On one of my woods walks this week, I listened to an episode of the ID10T Podcast hosted by Chris Hardwick interviewing Alan Arkin. Most people know Arkin as an actor and particularly for comedic roles in work like The Kominsky Method, Argo, Little Miss Sunshine, Slums of Beverly Hills, Glengarry Glen Ross, The In-Laws, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming and Catch -22. He has 111 acting credits alone on IMDB.
Hardwick’s excellent long-form interviews frequently take you to places in guests’ lives that you knew nothing about, rather than the usual celebrity talk show fare.
In this podcast, Arkin talks a lot about his meditation practice of 50 years, why he abandoned therapy and Freud, and also his acting life starting out in Second City improvisation.
Like many people, and certainly myself, after an existential crisis in his 30s, he began a spiritual journey to find something to believe in. This led him to the study of Eastern philosophy. This short memoir (which he subtitles “Not Quite a Memoir) talks more in-depth about his spiritual experiences, reincarnation, how meditation helps him, and how that search for meaning often ends in self-discovery.
I think you should read the book and listen to the podcast, but here are a few takeaways that I literally wrote down in my notebook in the woods while I was listening.
- Comedy, meditation, and life are much the same thing.
- He’s been practicing meditation for 50 years and he’s not there yet because you can’t get “there.”
- A Freudian therapist told him the high he felt when he was “in the zone” acting was called “regression in the service of the ego.”
- Don’t worship what brings you into the zone – meditation, basketball, running, whatever. The goal is to be able to be in that zone all the time.
- Samādhi is a state of meditative consciousness that is commonly called “the zone.” In the yogic and Buddhist traditions, it is a meditative absorption or trance, attained by the practice of dhyāna.
- Talking about acting “practices.” Arkin aligned with the Stanislavsky method which he seems to connect to Buddhism, while he rejected the Actor’s Studio method, which might be more like American Zen.
- All the laughter and all the applause does not equal love.
I liked Arkin’s story about realizing that when you meet someone and ask who they are you might get an answer such as “I am an actor, or a teacher, or a lawyer or a carpenter.” They are defining themself by what they do. You are not what you do.
He further retells a section from his earlier book where he imagines an alien approaching him.
“Who are you?” asks the alien.
“I’m an actor.”
“What is an actor?” the alien asks.
“You pretend to be another human.”
“But you are a human. Don’t they like you just being yourself?”
“Not so much,” replies Arkin.
Alan Arkin wrote in that earlier memoir, An Improvised Life, that knew he was going to be an actor from the age of five. “Every film I saw, every play, every piece of music fed an unquenchable need to turn myself into something other than what I was.” But we are all improvising every day. We need to be better at it and have a practice to follow that can help us.