THE SACRED ACTOR
For me, acting is almost a spiritual discipline. First of all, the visualizations and meditations resemble spiritual techniques, which stem from what acting originally was; the original actors were priests and priestesses in the temples. For the real actor, I think it’s a spiritual calling. I don’t see it being talked about much anymore, but I think many good actors experience their art that way.
~ Ellen Burnstyn
In the middle of this, my year of everything-falling-to-pieces, the one beautiful shard has been how deeply my spiritual practice has grown. I ran across this quote in an old notebook and was struck by how relevant it still feels to me. I haven’t acted in many months, and I miss it every day, but I finally understand why acting has always felt so important to me, and why I feel so empty when I’m not able to engage with it.
Acting has been the one arena in my life where I feel completely myself. It never feels like work, I lose all track of time, and I feel joyful and fulfilled. I am in the zone and out of my head when I get to channel my creativity. It’s also been one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever encountered but it’s a challenge that thrills me.
This year, I’ve realized that acting has been my spiritual path–which, like any spiritual path, is meant to bring me closer to the Divine. However, because my other spiritual practices have deepened, I can now experience daily, without “doing” anything, what I used to only experience while acting. It is the sense of aliveness, presence, and connection to Consciousness. The amazing thing about it is that I don’t need a stage, a set, or to book an audition. I can experience this no matter what I’m doing, no matter where I am, and no matter what is going right or wrong at the time.
When an actor trains with Sense Memory, she encounters an object without any pre-conceived labels or judgements. The actor may sit in a chair and hold a cup. She observes the cup as if for the first time. She describes its qualities to her fellow classmates: it’s made of glass, it’s medium height, it has raised ridges, there’s a wide rim, it’s a bit heavy, the light comes through it, I see a distorted image if I hold it up to my eyes. Only after the actor has fully explored the glass objectively does she begin to attach personal meaning and a story. But, without that personal story, she is looking through the lens of Presence, and so even something as ordinary as describing a glass has become a totally spiritual practice.
Memorizing lines is akin to meditating and chanting with a Mantra. One focuses the mind on a word or series of words in order to keep random thoughts from taking over. At first there is effort involved but, finally, one goes into a sort of trance; instead of continually calling your attention back to the Mantra, you simply ride the waves of the sound of the words. I use a memorization technique I call “walk the lines.” Whenever I have large chunks of text to memorize, I go for a long walk outside, all the while chanting the text. Eventually, the rhythm of the words drops into the rhythm of my body, and they become one thing.
The practice of a Mantra is not about the Mantra itself. It’s meant for the moment when your mind suddenly releases thought and the Mantra disappears, without your knowing it, into No-Thought. Then, you’re in a state of union with the Divine, for as long as you allow yourself to remain there. When an actor’s lines have dropped into her body, she doesn’t think about them anymore; they simply arise out of her as if they are her.
Anything we do in life can be our spiritual practice: meditation, Yoga, relationships, sports, housework, nature, religious rituals, creativity–you name it. As long as we don’t mistake the practice for the Divine Itself, it doesn’t really matter what it is. I’m finding comfort in the knowledge that, even when I can’t participate in the practice I love the most, I can still experience the core of what I love about it, which is simply the formless quality without the form attached.