Actors performing alone. A director editing in solitude. And audiences listening at home. Is Alison Wong’s visceral audio production of Cloudless the definitive play of the pandemic era?
In early April Brendan Healy asked me what I was thinking about. The simplest questions are often the most complex to answer. I was trying to adjust to a pandemic world that was changing hour to hour. As a theatre artist, I'd been suddenly cut off from the audience. My piece, Always Still the Dawn, had been cancelled 3 days into rehearsal. As I watched the theatre world trying to “digitize” itself overnight, I couldn't quite make the leap.
I was longing for intimacy in a world of growing distance, alienation, fear, and grief. But what was I thinking about?
* I was thinking about thinking *
Ten months ago, I began training in Mindfulness for Insight** (or preparation for Vipassana) with a teacher in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition. This means I spend 35 – 60 minutes a day in formal meditation observing the movements of my mind and noticing that which is arising in the heart. In this meditation style I have an “anchor”, let’s say “the awareness of the body sitting”, and then I just let the mind do what it wants.
An untrained mind is just like a puppy in a world full of smells. It quickly leaves the anchor to run off to think, hear something, analyze, zone out, hate the activity, or forcibly try to do it “right”, get lost, sniff its own butt, etc.
If you’re practicing correctly, just observing and not interfering with the movements of the mind, eventually the "puppy mind" remembers it had a job – having awareness of the body sitting! And just like a happy puppy bounding back towards you – the mind has a momentary flash of awareness. This is called a mindful moment.
A mindful moment is always happy. The mind is delighted to return to itself. Through daily practice we collect these mindful moments until eventually, and only if it wants to, the "puppy mind" likes being with the anchor more than it likes wandering off. When this happens, the mind has achieved some stability in a chaotic world.
The stable mind is bright and luminous. This isn’t intellectual. No joy is.
* I write because I want *
The world around me is confounding - it is full of unspeakable beauty and unfathomable pain.
I like the beauty. I do not like the pain.
I want to make the beauty stay. I want to make the pain go away.
This is neither good nor bad – it’s seeing things as they are. Writing is one way I try to make that which is painful, beautiful – and that which is beautiful stay a little longer. I say this with love and as a writer; both are attempts to create the illusion that I can have some control over unspeakable beauty and unfathomable pain.
Humans have learned to love the illusion of control. We hurt and kill each other and ourselves for it. In illusion, we cannot see, we cannot know.
* Ok, but I’m pretty aware, right? *
I’ve spent most of my life as the puppy, “aware” of the content of my thoughts and feelings, while completely unaware of the fact that the mind was immersed in the act of thinking/feeling. Immersed in our thoughts and feelings, it is easy to believe they are how things are, rather than a subjective response we are having to stimuli – pleasant, unpleasant, or just so-so happenings around us.
The modern West isn’t GREAT at seeing things as they are. I’d say the collective puppy mind is so deep in the forest of consumerist delusion that it would rather eat its own eyes than return awareness to itself.
Insight practice reveals a critical distance between “the knower” and “that which is known”. If we can learn to see things as they are (including our own responses), this distance allows us to make better decisions about how to act in ways that support our values.
Do your actions reflect your values? But like, all your actions…?
The simplest questions are often the most complex to answer.
* Nothing is permanent *
Whatever it is, we don’t get to keep it. Not this inhale. Not this body. Not this anger, this joy, or even this love. This truth is so painful and baffling to the modern mind, we typically put a nice blanket of illusory control over it before shoving it deep into the closet of denial.
When sudden loss, COVID-19, or insight practice thrusts this truth to the forefront of awareness, it can feel like a bomb going off in the chest. This knowledge isn’t intellectual. It’s painful. It’s also radically liberating.
I love theatre because I can’t keep it. The show rises, persists for a while, and falls. Just like my life.
All we have are moments. I still want to hold your hand.
* It hurts to see *
Alongside mental training is heart training. To see things as they are takes courage and compassion. Just like how I can’t think my way to bigger muscles, I can’t think my way to a more open heart. I’ve gotta put the time in. Compassion or kindness is present in the heart at any given moment or it isn’t. Do we know when they are? Do we know when they aren’t?
The heart can reach as far as the sun. We do not have to settle for luck or chance, it’s something we can practice.
* Play with me? *
To answer Brendan’s question, I wrote What Happens to You, Happens to Me. It’s a message in a bottle I’m hurling out to sea. When you open it, it reveals a theatre of possibility in your own mind and heart. It’s a chance to follow the puppy mind deep into the woods of experience, and it's a story we make together, just like living. Thank you for sharing some of your moments with me.
**This is by no means a comprehensive overview of Insight meditation. To learn more, find a teacher who isn’t Google.
Susanna Fournier is an award-winning Canadian theatremaker, actor, and educator.