Many artists, regardless of their medium of art, can attest to what I am about to describe. Sometimes, while creating or performing, one’s conscious mind shuts off, time evaporates, as does conscious awareness and we, the creators, experience a state of being where our mind ceases to consciously function in a similar previous state of present consciousness–yet our bodies remain active. Something else takes over. Many describe this sensation as “going up”, where the performer loses present consciousness, yet remains fully active. Others refer to this experience as having something channel through them. The Japanese have a word for this phenomenon, which has a translation to mean “creating from unconscious thought” or “no mind”. The term is “Mushin” and those who have experienced such a state, often find that they want to experience it again and again.
There are all sorts of artists, just as there are all sorts of people and personalities. Every artist has their process and their reason for creating. They have their technique (effective or not). They have their way of going about things, just as every person has thoughts about their own life.
Theatre is a funny thing to try to define. It is kind of like trying to define love. Can you put your finger on it? Can you hold it in your hand and point at it?
One might say theatre is an event that creates an experience for an audience, typically, but not always, taking place in a venue or physical space called a theatre. Most theatre in the west is for the purpose of entertainment. However, this definition is not applicable to the Balinese of Indonesia, where theatre is primarily a spiritual event and entertainment second. In Bali, dancers train their entire lives in ancient dances that have been passed down through countless generations. They know their dances as well as they know themselves. The dances are second nature to the performers, just as riding a bike would be for you or I. Here is the special thing though…these dancers serve a function that is far deeper than entertainment and laughs. These artists serve as conduits for the gods and it is through their dance and through their bodies, that the gods enter and channel outward–to bless the community. Artists: conduit for the gods. What a marvelous function and concept.
One will often see trance states in such environments. Entranced dancing men will dance into and through burning coconut husks and emerge unharmed. I have seen Taoist priests in Taiwan flog themselves with razor-spiked clubs while in a trance state–while they remain seemingly un-phased. Trance can be experienced in an individual or through a collective experience–with a large group of people, for instance. Trance has played a role in theatre since the dawn of humanity.
Check out this marvelous video from the video from the film Baraka. It depicts the Kecak dance or “Monkey Dance” of Bali:
I used to fight competitively. Tae Kwon Do was a passion of mine. One summer, I was preparing for a national tournament and trained hours upon hours everyday. I was in the best shape of my life. When I would spar with others (controlled fighting), their hands and feet were flying too quickly at me for my mind to register the blows. However, my body perceived the threat and my technique kicked in and I would block the challenger’s blows. Simultaneously, my body would perceive an opening with their bodies and would act, kicking or punching the person with not just one, but a series of blows (combinations). I knew at once that something had kicked in. I had gotten out of the way of myself. If I had tried to control the scenario, my mind would not have been able to consciously process what was happening with such speed. I had experienced mushin.
The next time I experienced this amazing state was while acting in a play. I was being pushed and pushed by a director and was struggling with the size of the role and what it demanded of me. The director shifted my thinking in a way that I was forced to abandon all of my previous choices I had developed and go in a new direction at once. I committed with full bravado. I dove off of the proverbial cliff and what happened? I do not know. I went up. I only realized I had gone up, when I fell out of it. When I did fall out of it, I found myself confused, unaware of what had just transpired. Did anyone notice? Yes. Everyone in the room, a rehearsal hall filled with people all noticed. There was magic in that moment. I had experienced mushin for a second time.
This experience of mushin was, for me, so completely mind blowing, that I dedicated all of my future acting towards that state of consciousness–to repeat that feeling of no-mind. It was, for me, total freedom. It was liberty.
When we get out of the way of ourselves, when we allow the subconscious mind to communicate, often times, the results are surprising. There is a freedom typically found. I believe that when the Japanese refer to “mushin”, or “no mind”, what they mean is that there is no conscious mind operating. Rather, one is allowing the conscious mind to take a backseat to the subconscious and allow that to inform one’s impulses.
Mushin or creating from unconscious thought or no mind is where the gems of the creative process occur. It is where great work derives. The conscious mind is always going to want to control the process. However, it is in the subconscious mind where we can tap into the dream world, into myth and universal or the collective unconscious. This is the artist’s great power. Joseph Campbell says that artists are the myth makers of our time. It is precisely because of artists’ ability to tap into this depth of subconsciousness, that they are able to produce the profoundly moving results that they do.
Now, if mushin becomes the goal, how does one achieve such a state? The irony is that if you are trying, you will fail. For if you are trying, you are “minding”. Your focus is on trying. Mushin is a state of no mind. It is a release, a letting go. How does one achieve a state of letting go when there is so much that could be thought of in portraying a role? Here is the answer: Repeat. In French, the word for “rehearsal” is répétition (repeat). Through repetition, we no longer have to think about our lines. We no longer have to think about where we are to stand and if we are facing out. We do not have to think about our character’s needs and what actions we are sending or any other element of technique an actor uses to portray a role. With this repetition, we can let ourselves go, trusting that as a result of our repetition, our bodies will know what to do. We then become a passenger in a process where our conscious mind is not at home.
One can also learn to listen to their creative impulses, to understand what an impulse feels like. It is equally important to then know how to follow those arising impulses without first fearing or judging them (both of which lead to self-censorship). When one can follow their impulses, what they find is that they are being led.
The average person spends a good amount of time in their life, attempting to control–control others, scenarios, future outcomes, actions and perspectives, etc. It can be very difficult to let go of the desire to control and instead, allow oneself to be lead.