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To Be and How to Be
Transforming Your Life through Sacred Theatre
By Peggy Rubin
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 2010 Margaret N. Rubin
All rights reserved.
The Power of Incarnation
Beatrice is Shakespeare's merriest heroine, able to see humor in all situations, laugh at herself, and delight her hearers with the swiftness of her mind. She plays with ideas as adroitly as a fencer engages in swordplay. In the words on the facing page she teasingly describes the circumstances of her birth, circumstances that perhaps gave her the gift of laughter, which is her true nature. I'm fond of this quote, not only because I am fond of Beatrice, but also because it is a metaphor for the belief that we are born in resonance with cosmic energies that help to form our own true nature.
HERE'S THE STORY
A star danced when you were born, no matter what else may have happened. A star danced, and you embody the essence of that star. Carrying that essence, you were born into a multimillion-dollar theatre production called My Life. This fantastic creation boasts a cast of thousands; it tells of profound love, daunting challenges, daredevil accomplishments, and heart-stirring action. It presents a unique story that will play one time only, so it is valuable and deserves applause and awe.
The Power of Incarnation invites you to become fully embodied, with your share of star power woven into your precious human flesh. This power asks you to step fully onto the stage of your life, knowing that you bring a profound gift and have a potent purpose for being alive.
All the world is your stage (as Shakespeare reminds us), and your whole life is a vast and elegant drama played upon it. You incarnate a fascinating character. You enact a powerful story through your actions and your words. You express that story through your voice, your movements, and your facial expressions. You perform actions, driven by need and desire; you respond to others and sometimes change your actions because of them.
To make this incarnation even more interesting, you enact different roles in other people's plays: best friend, teacher, student, lover, spouse. And you do so in cameos and in bit parts; as a supporting character; in a leading role; and as a chorus member, an extra, or even a member of the audience. In your own play, however, you remember that you are the star.
HOW IT WORKS IN THE THEATRE
In the traditional theatre, an actor incarnates a character on a designated place called the stage. During the course of the play, we in the audience pick up dozens of clues about a character through the way she looks, sounds, and moves. These clues help us understand the person the actor is incarnating and the story we are watching.
Everything happens through the characters' words and deeds. Only rarely do we encounter a narrator, as we do in a novel, and we are never given a novel's rich behind-the-scenes understanding. In a play what you see, hear, and can discern is what you get. Most of "what we get" comes through the skills of the actors employing the Power of Incarnation.
To Be, or Not To Be ...
That is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?
Many people assume that in this famous speech Hamlet is musing over suicide. But the great teacher/director B. Iden Payne taught that the question is not actually one of suicide, but of BEING, of how to gather our inner forces to face conflict courageously, even though we may die in the process. Hence the speech is essentially about the nature of the Power of Incarnation: Am I willing to become fully embodied in the flesh and then to do what needs to be done, with a whole heart, whole mind, whole body? Or am I not?
If you are fortunate, when you are born, in a new and tender body, you make a dramatic entrance onto a stage that has been prepared with skill and attention. Your presence fills the space; just by being born, you influence the lives of everyone around you. Your rare human embodiment radically affects the other actors in your primary family play. In an ideal world you would have had parents who prayed to invite and then to welcome you here, perhaps with words like these:
Prayer of Welcome
Come, blessed one,
out of the realms beyond space and time.
Gather your spirit, your friends, teachers and allies.
Make arrangements (some might call them contracts)
to meet and play the play together.
Are you volunteering for high service?
Have you chosen to take on flesh
in order to discover something new,
to restore something old,
to learn something interesting, or
to experience the joy of being in a body?
Whatever your reason for coming—
an excursion, a field trip, a fly-by—
Remember, you come bearing gifts, and
you are wanted here in the flesh
for who you are
in your spirit and your soul.
In the earliest days of your life that welcoming prayer may not have been spoken to you in words that you could feel or understand. But imagine that it is being spoken now by the Power of Incarnation. This power calls over and over again, with three essential messages:
The first message urges you simply to be. It urges you to be fully in your body now, for it is only in full embodiment that you can offer the sublime, unique gift that is your essential nature. In our discussion of this first message, we will look for the heart of this birthright of yours.
The second message urges you to do, to take action in alignment with your reason for being. You appeared on this great stage for a holy purpose, cast in a specific role, able to play many parts, to study the other characters performing in your play, and especially to learn how to perform your primary role so that your reason for being born can be fulfilled.
The third message urges you to stay alert to even greater possibilities of your life purpose, which may lie beyond what you can know or discern now.
It may help us to tap into the Power of Incarnation by exploring these three messages in greater detail.
MESSAGE ONE: BE FULLY IN THE BODY
Caro (root carn) is Latin for "flesh." To be incarnate means to be enfleshed; we are made of meat. In his generous and helpful book, Good Life, Good Death: Tibetan Wisdom on Reincarnation, Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek observes that one archaic meaning of incarn, the root of incarnation, is "to cause to heal." He goes on to say, "While we live and when we die we have a chance to heal our minds." Those words answered one of my long-held questions about the underlying purpose of coming into life. When we come into fleshly matter, we acknowledge that we are here to heal and be healed. Incarnate also implies that an energy, soul, or spirit has come into this flesh, in much the same way that a good actor "becomes," for a time, the character she is enacting. In Sacred Theatre we acknowledge that there is more to us than our fleshy tissues. Yet we also recognize that it is only through our physical bodies that our soul's true gift can be offered. Some belief systems would persuade us that the body is unnecessary for spiritual growth—indeed, that it is the root of all evil. I believe, however, that the body is absolutely necessary for the bequeathing of our gift. In fact, we cannot possibly bestow it without the power and pressure of our flesh itself. No wonder we need to be kind to it! As the Buddha said, "In this six feet of flesh I can become enlightened."
* * *
Read aloud the Prayer of Welcome (see pages 15–16). Feel it as if it were sounded for your soul and resounds now through your body. Can you allow yourself to believe that you are wanted here on this earth, that your flesh is holy, your gifts profound, and your purpose for being a sacred trust?
Think of a time when you felt most successful, when you were totally engaged, using everything you knew, expressing all you had to express, giving everything you had to give, and—most importantly—realizing it in the moment. You knew fully at the time that this is who you are, right here, right now. I believe those moments hold clues to the unique gifts you are here to offer to the world.
Now reflect about the experience, using these questions:
What was the occasion?
Who else was present?
What was your primary action?
What was your body doing?
What were you thinking?
What were you feeling?
Here's my example: Angus Bowmer was the founder and artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where I worked for many years. When he died, we held a memorial service in the theatre that carries his name. I was one among several privileged to speak about him. I loved him, and I respected his wife of many years as a chosen mother. I felt the weight and the honor of needing to speak well for and about him. I described his way of leading a cheer when it was time to celebrate an occasion. I read from his writings about the theatre and about acting Shakespeare. I closed my talk with words a friend had sent me, quoting Rabindranath Tagore: "Death is not putting out the light; it is blowing out the lamp because the dawn has come."
Reviewing that moment, I realized that my essential gift is about singing praise. My primary mode is in celebrating, recognizing beautiful words, being inspired and moved by them, and using language and emotion to honor the lives of others. And my capacity to sing praise comes through my love for study and learning, seeking wisdom about life in order to celebrate it.
Now, explore your own times of greatest aliveness, remembering them as if they are happening now; then harvest them for nuggets of awareness about the gifts you bring to this earth. Write the words: "In the moments I remember with the greatest satisfaction, I am __________." Fill in the blank with what you are doing, feeling, being, what is happening with your body, and who else is present. "From that awareness, I begin to see my star-essence gift as __________."
* * *
MESSAGE TWO: DISCERN WHAT YOU ARE HERE TO DO
Having gleaned a sense of the great gift with which you were born, let us now talk about the importance of acting in alignment with it. Some people carry their gift for decades or even a whole lifetime without expressing it. And it's not enough simply to recognize your gift intellectually; it is essential to identify the purpose implied therein and then to operate through it. Otherwise, the gift atrophies, as would an unused muscle. As we'll learn later, that primary life purpose takes the form of an active, overarching verb.
If you are not sure of your primary purpose, one clue is to notice what your body most loves to do or when it feels most alive. If you are aware of your purpose but are not living into it, again, your body will provide a clue: it gets sick, it feels tired all the time, it goes numb, or you feel generally dissatisfied.
We find a tragic example of not living to one's purpose in the role of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. And we see the devastating effects this loss has on everyone around him. At the play's beginning, Willy has been a traveling salesman for many years and is tired to the bone of traveling, of having always to be pleasant and "up" in order to sell effectively. One actor who played this role to perfection is a favorite of mine, James Edmondson. In the play, Jim became Willy. We could see Willy in the way Jim's shoulders slumped. It was as if he had really been carrying suitcases of heavy samples to and from his old sedan, to every department store buyer in the northeastern United States for years, relentlessly forced to drive the narrow roads of New England for a brutalizing boss in a changing world and disintegrating economy. The actor transformed his body to show the truth of Willy's life—its near hopelessness, its overwhelming weariness, its loneliness—even before he had spoken a word. The moment he appeared on the stage we felt his body, his aging, his life closing in on him, and our own bodies responded in sorrow, pity, and dread.
The playwright never tells us, the way a novelist might, all the details of Willy's life before the time of the play. One flashback scene, however, does show us an incident in which he becomes estranged from his beloved son. In it, his son, in trouble at school, travels to Boston to visit Willy at a hotel and encounters him with a young woman, a secretary of a department-store buyer upon whom Willy relies for sales orders. The son experiences this liaison as a deep betrayal of the family, and his relationship with his father is forever broken.
This scene marks the beginning of Willy's disintegration and also illustrates some questions we need to ask ourselves, namely: What happens when we find ourselves stuck for too long in a role that is not aligned with our incarnational purpose? What mistakes do we make—as Willy heartbreakingly does—because we are out of attunement?
Arthur Miller, like all good playwrights, only gives us clues about Willy's true reason for being, and each of us is free to select a possible answer. My guess is that Willy is essentially a family man; he adores his young sons and his garden and needs to be at home as much as possible. His soul's gift is his loving power as a father. His soul's purpose is to offer that gift to the ones he loves: to guide, teach, and be a companion to them. But his job, his role as family provider in the only way he knows, runs counter to that purpose in taking him away for long periods of time. Herein the tragic dilemma that eventually overwhelms Willy's life.
Death of a Salesman is a story that strongly warns us what not to do. What follows, on the other hand, is a story about a woman who absolutely fulfills her life's incarnational gift and realizes her purpose no matter what is going on with her body.
Shortly before she died, the gifted singer Odetta gave a concert in the town where I live. Her very presence showed that she was fully incarnate in her magnificent, strong body, a body big enough to support, hold, and unleash that equally magnificent voice. However, some months before the concert she had broken her hip, and it had not yet healed. So she was thinner and, on this evening, sang from a wheelchair. Odetta had beautiful hands with long fingers, and friends remember her playing the twelve-string guitar as if she had invented it. At this performance, however, she was accompanied on the piano, and she used those glorious hands not to play her guitar but to play the air, to play the energy, to play her audience. Her voice produced the music, and her fingers amplified its majesty with exquisite grace. Even though she could no longer sing and play the way she once had, she sang and played another way, equally powerful. Odetta was born not only to make music but also to become music. And she used her being music to wake up the world through her singing.
* * *
To repeat, first we come into being, and we come bearing a gift. In human flesh, our gift of being weaves into and inspires our primary purpose. We thus express our gift through actions. From that weaving, through a lifetime, we become the gift; we become the purpose. That is the Power of Incarnation.
As sacred actors, we gain clues from our bodies, sometimes straightforward, sometimes metaphorical, about our reason for being. Take pen and paper and write, "My body is __________," and list its qualities, like sturdy or small or tall or willowy or powerful. Then, "My body loves__________," and list actions like touching others or making love or walking or hiking or swimming or climbing trees or sitting placidly or lying down or singing or all of the above. Then, "My body can __________," and list what comes: give birth, father children, cook, hunt, drive, run, sew, create beauty around me, craft wonders.
From these ways of honoring your body, begin to discern the qualities you incorporate. Is there a unifying theme, like Odetta's body was made to be music?
Similarly, can you begin to sense what it is that you are born to incorporate so fully that you have no choice but to express it? Were you born to teach, to inspire, to plant seeds, to learn, to paint, to play? Does your body provide the strength, the sensory capacity, and the skills and facility to perform your incarnational task?
Now write, "My body, my experience, and my loves show me that I am born to be __________ and from my fullness of being to do __________."
Excerpted from To Be and How to Be by Peggy Rubin. Copyright © 2010 Margaret N. Rubin. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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