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.
The theatre community of Elkhart, Indiana, is mourning the passing of Marcia Fulmer, a prolific arts editor, writer, critic, director, and actress. I met Marcia at the age of 15, when I was cast in the chorus of a musical called Carnival that she was directing for Elkhart Civic Theatre, which operates out of the historic Bristol Opera House. In terms of community theatre, ECT was one of the best around, and I was beside myself to be performing on that stage.
Early into rehearsals, someone left the show, and so I was “upgraded” to a role with one line, as half of a “fake Siamese twin” duo. Marcia told me, in a rush, to pick up my sides from the office. I was so green, I didn’t know what she meant, but was too scared to ask her. So I asked for my “sign” from the office and discovered that it was one square of paper bound between a cover. Typed on the page was the “cue” line and then my own line of dialogue. I didn’t have a full script so I had absolutely no idea where my line was supposed to come in, which caused me tremendous anxiety.
Marcia knew her stuff and pulled no punches in her direction. I realized I was working with the most professional person I’d encountered up to that point and tried to do everything right. One day, we were choreographing a big musical number with the entire cast, and I was situated up on a ladder with streamers in my hand. I was worried about calling attention to myself, certain that the focus should be elsewhere, and so I held the streamers still while I sang. Marcia singled me out in exasperation during notes, saying, “Don’t just stand all the way up there with your streamers hanging down. Wave them around!” I felt humiliated to be called out in front of everyone and for doing the “wrong thing” but it gave me a swift lesson I needed to learn: that I was allowed to be seen and that I was encouraged to contribute of my own accord instead of waiting for instruction. I also had trouble because my line was comedic and over-the-top and it felt like death-by-torture for someone as insecure as I was. Marcia had to demonstrate a possible line reading for me (which she rarely did) and, once again, she gave me permission to at least attempt to come out of my shell.
We had an amazing cast which included quite a few mischief-makers. During a tech rehearsal, I learned that it was a bit of a tradition to play practical jokes during the scenes. I was terrified of what Marcia would say but, to my surprise, she tolerated the tomfoolery while also refusing to crack or to deviate from her rigorous direction. I celebrated my 16th birthday during the run and the cast surprised me with singing, cake and cards one night, which she also tolerated, even though it cut into her time. Participating in that show was truly one of the happiest experiences of my life.
A couple of years later, I was cast in another musical, again in the chorus. In addition, I was given a little comedic featured role that had some solo singing. And, yet again, I was terrified. I worked hard to overcome my nerves but could never relax until that part of the show was over. My castmate, and the lead of the musical, congratulated me on “shaking less every night” at the end of the run. A dubious accomplishment. But perhaps the highlight for me was when Marcia came to review the show; I could hardly believe it when she included me in a trio of actors who “contributed some nice comedy bits.” It was the first review I’d ever received and I knew that, from her, it was significant. It remains one of my favorite pieces of feedback, especially since I knew how much those “comedy bits” scared the hell out of me.
I can’t begin to touch on the accomplishments of Marcia’s life, which are better relayed by those who knew her best. She was, however, a full-blown artist, who brought a level of insight and professionalism to a small Midwestern community in ways that completely raised the bar for many, many years. In a recent podcast, she touched on the rough spots in her life, saying that we may have tough times but being a part of something with our neighbors, like putting on a great show, can be an elixir: “God, theatre helps.” I hold such a special place in my heart for the people I worked with on those community theatre stages while I was growing up. Theatre saved my life, in so many ways, and it was artists like Marcia who helped me to see what was possible beyond those stages…even for a scared Indiana girl like me.
If you become the one you long for then what will you do with your longing? ~Rumi
What is there to do if you are so full as love that more love isn’t possible? If you truly trusted love abounding as all of life, then what would occupy your emotions? Unending and all-abundant love is the end of feminine drama. ~David Deida
Desire has been a driving force throughout my entire life. Deep inside I’ve always held the awareness that this isn’t all there is. I became insatiable for more, even though I couldn’t define what more was. As I grew older, that longing became twisted and obscured, protected and defended. I thought that what I wanted would come from outside of me, given to me by others, gifted to me by circumstance. I couldn’t trust enough in my own value to believe that it could come from me, through me, or that it might even just be me.
Eventually, I held that desire so far out in front of me and so far deep inside of me that I couldn’t reconcile myself with it. I could see what I wanted, watched others living the life I desired, but then, as if by magnetic force, I would repel that love and opportunity as far away as I could. Not consciously. Not by choice. But how can love come towards you if you’re vibrating not worthy in every cell of your body? Imagine a magnet whose desire draws everything she wants but then, at the last second, the force of her not worthy stops the desired in its tracks. It can’t move forward. It’s held in place by resistance. Eventually, it moves away.
It has taken me a lifetime, right up until this moment, to understand the battle I’ve been waging inside of my heart. These are not new ideas but sometimes it takes hearing it a hundred different ways, and experiencing suffering years in and years out, to finally grasp the concept that absolutely nothing is separate from who I am. It’s never been about what I do or say I want; it’s about the energy of who I am.
Perhaps the biggest frustration and stumbling block for me in the past, when I considered this idea, was that I could never figure out how to be love on the inside when I couldn’t feel it from the outside. Not that I was unloving–because I loved fiercely–but that love was never directed towards myself. I tried to fill the hole in my heart in every way possible but could never satiate my hunger, my longing. Then something really challenging happens–or many challenging things all at once–and I’m knocked so far off my center that my heart just cracks open from that hole. And then it finally gets filled by the only thing that could ever satisfy it. And it reminds me to keep waking up, keep waking up, keep waking up. Love is who we are. We lack nothing.
The most beautiful experience I’ve had this time around is that I’ve gone inward towards a vast and overwhelming love that comes from nowhere else. Meditation (combined with Yoga) is the #1 remedy I now give to myself for whatever ails me. And even the experience of meditating is an eye-opener for how I’ve handled most of my life. I find it fairly easy to slip into a deep state, where a bright white light starts to consume my awareness, but it’s taking consistent practice to let myself go into that light instead of shying away. When I do allow it, the experience is breathtaking. I am so accustomed to playing out the drama of resistance, lack, and suffering, that coming face-to-face with No-Thing, pure Love, pure Potential, almost literally blows my mind. It brings me to tears just to contemplate it.
All desires are the desire for God
obscured and veiled. When you go
out of this world and see the King
face-to-face then you will know
that everything you longed for here
–whether women or men, wealth
or palaces, things to eat, political
or religious power–all these things
were veils and coverings of him. (Her/It/Them)