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How Jeff Bridges works with anxiety and maintaining a joyful mind.
The isolation tank. Oh, yeah. I went, Wait a minute! That’s my mind! Instead of jumping out I made a little adjustment. I noticed I could breathe in and out slowly and observe my breath and not be in control of it. It was my first experience with meditation, although I didn’t call it that.
I have a lot of Christian input, too. You’ve got to read this guy [Nikos] Kazantzakis [author of The Last Temptation of Christ]. His whole thing was that Christ was just like us. And God was like an eagle with talons, coming into his head [Picks up his own hair], trying to pull him off the ground. Just like I have so much resistance to this Buddhist stuff. I’m attracted, but I’m a human being, I’m attached to myself, and I kind of dig it. You know?
Oh, yeah. This hunger thing, for instance. I mean, it’s not like it’s…
Not like it’s fun? Well, it can be fun. It’s a mindset. Werner [Erhard, founder of est training and one of the founders of the Hunger Project] said, “Here we have this condition that doesn’t have to be that way. We can end it.” I said to myself, Yeah, that seems right. And I noticed I had a resistance [to committing to do something], because I wanted to do other things with my time besides help people. So I said, Well, maybe let both of those things exist at the same time.
It’s like this. Preparing for a role, sometimes I’ll have to get in shape fast, lose a lot of weight. But I don’t want to work out so hard the first couple of days that I’m sore and I don’t like it. I thought I would apply the same thing to this hunger work. I would go toward the light, so to speak, but if it got too bright and too intense, ’cause basically what it’s asking you is Be Jesus, be Buddha—Give. And I’m not there. I’m not light yet. [Changes to another, higher voice.] So just because you’re not there yet, are you not going to do it? [Cocks his head.] So I go toward the light, and if my selfishness comes up too much I’ll stop for a second. And then I’ll take little baby steps toward it. I like to experiment with myself, to go against habitual self-gratification. And then you try it and you say [high voice], Oh, hey, I kind of got off when I did that. That kind of felt good! It’s like taking a shit. Sometimes it’s best to just pick up a magazine and get in there and sit, rather than Aaaaargh [mock straining]. It’ll kink up that way. Or when I’m doing yoga, I’ll go Put your head on your knees, you son of a bitch, come on, oh you can’t do it, oh you’re—
Uh-huh. Instead of just being gentle, kind. [Breathes out.] Aaaah. That grandmotherly attitude. Show up. Bear witness. And then the lovingkindness comes naturally.
Did anything change when you first started to formally meditate? I did. And my wife noticed, too. Just kind of a calmness, not so stressed out. And I’m wondering if this lojong theme, which I’m kind of getting into now, has really been going on all my life. That the very things you avoid, those are the blessings. It might even be a thread in the characters I’ve played. One in particular comes to mind, American Heart. I don’t know if you saw that.
It broke my heart. The 1992 film you starred in and helped produce—inspired by Martin Bell’s documentary Streetwise and Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs of homeless Seattle kids. In the [Bell] documentary, a kid visits his dad in prison. The way he expresses love for his kid is to say, in so many words, “Don’t end up like me.” Well, that kid ended up hanging himself in a bathroom. There’s a scene of his father getting out of prison and looking at his kid in the casket and putting a Coke can to his [son’s] lips. I thought, What if that guy got out of prison and had to work with his kid? So you remember the scene in American Heart, where [my character] just gets out of prison, he’s in the bus station bathroom trying to get on his clothes, and here comes his kid. And he’s like, Oh, shit. Just what I need, I can’t deal with you. I’ ll be lucky if I can survive myself. And it turns out that his kid was a blessing, the key to his life. The thing he was avoiding—you can apply this to the hunger thing we were talking about.
It occurs to me that making a movie is like making a Tibetan mandala of colored sand—you create a whole world on set, and then someone yells “Cut!” and the whole illusory world disappears. Movies are a wonderful spiritual playground. The film you actually make is like a beautiful snakeskin that you find on the ground and make a hatband out of. But the making of the movie is the snake itself. That is what I take with me. That includes hanging out with the other actors in the trailer after work, and getting into this position where you’ve empowered another actor to have a power over you, to affect you. That’s a spiritual place to be.
Crazy Heart, for instance, is a gorgeous snakeskin. But the snake of the thing was playing all of that wonderful music by Steven [Bruton] and T Bone [Burnett.] And the director, Scott [Cooper], did it in 24 days! The atmosphere he created—so open, so fresh and joyful. It was really a blessing in my life. That’s what you gamble for, and most of the time the movie falls short. And sometimes those high hopes are transcended, and it’s beyond what everyone thought it could be.
Making a movie is just a wonderful analogy for how the world might look. A movie’s like a child—if all the parents are doing their job, the movie is going to come out beautiful. That’s one of the ways that the world might be realized, working together. One of the reasons we decided to focus on children at the End Hunger Network is that the condition of the health of our children is a wonderful compass for how our society is functioning. Even as a little kid, I thought, Why can’t we get together and make it a groovy trip for everyone? There’s that concern with the self, the tightening, which seems to be preventing that.
Does being famous make it difficult for you to be in a sangha? I think of the sangha as a very soft, open thing. I’ve got people I’ve practiced with in a deep way for many years, like my wife, and my dear friends. Right now you’re in my sangha. We’ve touched in that way. Everyone I meet is in my sangha. I don’t know if that’s the proper definition, but that’s the way I’m going to hold it in my mind.
Final words for us? My mom used to say it to me, and my wife says it now. There’s even a slogan that says it! “Approach all situations with a joyful mind.” When I head out the door to go to work, my wife always says to me [Voice affectionate, up half an octave], “Now, remember! Have fun!”
Freelance writer Katy Butler began sitting at San Francisco Zen Center in 1977 and was lay-ordained in 1990 by Thich Nhat Hanh into his Tiep Hien order. A former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, she was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in 2004 and has also written for the New Yorker. “What Broke My Father’s Heart: How a Pacemaker Wrecked a Family’s Life,” appeared in the New York Times Magazine last June.
Images 1&2: Photograph by Michael Muller. www.mullerphoto.com.
Image 3: On the set, photograph by Jeff Bridges.