Conscious Action

Nov 08, 2017

We attempt in vain to describe the character of a man; but a description of his actions and his deeds will create for us a picture of his character.
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Action is the essential grammar of the theater. In his book The Necessity of Theater, the philosopher Paul Woodruff defines the theater as, “… the art by which human beings make human action worth watching in a measured time and space.” An action worth watching is the result of the collaboration between the actor and the audience in a shared attentiveness to the action as it is happening.

Recently I watched my colleague Ellen Lauren teach a class that she calls “speaking.” At one point during the class, she asked an actress to simply stand up from the ground. As the actress began to rise up from the floor, I could see that some of her moves were automatic, unconscious and consequently appeared blurry to me, while others, in contrast, were intentional, tangible and hyper visible. In this exercise Ellen was introducing one of the fundamental principles of acting and speaking. In the straightforward task of standing up from the ground, I could clearly see the relationship between conscious and unconscious action and differentiation. Ellen was able to bring the actress’s attention to the unconscious, unintentional movements by asking her the following question: How will an audience perceive your actions? In response, with her attention upon the turn of her head, or a shift of her weight or to a stop, the actress’s movement became conscious to her and consequently became visible to us, the audience.

To understand consciousness – the fact that we think and feel and that a world shows up for us – we need to look at a larger system of which the brain is only one element. Consciousness is not something that the brain achieves on its own but rather it arises from interactions with one’s surroundings. It requires the joint operation of brain, body, and world. Consciousness is an achievement of the whole body in its environmental context.

The initial component of action is perception. The experience of the senses, the perceptions, interacting with the surrounding world, fosters awareness and hence, consciousness. To perceive is not merely to have sensation, or to receive sensory impressions, rather, it is to have sensations that I understand. No conscious action can happen without perception as its progenitor. Perception is something that I do.

According to cognitive science, first we sense, then we represent, then we plan and last of all, we move. It happens in quick succession. But perception is not passive but rather is located in action and thought simultaneously. I not only take in the world, but I also make it, and absorbing the immediate surroundings is part of that creative action. I sense, I characterize, I plan and last of all, I move. Ultimately it is intention that makes the difference. The distinction between something happening to me or me consciously acting is intention. Thought arises from the entire physical being when it is dynamically involved with the environment.

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson proposes that all human actions fall under three fundamental motivational categories: Avoiding, Approaching and Attaching. Each action was developed during the gradual evolution of the human brain. The reptilian brainstem cultivated the ability to avoid, thereby enabling us to dodge harm. The mammalian limbic system widened the capacity to approach, reinforcing the potential rewards of drawing close, rather than avoiding. The primate frontal cortex augmented the development of the human brain with the capacity to attach, thereby creating a sense of “us” as opposed to “me.”

In our daily lives, we tend to shift between these three actions in symphonic form: avoiding, approaching and attaching. In the constant enactment and re-enactment of these actions we have a choice; in any particular moment we can either act reactively or responsively. Reaction can make the avoiding fearful, the approaching violent and the attaching desperate. Responsive action can bring artfulness and ease to our engagements. When we respond rather than react, we take the situation in and decide the best course of action based upon values such as reason, compassion, cooperation or ethical considerations. Responding requires intentionality and tends to be more conscious.

On the stage, what distinguishes skillful from mediocre acting is an actor’s capacity to differentiate one moment, one action, from the next. Difference is the key. Rather than blending together movement into a general soup, a successful actor marks the separateness, the particularity and the difference between the milliseconds of time passing. In order to render these moments visible and tangible to the audience, the actor must bring consciousness and intention to each and every instant and to each single action, punctuating movement with artful stillness.

I understand the necessity for inaction, for absorption and for crosspollination. In my own life I try to allow for periods of sluggishness and fertile meanderings. I believe in them and I understand the value of inactivity. I know that these meanderings, these detours and digressions are what enable me eventually to act effectively and with intention. Eventually I must awaken from my inertia and rouse from the rich slow accumulation of cross-fertilization and associative musings in order to make clear and expressive signals in the world. Authentic action ultimately requires arousal, alertness and consciousness. I need both periods of inactivity and intervals of willful conscious action.

We humans are designed by evolution for illusion and self-deception. I am prone to self-delusion and a general fearfulness of anything that is not habitual. It is easy for me to be lulled into vague unconscious, habitual behavior rather than conscious action. I need contact with others, meaningful interaction and shared endeavors to bring me into the present moment. I need help.

While it is true that habit is the primary enemy of every artist, habit is also, emphatically, necessary to the creative process and an integral ingredient in the cultivation of conscious action. Consciously formed habits are valuable and necessary in order to thrive in daily life, in life’s trajectory and as an artist. Habit is what gets us successfully through each day. Habit allows for practice to happen regularly. As a child I was taught to brush my teeth twice a day. Habit. In adult life I established the habit of daily exercise. Reading books became an early habit that I continue to pursue and enjoy. Learning languages or skills like acting or directing require regular and conscious, intentional practice that require me to awaken from the sludge of what Virginia Woolf calls “the cotton wool of non-being.”

In his book Outliers, journalist Malcolm Gladwell popularized the now ubiquitous “10,000 hour rule,” which he acquired from Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson. Gladwell suggested that in every field of human endeavor, people do not become expert at something until they have put in about 10,000 hours of practice. The notion is enticing, but Gladwell misunderstood Ericsson’s research and left out the most crucial ingredient in the recipe for expertise: One must practice with intent.

Ericsson proposes that to excel we must engage in “deliberate practice,” which involves constantly pushing oneself beyond one’s comfort zone. Deliberate practice usually requires assistance from an expert and involves constantly pushing oneself beyond one’s comfort zone. Not every type of practice shows strong results. He distinguishes between deliberate and generic practice. Deliberate practice is aimed at a very particular goal and requires conscious action.

Without the rigor or force of consciousness in concert with deliberate practice I can become an endless repetition loop. Without purposefully developing useful habits I am left to drift sleepily from one vague situation to the next, going through the moves but not being fully part of the action. In order to cultivate conscious action I need to develop useful habits and an appetite for practice, rigorous training and study. Habits can have a positive influence on action and actions are an organism’s dynamic dance with the environment. Ultimately how I live is what creates consciousness. Actions are the conduit between the private inner life and the external world. Actions are the bridge.