On Saturday, I raced from a Buddhist monastery to see Meryl Streep in her landmark portrayal of the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. How could I have guessed that these wildly disparate activities would go so well together? I presented the scholar monk Bhikkhu Bodhi with copies of Parabola’s gorgeous new “Burning World” issue, which opens with a fresh translation of the Buddha’s Fire Sermon and a contemporary commentary by Ven. Bodhi. I also stayed to hear his weekly lecture on the earliest Buddhist teachings. This particular Saturday, he spoke about the traditional teachings on renunciation or letting go.
What does this have to do with Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady? Far more than I planned. In the Fire Sermon, the Buddha taught that all is impermanent, that all will be consumed by the fire of aging, sickness, and death. Streep portrays the prime minister out of power and in old age, suffering the early stages of dementia. She is beyond brilliant. Indeed, her portrayal has been compared to the greatest portrayals of King Lear. God is in the details, and Streep seems to empty herself completely. Her eyes, hands, face, body are filled with the experience of this once iron leader in decline.
Still, the Fire Sermon describes the unnecessary burning of greed, hatred, and aversion. Not surprisingly for a monk, Ven. Bodhi describes the attitudes and actions necessary to put out the fires consuming our world in ways that would definitely be described in modern terms as liberal. Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, is a conservative icon more than two decades after leaving office. Despite the flaws in the story and no matter what your political leaning happens to be (Streep herself is liberal), this great perfomanence reminds viewers what leadership can be—flowing from inner conviction, not outer calculation. Streep portrays Thatcher as courageous and unshakable—a woman who learned to speak and move and in all ways manifest authority in a man’s world, and a very dangerous and imbalanced world.
It was a performance that has everything to do with an ancient Buddhist sutta about renunciation or letting go. It shows how the very greatest acts originate in emptying, in relinquishing our own ideas and identifications. After her recent Golden Globe win, Streep was asked by a reporter if she had a principle or something else that guided her when she took a role. Streep said: “I’ve never gotten to the bottom of me, all the conundrums and contradictions….” She allowed that she gravitated towards characters that helped her explore different aspects of her own character. In other words, she doesn’t come from a fixed sense of who she was or who a character is supposed to be; she is open to the unknown. As for Thatcher herself, although I disagree with her politics I came away from the film understanding something new about the power of commitment.
There is a kind of commitment does not consist in clinging to a fixed beliefs or ideas (which Lady Thatcher undoubtedly did in later years). This special kind of commitment consists in being willing to open to be part of something greater than our own thoughts, our own story. “Must make vacuum,” Gurdjieff urged his students, only then can reality enter. This requires an ability to be still, to sink below the din of thought. As I’ve been sharing in this space, we can’t find freedom by straining towards it seeking to transcend ourselves. We must see and accept what we are, the endless dance of the ego to identify with everything so that it can go on being. Yet at moments, conditions conspire to help us let go of all that, so that life can rush in and remind us that we are each in fact part of a greater whole.
After a meeting of Parabola editors in Manhattan recently, a fellow Parabola editor and I slowly made our way uptown through heavy traffic, talking about those times when it seems as if the universe is with you. Getting around in New York offers many wonderful teachings on this. Sometime the subway is there waiting for you with doors wide open just when you need it, and you sometimes you stand and wait. Sometimes you hit all green lights all the way up Park Avenue, and sometimes when you are late ad there is someplace you urgently have to be, traffic grinds to a halt. Even when you remember that you too are part of the traffic, you can feel like life is against you. You can decide that a golden few get to have great destinies—Meryl Streep, Margaret Thatcher, Gurdjieff, that certain someone who always has wonderful things happen to them—while the rest of us muddle along, Muggles among the magical.
Yet there can be moments when a door swings open and the light pours in, revealing magic in the most ordinary life. My fellow editor told me a marvelous true story about a woman who arrived somewhere late after encountering all kinds of obstacles, only to rush into a room just as the light was hitting at an angle just right to glint off her lost engagement ring. It occurred to her that the universe might have been trying to help her by putting all those obstacles in her path. If the great law of accident came to her aid, the underlying truth is just as magical. Let go and let life enter.
Remember what life feels like when you fall in love? It can feel as if a veil is pulled aside, as if we were never really isolated and alone but part of something vast and wonderful and alive. It can seem as if the universe was leading us towards this encounter. We are grateful for everything, even the disappointments and hard times, because it led to this. Years later, we remember the taste of waking up from our usual trance of anxious and embattled isolation to find we are part of a greater whole. How can we open more often? We need to see and accept what is—our freedom lay in knowing the details as well as Streep knew how Thatcher walked or washed a tea cup.
“In order to be present, I must understand the working of my thinking mind, that it’s function is to situation and explain, but not to experience,” writes Madame de Salzmann. “Thought is made up of accumulated knowledge in the form of images and associations, and it seizes an experience only to make it fit into categories of the known.” And yet we come to know the mind in loving detail, we can open to something beyond the world of our known thought. I’ve come to think of it more and more as softening—a softening towards what we are that deepens into the quiet acceptance, the real letting go that comes when you know you won’t get to the bottom of things.
Decades ago when I was just out of college, I was caught up in the story of being small, lacking the talent or luck or whatever other quality it would take to enable me to ever do more than witness the greatness of others (in those days I thought witnessing was a small thing). I was working as an underling in the movie business. I had a job that included sometimes greeting big producers who had come into the office for meetings and hearing not hello but “Diet Pepsi or Diet Coke.” I was to get things and bring things. One day, into the office came Meryl Streep. She smiled at me asked if she might come into my tiny office and sit down with her baby. Yes, I said. Her manner was very soft and present. She looked at me and smiled. It was a memorable feeling in those surroundings, being treated as if I really existed beyond my limited functions. She admired a painting hanging on the wall behind my desk, asking me if it was by a certain someone, an art star. I said no, but I thought this young artist was very influenced by the art star Streep mentioned. Streep laughed and told me that she never worried about being influenced or borrowing or stealing from other artists. She said something to the effect that everything she good had ever done (and by then she had done Sophie’s Choice and many other great roles) she had stolen. I got what she meant immediately, that it all starts with imitation, with borrowing, stealing. It all starts with something that has come before, an thought, an image, and then comes the work of opening to something real.
It took me many years to begin to understand about what it means to be open, to create a vacuum. Soon on long ago day, Streep was ushered out to meet with some big lawyers and executives. Instantly her demeanor changed as she stepped forward to greet them. I was left with an impression of fluidity, of changing to meet changing circumstances. There was also an impression of generosity and kind of radiance. She glowed. Gurdjieff once said that the highest role we can aspire to is actor in a very special sense–to play a role consciously without becoming identified. Streep was recently asked how she felt about being called possibly the greatest actor who ever lived. She smiled and said she just doesn’t take in such statements the way she takes in other facts. Of course this is a polite and politic thing to say (what a question!) But I have an indelible impression of the kindness and generosity she expressed towards an underling. I saw for myself she understands a few real facts about letting go, about not clinging to who you think you are, old limiting thoughts and feelings, about going beyond.