John Tarrant’s Escape Arts in Delusionville: “Sam the Cyborg”

The true traveler has no fixed destination
and is not intent on arrival.
–Laozi

Escape arts are moves that break out of the walls in the mind. I think of a wall in the mind as a map that is preferred over reality. There are many reasons for the existence of such walls — fear, obsession, neurological shortcuts the brain makes.

Escape arts disassemble the walls or, as in dreams, allow us to step right through them. We can also think of escape arts as practices that appear in moments of natural clarity. They are often similar to the moves you make if you are interested in Zen and koans, but the world teaches escape arts to us; they just appear in a situation without any conscious feeling that you are entering spiritual territory.

Escape Art du jour: Not trying to control the agenda.

Usually when we want an outcome we worry, scheme, and plot to manufacture that outcome. Job interviews would be the classic example. It’s fairly well known that job interviews are more fun if you let go of the thought of winning or losing, of getting hired or not getting hired. All meetings, from first dates to spiritual conversations are likely to be more interesting if we are not trying to prove that we know something or to impress each other. Then a pure event is happening, something like art, play, exploration, or bird call.

A couple of years ago I was staying in Sydney with some friends who are family. My god-daughter, who is an actress, was just back from a film shoot in which she spent her time up a tree in a mangrove swamp evading a giant crocodile. She was somewhat gloomy about it, but it sounded like fun. “If,” I wondered to myself “you actually wanted to spend your time up a tree at night in a mangrove swap being attacked by a giant crocodile, how would you go about achieving that? How would you get a life that was interesting and surprising like that?”

Her then boyfriend, Sam, an actor barely known outside of Australia, was there, mending a wooden chair. He came from a place south of Perth on the Indian Ocean in Western Australia, a place into which people imported palm trees so that they could pretend it was somewhere else.

He was just back from California where he had been staying with James Cameron in Malibu. Cameron was preparing to make Avatar – Cameron has an interesting idea about changing the ways movies are made. You just wear gym clothes and run towards someone and on the screen it comes up in full costume and a battle scene. Or you wave sticks and it appears as a banshee flying; the technology is a step up from Gollum and his harness in Lord of the Rings. This might change our experience of movies too — to make them more like games that we take as a metaphor for life, like World of Warcraft for example.

Jake Gyllenhaal, fresh from Brokeback Mountain, was said to be the first choice for the lead but to have turned the gig down. Cameron, who has a reputation for working with unknown actors, defaulted to Sam. The producers, considering a couple of hundred million dollars to make the movie, wanted a name star. So Sam went to LA for an audition, to convince them otherwise.

“How was that?”

“They brought in some leading men, so I didn’t play it safe or think about getting the job. I didn’t hold anything back. I just went all out. It wasn’t really a question.” The implication was that leading men are the kind of people who play it safe.

I thought that it seemed like the sort of situation where you could have a lot of complicated thoughts about what people wanted and how to please them or, conversely, just step into the space that was there and occupy it fully.

Sam went back to mending the chair.

Now, two and a half years later, Terminator: Salvation is coming out as a summer blockbuster, and Sam is a cyborg who thinks he’s human and is pictured 150 feet high all over LA.

So that’s how you get to be up a tree in a mangrove swamp, being attacked by giant crocodiles, or this case by cyborgs bent on eliminating humanity.

And that’s the escape art, not having a thought of the outcome, not holding anything back, not even being in an interview. And I think of it as an escape art for every day — having nothing to lose, being no one who could lose anything, stepping into a freedom that is always waiting.

John Tarrant is the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Koans to Save Your Life and The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, & The Spiritual Life. He directs The Pacific Zen Institute, devoted to koan study and the arts.

4 Comments

  1. Jenny
    Posted May 10, 2009 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    You know John I come from a family of actors. The hardest thing about having nothing to lose, being no-one who could lose anything is that you suddenly become something. Not holding anything back, stepping into freedom you become the giant figure in the dream.

  2. Fuyu
    Posted May 11, 2009 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Interesting story thanks! Never thought of the similarity between 'escape arts' and zen/koans.

    Suddenly 'becoming something' is interesting too, really it's just another aspect to the same something though perhaps ;-) ?!

    __/__

  3. Posted May 11, 2009 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    HI Jenny,
    That's a very interesting comment. Yes, my god-daughter got three best actress nominations for her time up a tree in a swamp and her next movie will get her more, but the question is always, 'Can I have a life in the middle of all this?' I think we are well aware of how fame and fortune can turn us into lost pop stars or heartless investment bankers, but poverty and loneliness can have a dark influence too. So the question is, 'what arts allow for freedom under any conditions?' and that's what we are exploring I suppose.
    Thanks for that.

  4. Posted May 11, 2009 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    Yep I think that's what koans are: escape scripts. The same something is probably Buddha nature, what we always have, any time,

    thanks

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