I've just spent a week immersed in theater: daily rehearsals and constant running of lines, culminating in three performances in the space of 28 hours. And looking back over it this morning (how can I not, given the way it's consumed my thoughts and time this past week) I think it's taught me something very important about our struggle for spiritual maturity.
If you've followed this blog a long time, you probably know by now that I was once deeply involved in church but am no longer so involved. I haven't in any way lost my faith, it's just evolved over the years to a place where the language and messages of most of the churches I encounter seem to miss the mark of what I know -- or at least believe -- to be true.
So what I think today -- after this interesting week -- is that the problem with churches is they encourage people to sort of will themselves to goodness. And I don't think that's all that effective: I think what result's a bit like the disconnect between political correctness and the horrid nastiness we're currently seeing on the American political scene.
When we are busy willing ourselves to goodness, it becomes a sort of mask that we put on, but the character beneath the mask remains unchanged. This can become such a habit that we may not even be aware when the mask slips, because over time we come to inhabit it so completely that we honestly believe it's who we are.
I think, actually, that true spiritual maturity is more a matter of becoming conscious than becoming "good." And here's how I saw that played out in the theater.
The show was a 10-minute play festival: ten plays by ten playwrights, each ten minutes long, with five directors managing two plays each with a stable of actors, some of whom were in more than one play. Since I was only in one play, I was only on stage for 10 minutes in a performance that lasted two hours, so I had lots of time to observe.
And the first thing I noticed was this: a director known to be a sweet, gentle, very sensitive and intelligent person, would suddenly turn and utter rude, insensitive and even sometimes abusive comments to his actors and staff, and then later not even realize he had done so -- in fact, become hurt and deeply apologetic; frankly disbelieving when called on his actions. It so perfectly mirrored an experience I'd had last year with another director that I was forced to realize that this must somehow be a part of the human condition, but thrown into relief in these stressful situations.
The second thing was more oblique: an actress in one of the other plays -- a very seasoned and truly gifted actress -- was extremely nervous about going on stage and wondering if she should ever act again because she found it so intensely stressful. "Aren't you nervous?" she asked. "This really isn't fun," she said. "I wonder if I should, like, meditate or something."
And I realized I wasn't nervous, actually; at least -- not in the way she meant. But it wasn't because I have a meditation practice, in the sense that "I meditate, so I'm a chill person." Looking closely at my thinking processes, I realized my biggest worry was not that I wouldn't perform well or would forget my lines, but that I wouldn't stay conscious; that I would become so obsessed with how I might perform or be perceived that I would lose track of my lines, of the arc of the play, of where I was on stage -- all of which was especially critical because one of the other actors who provided most of my cues didn't have his lines yet and kept going off script. So I had to be always aware of what was physically happening in the play so I could respond appropriately while still keeping the play as close as possible to the script the playwright had written. I needed to be fully present at all times -- something I (daydreamer, observer, performer that I am) traditionally find difficult.
These individuals -- the two directors, the nervous actress, the actor who kept muffing his lines -- are all good souls, talented, thoughtful, hearts in the right place, and I'm very fond of them all. But with all that time to observe and process, I found myself increasingly grateful for the time I spend in meditation every day. Not that I am a better human being for it -- I know I'm every bit as capable of flying off the handle, of panicking, of forgetting my lines, of saying one thing while doing another: I am human, after all!
But my daily practice has helped me to be more present and more conscious; has helped me to let go of my need to be right and good; has helped me to trust that my performing self is not my best self; that beneath all that need to be right or good is some deeper self that is already genuinely right and good; it's a sort of collective divine core that I believe is deeply rooted in each of us. And I believe that if I can get my need to be perceived as "good" out of the way -- if I can be totally present and fully conscious of what is happening around me -- then what needs to be said or done in any given situation will somehow rise up and spill out appropriately.
The performing self's resistance to allowing that to happen, I suspect, is that if I let that deeper self control what happens then I as an individual can no longer take credit for whatever good occurs: it's not me being or doing good, it's good being done through me. You'd think the performing self would be grateful for a chance to look good -- and of course it's my performing self that's talking to you now: she's trying to make way for the deeper self to take charge because Performing Self knows that that will make her look good. But when Deeper Self does take charge, Performing Self kind of fades away. So because she is desperate to stay visible, she resists that letting go process quite ferociously.
I suspect this is all rather muddy; I haven't fully processed it yet. But it's the first time I've looked at the difference between what Richard Rohr calls False Self and True Self in this context. I've seen it before, when I'm painting; that when Performing Self tries to control the outcome of what I paint, it's somehow less satisfying than when I paint from my Deeper Self. But to see it play out on the stage, in community with others, seems to be taking that awareness to another level; integrating it a bit more...
Funny. My husband just came in while I was typing, so I was trying to describe all this to him. He sees it all as a control issue -- hierarchical management versus a more cooperative approach, both organizationally (director and cast) and personally (what's in our brains at any given moment vs what we know at a deeper level). He believes the difficult behaviors stem from fear of failure, fear of lack of control. All of which is also true. And isn't that interesting? Because the performing self from this perspective is the individual, needing success, and the deeper self is the part of us that steps back and trusts that the collective good will emerge, and works to create a more collaborative environment where that can happen.
Fascinating. Well, to me, anyway. Such fun thoughts to start the day.
Have a good one. Get some rest. Enjoy these last bits of summer.
It's been quite a week: a friend's brother lost his home in the Louisiana floods, a friend's daughter miscarried at 14 weeks, we put our dog to sleep, tonight is opening night for a play I'm in, and my husband, who's been in school all summer, has his final test this morning.
So when we got word from another friend that his teenage daughter was in the ICU with blood clots, it was like, oh, dear, what else will we need to pray for and worry about?
And the truth is -- I don't really want to know. Because things are going wrong all over the world, for all sorts of people, in all sorts of difficult situations. I can't begin to encompass them all, although I can pray that my prayers for those whom I know will echo in the lives of others unknown to me.
At times like this, when I am hyper-aware of the fragility of life; when there are so many thoughts and prayers clamoring for space in my brain, I notice it's very difficult to stay on task. So I begin again to make lists: pray for this, practice that, water these, notify people of this, do this, remember that... And I look for something to ease the clutter -- which is, I think, why this image appealed to me today.
I look at all these peaceful faces, and, just as the act of contorting my features into a smile makes me feel happier, the feeling of reflecting these faces (those hyperactive mirror neurons at work again) helps me feel calmer.
I'm hoping that, whatever's going on in your life today, it does the same for you...