And the “Best Unconscious Acting” Award Goes to ….By
You know, I’ve been a professional actress for a few decades now – performing on stage and in TV/Film. The daily life of an actor is not one where heaps of appreciation are showered upon you. It is only after performances, for the most part, that actors experience such things.
After a performance in theatre, you get applause and accolades after the show (assuming you did a good job – although when I was at the Yale School of Drama, I remember being in such a continual state of anxiety and judgement before, during, and after every performance that any compliments that may have been given were certainly not heard.)
In the professional TV and film world, the accolades are much subtler – at least immediately after a performance (or “take.”) Yes, maybe the director will indicate if you gave them what they wanted – and sometimes “good” is doled out regardless of what you did. If it was a particularly hard, emotionally wrenching scene, you will probably have fellow ctors coming up and softely saying “nice job” (as only other actors can really appreciate what you’ve done – and, by the way, I do happen to love how actors really can & do support each other this way.)
But for the past week and a half, I’ve been shooting a television show called “Heartbeat” where I play a “world renowned” archeologist who has a very unusual heart, and during the coruse of this episode, I have to have 3 major surgeries – plus 2 other scenes where I am lying unconscious.
My second day of shooting was about a 10-12 hour day which began with 2-hours of having a prosthesis put on – after which I was taken directly onto set and put inside this cut-out borough (inside of a huge foam slab – with my head and legs up but my chest sunken – so that my body was not exactly in a comfortable position) on a table while a 30+ pound fake chest event was placed on top of me. It took about 20 minutes for the special effects guys to get it all situated. And then I was there for 4 hours without a break.
Now, yes, had I known it was going to be 4 hours with no break, I would definitely have gone to the bathroom before being taken to set – but, as it was, I hadn’t really drunk anything that morning except a half a cup of coffee – and, as dehydration is my usual MO, that issue didn’t hit really till after the 4 hour mark.
And throughout the rest of this day, I had other 1-3 hour stints laying on various hospital beds – needing to be totally unconscious.
Yes, I am going to tell you about what this experience was like for me, but first, I want to get to this issue of accolades, compliments, and/or appreciation for one’s performance – because …. throughout this day and the following day, I had many people (background players, crew, the director, the writer, and fellow actors) all coming up to me and telling me how good I was – or that I was “amazing!” Now, let me clarify here that, at this point, I had yet to be in a scene where I was conscious (which does happen at some point, but not till Day 4.) They were all commenting on my “unconscious” performance…
I was a bit thrown off by this level of compliment for NOT acting – and, at first, I assumed they were just feeling sorry for me for having to lie there – although I did not detect pity – in fact, there was a marveling tone to the comments. Some would say “I don’t know how you do that!”, “My God, I thought you were really unconscious – or dead!”, and “We’ve never seen anybody really just STOP like that!” – to which I would always respond, “I was meditating.”
(And, by the way, during the course of my time on set, I think I introduced at least 10 people to meditation – with ways for them to access free guidance – which, as a meditation teacher, is wildly satisfying.)
Okay, so now let me tell you my experience in this process.
It just so happens that every year for the past 18 years, I have gone to a year-end 10-14 day meditation retreat with my teacher, Shinzen Young. And this year was no exception. So that the first day I shot (where I was only on the table for 2 hours), was actually DURING my retreat – i.e. I had to drive to the set 3 days before the retreat ended.
Yes, it wasn’t ideal to interrupt the momentum of silence and meditation to go to a TV set where there is talking, pressure, performance, etc, but this was a good job and I was grateful for the gig and did it gladly. I have had other occasions where I had to leave a retreat – like a couple years back to shoot an Aleve commercial where I had to hold a boom mic high in the air and demonstrate pain in my shoulder (which was not difficult) and, on that occasion, I continued to label my experience (a meditation technique) while driving to & from the set – and often on set. (I would continuously say to myself, as I tuned into my experience, labels like: “See Out” (for sights), “See Flow” (for movement of sight), “Feel In” (for emotions in the body), “Feel Flow” (for energy or movement in the body), “Feel Rest” (for relaxation in the body), “Hear Out” (for sounds), “Hear Flow” (for hearing sound as movement not content), etc. – there are more of these but you get the gist – so that my momentum of focus and sensory clarity of the retreat was actually not that interrupted.) [*A NOTE: These are categories of experiences used in mindfulness systems developed by Shinzen Young.]
But in this case, there was no activity, except lying and dropping deeply – allowing everything around me to be in the background – which is what meditation is! So this was a PERFECT opportunity for a deep meditation practice!
Plus, the additional distractions, like actors joking all around me, leaning on my body as they forgot I was a person, snapping their gloves in my ears, etc., were a perfect workout to stay centered and calm and within myself regardless of obstacles or distractions.
Add to this the physical discomfort – my back, my legs, and my poor neck (which was still recovering from some nasty car-accident whiplash) – were all adding some intensity to the things I was allowing to be in the background and/or relax through. It’s like how lifting heavier weights at a gym gives you bigger muscles faster. Having to stay focused and relaxed in spite of the distractions actually drove me deeper into my meditation – into an inner calm world. (And I have a “Stillness Meditation” piece I wrote on my blog about tuning into stillness while lying in a tent that was being ripped up by a wind storm above and around me – so this notion was not unfamiliar to me.)
And then, add to all this that, for the past 3 years on retreat, (and I credit Ed Solomon, the writer, for this, as he is the one who decided to invite other meditators to do this with us), a small group of advanced meditators had been doing “strong determination sits” in the afternoons – i.e. we would sit for 3-4 hours straight – without getting up – every day. Doing longer sits of this nature really does, in my opinion, give one more benefits than doing 8 shorter meditations throughout the day – because each 30 minutes begin at the depth of concentration of the end of the last 30 minutes – so the momentum of focus can drop more and more deeply and, of course, the surface mind gives up after the 30-45 minute mark. It’s a most productive use of time that I used to only do once a month, but now, on retreat, I try to do it for at least 6-10 days of the retreat. I cannot say what a productive and rewarding use of time that is – and I believe the benefits can be felt for weeks or months.
And as my first day of shooting was during the retreat, and the 2nd & 3rd days on set were the days immediately after the retreat – so, in essence, my retreat was never broken. And it was almost as if I had been “in training” for this with my daily 3-4 hour sits leading up to this (similar to how runners train for a marathon.) In fact, on the 10-12 hour day (the first day after the retreat), I actually got over twice as much meditation in than I had on any day at the retreat (a marathon indeed) – and because of the physical “enforcement” – I was actually more still than I could possibly have been for that many hours sitting up. So I found a way to make the difficult situation into an OPPORTUNITY to actually benefit as a person from the meditation (versus suffering and evoking tension, emotions, negative thinking, etc., and becoming a physical, emotional, stressed out mess.)
Now, how in the world does someone WHO DOESN’T MEDITATE hand this situation?? I have no idea! And there is no question that the compliments I was getting were not, in fact, for any acting performance (i.e. I wasn’t “playing unconscious”) – but rather they were complimenting the depth of my meditation practice.
And for that compliment, I deeply bow.
And also consider that, unlike the retreat, I was actually getting paid for this meditation [insert smiley face here] – plus – and for me this is no small thing – people on the set who were drawn to my stillness may now actually explore the possibility of checking out meditation for themselves which I have no doubt, if they do, will help them in their lives and during the long hours of shooting. The satisfaction of that so far exceeds any satisfaction from accolades or compliments – to know that my having simply taken care of myself may have indirectly taken care of others.
It doesn’t get better than that.