Donna Quesada: Your journey has taken you through so many paths and I did learn that you have a fascination with the Sufi path,
which I do, too, truth be told. Was its Dervishes or some other aspect of Sufism? And will you share that with us? And do you still have a practice today?
Ellen Burstyn: I got to Sufism through Gurdjieff. I was introduced to Gurdjieff, and he was a Sufi. I got interested and I was in California and a Sufi teacher came. And I went to hear his talk and I got more interested. Then he told me about Pir Vilayat, who was the head of the order. And he had a camp on top of the Alps and I wanted to go. I went to England and ended up going to the camp. There is nothing more spiritual than being on top of the Alps. It’s just so breathtaking. You can’t help but be in awe. To me, awe is the home of spiritual growth. When you feel awe, you are opening to the other dimension.
DONNA: The unknown that we were speaking about, perhaps?
DONNA: Is that what God is to you?
ELLEN: You know, I’m interested in Science, too. So, I can’t really say that any system that is talking about God that doesn’t include Science is something I can settle into. I remember being a teenager… 17. Lake Michigan, where we went every other summer. And I was on a date, and this date asked me where we should go, and I said, “It’s a beautiful starry night, maybe we could look at the stars.”
So, we went down to the beach and I lay down on the sand and I looked up. And it was such a clear night. And I saw, I literally saw The Milky Way. And it took my breath away. And it had the impact of the solar system. And then the universe… And that landed in me in a place that became part of my wanting to understand who we are and what we are doing. I wrote a little poem at the time. It said…
There once was a planet named earth
That had a terrible thirst to know how it got here
And if there is a God here
And what on earth came first.
And I feel the immensity… When I read that because the matter in the universe is growing outward from each other… and they can track the speed and how far they have gone. They can trace it back to the moment of The Big Bang. And they know how many years ago that was… which is like 467 billion light years, or something incredible. That’s the moment when the universe got born.
That concept to me of what exploded, and where was it when it exploded, and what was before that? And why did it explode then? All of that is the great mystery. And what we call God is that mystery. The source that it all came from. And I’m hungry to understand that and at the same time realizing that I probably will do best if I embrace the mystery.
So, that is where I am. I feel that there is a source that it all came from and we are doing our best to learn what that is. And when we do learn what that is, we will call it God.
DONNA: Beautiful. And what prevents us from finding comfort and our place on the path? Because it’s like we are all on some spiritual path even though we don’t call it that. Even if we don’t consciously realize that yet. But as you share in your book, your path was ignited by challenges. And so, I guess my question is two parts. Does it have to be ignited by a dark night of the soul experience? And has it given your life meaning?
ELLEN: Oh, yeah.
DONNA: Comfort and solace?
ELLEN: Comfort and solace. I’m not sure about that. What it has given me is an understanding that we have to take responsibility for our lives. Our reaction to what happens to us, in other words. And in a moment of trouble… we have to be able to hold still… and breathe and be calm. And it’s necessary to do practices. To understand how to do that… and one of the things that I chose to be part of… what I work with is that any time I hear myself even thinking you make me feel like… No! Nobody can make me feel like… They can do certain things that, if I’m asleep not awake, I can have a reaction. Where I feel like… But, that was just my unconscious behavior. I either chose to feel like and take on the fear or whatever. Or I checked it.
DONNA: Being insulted. It seems like so much of our pain and suffering comes from what is called victim consciousness. It’s exactly what you are saying. Taking offense from what someone says. You are saying they don’t have that power. You are giving power away if you take offense.
ELLEN: Exactly. So, it’s practices. What we do. To me, the most important practice for me is to commit to love and kindness. As much as possible. All the time. If I’m practicing loving kindness all the time. If not all the time, as much as possible… that all reactions coming from me… I want to be from the channel of loving kindness.
DONNA: Do you have a daily practice that you do? For example, your practice of Sufism, whether it be meditation…
ELLEN: My daily practice… I thought, what am I going to say if she asks me that? The only daily practice I have, and I even fail at that sometimes, is… I have the first words out of my mouth when I wake up, Thank You. And I try to live in gratitude. And to be specific what I’m thankful for… that I am still alive.
Second of all, that I am well fed. And I’m not in a war. And that I’m not in need. Or in anger. Or in every negative state. I do meditate. I don’t meditate regularly, I must confess. The only time that I really meditate regularly is when I’m doing a play. I’m afraid to go on stage. And I’m quiet for at least 20 minutes, maybe. Half an hour. And then, other times, I do or I don’t. I commit to it and then I fail. I’m good at it but then lost it. Can’t do it. I’m inconsistent, but I have to say, I’m pretty inconsistent with most everything.
DONNA: I love what you said. One thing I learned, from a Rabbi actually, is the best way to pray is to make it as simple as possible. As simple as possible. So, simply saying “Thank You” is so deep and so honest and to me, so powerful… that I don’t find it deficient, at all. Heartfelt gratitude, which is genuine, I think, is the most powerful way to make like beautiful. I don’t think there is any way to be angry if we are grateful. It seems impossible that they could live in the same house… anger and gratitude. To me, I think that is quite beautiful.
ELLEN: Thank you, Donna. I appreciate you saying that. Also, the other thing about just remembering to say Thank You… remembering to start the day that way… It gets you on the right path. I love that poem… Spanish poet. I can’t think of his name. Where he says… about our path.
DONNA: It wasn’t Lorca?
ELLEN: Names don’t come quickly. There is no path. Paths are made by walking, but by walking, you make your path. I know the first part is If you see your steps before you it’s not your path. Your path is made by walking. So, if I can start out the day by saying Thank You. That puts my first foot down on my path.
DONNA: And sometimes taking that first step… It’s like King said, “The stairway really isn’t composed of a staircase at all. It’s one step at a time.” It does take courage and it brings us back to that unknown.
In these last few minutes, I want to take us full circle. Your book, Lessons in Becoming Myself… As you sit here today with us,what has been your most important lesson? Not just in acting, but in life… for those who might be just starting their path… their journey and taking that first step?
ELLEN: Oh gosh. That’s hard. I don’t know that I can point out specifics. I know that staying close to nature is important. And seeing it as sacred. I know that not giving your power away by getting hurt because somebody said something that hurt your feelings… giving your power away.
DONNA: So powerful.
ELLEN: Oh, I know! Jung talks about “We are not just one person. We have many people inside.”
DONNA: I love that.
ELLEN: Yeah, and at any given time, rather than saying “I am angry,” which means “I am”… your whole being is angry. To learn to say “I’m feeling anger, right now.” So that you are holding the “I am” back, but you are feeling something.
So, you are not identifying the whole package with one thing. And he talks about all these different people inside having different opinions at different times. There is schizophrenia. You are split off from the self. And then there is Polyphrenia, which means all of the inner beings. Poly. The many beings are all singing the same songs at the same time.
DONNA: Wow. I love that.
ELLEN: So, that to me, is what being awake is… to have that whole inner orchestra.
DONNA: And to hold space for that. To understand that we still have those inner facets of our being.
ELLEN: And sometimes we are feeling anger, but that doesn’t mean that we are anger. Or we are feeling sad, but it’s that we have sadness as opposed to “I am sad.” Learning that. That was the biggest lesson.
DONNA: What would you tell the 20-year-old Ellen Burstyn if you could give her loving advice, as if she was a child.
ELLEN: That’s interesting. It makes me cry…. that question. What would I tell her? I think I would say “I love you.”
DONNA: I love that.
ELLEN: You are loved. It’s so nice talking to you.
DONNA: I would be remiss if I didn’t share this with you before I sign off, but my first love was singing. And your movie, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was so meaningful to me and I saw it late in life. I didn’t sing for 30 years because I thought I couldn’t sing. I grew up in the theatre, and I thought I’d be a singer. And then I didn’t sing for 30 years, and I became a professor and all of this stuff. And then, after my divorce, I started singing again. I realized that I could, kind of, sing. Not Streisand, but I could sing. And around that time, I saw your movie for the first time. Because it was on Netflix, I believe. Boy, it became my instant favorite. I can relate to that woman… went out and sang. That is just the kind of stuff I love to sing, too… all the old standards, and so I wanted you to know that. I wanted to share that with you.
ELLEN: Thank you. I appreciate that. Thank you.
DONNA: It has been a delight to share this time with you and thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.
ELLEN: Well, thank you for being who you are. It’s lovely talking to you.
DONNA: Thank you so much.
Read and watch Part I Here: Awaken Interviews Academy Award Winning Ellen Burstyn Pt 1 – Sacred Unity
Read and Watch Part II Here: Awaken Interviews Academy Award Winning Ellen Burstyn Pt 2 – Jesus and Hitler and Everything in Between