An Atheist's Prayer, an Actor's Vulnerability, a Patient's Trauma

There's something a little bit eerie to me about Jerry DeWitt's article in Huffington Post in which he exhorts his fellow nonbelievers to engage in a nonreligious version of prayer. And it's not eerie because I have some problem with atheists engaging in what sounds at first blush like a form of meditation just because it apes supernaturalism. Who gets irked about that kind of thing, other than, like, Tom Flynn? (Hi, Tom!)

No, no. It's something else that gives me the willies. Here are some samplings of DeWitt's post:

When sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings with no one or no-thing, there’s far less pressure to maintain a facade or pretend to be better off than we really are. It feels refreshing to step into our prayer closets and allow ourselves to become emotionally naked. If you have a friend who can be completely trusted, this should still be possible for the nonbeliever. If not, please don’t let this exercise pass you by. Find a secluded space, start talking out loud about what’s troubling you, and don’t stop until you know that you’re no longer pretending or hiding from your true self on any level. [ . . . ]

Some atheists seem to struggle with the idea of “going with the flow” with their emotions. Unrestrained emotions are considered by a portion of nonbelievers to only belong to the domain of religion. For that reason they feel that some forms of emotional expression can be dangerous. In the religious world I was raised in, emotional displays were not only allowed but expected. In my experience, you’ll know when you’re no longer hiding when the tears begin to flow.

Now, fellow thespians back me up on this. Read that last line again about tears. Does this not sound just like a class on Strasbergian/Stanislavskian "Method" acting??

The late Doug Moston was a renowned teacher of the method, and I was unspeakably fortunate to have been able to study under him during my brief time at the Actors Studio graduate school (I left after the first year, and it's a long story). He was marvelously funny, rich with experience and compassion, and deeply committed to his students' development.

But his class was also extremely rigorous.

To sum the whole "method" thing up briefly (and probably badly), the system isn't about making yourself angry or sad or whatever when you're in a scene, tricking yourself into believing you actually are the character you're playing, or blindly unearthing your ugliest emotions on stage, though many actors misuse it that way, and familiar stereotypes of it have emerged as a result.

What Doug clarified for us was that the method, in tapping into one's darkest and most intense emotions and memories -- and as is often forgotten, in intentionally manufacturing new ones -- one builds a toolbox of physical responses to stimuli, genuine responses, that one can then utilize in performance. In rehearsal, it might be sloppy, scary, unfocused, and the line between reality and artifice can feel blurry, but the goal is specifically rehearse it until it does in fact become artifice, in the sense that an emotional or physical response is merely a byproduct of doing the real work: playing a character who is pursuing an objective. Verbs and actions, not emotions.

But to make all that work, Doug had to put us through a series of exercises and "games" designed to make us vulnerable, exercises in which we would have to unburden ourselves of every ugly thought, every anxiety, every prejudice, and perhaps most importantly, every layer of mask that we put on ourselves to cover those things. Each activity was meant to strip the actor emotionally bare and raw.

And I hated it. Many actors took to it extremely well. It was intense to them, but they embraced it. I fought it. I fought myself, I fought the very idea that there was a class full of hip young New York actors watching me writhe through this process. It was excruciating.

But I got it. Christ, it was hard, but I clued in. This is not to say I mastered it, but I got it. And I get it.

Remarkably, there is yet another parallel. The "artifice" aspect of all this: One repeats the process of taking a melon baller to one's psyche until the act of confronting one's morass of emotions and hangups becomes rote, something to be learned from and referenced, and no longer possessing the potency to control and overwhelm (on stage, at least). This is incredibly similar to the work I did in my post-assault therapy. The memories of my attack, as well as other painful events in my past, were replayed in my mind over and over and over until they were defanged, transformed from pure pain to tools. (The pain never goes away entirely, of course, but we're talking about degrees.)

And this brings it all back to DeWitt and the atheist prayer. DeWitt uses the language familiar to him as a former pastor, that of praying. But it turns out that what he's really talking about is this very practice: taking one's darkness and converting it to something manageable by the act of speaking it, as often as is necessary.

In "prayer," in the method, in therapy, it's all about taking control of your internal traumas through regimented and intentional practice. It's about committing to a discipline.

And that, my friends, starts to sound a lot like Karen Armstrong's version of religion, and I am not opening up that can of worms right now.