Column Gert I


Nelson Mandela: Becoming who you are

This year Johan Simons was one of the guests in the Dutch TV program ‘Zomergasten’. With reference to the deceased actor Jeroen Willems, he observed that ‘culture is entertainment that lets you forget about your pain, but there are also actors who confront you with your pain: Jeroen was one of them’. This remark got me thinking. Jeroen Willems’ pain was losing his father when he was 14 years old. When he accepted a Golden Calf award, he addressed himself to his father in his speech. Johan Simons’ pain was also related to his father. Both men had to work through their pain, one of them as a director, the other as an actor and singer. In the interview, Simons shows us a clip of the conductor Reinbert de Leeuw during the dramatic finale of his last concert. We see a close up of de Leeuw, arms spread, face coming into view. Simons gives us his intepretation: this face expresses all the pain inside de Leeuw. ‘You have to feel that pain to find the truth’, Simons declares, admitting that he himself would probably never find that truth. ‘Good luck with the struggle’ is interviewer Wilfried de Jongh’s dry response.

But I saw something altogether different in Reinbert de Leeuw’s face: I perceived an inner stillness, surrounded by endless space. And I noticed that the storyline being developed by Simons about the pain with which we must all do battle – felt unconvincing. It didn’t feel to me like he was touching on a universal theme but rather that he was referring to his own pain.

I practice yoga and through this practice I am continually confronted by physical pain. In 35 years of teaching, this pain has become a constant companion. But for years, I too was engaged in the continual conflict of trying to control and fight my pain. What I learned, is that hardening into conflict, doesn’t solve it. I learned that I can only understand the pain by getting perspective on the conflict. I learned that discipline and perseverence are not the solution when it comes to achieving the kind of relaxation that is needed to end the conflict, ‘I’m going to make a show with the actor Pierre Bokma that lasts for six hours’, Simons tells us, later in the interview. ‘I don’t expect it to answer my quest for truth…but that doesn’t matter, maybe after that I should make a ten hour piece’.

Is the truth something we’ll eventually discover after years of trying to find it? After years of pain? Or could it be that it doesn’t work that way, that in fact the kind of discipline it takes to control pain, is of no use in solving this conflict. For who is disciplining whom? Is the one who imposes discipline not the same as the one who is disciplined? Do we not end up walking in circles? I know that making theatre requires a story with a conflict, but must it always be sourced from the unsolvable tensions of the creator? Which mirror does that hold up for me, as audience? Is it possible to relinquish all the strategies we have built up to control our conflicts? To let go of all the opinions and skills we have accumulated? Not only our negative characteristics, but also our sucesses and fame? After all, our fame has been brought about by the conflict… Does the discipline required to keep fighting, play a role in finding truth? The truth that will set Simons free? For now, he isn’t free: as he says himself, ‘I need to keep on trying’.

I think that this discipline is both the cause and maintainer of the conflict, and that it robs us of our freedom by completely taking over our thoughts and actions. Silence is the answer. And silence occurs when we’re prepared to let go and move past all that we have built up, all that has made us famous. To not want to achieve, in order to reach what we want, but in order to become who we actually already are. The same tensions that drive my conflict, that provoke me to take action, also shape me – both mentally and physically. Tension literally shapes my body. My bones are pushed and pulled into the forms of my characteristic patterns of holding tight. You can see this tendency all around you. People become more bent over and less free in their body over time. Do I want to restore my bones to their original form? For that, I have to find a way through the pain of the stiffness in my spinal column. As the tensions dissolve, so do my conflicts: I can put them into perspective, things become lighter. In letting go, there is no discipline and no time pressures. Letting go is anti-achievement. In letting go, we confront anger, fear, and other negative emotions. By understanding these emotions I experience spaciousness again. Understanding releases me from a burning restlessness into silence and stillness. That is the complex experience of meditation.

The stillness in my brain gives me the space to rediscover my freedom, which solves the conflict and reconnects me to myself and others. You could call this stillness love or compassion or care. It is a feeling that connects. And that is what I find unsettling about listening to Simons: his language brings me into his conflict and I don’t want to be there. That is the paradox of the lives we live. By fanning the flames of conflict with drama and polemics, they only become larger, more complex, and more difficult to solve. Just look at the media, where talk shows focus on and magnify the conflicts of their guests for the sake of entertainment or a sensational story. There are few exceptions to this tendency, and we know them well: people like Nelson Mandela who solved conflict with lightness and humor, love and compassion. His love for his enemy was greater than his own conflicts.

Gert van Leeuwen, 12-12-2013