Every now and then, one encounters something that strikes them like a lightning bolt. For us, reading Thomas Merton's letter to a young peace activist was one such occasion.
The words of a Christian mystic in reference to the Vietnam War mightn't sound in any way applicable to our lives. But for those of us who’ve ever fallen into a pit of disillusion along the actor's path, Merton offers some #realtalk.
During the Vietnam War, Jim Forest wrote to Merton expressing his frustration. He'd exhausted himself striving for peace — to no avail — and was now left feeling like "an ant climbing a cliff". Forest believed this to be his path in life and had given himself to it entirely. Yet, results had continued to elude him.
Merton replied in his characteristically elegant fashion (the whole shabang can be found in The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton's Advice to Peacemakers), but for our purposes, we'll focus on the two chunks below:
"Do not depend on the hope of results ... You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself."
He then goes on to say:
"You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work … You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work."
Merton's reply may sound harsh and even nihilistic — especially in response to someone as well-intentioned and purpose-driven as a peace activist. But, if we truly let it steep, we find it actually captures something profoundly liberating and wise.
Why'd you have to go and make things so complicated?
We'll be the first to admit to being guilty on both counts. Guilty of depending "on the hope of results", and guilty of "striving to build" an "identity" in our work.
Yet, we'd be amongst the last to suggest there's anything wrong with setting Ambitious-Ass Goals and pursuing them with a laser-like focus. However, us actors do tend to complicate our experience by becoming a little too strongly attached to the results. Binding our identity and self-worth to something we'll never be able to entirely control is a risky business and losing game.
Here lies the paradox of goal setting: we have to definitively set a goal, inch towards it without wavering, and surrender the ultimate outcome. We have to simultaneously believe we're worthy of the next level magic we're manifesting while not deluding ourselves into thinking we're owed it. It's a real mind-pretzel.
For Merton, the solution was to concentrate on "the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself". This is the heart of his wisdom. Meaning that, yes, we set our sights on some lofty ass target, reverse engineer the steps to get there, and then treat our attention and commitment to each of those bite-size actions as the wins. It's very much the Western cousin to Zen's "meditating to meditate, not to attain enlightenment" ethos. It's also the only way we can stay sane on this path.
At the Dojo, we equip ourselves with two other strategies for those days when simply delighting in the goodness of our consistent action proves especially challenging: setting process and performance goals, and getting our "results" elsewhere. We can pick'n'mix depending on the context and the inclination of our nature, but a well-stocked toolkit is a handy thing to have as an actor.
Even by wiggling ourselves just a few centimetres in Merton's direction, we quickly start to uncover the "right use" of our work — an extremely joyful and empowering discovery. We return to doing the work for the love of the work itself. Not for the results or the identity. Simply for the work itself. It's the "beginner's mind" Zen (again) similarly champions.
We're not all near saints like Merton (though maybe you, ninja reader, are), but we might be able to dodge one or two of those pits of disillusion by heeding his advice.
Thoughts / feedback / challenges? We'd genuinely love to hear.