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Acting, Healing, and Spirituality--Rediscovering "Real Life"

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I have discovered after years of hospice work that the most healing tool for me to release emotional weight is acting--mostly improv acting, but also some plays and short sketch shows. I know I'm not alone here, either ... thousands, millions, maybe all performers feel that surge of existential energy and life force to be the most healing experience they know.

When I quit my hospice job this past summer, I decided to write a short play about my experiences as a chaplain. Those of you who have worked in health care know that some of the stories you hold in your hearts are so vast, so cosmically absurd, so tragic and hilarious all at once that you barely know how to make meaning of them for yourselves, much less articulate them for others. You just know that you walk away wanting to say to the entire universe, "Did that just happen? Did I really just witness that?" and maybe even, "Do I exist in the way I thought I did?"

Well, I gave it a shot. And what I learned was that the play came to exist as a life force of its own, and that when my fellow performer and I shared it with others, we became simple vessels through which the lifeblood of those experiences poured themselves relentlessly and effortlessly, as long as we were willing to get out of our own heads about all of it. There were even times, during the performance and even the rehearsals, when I could swear that the spirits of those in "real life" were coming to be with us and guide us, and that our show was helping them to process their journeys as well. The jury is out about whether there is ontological truth to any of that, but at the very least it was quite powerful.

As a meditator I think I have over-emphasized the simple practice of sitting with emotions in silence. Anyone who has studied some Buddhism has probably come across the term spiritual bypassing, which was coined by Buddhist psychotherapist John Welwood. Spiritual bypassing is the tendency to use meditation or other spiritual practices and beliefs as a way to avoid painful feelings, developmental needs, or unresolved wounds that have kept us stuck in our current belief systems.

Those of us who feel called to creative expression can use meditation or other spiritual practices as a way to hide out from that deep longing inside to birth forth our unique experiences--through writing, acting, music, painting, whatever mode we feel drawn to. If we're lucky, though, we will catch ourselves in this process at some point and the very practices that we were using to avoid those longings will bring them up, and the longing to create will knock so hard at our doors that we will have no choice but to answer.

What I found through writing that play was that I lost about 20 pounds of emotional weight that I had been carrying around with me, totally unconsciously, for years, while doing my work. I was meditating every day and doing my best to "let go" of my emotions, but it wasn't until I brought those stories to life and allowed them a total completion on that stage, and even just in beginning rehearsals, that the energy moved all the way through me and back into the cosmos, to be held in an eternal bond with the rest of the memory-stories of this mysterious universe.

I don't know any science to back my theories (since science is "proof," right?), but I do have a deep intuitive sense that storytelling and other forms of creative expression literally move energy from a stuck place into a place of freedom. The stage, for example, allows energy to move in ways that have no repercussions on our "real" lives, so when we play out our anger, our despair, and our joy, we do so without fear of its effects on those around us. Furthermore, the stage is a realm that deems respect, and it is assumed that the audience is there to fully bear witness to the unfolding process.

I don't have enough experience to write about the other realms of expression--perhaps you can write something to me about those realms. As for the stage, though, my theory is that the stage is a place of healing because of those twofold reasons I shared--there is complete freedom to play, and complete freedom to be witnessed. When this freedom of deep play joins with the witness, energy is liberated and space is infused with a palpable healing wisdom.

I recently heard a story about a Zen teacher in Denver who used to be an actor. He loved the feeling of space and freedom--the healing--that would take place on the stage. He decided to quit the work, however, when he got so fed up with other actors who would be so willing to dive into that space on stage, and yet be so shut down to their own "real" lives off-stage. Like going from a wide-open heart to a stone hidden in the corner, in a matter of seconds. Perhaps we could call this theatrical bypassing! That was what pulled him to begin a spiritual path, actually--the longing to have all of life be a stage--to have all moments be infused with that freshness, that healing and witnessing.

So whichever method comes first--theater or spirituality--I do feel that each of these forms has a tremendous amount of richness to contribute to the other. I know now, in my own skin and bones, that sometimes the best thing for me to do is not meditate, and instead to write a play, or go to an improv show, or just play silly games with my boyfriend (I even have characters I use when we fight, to keep things light--and I swear, it moves the energy very quickly at times!). And sometimes, when everything is just too overwhelming and painful, the best thing to do is to gently sit down and be with the breath, moment after moment, with love and attention.

Acting, ultimately, is a chance to explore a metaphysical playground, unhinged from our everyday expectations and assumptions. It can teach us, however, that all of those assumptions about "who we are in real life" might be a little less solid than we think. And meditation can certainly help to cultivate that level of unobstructed, compassionate awareness. I certainly intend on being a student and a teacher of both, for the rest of this life and probably for the rest of time. I send out the deepest of my heart's prayers that each of us finds a mode of healing that can work for us, so that we live freely, unstuck from our own projections and solidified versions of what we think we are, and what life is.

Happy new year!

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