The Art of Restraint

Anne Bogart's picture

When restraint and courtesy are added to strength, the latter becomes irresistible. -(Mahatma Gandhi)

My British wife Rena recently returned to New York after a period of time in London. On her first day back in the city, she ran errands at our local CVS and a grocery store that she had frequented countless times over the past decade. She was surprised at how previously shown common courtesy had been reduced into barely disguised disdain towards her as the customer. Based upon her brief encounters of that day, she wondered if the level of civil interaction in this country might be rapidly diminishing. 

Much like a frog placed into a slowly heating pot, not noticing that the heat is escalating dangerously, I wonder if we, who live in the current cultural and political moment, are unaware that our civic space is, bit by bit, eroding.  Are we gradually giving in to uncivil behavior? Are our daily lives gradually losing the benefit of big-hearted social exchange and perceptive discourse? The current administration accords unspoken permission to be rude, to use abusive and dismissive language, to indulge in uncivil attention, all which tend to diminish the quality of social interaction. As our public discourse is becoming a toxic soup is the social arena deteriorating as well? 

It is probably true that the initial attraction of Trump was that people were happy that someone was making their own rage visible.  Vast swaths of U.S. citizens were titillated and enraptured by their own righteous cries. And now, as a result, the public arena has largely become one of outrage. We are living in a trigger-ready culture of outrage and complaint and many of us have become complicit in the social media frenzy. Gone unchecked, the situation is dangerous because our own anger and shared rage also seems to entertain us and maybe even momentarily make us feel better. But rage and frenzy does us no good because in fact our rage is being turned against us. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk uses the term “rage banks,” to describe the way that disparate grievances can be organized into larger reserves of political capital.

Our inherent human fragility and the vulnerabilities of the brain are not only being tampered with in the current political arena but are also the object of Silicon Valley.  Our own rage is being turned against us, used against us for political and commercial aims.  A great deal of research and expense is dedicated to insuring that our devices are as addictive and compelling as possible. The electronic systems that track our personal data and movements in the world are being used against us as well. As I write, Zuckerberg is about to testify about Facebook’s personal data breaches.

But ultimately, outrage, screaming and whining solve nothing. Civilization is restraint. Human history traces the rise and fall of restraint and hence the rise and fall of civilized behavior. The loss of restraint led to wars, untold loss of lives, torture and the neglect of human decency and the current chemical attacks on civilians in Syria. The danger now is real. We cannot go down that road again because the weapons of destruction have reached a level far too sophisticated for us to survive.

I recently listened to one of the final interviews with the great Canadian composer/singer Leonard Cohen, recorded shortly before he died.  The interviewer not only asked him about his music but also about being a great “ladies man” and a dedicated Buddhist.  Cohen joked that many people imagined that he spent a lot of time bedding fabulous women but in fact most of his time was spent scrubbing cold floors in a Buddhist monastery.  The interviewer then asked what all those years of Buddhist practice taught him.  Cohen paused and spoke succinctly but effectively, “I learned not to whine.” 

In our current political environment, we cannot afford to whine. Whining helps absolutely nothing. Neither does expediency, cynicism or sarcasm. We cannot afford to waste precious energy on random complaint. Giving in to what is expedient rather than what is useful, whining rather than gathering the energy for fuel and following blind impulses are about short-term gain; narrow and selfish, immature and irresponsible.

One of the fundamental tools in making art is restraint. Restraint implies restriction and I would like to propose that restrictions inherent in every creative process are ultimately one’s ally. Most successful artists understand the importance of restraint applied in moments of great excitement. Architecture and paintings are praised for their combination of exuberance and restraint.  An artist gathers energy and excitement and then practices restraint so that ultimately the expression is eloquent, calm and effective. The 13th century Noh theater playwright and philosopher Zeami wrote, “Feel 10, show 7.” The intensity of inner experience must be total for a performer, but communication is more potent if the actor reserves some of it within rather than relieve the tension by expressing it all outwardly. Butoh practice teaches, “move less, experience more” because the containment and concentration of movement is considered more powerful. In the moment that you want to speed up, this is precisely the moment to slow down. The singer k. d. lang described what she learned from Roy Orbison as “physical containment and emotional expansion.”

The practice of restraint is necessary now more than ever both in our art and in our social lives.  It is a tool that can be brought into play in each and every day and in each and every interaction.

In 1981 while directing a play with graduating acting students at the Max-Reinhardt-Schule, the leading acting academy in West Berlin at the time, the actors asked if I would be interested in taking part in an exercise that they had been doing regularly over their three years of training.  I was curious and game to try.  We divided into groups of four and the instructions were explained to me.  One member in each group is blindfolded.  For the first five minutes, the three without blindfolds offer the blindfolded actor a calm, supportive physical journey through the space.  Then during the second five-minute sequence the three start to gently push the blindfolded person around.  During the third five-minute sequence the three essentially beat the blindfolded person.  For the final five minutes, the blindfolded person receives comfort from the three. In the first round I was one of the three in the group without a blindfold on.  I was shocked to find that when it came to the third sequence, to the beating, I experienced a certain thrill and excitement at brutalizing the blindfolded person. Then when we switched, and it was my turn to be blindfolded, I was again surprised at my own physical vehemence when, after I was beaten and while the three actors tried to comfort me, I lashed out violently. I would not let anyone come near me much less comfort or touch me.  In both cases, as the perpetrator and as the acted-upon, I was surprised to recognize the violence that that was awoken in me, that lurked within me and transcended the parameters of a theater exercise.

I do not necessarily recommend this exercise, but by taking part I learned that my capacity to hurt others is real and close to the surface. Previously I had conceived of myself as a peace-loving person who would never hurt others. But through this training exercise, I experienced first-hand that I am capable of violence, and that it is restraint, civilized behavior, that prevents me from engaging in violent acts. 

I am grateful that I learned this lesson.  I feel more in touch with the darkness. As Carl Jung wrote so brilliantly, “No tree can grow to Heaven unless its roots reach down to Hell.”  Without restraint I might follow blind impulses in service of short-term gain. I might become selfish and irresponsible. I may lie and be oblivious to others. Without restraint I tend towards immaturity and irresponsibility.  Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organized and unified. As we grow into the world, as we grow up, we learn how to use our prefrontal cortex to exercise restraint.  But it is tough to live in a world that assaults us daily, hourly, in every minute, encouraging us to push the button, buy the thing that will make us feel better and will give us short term gratification.  Restraint is a discipline that can help us to find meaning and will help us to collaborate with others.