Insight meditation training in relation to the work of Jerzy Grotowski
Updated: Jan 5
Considering the parallelism of insight meditation to Jerzy Grotowski’s “essential conditions to the art of acting”.
“study what is hidden behind our everyday mask – the innermost core of our personality – in order to sacrifice it, expose it.”
I am inspired by the writings of Jerzy Grotowski, the late twentieth-century Polish theatre director and theorist. Grotowski’s work was partly influenced by Carl Gustav Jung’s writings on the ‘collective unconscious’, with his theatre work aiming to “speak[s] directly to the fundamental experience of each person present” (Roose-Evans, 2013, p. 166), and “attack what might be called the collective complexes of society, the core of the collective subconscious or perhaps superconscious… the myths which are not an invention of the mind but are… inherited through one’s blood, religion, culture and climate.” (Grotowski, 1975, p. 42). Grotowski was also one of the first theatre practitioners of the west to study and practise the teachings of the traditional Chinese theatre and the ancient Noh theatre of Japan (ibid., p. 24). Grotowski perhaps most famously, distilled the “essential conditions to the art of acting” into three categories:
“a) To stimulate a process of self-revelation, going back as far as the subconscious, yet canalizing this stimulus in order to obtain the required reaction.
b) To be able to articulate this process, discipline it and convert it into signs. In concrete terms, this means to construct a score whose notes are tiny elements of contact, reactions to the stimuli of the outside world: what we call “give and take”.
c) To eliminate from the creative process the resistances and obstacles caused by one’s own organism, both physical and psychic (the two forming a whole).” (ibid., p. 96)
To look at these categories in relation to insight training: it is worth first noticing, that Grotowski (much like the Mindfulness Association in their creating the right conditions for insight to arise training) is setting out the conditions for the art of acting, rather than a prescribed set of activities or techniques requiring a cognitive approach. He states: “The education of an actor in our theatre is not a matter of teaching him something; we attempt to eliminate his organism’s resistance to this psychic process.” (ibid., p. 16). To go deeper into these conditions: Grotowski’s “process of self-revelation, going back as far as the subconscious” in point ‘a’ above, describes the function of an actor to utilise their whole being when approaching their art. In other words, Grotowski writes that the actor is expected to engage with their work fully; not just from a logical, decision-making approach, but rather a holistic approach including all aspects of the actor’s perception – i.e., a connection to subliminal processes, as well as somatic processes (how the body responds to stimuli); a phenomenon which can often be found in improvised dance and movement practices such as 5Rhythms (5Rhythms, 2020). This more holistic and all-encompassing approach to the actor’s work could even perhaps be considered as ‘embodied mindfulness’ (an awareness of the total being) in its definition. Further on point ‘a’: if looking from a performance perspective, Grotowski’s note to “[canalize] this stimulus in order to obtain the required action” refers to channelling the actor’s holistic response to the stimulus (the stimulus being the arising phenomena of the actor’s reality – or in Mindfulness Association terms, their 'undercurrent') into a form that is relatable and affecting to an audience. The parallel here is the Grotowskian actor’s approach to that of a practitioner of insight meditation. Whilst the former is working on oneself with the objective of performance in mind; they are still nevertheless becoming aware of processes similar to that of insight meditation, with the intention to share their discovery in a language of performance (what Grotowski refers to as ‘signs’) to affect an audience. Furthermore, when explaining the actor’s role in front of an audience, Grotowski writes: “study what is hidden behind our everyday mask – the innermost core of our personality – in order to sacrifice it, expose it.” (ibid., p. 37). Again, we can liken this to the secular insight process of bringing awareness to the subliminal level of our minds to affect change in our habitual patterns, or from Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s Buddhist perspective, to engage with the “innocent or authentic awareness” of the sixth consciousness level of mind (2012, p. 118).
"All forms of creativity are pushing the boundaries of the known, and the known is the safe territory of the egocentric… which will stifle one’s creativity."
To turn our attention to Grotowski’s point ‘b’ above: Grotowski’s famously branded ‘Poor Theatre’ is the disassembly of all theatrical elements which are superfluous to a performance such as lighting, set-design, costume, make-up, and even text. He reduces all unnecessary elements down to two fundamentals: the actor, and the spectator (audience) (Grotowski, 1975, p. 32). As mentioned above, the actor’s job is then to convert their stimulus into “tiny elements of contact” for the spectator, which then creates the actor-spectator performance dynamic. Here, we can see the similarity to insight training, which is that of the actor-spectator model in parallel to the undercurrent-observer model. I would go further to suggest that Grotowski expects not only a particular intention and motivation of his spectators, but also an attitude for how they should approach his work; much like the one that is necessary for the person training in insight meditation:
“We are concerned with a spectator who has genuine spiritual needs and who really wishes, through confrontation with the performance, to analyse himself… a spectator who does not stop at an elementary stage of psychic integration, content with his own petty, geometrical, spiritual ability, knowing exactly what is good and what is evil, and never in doubt… but to him who undergoes an endless process of self-development, whose unrest is not general but directed towards a search for the truth about himself and his mission in life.” (ibid., p. 40)
Grotowski’s encouragement of his spectators to question good and evil and the comfort of the “never in doubt” mind draws me to the meditator’s work with their EPS (Egocentric Preference System). It appears to me that what Grotowski is proposing here, is that his spectators ‘rest’ with the actor, allowing whatever arises in the performance to enter their minds without judgement, resistance, or grasping to create a genuinely insightful performance environment. On this Grotowski writes:
“The member of an audience who accepts the actor’s invitation and to a certain extent follows his example by activating himself in the same way, leaves the theatre in a state of greater inner harmony. But he who fights to keep his mask of lies intact at all costs, leaves the performance even more confused. I’m convinced that on the whole… the performance represents a form of social psycho-therapy” (Grotowski, 1975, p. 46)
Here we see the link Grotowski creates between his art and what he considers “social psycho-therapy” for his audiences. Grotowski’s instructions to his audience remind me of the reassuring yet challenging passage from the book ‘The Mindful Way through Depression’ which states that so much of what drives our motivations and expectations in life can be readily observed (and transformed if we so wish), if only we dare to look (Williams et al., 2007, p. 163). To conclude my comments on section ‘b’, I would like to return to Grotowski’s writings on these ‘signs’ that are the culmination of an actor’s skill to look inwardly and find an appropriate language that conveys what they see, to an audience. Grotowski comments that “If we really wish to delve deeply into the logic of our mind and behaviour and reach the hidden layers, their secret motor, then the whole system of signs built into the performance must appeal to our experience” (1975, p. 52). Here he is commenting on a kind of performance that deals with the abstract representation of the subliminal mind – a performance that if successful, offers its spectators a meditation on the subliminal and preconscious levels of their experience, void of the distractions of their cognitive processes – wouldn’t that be an extraordinary production to witness! A form of collaborative ‘insight-theatre’ where both actor and spectator approach the event meditatively and uncover through performance, the ‘collective unconscious’ of their time.
"But he who fights to keep his mask of lies intact at all costs, leaves the performance even more confused."
Finally, to look at point ‘c’ from above; Grotowski speaks of eliminating the self-invented blocks and resistances (what we would label the EPS in mindfulness terms) to one’s creative process. He further explains that his work with an actor is “not a collection of skills but an eradication of blocks”. (ibid., p. 17). In linking this to mindfulness and insight training, it is helpful to look at the work of Anton Krueger in his conversations around creativity with Rob Nairn:
"Nairn makes the point that creativity is always in some way dealing with the unknown. He says: ‘All forms of creativity are pushing the boundaries of the known, and the known is the safe territory of the egocentric… which will stifle one’s creativity. If one is prepared to let go of the past, then the domination of the known territory of the conceptual mind [will be] continually challenged, and that’s what we’re trying to do in meditation.’” (Krueger, citing Nairn, 2017, p. 3)
Interestingly both Grotowski and Nairn’s instructions are honing in on this same part of the mind that is conducive to creativity; the stilling of the egocentric conceptual mind, and the movement towards the undiscerning Buddhist notion of ‘primordial awareness’ (Thrangu, 2011, pp. 71–73). A further parallel that can be drawn here is the relationship between the Buddhist model of ‘absolute’ and ‘relative realities’; the absolute being “the indefinable, infinitely open, limitless potential for anything to appear”, whereas the relative being the “level of experience that is fundamentally characterised by dualistic perception” – or in simpler terms, something is good because it isn’t bad, or something is loud because it isn’t quiet (Rinpoche, 2012, pp. 89–90). These two realities are evident in Grotowski’s work when he asks why anyone should be concerned with art in the first place. For him, art is a process of turning what is ‘dark’ in the human experience, slowly transparent. In other words, he aims to reveal the many facets of our relative reality (our darkness) as inherently empty in nature to reflect the absolute reality (transparentness) of our experience (1975, p. 21). To close this section on Grotowski, I would like to touch on his efforts in cultivating compassion in his work. He writes:
“The performance engages in a sort of psychic conflict with the spectator… on a feeling of sympathy, a feeling of acceptance… I do not believe in the possibility of achieving affects by means of cold calculation. A kind of warmth towards one’s fellow men is essential – an understanding of the contradictions in man, and that he is a suffering creature but not want to be scorned.” (ibid., p. 47)
Linking this to point ‘c’ above, it is evident that Grotowski’s approach to his work and training had a strong foundation of compassion, and it was his actors’ job to eliminate the resistances and obstacles to cultivating this. I talk here not of the general notion of compassion widely considered to be synonymous with sympathy, but rather compassion from the perspective of the meditative and contemplative disciplines. Grotowski, like the compassionate mindfulness practitioner, approaches the obstacles to a compassionate mind as the compassion-work itself, and I believe Grotowski would have shared Nairn’s sentiments on his model of being a “compassionate mess” (Nairn, Choden and Regan-Addis, 2019, p. 47).
"...the domination of the known territory of the conceptual mind [will be] continually challenged, and that’s what we’re trying to do in meditation.’”
Grotowski and Insight in practise
Like meditative practices, acting training is something which needs to happen experientially to have any benefit for the practitioner. Whilst the above writing on Grotowski’s work and that of insight training offers many links, a direct and practical training program is the only way to better understand the harmony between these disciplines. Having said that, it is interesting to see so many links between these two disciplines and I would argue that insight training had always been a core concept of Grotowski’s training – but perhaps it wasn’t framed in such a way, and it is likely that his actors weren’t aware of the meditative insight canon. From my performance work, it is evidently clear to me that so much of the mindfulness, compassion, and insight training is directly applicable to acting and nurturing creativity, and I look forward to continuing my experiments through teaching and directing (with the grateful support of The Danish National School of Performing Arts) over a long-term period to better understand their fascinating relationship.
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5Rhythms (2020) The Maps of the 5Rhythms, Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms. Available at: https://www.5rhythms.com/gabrielle-roths-5rhythms/workshops/
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Connolly Gibbons, M. B. et al. (2007) ‘Insight in Psychotherapy: A Review of Empirical Literature.’, in Insight in psychotherapy. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, pp. 143–165. doi: 10.1037/11532-007.
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Nairn, R., Choden and Regan-Addis, H. (2019) From Mindfulness to Insight. Boulder: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Palmo, T. (2017) Wheel of Life, Samsara in the Raw 1-12, Bodhi Events Australia. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPB4lfxya_YErwE1wbbwoww.
Regan-Addis, H. and Choden (2018) Mindfulness Based Living Course. Alresford: O-Books.
Rinpoche, T. (2012) Open Heart, Open Mind: A guide to inner transformation. Great Britain: The Random House Group.
Roose-Evans, J. (2013) Experimental Theatre: From Stanislavsky to Peter Brook. Routledge.
Thrangu, K. (2011) Everyday Consciousness and Primordial Awareness. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications.
Williams, M. et al. (2007) The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. New York: The Guilford Press.