Ellen Burstyn's True Face

The Oscar-winning actress talks about embracing her essence, a love of Sufi poetry, and her scorchingly honest new memoir.

BY: Interview by Valerie Reiss

 
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?

On writing honestly

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?

What it means to be unmasked

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?

Her spiritual revelation

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.


Continued on page 2: 'I try and have the first words out of my mouth everyday be 'thank you''... »

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