Monday, August 31, 2009

Compassion: What's in It for Me?

The actor's newspaper Back Stage just published a piece I wrote called "Compassion: What's in It for Me?" Adventures in Compassion readers will find it familiar; it's an adaptation of other work I've done for this blog. I'm happy to have it in Back Stage, knowing that thousands of actors will read it and perhaps be inspired to take on compassion for themselves. *

Art Makes A Difference! Tonglen, and how I got out of my head and into The Girl Effect, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights!

I've been really self-centered lately. I woke up in a self-centered spin, in fact. Here's an edited version of the internal monologue.

Jon's Little Voice
I need a motorcycle. My scooter is fine but
how great would it be to have a Harley.
Or I could get a little bike for the city and
then get a Harley when we're up in Vermont.
Oh speaking of Vermont, I can't believe
we didn't buy that house on Lake Champlain.
Wow, if we bought that house. I could put my
Harley in the garage. Or maybe a Triumph.
Or a BMW, but not a new one. Maybe an old
one. But not too old. I should be a vegetarian.
I should give more money to charity. I need to go
work out that jury duty thing. The letter said
I could go to jail. I should talk to a lawyer. Or
just answer the damn questionnaire. I wonder
how much college will cost for the kids. How
can I help them look at colleges if I'm in jail
for not answering the jury duty questionnaire.
What a loser I am for wanting a Harley.
Should my next tattoo be on the outside of
my arm or the inside? If it's on the inside...

And so on.

We all have our inner monologues, our little voices. (As they say at Landmark, right now your little voice is saying "what's he talking about? I don't have a little voice!") For me, one of the quickest ways to settle it down is... meditation. It helps quiet the voice, and also helps me recognize it when it shows up so I can smile and say "hi, little voice!"

This morning, I worked on some tonglen, which I was reminded of by Marc Ian Barasch's book Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, which, shock, I'm really enjoying. The fantastic Richard Cardillo of Peace Games sent me the book and it's awesome.

If you're not familiar, here is tonglen according to Wikipedia:

"In the practice, one visualizes taking onto oneself the suffering of others, and giving one's own happiness and success to others."

Anyway I'm reeling from this morning's tonglen, which sure as shit quieted down the little voice for a bit. I'm reeling with a sense of urgency. Urgency about compassion. Urgency about any artist's ability to make a real difference in the world by taking on compassion.

I came into the office and started cleaning up my email, ready to take the world by storm, and I noticed this video on the home page of United Global Shift, an organization that, according to its website, is "...causing a united global shift in what is possible for humanity, focusing on the environment, employment, entrepreneurship, health and education. A shift from survival and scarcity to possibility, partnership and peace." Inspiring! Check out the video:

This video, which is a beautifully depicted presentation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is in support of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. The declaration is a thirty-article document adopted by the United Nations in 1948; it's a powerful piece of writing which includes such seemingly obvious statements as, "no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all forms," and "no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment."

Good stuff, right?

Here's the thing. It's been around since 1948 and I barely knew it existed. Maybe you knew about it, and maybe you have it scrawled in soy ink on your living room wall. But I only had the vaguest idea what it was.

And suddenly, through the power of art, through the power of art, design, and music, it's indelibly embedded in my skull. Thanks to someone waking up one day, and with a great heart of compassion, creating this video. It's all obviously important stuff, but I was free to ignore it until I watched this video!

Here's another unmistakable use of art from
Zoo-wee-mama! That's some powerful stuff. But the facts are readily available to us; we all can Google. Why is it that this particular website makes us jump up and pay attention? I've talked about this before, how we're ruled by Feeling, even when we think we pay attention to Reason.

So here you go, artists, use your powerful artist-muscles to make a difference in the world! It'll quiet down the little voice, and you can stop thinking about your Harley long enough to actually do something for someone else out there. Remember, all happiness comes from helping others!


p.s. I worked out the jury duty thing. All good. No jail. *

Friday, August 28, 2009

Does Comedy Give us Access to Buddha Nature?

I am going to get waaaaaay in over my head here. Y'all should know, I'm no Buddhist scholar, I'm just a guy who reads a lot of books and sits on a cushion every day. Lately, I've been thinking about comedy and compassion, and how they're related. At age eight, I spent countless hours repeating Steve Martin routines, getting the inflection just right:
He kept wanting her to sing... from her diaphragm. [wait for laughs]
I mean, that would take years to learn that, wouldn't it?
Take a look at this video from Full disclosure: June Diane Raphael who appears in the video is a client.

So here we are in the world, having this big nationwide healthcare debate, and people are pissed. And the thing is, each one of them believes he or she is right. Remember: whatever you think is a 100% incontrovertible fact ain't necessarily so. Someone else has a completely different opinion, and to them, it's a hard fact.

Lama Marut has a great way of showing this to us. He gives a lesson in this video about deceptive reality vs. ultimate reality.

The lesson consists of Lama Marut showing his students a pen, and pointing out that all the things we usually think about a pen ain't necessarily so. To a casual viewer, the pen seems fairly permanent, but under a microscope, it's changing in every nanosecond. To a dog, it might appear as a chew toy. Marut says, "Is the dog wrong to see this object as a chew toy? Not from the dog's point of view."

The "death panels" video takes something that someone actually might believe, and showing the absurdity of it. It's giving access to a different point-of-view through comedy. You might believe that death panels will come after your grandparents, and after watching this video, you might rethink your point-of-view. And you might laugh at anyone who believes there could be a such thing as a death panel, but after watching this, you might understand another's fear of it. I'm not saying the people who created the video intended this, I'm just saying it's possible.

So here's where buddha nature come in. All you Buddhist scholars out there, please feel free to correct me where you think I'm missing something. Here's Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche's explanation of buddha nature from his book Joyful Wisdom.
"It's not a characteristic exclusive to the historical Buddha or to Buddhist practitioners. It's not something created or imagined. It's the heart or essence inherent in all living beings, an unlimited potential to do, hear, or experience anything. Because of buddha nature we can learn, we can grow, we can change. We can become buddhas in our own right.... [the Buddha] described it... in terms of three qualities.. boundless wisdom... infinite capability... and immeasurable loving-kindness and compassion––a limitless sense of relatedness to all creatures, an open-heartedness toward others that serves as a motivation to create the conditions that enable all beings to flourish."
Rinpoche talks about Buddha Nature Blockers, which he says are, "cognitive structures that lock us into a limited and limiting view of ourselves, others, and the world around us.... that inhibit us from experiencing our lives with a deep awareness of freedom, clarity, wisdom, and wonder that transcends the conventional psychotherapeutic model of simply becoming okay, well-adjusted, or normal."

The second Blocker, he says, is "a critical view of others" which can show up in different ways, including the "point of view that everyone is less important, less competent, or less deserving than oneself..." or, "a tendency to blame others for the challenges we experience." And the fifth Blocker is "traditionally interpreted as self-obsession... We cling to our opinions, our storylines, our personal mythologies, with the same desperation with which we hold to the sides of a roller coaster cart."

So comedy, then, can give us respite from these Blockers. When we're laughing at the prospect that bureaucrats might come for an elderly couple, we know this is an extrapolation of someone's actual experience. Who hasn't heard of an insurance claim denied? Suddenly we're laughing, and we're also understanding that someone else being afraid doesn't mean they're stupid or wrong. They're just afraid.

And perhaps if we're convinced that liberal bureaucrats are out to get us, that they want to kill our grandparents to save on healthcare costs, laughing might allow us to let go of our storyline, our personal mythology, for just long enough to see something through a different lens. To see a pen, just possibly, as a chew toy.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stephen Gyllenhaal on the masks that make us look cool

Stephen Gyllenhaal has a great website where he frequently posts videos, poetry, and commentary on the world at large. I had to smile at this piece he posted on the masks that we wear. He shot it on a plane to New York, and his seatmate was wearing a mask to protect against germs. Stephen talks about starting to wear one of these himself:
"I actually think it's something I might do in the future... just one more step toward breaking down my own sense of... I should be cool.... but deep underneath it all, I'm not cool at all."

Stephen's really a paragon of compassion here––he's pointing out how he quickly judged this woman for doing something he thought wasn't cool, and then immediately noticed what he was doing, treated himself with self-compassion, and turned around his thinking to accept her way of being. Thanks, Stephen, for pointing out how we often look at someone doing something completely practical, and judging them for their willingness to be uncool! *

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I'm at the Pizza Hut, I'm at the Taco Bell! I'm at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell! Breathing mindfully with Das Racist!

Hey everyone! I'm a day late this week. Sorry. I promised to post at least once a week and I didn't. I'm committed to doing so going forward.

The truth is––not by way of excuse, but on the topic of self-compassion––that I had a bit of a breakdown. Some challenges at work got the better of me for a day or two, and I found myself not particularly inspired to spread compassion through the world. You may remember that this has happened to me once or twice before (!). Fortunately, I have lots of tools to bring myself back to this present moment. Isn't it funny how when we're wrapped up in our own problems and our own drama, that we often forget our ability to make a difference for others?

There I was, worrying about my own problems, getting stuck in my own dialogue with the little voice in my head, and not making a difference for anyone:

Little Voice
You suck!

No, I don't!

Little Voice
You totally suck! Loser!

Ummm, really?

Meanwhile, as that's going on, two million children a year are dying from diarrhea. More than five thousand kids each day. So while I'm wrapped up in my drama, I'm not doing anything to make a difference for them, or for anyone else. The very inspiring life coach Matthew Ferry reminds us that the easiest way to forget our own problems is to focus on being of service to others.

Matthew often talks about the "Contribution Game," in which we look at every action we take through the lens of "how is this a contribution to others?" Matthew says that the more we contribute to others, the more that the things we want will come to us. A man after my own heart.

And in the spirit of contribution, I'm here, now, and remembering to breathe mindfully.

From the Plum Village website:

"Our breathing is a stable solid ground that we can take refuge in. Regardless of our internal weather- our thoughts, emotions and perceptions- our breathing is always with us like a faithful friend. Whenever we feel carried away, or sunken in a deep emotion, or scattered in worries and projects, we return to our breathing to collect and anchor our mind.

We feel the flow of air coming in and going out of our nose. We feel how light and natural, how calm and peaceful our breathing functions. At any time, while we are walking, gardening, or typing, we can return to this peaceful source of life."

The breath is always with us, and just stopping for a moment to be aware of it can make all the difference in the world. Thich Nhat Hanh offers that we might like to say to ourselves, as we breathe:
"Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out."
Okay, so I'm getting a little serious again. As the little Chogyam Trungpa sign on my desk says, "Cheer up." So on that note, I'd like to note a little bit of contribution from the music world. Music can affect us so powerfully without us even knowing it! Listening to this track from the ridiculous duo Das Racist, I can't help but smile. And perhaps there's a lesson here...

Is it possible that they're teaching us to simply be aware of the present moment? If I were, in fact, at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, and I stopped, breathing mindfully, and said to myself, I'm at the Pizza Hut, I'm at the Taco Bell, I'm at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, would that not itself be a reminder of the amazing miracle of life? The pizza/taco scent in the air, the hard ground beneath my feet? As the Village Voice recently said, "It is either very, very meaningful or completely meaningless. Put it on repeat while you think it over."

Jokes aside, consider the amazing nature of the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. It's a meditation on interdependence! As we listen to this song, we can contemplate so many different things... the farmers who provided the tomatoes and lettuce for our Seven Layer Burrito, the fuel that came from the earth to transport everything to the restaurant, the kid at the register––his parents, his grandparents, what he ate that day, the teachers who've educated him, the sun in the sky, the air we breathe. This can go on infinitely! What a great gift Das Racist have given us, to remember to be in the present moment, and to appreciate the miracle of the world we live in. *

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Vote for My SXSW Panel!

Please, take a moment and VOTE for my SXSW panel by clicking here:

Make sure to vote "thumbs up." With enough votes, I'll have a chance to bring guests to Austin in March to talk about compassion as it relates to film, at one of the most important film festivals out there.

The panel is called:

What Would Buddha Shoot? Why Compassion is the key to the most extraordinary career possible.

and if you're reading this, you know what I'm talkin' about!

Help bring compassion to the film industry! Vote!

"The one where Jon remembered to have fun" - the Separate Ways remake, and why compassion can be funny

Wow, am I ever serious. I mean, damn! Did you guys read that Mary Oliver piece? Jeez! How about that fun thing I did on genocide! Wow. I take myself waaaaay too seriously!

That not to say that Mary Oliver isn't important, and that art doesn't have the potential to change the world. But come on, people. Not everyone wants to heave their guts up with tears every day.

So let's start with this. Please, please watch it before you read any further.

Did you get that? If you're not familiar with the original video, watch this version:

Got it?

Did you watch it all the way through?

If not, go back and watch. Please. I'm not kidding. It's worth your while. My wife and I watched it one night at least thirty times.

You might even take the time to go to YouTube and search for other versions. Like this:

Not my favorite. But guess what? There are at least TEN MORE on YouTube. Seriously. Tons of people have taken this, and many other songs, acted out the video, filmed it with multiple takes and camera, edited it, and posted it on YouTube. I mean, WOW.

And I have watched them all, many times.

So what in the heck does this have to do with compassion?

I'm not entirely sure.

But I do have a straw that I'm grasping to, that gives me license to post these silly videos.

When I watch one of these videos I'm thinking:

  1. Wow, that must've taken a lot of time!
  2. Wow, that song is pretty silly.
  3. What a bunch of idiots.
  4. This is hilarious.
  5. Hey, maybe we could make a video like this!
  6. Hey, maybe we could get the kids to do a video like this!
Somebody took the time to do all this work to create these things so we could laugh! And so they could laugh! And, in this case, they chose a completely earnest song with an completely earnest video to spoof, which is perfectly compassionate. Why? Because who among us hasn't taken themselves waaaaaayyyy too seriously? Who among us hasn't been like Steve Perry in the original video, completely serious and significant about something that might just be as substantive as the Steve's love for that Markie Post-lookin' chick.

So here's what I'm thinking. It is compassionate to want to relieve another human being's suffering. We have all suffered in many ways and we all want relief. It is compassionate to want another human being to have fun. It is compassionate to want another human being to laugh and relax and stop taking themselves so goshdarn seriously for a moment.

Ohhh... I feel it coming on... here I go with...

A Thich Nhat Hanh Quote

I've used this one a lot recently but it's soooo appropriate.
"The meaning of the word Avalokitesvara is 'the one who looks deeply into the world and hears the cries of the world.'; This voice relieves our suffering and suppressed feelings, because it is the voice of someone who understands us deeply -- our anguish, despair, and fear. When we feel understood, we suffer much less."
Dare I say that Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is present in the remakes of Journey's Separate Ways? Yes, I say, yes.

When we watch the best of these videos, we are watching someone who's been there. I'm just sure of it. All teen angst-y, locked away in his room, looking for reruns of Night Court. And then, later on, able to look at that teen angst, that pre-Morrissey heartbreak, and maybe just chuckle a little bit.

So we can sometimes be compassionate to ourselves by stopping the mind chatter and laughing, by watching someone exaggerate behavior we, ourselves, have taken on. We've all been like Steve Perry, wrapped up in our... journey... (sorry). And sometimes, we need to laugh and get over our seriousness.

That doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't change the world. But maybe we can have fun while doing it. Because sometimes, having fun is exactly what's called for. *

Thursday, August 13, 2009

"You do not have to be good." - Mary Oliver on self-compassion

"When will you have a little pity for/every soft thing/that walks through the world,/yourself included?" - Mary Oliver

Sitting here in the woods of Vermont, I've been wanting to write something about the poetry of Mary Oliver as it relates to compassion. I recently bought a CD of Ms. Oliver reading some of her work, and though I haven't spent much time out on the Cape where she lives, her poems resonate well here when I'm running down a tree-lined road. Ms. Oliver, from time to time, refers to matters I'd call “self-compassion.”

I've been thinking a lot about self-compassion. If compassion literally means, “to suffer with,” self-compassion means, to me, to be with your own suffering, and to accept it fully and mindfully. As an artist, this points to fully embracing yourself and your journey; without this embrace, when you're denying your suffering, it's hard to imagine an audience connecting to you and your presence. You're not giving anything to them, and you're surely not giving anything to yourself.

Famed voice and acting coach Patsy Rodenburg says this is required in order to feel alive. From her book The Second Circle, talking to a group of highly privileged young women:
“I hope you all get what you want in life. Husband, beautiful children, country house, town mansion, shopping trips to Paris, New York, and London. Travel far and wide and stay in the most glamorous resorts on the planet... But beyond this, I believe you will still be bored, because in order to feel alive you have to give, and I have never seen any of you give anything to anyone in my presence... why don't you believe you should show anything, give, offer? Do you really think you can go through life showing nothing?”
It's hard to imagine an audience connecting to a performer whose work comes from boredom, that lacks aliveness.

Poet David Whyte recorded a talk on the poetry of self-compassion (released as a CD called, surprisingly, The Poetry of Self-Compassion). It's worth the cost of the CD just to hear him read Ms. Oliver's “The Journey.”
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations, though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen branches and stones.
but little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life you could save.

- Mary Oliver
Whyte talks about how hard it is to make this journey, leaving where you are in order to “come home.” But “you knew what you had to do.”
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations, though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen branches and stones.
Whyte continues:
“Mary Oliver says, 'you want to know what it's like, when you take that step outside your house, and leave that confining identity around, and go out on the road of life, that's what it feels like, it feels like as if you're leaving at two o'clock in the morning in the middle of a windstorm.'”
Thich Nhat Hanh says (in his book The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching) this journey is required, to grow, to have the peace and joy you deserve;
“Without suffering, you cannot grow. Without suffering, you can not get the peace and joy you deserve. Please don't run away from your suffering. Embrace it and cherish it. Go to the Buddha, sit with him, and show him your pain. He will look at you with loving kindness, compassion, and mindfulness, and show you ways to embrace your suffering and look deeply into it. With understanding and compassion, you will be able to heal the wounds in your heart, and the wounds in the world. The Buddha called suffering a Holy Truth, because our suffering has the capacity of showing us the path to liberation. Embrace your suffering, and let it reveal to you the way to peace.”
As I previously mentioned, Thay also talks about the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in his book For a Future to be Possible.
"The meaning of the word Avalokitesvara is 'the one who looks deeply into the world and hears the cries of the world.'; This voice relieves our suffering and suppressed feelings, because it is the voice of someone who understands us deeply -- our anguish, despair, and fear. When we feel understood, we suffer much less."
An artist must embrace his or her suffering, and by doing so an audience is given a space where they can accept their own suffering, where they can experience self-compassion. Avalokitesvara is present in any artist who embraces his or her suffering, because an artist doing so allows an audience to feel understood, and relieves their suffering.

Whyte goes on to talk about probably my favorite Mary Oliver poem, “Wild Geese,” which he calls a “poem of tremendous self-compassion and self-forgiveness.”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over again announcing your place
in the family of things.
- Mary Oliver
Whyte says that that when you first “step in to write your poem, when you first step in to write your life, you do not have to be good. You can't get there from here if you think you have to be good in order to do it. She's saying if there is goodness in the world it comes from us rubbing ourselves up against life and testing ourselves against it, and making lots of mistakes, and falling down flat. And doing bad things thinking we're doing good things. Doing good things thinking we're doing bad things. And making sense of it from the greater perspective of one's own personal destiny and intuitions of where we're supposed to go in the world.”

It seems to me that any artist who does this, who's willing to embrace mistakes, to embrace his or her life, creates the listening that allows any audience to connect to their work. To create a space where we, ourselves, can experience self-compassion. To know that we do not have to be good, and to accept it fully.

So there's my advice for the day, from the woods of Vermont. “You do not have to be good.” *

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Daniel Gardner's "The Science of Fear" - how Feeling always trumps Reason, and how YOU can use it in your work!


Did I scare you?

Maybe I'm losing my touch. Or maybe you haven't been watching any scary movies recently.

Fear is on my mind, because I just read Daniel Gardner's The Science of Fear. It's largely about how we're Stone Age creatures relying on prehistoric brains to make decisions. The book describes the dozens of ways we make decisions, thinking they make sense, when they're really “gut” reactions. For example, The "Example Rule," which Gardner tells us is the easier it is to recall examples of something, the more common that something must be. So if we just watched a movie full of murder and mayhem, it's no wonder we tiptoe through our dark bedroom, groping for the light switch. Our Stone Age minds think we're really in danger––because we just saw a lot of people in danger! Never mind that it was fiction. Who hasn't felt that way, scared by something we know, reasonably, couldn't possibly be true?

Gardner explains this, and other “rules,” by discussing one of the concepts I mentioned recently when I was writing about Paul Slovic's work, and in fact he cites Slovic repeatedly. He says the human brain has two systems of thought. Let's call them Feeling and Reason.
“System Two is Reason. It works slowly. It examines evidence. It calculates and considers. When Reason makes a decision, it's easy to put into words and explain.

System One––Feeling––is entirely different. Unlike Reason, it works without our conscious awareness and is as fast as lightning. Feeling is the source of the snap judgments that we experience as a hunch of an intuition or as emotions like unease, worry, or fear.”
For example, after September 11th, thousands of people briefly shifted from traveling on planes to traveling in cars. Who wasn't scared to fly after 9/11? I sure as heck was. But due to the far greater risk of traveling in cars, psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer discovered that 1,595 Americans were killed in car crashes as a direct result of the switch from planes to cars. By September 2002, travel patterns had returned to normal. While taking pains to recognize the suffering that 9/11 caused for so many people, the book points out repeatedly how tiny the risk of terrorism to any one of us. But terrorism is terrifying! The Example Rule tells us that because we recall something as horrifying as 9/11 so vividly, it must be common! And so we put ourselves at much greater risk by following Feeling rather than Reason, by traveling by car rather than by plane.

The book is filled with example after example of how we follow Feeling over Reason, and how often we're powerless not to. So this is not a post about fear, really. It's about the power of Feeling. Storytelling is inherently built on Feeling. Gardner says:
“Shakespeare may have as much to tell us about psychology as psychologists do, which is why we respond to his plays as we do. When Iago whispers in the ear of Othello and Othello's love for Desdemona turns to hate, and hate to murder, we sense that yes, this could happen. This is what jealousy and distrust can do. This is true.”
Othello's reaction is completely human, though more extreme (I hope) than many of us would have. Which is what makes the story so compelling: we recognize his behavior in our own, and in fact, we recognize Iago's! (See Tom Hiddleston's video for further discussion.)

The fact is, any artist has enormous power to wield this same power, the power of Feeling. By appealing to Feeling, an artist has an opportunity to cause enrollment, which I described when talking about Rosamund and Benjamin Zander's work; it's also a key concept from Landmark Education. As the Zanders said,
"Enrollment is the art and practice of generating a spark of possibility for others to share.... we have at our fingertips an infinite capacity to light a spark of possibility. Passion, rather than fear, is the igniting force. Abundance, rather than scarcity, is the context."
Julie & Julia came out last week as well, it was number two at the box office; it's a crowd-pleasing, entertaining film anchored by a spectacular performance by Meryl Streep. Meryl, Amy Adams, and the writer/director Nora Ephron (not to mention Authentic client Chris Messina) enroll an audience, and sweep us away in a wave of possibility. The story itself is compelling; a forty-something Julia Child takes on French cooking and changes the way the world sees food. A young woman turns her life around by simply being open to the possibility Julia created decades earlier. Simple enough: a story about two women in different times, each taking on a challenge in her life and transforming through the process of facing that challenge. The film succeeds because of its compassion, because it creates real, human portraits that lead us to Feel. Feeling always trumps Reason; if I told you the story of Julie & Julia in a sentence or two, you'd come away feeling uninspired. But watching the film, it's hard not to be moved.

Consider that Feeling works best when it feels authentic. We're all experts at seeing through inauthenticity, even if we don't know we are. This is where Reason sometimes fails but Feeling's signal can always be heard loud and clear. When a performance rings false, it's ability to elicit Feeling is diminished.

Perhaps it's a matter of respect, and feeling respected. Psychologist Piero Ferrucci talks about the mythical image of Procrustes' bed in The Power of Kindness:
"This terrible man would make people lie on his bed. If they fit exactly, they were lucky. If they were too long, he would cut off their feet, and if they were too short, he would stretch them till they were the right size.... at some time or another, we are all tempted to shape others the way we want them to be."
Watching a human being on screen or on stage who we recognize as a real person ideally makes us feel respected, because they share recognizable and understandable traits with us. They're not making us wrong in their performance, even if they're unlike us on the surface. They're causing us to feel compassion by their work, which must, in turn, be compassionate.

But many of us look at our work like Procrustes. We take on a story, or a character, thinking of the way it should look, based on our preconceived notions. But as I discussed recently, what we think it should be, even when we're really, really sure, ain't necessarily so.

So for an artist to elicit Feeling, this incredibly powerful force that can bring possibility to life, that can scare us, and excite us, we have to star with the real thing. Compassion.

Boo! *

Thursday, August 6, 2009

“It Ain't Necessarily So” - a letter from Lake Champlain

Hiya! Sorry for the long delay in posting anything. I'm on vacation with my family in Vermont, and every morning so far, I've been determined to write something. Alas, it hasn't happened until now. I acknowledge that I've been out of integrity; even though I never explicitly promised to write more than once every two weeks, I know that I should be writing more often than I have been. I could blame it on the poor internet connection here, etc. but it's really just my doing. So I apologize, and I'm committed to sharing my thoughts with you at least once a week, if not more.

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Besides all the swimming, eating, Monopoly playing, horsey riding, and wine drinking, I've been doing a lot of reading on this trip. Anyone who's been in my office knows I always have a pile of books on my desk that I'm getting to, and I've had a great opportunity while here to catch up.

When the book The Three Laws of Performance by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan came out earlier this year, I read it immediately. As many of you know, I'm a big fan of Landmark Education, and since Steve is one of the head guys there, I knew the book would be full of great insights. So I took the book with me on this trip to reread. I knew there'd be new insights for me personally, but I was also hoping to find a thing or two for the blog.

And lo and behold! Steve and Dave's book is primarily a business book, and the Three Laws are mainly described as they relate to business situations. But one of the foundations of the book is the concept of how things occur to us.
“Consider that when we do something, it always makes complete sense to us. On the other hand, when others do something, we often question, 'Why are they doing that? It doesn't make any sense!' But if we got into the world of that person, and looked at how the situation occurred to him, we would experience that the same actions that we were questioning were completely and absolutely the perfect and correct thing for him to do, given how the situation is occurring to the person. Each person assumes that the way things occur or him or her is how they are occurring for another. But situations occur differently for each person. Not realizing this can make another's actions seem out of place.... Given the different positions that well-informed, intelligent people often take on a situation, there is a significant difference between the objective facts of the matter and the way those facts occur to each of us... we are not saying that there isn't a 'real world.' We are merely pointing out that our actions relate to how the world occurs to us, not to the way it actually is.”
Steve and Dave go on to say that we relate to each other as if “each is dealing with the same set of facts” when in fact we're really dealing with how the facts occur to us.

I recently took a Landmark course on communication, and the course leader led us through exercises to deeply and directly understand this concept. She reminded us that when we believe something to be a fact, it ain't necessarily so.

This way of understanding human behavior isn't new; it's surely at the heart of Landmark's work, and it's a common theme in Buddhist teachings. And this is the heart of compassion; suffering with, deeply understanding another's point-of-view. Psychologist Piero Ferrucci says in his book The Power of Kindness:
“...empathy––which is at first only a simple instinctual capacity to resonate––develops and becomes the capacity to understand other people's feelings and points of view, to identify with them.” [emphasis added]

“However varied and vast our inner world may be, it is still a closed system, ultimately narrow and oppressive. Our thoughts, worries, desires: Is that all there is? Sometimes it seems so. But to step out of this world and enter other ones––the passions, fears, hopes, and suffering of other human beings––is akin to an interplanetary voyage. Yet it is a feat far simpler to accomplish. Closing ourselves to other people makes us imbalanced, whereas participating in their lives makes us healthier and happier. Self-attention of self-focus is correlated with greater depression and anxiety. We know this much for sure: People who are most concerned with themselves and less with others are more likely to feel fearful or unhappy.”
This might seem like a matter of personal choice: Who are you, Jon, to tell me to be compassionate, to cultivate empathy? Who are you to tell me that the world isn't necessarily how it occurs to me? If my facts are right, at worst it seems you might be more anxious, and less happy. That's surely not mine to dictate. But the stakes are higher than you might imagine. Ferrucci continues:
“Training in empathy is perhaps one of the most urgent needs in our educational programs at all levels. Yehudi Menuhin, the great violinist, once made an extraordinary statement in an interview: If German youth had been brought up not only to appreciate the music of Beethoven, but to sing and dance traditional Jewish music, the Holocaust would not have happened.”
And so here's where the arts come in. You, as an artist, or as someone who contributes to the arts, has an opportunity to cultivate empathy with your work. Is it likely that doing so could prevent another Holocaust? Hard to imagine. But we can imagine the effect cultivating compassion can have on an audience and extrapolate.

In a world where there is so much suffering, then, your contribution to the arts suddenly gains urgency. Think for a moment, about where there is suffering in the world, and how the arts––specifically, your work in the arts can contribute, and make a difference.

Signing off for now from beautiful Vermont... stay tuned for an amazing video from Fuse Entertainment manager Richard Demato, speaking on what's possible when an artist comes from a place of true inspiration, having courage in the face of fear. *