Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Movies as Meditation - Keith Nobbs on cultivating compassion by watching Sean Penn - "You get goosebumps! Your body knows when it's real!"

Here's the truth, and it hurts. Bad. Sometimes I wonder whether this is all just an intellectual exercise. Not that often, but sometimes. I mean, does it really mean anything to anyone, when an actor approaches a role with compassion? Whether he or she really tries to portray them as a human being, without judgment? I mean, Transformers made over $200M this weekend! In spite of its astoundingly bad reviews. Shouldn't we all be emulating that?

But then there are times where a performance deeply affects us, and gives us insight into a human being in a completely new way. No, I'm not talking about Megan Fox. Keith Nobbs, who recently shared his thoughts on contribution with us, and whose own work has deeply affected many, talked to me about watching Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking:

You'll have to watch the video to see him describe Penn's performance, and how the briefest crack in his stoic veneer allowed Keith, as an audience member, access to understand the character as a human being. But here's what Keith says about how you know when it's working:
"When that moment happens, it's not an intellectual thing, it's an emotional engagement. You get goosebumps! Your body knows when it's real... you're completely invested in that feeling... watching people crack... just gets me every time."
Who hasn't felt that way, watching an amazing performance that connects to them personally in an unexpected way. Sean Penn plays a brutal murderer in the film, and creates someone we're able to see as a human being. And we know it's true, because we feel it in our bones.

It's this point that reminds me it's not just intellectual; it's emotional, it's real, and it compels us to understand other human beings as being no different from ourselves. That the way we suffer is universal, that our struggles are universal.

Keith goes on to point out that it ain't easy!
"It's such a beautiful, vulnerable strength, to be able to do that. And you try, and you try to be compassionate with yourself as an actor when you do that successfully, and when you don't. 'Cause you don't, all the time. Sometimes we mess up. Not mess up, but sometimes you're not able, sometimes you're too scared. But to be forgiving and loving of yourself... and to continue to be curious and to continue to be empathetic.... is the goal."
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, who I was fortunate enough to see recently at the New York Shambhala Center, shares this in his new book, Joyful Wisdom:
"Deeply entrenched in our habits of relating to ourselves, other people, things, and situations is a kind of lonely separateness––a sense of independent being that obscures our connectedness to others. This very subtle sense of difference or separation lies at the heart of many personal and interpersonal problems. The practice of empathy takes whatever difficulty or crisis we may be facing as a starting point for recognizing our similarity to others. It gradually opens our minds to a profound experience of fearlessness and confidence while transforming personal problems into a strong motivation to help others."
The empathy that Keith describes in Sean Penn's performance––the empathy Penn has for his character, which creates the empathy we feel for his character––is this "starting point" for recognizing our similarity, and that's why it gives us goosebumps. Rinpoche goes on to talk about how easy it is not to see this similarity.
"It's so easy to think that we're the only ones who suffer while other people were born with the Happiness Handbook...which through some accident of birth, we never received. I've been as guilty of this belief as anyone else. When I was young, the anxiety I almost constantly experienced left me feeling alone, weak, and stupid."
As I have previously quoted, Thich Nhat Hanh talking about what feeling that way makes us do:
"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."
Rinpoche goes on to talk about his compassion mediation and how it affected him:
"I found that my sense of isolation began to diminish. At the same time I gradually began to feel confident and even useful. I began to recognize that I wasn't the only person to feel scared and vulnerable. Over time, I began to see that considering the welfare of other beings was essential in discovering my own peace of mind."
Is it possible that watching a performance grounded in compassion is a form of mediation on compassion, in that it causes us to feel more compassion for others? In the moment we're suddenly able to feel compassion for Sean Penn's character, a murderer who we might otherwise judge, is compassion being cultivated within us?

And maybe we only feel that way for a moment, and maybe the compassion fades. But guess what? Same thing with meditation! People practice Tonglen over and over and over for years. The Dalai Lama supposedly practices it every day! I mean, that dude seems pretty compassionate to me and still he feels like he needs to keep practicing. I hope he gets it right at some point.

Seriously though, I'm not suggesting that anyone give up compassion and lovingkindness meditation and start watching movies. But it's clear that watching a performance grounded in compassion opens us up to an understanding of our similarity to others. Including, perhaps, giant robots.

Thanks so much, Keith, for bringing the importance of this to my attention! *

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