Andrew Wood, MFA, Yale School of Drama • Call Today To Schedule a Free Informational Session With Andrew Wood! (323) 836-2176

the visceral difference

In the much-read first chapter from Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons, Boleslavsky says that audiences watching an actor exercising her capacity for concentration correctly should “know and feel immediately” that what that audience is witnessing is more important than whatever concerns that audience members brought into the event with them.  The importance of what the actor is undergoing must somehow be made evident by the actor’s engagement in her craft.  No small order.

The teachers I encountered at the Yale School of Drama asserted that what makes this effect possible, this immediate recognition on the part of the audience, independent of plot or story elements, is the visceral activation of the actor.  If you look up the word “visceral” in the dictionary, you will likely see something like this “pertaining to primitive or elemental emotion”, and indeed, that is what the word means in contemporary usage.  But the etymology tells the tale: the word originates with the Latin word viscera, which refers to the digestive tract, the intestines, or, more colloquially, the gut.

Visceral activation means that in some way, the actor’s gut is involved in what he or she is doing.  In our approach, this is achieved through working with the notion of objective in a particular way:  objective has to be understood as visceral need. I have discussed this distinction at length on this blog, for example, here.  But I’d like to say a bit about what the visceral difference looks like and sounds like, that is, what are the signs that such activation has been achieved?

Actors do two things more than anything else: they talk and they listen.  When a viscerally activated actor talks, they seem to be speaking from the gut, from the heart, from the core.  Perhaps the most evident example of what this is like in the current moment is the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Whatever you think of Donald Trump, he has a reputation for saying what is on his mind and in his heart in a tell-it-like-it-is way.   There is an immediacy to the way he speaks, and this is part of what accounts for his appeal.  When a viscerally activated actor speaks, he is making use of his abdominal core muscles, most importantly, the transverse abdominis, also known as the “skinny jeans” muscles, the muscles you need to tighten in order to squeeze into skinny jeans.  These muscles are deep in the layers of musculature, and they help to stabilize the spine and also interact with the diaphragm.  When these muscles are activated as part of the process of verbalizing, the actor appears to be speaking with the intention of impacting the partner: there is a palpable determination to be heard and understood.  An audience understands this immediately.  And it has nothing to do with projecting or being loud:  these muscles can be used when speaking quietly, but the effect is the same:  the actor who is activated in this way wants her words to land on her partner, and make something happen.

So much for the talking.  The listening of a viscerally- activated actor is a bit more difficult to describe.  In the process that I teach, we attempt to articulate a visceral need that the actor can embrace and pursue as a character in a given situation.  This need is understood as living in the gut.  This means that the actor needs to ground her attention in her gut, right behind the navel.  It’s like the actor has an eye or an ear there, right behind the navel, and all of the listening needs to happen from there.  This is “listening with the need”.  Everything that the partner does is immediately evaluated as either meeting the actor’s visceral need, or refusing to meet it, and this evaluation affects the actor’s next utterance, in the next moment.  This is challenging to do, because when an actor does this, she gives up the ability to monitor herself and how she is being perceived by her audience.  She can’t watch herself with her awareness placed in her belly, behind her navel.  This requires courage, but it is so satisfying for audiences because an actor engaging in this seems utterly sincere and honest.

If you consider all of this in relationship to mirror neurons we can begin to see why a viscerally engaged actor is so rewarding for audiences to watch: when the actor is viscerally activated, then through the mirror neurons of the audience, they feel themselves touched or moved in a very deep place.

Achieving visceral activation, even one time, is quite challenging.  Becoming an actor who habitually and instinctively works from the gut is more challenging by orders of magnitude, but is a very worthy goal, as such an actor can bring interest and life to virtually any script.  An awesome power, to be sure.  Like any awesome power, it comes with great responsibility.

the camera and the gut

The idea of acting being “physical” is a popular one.  Actors live in fear of being “in their heads”, and hope that their acting is physical and not intellectual.

Well and good.  But riddle me this: if acting is or should be physical, in what physical part of the body does it happen?  In the face?  In the chest, in close proximity to the heart?

If you like the idea of acting being not only physical but “visceral”, then you want acting to take place in the actor’s gut, in the pit of his stomach.  That’s what visceral means: gut-level.

But so much of acting and film and television happens in close-up.  So what of the gut, in that case?  The face, the neck, perhaps the chest: that’s where the action is.  Acting has to happen there, or not at all, if it is to show up on camera, right?

No.  Not right.

What is happening viscerally, at the gut level, shows up in the face and in the eyes. And if nothing is happening viscerally, that shows up too.

Sometimes actors fall into thinking they have to “act” only with what is visible in the camera frame, and while they know better than to mug and indicate, they still end up with overactive faces, because they feel like the face has to do all the work.

When the acting is good, we see through your face.  We see into you. Acting is an exercise in laying yourself bare.  This means that generally speaking, the face should not be too active.  This allows whatever is happening viscerally, at the gut level, to be visible.  But if the face is too active, then what is happening viscerally is masked.  Again, this is a rule of thumb, not a recommendation to keep a blank facial expression at all times.  There are times when an active face is appropriate and called for.

The gut is where it’s at.

“You must realize that the center of the universe is in the pit of your stomach.”–Zen Master Harada-roshi

 

 

see what I mean? (eisenberg vs. segel)

segeleisenberg

(This post continues my last one.)

Quick: which of these two actors seems more alive to you in this moment?

If you said Eisenberg, on the left, look again, and this time, pay attention to what is happening inside of you when you look.

See what I mean?

I am always astounded at the power of still photographs to reveal exactly how much an actor has going on.

If you said Eisenberg initially, you may have been attracted to a certain alertness and sense of expectation in his face. And none of that is bad (as long as it isn’t preventing something from happening in a deeper place, which can sometimes be the case). But what makes an actor compelling, involving, gripping, what makes their performance sticky, so that it stays with you and you wake up the next morning and it’s still there, somehow inside you, is the still-waters-run -deep quality evident in Segel, on the right.

My belief is that this has to do with mirror neurons: when we watch someone perform, our nervous system is replicating, for us, what they are experiencing, in our mirror system. That’s why the screen kiss is such a phenomenon, we all get to experience the thrill of the kiss, without any of the baggage or risk that may come with it.

When an actor is viscerally activated, in his or her core (visceral means “pertaining to the gut, the belly”, believe it or not), and we watch him, we get viscerally activated as well, thanks to our mirror system. So we experience the actor in a deeper way, and he or show leaves a more lasting impression than otherwise.

The miracle is how do we know this? We can’t see inside the actor’s gut. But I believe that we are exquisitely attuned, through evolution, to recognize this visceral activation, this vulnerability, perhaps because it signals that someone might be about to do something unexpected, something totally out-of-character, perhaps something dangerous. How do we recognize it? Through careful attention to the face, the eyes, and to the voice, and how it is produced, and where in the body it comes from. It’s something we learn to do so well because we were so entirely dependent on our parents as small children, and pleasing them meant everything. So it’s something we do without even being aware, when we do it.

Try it. The next time you consume some acting, whether on TV, at a movie, or even onstage, as you watch the acting, watch yourself, your core, that space behind your navel where you get butterflies in the stomach, and see which actors get in there, and which don’t. It will likely be an eye-opener.

simon says

Social by Matthew LiebermanI finally finished reading Matthew Lieberman’s extraordinary book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect. I have written about it a few times already, namely here and here. The book makes use of brain science research, which has advanced in sophistication very quickly in the last few decades thanks to major technological advancements. (NYU, the alma mater of Michael C Hall and of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, has recognized the importance of brain science for acting by collaborating with leading neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, as the Hollywood Reporter recently reported.) Lieberman uses these findings to demonstrate that the most fundamental human drive is social in nature. It is a drive for connection with others and meaningful relationships of all kinds. This insight has been an emerging consensus in psychology for some time now, but neuroscience has caught up, and Lieberman relates study after study supporting this view.

It’s an absolutely fascinating work, and should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in understanding human motivation. But I wanted to discuss something that comes up near the end of the book. Lieberman describes a study that showed that subjects in an experiment who had been given a task to do regularly that challenged their visual-motor self-control, that is, their ability to respond quickly and accurately to signals and to immediately STOP responding when instructed (think of a game of Simon Says on a computer), showed greater ability to regulate their emotions than those in a control group, who were given no such task.

What we were interested in discovering was the effect of visual-motor self-control training on emotion regulation ability– even though these two things seem to have little in common. Indeed, there was a relationship for those in the training group. Individuals who had received self-control training with a visual-motor task had significantly better emotion regulation ability at the end of the study than they had at the beginning, even though there was no emotion regulation training in the study. To examine whether motor self-control could have been driving this effect, we looked at the relationship between motor self-control improvements and emotion regulation improvements. The better an individual got at motor self-control over the course of the eight training sessions, the more emotion regulation ability improved.

This finding is extremely important because, as Lieberman explains elsewhere, success in almost every endeavor depends to some extent on the ability to regulate the emotions. Now, acting is not about regulating emotions, exactly, but a trained or experience actor has acquired an instinct about what kinds of impulses within herself to respond to and what kinds to ignore or inhibit. And this process is something akin to emotional regulation. So these findings are relevant.

One part of their relevance points to the importance of physical training for actors. While that’s not the kind of training I offer in my classes, mostly, I do emphasize the importance of some kind of movement training for actors. I regularly bring teachers of the Alexander technique to class to introduce what they do: helping the mind and the body to harmoniously interact. I teach an exercise that my students have dubbed “eyeball-to-eyeball” that entails reading the lines of a scene aloud but only speaking when you have eye-contact with the partner. This means you have to stop speaking BEFORE looking down to get the next line, and, having looked down and gotten a line, you have to refrain from starting to speak before re-establishing eye-contact with your partner. Harder than it sounds, and most definitely an exercise in visual-motor self-control.

I also often remark to my students that acting is more a feat of coordination than they typically expect. We must engage our voice and body to affect our partners, but we must also be receptive. We have to alternate between these two modes, in the way that our exhale alternates with our inhale. We must continually open our senses to find the prompt for speaking in the messages emanating from the partner, but we must commit fully to sending messages in response. Our physical self, specifically, both core (abdominals) and extremities (jaw, arms/hands, legs/feet) have to engage in what we are doing. We have to leverage the strength and stability in our cores, even in our most delicate moments, and the extremities have to support and direct the energy generated there appropriately.

Vulnerability and emotional truth arise as a by-product of this integration of the parts. Out of the cacophony of noise that mind and body continually generate, the trained actor knows how to pluck out the sounds that will allow him to make music with the script and with his fellow actors.

on physical characterization

 

Day-Lewis quote

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“When are we going to work on creating characters?”

This refrain arises from time to time in the course of my teaching. I might be tempted to reply “What do you think we’re doing?”, as we strive to come to terms with circumstances, need, plot objective, action, and the path. We look at the decisions that a character makes, and the actions that follow from these decisions, as revealing character. So by studying the circumstances in which a character finds herself, some of which are a consequence of her own decisions, we can learn a lot about her character.

But that isn’t what the student is asking. The student who asks about when we are going to work on character is asking about physical characterization, the taking up of various physical and vocal idiosyncrasies that define character in the popular imagination. Darth Vader’s character impresses itself on us in large part through his voice. The temptation, then, is to assume that the main work of the actor is the finding of the right voice, and the consistent application of it across the role. This ability to change one’s vocal and physical demeanor is a kind of miracle to the lay person, and also to the aspiring actor, and indeed, there can be something miraculous about it. But it is not the deepest essence of the actor’s work, to my mind. And that deepest essence should be the basis for such physical and vocal mutations.

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what keen ears are hearing

NPR conducted a poll in which they played two sounds during a broadcast: one was hot water being poured into a glass, and the other was cold water being poured into the same glass.

The results? Eighty percent of the 30,000 respondents guessed correctly on the cold water, and a whopping 91% guessed right on the hot water (I’m a little unclear about how you get one right and not the other, but I didn’t see the original poll). And how were people able to tell the difference?

Cold water is more viscous, or sticky, than hot water. That’s what makes that high pitched ringing, and it’s what tells your brain – this glass of water is cold – before you even take a sip.

The difference is extremely subtle: click the link above and listen, and you’ll see what I mean. And yet a very high percentage of people were able to distinguish between these two sounds.

I think this is very important because if we have this level of sensitivity to sound, it suggests that we are able to discern where in an actor’s body the sound is originating from when she speaks, and likely without even being aware of this discernment. In class, we seek to help actors approach their scene in such a way that their primitive need for connection with others is activated, a need believed by my teachers at the Yale School of Drama and by me, to live in the viscera, the gut, the lower abdomen. Think of the expression that something “was like a kick in the stomach.” That. When an actor’s impulses are originating in this place, something extraordinary happens, as I have written about many times before: speech that originates in the core confers upon the speaking actor a peculiar authority. We, the audience, can sense that the actor is speaking from the depths of her being. And the way we can sense it, for the most part, is that we can hear it. We can hear where the utterance is originating, where it is issuing from.

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the secret sauce

In my last blog post, I offered a quote from the actor Kim Stanley, in which she talked about how terribly difficult acting is. In fact, “impossible” was one of the words she used.

Well, the effort to describe acting, to characterize it, to point at where it comes from and to offer people a technique of some kind that will help them to actually do it, is just as exceedingly difficult to achieve as Ms. Stanley made acting out to be. As a teacher, sometimes I can’t help but feel a bit like Annie Sullivan despairingly signing the word “water” into the hand of an uncomprehending Helen Keller when I teach. And that’s not because my students are thick-headed or obtuse, or because they fail to apply themselves to the work. On the contrary, I marvel at the dedication and perceptiveness of many of my students. I know that I am doing something right in my messaging about what I do, that such students find their way to me.

It’s that acting is that difficult, and teaching it is also that difficult.

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“the muscle of the soul”

One of the things that distinguishes the approach that I teach to acting, which I encountered as a directing graduate student at the Yale School of Drama, is the notion of visceral activation. The word “visceral”, I explain to students at their first night of class, comes from the Latin word viscera, meaning “”gut” or “intestines”. The idea is that the lower abdomen is the seat of our very primitve need to thrive and flourish, that is, for well-being. Thriving and flourishing, it turns out, are intimately linked to a sense of belonging, of connection to others. By attempting to bring the need that is housed in that area to bear on every moment of a performance, we strive for maximum vulnerability, authority, and presence as an actor.

I have written about this quite a bit, including here and here and here and here. So when I came across this piece, by Yoga teacher Danielle Prohom Olson , on a muscle in the abdominal core called the Psoas, I got very excited. Olson had recently discovered the work of a teacher named Liz Koch, who teaches what she calls Core Awareness.

According to Koch, the Psoas is far more than a core stabilizing muscle; it is an organ of perception composed of bio-intelligent tissue and “literally embodies our deepest urge for survival, and more profoundly, our elemental desire to flourish.”

Yes! Our elemental desire to flourish! That is exactly what the work that we do at Mother of Invention, which centers on getting in touch with an underlying objective, our need to flourish, is all about. And it means that all discussions of motivation come down to a basic, visceral, positive need to flourish! Everyone is trying to grow, expand, and thrive, by living connected, dynamic, full lives. To be able to do this, everyone has to enter relationship with others, to be connected. So everyone is vulnerable, viscerally vulnerable, because of this need for connection.

Also, the Psoas is “bio-intelligent tissue!” The Psoas is not just a muscle, it receives and processes information as well. This is consistent with this earlier blog post I wrote about brain research indicating the the gut processes information in a way that is similar to the brain, that in fact the gut can be thought of as a “second brain.” This is hugely important, because as actors, we have to learn to “receive with the gut” or “receive with the need”; that the measuring of what we are receiving from our world and our scene partners happens not in the head but in the gut!

And what is the Psoas?

The Psoas muscle (pronounced so-as) is the deepest muscle of the human body affecting our structural balance, muscular integrity, flexibility, strength, range of motion, joint mobility, and organ functioning.

Growing out of both sides of the spine, the psoas spans laterally from the 12th thoracic vertebrae (T12) to each of the 5 lumbar vertebrae. From there it flows down through the abdominal core, the pelvis, to attach to the top of the femur (thigh) bone.

But wait! There’s more!

A tight psoas not only creates structural problems, it constricts the organs, puts pressure on nerves, interferes with the movement of fluids, and impairs diaphragmatic breathing.

Koch believes the first step in cultivating a healthy psoas is to release unnecessary tension. But “to work with the psoas is not to try to control the muscle, but to cultivate the awareness necessary for sensing its messages. This involves making a conscious choice to become somatically aware.”

A relaxed psoas is the mark of play and creative expression. Instead of the contracted psoas, ready to run or fight, the relaxed and released psoas is ready instead to lengthen and open, to dance. In many yoga poses (like tree) the thighs can’t fully rotate outward unless the psoas releases. A released psoas allows the front of the thighs to lengthen and the leg to move independently from the pelvis, enhancing and deepening the lift of the entire torso and heart.

Koch believes that by cultivating a healthy psoas, we can rekindle our body’s vital energies by learning to reconnect with the life force of the universe. Within the Taoist tradition the psoas is spoken of as the seat or muscle of the soul, and surrounds the lower “Dan tien” a major energy center of body. A flexible and strong psoas grounds us and allows subtle energies to flow through the bones, muscles and joints.

The relaxed Psoas is ready to lengthen and open, to thrive, to experience meaningful connection that is the basis of our contentment. In class, we always look for a name for the visceral need, the underlying objective, that is positive. The actor must always understand herself to be reaching out in a scene for something worth having, even when she the scene requires that she hurl a thunderbolt at someone. We may use the core strength of the Psoas to hurl the thunderbolt, but we need to always return to the condition of openness to what our world has to offer.

Koch believes that by cultivating a healthy psoas, we can rekindle our body’s vital energies by learning to reconnect with the life force of the universe. Within the Taoist tradition the psoas is spoken of as the seat or muscle of the soul, and surrounds the lower “Dan tien” a major energy center of body. A flexible and strong psoas grounds us and allows subtle energies to flow through the bones, muscles and joints.

Koch writes “The psoas, by conducting energy, grounds us to the earth, just as a grounding wire prevents shocks and eliminates static on a radio. Freed and grounded, the spine can awaken”…“ As gravitational flows transfer weight through bones, tissue, and muscle, into the earth, the earth rebounds, flowing back up the legs and spine, energizing, coordinating and animating posture, movement and expression. It is an uninterrupted conversation between self, earth, and cosmos.”

The Psoas is the muscle of the soul. What did Stanislavsky say? Acting is “the life of the human soul receiving its birth through technique.” See how it all comes together?

I am really excited to learn through Olson about Koch’s work. Seems like I am going to have learn something about grantwriting in the near future, so I can go on one of these Core Awareness retreats. And Koch is based in Santa Cruz. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to convince her co-teach with me at Mother of Invention one day. As Rachel Maddow likes to say, watch this space!

the energy garden

Readers of my blog and those familiar with my teaching know that I place the highest emphasis on the visceral activation of the actor: if the actor can somehow involve the muscles and nerves in the lower abdomen, the so-called Pilates core, in her work, then her work will shine, pretty much no matter what. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially when you know others are watching, as they always are for actors, and when you have lines to say and other things to keep an eye on.

So it was with great pleasure that I discovered a wonderful discussion of the primacy of the lower abdomen in the book Zen Training Methods and Philosophy by Katsuki Sekida. We are reading excerpts from the book in my new advanced class, and this is one of them. This chapter is an absolutely extraordinary explication of the importance of this region for any endeavor.

Why is this region, called the tanden or “energy garden”, so important? Well, one reason is that the muscles in the lower abdomen control the breathing apparatus. By engaging these muscles, the pressure is placed on the diaphragm, which drives inhalation and exhalation. As Sekida puts it:

In according such importance to the tanden we do not question that it is the brain that thinks, plans, and gives orders; but what carries out the directions of the brain is, in the first place, the abdominal muscle structure, together with the diaphragm. If they do not go to work, no scheme is translated into action. You cannot produce a piece of music by simply staring at the score. When the respiratory muscles set to work, mental—or spiritual—power is put into action.

Even if you are breathing shallowly, into your chest, you cannot do it without some engagement from the muscles in the lower abdomen. Without them, nothing happens. Now consider the words “respiration”, “inspiration” and “spirit”. The common root speaks for itself. Respiration is re-spiriting yourself. Without the abdominal muscles, that would never happen.

Or as Sekida starkly restates:

Our contention, then, is that controlled respiration generates spiritual power, and that attention, which is actually spiritual power, can never be exercised without tension in the tanden. Some detailed examples may serve to explain this idea further.

He goes on to explain how in a variety of disciplines of performance, from circus to calligraphy to cartography to tea ceremony to sumo wrestling, the abdominal respiratory muscles of the tanden play an absolutely essential role. He even discusses American football:

Now let us stop and think of the players’ posture just before their dash, and consider how they are breathing, and what part of the body is particularly tensed at the moment of darting forward. The breath, of course, will be stopped, arms and legs tensed. But how about the abdomen? In reality, you cannot dart forward if strength is not thrown into the abdomen. Even if you throw your entire body against your opponent, if the center of gravity is not fixed in the lower abdomen, and the hips and buttocks are not supporting the center of gravity from below, you will undoubtedly suffer a severe fall. All Americans must know that the momentary collision is not merely the percussion of two bodies: it is a combat between spiritual powers.

A combat between spiritual powers. A more fitting description of the drama could hardly be found, and indeed, the great drama critic Richard Gilman loved to quote Henry James’ discussion of Ibsen, in whose work he saw “the ego against the ego, the soul against the soul”.

So all of this, I think, helps to explain why I place the emphasis that I do on visceral activation in the training of the actor. Much of what actors do is talk, which seems to be an activity of the one of the extremities: the jaw. It can be done with minimal involvement of the tanden. But if that is how it is done, everyone watching instinctively understands that nothing important is happening, and they are likely to remember that they have a scratch in their throat and start coughing, or take out their smart phones and start tweeting about how bored they are, or, worse still, get up and leave.

Sekida’s focus is on the engagement of the abdominal muscles, but that is only half the story: the receptive nerves in the tanden are vital as well. In the pit of our stomachs, we measure our standing with our world, especially with our social world. The actor needs this apparatus as much as he needs the muscles. When both the active and receptive principles are active in the core, and not merely in the solar plexus, or the throat, or in the face, then the actor is living FULLY under imaginary circumstances. It’s rare enough that anyone who witnesses it feels they are experiencing a miracle. And, in fact they are: they are seeing the actor conduct and distribute spiritual energy through their cores. Our society needs this now, sad to say, more than ever.

the hara! the hara!

I recently received an inquiry from someone in London who wanted to know more about underlying objective. He had read some of the stuff on the blog, and wanted to know more. I didn’t have a lot more to offer him than what can already by found on the blog, because underlying objective is a concept that really becomes meaningful in the context of working on a scene, and there is only so much that can be said about it outside of such a context.

However, I did make some recommendations. Part of the purpose of underlying objective is to awaken a vitality that lives in the belly, that is visceral. And that can be approached through physical training as well as through the analytical tools we work with at Mother of Invention. One of the recommendations I made was Zen meditation practice. The reason for that is that Zen students are urged to focus their awareness on a region of the body called the hara, which is the area between the belly and the groin. I found an excellent discussion of this online that quotes the late Philip Kapleau’s book The Three Pillars of Zen. It’s a great passage, so I am going to present the whole thing here as well, with some important passages highlighted:

Hara literally denotes the stomach and abdomen and the functions of digestion, absorption, and elimination connected with them. But it has parallel psychic and spiritual significance. According to Hindu and Buddhist yogic systems, there are a number of psychic centers in the body through which vital cosmic force or energy flows. Of the two such centers embraced within the hara, one is associated with the solar plexus, whose system of nerves governs the digestive processes and organs of elimination. Hara is thus a wellspring of vital psychic energies. Harada-roshi, one of the most celebrated Zen masters of his day, in urging his disciples to concentrate their mind’s eye (i.e., the attention, the summation point of the total being) in their hara, would declare: “You must realize”—i.e., make real—”that the center of the universe is the pit of your belly!

To facilitate his experience of this fundamental truth, the Zen novice is instructed to focus his mind constantly at the bottom of his hara (specifically, between the navel and the pelvis) and to radiate all mental and bodily activities from that region. With the body-mind’s equilibrium centered in the hara, gradually a seat of consciousness, a focus of vital energy, is established there which influences the entire organism.

That consciousness is by no means confined to the brain is shown by Lama Govinda, who writes as follows: “While, according to Western conceptions, the brain is the exclusive seat of consciousness, yogic experience shows that our brain-consciousness is only one among a number of possible forms of consciousness, and that these, according to their function and nature, can be localized or centered in various organs of the body. These ‘organs,’ which collect, transform, and distribute the forces flowing through them, are called cakras, or centers of force. From them radiate secondary streams of psychic force, comparable to the spokes of a wheel, the ribs of an umbrella, or the petals of a lotus. In other words, these cakras are the points in which psychic forces and bodily functions merge into each other or penetrate each other. They are the focal points in which cosmic and psychic energies crystallize into bodily qualities, and in which bodily qualities are dissolved or transmuted again into psychic forces.

Settling the body’s center of gravity below the navel, that is, establishing a center of consciousness in the hara, automatically relaxes tensions arising from the habitual hunching of the shoulders, straining of the neck, and squeezing in of the stomach. As this rigidity disappears, an enhanced vitality and new sense of freedom are experienced throughout the body and mind, which are felt more and more to be a unity.

Zazen (meditation) has clearly demonstrated that with the mind’s eye centered in the hara the proliferation of random ideas is diminished and the attainment of one-pointedness accelerated, since a plethora of blood from the head is drawn down to the abdomen, “cooling” the brain and soothing the autonomic nervous system. This in turn leads to a greater degree of mental and emotional stability. One who functions from his hara, therefore, is not easily disturbed. He is, moreover, able to act quickly and decisively in an emergency owing to the fact that his mind, anchored in his hara, does not waver.

With the mind in the hara, narrow and egocentric thinking is superseded by a broadness of outlook and a magnanimity of spirit.This is because thinking from the vital hara center, being free of mediation by the limited discursive intellect, is spontaneous and all embracing. Perception from the hara tends toward integration and unity rather than division and fragmentation. In short, it is thinking which sees things steadily and whole.

The figure of the Buddha seated on his lotus throne—serene, stable, all-knowing and all-encompassing, radiating boundless light and compassion—is the foremost example of hara expressed through perfect enlightenment. Rodin’s “Thinker,” on the other hand, a solitary figure “lost” in thought and contorted in body, remote and isolated from his Self, typifies the opposite state.

The meditation posture itself, with the spine resting on the sitbones, planted like a stake in the ground, and the thighs stretched open, helps with this process of moving the center of consciousness to the abdomen.

In our time, people love to talk about body and mind being one, but that is often as far as they take it. However, if that’s true, training the body is also training the mind. And for the actor, Zen training is great training to have.

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