Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Dharma of High School Musical Part 2 - "Get'cha Head in the Game"

I want to be really, super clear here, because I've had hesitations about writing more postings like the one I wrote last week.

Here's the thing. I am not joking. I really, honestly think there's a Dharma lesson in the song "Fabulous" from High School Musical 2. I can't say whether this was intended by the song's authors, but I genuinely heard a lesson in the song after probably the thousandth time I'd listened to it. The lesson had been there all along, but it took the right causes and conditions for me to "get it."

I say this with the deepest respect and reverence for the Buddha's teachings, and also knowing that I am a complete novice when it comes to my understanding and analysis. This is why I go to pains to quote impeccable sources, teachers who have a much greater understanding than I have or perhaps ever will. Most of them are tagged over on the right hand side of this page. I welcome any clarification or rebuttal of any of anything I put forth; like I said, I'm no scholar.

My intention in my work on this site is to inspire others to take on compassion as a focal point in their lives and careers. Often, this veers into other, related areas of Buddhist study, but they're all closely connected. As someone who's in the entertainment business, I think it might be helpful to point out that there's room for a powerful teaching in any medium, whether it be a small, heartfelt movie, a Broadway musical, or a Disney Channel teenfest.

And perhaps part of the reason millions of fans connect to the High School Musical films is the thread of compassion that runs through all of them. We are no different from Sharpay, each of us always wanting the newest toys, and justifying it to ourselves like she does.

And that leads me to my next observation:

Last night, after my amazing nine year old daughter Lily made us dinner (for real!) I asked her to list all the songs from High School Musical, so that I could search for more Dharma lessons. Her equally amazing brother Eli shouted out "Get'cha Head in the Game," and I knew immediately he was on to something.

Watch the video:

The lyrics are a stunning back and forth between the running monologue in Troy's head, and what he knows to be important, that he simply must "get his head in the game." It's like two voices, battling for Troy.

Here's worried Troy remembering all the things he's been told to do:
Coach said to fake right
And break left
Watch out for the pick
And keep an eye on defense
Gotta run the give and go
And take the ball to the hole
But don't be afraid
To shoot the outside "J"
And then mindful Troy simply remembers that none of this is possible unless he's here, in the present moment:
Just keep ya head in the game
Just keep ya head in the game
Here's worried Troy talking about the past and the future, both in the same verse:
Let's make sure
That we get the rebound
'Cause when we get it
Then the crowd will go wild
A second chance
Gotta grab it and go
Maybe this time
We'll hit the right notes
"Let's make sure that we get the rebound," is worried Troy worrying about the future. "Maybe this time we'll hit the right notes," is worried Troy comparing to the past.

But then mindful Troy reminds us what's important:
Wait a minute
It's not the time or place
Wait a minute
Get my head in the game
Wait a minute
Get my head in the game
Wait a minute
Wait a minute
There is such a simple and profound lesson here. Thich Nhat Hanh says, in "The Miracle of Mindfulness,"
"Joy and peace are the joy and peace possible in this very hour of sitting. If you cannot find it here, you won't find it anywhere. Don't chase after your thoughts as a shadow follows its object. Don't run after your thoughts. Find joy and peace in this very moment."
Thay later quotes Tolstoy in the book:
"Remember that there is only one important time and that is now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion."
Even more recently, Eckhart Tolle shared similar sentiments in The Power of Now:
"When you are present in this moment, you break the continuity of your story, of past and future."

"Nothing ever happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now."
These great teachers seem to be saying the same thing: "Get'cha head in the game."

This doesn't mean that Troy should give up! As Tolle says in The Power of Now:
"For example, if you were stuck in the mud somewhere, you wouldn't say, 'Okay, I resign myself to being stuck in the mud.' Resignation is not surrender. You don't need to accept an undesirable or unpleasant life situation. Nor do you need to deceive yourself and say there's nothing wrong with being stuck in the mud. No. You recognize fully that you want to get out of it. You then narrow your attention down to the present moment without mentally labeling it in any way. This means there is no judgment of the Now. Therefore there is no resistance, no emotional negativity. You accept the 'isness' of this moment. Then you take action and do all you can to get out of the mud."
Troy can "get his head in the game," accept the "isness" of the current moment, and then take action and do all he can to win the game! How profound this is, when we all spend so much time worrying about what actions we need to take, how we've done them the "wrong" way in the past, and how concerned we are that we'll repeat our mistakes in the future. But while we're worrying, we've created a world where "something's wrong," and we're unable to take any action other than to fix what we perceive to be wrong. If Troy's worrying about getting what the coach said "right," he's not going to be able to react and play to his fullest ability. Likewise, when we're worrying about what might happen, or what happened in the past, we're unable to really act from any place of strength; we're simply reacting, on full automatic.

And when we're reacting to the past, or worrying about the future, we're likely to be defensive, angry, and self-centered––and much less likely to be compassionate. *

Monday, September 28, 2009

Help Bat Nha Monastery!!!

Hi everyone. I've been getting a lot of emails and Facebook notes about the situation at Bat Nha monastery in Vietnam. Bat Nha was established by followers of Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Vietnamese government recently demanded the monks and nuns living there leave the monastery. According to published reports, when the monks and nuns peacefully refused to leave, they were repeatedly harassed and attacked. Here's a quote from a recent press release: "Excessive violence was used against unarmed, non-resisting, peaceable monks and nuns, in flagrant breach of all internationally-recognized principles of human rights."

Yesterday, a mob descended on the monastery and forcibly evicted over 130 monks, later threatening over 230 nuns and aspirants who were forced to abandon the monastery. Here's the press release

"Yesterday morning, a 150-strong mob descended on Prajna Monastery, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. The crowd violently evicted over 130 monks, followers of Venerable Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Plain-clothes police were known to be amongst the mob; uniformed police blocked all roads of access. Government officials refused to intervene, claiming that nothing was happening at the monastery site.

The crowd, armed with sticks and hammers, smashed doors and windows. The monks, some less than 18 years old, began sitting meditation and chanting in peaceful resistance. They were assaulted, removed by force and dragged out of their residence into the torrential rain. They were violently bundled into trucks and taxis, driven off and later dumped by the roadside. Some were marched up to 15 kilometers away from the monastery, being subjected to kicks and blows if they fell. The two most senior monks were beaten and arrested without charge. At this time, it is unknown where one, Brother Phap Hoi, is being held.

After they had successfully attacked the monks, the mob set upon the two nuns’ quarters. Doors were smashed down and all 230 nuns and aspirants driven into one building. There they were held overnight, awaiting threatened violence the next day. Left with no alternative, the nuns and aspirants, the majority of whom are young girls and women under 25 years old, abandoned their home for an uncertain future."
While the monastery has been destroyed, there are a number of ways you can help call attention to this horrifying violation of international human rights laws. Some senior monks are still unaccounted for, and it's important that the Vietnamese government feels pressure from the international community to release them, and to treat them humanely while they're under custody.

• Consider contacting news organizations asking them to cover the events at Bat Nha. Coverage in the West is limited, especially TV coverage. Any attention to this matter helps.
• Contact your representatives in Congress and ask them to pay attention to the events, and to hold the Vietnamese government accountable. You can contact your representatives by clicking here and your senators by clicking here.
• Write to the President of Vietnam asking him to allow the monks to continue their practice peacefully, and asking him to release the monks in custody.
• Contact Secretary of State Hillary Clinton registering your concern on the matter. You can contact her by clicking here.
• Contact the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
• Inform human rights groups about the situation and ask them to take action. Here are a few:
Human Rights Watch
Amnesty International
Reporters Without Borders
You can find the latest news at http://helpbatnha.org/.

To get a sense of what Bat Nha is like, please take a look at this video, which shows the daily practice at the monastery, and includes clips of the monks and nuns' nonviolent response after the initial attacks.

I am full of admiration for these monastics who responded to the attacks with nonviolence. Brother Trung Hai, who is a Dharma teacher at the monastery but was in France at the time of the attack, said this:
"The Vietnamese government and the Religious Committee and the National Buddhist Church have won. Their victory is that Bat Nha is completely destroyed. Everything is smashed. All the monks and nuns have been evicted from the monastery and the buildings have been stripped bare.

Our monastics brothers and sisters have done their part, that is they have responded faithfully to every challenge with non-violence, compassion and forgiveness. And yes, they have won.

Now we rest on the conscience of the government and of the people, inside and outside of Vietnam.

We do not blame anyone. We have no anger toward anyone. We know that our enemies are not people; they are greed, hatred and ignorance."


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The great Dharma teachings of High School Musical 2 - Sharpay teaches us about dukkha

Tonight's Interdependence Project class was on the Four Noble Truths, so there was a lot of talk about dukkha, which is often translated as "suffering," "unease," or "stress." It was a great class and I felt like I gained some new understanding of several concepts.

On the scooter ride home, I couldn't get a particularly irritating song out of my head. Take a look at this video:

I confess that it's not the first time I've watched it. But for some reason it kept going through my head tonight, and so rather than forcing it out of my skull, I took a look at what it was about for me. And here's what I came up with:

This song is a great Dharma lesson.

Seriously. I've heard Lama Marut say that we can look at anything as an opportunity to receive a teaching. I can't find the quote, but I'm positive he's said something like "how do you know the irritating person in your life isn't a Buddha here to teach you something?" I hope I didn't get that wrong but I am pretty sure it's right in spirit.

So if a person, why not a Disney song?

Here's Thich Nhat Hanh on suffering:
"...If we use our intelligence, we can see that craving can be a cause of pain, but other afflictions such as anger, ignorance, suspicion, arrogance, and wrong views can also cause pain and suffering. Ignorance, which gives rise to wrong perception, is responsible for much of our pain."
So here's the lovely Ashley Tisdale, singing to us about all the things she wants. In the video, she has servants tending to her every need, but boy does she seem unsatisfied:
"It's out with the old and in with the new,
Goodbye clouds of grey, hello skies of blue
A dip in the pool, a trip to the spa
Endless days in my chaise
The whole world according to moi

Iced tea imported from England,
Lifeguards imported from Spain,
Towels imported from Turkey,
Turkey imported from Maine...

...I want fabulous,
That is my simple request,
All things fabulous,
Bigger and better and best,
I need something inspiring to help me get along,
I need a little fabulous is that so wrong?

Fetch me my Jimmy Choo flip flops,
Where is my pink Prada tote?
I need my Tiffany hair band,
And then I can go for a float."
If you haven't watched the video, go back and take a look. Sharpay really doesn't seem satisfied. I detect... dukkha. What makes it a lesson, to me anyway, is that Sharpay represents all of us. Whoa! That's a stretch, Jon. Seriously, though. We are all under the impression that we can be satisfied by material things, and we are deeply unsatisfied when our expectations are not met.

Sharpay is suffering because she wants things to be other than the way they actually are. This is a form of ignorance, I suspect––to want something to be that is not. She even complains when the wrong key gets hit on the piano!

Another example might be to expect something to be permanent that is inherently impermanent, to think that one's good health and youth will last forever, or to think that one's belongings will remain intact forever. On top of this, we're only concerned with our own well-being, and can easily ignore the suffering of others. Think about how upset we feel when our new car gets a scratch, but to see another person's car with a scratch on it doesn't bother us in the least.

The Dalai Lama said, "I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction." As she says, "the whole world according to moi." Sharpay mistakenly believes that she will be happy when she gets what she wants, but she doesn't realize that she can never be satisfied, that even if she gets the items on her list, she'll just... as the song says, "want more." She doesn't know that when she gets those Jimmy Choo flip flops, impermanence teaches us that they'll soon be old, and she'll want new ones.

Though I can't be sure, I have to believe this lesson is intentional; Sharpay is portrayed as a caricature in the film. And, she's named after a dog. So thank you to the creators of High School Musical 2, for this awesome Dharma lesson! *

Finding Right Livelihood in Showbiz

Isn't that what this is all about? Right Livelihood? I picked up an old favorite, Thich Nhat Hanh's The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching. It's required reading for that Interdependence Project class I'm taking. So here's TNH on Right Livelihood:
"To practice Right Livelihood, you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others."
Oh. That's all we have to do. Just earn a living without transgressing our ideals. No problemo!

Fortunately, Thay goes into more detail, particularly when it comes to artists:
"A composer, writer, painter, or performer has an effect on the collective consciousness. Any work of art is, to a large, extent, a product of the collective consciousness. Therefore, the individual artist needs to practice mindfulness so that his or her work of art helps those who touch it practice right attention."
So first, we have to acknowledge what's so. Our work has an effect on the collective consciousness. It's not inconsequential; it has a tangible impact on others. We can ignore this if we choose, but it still has an effect. Working mindfully allows us to have Right Livelihood, and to benefit those who are touched by our work.
"...everything we do contributes to our effort to practice Right Livelihood. It is more than just the way we earn our paycheck. We cannot succeed at Right Livelihood one hundred percent, but we can resolve to go in the direction of compassion and reducing suffering. And we can resolve to help create a society in which there is more Right Livelihood and less wrong livelihood."
I added those italics. Nice, right? I love that bit. Just because we can't succeed 100% doesn't mean we can't go in the direction of compassion. It's easy to throw up our hands and say, "it's impossible to ever really have Right Livelihood, so why bother?" An actor might star in a film and approach a role with compassion, with the intention of benefiting others. The actor might be working with a director or other actors who are focused on their own self-interest. If the film is successful, it might feed the profits of a large multinational corporation that might or might not share the actor's compassion. We know, however, that every cause has an effect, that our compassionate words and actions aren't lost in the void. Thay points out that we can still make a difference, to move towards our ideal of compassion, by practicing mindfulness in our work:
"If you are able to work in a profession that helps realize your ideal of compassion, be grateful. And please try to help create proper jobs for others by living mindfully, simply, and sanely. Use all of your energy to try to improve the situation....

...to practice Right Livelihood means to practice Right Mindfulness. Every time the telephone rings, hear it as a bell of mindfulness. Stop what you are doing, breathe in and out consciously, and then proceed to the telephone. The way you answer the phone will embody Right Livelihood. We need to discuss among ourselves how to practice mindfulness in the workplace, how to practice Right Livelihood. Do we breathe when we hear the telephone ringing and before we pick up the phone to make a call? Do we smile while we take care of others? Do we walk mindfully from meeting to meeting? Do we practice Right Speech? Do we practice deep and total relaxation after hours of hard work? Do we live in ways that encourage everyone to be peaceful and happy and to have a job that is in the direction of peace and happiness? These are very practical and important questions. To work in a way that encourages this kind of thinking and acting, in a way that encourages our ideal of compassion, is to practice Right Livelihood."
So that's what I've been going on about nonstop for the past several months. We can choose to support ourselves in a way that benefits others, and leads to happiness for ourselves and others, or we can remain ignorant, or we can create more suffering for ourselves and others. It seems pretty simple, doesn't it!

For more on Right Speech and Right Mindfulness and the rest of the Noble Eightfold Path, this book is a great place to start!

And don't forget - sponsor me in the Interdependence Project's 24 Hour Meditation Marathon! *

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sponsor me in the Interdependence Project's 24 Hour Meditation Marathon!

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts this weekend, Buddhist Geeks (I love their tagline, Seriously Buddhist, Seriously Geeky) and heard a great interview with Ethan Nichtern, founder of the Interdependence Project, which inspired me to sign up for one of their classes on what they call Heartcore Dharma. It started this past Wednesday, and I really enjoyed it. This, in turn, inspired me to sign up for their big fundraiser, the "Sit Down Rise Up" 24 Hour Meditation Marathon. A bunch of participants will be sitting in the windows at ABC Carpet and Home, meditating for a total of 24 hours. I, personally, have only signed up for a four hour shift. In all honesty, I've never sat for much more than an hour, and my regular practice is less than that. So it's a challenge I'm excited to take on. But Ethan and some others will be sitting for the full 24 hours.

The event is designed to raise money for the Interdependence Project; they are a "meditation community dedicated to doing something with the mindfulness that comes from meditation. [They] offer meditation classes, arts programs and [they] have some very active social action programs, as well as a popular blog and podcast." Their FAQ specifically says this:
"The money is primarily for the IDP to get a new center, but also for several ongoing activism programs that need support like the initiative to end plastic bags in NY State and our prisoner tutoring program. IDP also plans to start a program this year for teaching mindfulness meditation in schools, as well as a radio show based on our popular podcast."
I particularly like what the Interdependence Project is all about:
'The core idea of our meditation group is engaging in the world with any benefits that come from meditation. So we “Sit Down” to work with our mind during meditation and then “Rise Up” to engage in the world."
Please consider sponsoring me for this event and making a fully tax-deductible donation. I've committed to raising $1000 (previously $480, then $720), but I'd like to raise a lot more, and I'll be updating you how it's going via this site. I'll be sitting from 11 PM on Friday, November 6th to 3 AM on Saturday, November 7th. Feel free to come by and watch me try not to nod off.

You can sponsor me by clicking on http://www.theidproject.org/node/91. There are instructions there to pay by credit card, cash or check. Make sure to enter my name - Jon Rubinstein - in the blank, and make it easier for me to keep track by sending me an email at jon [at] authenticm.com. Thanks! *

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

If a bomb designer can be compassionate, why can't we?

I was thinking about what I said the other day:
What if everyone knew that the entertainment industry was primarily interested in making the world a better place? What would that make possible?
And as I often do, I went to see what Thich Nhat Hanh had to say on the subject. In his book, Creating True Peace, Thay discusses how our occupations can be an opportunity to "help others, and to generate compassion and understanding in the world." He mentions how a man who works at a firm that designs nuclear weapons came to him, expressing his concerns, and Thay knew that if he advised the man to quit, another person would just replace him.
"I urged him to remain the director of his firm, to bring mindfulness to his daily work, and to use his position to communicate his concerns and doubts about the production of atomic bombs... if the bomb designer practices and does his work with mindfulness, his job can still nourish his compassion and in some ways allow him to help others. He can still influence his government and fellow citizens by bringing greater awareness to the situation. He can give the whole nation an opportunity to question the necessity of bomb production....

...once you begin to realize your interconnectedness with others, your interbeing, you begin to see how your actions affect you and all other life. You begin to question your way of living, to look with new eyes at the quality of your relationships and the way you work. You begin to see, 'I have to earn a living, yes, but I want to earn a living mindfully."
If this is possible for someone who designs nuclear weapons, it should be easy for those of us in the entertainment business––to look at our work and consider its impact on others, to see through the eyes of compassion, and to work to cultivate compassion in others. Entertainment gives us enormous power to communicate, to generate compassion, to generate understanding, and to bring us great joy by making a difference for others.

Take a minute, and consider it for yourself. What if entertainment was known as an industry where people were mainly interested in the well-being of others? What if you, personally, were willing to take on that commitment: to take on that conversation in everything you do. How can my work benefit others? How am I making a difference?

What would the world look like if my primary focus was making a difference for others in my work and in my life?

Monday, September 14, 2009

What to do when Josh Olsen won't read your fucking script

Hiya! I'm guessing you're pretty upset because Josh Olsen won't read your fucking script. I'm sure that leaves you wondering, hey, what should I do next? I had all my hopes hanging on Josh Olsen reading my fucking script. I mean, he's like the fucking Pablo Picasso of screenwriting!

I'd like to offer some thoughts which might be helpful:

1. Take a deep breath. I know you're angry at Josh. Make friends with your anger and look for its source. Does it really have anything to do with Josh? I suspect you're frustrated at the lack of progress you're having with your screenwriting career. So breathe for a moment, and recognize that. Now stop, and think about why you chose screenwriting in the first place. If what's coming up for you is anger, you might want to consider what screenwriting represents to you. Is it about status and recognition? About money? Maybe you feel that selling a screenplay will validate you, will somehow make you "whole." Here's the thing that you've gotta get. Getting positive feedback on a screenplay will not make you happy. Selling a screenplay will not make you happy. Sure, you'll have a brief rush of endorphins, and you'll be super psyched when you drive off the lot in that Porsche. But believe me, it'll pass. And then you'll be grasping for that next fix. And maybe it'll be easier to have someone read your next fucking script, but you'll still be grasping and craving for that same status and recognition you were when Josh wouldn't read your fucking script.

2. Take another deep breath. Now, start thinking about how your work might impact others. Take the focus off yourself for a sec. While you're busy being upset that Josh Olsen won't read your fucking script, you're not making a difference for anyone on the planet. See what I said above, about why you started screenwriting in the first place? Think about how you were first inspired to become a writer, how you felt when you first saw the films that kicked your butt. What left you in tears? What made you jump out of your seat? What made you want to go home and hug your mom? What totally lit you up?

Think about the characters you were inspired by, and the possibilities that opened up in your mind when you saw these characters in action.

Now, imagine providing that for others. Imagine what could be possible if the work you do made a real and powerful impact on others' lives. Just try to imagine it: how you could inspire someone to look at their life differently, to feel understood, to feel not alone, to feel like a human being. What if you could inspire someone to make a difference for others in the world? To be a stand against human tragedy, or to simply go home and love their family. What would that be like? If your work is consistently coming from that place, a place of compassion, when people read it, they'll be moved and inspired, and they'll want to help you get your work out into the world.

3. Take another deep breath, and let go of the idea that something's wrong. So Josh Olsen won't read your fucking script and he thinks you're a dick for asking him to. I know you're making that mean all kinds of things. Maybe you're beating yourself up, thinking that Josh's rejection means you're never going to have the career you want, the recognition you want, the Oscar nomination you want. Maybe you're making it mean that the business sucks, that everyone in the business is a jerk, that the only way to get a toehold in the business is to be a suckup, or to sell out. Get this: if you believe that, then it's true. You made it so, just by believing it. So consider for a second that there is nothing wrong. Josh's unwillingness to read your fucking script doesn't mean anything about you, your life, your talent, or your future impact on the planet as a screenwriter or as a human being.

Now, you may, in fact, suck. But that's neither here nor there at this very moment. As long as you believe that something's wrong, that you suck, that you have no hope for a future, and you'll soon be living in a truck, infested with sores, and you'll have to eat your screenplay to survive, you have no power.

That's right. When you're convinced that something's wrong, and that Josh Olsen reading your screenplay has some importance in your life, you have no power to actually do anything. If you take a class, or send your fucking script to someone else for feedback, you'll just be looking for validation that you don't, in fact, suck.

And while you're worrying about that, no one's getting the privilege of being impacted by your work.

4. Do something. I'm not here to tell you all the ways you can get your screenwriting career off the ground. But if Josh Olsen won't read your fucking script, maybe someone else will, and maybe that someone will be generous enough to remember when they were first getting started, and how no one wanted to give them the time of day. And if someone gives you feedback, take it in. If it's bad, it doesn't mean you're bad. I haven't read Josh's work from when he was, say, a teenager, but I bet it wasn't as good as A History of Violence. We all have room to improve our work.

Get more feedback. Look for where that feedback is consistent. Like Josh says, take a class. Take another class. Watch movies. Look at why they work. Get out of the house once in a while. Do some yoga, meditate, go for a run. Breathe, and be aware that you're breathing. Talk to other people whose taste is similar to yours. And people whose taste isn't. When you feel your work is good, show it to people. And be open to what they have to say. I'm sure Josh did this once or twice, before he wrote that Oscar-nominated screenplay. There are plenty of smart, talented, successful people who care enough about others that they're willing to offer some advice here and there. Or maybe they won't read your fucking script, but they'll give you some other advice. Take it, and appreciate whatever it is they're giving you.

Because if you're honestly and truly interested in making a difference for others, if you want to inspire others, and open up possibilities to them, then clearly, you want to be the best writer you can be. And that takes hard work, and it takes other people being willing to help you. So keep writing, and learning, and breathing.

Just don't ask Josh Olsen to read your fucking script. *

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Entertainment = Compassion 4Evah!

I'm doing a little light reading while here in Toronto; John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. A little break, I thought, from my usual reading list. This is about globalization and power, not about compassion, I thought. If what he says is true, it's horrifying; if it's even partially true, the world is being pillaged and people are being impoverished and murdered so that a tiny few (including me!) can live a life of extraordinary privilege. Perkins wrote the book, he says, as a confession, to come clean about the career and life he lived for decades:
"...this book is not a prescription; it is a confession, pure and simple. it is the confession of a man who allowed himself to become a pawn, an economic hit man; a man who bought into a corrupt system because it offered so many perks, and because buying in was easy to justify; a man who knew better but wh could always find excuses for his own greed, for exploiting desperate people and pillaging the planet; a man who took full advantage of the fact that he was born into one of the wealthiest societies the world has ever known, and who could also pity himself because his parent were not at the top of the pyramid; a man who listened to his teachers, read the textbooks on economic development, and then followed the example of other men and women who legitimatize every action that promotes global empire, even if that action results in murder, genocide, and environmental destruction; a man who trained others to follow in his footsteps. It is my confession."
Perkins does, however, offer a dream that got me a-thinkin':
"...those highly effective communications and distribution networks could be used to bring about positive and compassionate changes. Imagine if the Nike swoosh, McDonald's arches, and Coca-Cola logo became symbols of companies whose primary goals were to clothe and feed the world's poor in environmentally beneficial ways. This is no more unrealistic than putting a man on the moon, breaking up the Soviet Union, or creating the infrastructure that allows those companies to reach every corner of our planet. We need a revolution in our approach to education, to empower ourselves and our children to think, to question, and to dare to act. You can set an example. Be a teacher and a student; inspire everyone around you through your example."
You can set an example.

So I dare you to stop for a moment and use your imagination. Close your eyes if it helps.

Imagine that entertainment is a symbol of compassion. Imagine that when people think of actors, writers, directors, when they think of movie studios and movie stars, when they think of summer blockbusters and the Oscars, they think of compassion. They think of an entire industry that's devoted to compassion; whether feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, or simply honoring the human condition. Imagine that the primary goal of everyone in the entertainment industry is to care for the wellbeing of others. When a movie studio determines whether to make a film, the biggest question is, how does this serve others? When an actor chooses to take on a role, he or she is primarily thinking, what does this contribute to the world? Imagine that a young actor, writer, or director begins a career by thinking, how am I working to make the world a better place for others?

Okay, open your eyes.

It doesn't mean we give up profitability, or fun, or spectacle. There are a million places it's already happening, in compassionate performances, in compassionate filmmaking, in compassionate writing, in everyone who contributes to films that make a difference. It goes from low-budget documentaries like the amazing How to Fold a Flag that I saw yesterday, to the Oscar-buzzed Up in the Air and An Education, to Fox's new show Glee, to animation, to music, from poetry to design, from art to architecture. So what if that kind of work became the very definition of success; what if every young aspiring entertainer viewed themselves as a vehicle for contribution?

Think about this:

What if everyone knew that the entertainment industry was primarily interested in making the world a better place? What would that make possible? *

Friday, September 11, 2009

"How do I act so well?" - Sir Ian McKellen on Acting!

Someone recently reminded me of this wonderful lesson by Sir Ian McKellen on Acting:

"I imagined what it would be like to be a wizard, and then, I pretended and acted in that way, on the day. And how did I know what to say? The words were written down for me in a script."
I'd forgotten that was how it worked. Thanks, Sir Ian! *

How's it goin', eh? Giving up "something's wrong" at the Toronto Film Festival

How's it goin', eh? I'm here in Canada, home of Rush, Loverboy, and Bob and Doug McKenzie, looking out at beautiful Lake Ontario, visiting the Toronto International Film Festival. I've come to this festival many times but it's the first time I've stayed at this hotel, which advertises itself as being "Zen." Apparently that means you can get a $340 massage somewhere in the vicinity of a Buddha statue.

While I'm here, I'm seeing some pretty awesome films; I'm not gonna say much about them, since I have clients in them. But I did see An Education last night. The movie absolutely lives up to its hype, it's really a wonderful piece, and full of compassion for all its characters––every last one. The film is set in the early 60's in London, and is the story of a girl who falls for a much older man. Like I said, I'm not gonna say much, but you walk away from the film with your heart full of understanding of every last person in it; there's no "bad guy." I love that kind of filmmaking.

Tonight is How to Fold a Flag, which I have nothing to do with, and Passenger Side, which I literally got tickets to because it's the name of a Wilco song. Tomorrow are The Vintner's Luck, and Up in the Air. I've already seen the latter and it also lives up to the hype, and it's full of compassion for every character and its audience.

So, briefly, I want to share something that's happened over the past few days. Every few days, I check Google Analytics to see who's looking at the site. It's a great, free application, that gives me a sense of whether the audience for Adventures in Compassion is growing, but also where the traffic is coming from. Some days, there are just a few new readers, others, there are dozens. But then one day, there were zero! Initially, I shrugged it off––maybe that day, people just weren't interested in compassion. But then the next day, zero again! I thought, wow, am I really just shouting out into the void? Is anyone listening?

You might guess where this is going. There were no hits the next day, or the next, and it occurred to me to ask my great friend and supporter Jackson Nash, of Superforest fame, what he thought. Jackson was kind enough to point out that I'd probably done something to screw up my Google Analytics settings, and even though it looked like it was working, it probably wasn't. It took Jackson pointing this out for me to realize that Google Analytics wasn't even counting my own hits, when I view the site to check formatting, and during the period of zero hits, there were comments. Obviously, you can't make a comment unless you look at the page. So there I was, feeling sorry for myself, that I was putting my heart into doing this work and, poor me, no one was paying attention. When, of course, it wasn't so. I'd made it mean that the work wasn't important, or good, or necessary. When none of those things are true. I had made up a fiction, which I was living into. "Something's wrong," I was saying to myself.

And Jackson, angel that he is, pointed out that the universe was telling me something. "What will you do," he said, "if the Universe makes it seem like no one is paying attention? Will you give up?"

And then Jackson reminded me:
"To us bloggers, our analytics can become like Dumbo's magic feather.
They are helpful, but we don't need them to fly."
Thanks, Jackson, for reminding me to get truly present to why I'm doing this, and the impact it can create. And while I'm living in the world of "something's wrong," I have very little power to create anything extraordinary, and make a difference.

Anyway I think I fixed the Analytics settings, but it doesn't really matter, does it?

I am committed to making a difference, and here's how I'm going to do it right now. Watch this video, and try not to smile. Just try.

Who doesn't love counting to four? Let's count some more! Signing out from Toronto, koo roo koo koo koo roo koo koo. Take off, you hosers.

Jon *

Monday, September 7, 2009

Hey, anyone need a kidney? I'm more compassionate than you are! Nyeh nyeh! Getting out of my head and inspired by "the Happiest Person in the World"

So there I was, not actually giving a crap about anyone else but myself.... worrying about how compassionate I was being instead of cultivating it and practicing it in real life.

Here's the thing: I'm reading Marc Ian Barasch's Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, and there's this whole section on people who give their spare kidneys to strangers. People like Harold Mintz, Joyce Roush and Steve Aman, and hundreds of others, who decide one day that they can save a life by giving away a kidney, and so they do.

I've given blood plenty of times––and it's needed, they tell me––but I have plenty of blood. And when I give away a pint, it replenishes within a short time.

But I can't imagine giving away my kidney. Even though, in fact, I have a spare.

I'm not going to get into a deep discussion here about whether or not I should give my kidney away, but I will discuss it further at some point; Barasch's conversations with the kidney donors are inspiring, to say the least.

Barasch also mentions researchers who study Holocaust rescuers, who hid Jews at great danger to themselves and their families, and Barasch draws the conclusion that Living Anonymous Donors have something in common with the rescuers:
"...I began to wonder if the LADs were not the same sort of people. LADs and rescuers alike claimed their performed their altruistic deeds almost choicelessly, because it seemed to them, beyond any risk-benefit calculus or even moral deliberation, the only thing they could do."
So of course, instead of looking at this as inspiring, I started looking at it as proof of my inadequacy. Why am I not one of those people? I don't know if I could give away my kidney! I don't know if I could protect Jews from the Nazis!

I kept reading the book and found myself getting more and more frustrated, until I happened upon a bit about Matthieu Ricard, which reminded me what compassion actually is and how it can be cultivated.

If you're not familiar with him, Ricard is sometimes called "The Happiest Man in the World." Though I've also heard Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche called the same thing. Maybe they should fight it out for the title. In a steel cage. Ricard is a former scientist turned Buddhist monk and author, and he's the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama. He's also an astounding photographer; you can read more about him on his website, http://www.matthieuricard.org/.

So Ricard gave this wonderful Ted talk in 2007 about happiness, and what it takes to be happy.

"Now, what then, will be happiness? And happiness, of course, is such a vague word, so let's say well-being. And so, I think the best definition, according to the Buddhist view, is that well-being is not just a mere pleasurable sensation. It is a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment, a state that actually pervades and underlies all emotional states and all the joys and sorrows that can come one's way. For you, that might be surprising. Can we have this kind of well-being while being sad? In a way, why not? Because we are speaking of a different level.

Look at the waves coming here to shore. When you are at the bottom of the wave, you hit the bottom. You hit the solid rock. When you are surfing on the top, you are all elated. So you go from elation to depression, there's no depth. Now, if you look at the high sea, there might be beautiful, calm ocean like a mirror. There might be storms, but the depth of the ocean is still there, unchanged. So now, how is that? It can only be a state of being, not just a fleeting emotion, sensation. Even joy, that can be the spring of happiness. But there's also wicked joy, you can rejoice in someone's suffering. "
Ricard goes on to discuss how we generally look for happiness in the external and how impossible that quest is, and where the real potential for happiness lies:
"So how do we proceed in our quest for happiness? Very often we look outside. We think that if we could gather this and that, all the conditions, something that we say, everything to be happy. To have everything, to be happy. That very sentence already reveals the doom of destruction of happiness. To have everything. If we miss something, it collapses. And also, when things go wrong we try to fix the outside so much, but our control of the outer world is limited, temporary, and often, illusory. So now, look at inner conditions. Aren't they stronger? Isn't it the mind that translates the outer condition into happiness and suffering? And isn't that stronger? We know, by experience, that we can be what we call in little paradise and yet, be completely unhappy within."

"So now, at the opposite, we know a lot of people who are in very difficult circumstances manage to keep serenity, inner strength, inner freedom, confidence. So now, if the inner conditions are stronger -- of course, the outer conditions do influence, and it's wonderful to live longer, healthier, to have access to information, education, to be able to travel, to have freedom, it's highly desirable. However, this is not enough; those are just auxiliary help, conditions. The experience that translates everything is within the mind. So then, when we ask oneself how to nurture the condition for happiness, the inner conditions, and which are those which will undermine happiness. So then, this needs to have some experience.

We have to know from ourself, there are certain states of mind that are conducive to this flourishing, to this well-being, what the Greeks called eudaimonia, flourishing. There are some which are adverse to this well-being. And so, if we look from our own experience -- anger, hatred, jealousy, arrogance, obsessive desire, strong grasping -- they don't leave us in such a good state after we have experienced it. And also, they are detrimental to others' happiness. So we may consider that the more those are invading our mind, and, like a chain reaction, the more we feel miserable, we feel tormented. At the opposite, everyone knows deep within that an act of selfless generosity, if from the distance, without anyone knowing anything about it, we could save a child's life, make someone happy. We don't need the recognition. We don't need any gratitude. Just the mere fact of doing that, fills such a sense of adequation with our deep nature. And we would like to be like that all the time."
As Ricard recently said on his blog:
"To imagine happiness as the achievement of all our desires and passions, is to confuse the legitimate aspiration to inner fulfillment with an utopia that inevitably leads to frustration.

Among all the clumsy, blind, and extreme ways we go about building happiness, the most sterile is selfishness.

Even if we display every outward sign of happiness, we can never be truly happy if we dissociate ourselves from the happiness of others."
He says, in a separate entry:

"Usually, we all experience thoughts of loving kindness, generosity, inner peace and freedom from conflicts. But these thoughts are fleeting and will soon be replaced by other thoughts, including afflictive ones such as anger and jealousy. To fully integrate altruism and compassion in our midstream, we need to do more than that. We need to cultivate them over longer periods of time. We need to bring them to our minds and then nurture them, repeat them, preserve them, enhance them, so that they gradually fill our mental landscape in a more durable way.

To arouse loving kindness, one might imagine, for instance, a young child, and feel nothing but benevolence toward that child. When that mental state has clearly arisen in one’s mind, one let it grow and sustain it until if fills one’s whole mental landscape. Then one will simply nurture this state, keeping it present, full and vast. If one does so regularly, the mind will become more easily and naturally filled with benevolence and loving kindness for all, and compassion for those who suffer."
So happiness comes from cultivating some states and not others. Loving kindness, generosity, compassion, inner peace. So what was I doing? Surely not that. I was focusing on comparing my compassion to others. Upset because mine isn't as "good" as someone else's! I think Chögyam Trungpa would have called this "spiritual materialism," which he describes in his amazing book... Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. From Wikipedia, describing this particular brand of spiritual materialism: "psychological materialism."
"Psychological materialism is the belief that a particular philosophy, belief system, or point of view will bring release from suffering. So seeking refuge by strongly identifying with a particular religion, philosophy, political party or viewpoint, for example, would be psychological materialism. From this the conventional usage of spiritual materialism arises, by identifying oneself as Buddhist or some other label, or by collecting initiations and spiritual accomplishments, one further constructs a solidified view of ego."
So instead of actually focusing on compassion and cultivating compassion, I was worried that my compassion wasn't good enough. I was worried about my status, my ranking on the compassion scoreboard, as surely as I would be concerned about my car being nicer than someone else's, or having a bigger TV, or a nicer house. And while I was doing that, nothing was getting done! No children were being fed, no peace was being made, no one was being healed, or educated, or cared for. Because I was busy worrying about my status. Maybe someday I'll get to be "The World's Most Compassionate Man."

Therein lies the challenge, for me at least, and I hope you take something from this too. This is not a race. We're not here to try and prove how compassionate we are. We don't get a badge or a medal or a trophy. Stop keeping score, and focus on cultivating compassion, through whatever means you choose. I meditate. I read. I try hard to wrap my head around the lives of others, and try to understand their unique suffering, which is as real to them as mine is to me.

And then, we do something about it. Meditating isn't enough. Scorekeeping isn't enough. Create something that makes a difference, for someone, somewhere.

At least that's what I'm working on. *

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's AFTERMATH at NYTW

Here's a rare plug: Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who created the amazing documentary play The Exonerated, have a new play opening shortly at New York Theatre Workshop.

This is from the NYTW website:
New York Theatre Workshop sent Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, the award-winning creators of The Exonerated, to Jordan in June 2008 to find out firsthand what happened to the Iraqi civilians as a result of the events that began on that fateful day. They interviewed some 35 people—a cross-section of lives interrupted—who fled the chaos and violence that befell Iraqi society for the relative safety of Jordan. Following the visit to Amman, Jessica and Erik crafted their conversations with the Iraqis and have turned them into an unforgettable theatrical event.
And check out this extraordinary video on the production, which includes a discount code for tickets:

As you know from my previous posts on Erik and Jessica's work, their plays are extraordinarily compassion-centric! And because of their compassion, I know it's impossible to come out of this play without feeling a deep, human connection to its subjects. And they are deeply aware of the impact that's possible from creating this connection. As Jessica said in our interview,
“Storytelling is based in empathy.... it has this incredible potential to... expand our ideas about who we are and who might be like us in the world. It has incredible potential to make us all more compassionate or give us greater access to our own compassion and empathy... because storytelling can do that, absolutely as a storyteller I have a responsibility to absolutely make the most of that potentiality with my work all of the time. Otherwise, I've been given this incredible gift, and I'm not doing anything to serve others.”
Can't wait to see this play! Thanks, Jessica & Erik! *

Friday, September 4, 2009

A letter that brightened my day...

One of the reasons I write this darn thing is for letters like this. It's not the acknowledgment, really, it's that this work somehow makes a difference:
Dear Mr. Rubinstein,

I know that you are very busy so I will keep this as short as possible.

My name is Tui HoChee and I am an actor in Los Angeles. Yesterday afternoon I was at a coffee shop and I picked up a copy of Backstage and flipped through the pages and your article called "Compassion" caught my eye. I read through it and found it connecting to me at a very deep level. Most of our time as actors are spent trying to hustle to get a job and stay prepared and stay in contact with casting directors and making sure that we are at the right spots and we tend to forget the whole reason that we got into acting in the first place. It becomes a rat race, rather than the passion filled artistic adventure that we signed up for. I have been feeling that I have been caught in this rat race as of late and your article made me slow down and think and re-center myself and I wanted to thank you for that. It was very much appreciated.

Have a good one and best of luck to you and yours.


Tui HoChee
How cool is that? Thanks to Tui HoChee for this inspiring letter that makes me want to keep spreadin' the love! Check out his website at http://www.tuihochee.com. If you didn't get to read the original story in Back Stage, check it out here.

And keep going on your own "passion filled artistic adventure."

Jon *

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Actor and the Casting Director - Fay Wolf and Sara Isaacson on Compassion from two different points of view

Fay Wolf and Sara Isaacson have been doing a series of videos I've really enjoyed called "The Actor and the Casting Director." They're really funny, and they manage to discuss some pretty important issues in the context of casting and acting.

In the course of this entry, which they kindly created for Adventures in Compassion, they talk about self-compassion, presence, negativity and sabotage.

Listen to Fay talk about working on the tv show Numb3rs and managing to be completely present in a scene. How she's not doing it in order to get something else, but she is simply there in the moment.
"This is what I'm doing. I'm not here so that this can be a great thing to put on my reel...."
Ade quod agis. Do what you are doing. As Thich Nhat Hanh said,
"Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life."
By being present, even in a scene on a long-running TV show, Fay allows herself to fully enjoy the moment, and give of herself. She's being truly compassionate to everyone around her by doing so––not driven by the ego that would tell her, notice me, notice me. Instead, she's serving the other actors, the director, the crew, the writers, and the show at large. She's making something available to the audience that would be distracting if she were focused on herself. And simply doing so can bring her joy!

Here's Eckhart Tolle from The Power of Now:
"Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry — all forms of fear — are cause by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence."
And by caring for that one moment, by being compassionate in that moment, something great is possible. Here's Eckhart:
"The great arises out of small things that are honored and cared for."
Hey, I get that she's talking about an episode of Numb3rs. But she's taking responsibility for that one moment, and if she can manage to do that there, imagine what's possible as she takes on other roles.

Sara, as the casting director, observes that she often sees another way of looking at work from actors:
"I wanna audition so that I can like be on TV shows so that I can like, update my status on Facebook saying that I just booked an episode of something."
That's entirely about ego, about grasping for status. The Buddhist term dukkha, which is roughly translated as "suffering," or "stress," comes from craving; it's the Second Noble Truth. You wish for things to be a certain way that they are not. We wish for money, and when we have it, we worry that we will lose it. We wish for good health, and want it to always be that way. Whether a wish for status (even the Facebook kind) or material things, or the wish that we not get older, or get sick, or die, all suffering comes from desire. We wish for things that are naturally impermanent to be permanent. Here's Thich Nhat Hanh again on the topic:

"If you suffer, it is not because things are impermanent. It is because you believe things are permanent. When a flower dies, you don't suffer much, because you understand that flowers are impermanent. But you cannot accept the impermanence of your beloved one, and you suffer deeply when she passes away.

If you look deeply into impermanence, you will do your best to make her happy right now. Aware of impermanence, you become positive, loving and wise. Impermanence is good news. Without impermanence, nothing would be possible. With impermanence, every door is open for change. Impermanence is an instrument for our liberation."

Think about it: if you're doing the work to get that brief hit of status, that quick jolt to the system that comes from being able to tell people "I got a job," or "I'm on a talk show," or "I'm on the cover of a magazine," then the moment that has passed, we're simply back to being junkies looking for another fix. When you're basking in the glow of your freshly updated Facebook status, you're immediately mourning its impermanence. Fay's comment points out that we can simply enjoy the moment we're in, and be compassionate to ourselves and to others by doing so.

Fay goes on to talk about how having that compassion for ourselves creates an impact:
"Let's have compassion for ourselves and own the fact that we are all awesome... you're an awesome casting director, I'm an awesome actor, and if I don't wholeheartedly believe that about myself when I'm walking into an audition room, how in the hell are you gonna think that?"
Sara, the professional, answers it simply: "I won't."

Thanks, Fay & Sara!!! Make sure to check YouTube for their latest videos everyone! *

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash sing "Jackson" at San Quentin - 1969 - Compassion in Action!

Hey y'all! Have you seen this recently?

It's compassion in action! Here are two amazing performers giving it to these inmates, full-on. I wasn't in their heads when they were up there; in fact, I was still in utero, but there's something totally joyous about this performance, and I have to think that comes from non-judgment, from the ability to see these guys in the audience as human beings.

Oh, and isn't it great that the song is all about what a schmuck Johnny's gonna be when he goes to Jackson, and how June can just look at him with a smile and watch him make a fool of himself? And you know she loves him just the same. The song's full of compassion for him, both from her and to himself. And the song's pretty compassionate to anyone in the audience who's ever thought they were hot shit. Not naming any names, y'all.

Johnny says,
I'm goin' to Jackson
I'm gonna mess around
Yeah, I'm goin' to Jackson
Look out Jackson town
And then June replies,
Well go on down to Jackson
Go ahead and wreck your health
Go play your hand, you big talkin' man
Make a big fool of yourself!
My favorite part is when Johnny says "When I breeze into that city, people gonna stoop and bow" and June lets loose with a big "ha!"

Like I said, all the work that's inspired me the most is rooted in compassion. Johnny and June were compassion in action. I am proud to say I probably saw them perform live at least twenty times, and was never disappointed.

P.S. Check out this old album cover for "Look at them Beans." Amy and I always loved that one. *