Self-Aware . . . ed


Self-awareness is a fascinating aspect of the human condition. It will blow your mind to think of it for very long. I mean, dude: You're only able to think of it because you possess it. It's an almost inconceivable cycle of reciprocation, like the chicken and the egg, or Siegfried and Roy. An endless spiral in and down, forcing us to wonder if infinity owes more to inner space, than outer.

I swear I'm not snorting the pot.

It is fascinating to me, though. Self-awareness seems to be a uniquely human condition, though this may simply be a result of we being the only ones we understand, verbal communication-wise. I mean, maybe a dolphin (maybe even one in S&R's Secret Garden, which just scares the crap out of me) can conceive of thinking "I am," and is maybe even capable of expressing it, and we just can't relate. I'm inclined to think, however, that we are the only ones on this planet who can think about what (or worse: who) we are. It's also my opinion that such a gift creates as many problems as it solves.

Take, for example, suicide. Other creatures can starve themselves to death, it's true, but we seem to be the only ones who can plan our own deaths, not to mention come to perceive nonexistence as a preferable condition to life itself. This is the big (possibly biggest) down side to self-awareness--the way it can wreak havoc with a simple life of stimulus and response. The urge to examine is inherent in us as a species, and I suppose it was inevitable that such an urge would eventually come to be focused upon our selves. On about a par with self-destructive behavior as an unwelcome result of self-awareness, is bad acting.

What? Well, it's on a par for me, anyway.

There are few things quite as miserable as suffering through a performance in which the actors are self-conscious. The young, I suppose, pull it off with a certain earnest quality; but the older the actor, the less forgivable this heinous crime of art. Nothing will destroy the verity, and suck the wind out of the sails of a show faster than even a single actor who seems to be aware he or she is anything but the character he or she is playing. I'm not speaking to style, here. If your play includes the actors as characters, well, fine (see 6/29/07 for my general responses to such defiance of classical structure), but even in such cases the moment of action has to be believed in. Self-consciousness destroys that more effectively than any other distraction, and lots and lots of we actors (we thousands, we stand of others) spend lots and lots of our time working on reliably attaining a state in which we can do the deed without thinking.

Enter an Eastern perspective. This summer, my father and a fellow member of my mom's church are writing a sermon together (UU Breakdown: Most American UU churches apply to their ministers the agrarian tradition of summers off, in which time the parishioners get their chance to shine from the podium. Most parishioners, though not farmers, tend to apply this schedule to their church-going, as well.), the which is largely based on drawing connections between spiritual beliefs and quantum physics. The sermon, I believe, was inspired in large part by this: The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. I know nothing of physics (for that, try Friend Chris [he doesn't write for Spider-Man; the other one]), but I've read my share of more eastern thought, and find the connections very, er . . . connected. Taoism--my particular favorite--speaks of all things beginning in unity before being split into "the ten thousand things." It also incorporates a concept called wu wei (无为), often in the axiom: wei wu wei. The first means roughly "without action," the second, "action without action," which is often interpreted as "effortless action." To put it another way, the idea is that there is a way of achieving things without using a lot of effort. Now, paraphrasing philosophy is tricky enough business, but trickier still when the book you're interpreting is a combination of personal and ruling philosophies, possibly written with a particular ruler in mind.

This combination of personal bias and undefined terms makes the Tao Te Ching rather like any acting textbook. But I digress. At great length. Shamelessly.

It is appropriate, to me, that terms such as physics, action and philosophy should find unity in a discussion of the craft of acting. In Taoism, wei wu wei speaks to the idea of there being a way of all things (tao) that it is our tendency to interrupt or otherwise interfere with through our actions and deliberations; therefore, the best way of achieving goals is to be sure one is going with this way, or at least functioning with an awareness of it. The more one achieves this, the more his or her actions will arise from stillness. Similarly, the actor (her role named by the very stuff of her craft--action) must be an expert listener and, after long hours of exploration and decision making about her actions, live in the moment without choreography, true in the moment, one with the way. A true moment on stage must be like a force, such as that term is defined in physics--just as inevitable, just as simple.

It's a tricky business. We have to be self-aware to manipulate ourselves into belief in the first place, and then we have to abandon all self-awareness to allow that belief to breathe, if only for the span of a moment. It's a state I have thus far found comparable to states of prayer, meditation, inspiration, intoxication and what many Western religions refer to as the Holy Spirit. Even the Old Testament God chimes in on the subject: אהיה אשר אהיה (if, by "the subject," you mean this bizarre set of connections I've been attempting to make).

So best of luck with finding your tao in all things. And don't stick your head in a tiger's mouth, ever, much less make a career out of it.
 
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