Last Updated: March 27th, 2019

There’s a lot more going on in acting than you might think. Just ask French actor and Plum Village mindfulness practitioner Binh Doan. Though he’s rather new to the world of acting, he has absorbed the essence of acting and distilled what he has learned in a highly spiritual way. To Doan, acting is much more than a job and even more than a calling. It is a way of learning about life. In this Q&A, I asked Doan to illuminate me on the spiritual essence of acting and how to use acting to get to know ourselves better.

Does acting give you a different perspective on life ?

Yes, completely! It changed my life. In life, we often repress our emotions, we try to hide our darkness and vulnerability. In acting, we have to accept and embrace it. It’s also a school for observation. We learn to observe ourselves and others and reproduce it. The most important teaching of acting is to be real. This is a paradox. We often think that an actor is faking, but he’s not. Good actors are really putting themselves in the shoes of the character and their reactions are real to the imaginary circumstances.
Just as in life, we react to our circumstances or our perception of our circumstances. Our imagination is always involved in our reactions, that’s why Buddhism says that we live in illusion. Most of our negative reactions come from the misunderstanding of our circumstances. In acting, we consciously twist the reality to match the play or the script. It requires a strong imagination and a lot of energy!
What do you mean when you say “twist the reality to match the play or script?
It means that we consciously choose to change the circumstances that we are living in. The reality, for example, is that we’re on a set with other actors. But we have to consciously twist it to be able to believe that the other actor is our boss and that we are alone on the deck of his boat.
Actor Binh DoanFrom our work to our home life, do you think that life itself is somewhat of an act?
It is! We’re playing a role that was given to us from our childhood. For example the good boy, the whore, the go-getter. Most of the time, our parents and educators were like directors, giving us directions on how to act and what to do in various situations. We grow up believing that we have to fulfill a role that was written for us by the society. We tend to conform to the expectations of others. But what we should never forget is that we are the writer and the director of our act in life. We can decide what role we want to play. And again, it requires a lot of imagination and creative energy. That’s why I find mindfulness so important: it helps to direct our creative energy on our life in the moment.
As the writer and director in our life, how much control do you think we really have over our lives?
I think we have as much control over our lives as we have over ourselves. But I don’t really like the word “control.” I think we have possibilities and these possibilities are infinite. But we have to lose control to accept what comes in our lives and consider it as a gift. With our imagination, we give the directions, we define what we want, we define our dreams, we give energy to it, then we must let go and let it come our way at its own pace. We shouldn’t be looking for control, we should be looking for gratitude.

Does choosing to take on a role as an actor help you see the different personas that we use throughout the day?

Yes, every role is an opportunity to observe our different personas. In life, we use our persona as a mask to hide what we really think and feel. It can work for a while, but in moments of crisis, our true self tries to break the mask and reveal itself. It generates stress as we try to stop it. In a play, the character is put in such situations that he can’t keep his mask. He has to change to find a new balance.
So when we work on a role, we always have to dig deep under the behaviour of the character to find what he’s hiding, why he’s hiding it, and to use that to reveal the truth of the character. That makes him interesting for the spectator because they can see that the character is hiding something so they have something to work on to discover what it is. With this training, we see the masks that we’re using throughout the day.
The big challenge in life and in acting is to get rid of this mask and reveal who we really are. Acting helps because we can get rid of our own mask for a moment and reveal ourselves under the mask of the character. When the play is over, we can say “It wasn’t me, it was the character!” So we don’t have to deal with the consequences of our actions. In life we always have to deal with the consequences, that’s why we’re scared to express ourselves.
I think that mindfulness can help to get rid of the mask in our daily life because it’s not about hiding what we feel but about expressing it in a way that transforms it.
How do you express your feelings in a way that transforms?
Most of the time, we’re afraid to talk about how we feel. So we put our feelings on the other person, we say “You did that to me” instead of saying “I felt that way when you did that.” We often put the responsibility of how we feel on another, but we’re the only one to be responsible of our feelings. What we feel is our responsibility. So we should simply express our feelings in a way that makes us feel better and that makes other people feel better too. I think it comes from a deep understanding of our real feelings, and it can only come with consciousness. It’s also very helpful to expand our vocabulary about feelings, take care of our feelings and be truthful.
When thinking of acting, fiction is the first thing that comes to my mind, so can you explain more about how acting is about being true?
A great teacher said “Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” It means that we don’t fake our reactions, we don’t fake our feelings. We use our imagination to trigger the reaction or the feeling. It’s like when you meditate and visualize yourself on a beautiful beach, surrounded by nature and you hear the sound of the waves—just by imagining that you can feel reactions of relaxation in your body. But you don’t fake this reaction, it’s a true reaction to your imagination. Scientists say that it’s the same part of the brain that activates when we do something and when we imagine that we’re doing it. It has the exact same effect on the brain. So the reaction is truthful.
It’s not about a general truth. It’s about being true to ourself and our circumstances. The circumstances are developed by answering questions like who am I, where am I, when does it takes place, who am I talking to, what do I want. When we answer those questions, we have to use the script of course but we also need to use our imagination to make it specific. For example, the script would say “on a boat.” We have to make it specific: what kind of boat, how big is it, do I feel comfortable on it, do I feel safe on it, how far are we from the coast, how is the weather, do I see animals on the sea, is it my first time on this boat, do I know the owner, who is driving, does it smell, how old is the boat, etc… The more specific we get, the more details we can put on this imaginary scene, the more truthful it is. That’s why some teachers recommend using a substitution, a true memory of a place or a person that triggers the same kind of emotions. It’s a shortcut because we already know the place in detail so we don’t have to create it with our imagination.
I can see the therapeutic benefit of acting! What kind of conditions do you think it would be helpful for? 
It can be therapeutic but it can  also be dangerous. Lot of actors are suffering from depression and anxiety, so we have to be very careful. There are different techniques of acting and some of them can potentially harm the actor. Acting uses the same principles as hypnosis or NLP, which are based on the use of our imagination. It would be more helpful for those who suffer from a lack of self-expression, depression or anxiety to work on becoming more positive. I think acting in itself is not therapeutic. The characters that we approach can be therapeutic. They can help us to understand ourselves and others better.
Acting requires a lot of work on ourselves. It requires digging deeply and getting to know ourselves better. In this way it could be therapeutic. But therapy is more beneficial to acting that acting is to therapy.
To someone interested in getting into acting for fun, what recommendations do you have? 
I would recommend finding a good teacher. One who is joyful and enjoys what he’s doing. Some acting teachers can really hurt their students. They don’t understand that actors are very sensitive. Some are frustrated themselves and they don’t want you to succeed. A good acting teacher is someone who loves teaching. Someone who takes care of his students and can adapt to them to help them with who they are. He has to express the truth about his student in a way that makes him grow.
I particularly like the Chekhov technique for its spiritual link. And the Meisner technique because it’s effective. If someone is interested in acting for fun, it’s very simple: Try an acting class, and if you have fun, you’re good! If not, try another acting class!
Read an essay on French philosopher Denis Diderot’s view on acting: ART AND EMOTION: Must the two be unified?>>

image: masks via Shutterstock