The Oscar-winning actress talks about embracing her essence, a love of Sufi poetry, and her scorchingly honest new memoir.
At 74, Ellen Burstyn has had a rich career of stand-out roles–from her breakout performance in 1971’s “The Last Picture Show” to Linda Blair’s mother in “The Exorcist” to a widow in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. She’s also made recent turns in “Requiem for a Dream,” “Wicker Man,” and “The Fountain.”
In her new book, “Lessons in Becoming Myself” (2006, Riverhead Books), Burstyn reveals that her ability to bring depth and dignity to her characters—and her six Academy Award nominations—has been hard won. She documents an abusive childhood, three troubled marriages, and many years of career struggle; she didn’t have her breakthrough film—or even current name—till her late 30s. It was around that time that Burstyn began to delve into the spiritual realm, coming under the tutelage of Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan; he gave her the spiritual name Hadiya, which means “she who is guided” in Arabic.
Now the still-busy actor calls Jesus her “guru” yet embraces other deities, meditates, and has a strong Sufi connection. She recently talked to Beliefnet about dropping the masks that have veiled her true self, the common thread in all religions, and why she makes “Thank you” her first words every day.
Your book is so candid—an incredibly rare feat in the celebrity memoir genre. How did you keep yourself so honest?
Well, you know, when I first started writing in the ’80s and ’90s, I kept thinking, “My God, every story I’ve got to tell is so sordid. Geez. What am I gonna do here?”
I even at one point rewrote it as a novel in the third person, and that somehow wasn’t satisfying. When I got the deal from the publisher to write a book, I said to the editor, “I really don’t know what to do. My stories are not pretty stories, and I don’t know if I want to put all that out there.” And she said, “Well, write them now, and there’s plenty of time to take them out.”
So, I left them in the first draft and I left them in the second draft, and then, I said, “All right, this is it. Am I going to tell the truth and let all this information out, or am I gonna pretty it up and pull my punches?”
And in that moment I realized that the reason I would be cutting them is because I would be ashamed. And I thought, that’s really what it is. We are ashamed of our mistakes, and yet our mistakes is our learning. And then I thought, “You know, these are the experiences that brought me into my own understanding.” I have to be able to own them and say, “You know, this wasn’t a pretty path, but this is my path and hope that it’ll encourage other people to embrace their lessons rather than keeping them secret.”
Was writing the book a cathartic process?
It was–especially going back and re reading all the diaries I’d kept over the years. I was so amazed at where I was in those early periods, how little I understood. I found myself actually having sympathy for who I was. I was going through the world with so little equipment, trying to understand what life was all about. You just have to fall down and skin your knee and pick yourself up and walk on and hope that understanding comes along the way. And eventually it does.
There’s something you say at the end of the book that is really poignant: You say that you eventually want to become completely unmasked. What does that mean?
As we grow up–I’m sure it’s true for men also, but I don’t really know about that–women want to please. And we develop a false face that says, “I am what you’re looking for, I am what you want me to be, I am pleasing to you, I am a good girl.” So the process of becoming yourself is a process of mask removal, letting them fall away until your own face shines through.
How do you do that?
Certainly, therapy is part of it, meditation, whatever psycho spiritual practice you employ. But it’s really the process of becoming conscious, of being willing to look for what’s behind the mask, however you do it. Acting was a big teacher for me. I think when you get into any art form where you want to express your essence, you have to become conscious of that which you’re carrying that is not your essence and be willing to step out from behind it.
Can you talk about your exploration into Sufism, which you practice today?
Oh, it started with reading. I was reading the work of Gurdjieff. And Gurdjieff led me to the Sufis, and then I met a Sufi teacher. And then I traveled to Europe and I climbed the Alps and went up to a Sufi camp conducted by Pir Vilayat Kahn; I was initiated up there.
When I was on top of the Alps and Pir Vilayat did the universal worship ceremony, I was so moved by it because here we were on an Alpine peak facing Mont Blanc, and there was an altar, and Pir lit a candle to each of the major religions of the world, and then read from the sacred books of those religions.
And the idea that we didn’t have to say, “I am a Christian” or, “I am a Buddhist” or, “I am a Muslim,” but, “I am a spirit opening to the truth that lives in all of these religions,” brings you into a place where you see that the differences are in the dogma, and the essence is very, very similar.
The truth is there spread out and speaking. For instance, Jesus says that if someone strikes you to turn the other cheek and the Buddha says that “Hatred cannot be fought with hatred–hatred can only be fought with love. This is a law eternal.” Well, they’re saying the same thing there. And you find that consistently. So, I knew when I came upon that that I had found what was, for me, a doorway into spirit.
What daily practices do you have now?
I’m pretty inconsistent. I try and have the first words out of my mouth everyday be “thank you.” I sometimes forget, but I know that gratitude is the highest form of praise. So I try and keep myself in this state of gratitude all the time. I meditate, not consistently but always before a performance, and always when I’m not traveling or in a situation where I can’t. I pray.
What do you pray to?
I can visualize it in different ways. I always pray to Spirit, but sometimes it’s to the Goddess. Sometimes it’s to Jesus. For me, Jesus is my guru. I think he’s a magnificent teacher. And he’s always available to me when I want him. If I close my eyes, he’s there.
Sometimes I pray to Ganesha if I need an obstacle removed. Quan Yin is one of my favorite manifestations of the divine, the embodiment of compassion. If we forget our compassion, we slide into blame and judgment and criticism too easily. So I have Quan Yin with me all the time.
What kind of prayers do you say?
Sometimes I just make up my own prayers. I say what I’m feeling at the time and I pray from my heart. There’s a Sufi prayer I say very often. “Oh Thou, the sustainer of our bodies, hearts, and souls, bless all that we receive in gratitude.”
Are you drawn to Persian poets like Rumi and Hafiz?
Hafiz, just love Hafiz. I read Rumi, too, of course, and I love Rumi. But, Hafiz brings me to my knees. I love Daniel Ladinsky’s translations.
Do you have a favorite Hafiz poem or line?
Oh God, so many. The one that just popped into my mind is: “Cast all your votes for dancing.” I love that. And the other poet I love is Rabia.
What do you love about these poets?
The immediacy of their apprehension of God. Their direct relationship with God. I grew up in the Catholic Church, and the church had always taught that there was an intermediary, that you spoke to the priest and the priest would convey your message. I love [these poets’] direct address to God and the direct receiving, of finding the divine spark within; I love the feeling of God being alive in me and me being alive in God.
How do you take care of your health?
I try and eat organic food whenever possible. I try not to combine food in an unhealthy way–I eat fruit separately from other food, and I try and keep the carbohydrates separate from the fats and proteins. I try not to overeat, which is my weakness. I don’t drink anymore.
I exercise, except while I’m doing a book tour. I work out with a trainer. I work in the gym. I walk. I ride a stationary bicycle. Exercise is the big key, I think. If I can possibly help it, I don’t take prescription drugs or non prescription drugs. I do homeopathy whenever possible. And I take vitamins. And herbs. I work with herbs a lot. I recently had two acupuncture treatments on my hand because I’ve had arthritis in my thumb. I wrote the book longhand, and I had to wear this thumb guard on it, which I’ve been wearing for 10 years now. But I had two acupuncture treatments and it practically removed all the pain from my hand.
How do you feel about aging?
I feel, first of all, very, very blessed that I’m healthy. I was talking to a doctor recently who said, “Your age is not how long you’ve been on the planet, your age is how healthy you are.” So, I am 73, but I would say, if I go by my health, that I’m 50. I’ve had two knee replacements, which was very helpful. If I had lived 100 years ago I probably would be in a wheelchair by now, but the knee replacements really helped a lot because I wasn’t walking so well. But other than that, I feel really healthy.
Now, I look at myself and I go, “That’s not me, that’s my mother.” Other people tell me I look good but, it’s hard for me to see that.[But] I wouldn’t want to be 20 again. I wouldn’t want to be 30 again. It was just too hard. I just didn’t have enough information on how to get get by with understanding. I really like this period of my life. I’m enjoying a wonderful relationship. I feel good. I feel productive.
I’m just hoping that I can continue this all the way to the end and have a positive attitude when it’s time to release. I think the Buddhist practice of non grasping, of being able to let go, it’s a really healthy and important thing to learn, especially as you get older and realize that there’s going to come a time when you’re going to have to really let go.
Are you planning on doing more writing?
Yes, I am. I don’t know what I’m going to write, but I know I want to keep it up.
What are you most grateful for?
Every day. Every single day. I’m grateful for my whole life. It’s been enormously joyous. As difficult as it’s been, it’s also been a huge learning experience, and I’m just grateful to be given the privilege of experiencing all that I’ve been able to be exposed to and receive it in gratitude.