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.
I have been re-reading Michael Singer’s book The Untethered Soul, a work that I would highly recommend to everyone. In it, he writes about the heart as the most sensitive and intelligent area of the body, a place where energy can flow or get stuck. If something from our past traumatized us, the energy is stored there, unable to pass through us the way it wants to. It then gets triggered unconsciously, randomly, and a myriad of times–causing us suffering–until we we become aware enough to open our heart and allow that energy to finally move on.
I am also closing in on the completion of a 30-day Yoga challenge that I began for the New Year. There are a lot of heart openers in each practice and, truthfully, they are some of my least favorite poses. I find them a struggle, both in flexibility and endurance; I don’t enjoy them. As a fairly new Yogi, It hadn’t registered with me, though, that the purpose of a heart opener is related to the heart chakra and is meant to encourage energy flow. Duh. Sometimes it takes me a while to get things. It’s not about opening my shoulders and chest; it’s about opening my heart, even when it hurts. The correlation between Yoga and the challenging situations I’ve been dealing with in my day-to-day life is a bit mind-blowing at times. Yoga has become a container to hold everything I’m feeling and a way to process those feelings without getting blocked or depressed.
Singer says, “Remember, if you love life, nothing is worth closing over. Nothing, ever, is worth closing your heart over.”
I’ve been sitting with the idea of sitting with something. Even though I’ve been meditating regularly for the past few years and have been in and out of Yoga and am aware of how to bring myself to the present moment – I still try to rush through things sometimes. Why? I don’t know. Why is the present moment never good enough? Why do we try to manipulate it or deny it or hurtle ourselves out of this moment and into the next?
Since taking this audition class I’ve become keenly aware of how hard it is for me to sit still with a script and allow it to work on me. Each time I sit down I get anxious about everything else I have to do. Sitting quietly feels like a luxury I can’t afford. I should be cleaning my house or unpacking the lingering boxes (Yes, I moved in January. Yes, I still have boxes.), or planning healthy meals for the week or paying bills or researching a mailing or exercising (always) or returning phone calls or bringing stuff to Goodwill or seeing friends or getting to bed early… there is always something else I could be doing. My real work, the creative work, often takes a backseat to these more pressing items.
I now know that these “To-Do’s” are a form of resistance. So let’s say I push through the anxiety and give myself permission to sit quietly with my script for an hour or two. I then have to contend with the panicky voice in my head that feels VERY SURE that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I don’t know how to absorb the story, I don’t know how to relate to these people, I don’t have anything original to bring to the material, my take on camera will suck, I don’t know how to make the transitions between scenes, I might as well give up and skip class this week.
I stay with it. I force myself to stay in the chair and to keep reading and wildly cast my mind about for something to latch on to. And then I do. Something in the script – a line, a description, a memory – grabs me and I start sinking into the imaginary circumstances as if they were really happening.
Great, right? But the battle’s not over. You’d think that, once it happened, I would just go with it. I’d let my imagination go and take the ride and see where it wanted to take me. But I can’t. I just can’t let go. I start to find something and suddenly I jerk back, the same way I do when sleep starts to take me each night. I jerk myself awake again and again until I’m too exhausted to fight it anymore.
This kind of resistance is so uncomfortable that it becomes very easy to stop the process and rationalize reasons to be done for the day. Maybe I should go watch a movie for inspiration; maybe I should do the dishes so they can stop annoying me; maybe I should go to bed because I never get enough sleep.
And so, if I listen to those rationalizations, I cheat myself out of what wants to happen, which is actually the thing that I live for. It’s an experience of creation that is surprising, joyful and utterly fulfilling.
It’s the same with meditation. If I jerk out early, I miss diving into the radiant white light which is an experience I can’t even explain.
It’s the same with Yoga … I just went back to a structured class for the first time in years and I forgot how it is to settle into a pose or a stretch long after I’ve reached my threshold of comfort. If I get out of a pose early, I miss tapping into those deep places in my body that never get attention or exercise.
I don’t know how it is in other parts of the world but here in the States we pride ourselves on individualism. We want to stand out, go our own way, do our own thing. We think we know best and that no one else should be able to tell us what to do or how to live. That’s great and all but sometimes I wonder what our culture would look like if we held a practice?
What would it be like to stay with something? To stay with the person in front of us instead of glancing at our phones? To stay open in a difficult conversation instead of leaving with a snarky remark? To stay sober? To stay calm in traffic? To stay in the stretch a little longer? To stay quiet instead of talking? To stay vulnerable rather than defensive? To stay with vegetables instead of sugar? To stay with the strange character trying to emerge instead of playing it safe in the audition room?
Practice, Practice, Practice.