Before performing in The Peace Treaty, a play by Swami Kriyananda, I had made a point of actively avoiding being on stage. I had not performed in any theater productions since elementary school and even then, I always tried to get the smaller parts. It is said that being on stage is one of the greatest fears, second only to the fear of death, but to me, being on stage seemed possibly even more frightening than dying.
The “writing on the wall”
It all began one January day at Ananda Village when the director of The Peace Treaty asked if I would be in the play. My response was brief and to the point: “Umm…No!” Not willing to accept my answer, she replied, “Well, what if I write to Swami Kriyananda to see what he thinks about the idea?” How could I say “no” to that? I agreed to discuss it with her again once she heard from Kriyananda, but already I could see the “writing on the wall.”
We met a few weeks later after Kriyananda had replied to her email. The director told me she had never known him to be so enthusiastic about someone being in the play, adding that it is wise to listen to his advice if we want to grow spiritually. “So,” she concluded, “would you like to be part of the play?”
A tug of war was going on inside of me. I had always seen myself as a “background person,” with no interest in being in the spotlight. One side was saying, “NO! I like the way I am! Think of all the rehearsals, and how hard I’ll have to work to get over self-consciousness.” But the other side, the voice of the soul, was saying, “Yes! I want to grow and change. I want to be free!”
I observed these two warring energies for a moment. Did I want to listen to the voice of the ego or did I want to take a step toward soul expansion and freedom? At that point, there was no longer much of a decision to make. I knew what I had to do.
I hadn’t won the whole war at that moment, but I had agreed to fight the battle. By saying “yes,” I had affirmed the truth that I was more than the ego, and that I was willing to raise my energy and try to break through limiting self-definitions.
“What will they think of me?”
The rehearsals involved a fairly constant battle to expand beyond my comfortable little shell. My main challenge was not easy—to open up, get myself “out of the way,” and project energy. Repeatedly the director encouraged me to try to “flow with it more.” Whenever I thought I achieved what she was asking of me, invariably there was more to learn.
My biggest battle, however, right up to the day of the performance, was nervousness. Unlike most plays, The Peace Treaty is performed only once each year, during the summer. Knowing that everything hangs on that one performance didn’t help my nervousness. I was constantly battling the consciousness of “what will they think of me?” and dealing with that part of myself that was afraid of making embarrassing mistakes.
A great flow of power
On the day of the performance, my heart was racing as I stood backstage, waiting for my cue to go on stage in the first scene. I was becoming more and more nervous. In desperation, I gazed out over Lotus Lake, directly behind the outdoor amphitheater, and silently prayed to my Guru, Paramhansa Yogananda: “Master, I can’t do this on my own. I need your help. Please help me!”
Shortly afterward, I got my cue, stepped out onto the stage, and faced the crowd. I was saying my first line when suddenly, I felt a great power flowing through me, and out to the audience. All nervousness was swept away in that current of energy, and I knew that God was right there with me.
In fact, there was a moment in the first scene when I was able to tune into the audience, to feel its joy in the play’s comic moments, and somehow know exactly how to say my lines to increase its enjoyment. The audience was no longer a faceless crowd but a friend with whom I had formed a mutually enjoyable relationship. I realized that this, too, was the Guru’s grace because it took a certain amount of relaxation to be able to relate to the audience this way.
The same tests and lessons repeat
After that first year’s performance, I asked myself, “Do I still need to do this? Haven’t I learned what The Peace Treaty can teach me?” Foolish thought! At least I was aware enough to realize that my very desire to pull away from the play meant I still had more to learn.
When rehearsals began again in the spring of the second year, I was more than a little frustrated to discover that I was still dealing with nervousness and resistance to performing. Although I now know that the same spiritual tests often repeat themselves until the deeper lessons are learned, this was my first experience of it. In fact, I seemed to be having more resistance than ever. I prayed to God and Guru for help, but it wasn’t until the director spoke to the cast before the dress rehearsal that an answer came. She told us: “The ego gets nervous, the soul loves to share.”
How helpful that was! Now I had the formula to work with. Any time I felt unwilling and nervous, I could simply say to myself, “Aha, that’s the ego, let it go. The soul loves to share.” I could then focus on that expansive attitude of sharing. I realized that nervousness is simply the ego starting to feel vulnerable. By focusing strongly on the soul’s love of sharing, I found it easier to transcend my counterproductive energies. The only times my formula didn’t work was when I was already too locked into the “what will they think of me?” consciousness. Fortunately, all nervousness vanished during the performance.
A very humbling thought
With my third year of involvement with the play, nervousness became much less of a problem and different lessons came to the fore. The Peace Treaty addresses not only the issue of how to bring about lasting peace after a war but also many of the spiritual challenges we face as devotees. There is a charming scene in which a soldier named Baltan exclaims loudly that certain other soldiers are “vain braggarts!” His friend Ponder quickly reminds him that we need to, “Be careful. From the things we criticize in others, we reveal what we are, ourselves.” It is of course Baltan who exemplifies the quality of being a “vain braggart.”
Now, to be sure, I had heard these lines many times and had appreciated the truth they expressed. But on that particular day, that truth hit me like a lightning bolt. Suddenly I was able to see very clearly that the things that annoyed me in others—things that weren’t even necessarily bad—were qualities that I rejected in myself. A very humbling thought!
For example, I have a sensitive and soft nature, but because in our culture, masculine strength is often equated with a sort of callous toughness, I had mistaken sensitivity and softness for weakness and was critical of it in others. I had also rejected it in myself and had tried to conceal it by erecting a protective shell of callousness. But I now understand that one can possess great inner strength and still be soft. In fact, it takes great inner strength to be able to stand firmly at your center while keeping an open, loving heart, no matter what life throws at you.
A joyful celebration of devotion
My third year of involvement with the play also brought a new understanding of renunciation. Each year there are scenes that sink in more deeply. In this instance, it was a dance by Gazella, a deeply devotional young woman for whom dance is a form of prayer. In the graceful movements of the dance and the beautiful way Gazella expressed her great devotion to God, I felt and understood renunciation in a deeper way.
I saw that renunciation is not a denial of life and love, but a joyful celebration of the soul’s freedom and devotion in God, and of the determination to seek love in God alone. It is, after all, in God that all love originates. Anandamoyi Ma once said to Swami Kriyananda, “There is no love except God’s love.”
Renunciation means understanding that any love I feel, even for another person, is God’s love, and need not result in attachment. By loving impersonally, my love becomes all the greater because I expect nothing in return.
Rich with wisdom and blessings
As I approach my fourth year of performing in The Peace Treaty, I look forward with almost eager anticipation to the lessons this year will bring. In a sense, the play has become a teacher for me. The experience has given me the self-confidence to embrace a more positive image of myself, and the determination to try to say “yes” to whatever life asks of me. It has also helped me to see the spiritual path as an ongoing process of growth and expansion beyond my limiting self-definitions.
Swami Kriyananda writes that spiritual “evolution never ceases until at last time itself becomes timelessness, and the ends we seek end in endlessness.” After three years of performing in The Peace Treaty, “endlessness” seems less like a dream and more like something I might actually be able to attain.