Thursday, April 30, 2009

Brad Warner - "You can have compassion for anybody. You should!"

Brad Warner, Zen priest, former punk rocker, and the amazingly talented writer of Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up, and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, was kind enough to take the time to speak with me on his point of view on compassion and its role in the arts.

What's always struck me about Brad's writing is that it's completely reality-based. There's very little theory involved, even when he's describing difficult Buddhist concepts, he takes great pains to connect them to reality. Which is why I thought it'd be great to hear what he had to say about compassion.

When I first asked Brad about how he thought compassion relates to the way an artist takes on a project, he responded, "My teacher likes to say 'Buddhism is just realism.' So in order to portray a killer realistically, you have to play him as a real person. You can have compassion for anybody. You should!"

When we spoke later on, Brad explained why it was important for an actor to be compassionate towards a character when taking on a role:
"Anybody who does something well has to have a kind of compassion to do it well. Trying to do a performance that's meaningful, it's a kind of a key thing, especially for actors to have, and I think it's a natural thing, if you're good at it, you need that to do it.... to a certain extent society rewards that because they want to see it, they want to see people be compassionate."
Brad went on to explain that when we understand the suffering of others, we understand our interconnectedness with them, our shared humanity.
"Everybody needs some kind of help. There's nobody in the world who's got everything together and doesn't need any help. Interdependence is the reason you're compassionate. You recognize the interdependence and interconnectedness of things. You suffer if you're not compassionate. We think it's kind of arbitrary or 'it's a good thing' to be compassionate, but it's also an intelligent thing to be compassionate. It's the smartest move you can make, to act in a compassionate way. We normally think we want to get what we can for ourselves, and screw the other guy, and that's seen to be a way to make yourself richer or more powerful, and it works to a limited extent, but I don't think it works ultimately. The reason it's intelligent to act with compassion, because that's ultimately how you are going to feel better. So there's tremendous incentive to act that way. It's not just something you're doing for somebody else, it's something you're doing for yourself."
Thich Nhat Hanh, who I seem to be quoting in every entry, said:

“My right hand has written all the poems that I have composed. My left hand has not written a single poem. But my right hand does not think, ‘Left Hand, you are good for nothing.’ My right hand does not have a superiority complex. That is why it is very happy. My left hand does not have any complex at all. In my two hands there is the kind of wisdom called the wisdom of nondiscrimination. One day I was hammering a nail and my right hand was not very accurate and instead of pounding on the nail it pounded on my finger. It put the hammer down and took care of my left hand in a very tender way, as if it were taking care of itself. It did not say, ‘Left Hand, you have to remember that I have taken good care of you and you have to pay me back in the future.’ There was no such thinking. And my left hand did not say, “Right Hand, you have done me a lot of harm — give me that hammer, I want justice.’ My two hands know that they are members of one body; they are in each other.”
What Brad's saying is much the same, that we don't exist separately, we exist interdependently, and when that's portrayed by an actor, or shown by a director, a human audience is instinctively drawn to it. And how important it is to portray that honestly and powerfully:
"It's important work, because so many people are looking at it, and consuming it, it has such a huge influence, so it's not trivial work. Even though it might seem to be on some level. 'It's just acting, it's just a play, just a movie.' But so many people are looking at that and learning how to live from watching these films. You have to be careful."
Thanks, Brad, for the interview, and for the amazing books. Check out Brad's blog, Hardcore Zen, for more amazing insights! *

Monday, April 27, 2009

James Suskin - Recipe for Compassion

James Suskin, an old friend of mine, and a stellar manager and producer, shared this lovely recipe for compassion:
Recipe for Compassion
(serves all of humanity)

people (as many as you like)
a handful of time
infinite space

1. at least one person other than yourself.
2. add a moment (this is the minimum recommended.)
3. be present. rest.
4. sit quietly and listen.
5. and share.



Eric Dawson, President of Peace Games - "Compassion is a state of mind, a state of being, but it's also a set of skills "

When Eric Dawson, President of Peace Games, sent me this video on compassion, my initial reaction was what does this have to do with my project? I'd asked Eric to share with me what his thoughts were on compassion, and how it relates to work in the arts. And here's Eric, telling us a story about a kid who's being bullied. Not an actor trying to relate to a character, or a director showing us a human story. Eric's story is about a tiny first grader, Danté, and a much larger fourth grader, Brian.

What in the world does this have to do with compassion's role in the arts?


It took me a second to get that what the first graders did in this story is what every actor, writer, or director strives to do in their work. They saw Brian as a possibility, not as a bad kid who simply needed punishment. Not as someone who deserved a taste of his own medicine, not as someone who was hopeless, or destined for jail. But as a human being, who had within him the potential for good.

Eric said that after Danté was initially bullied, his classmates rallied around him and comforted him. And then, they began to organize. Imagine that, a group of first graders organizing a response to one of their own who'd been hurt. But they didn't organize an angry, frenzied, vengeful response. They first made a short term plan to ensure the safety of their peers: no one would have to go to the restroom by themselves. The bigger kids would accompany the smaller ones.

And then, most powerfully, the kids, along with Danté's mom, empowered Brian. They made him responsible for their well-being. So much so that he took it upon himself to become the protector, big brother, and mentor of the smaller kids.

What they saw in Brian was what Tom Hiddleston described in his earlier post.
"Within all of us there is the capacity to be anyone or anything... There is an Iago and a Romeo within all of us, there is that lover, and there is that sociopath."
Brian wasn't a bad kid. But some set of causes and conditions in his life led him to dunk little Danté's head in the toilet. A great artist recognizes that within that Iago might be a Romeo, or a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Gandhi, or a Barack Obama.

Thich Nhat Hanh said in his astounding book, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames:
"You can make a mistake only when you forget that the other person suffers. You tend to believe that you are the only one who suffers, and that the other person is enjoying your suffering. You will say and do mean and cruel things when you believe that you are the only one who suffers and that the other person does not suffer at all."
The kids in Danté's class could have easily planned to exact their revenge, to do "mean and cruel things" to Brian, and "teach him a lesson." Surely that's the conventional way we'd expect to see this story played out. But thanks to the amazing work of Peace Games, and some amazing kids, the story turned out very differently. The kids were able to communicate with Brian, because they saw what was possible for him.

Thich Nhat Hanh said in his book, Teachings on Love:
"When we cannot communicate, we get sick, and as our sickness increases, we suffer and spill our suffering on other people."
Brian couldn't communicate in any other way than to act out on Danté. The kids, with their Peace Games training, taught him how.

And what they ultimately recognized is what every artist recognizes: the essential humanity in Brian. That he was not all that different from they, themselves. That something led Brian to act the way he did, and that they could be the cause that could help him act another way.

Thanks, Eric, for your inspiring video!


Monday, April 13, 2009

Thich Nhat Hanh - "Our Life is a Work of Art"

I was thinking about Tom Hiddleston's post from today, and was inspired to look on my bookshelf for some of Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings on compassion. I picked up his amazing book, Peace is Every Step, which I hadn't read in a while. I leafed through the table of contents and was immediately drawn to the short chapter, "Our Life is a Work of Art." Check this out:

" artist asked me, 'What is the way to look at a flower so that I can make the most of it for my art?' I said, if you look in that way, you cannot be in touch with the flower. Abandon all your projects so you can be with the flower with no intention of exploiting it or getting something from it... When we do not trouble ourselves about whether or not something is a work of art, if we just act in each moment with composure and mindfulness, each minute of our life is a work of art. Even when we are not painting or writing, we are still creating. We are pregnant with beauty, joy, and peace, and we are making life more beautiful for many people. Sometimes it is better not to talk about art by using the word 'art.' If we just act with awareness and integrity, our art will flower and we don't have to talk about it at all."

Tom Hiddleston - "There is an Iago and a Romeo within all of us, there is that lover, and there is that sociopath."

Our amazing client Tom Hiddleston who I mentioned below did this terrific video for us with his thoughts on compassion. Tom said something that really hit home to me:
"Within all of us there is the capacity to be anyone or anything... There is an Iago and a Romeo within all of us, there is that lover, and there is that sociopath."
I think it's this thought that drew me to this project in the first place. The "there but for the grace of God go I" concept. That none of us is above anything, none is better than anyone else, that we are all where we are due to a unique set of causes and conditions, and we will each experience immense suffering in our lives along with, hopefully, great happiness. As Lama Marut has said, "we are either in a disaster or between disasters." If one lives a life of any length, one experiences great suffering at some point. Even Iago, or Dick Cheney, or anyone we automatically think of as evil and unredeemable. Tom's video tells us how important that understanding is to an actor's process.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, in his remarkable book, Peace is Every Step,
"the essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material, and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves 'inside the skin' of the other. We 'go inside' their body, feelings, and mental formations, and witness for ourselves their suffering. Shallow observation as an outsider is not enough to see their suffering. We must become one with the object of our observation. When we are in contact with another's suffering, a feeling of compassion is born in us. Compassion means, literally 'to suffer with.'"
And as Tom Hiddleston points out, compassion gives actors the ability to suffer with the characters they play, which in turns gives us, the audience, an opportunity to identify with these characters, warts and all, to in some small way become one with the object of our observation. And perhaps, to see that we're not alone in the universe. That we're not all that different from them, and they're not all that different from us.

Thank you, Tom!


Friday, April 3, 2009

Kat Foster on Compassion

Here's the beautiful and talented Kat Foster, known from Fox's TIL DEATH and soon to be seen on ABC's THE UNUSUALS, talking about compassion and what it means to her and how it relates to her work. How amazing is Kat??

I love the fact that Kat's definition of compassion is not all that different from Robert Thurman's, who's spent years studying it!

"Compassion is an ability to feel the pain of others, embrace someone's feelings as your own, to put yourself in someone else's shoes."


"Compassion means to feel the feelings of others" - Dr. Robert Thurman

I thought it might be helpful to have an expert's opinion on what compassion is before I start showing you all the different ways it manifests in the arts. So here's the brilliant Dr. Robert Thurman from a TED talk, on compassion––it really fits with what we're talking about here:

Where compassion comes is where you surprisingly discover you lose yourself in some way, through art, through meditation, through understanding, through knowledge, actually... knowing your interconnectedness with other beings, you can experience yourself as the other beings, when you see through the delusion of being separated from them. And when you do that, you're forced to feel what they feel.

the Dalai Lama says that "when you give birth in your mind to the idea of compassion, because you realize that you yourself and your pains and pleasures are finally too small a theatre for your intelligence, it's really too boring...."