No, no, my heart will burst, and if I speak:
And I will speak, that so my heart may burst.
~Queen Margaret, Henry VI Part 3
The connection between grief and rage is surprisingly strong; adjoining rooms in the hotel of emotions. I have experienced this connection myself during highly emotional events in my life: one moment tears, the next screaming. We hear in the news of violence from the most unlikely sources—the loving mother, the dutiful husband— grief can take a person to the dangerous place where the heart breaks and the mind snaps. And it’s no surprise that stories, plays, and films are ripe with it; Medea, Titus Andronicus, The Goat or Who is Sylvia, Gone with the Wind, are just a few. Whether it be the end of a romance, family illness, murder, or betrayal so deep that the characters lose control, love can lead us down a strange path. But is there a psycho-physical connection between grief and rage? And can this connection serve the actor in developing dynamic, full-bodied characters?
In the Lucid Body acting work, we use the chakra energy centers to articulate the bridge between the internal emotional self and the external physical self. The Brain and Creativity Institute writes that, “feelings are mental experiences of body states.” The chakras are the energy of the relationship between the two. In a performance of a play, the heightened emotions have an effect not just on the mind, but also on the physical body. Exploring the chakra system is one way of examining what happens between the mind and the body, and can be a useful tool for actors who endeavor to transform
physically and emotionally into their characters.
The chakras refer to clusters of nerve endings along the spine where sensitivity and receptivity are highly concentrated. The chakras also correspond with endocrine glands near each cluster; as nerve stimulation is one of the triggers that causes glands to release hormone chemicals into the body. The 4th Chakra, or heart chakra, is considered the center of the emotions love and grief. Rage is often associated with the 1st Chakra which is located near the base of the spine where the legs meet. The 1st Chakra is the center of survival, and governs the skeletal system and our sense of action.
The endocrine system gives us a window into the connection between these two chakras, and consequently, between grief and rage. The 4th Chakra corresponds to the thymus gland located just above the heart. Throughout childhood, white blood cells travel from the bone marrow to the thymus where thymosin transforms them into T cells. Around puberty, the thymus stops producing thymosin and the matured T cells in the thymus then migrate to the lymph nodes throughout the body, aiding the immune system in fighting disease.
Further down the spine, the 1st Chakra is associated with the adrenal glands, which produce a few hormones including adrenalin and cortisone. One of the functions of these hormones is to produce a quick physical response to extreme stress; i.e. the “fight or flight” response.
In considering the above mentioned organs and glands, the physical survival nature of the 1st Chakra is intrinsically bound to the heart; for if the heart stops beating, life ceases. Furthermore, the same immune system cells travel from the 1st Chakra domain of the bone marrow to the 4th Chakra gland of the thymus, working together to fight disease.
However, the issue of extreme stress is another connection between 4th and 1st Chakras. In her article “The Biology of Acting”, Fay Simpson, founder of the Lucid Body, writes, “in extremely stressful situations, the hypothalamus (centrally located in
the cerebral cortex) will transmit a nerve impulse to the adrenal glands.” A similar response occurs when the brain registers physical pain. In both cases the brain registers a survival threat, and the body responds accordingly. As Simpson describes, “the body will prepare itself for extreme activity…breathing is stimulated, and the heart rate increases along with the blood levels of glucose and fatty acids to maximize muscle use.”
So, what happens when the body undergoes the extreme stress of grief? Grief is not related to actual bodily survival. Indeed, some types of grief move far away from the survival body, moving instead toward states such as depression. However, the emotion of grief can trigger a 1st Chakra response. When a person feels certain types of grief, the same areas in the brain are activated as when a person feels physical pain. Therefore, the 1st Chakra responds in the same way, the hypothalamus releasing adrenalin and cortisone. This triggers a new wheelhouse of survival-related emotions; rage, fear, and panic.
I remember a moment in my life where I experienced this release of adrenaline due to the emotions of my heart. A family member was diagnosed with cancer, and called to talk to me about it. After I hung up the phone, I erupted into a fit of sobs. Before I knew it, the sobbing increased into hyperventilation; I became dizzy, and gasped for breath that felt too shallow. My thoughts sped away from the facts of the situation and traveled down the rabbit hole of “what ifs” and extreme outcomes. I remember in that moment the distinct thought that if I did not stop crying and expressing my pain this way, the panic would overwhelm me, feeding on itself until I made myself sick. I later recognized this as a classic expression of the 1st Chakra.
The 1st Chakra survival response can also affect the 4th Chakra in the way of the immune system. Simpson writes, “if the cause of adrenalin release is in response to an actual physical threat, then the physical exertion of the fight or the flight will efficiently use the adrenalin, allowing the body to then return to its normal stasis.” However, when it comes to an emotional cause like grief, the body is caught in a state of tension. The brain has stimulated the body to go to battle, pumping more adrenalin and cortisone into the system. However, there is no actual physical exertion using up the hormones, so the hormone levels continue to increase: sometimes twenty times the normal level. This renders the T cells unable to function properly, leaving the person more susceptible to fatigue and disease. For example, a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that people are about twice as likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke in the 30 days after a partner’s death. In addition, a small percentage of those same people rush to the hospital with all the symptoms of heart attack but have not actually had one; a condition called “broken heart
syndrome,” where the heart literally changes shape.
The connection between grief and rage is powerful, but we can use this connection to a healthful advantage. Working with students in Lucid Body class, we focus on listening deeply to the body’s impulses in order to allow the emotional flow to be expressed without inhibition. When students tap into grief, I’m fascinated to see how often it naturally travels down into rage; the student throwing him or herself into forceful physical aggression— punching, stomping, kicking. I think this can be a very healthy response, as it allows the physical exertion to finally use some of that access adrenaline and cortisone thereby completing the natural survival response. Furthermore, when acting students can “exercise” these extreme emotions, learning how to flow in and out of them, they can begin to have both more control of their emotions, and a better understanding of what they may need to relax and recover from a high stakes performance.
One way to explore coming down from the “fight or flight” response, is to explore the other side of the nervous system. The parasympathetic system is the “rest and digest,” response, which slows body processes. We may not be able to control either of these automatic nerve responses, but simple awareness of both sides can bring about more ease. Plus, we can intentionally offer our nervous system “rest and digest” stimulation by resting, eating, drinking, slowing the breath, having an orgasm, and letting tears flow. These actions do wonders for resting and digesting the large emotions of life.
For the actor, the 4th and 1st Chakra connection can be a key component for making earned yet surprising choices during high stakes scenes. Playwrights will often write scenes where the preverbal 4th and 1st Chakras are at odds: characters who express anger to hide their hurt, burst into tears, or snap into violence, just to name a few. Indeed, this illogical behavior mirrors what we do in our lives, but these deep and complex actions can be difficult for the actor to step into without pushing, faking, or overthinking. If your character seems to be yelling constantly and you want to find more nuance, consider surrendering into the heart and seeing how that changes your intention. On the other hand, if you feel like you are flailing about in an emotional heart-centered character, try finding a simmering of rage or panic against which your character can “fight” or “fly”. You may be able to express these emotions outright, or the character may be more protected. If this is the case, these emotions can become under layers, rumbling just beneath the surface. This will give you more options in the scene, and will add complexity to your character. We as human beings resonate with authentic human experience when we see it on stage. The connection between 4th and 1st Chakra already exists in the body, and therefore, when we see the connection on stage, it rings true.
A 4TH-1ST CHAKRA BALANCING MEDITATION
Sit comfortably, with legs long or crossed. Support your back so you can let your spine lengthen. Feel the sit bones spread evenly into your seat. Imagine the space widening, increasing your connection to the earth. Now imagine a red spinning vortex in the perineum, between the sit bones but just in front of them, in the center of your body. This is where the nerve endings of the 1st Chakra are located. Breathe into this energy. Give yourself gratitude for surviving until this moment. It is a beautiful feat. Breathe into the thick, solid, earth quality. Feel the sturdiness of your 1st Chakra. It gives you gentle boundary. Breathe into the feeling of being held up and supported.
As you breathe, invite balance into your 1st Chakra. Notice what you see as your 1st Chakra balances. What colors do you see, and do they become brighter, softer? Allow that balance of the 1st Chakra; the gentle support, the grounding, to float up to the heart. Imagine the heart resting in the nest of the 1st Chakra. See both of these energies at ease with the other.
Now see your 4th Chakra, a spinning vortex in your chest. Breathe into the heart, breathe into your enormous human capacity for love. Breathe into the airy quality, lightness of the flow. Feel the sensation of bringing oxygen to your heart, feel the joy of your favorite things. Feel the freedom of the heart, it has no pull or rigidity. Breathe into the wisdom and expansiveness of love.
Allow that wisdom to drift back down to the 1st Chakra, breathing new life into the ground. Allow the 1st Chakra to surrender the need for action, and fall into the easy rhythm, the inhales and exhales of the heart. See unconditional love surrounding both of the Chakras as they float along sweet breezes.
Now allow grounding and unconditional love to come in to perfect balance. Nervous system supporting immune system. Survival body supporting emotional body. Love supporting life.