in politics as it is in music…

When we’re collectively composing and performing life — which is usually the case — it’s good to have attentive, empathic partners. I think that’s what Bo Diddley meant, with his earthy Zen koan:


This monkey is tied, now let’s skin it!


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4 replies on “The Wisdom of Roughneck Buddhas

  1. I call myself an intuitive woodright, when people ask. I can rarely tell someone how long something will take, nor how much it will cost. In the standard business thinking, this is frustrating from the standpoint of the customer, and myself, at times. I do not like to be stuck by the first impressions of my ego, as I work myself into a project, thus I find it very tough to bid anything. I find great spiritual and creative satisfaction in improvisation as I work. I tell people that my hands know what to do when I touch the wood, but I can’t always tell you what that is upfront. I haven’t touched it yet. I also get caught by the mundanity of other’s thinking. Often people do not see anything in the wood I touch. However, I rarely have any complaints when I hand over a finished project, for the love that goes into creativity can be felt, and that is, at least, as important to people as the object itself.

  2. Fabulous post. True improvisation remains somewhat elusive to me, and it’s an ongoing practice for me to bring a more improvised quality to my daily activities. Thanks for sharing.

  3. You said the key words: an ongoing practice (:
    It’s like exercising a muscle. You get stronger as you do it!

  4. Going against any form of “standard thinking” can be challenging. (Many people think I’m rather crazy for not programming posts on Improvised Life, but rather “listening” to what needs to go up next…It is definitely NOT a great business practice but I can’t seem to do it any other way.

    It would seem, though, that showing new customers photographs of the work you’ve done via your intuitive practice would give them a sense of your sensibility and reassure them.

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