When Patricia asked me if I’d be willing to write a guest blog, I was honored and also a bit daunted. I didn’t quite know where to start, or how to follow her beautifully laid path. She suggested that I might write about my work as spiritual practice, and possibly share an excerpt from my newly written book Find the Medicine: How Theater of Witness Reveals Stories of Suffering, Transformation and Peace. So I offer the Prelude of the book and some subsequent thoughts:
I am crouching in the wings of the theater watching the performance of Children of Cambodia/Children of War. From the side angle I see Hong Peach’s graceful silhouette balance as she perches on her right leg and her hands glide through the air in slow motion. Her fingers touch and trace invisible lines in the soft blue light. Her beauty is pure and lingers like perfume. Then with a boisterous shout, the Cambodian teen boys bound through the space, cajoling each other as they flip and jump over higher and higher ropes before collapsing into a pile of limbs on the floor, laughing before one turns serious:
If this is so much fun, why can’t I remember?
Tim’s eyes fill with unshed tears. Haunting chords of music increase in volume.
The reason is because so many horrible things happened in our country – it keeps us from remembering the good things. Our country used to be a peaceful place to live in, but now because of the holocaust, our people are being killed one by one.
One of my first memories is seeing people dying on the street
Piles of bones on the street…
They would line up people one by one in a straight line
With one bullet they could get many
My mom, she was holding my hand
My feet were burning
I had no clothes on…
My country is a red river with bullets and blood
And from there, the memories pour out. Even though I’ve heard these stories countless times, transcribed and scripted the text, and directed the performers for hours on end, I’m riveted to my spot and almost forget to breathe. The moment is so embedded with tragedy, authenticity, and beauty, the stories are nearly unbearable, yet here are these young people, strong, resilient and alive. They survived war, starvation, refugee camps and the journey to this place. They want to bring us back with them. To have us bear witness. The show ends with these words, spoken and in song:
Our eyes cry the tears. Our blood screams for our people killed. Our skin calls us back.
We want to tell you, so we won’t forget.
We want to show you, so you’ll remember.
We will involve you so you’ll understand.
We will survive. We will survive.
And with that, the audience is on its feet. My face is wet with tears and I don’t quite know how this has become my life. My story and those of the performers have intertwined in a miraculous process of Theater of Witness. I don’t know where I end and they begin, or where tragedy and beauty meet. I know nothing. I am empty and full and I am grateful beyond belief. There is nowhere else I’d rather be, and nothing else I’d rather do. I am in love with the performers, this work, and the process. This is home for me.”
I have been immersed in Theater of Witness for the past twenty-five years. It’s been my life, my livelihood and my spiritual practice. Performers – men serving life sentences in the US and Poland, runaway girls, those surviving homelessness, domestic abuse, and street violence, ex-paramilitaries, security forces, teen parents, all have been my teachers. I have descended into darkness with them, and through bearing witness to their stories, scars and strength, I’ve practiced ‘being with’ and tried to make myself a worthy container.
I often reflect about the relationship between my long-time meditation practice and this work. I’ve come to understand that they feed each other. After having sat still for countless hours on the cushion while reeling with grief, distress, anger and monkey mind, I trust that I won’t die from any of these mind states. I’ve learned that all things pass, that there is something so much larger than mind, and that pure awareness has no shape or even morality. Being with ‘what is’, has become a bit easier with practice. And learning to let go, let be, and dissolve into love have become my spiritual aspirations.
There are times in creating Theater of Witness when I truly have no idea what to do, feel that my mind has been utterly blown open, and am down on my knees. There are times when tragedy seems almost too much to bear, and sorrow is endless. And yet, awareness, spaciousness and love also are always present. A few years ago, I sat and listened to a man tell me about murdering thirteen people. While I watched his cheek crumple and his eyes harden, my heart almost stopped beating. But I trusted that I had the capacity to stay and listen. Together we made ourselves big enough to hold this unbearable truth. He cried. I sat still. We breathed. Some day maybe I will mine his story more deeply and perhaps find the nugget of redemption within it. Or maybe not. Maybe he and I will never meet again. But he became my teacher that day. And hopefully I was a worthy listener.
So I will continue to meditate and I will continue to walk with those who have treaded deeply into the dark. And together hopefully we will share the light of love.
Teya Sepinuck is the founder of Theater of Witness, working with those who haven’t had a voice in society. She currently working in Northern Ireland with ex-combatants, members of security forces, victims and witnesses of ‘The Troubles.” She has a long time meditation practice which is at the foundation of her work and life.