The Yin and Yang of the (Healing) Artist
When I decided to go to acupuncture school, my acupuncturist’s response was unexpected: “great! You can still do theater!” she said. Although it had never occurred to me that I would ever not do theater, this response was comforting to me. Somebody got it! My plan to be an acupuncturist while maintaining my life as a theater-maker would work!
However, since then I have encountered varied reactions from people when I reveal my dual-life as an actor/acupuncturist. Usually, folks who do not know about my life in the theater assume that the “play” I’m doing is a cute amateur hobby, and when I tell other theater people I’m an acupuncturist, they either take me less seriously, or assume that it’s a “day job” similar to an actor waiting tables to pay the rent. Sometimes I just get a silent, blank stare.
It’s confounding to me that there is such dissonance here. I think many people assume that if I am doing both things, my focus will be split. While I am certainly in a phase of learning how to practically do both, I do not see them as separate. In fact, both professions allow me to work towards the same goal: nurturing the human spirit through movement and expression. Acupuncture, at its heart, is the movement of energy in order to effect change. To me, live theater is fundamentally the same thing.
Since deciding to go to acupuncture school, I have discovered a world of profound, spiritual healing that has truly changed how I experience the world. Chinese medicine is both incredibly simple and endlessly complex, and above all it requires that as practitioners, we develop the ability to sit with a person, ANY person, and really be with them however they show up.
This is remarkably similar to what we are asked to do as actors. We train our bodies, voices, our minds and spirits, to be open, deep and vulnerable, and above all to listen. As actors, if we know our lines but don’t know how to listen to our collaborators, we will ultimately fail at communicating the story we are trying to tell. If, as practitioners, we are unable to deeply listen to a patient, we will fail at being able to initiate healing.
Many patients come in for a symptom that is seemingly simple: shoulder pain, anxiety, sciatica. But the beauty of Chinese medicine is that a symptom is never just a symptom. There is always something deeper going on, and our training allows us not only to listen to words, but also to tone of voice, subtext, as well as other clues like a person’s color and body language, that guide us in discovering how to treat the root cause as well as the symptom itself. When we do this successfully, the patients gain access to their authentic identity and their life story can unfold.
If we are successful theater-makers, the skills we hone: listening, holding space, and reacting from a place of authenticity will tell our story, and when we are most successful, we help people understand humanity: their own and that of others in a transcendent, sometimes even spiritual way.
Actors are sometimes asked to play characters whose moral compass is different from our own. We play adulterers, rapists, violent, disturbed, addicted people, and have to make ourselves receptive, neutral, and above all empathetic to the struggles that our characters go through. If we are not able to find compassion for the violence or difficulty: really get inside and discover where it comes from, our portrayal of the character will be ultimately false.
Again, I find a striking similarity here to my work as a healer. Sometimes patients come in to my office, looking for help, and tell me about disturbing, difficult things in their story. Regardless of my own judgments, I must be able to be present, open and receptive if I am going to help them access their potential for healing.
Chinese Medicine is all about complementary, opposing forces: yin and yang, exterior and interior, hot and cold, form and movement. I have recently found that my life is becoming about the yin, internal process of being with patients in the treatment room, and the yang, external process of creating theater.
As both an artist and practitioner, I am asked to get to the heart of any given moment, and even more than that, to be able to be present with it. So—my two jobs are really different ways of getting to the same goal: truth, presence, and awareness of what it means to be a human being. The common thread is always compassion.