The Suspension of Disbelief (On-stage and Off)

Willingly Suspending Our Disbelief

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‘Suspension of disbelief’ is what we do all the time when we buy into our own bullshit stories and narratives about people, ourselves, and the world. ‘Willing suspension of disbelief’ means to use that same tool in a volitional way to help ourselves identify and empathise with these imaginary situations and fantasies in order to serve our art.  What’s interesting about a willing suspension of disbelief is that these imaginary situations and accompanying emotional responses can be let go of just as simply as they are picked up.

This is what we do when we utilise ‘as-ifs’ situations, ‘substitution’ and ‘imaginary circumstances’.

Buying Into Delusions

In a way we can allow ourselves to kind of willingly buy into our delusions when it comes to acting; suggested delusions, if you will, like the ones that play through our minds on a daily basis, though usually unconsciously.

To an extent, people vary in their capacity to do this naturally, in terms of just how far-fetched the imaginary circumstance or daydream is. Some find it easier than others to play along with a suggested imaginary circumstance, depending on the degree to which it mirrors their perceived everyday life. However, it's possible that those who are 'naturally' (unconsciously) gifted at believing their own bullshit in acting (suspension of disbelief) are also more likely to do this in everyday life.

So it's not really the case that one should be envious of those with the natural aptitude for this. It may very well mean that although they have a natural aptitude for drama in acting, they also have an unhealthy aptitude for drama in their personal lives too.

Using Our Imagination Mindfully

We should aim to cultivate this ability mindfully, so we are choosing when to employ it skillfully (to serve our art) and when to discard it when it starts negatively impacting our mental and emotional well-being, especially in everyday life.

This essentially ties into the idea of using the concept of 'self' in our acting to form characters we can embody for performance and discard once the performance is over (I’ll cover this more on this in a later post on 'Self'). Into order to cultivate the skill of conscious identification with our delusions, we must also cultivate the skill of non-identification with our delusions.

The two go hand in hand. The better we are at letting go of our preconceptions about ourselves, others and the world and letting reality in, is the extent to which we can safely and willingly suspend our disbelief.

The important word to emphasise here is ‘safely’. The 'perception of safety' is very important to our minds when it comes to buying into imaginary circumstances and to the very degree that we believe we are not 'safe' going somewhere in our minds, we will resist that suggestion as if it were someone trying to convince us to plunge a knife into our own gut while telling us "it's okay this won't hurt".

I say here the 'perception of safety' because in truth this changes. The more fully we get to know our own minds, and the angels and demons that dance within, the more we realise none of it is actually ‘happening’. It's all a delusion for the most part.

Everything we think and conjure up, every imaginary discussion we have, fantasy, tragedy etc is a delusion. As Mark Twain is often attributed as having said ‘I have been through some terrible things in my life, some which actually happened.' Although the attribution seems to be shaky at best, the statement has a humorous ring of truth to it.

Even our relationship with food and those around us is illusory. Onions do not inherently taste good. To some, onions taste awful. The distinction between either opinion lies in the realm of the mind. The more we come to realise this, the less afraid we become of visiting the dark corners of the mind and the suggested delusional tragedies that lie there.

Transforming Our Perception of Safety

As actors we are often keen to go to the darkest depths of our imagination, but deep down are secretly terrified to go to the places of extreme joy and happiness. This is because what we really fear is being vulnerable.

We fear the extremes of light and dark in our minds to the extent they make us feel vulnerable to potential harm. But as I have described in detail in a separate post (vulnerability 101) we are always able to be 'hurt' emotionally, so long as we identify with a sense of 'self', whether we like it or not.

Tensing up our body, emotions and minds in an attempt to create an armour against the pain will only serve to numb us and prevent us from experiencing the whole gamut of emotions available. Plug one emotion and you plug them all.

The perception of safety is all that really matters in the end as it is what will determine our willing participation in any given situation. The perception of safety is the first most important thing to cultivate, as our evolution simply won't let us do anything creative without believing that in some sense we're not in immediate danger.

The mind needs to believe deep down that it's not under threat of life or death in order to tap into its creative regions. The extent to which it perceives it’s safe is the extent to which it will allow itself to be creative.

This doesn't just relate to immediate physical safety, but social safety as well. As I've noted before, the threat of social exclusion in our evolution is akin to the threat of death, as to our ancestors, social rejection often resulted in banishment from the tribe, which literally meant death. No human could survive in the harsh wilderness without others for safety.

As John Patrick Shanley says "theatre [acting] is a safe place, to do the unsafe things, that need to be done". So the more we are willing to experience for ourselves the deepest reaches of our minds, the more we realise that whatever demons we are afraid of facing don't just go away because we duck our heads under the covers.

When we learn to face them, we often realise they weren't so scary after all. All of this is well and good to say, but in reality, it must be experienced directly. One must cultivate the wisdom empirically before one can trust it. My word alone will never be enough.

Befriending Your Mind

The more we come to realise these lessons experientially, the more we will be able to willingly suspend our disbelief in the service of art and acting. The more we do this, the more we can embody and relate to the characters we are portraying in the stories we tell and the more successful we will become at what Shakespeare calls, 'holding the mirror up to nature'.

How do we do this? Work on it in your life. Meditate. Go to therapy. Practice 'As-If' exercises and get to know your own mind. What tickles and delights you? What terrifies you and makes you squirm? Learn to form an intimacy with your own mind like that of a deep friend whose flaws, fears and neurosis you look on and treat with fondness, humour and compassion rather than shame and rebuke.

The more you do this, the more you will be able to set aside your pseudo-rational survival brain and give into the imaginary world of creativity and make-believe. Befriend your mind and learn to treat it with compassion and awareness. You're the only one who's going to be with you for the rest of your life, so you best make friends now.