Filed in Arts & Culture

The Quality of Mercy

Robert Coe chats with countercultural performance artist Meredith Monk about compassion, terror, and “the voices within.”

Robert Coe

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© Sarah Schorr

“And then I read something that Pema Chodron wrote about Milarepa in the cave. These demons come in, and he invites some of them to tea—and they leave. There are only a few really hard ones left, so Milarepa opens his mouth and says, 'Come in,' and they, too, disappear. So [in November 1993] I was doing a performance in San Francisco, and I remember getting onstage and feeling fairly relaxed, and then this incredible fear started up again. But this time, instead of pretending that it wasn’t there, I let it come. It was like, 'Come in.' I wasn’t thinking this, of course, because you’re not really thinking when you’re performing, but it was happening—it just came, like the ocean, and then it went, and then it would come back, and then it would go. My partner Mieke was in the audience, and she said it was incredible, and very moving to see. The audience was totally part of a process that allowed them to experience our vulnerability as human beings. So that was the beginning of working my way through. I don’t feel that way these days. I’ve found a deep relaxation as a performer. I don’t even expect anything vocally anymore. My voice is feeling great, relaxed, very flexible—and I feel that what is going on, is going on!” I tell her that it sounds as if her performing is becoming more and more a part of her practice.

Meredith looks at me earnestly. “Hopefully what you’re doing as an artist is bodhisattva practice. It’s the same thing; there’s no separation at all.”

Beginning in 1999, Monk’s desire to merge her life and practice more completely—to work with a beginner’s mind—launched her on what became her current mission of mercy. For the first time, Monk took on an outside collaborator: Ann Hamilton, a widely acclaimed visual artist and fellow recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

“I usually create my own images, my own visual aspect, but I just thought it would be really interesting to work with a visual artist for the first time in that way. And I think of all the visual artists in that field I felt the closest to Ann. She’s not a practicing Buddhist, but her work in essence shares Buddhism’s values—we both have a kind of silence about our work, and a lot of space, and an interest in mystery and what can not be seen and what cannot be articulated. For me, it was like throwing myself off the edge of a cliff. It was terrifying because I’m usually in charge of my entire world, and Ann is, too. So it became a process of trusting someone and letting go of ego territories and keeping the integrity of both of our sensibilities.”

The idea of “mercy” as a subject came from Monk. “We didn’t want to do a literal piece about mercy, but gradually it became a piece about help and harm. Ann became interested in what came from the mouth and what came from the hand, in relation to help and harm. You can scream, you can ask for help, you can soothe, you can kill someone—you can also heal someone. For me, stemming from my practice, I’m always contemplating human nature, hopefully not in a judgmental way, but to consider extremes of human behavior. And I became very interested in an act of mercy as something that one does naturally.”

Outside, dusk is settling. Meredith introduces me to her twenty-four-year-old turtle, Neutron, who has been hiding under a chair. Later, it occurs to me that just as Tibetan Buddhism has exemplified our culture’s fascination with the exotic, while in reality embodying a much more grounded vision of “ordinary mind,” so has Meredith Monk. “Pema says that you really have two choices, particularly as you go along in years,” she tells me at one point. “One choice is that you get more and more armored and hold on to a fixed image of yourself and how you think other people see you: You know, 'This is Meredith Monk.' The other choice you have is to become vulnerable and actually soften. And I think that’s what happened to me when I started the Shambhala training. So that when this thing happened in my life cycle, and the rug really got pulled out from under me, I chose to allow myself to become very vulnerable.”

I read her a passage from Trungpa Rinpoche’s writing: “'We have to rediscover something in our lives. Is it possible? It is possible, extremely possible.' When I read this not long ago, I thought of your work—because although you don’t like to tell viewers or listeners what they should think, at the same time there are discoveries to be made.”

“I don’t like to set up a manipulative situation at all, it’s true. I really prefer to leave a space for each human being. I like having an openhearted situation, and I’m also more and more interested in the radiance of the performers—the generous spirit of the performers. I’m also very pleased that Ann and I have become such close friends. Working with her has given me a wider perspective—the idea that 'me' maybe isn’t that important. mercy starts with an image of the two of us sitting across from one another at a table, which is how we started work on this piece. I think being willing to really listen and be open to another person is the subtext of the piece.

“Because if you’re really willing to listen to someone,” Monk tells me, “it’s already an act of mercy.” ▼

Robert Coe has been a dancer, journalist, author, playwright, and most recently, a screenwriter. Two of his music-theater collaborations opened Next Wave Festivals at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This is his fourth article for Tricycle.

Images © Sarah Schorr

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