The Power In Not Knowing – (Where Actors Find Great Freedom)

I have discovered a truth that is as old as time itself. This discovery took decades to become a reality in my life. In fact I never expected it to come at all. Before I tell you exactly what the discovery is, let me first tell you about what my life was like before it. I’ll sum it up in one word … CONTROL.

For the most part, there wasn’t a corner of my life I didn’t try and control. It started with the very first thought I had in the morning, and it would escalate from there. I would try to grab a hold of everything both internal, and external, and shape it so it fit my preferences. If I couldn’t shape it, I would use brute force by way of worry, fear, anger, or avoidance. I would also try to control things by being a people pleaser. I was pretty much a master at this one. People-pleasing is junk food for the ego. The ego is desperate for acceptance. It doesn’t care how it gets it. Depending on the type of person you are, you may either choose to feed your ego by controlling others, resisting others, or pleasing others. I won’t deny I dabbled in the former two as well, but my egos main diet was to do all it could to please everyone around me. I fell into the trap of saying “yes” to everyone and everything. If I could get someone on my side, if I could get them to like me, then I felt I could more easily control the circumstances that came up between us. I also felt I had greater control over who it is I thought I was. In being accepted by others, I tended to feel I then could accept myself without difficulty.

So, imagine walking around with this kind of mindset, and choosing to become an actor as my career path. For years, I approached acting the same way I approached everything else in my life… I had to control it. It had to turn out exactly as I had imagined it in my mind. If anything interfered in achieving that outcome, I would end up resentful, depressed, and an overall messy bundle of broken nerves. Auditions for me were nothing more than a desperate attempt to prove myself in the worst kind of way. I walked into every audition like a gorilla on crack. Hyped up on trying to figure out what they were looking for so I could give it to them (there’s that nasty people pleaser raising his head again.) I wasn’t enjoying the process of creating a character; I, instead, was forcing myself upon those in the room to accept me on my dysfunctional terms.

I’m sure there are those of you who may relate to some or all of what I’ve stated above. If so, then the same question must have run through your mind as it did mine, “Is there another way?” Yes, there is… and that other way is to let go of knowing. Please do not confuse the desire for knowledge, (which is a good thing,) with the desire to control your day-to-day existence by believing you have all the answers. In fact, when it comes to moment-to-moment reality, we are fortunate if we know anything at all. You see, all the forms of controlling I mentioned above stem from the false belief that you have a grasp of knowing everything that is going on in and around you at any given moment. In order for you to stop living in this way, you have to look at yourself in the mirror, and surrender everything by simply stating, “I DON’T know.” Think about it for a moment, when we are trying to control our circumstances, two things are happening…

1. You are creating unrealistic expectations, which leaves you closed off, and forfeits the spontaneity that comes with living in the moment.

2. You are left powerless, because all your energy is wrapped up in controlling things. This energy is spent on fear… fear of what it may feel like to not know, fear of not being in control. But the truth is, we were never really in control in the first place.

The way I came to this discovery was by reading the writings of Alan Watts on the power of “I don’t know” (or what some call the “don’t know” mind.) Alan Watts was a British born philosopher who popularized Eastern philosophy here in the United States. His view of the “don’t know” mind is that the more we try and cling to knowing, (which is another way of saying “controlling,”) the less energy we have to live in the present moment. Here’s the quote that blew me away, and opened my mind…

 “This ‘I don’t know,’ is the utterly infinite interior of the spirit. This ‘I don’t know’ is the same thing as ‘I love,’ ‘I let go,’ ‘I don’t try and force and control,’ the same thing as ‘humility.’ The principal is, anytime you cease to cling to yourself, you have an access of power.”

Can you get even a small glimpse of how significant this is? The desire to know everything (or at least fooling yourself into believing you do,) is ego. Ego wants to control all things, whether by pretending to know it all, or through scheming, or manipulation, it just wants to make sure it gets fed. Yet, when we live fully in the reality of not knowing, you no longer feed the ego, you are now feeding the spirit, and the spirit can only recognize and live wholly in the present moment. In the present moment, there is no need to control, or to please, or to worry, or to stand in judgment of others. We don’t have to battle with negativity. Everything in the present moment is complete… just as it is.

This “don’t know” mind is the place where the heart of an actor should live. Since discovering this for myself, I have also discovered a genuine joy for acting, a joy in creating, and I truly relish the process of getting to tell a story by bringing it to life. It is no longer all about “me,” (which is what it is for any of us who try and control everything,) but it is now instead about integrating a character into the fabric of a story in which I am simply a thread. This is where my focus lies. This has led to more work. Auditioning has become a great pleasure because I’ve let go of any effort on my part to impress others, and I achieved this by no longer attempting to have it all figured out. This has freed me to simply concentrate on the work I need to do, and nothing more. This has allowed others to be more relaxed, and open around me, and it has allowed me to take greater risks, without the neurosis.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, then perhaps you’ll appreciate it more from Daniel Day-Lewis. When asked how he felt about his work in “Gangs of New York,” playing Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting, his reply was…

 “You never know, you just never know. If you’re doing the work, if you think you know, then something is not quite right. The further out on a limb you are, the further there is to fall, and that sense of precariousness is something that you have to live with.”

So, if “not knowing” is what fuels brilliant performances out of the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, then we, as actors, as craftsmen, should all aspire to achieve the ability to live without feeling terra firma under our feet.

The Reluctant Hero

When I was around eleven years old, I got into an argument with a teenager who lived across the street over something to do with stickball. As it got heated, he pushed me and I fell and banged my head. He really didn’t mean for it to happen. I was trying to be tough, he was trying to be tough, stupidity ensued, no biggie… but being eleven, and more embarrassed than bruised, I ran inside and told my mother. My father overheard me tell her about the incident, rose to his feet, and started mumbling something about “taking care” of the situation.

My father was kind of an absentee father. Though he was there, he was never present. If I heard my father say a dozen words up to that point in my life, it would have been a lot. But now, here he was, coming to my defense. He saw his son wronged, and he was going to make it right.  He called me to go with him, and I followed him out. My heart was racing for so many reasons, but mostly because this was so unlike my father. He had never done anything like this… ever! Yet, I was ecstatic. It was as if my father donned a red cape, placed his hands on his hips, and was going to serve up some justice for the boy he loved. As he came out of the apartment building, I sensed something wasn’t quite right. He staggered a little bit. I brushed it off as him slipping on something, but almost immediately, as he confronted the teenager, I heard him slur his words. My father was drunk… more to the point… he was shit-faced. He didn’t know what he was doing, and he’d have no memory of it in the morning. The teenager who pushed me knew my dad was three-sheets to the wind, as well as all the other kids witnessing the event, and I was mortified. In one swift moment, my hopes to see my father be the hero I always wanted him to be were dashed as I was faced with the reality I knew for so many years… my father was an alcoholic. It boggles my mind how, when I think back to that incident, I can recall it so clearly. And though I know my father’s reaction may have been more alcohol-induced; there is a part of me that holds out hope that somewhere inside of him, apart from the alcohol, his intentions were true.

Every son’s first hero is his father. Even before they have any awareness of what a hero is, they intuitively know their father is one. A son has the ability to see beyond his father’s shortcomings and hangs his hopes that his father is secretly out saving the world while he lays sleeping. And most fathers secretly hope their sons see them that way. For a son, their father isn’t just a heroic figure; he’s a mirror into the future. Initially, as little boys, we see him, and wonder if that is what we’ll look like, act like, walk, and talk like. But as little boys turn into questioning teens, they begin to envision the role they might take on themselves in the very near future. It’s not so much about resembling or acting like your father, as much as it becomes about “what does it mean to be a father?”

Now here I am, forty-two years later with two sons of my own, and my perspective has shifted somewhat. Stepping into the role of “dad” has caused me to realize how enormous the responsibility is. In a certain way, I’m now able to look at the world through my father’s eyes. And in doing so, I suddenly understand how imperfect we are. Before having children, I never imagined myself a hero, but now I seem to have taken on the role, albeit reluctantly.

I have not followed in my father’s footsteps when it comes to alcohol, though I did have my bout with drug abuse (I’m twenty-seven years clean.) In being clean and sober long before I was a father, my sons have never witnessed me in any kind of inebriated condition. In fact, they haven’t even seen me buzzed! But here’s the kicker, today I am able to see my father for who he really was… a man filled with fear, unable to face life’s problems head on, and someone who had fallen into the trap of finding a way to numb reality enough so it was bearable. In other words, he was human… a condition shared by the rest of the world’s population. Was he an alcoholic? Yes. Does it sadden me? Yes, but not like it used to. You see… I was given the gift of seeing into my father’s heart just before he died.

When I was fourteen years old, my mother passed away. As devastating as this was, two weeks after, my father sat me down to tell me he could no longer take care of me, and he had worked it out for me to choose between two of my relatives as to where I’d live. I submissively accepted my fate. Fast forward eighteen years later, and the moment came where I confronted him about why it was he chose to have someone else raise me, and had not taken on the responsibility himself. As he sat helplessly on the couch, looking up at his son standing over him venting all this bottled up anger, yelling, “Why didn’t you take care of me? You were my father? Why didn’t you take care of me?” he answered with a trembling voice, simply saying, “I didn’t know how.” Those words were like a punch to my chest. Those words were as real as the tears rolling down my father’s face as his spoke them. Those words still reverberate in my soul to this very day. It may not have been the answer I wanted, but it was the most honest answer he could have given. And I saw right then and there, he knew himself well enough all those years ago to know he could never give me the life I deserved. He saw his son wronged, and he was going to make it right. He donned the red cape, and placed his hands on his hips, and saved me. I didn’t know it… it wasn’t what I thought saving me would have looked like… but my father knew who he was, and who he was would have never been good for me, and so he saved me from himself. If ever there was an act of heroism, this was it.

Right now, to my boys (who are ten, and six,) there isn’t a superhero alive that could hold a candle to me. They both see beyond my shortcomings, and imagine me out saving the world while they sleep. But there is a time coming, and very soon, where they will discover their father’s kryptonite. I will then become human to them. They will become aware of my weaknesses, my faults, and my inadequacies. They won’t like it because it dismantles the hero they’ve grown to love and trust. They won’t like it because it will be a reflection of their own humanity. They will momentarily lose faith in heroes, as they will not yet grasp the deeper truth of what real heroism is.  Will it turn out better for us than what took place between me and my father? All signs point to the probability that it will, but the greater truth is, there are no guarantees. We are all burdened in some way, and though we want to move all obstacles between ourselves and the one’s we love out the way fast enough so we never do them harm, that’s just not possible. The oddity of it all is that this is the soil where true love can grow, when we are no longer deluded by the fantasy of perfectionism. I look forward to that time. Until then, I will remain the reluctant hero, and cherish this short-lived phase where I’m seen as one who can do no wrong. In a way, a part of me still believes this about my father. In fact, I think all sons do, no matter their age.

My words here are many… but Bruce puts the father and son relationship very succinctly in one of my favorite songs of his “Walk Like A Man.” I can’t think of a better way to wrap up this blog. And as always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts, feelings, and reactions… especially from fathers and sons. All the best!

As A Man Thinks In His Heart So Is He

I’m currently in a season of revelation. What do I mean? I’m a person who is not satisfied with the status quo. Perhaps it’s because of the turn my life took at fourteen that permanently made me the boy who questions life. I had no choice. Literally! I woke one morning to find my mother had passed, and then two weeks later, my father sat me down to tell me he couldn’t take care of me, and sent me to live with my sister. Like it or not, I was forced to stand outside the status quo of what would be considered the normal teenage boy’s life. Though I do not wish for those events to happen to anyone at that age, I can see what an asset that experience has become for me now all these years later, and so I am very thankful for having gone through it. Because now, when I struggle with things, I allow myself to go through it with a seekers spirit. In this way, I end up having things revealed to me that can be beneficial. They stretch me, change me, and grow me in ways that no other way can. This is happening a lot lately.

One of the major revelations is that I’m beginning to see the connection between the mind, body, and spirit far more clearly than I ever have before. I once had the tendency to cling to a negative thought until it started taking a stronger and stronger hold on me. If I didn’t do something to break that cycle, it led to constant worry, and anxiety. I started to step back from this habit a while back, and asked myself the simple question, “Why do I do that?” I was recently struck by an answer to that question that I hadn’t expected… I wasn’t doing it. Yes, these thoughts were happening inside my mind, and yes, I was the one being affected by those thoughts, but those thoughts were not put there by me. These were old, kind of pre-programmed thoughts. Imagine if we were able to take out our brains, and open them up as we do a computer. I guarantee you, there’d be software in there that we’d be for certain we didn’t install. Yet, it’s running just the same. What would happen if we tried to install the very first Macintosh operating system on the latest iMac? It wouldn’t work, yet we don’t consider this when we look at our thought life. There is no question we have matured, and evolved from childhood; yet many of us remain blind to the fact that though we may appear to have the frame of a new iMac, the operating system running it is antiquated.

We have a way of knowing that our thought life is faulty by how much havoc it wreaks in our lives on a daily basis. Why is it that we are so stressed out all the time? Why do we sometimes desire to avoid life rather than embrace it? How many “I can’t(s)”, “I’ll never(s)”, “I’m not good enough(s)” and the like, do we repeat to ourselves each day? How many nagging thoughts do we let escalate to the point of becoming overly anxious? If something is beyond our control, do we become enraged because of it, or possibly fall into a depression? Do we find that we are blaming everyone else around us for how miserable we are, and not even ponder where we need to hold ourselves accountable? And if we look at it from a larger perspective, we might be able to ask ourselves why is it that the pharmaceutical companies have become gazillionaires with the advent of psychotropic medications? (Please take note, I am not saying this as someone against them, I am saying it because of the inordinate amount prescribed.) Could all of this be because we’re running software with bad commands and just don’t know it?

I recently viewed a series found on PBS entitled “This Emotional Life.” The series was on our emotions (anger, despair, etc.,) the pursuit of happiness, facing our fears, and another on our relationships, but they were all presented through the eyes of science. One of the segments brought forth the scientific findings of the brain’s ability to rewire, reroute, and reprogram itself, (it was defined as neuroplasticity,) through practices such as talk therapy, visualization, meditation, prayer, and the reinforcing of positive thoughts. And then another revelation hit… isn’t this what Jesus, Buddha, and others on the higher path tried to tell us all those thousands and thousands of years ago?

Jesus – “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.” (Our heart can only be illuminated by our thought life. Good, positive thoughts create a good, positive heart – Bad, negative thoughts create a bad, negative heart. Though I believe Jesus was claiming here that the heart and mind are one.)

Buddha – “The mind is the source of happiness and unhappiness.” (Pretty straight forward, but note he is not saying that the mind is either happy or unhappy… but the SOURCE of happiness or unhappiness.)

And aren’t both the same as saying “As a man thinketh in his heart so is he?” (Proverbs 23:7.)

What would happen if every single neurotransmitter in our brain stopped transmitting? No thoughts. No consciousness. Can we go so far as saying no life? If this is the case, then the path to the Kingdom of Heaven, Nirvana, Paradise, or simply to a healthier, happier, fulfilled life, begins within our minds. The first step on the path is to develop an awareness of our negative thinking. What long, outdated thoughts have we been perpetuating on a consistent basis? Some of this type of thinking is deeply rooted, and fires almost involuntarily. But once we begin to make a habit of becoming aware of how we think, on a daily, and if possible, moment-to-moment basis, we can get hold of those deeply rooted thoughts and begin the process of weeding them out. Once we clear out all that harmful clutter, we find we can now open our hearts more easily to others. We can love more; forgive more; and most of all… BE MORE.

Perhaps these are the ramblings of a man obsessed with the hope of a more harmonious world. I don’t know… but I kind of like being this guy more than the guy I once was. Again, these are my revelations, and I’m sharing them with others to see if we’re on a similar journey, as well as to hear from those whose journey’s may differ.

What do you think? Is all this possible? Have you found it to be true for yourself? Has faith played a part in your becoming a more positive, joy-filled person? Or, are you a person who has found this path through other avenues, becoming a more fulfilled, blissful individual? I’d love you to share your thoughts.