Preface: A participant in one of my workshops on Reframing Change sent the essay below to the other participants and me. It comes from the web site of John H. Lienhard who hosts the highly acclaimed PBS radio show, Engines of our Ingenuity. As the participant explained in her e-mail to us, “[The essay] puts together many of the things we’ve learned as a group in ‘Reframing Change’.”
Her cover e-mail emphasized several phrases which I have bolded below because I agree with her emphasis.
I am reproducing the essay with permission of the author, Megan Cole, and John Lienhard as radio host. After the essay, I add a few comments.
John H. Lienhard presents guest essayist Megan Cole
Today, our guest, Seattle actor Megan Cole, has an acting technique for understanding behavior. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
There’s an old Spanish saying that goes, “I am I and my circumstances.” It’s a deceptively simple statement that refers, I think, to the fact that however we may define ourselves, that self is modified by what’s happening around us, whether we recognize it or not. And recognizing it is probably a good thing if we’re interested in understanding why we behave as we do.
This connection of self-within-circumstances is a key component in one of my worlds, that of the actor. A basic acting technique is called “Given Circumstances” — that is, being aware of the external influences that affect the meaning of any situation. And the leading questions are: “Where have I come from?” “What are the conditions right now?” and “Where will I be going?”
For example: here I am in a blue chair writing on my yellow legal pad in a sunny room with a black dog at my feet and a cup of jasmine tea at my elbow. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? It’s a description of tranquility, and it is tranquil, for the moment. But that’s only part of the picture. Because I’ve just finished an hour of answering e-mail (which is always urgent), I didn’t get enough sleep (it goes without saying), there’s a leaf-blower roaring in the yard next door, my tea is cold, the dog could use a bath, and a short hour from now I need to quit the blue chair for a meeting I’m not prepared for and don’t want to attend anyway.
All of these details, and many others, are my given circumstances: those external facts that must affect my experience of the present moment. For an actor, it’s important to gather such facts in order to create a fully-formed character. I have to find, from both the text and my imagination, those affecting forces that allow me to feel like a human being and not a cardboard cutout.
Off the stage, each of us is, of course, already a fully-formed character, for better or worse. The challenge is to become aware of the affecting forces, which gives us a better chance at being a co-creator of our experience, not just a victim. After an hour of e-mail, for example, I’ve learned from bitter experience that a few minutes of deep breathing will make that tranquil moment a more likely prospect. Call it compartmentalizing, call it context, call it given circumstances. It’s all about recognizing affective influences and choosing adaptive behavior.
The tricky part, though, is that everyone functions under different circumstances. (You got enough sleep last night, right?) That’s a good thing to remember in literally any situation that involves interaction. “By the way, where are you coming from?” I might think to ask. “What’s happening to you — right now?” “Where do you need to go after we part?” As hard as it is to believe, nobody sees the world in quite the same way I do. And no one has a patent on the so-called truth, not even I, not even you.
So, both onstage and off it’s useful to remember that given circumstances are always with us, always modifying the shape of the self within its boundaries. And where are you right now?
I’m Megan Cole, and in the theatre, as at the University of Houston, we give a great deal of attention to the way inventive minds work.
There is a paradox when we talk about leading consciously. On the one hand, leading consciously implies making deliberate choices about what we are doing and why. On the other hand, our environment guides us into doing one thing rather than another so that we may not even see the choices available to us. Supermarkets place the high-priced goods right at eye level. Earlier this week, I had to bend way down and look on the bottom shelves to find the equally good, but lower-priced item that I was looking for.
Megan Cole suggests a possible antidote to these “affecting choices,” as she calls them. We can learn to be aware of our surroundings and our internal state of being. To paraphrase her observations as she wrote the essay: “I’m in a blue chair. It’s sunny today. I didn’t get enough sleep last night. The e-mail seems urgent to me, whether I want to respond or not.”
Paying to attention to what influences us –being mindful – is an essential first step if we want to increase our skills in learning to live and lead consciously. The more aware we are of our circumstances, the more choices we are able to recognize. It’s a practice that I am still developing.
Megan Cole is a noted stage and TV actor and regular visiting faculty member at the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston. She originated the role of Dr. Vivian Bearing in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play Wit. She has also played recurring characters on Seinfeld, ER, Star Trek, and other popular shows.
John H. Lienhart is Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston.He has received many awards for his work on Engines and in contributions to teaching.