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(Note: I realize that there are many actors who participate in a wide-array non-traditional or self-help spiritual practices. I myself am an avid follower of several modern spiritual thinkers and have been heavily influenced by the wisdom of much of New Thought spirituality. It is not my intent to malign anyone’s belief system in this blog post—if it works for you, I am glad. My objective is to identify where certain kinds of thinking can veer off-course and become harmful to the actor, rather than helpful.)
I have a friend on Facebook who recently posted about an eerie phenomenon she was experiencing. Every day she found herself checking a digital clock of some kind (an alarm clock, the clock in her car, a microwave, etc.). The time was always some form of three repeated numbers: 1:11, 4:44, 5:55, etc. She found this bizarre in the extreme—surely it was a sign of some kind, but what could it mean?
Unfortunately for my friend, she wasn’t actually receiving a message from the Universe, unless that message was to look up the definition of confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias, which you may remember from Communications 101, is the tendency to lend undue significance to events or information that seem to confirm what we already believe. It was far more interesting to my friend to believe that she was experiencing some kind cosmic synchronicity than to accept that her brain, with its amazing capacity for pattern-recognition, had simply become alert to clocks showing three repeated numbers.
As psychologist Shahram Heshmat noted in Psychology Today, in many cases
“…confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true.”
Actors, who often have little control over the progress of their own careers, are especially susceptible to these kinds of cognitive habits (another is magical thinking, discussed below) that give them a false sense of agency regarding the trajectory of their professional lives. Contributing to this tendency is an unnerving trend I’ve noticed in the Industry, namely that of conflating the process of seeking acting work with a sort of nebulous quasi-spirituality. Perhaps you’re familiar with this phenomenon. It’s relatively new—I noticed it springing up in earnest in the early 2000s—and it tends to manifest as variations on the message that a great deal of an actor’s work is somehow tied to his willingness to access ill-defined celestial forces or an intangible connection to a benevolent universal power for the purpose of achieving his professional goals.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to use the term Sacred Struggle as a catch-all for the many expressions of this trend. As far as I can tell, it seems to be rooted primarily in positive-thinking principles and a prosperity-based model of personal growth that has its origins in EST (now the Landmark Forum), The Secret and similar New Age thought movements, often with a heavy dose of Eastern-inspired, buzzword-heavy pop philosophy, and some highly curated interpretations of Western yoga practice. (If you’ve ever taken a workshop or read a book in which an Industry professional suggested vision-boarding, you have experienced the Sacred Struggle.)
It is undoubtedly vital for professional actors to have a strong sense of personal agency—that is, a feeling of power over those aspects of the actor’s lifestyle that are within their control, such as training, professionalism, self-care, determination, goal-setting and even entrepreneurship—if they are to remain mentally healthy and sufficiently resilient to persevere in an industry so replete with challenges. Of course, the unfortunate reality is that the average actor—regardless of talent or diligence— ultimately has very little control over the outcome of any given audition. This is a universally recognized truth. Surely it is preposterous to imagine that even a novice actor could be persuaded that harnessing the power of cosmic forces should comprise a vital part of his auditioning skill-set. Surely it is at best irresponsible and at worst unethical to impress on vulnerable, striving, naturally sensitive people the idea that booking a job results even in part from the quality of their spiritual connection to a vague universal beneficence. And yet the Sacred Struggle persists, because it offers actors something they innately love: technique.
The casting process—including the introductory step of seeking representation—is mercurial and subjective and fraught with unknowable variables. Auditioning actors are often in the unique position of being called upon to solve a problem for a potential employer without full access to the information that would allow them to produce the best solution. Furthermore, auditions are often held for a part that is already cast. (Occasionally—I have witnessed it— auditions are partially fishing expeditions, wherein the creative team culls ideas about characterization from the talented actors who read for the role and uses their choices to direct the person they have earmarked for the part.) Clearly, there can be no concrete map for navigating these shifting waters successfully. But the Sacred Struggle offers a step-wise process for booking work in the guise of, say, a workshop that teaches you that both the problem and the solution lie within you—in your attitude to the Industry, and your definition of success. In other words, just when the actor is drowning in a sea of frustration, the SS Sacred Struggle appears from the mist and throws a ladder over the hull. Who wouldn’t prefer to climb the rungs rather than thrash in the waves?
By capitalizing on this frustration, purveyors of the Sacred Struggle are able productize a sense of agency and sell it to actors. The core messages manage to be expressly enticing while remaining loosely defined: conflating booking work with personal growth is such a pervasive trend precisely because it is unbound from one specific ethos. As a result, its proponents enjoy a wide range of influence, targeting actors in books and classes and Facebook groups. Sacred Struggle doctrines frequently reference a vague idea of “abundance” and are larded with catchphrases about personal accountability, mindset, “flow,” and “manifesting” success, the idea apparently being that actors who don’t succeed have only their own “self-defeating” attitudes to blame. Never mind the fact that scores of the most successful entertainers in history have been extremely dysfunctional people whose lives were riddled with addiction, mental illness, destructive relationships, cataclysmic identity struggles, financial calamities and suicides or violent deaths; ignore the plentiful examples of current and former idols who are also notoriously lazy artists—Woody Allen admitted as much; Bill Nighy recently called out a trend of film actors refusing to memorize their lines, and Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando are notorious for it. According to the Sacred Struggle, your professional accomplishments (or lack thereof) are not a reflection of the vicissitudes of the Industry but of your spiritual health, the strength of your belief in yourself, and your personal work ethic.
Practicing the Sacred Struggle often relies heavily on magical thinking: the idea that one’s internal desires and thoughts can directly influence the external world. Magical thinking is an especially dangerous cognitive trap for an actor, as some purveyors of the Sacred Struggle will try to convince him that his thoughts literally have magnetic properties, that they “vibrate at a frequency” and that he can literally influence the future by thinking about it. This is clearly preposterous—a thought is simply a thought, and has no power of its own to influence anything in the material world—but I hear versions of this idea from actors all the time. To help understand why such an illogical way of thinking could be so alluring to a reasonable, intelligent person, consider the following example:
Imagine the auditioning actor as a ship’s captain, asked to helm a yacht for a group of wealthy, powerful passengers. The captain might be told where the yacht is headed, or he might be asked to come in with some suggestions of where to sail. The conversation onboard might go something like this:
Captain: As far as I can tell, you are headed to the Caribbean. I’ve charted some different routes…
Passengers: We want to go to St. Lucia.
Captain: Aye, aye.
(sails to St. Lucia)
Captain: Here we are!
Passengers: We wanted to go to St. Lucia.
Captain: This is St. Lucia.
Passengers: This isn’t what we meant when we said St. Lucia.
Captain: Okay. Would you like to go to Martinique?
Passengers: Is it like St. Lucia?
Captain: Well, it’s near St. Lucia, but it’s Martinique.
Passengers: Okay, try Martinique, but see if you can go to a part of Martinique that feels like St. Lucia.
Captain: But I thought you didn’t want to go to St. Lucia.
Passengers: We want to go somewhere that isn’t St. Lucia but that feels like the way St. Lucia is in our heads. Sail there.
Faced with such a dilemma, in constant competition with other actors and denied access to the information that would allow him to succeed, what actor wouldn’t be tempted to embrace the fundamental principle of magical thinking, that his “thoughts create his reality,” and that he can make his career goals manifest by clearly envisioning them? The only thing he knows for sure, as an adherent of the Sacred Struggle, is that he must “let go of the need” to succeed at his task. To do otherwise is to commit the sin of “attachment to outcome” (as if detaching from outcome were simply a mental choice, as opposed to the literal life’s work of a committed spiritual seeker).
The following are commonly held doctrines in the Church of the Sacred Struggle. While none of these are direct quotations from any book or website, they summarize some of the foundational themes upon which this trend of thinking is built:
Being an actor is extremely easy; your improper thinking is what is making it seem hard.
This is not a game, it is a serious job that requires absolute commitment. But you should also always be having fun.
There is no such thing as rejection, there is only pre-acceptance.
Live in harmony with your journey. But keep your eyes on the prize at all times.
Have a full life, don’t be “on” all the time. But always be hustling.
No one can compete with your unique self. But make sure your unique self is a clear and recognizable brand.
Give zero f*cks about what anyone thinks about you. But never burn any bridges.
Don’t waste other people’s time. But attend every event you possibly can in order to “network,” even if they aren’t networking events.
Know exactly what you want. But don’t expect to get it.
There is no point in comparing yourself to other actors. Knowing which famous actors you are like is essential to your brand.
The Universe is infinitely wise and vast. The Universe is also paying attention to your specific desire to book a co-starring role on The Blacklist this season.
You are as much a part of this Industry as you choose to be. But don’t ever email a gatekeeper directly.
You have to set precise goals and visualize exactly what you want in order to achieve anything. But if you don’t get what you want, it means the Universe has something better lined up.
You have to make things happen. But everything that happens is for your highest good.
Live your truth, but fake it until you make it.
No one else has the special quality that makes you, you. You are always replaceable.
Acting is how you bring empathy and beauty into the world. Get in shape.
You didn’t clap hard enough, so Tinkerbell died.
If you are wondering, at this point, why someone with certification in applied positive psychology who touts herself as a spiritual wellness practitioner seems to be arguing against embracing a mindset of abundance and even against spirituality in general, I don’t blame you. Allow me to clarify: I am all for personal growth and the development of dynamic spirituality through intentional practice as a way of deepening a connection to the Divine, easing emotional suffering, and increasing the joy we take in ourselves, each other, and our work. I am also a proponent of applied positive psychology for actors—in other words, of using what we understand about the mind to help us achieve greater happiness and fulfillment as artists, insofar as that is possible. I believe that work ethic, resilience, and clear goal-setting are absolutely useful in achieving one’s career goals. What I object to is the idea that cultivating spirituality is or should be part of pursuing personal career goals, and that an “attitude of abundance” is the linchpin on which commercial success or failure turns. This is nonsense. Spirituality is a practice of conceiving of and relating to the world and the Divine so as to broaden our mindsets and preconceptions about what actually matters. Spirituality is not one tactic in a laser-focused strategy to book a three-episode arc on Two Broke Girls. Certainly branding—the idea of presenting oneself so as to highlight maximum individuality and commercial appeal, is not in any way a spiritual pursuit. A spiritual practice blunts the ego, it doesn’t help the ego fulfill its desires. A spiritual practice blurs our sense of individuality, it doesn’t reinforce it.
With regard to work ethic, visualization and goal-setting—certainly they may be helpful. But they are not the magic ingredients that will turn an actor’s pumpkin into the carriage that takes her to the ball. The history of entertainment in America is lousy with examples of actors who have fallen ass-backwards into celebrated careers for the most random reasons, while actors who toiled their entire lives with dedication and intention failed to succeed.
The ultimate goal of spiritual development is freedom from the desires of the ego, not achievement of those desires. Similarly, positive psychology is the study of what makes people happy. A belief in abundance may improve your general outlook, and console you when you lose a role. A belief in abundance, however, will not create sufficient roles in Joss Whedon movies for all the actors who want them, no matter how many extremely detailed intentions they set or goal-setting worksheets they follow. And if there is one thing that the study of happiness makes eminently clear, it is that setting and achieving career goals does not necessarily make people any happier in the long-term.
Let me be clear: it is not my intention to malign Industry professionals who are sincere in the desire to use their hard-earned knowledge to help actors achieve their goals. What I object to is the commodification of hope: I object to profiting from targeting people engaged in the most subjective of competitions and selling them the idea that there is a formula for success, and that this formula has something to do with something like God. I object to this because too often there is no accountability: if the actor succeeds, the formula works, and if the actor fails, the Universe knows best. I object because the implication is that the successful actors are somehow more in touch with the Divine. I object because the underlying assumptions are never questioned: how do you know that everything is unfolding for your highest good? If you are connected to everything, how can your personal highest good even exist? But mostly I object—I object in my very mitochondria, to someone else telling actors that once again that they are doing something wrong. In an average year, actors get this message approximately 100,000 times more often than they should. If you are trained, if you are prepared, if you are determined, if you are trying, the only, (repeat: ONLY) things you are doing “wrong” are 1) choosing to play the lottery for a living—a lottery that is rigged in favor of people who had careers as children, the children of celebrities, and a small percentage of graduates of a tiny number of schools—and 2) paying people to tell you that there is a method to the madness, and that that method requires revision of your glorious, perfect, and Divine soul.