Buddha in Hollywood: Why Actors Should Meditate
“KARL MARX: Religion is the opiate of the masses.
CARRIE FISHER: I did masses of opiates religiously.”
— Carrie Fisher, Postcards from the Edge
I’m an actor. I’ll never get over it.
This series of articles is primarily a personal narrative, but it also has a point:
If I rendered my story into a screenplay, it would be a dark, redemptive character drama about a haunted actor who faces his fiends and in the final act drags himself back from the border of madness. If I had to distill its message into a catchy line (the elevator pitch is a critical trick in our industry, after all), it might go like this: “If this f*#%ing guy can do it, anyone can do it.”
My character would have to be human in the messiest sense, a compromised soul who nevertheless keeps inching by fits and starts toward the Good.
This presents something of a paradox in the other work I do — as a meditation teacher. Barring brazen lies and omissions, I cannot posture as some avatar of piety or spiritual attainment. However, in the context of my work with actors, maybe that’s a feature, not a bug. Maybe it’s precisely my semi-brokenness that allows them to relate to me, and buy the premise that what I say might be germane to their lives. The fact that a character of my description has managed to change — arduously, often biting and screaming — into the still-wildly-flawed but basically sane, happy man who is typing these words; that fact should be a source of grounded optimism for lost, despairing souls.
This industry is not a normal place. It is not a day camp for “healthy normals” who are well-served by a cute, cheery spirituality. No, Hollywood is an asylum for gorgeous buffoons and irresistible freaks, a graveyard for shattered romantics, a casino of dreams bepopulate with Will-O’-the-Wisps, white powders, untouchable gods, and unrehabilitated gamblers who forgo the customary chips and fling great chunks of their souls onto the table instead.
A confirmed gambler myself, I’m wagering that these denizens of the Heartbreak Hotel, these ghosts so lonely they could die (and often do); these guests of the Hotel California, which turns from heaven to hell and back again every week; these dancers in the Dope Show, where the pretty, pretty ones will most assuredly leave you low and blow your mind — I’m wagering they don’t need some smiling kundalini Jesus who makes way too much eye contact to tell them how to fix their lives. If and when they decide to seek a wiser approach to their predicament, they’ll need what my millennial brothers and sisters call real talk. That is what this series attempts to provide.
It doesn’t have to be me, obviously. But the message of my movie is at the very least relevant: “Dear Actors, Dear Clowns, Dear Souls: I get it. I’m one of you, a terminal case. I think meditation has helped me. I really don’t know if it’ll help you. But if you’re tired of suffering and you don’t know what to do, then try it out and see. Either way, take heart. If I could find a better way, anyone can.”
In another spring of another year, I was ambling down the sun-dappled Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica when my cell phone chimed, or vibrated, or beeped, or whatever it did. Who can remember such things? It was March, 2005. I was twenty-seven. Bush was in office, the Hollywood girls were wearing faded low-rise jeans, and nobody knew what Twitter was, or what a smartphone was.
My phone was a slider. It slid open. This was a new phenomenon, and I was very proud. I used to slide it open with a sexy flourish, like James Bond lighting a cigarette or something. Well, I sexily slid my slider phone open, and behold, I had missed a call. In those days, despite my swagger, I was so terrified of my voicemail that I routinely put off reviewing it for days, but on this occasion, perhaps intuiting good news, I gamely played it back on the spot. The message was from one Ethan Reiff, the co-creator of a Showtime pilot I’d appeared in called “Sleeper Cell.” In a voice at once warm, cool, hushed, and ecstatic, he told me that “Sleeper Cell” had been picked up. It was going to series.
If you’re reading this there’s a good chance you already have a sense of what that means, but for anyone visiting us from another sphere of life, I’ll explain. Bear with me, actor friends (or think of the next few paragraphs as validation and a gentle reminder of how bonkers your chosen industry really is).
Each summer, a major TV company receives perhaps 500 brief elevator pitches for new shows. That fall, it requests scripts for about seventy of these hypothetical projects, and the following January, orders somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty pilot episodes, which are filmed. Precious few of these, however, are turned into series and actually broadcast to the world. The rest are consigned to darkness.
Showtime, for example, picked up just three pilots that year: “Sleeper Cell,” “Weeds,” and something else. My memory is going. So, even if an actor is supernaturally lucky enough to land a role in a pilot, his chances of winding up on the small screen remain negligible. Famously, George Clooney starred in over a dozen pilots before he ever appeared in a significant role on television. He was known in the business as the most successful actor no one had ever heard of (until “E.R.” turned him into, well, George Clooney). My story was different. In my seven years in the business, I had tested for exactly one pilot (a “test” is the final phase of the audition process). That pilot was “Sleeper Cell,” and I had booked the role. Now, just as astonishing, it was going to series. The likelihood of all of this was approximately zero. But it had happened.
“Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to one,” pointed out an anxious C3PO. “Never tell me the odds,” growled Han Solo, and flew the Millennium Falcon into that frenzy of murderous space dirt. I was Han Solo. I had flown my ship into the asteroid field, and I had made it out (or so I thought).
None of this guaranteed stardom. Most series don’t do well; they are canceled after a season or two, and then consigned to darkness. Moreover, there was no guarantee that Ethan and his partner Cyrus would give my character anything to do. He might not be heavily written into the plotlines, which would consign me more or less to darkness.
Notwithstanding, in the thirty seconds it took to listen to Ethan’s voicemail, my life changed by a lot. Like those phone booths in “The Matrix,” my slider teleported me to another world. Unlike the dreary interior of the Nebuchadnezzar hovercraft, however, this was a glittering kingdom to which many are called but few are chosen.
First of all, in 2005, a series regular started at $23,000 per episode. That’s eight shooting days. Insiders know this all too well, but I’ll repeat myself in case my reader’s brain declined to admit the information: I would be earning $23,000 for every eight days of work.
At this time, I was a pauper. I didn’t even own a car. I was wont to spend three hours on L.A.’s slug of a bus system just to get from the West Side to my auditions in Burbank, Hollywood, and Downtown. I ate canned soup and giant bowls of Trader Joe’s pasta, a little marinara sauce from a plastic jar if I was feeling flush. Now, in an instant, I was looking at… how much again?
Moreover, once you attain this level, once you become a regular on a series, Hollywood notices. All of a sudden, you’re Somebody. The mossy wrought iron gates of the Hotel California creak slowly open, and beckon. You tell your actor friends the news, and they look at you like you’re the burning bush. Some of them never speak to you again, and the others pendulum violently between euphoric joy and white-hot hatred.
It’s hard to articulate the state in which I found myself after listening to that message. I remember just standing there for awhile as people passed by. I felt suddenly chosen, anointed, singled out in an ineffable way. My broken child’s heart leapt up and engulfed the cloudless California sky. I was a comet, a falcon, a scatter of stars. The world had seen me. Something deep beneath the crust of the earth, something mangled and long-abandoned, groaned once again its ancient groan.
Let’s pause here to talk about the demands a moment of this kind imposes on an actor’s psyche, and situate them in context — namely, affect regulation and attachment. Maybe you just tuned out. I went from telling a fun story about my Hollywood acting career to blasting you with technical psych jargon. Hang in, I’m gonna bring it home.
It might sound odd, but humans struggle to handle extremes of positive emotion just as much as we wrestle with heartbreak, terror, or confusion. Rapturous highs, it turns out, are as stressful as wretched lows. (I’m not making this up. Check out the work of rockstar psychologists and attachment experts Stan Tatkin and Daniel P. Brown, for example, for a peek at the relevant research.) So, a sudden, overwhelming success like the one I just described is actually uniquely taxing. The neurochemistry of ecstasy is almost identical to that of an acute anxiety attack. In both cases, the nervous system is obliged to cope with a torrent of information very, very quickly — and as Tatkin, Brown, or any competent neuroscientist will tell ya, information equals stress.
Now, does this mean we are all destined to come unraveled every time something big happens to us, good or bad? No, because human beings are resilient; we evolved to handle stress. But an event of sufficient intensity can overwhelm our internal fortifications, leading them finally to buckle — leading, technically speaking, to a freak-out. And those of us who aren’t so great at regulating our emotions in the first place are particularly likely candidates for said freak-out.
Why am I explaining all of this? What does it have to do with “Sleeper Cell” and the Third Street Promenade and Han Solo and the asteroid field? Well, I freaked out on the Third Street Promenade that day, and I have a hunch my case isn’t unique. Perhaps it could help illuminate certain peculiar agonies shared by my fellow actors.
Why would certain people be not great at regulating their emotions?
Because no one taught them how.
It’s really that simple. If their early caregivers didn’t know how to do it, then they didn’t teach them how to do it, and so they don’t know how to do it. Again, I’m not making this up: By now the psychological research on attachment is exhaustive, and it shows astounding continuity between the emotional regulation styles of parents and those of their children. Well, trying to do life without knowing how to deal with its ups and downs is sort of like playing in the NFL without pads or a helmet. Without a uniform for that matter. It leaves one in a freakishly vulnerable position. Like a nude quarterback, one is destined to wait helplessly for some murderous ogre to break through the line, and when he does (and he always does), it’s your neck.
I’ve been that nude quarterback. I’ve passed much of my life under a dubious star: Just hope nothing happens, ’cause if it does, God help the kid. I don’t blame my parents. Or not exactly. If they had known all this stuff, no doubt they’d have provided me with the pertinent instruction. It’s not their fault that they didn’t know it. My Buddhist training and decades of therapy incline my heart toward forgiveness.
At the same time, there’s no sense pretending their omission has been a great help to me. It’s not merely that I’ve been naked, it’s worse than that. I, like everyone else, am a biochemical organism with an absolute imperative to maintain homeostasis. So, it’s not like I got to opt out of the emotional regulation game. No, people who fail to develop healthy strategies for emotional regulation are required by the immutable Laws of Nature to find unhealthy ones. Read: Drinking, dissociating, snorting, sexing, eating, or whatever gets you through the night. Is any of this starting to sound familiar, dear actor?
In Part Two of this article, I’ll come back to my Third Street Promenade story, and conclude with an explanation of why I think mindfulness meditation is so important for actors. (Spoiler: It’s a magnificent strategy for regulating our emotions.)