God Potential

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Actors frequently face rejection and are confronted by the reality of limitations: not all roles belong to them. How do faith, ego, and humility help an actor navigate these experiences?   

 

 

Faith is an act of trust in what’s beyond one’s limits of knowledge and certainty. It is recognition that one’s ego has limits and that it cannot help us survive everything that life throws our way. Faith kicks in when ego fails and vice versa. They work better when they work together like forces that work in a system to attain a resultant stability.

So how do they fit into an actor’s needs and pursuits?

For kids like me who were hungry for an adventure into the acting world, the way Islam was practiced by people around me back then didn’t make much sense. It didn’t deal with questions I had as a kid like: How can we have free will and a destiny at the same time? If everything that will happen is God’s will, then how can we have any real freedom of choice? If we don’t, then why am I asked or expected to do anything at all? If it’s in God’s will, then it’ll just happen anyway, right? Do I really have to go to hell for another 100 years because I masturbated again? People would piously inform me of these things, but if I asked them to break it down for me, they usually wouldn’t even try.

I thought on it myself for a few years and theorized that if God is infinite by omniscience and there are infinite timelines in our multi-verse where every choice made and not made branch off into their own trajectory, then that would allow for both God’s knowledge of the future and our free will to be true. I came to this theory on my own, but it was heavily influenced by science fiction stories I liked and my high school physics teacher. I didn’t need adults around me to have an answer. However, I would’ve preferred it if they were open to investigate it further with me or at least admitted to not having an answer. I remember most adults struggled immensely with being wrong or unknowing.

Mainstream films from those years, especially from the industry we were primarily exposed to – Bollywood – were flooded with stories of the partition of 1947, when India and Pakistan were formed. Those movies focused on the weaponized role of religion that took and destroyed so many lives and futures. Mainstream media wasn’t great at depicting the benefits of religion to an individual or society. It pretty much focused on its most destructive utility. I understand better now the fear of questioning religion, faith, and the nature of existence in societies where generations have had to keep their real thoughts secret lest the lethal wrath of prejudice falls upon them and their loved ones.

Like most kids in Dhaka city in Bangladesh, I’d been taught to follow Islam. I grew up memorizing prayers without understanding them and learned to vocalize Arabic writing without learning what the words meant. I’ve been told many times that I must pray five times a day while strictly adhering to the motions and words my teachers used but never given a satisfactory explanation for it, if one at all. Eventually in my mid-teens, I realized that the people who were trying to mould me into a good Muslim boy actually didn’t know what they were talking about, and I certainly didn’t feel a strong connection to the role. So I started to identify as agnostic.

Years later, after I started crashing and burning out in the astrophysics department and switched to Theatre at my University, I had found a new home and happened upon my tribe for the first time in my life. I suddenly found myself surrounded by people who valued my uniqueness. Once I started to get roles and feed the starved ravenous actor in me, theatre became religion, survival, and rapture. I practiced it every weekday and many weekends with discipline and singular focus. My circumstances, hunger, privilege, and good luck all intersected and started to transform my life almost overnight. It eventually converted me into someone who, through practice, learned to feel secure in being deeply available to continue improving because the faith to keep growing in this creative temple was strong.

If rehearsal is worship and my instrument is the place of worship, then God is the impact of the performance on an audience. It’s the mirror to life we hold up to help the audience process and reflect on their experiences. My most fulfilling experiences of performing are the ones I don’t really remember anything about. What I do remember about it, even years later, is that my identity came back after the performance, and most of what happened on stage is someone else’s blurry memory. My identity and ego disappeared and housed something else, someone else.

That process to me is God. That process expanded me and my faith. Those were experiences that my vessel carried and delivered using someone else’s words, mind, joy, and fears. It made me selfless, as literally as I can conceive it at least. My service to holding up the mirror became unconditional. It is surrender. I definitely navigated my way through auditions and ambition to arrive at the job conditionally. My expectations are present and my commitment to it is at least a little bit conditional all the way up until curtains rise. However, after the moment I disappear, step aside or surrender, what is given to an audience is unconditional and untethered by my ego or my awareness of self. These experiences wove me through a few different belief systems and landed me on: if God is where you put your faith, then anything can be God and therefore everything has God potential.

If rehearsal is worship and my instrument is the place of worship, then God is the impact of the performance on an audience. It’s the mirror to life we hold up to help the audience process and reflect on their experiences.

The necessity of a strong foundational faith becomes more obvious during times of hardship and rejection. We face rejection frequently in the industry. The most common examples that come to mind are the rejections faced at auditions. However, there are so many more variants and levels of rejection that we face. There are rejections of being replaced after booking a job, of being told you don’t look, sound, feel, act right, of having your best work cut out of the final cut, of losing money you’ve personally invested out of pocket to make yourself available for the job, of being ejected uncredited after putting long months into developing the script. That’s still really the tip of the rejection iceberg. These rejections, if left unprocessed and unmanaged, build on the ego. They add gravity to the ego’s stance as it reacts to danger and disrespect; the stance of “I am worthless” or “the world is worthless” both lead to destruction.

So how do we avoid becoming pure ego in the face of all this rejection? By saying pure ego we’re implying a state of heightened ego where faith is seemingly not co-piloting the system anymore. If we stay in that place, we would lose sight of what we’re supposed to serve because we would be more focused on our own constructed identity by trying to prove those rejections wrong or right, as well as any number of the neural networks of experiences that can link to those rejections. In the massively collaborative machine that is film/TV and theatre, it’s impossible for the actor to work in complete isolation from other people. With our ego in full blast, we cannot truly connect collaboratively with others. This is true for performance as well as collaboration off-camera/stage.

My life has been a constant stream of opportunities to learn how to face my ego and extract humility for myself. Some lessons hit and land harder than others. During my first year of training, I booked my first role on my first mainstage show of the theatre season. I did multiple auditions and callbacks even after the director’s deadlines to finish callbacks because he saw something in my auditions that he couldn’t let go of before eventually casting me in a major part. This happened after a prolific year of rejections. We had a few rehearsals before we were to leave for Christmas break.

Afterwards, the director sat me down and confessed that he had made a mistake by casting me in a major part because my vocal apparatus was simply not ready to carry the role. I was recast in two small roles instead. I went home devastated, cried my eyes out, and didn’t leave the house for 10 days. It taught me the most important lesson that I have ever learned in the industry to this day: no role is mine. No role really belongs to you even after getting the part. The role can be recast or the show can be dropped at any time for many different reasons. A secure job is only as secure as its company deems it.

Your legacy after you die is really subject to the shifts of society as it dynamically evolves. Even your own life doesn’t belong to you, at least not forever. As difficult as that was to swallow at first, it was incredibly liberating on the other side. It gave me a certain humility and freedom from the ego of “this is mine.”  The hole that pain left behind was filled with gratitude for the opportunity to be free from such a damaging belief system shaped around entitlement. I’ve been acting for 18 years now, and I’ve never felt hurt by the many rejections from the countless auditions since.

I became pure ego during the first few days of that ten-day isolation. I could’ve stayed there, but I wouldn’t have lasted very long. My art and career would’ve self-destructed. Being invested in the process without being too invested in the result, ownership, or entitlement keeps you from becoming pure ego.

Another piece of acting training that kept me pure-ego resistant was the disciplined practice to fully connect with my scene partner and circumstances. This focused work of connecting to the otherrepeatedly until it is subconscious for performance brings with it a certain capacity to leave your ego and identity. When we let go of our constructed identity by completely committing to affect change in the other, we create a vacuum where that identity was living and our character (which has been created fully from the writing and actor’s preparation) flows in to fill that vacuum and is suddenly alive and here to speak for themselves. Mindful rehearsal is armour against Ego.

It’s not like there is no role for my ego in the duration of the job contract. I very well need my ego to pursue the career, fight for the role, and get myself to the theatre before calltime, and yet it’s my biggest enemy once curtains are up. I may lean on ego to get on stage, but then it will murder my living breathing work to house character because it fears the death of my constructed identity. We actors are terribly exposed and raw if we’re actually getting the job done. The ego will freeze or hyperdrive our instruments and tirelessly try to make us invisible or turn us into the sun because everyone is seeing us for who we really are now – scared children desperately wanting their immature selfish dreams validated by adults who have real jobs. Both those ego reactions will get in the way of us selflessly serving the story to serve the audience. If serving the audience personally fulfills us, being reminded of that is enough to not be consumed by ego.

So if I’ve done all of that enough times, then does my ego go away for good? In my case it has returned every time and remains familiar, so it feels reasonable to conclude that it’s an integral part of my self. I know that it protects me. It makes me cautious, careful, and untrusting – very important qualities to continue survival – in dangerous places. My ego has to be there to keep my meat suit from simply walking off a cliff-side or into an open fire. Despite the argument for or against whether we need ego or not, the bottom line is that we have it. It may inflate or deflate, but we have to learn to work with it.

The purpose of the knowledge and security we develop through preparation for a role is to enable a leap of faith to surrender to it. I’ve had enough positive rewarding experiences in my theatre career to have developed a taste for that leap despite the nerves and ego that take a hold of my spirit every time before a show. What has additionally really helped me is to talk to my ego when it’s agitated or activated to assure it to trust me because I’m building something beautiful that my ego won’t be excluded from enjoying and basking in afterwards. They’re with me on the ride, and I want them there. I love them. I cherish them. I have faith in them.

How does faith, which really is contradictory to ego, start to show up in an ego process that’s seemingly absent of faith? I think it’s because ego and faith are as connected as they are contradictory. Let’s look at it like life and death. Life and death exist together. Every moment we’re here we experience both life and death simultaneously. On a cellular level, we constantly experience cells dying and new ones being born. We are living and dying at the same time. You may say it’s a constant battle between the two, but there’s also room to view them as a pair working together to push the organism to evolve. Without a chance of death, there is no need or possibility of change and adaptation. That’s the only way to continue to survive. The likelihood of death is very much a fully accepted reality during moments of feeling truly alive, grateful, and unconditionally loving. Ego and faith share a similar connection.

The ego, the rampant forest-fire version of it, wants the way forward to be in its control to achieve complete safety and power over it. The ego can, to a great extent, successfully do this but never fully. It can’t keep us from death forever. It can only postpone it under the most enabling of circumstances. It’s a hard limitation with no solutions. When we are at those limits, our ego can’t help us. Faith, of any kind, is a way to cope with limitations. Faith in ourselves, loved ones, God(s), the collective consciousness of the universe, my toaster, anything and everything. At my limitations, I have to employ faith to keep my ego from triggering me into PTSD and exhausting me with its insistence to control life and its painful impotence of failing to. The ego is eventually helpless and destructive without faith. Faith is, after a certain point, aimless and ignorant without an ego to shield its carrier from avoidable or manageable pain.

The elements of life’s natural systems, however contradictory, are connected to each other. Faith and ego do their best work when they tag-team. The belief system that empowers me to survive or thrive in the actors’ arena is one that reactively and responsively adapts with each rejection and preparation process. I no longer fully identify with being agnostic, atheist, or religious. I temporarily identify with diversely different lives that are sent to me from the script-Gods and leave each one with a bit more expansion in my spirit.

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