The Buddhist Actor

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Last week, I had a rare opportunity to sit in on a Taoist workshop lead by the head of the Chinese Taoism Society, Master Meng Zhiling.  I knew very little going in about Taoist culture and beliefs, only that they would be a great complement to my Buddhist studies (and helpful toward my goal of sitting and meditating for more than 10 minutes at a time without deciding the clean the living room).

During the second workshop, Master Meng spoke specifically about breath and meditation, focusing on body position and the role of Chi. In a nutshell:

  • Shoulders relaxed and down
  • Breath is focused three inches below your belly button
  • Spine and neck are in line
  • Head is lifted but not tense (like a basket on a string!)
  • Overall, you should feel physically light and balanced
  • This practice takes time and patience, since we most likely have been breathing differently all our lives

So what does this sound like?  Other than every singing or vocal lesson you’ve ever had, it sounds like Alexander Technique. The goal of this breath training is to create balance and health in the body and mind. It’s about returning to your body’s original state.  Anyone who has studied AT hears this and goes, “Oh!  That’s the whole point of Alexander!”  Taoist meditation is obviously more complicated than my little list, but I do not have the knowledge to explain or even try to repeat the lessons of the Dao he spoke about last week–that’s all still sinking in slowly. But my point is that I was shocked by the similarities between Eastern philosophies and our theatre training.

And then the lightbulb went off!  I have been studying Buddhism since high school, and plan to practice at a temple next year (more on that later). However, for the most part, my acting writing and Buddhist writing has remained separate.  They often cross over when it comes to career advice or just generally on getting through the day, but I’m realizing how many Buddhist (and apparently Doaist!) pieces of advice would be helpful for actors both on and off stage.

For the past several months (okay, years) I have been throwing spaghetti up against the refrigerator to see what sticks. Is that the expression?  Either way, I’ve tried many writing endeavors–some of which last a while and fully develop, while others slowly peel off the refrigerator door and end up on the floor for the cats to eat. Runaway metaphor. Some projects stick, others do not.  Either way, at the moment, I’m digging this current idea.

In my recent reading, here are the topics I’m looking to explore:

Actor in the community: Many Buddhist teachers, speak about the connection between personal focus and cultivation and how this in turn builds compassion and understanding with your community.  As actors, I often lose patience with our career when I feel I am in a narcissistic loop of self promotion.  I got into the field to connect with an audience and tell a story, but we often spend long stretches of time building our “business” and maintaining personal sanity instead. And yet, without proper self care, I lose my connection with others on stage, and alas, stop getting cast. Buddhism speaks a great deal about this cycle of self care and care for others.

Returning to Reality: Another concept that Pema Chödrön often tackles is the return to the present moment–without adding the lens of our emotions and judgements.  Between anger and fear in the audition waiting room, to getting lost in habits on stage and in class, we often forget what our natural state provided to our creativity in the early days of acting. By removing the layers of anger and fear we’ve developed over time, we can enter each audition and rehearsal with the understanding that we may come across something that makes us uncomfortable, accept this as a passing feeling, and remaining open in the moment.

Maitri: This is a big one.  Essentially, it is about developing loving kindness for yourself. Pema Chödrön is quick to specify that this not developing acceptance of your neuroses, but instead caring for yourself and recognizing the difference between the two.  This practice, as is the same with all the rest, takes time and patience–since, as artists, we are particularly sensitive personalities that have been trained to absorb each emotion to its extreme. An then of course there is the dreadful nature of our difficult business and its place in society, which does not aid in helping us feed this self care.

Changing the Story: Most importantly, I have been drawn to the idea of shenpa in my recent studies–which is the urge or attachment to a self-created storyline that causes us to shut down.  It is the trigger that sets the wheels in motion to complain, to judge, to fear and most importantly, to block out what is really happening around us. If this happens on stage, we are lost and disconnected instantly. However, when studying a character, we literally spend weeks studying the “storyline” of a character’s life, and sometimes–in methods such as Meisner–focus so much on incorporating our own personal experience with the characters.  We feed these connections to fuel our onstage decisions.  So where is the healthy balancing for actors trying to go about their regular day in a difficult field, while remaining present and true to the work they’re doing on stage?

So, you get the idea.  Why I’ve never seen these particular connections before is beyond me, but as I continue both my acting and Buddhist research and practice, I hope to dive into these topics (and more!) throughout my travels and from your suggestions.
Please feel free to comment below or send me messages about your thoughts/what may be helpful for you in the future.  If you’re interested in following this series, please hit subscribe and chime in during the conversation to either add to (or correct me!) in my comparisons and suggestions.
As always, have a lovely week and thanks for reading!!
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