Walking in the Woods with Alan Arkin

log benches

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.

Arkin also has a new book, Out of My Mind, to add to his shelf of non-fiction and children’s books. Despite its title, it is not about insanity or focused on the actor’s life.

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.


ripples pex

I have tried many meditation techniques. There are distinct differences between techniques. Some are formal. Some are religious. Some require great effort.

Most meditation affects the brain, though benefits may vary or be disputed. A study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition identified 3 meditation categories, based on measured brain wave differences.

Under concentration or focus, they placed  types such as Zen and Vipassana.

Under the category of open monitoring is Mindfulness and Kriya Yoga.

Under self-transcending is Transcendental Meditation (TM).

I first became aware of TM like many Americans when The Beatles connected with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968. It was the Summer of Love and flower power was in full bloom and consciousness was being opened through TM and drugs. I didn’t take it very seriously.  The Maharishi got some criticism from stricter yogis who thought he went commercial. But it seemed to work for them.

The Maharishi died in 2008 but TM continues to promise health, stress relief and spiritual enlightenment and grow its followers. Transcendental Meditation is one specific form of silent mantra meditation.

I rediscovered, honestly just discovered, TM this year. It came to me through Jerry Seinfeld. Yes, the comedian.

Interview by Transcendental Meditation teacher Bob Roth
with Jerry Seinfeld discussing his 40+ years of practicing TM.

Celebrity TM practitioners still get more attention, but there are millions of ordinary folks using the technique. I think that many of them are like me and have tried other techniques but find TM to be completely different.

It never appealed to me with any mediation practices that you needed to “join,” pay money or continue to take classes with experts. I never took to strict rules or rigid practices.

Compared to other techniques, TM is almost effortless. It is easy to learn. Children adapt to it well.

Comparing it to my own Zen experiences, I immediately took to the idea of not having to concentrate. TM is not about the control of the mind. You don’t monitor your thoughts as in any mindfulness practice.

Thankfully, you don’t have to “empty your mind.” I had a lot of trouble with the empty mind and dismissing thoughts. In my last formal Zen session at a monastery, I finally relaxed because I just let the thoughts come – and stay.

My initial excitement with TM was cooled when I started to investigate deeper and found out that you are officially supposed to learn the technique through a standardized seven-step course over six days by a certified TM teacher at a cost of almost $1000. That shut me down.

TM requires that you use a mantra. You would think that you could make one up or get one from a friend who practices, but this item is something no TM practitioner is supposed to ever reveal. It starts to sound like a cult. I found online that:

It is important to receive the mantra from a fully trained Transcendental Meditation teacher because they have been given a selection of mantras which have been passed down through a long line of teachers over thousands of years. The effects are therefore well known both historically and currently to be always positive and life-enhancing.

I don’t like the sound of that.

But the Internet is the place where all knowledge now lives. Do some searching and you can find sites and videos on how to practice TM. You can find sites with mantras.

I suppose this unofficial path may be lacking something, but it works. After all. the seeking is part of finding the path.