Donna Quesada: I would like to just tell you what an honor it is to have this time with you and I’d like to thank you for sharing your wisdom with the Awaken community.
Ellen Burstyn: I’ll talk with you. Whether or not it will be wise remains to be seen.
DONNA: Many people, like myself, didn’t know that you have been on something of a spiritual journey for many, many years. And I don’t know if you call it as such, but that was part of what your book… that was written in 2006 got into. And in preparing for this interview, I learned so much about your quest… your life long quest. And I’m wondering if you wouldn’t share some of those things with us… those lessons that you have learned? But also, we have a little tradition. Before we get into that a little bit more, I’d like to ask you what awakening means to you?
ELLEN: It means to realize that you have been programmed, like a computer is programmed, throughout your childhood, and the culture, and life. And that you have taken in certain attitudes and ideas… views of yourself, others, and the world around you. And you don’t in fact, have to live your whole life with that. You can reprogram yourself. You can turn inward and see just what the programming is, and decide if you want to keep that, or is there something that doesn’t seem right to you and that you would like to examine, and find what is authentic to you… what is real and not just programming.
DONNA: You know, I just love that so much and I’m thinking about all the ways we are programmed unconsciously and by society. Doing what other people’s expectations are for us. So, just to make sure I understand what you are saying, and to unpack that a little bit… Awakening to you is breaking free of all that programming that plays on our minds from a young age. Is that what you mean?
ELLEN: Yes, and that includes religious programming and societal programming. Familial programming. Racial programming. All the things that we’ve been told, “it is the way it is.” And we’ve taken that in and sometimes believed it but sometimes we say “really, that doesn’t seem quite right.” I mean, I certainly had those feelings as a child when I saw certain behavior around me. I thought is that right? And when you go on a quest to find out what is real… and there are many paths to finding out what is real… it arrives in you with a different sense. It lands in you with a feeling of ahh, now I see. And it feels right. Really feels right. But it takes some focus and concentration and openness to really be available… for the new reality to come in and settle in. And even then, you keep on testing it. So, you know you are in a place of that’s right… it feels right to me.
DONNA: Part of what I do is teach, and I see a lot of college students studying things or pursuing paths because that is what their parents or their peers or society expects of them. That’s what we are told will make money. So, sometimes students confide in me that it’s not what they love. Their heart is this or that and they know it. And so often we are being encouraged to not follow our hearts.
ELLEN: Yes. What do you teach?
DONNA: I teach philosophy. Eastern philosophy.
ELLEN: Like Buddhism?
ELLEN: Is Buddhism considered a philosophy?
DONNA: Well, it has religious elements but it has deeply philosophical elements, as well. That’s part of the question. Is it a way of life or a philosophy or a religion? There doesn’t seem to be agreement.
ELLEN: I was going to say that of all the obvious religions and philosophies and spiritual paths and so forth, that I’ve investigated, I find that Buddhism is the one that is less of a religion and more a way to awakening.
DONNA: Yes, it’s not God centered, and so it invites a lot of discussion into what a religion is, and does it have to be centered around the concept of a God? But in fact, God is what we make it. To me, God is listening to your heart exactly the way you described… getting in touch with that authentic truth that’s within. And I think all the wisdom teachings bring us to that place of authenticity.
ELLEN: And Buddhism gives you practices. There are practices that you can intend and fulfill. And it’s helpful. For example, for me, one of the most important practices I learned from Buddhism is letting go. Because there are so many things we cling to. Again, our programming. Our social ideas, our religion, our fears… Our ideas of what is right and what is wrong. What is this or that. And bad habits. Addictions. We cling to so many things. You start out with the concept of the things that aren’t nourishing… fertilizing. Bringing you to your most authentic self. It’s time to let go of them. I find this gesture with my hands when I want to let go of something. Even a sadness. Let go! I do it with my hands. It’s so helpful. Like moving out of a house you loved. Or giving a piece of furniture you loved to someone. I find that if I just remember to let go, it’s refreshing.
DONNA: Somehow, the physical gesture encourages the mind to follow along.
DONNA: I think there is a lot of fear that prevents us from letting go and that’s someplace I wanted to go with you. In preparing for this interview, you were saying that when you were young… you share this in your book, Lessons in Becoming Myself, which I think is so rich because it’s not just an auto-biography… it’s the sharing of lessons that you learned (in getting) to that place of authenticity.
One story that you share is that when you were very young, your brother was ill—seriously ill. And this ignited within you, this sort of fascination, or willingness, to go into that place beyond the here and now. Or, beyond life and death, called the unknown. And that takes courage and it takes letting go. And I’m wondering how this curiosity of the unknown led you through your spiritual path through the years?
ELLEN: Well, I find that I have a great curiosity and I want to know what I don’t know. I want to understand the so far inexplicable to me. Certainly, death is the biggest one. I’m 87 now, so after 65 you find yourself thinking a little more each year. And at 87, I realized it could happen at any time. And there are so many theories of what happens after death but nobody really knows for sure. There are theories. There are religious concepts. Teachings. But the fact is that nobody really knows, until you either do or don’t experience it.
That is one of the big mysteries of life. I made this show, Resurrection. I did a lot of research about people who had been clinically dead for up to 20 minutes and then resuscitated. And they all describe the same experience… of going through a tunnel towards light and being greeted. It’s pretty much the same, each one. That was in the early 70s.
Just recently, science has discovered that there are some genes in the brain that don’t die when every other part of the body dies. And people who have been resuscitated describe that same thing that we described in Resurrection. The path towards the light and those genes that stay alive after everything else is dead… long enough for what ever this consciousness is, to get to the light. So, what we assumed in Resurrection has been proven physically. That we actually have genes that stay alive for that purpose… to get to what certain religions would call the bardo.
DONNA: And that there is something that carries forth into the spirit world or that… beyond… the unknown.
ELLEN: And it’s not necessarily that we retain our genetic integrity. We might get to the other side of the light and then disperse. We might become part of the all. Of course, we are already part of the all. One of the things I learned recently, in the last couple of years… It bothered me… I was brought up Catholic. It always bothered me that the Trinity was the Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost. Who is that Holy Ghost? And what happened to Mom? Why was she left out? It bothered me. Even as a kid. And then, The Lord’s Prayer is, our Father who art in heaven. That always kind of bothered me, too. Why is God a man?
And recently, I learned that Jesus did not speak English or Latin or Hebrew or Arabic. He spoke Aramaic. And in Aramaic, the word for God is Allaha. And that is one of the oldest words for God, and it has no gender. It is not our Father. It can be translated many different ways. A usual one would be sacred unity. Ahh… That’s now making sense. So, once I got that. Sacred unity… Now, it all starts making sense. And the unity is not just with the people. And they are not just Catholics or Jews or whatever. Hindus and Muslims. They are all part of the sacred unity, as are the trees, the rivers… as are the oceans. All of them have a station in sacred unity.
And that’s why… my opinion here… part of the unity is being abused and out of balance. It will manifest in other parts of unity, too. So, it might just be that if we turn our attention to what we are doing to the whole planet, that we will see that what is manifesting in our realm, right now, is connected. Because you can’t abuse part of the unity without the other part of the unity being abused.
DONNA: Indeed. I’m so glad you brought this up because we were talking about this a few minutes ago and I found that all of the wisdom teachings that I’ve explored, and that I’ve come to love, all point to that unity, and in some way provide us with a practice or a method to overcome duality in it’s various forms.
The fallacy that we are humans against God or humans against the environment or black against white or this against that… And all of these pearls of wisdom are the same and point to this oneness. And so, you’ve put your finger right on it and I’d like to play with this just a little bit more because it seems that so much of our global destruction today all stems back to the dominance of the masculine, which you pointed at. Could you speak to this? Do you agree that so much of what is askew today is due to the emphasis of the masculine energy and the fact that there is just an imbalance there?
ELLEN: Well, it’s a dominating energy. How do you dominate a Redwood? How do you dominate the Atlantic ocean? It’s out of balance in the thinking. When the Europeans came here… The native peoples treated the land like it was holy. And they had none of the illnesses that we suffer from. Europeans… we brought it here… smallpox and all those things. We took hold of the land and dominated it… made roads and tore down trees and built dams without any, dare I say, permission of the land itself. Without listening to it and appreciating the marvel of it. My God, to walk among those trees… those Redwoods that were alive when Jesus was alive. When you walk underneath them, you can’t help but be in a sense of awe. To me, that is where the feeling of spirit occurs first. When you are a child and you go out into a beautiful garden, or a tree, or the ocean. You feel that Wow and that Awe. It’s like the beginning of contact with your own spirit and the spirit of the land. And we’ve lost that. We dominated for our own use. The oil companies… energy. We take the energy from the earth and use it for ourselves. Ouch!“Ouch” says the Earth. And now, with the fires and the hurricanes… the illness. It’s all out of balance.
DONNA: What will it take to bring balance back?
ELLEN: Well, it’s possible that we can still do it and live… but it would take… considering the planet sacred. Not something to be dominated. It may be that we will destroy ourselves, but the planet will come back after many years. But we would need to wake up. We’d need to awaken.
DONNA: We agree. And these days, there seems to be an air of impatience. We saw this with the marches last week. Black Lives Matter marches. There seems to be a greater need to protest and make our voices heard. Do you feel that to be true? And do you agree that the willingness to march is the place to start?
ELLEN: It’s certainly a place to start for people that are younger than I am. I’m not still marching. I’m certainly applauding the marchers and supporting them. Supporting Black Lives Matter, financially too. But it seems, for some reason, we got to the tipping point. We got to the tipping point and we aren’t going to take it anymore. It’s so wonderful to feel it in the air. All my life I have wondered why there is so much prejudice against black people. Why? Or Jews… What is prejudice about? What is racism about? And I didn’t understand it. I’ve never understood it.
Of course, I am in the system of it. So, it’s the system that I grew up in. I’ve never felt it personally, but it’s around me. It’s affecting me. And it seems that the moment came. It just came where it’s not going to go unchallenged anymore. And we are in that moment of awakening. It’s thrilling. There is this book… I was listening to the author this morning… White Fragility. Is that it? She was giving a talk to liberals about us thinking we are not part of it. But we are in it with this system. And it was a brilliant talk. And it’s made me go, “Okay, how am I contributing to it?” I’m aware, but in it. Accepting the White Privilege.
DONNA: It’s like a fish being in water doesn’t realize it’s in water because we don’t see it from afar.
ELLEN. But I think now it’s actually going to result in some change. Of course, the change it has to result in the inner one.
Read and Watch Part II Here: Awaken Interviews Academy Award Winning Ellen Burstyn Pt 2 – Jesus and Hitler and Everything in Between
Read and Watch Part III Here: Awaken Interviews Ellen Burstyn Pt 3 – Awe Is The Home Of Spiritual Growth