The Zen of Jeff Bridges

As he continues his 30-year-old campaign against hunger,
the Oscar winner reflects in a new book on his mindful approach to
a healthy and purposeful life.


June 2013

By Allan Richter

Anyone stuck with an image of Jeff Bridges from his better-known films might have done a double take if they saw the Academy Award-winning actor in New York earlier this year. Bridges, his hair tightly pulled back in a neat bun behind his head, looked lean and fit dressed in a dark grey pinstripe suit and a white button-down shirt open at the collar.

The look was a sharp contrast to Bridges’ iconic beer-bloated bowling slob Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski in the 1998 Coen Brothers modern cult classic “The Big Lebowski” or the unkempt and dysfunctional faded musician Bad Blake of the 2009 film “Crazy Heart,” for which Bridges won the Best Actor Oscar.

In New York, Bridges, 63, was suited up for some serious business that has been a passion of his for 30 years—bringing attention to the plight of Americans who havetoo few resources to eat healthfully or little access to adequate food.

Bridges first took up the world hunger cause but about 10 years into his advocacy—“when ketchup became a vegetable,” he said on a Times Talks panel session in New York—his organization, the End Hunger Network (www.endhunger.com), shifted gears and focused on hunger in America.

Bridges was one of the executive producers on “Hidden in America,” a 1996 film that highlighted hunger in the US and starred his actor brother Beau, who played a laid-off factory worker and recent widower trying to provide for his two young children. More recently, Jeff Bridges is the spokesman for the organization Share Our Strength and its No Kid Hungry campaign (www.nokidhungry.org), which connects children and their families to nutrition programs created by local partnerships of government, nonprofits and businesses.

Bridges was in New York promoting “A Place at the Table,” a new documentary that brings attention to the 50 million “food insecure” people in the United States who do not know where their next meal is coming from.

The film, out on DVD this month, spotlights the stories of three struggling people—a single mother in Philadelphia trying to build a better life for her two children; a Colorado fifth-grader who has to depend on friends and neighbors for food and who has trouble concentrating in school; and a Mississippi second-grader whose asthma and other health problems are exacerbated by the largely empty calories her working mother can afford.

Anti-hunger activists point to a link between hunger and obesity. “A Place at the Table” points to the problem of “food deserts” where residents of lower-income communities don’t have access to nutritious food and are forced to travel long distances for fresh fruit and vegetables or subsist on processed and fast food instead.

Healthy Diet Appreciation

Bridges, asked how being so close to the anti-hunger campaign for so long has shaped his own approach to food, says he has a greater appreciation for a healthy diet. After a press conference for “A Place at the Table,” he told Energy Times that he credits Susan, his wife of 36 years, with whom he has three daughters, for providing him with a power smoothie that includes spirulina, protein powder, fruit, vitamins and hemp hearts, among other healthful ingredients, every morning.

The smoothie ingredients are likely to be local. Bridges says he wants to help communities understand the health and environmental benefits of eating locally. With officials in his hometown of Santa Barbara, California, he has developed vegetable and herb gardens as an educational tool for area families.

Those smoothies made by his wife provide some much-needed nutrients for someone whose career makes tough dietary commands. To bulk up for the role of cigarette-smoking and bourbon-guzzling Blake in “Crazy Heart,” Bridges told WebMD, he adopted a steady ice cream diet for awhile.

Bridges also gets a great deal of nourishment from his many artistic pursuits. He has been acting since he was a boy, beginning in his father Lloyd Bridges’ “Sea Hunt” television series. For years, he has toted a camera around on movie sets, and earning accolades from professionals for the very wide angle black-and-white photos of behind-the-scenes moviemaking. Last month, the International Center of Photography honored Bridges for his work at its Infinity Awards dinner in New York.

In the introduction to his 2003 book of photographs, Pictures (powerHouse), Bridges describes the wide-angle Widelux camera he favors as “a fickle mistress; its viewfinder isn’t accurate, and there’s no manual focus, so it has an arbitrariness to it, a capricious quality. I like that. It’s something I aspire to in all my work—a lack of preciousness that makes things more human and honest, a willingness to receive what’s there in the moment and to let go of the result. Getting out of the way seems to be one of the main tasks for me as an artist.”

Bridges also satisfies his artistic cravings through music. Though “Crazy Heart” introduced his musical chops to a wide audience, Bridges had already released an album, “Be Here Soon,” in 2000. A self-titled album followed in 2011, and Bridges toured with his country band, The Abiders—“Big Lebowski” fans will recognize that moniker from his character’s mantra, “The Dude abides”—along the West Coast just this spring.

Which of Bridges’ creative endeavors provides him with the most therapeutic benefit? “They all channel through the same place,” Bridges says, rolling his hands over his heart.

Freeing Consciousness

For all the contrast between the thoughtful Bridges and his iconic “Big Lebowski” slacker character, there is a depth to “the Dude” that Bridges only recognized after his good friend Bernie Glassman, a Buddhist teacher and founder of the social activist group Zen Peacemakers, pointed it out.

Glassman told Bridges that many Buddhists consider the Dude a Zen master because of the pure goodness in his simple and unassuming ways.

That discussion led to more detailed philosophical conversations between the two, which form the bulk of The Dude and the Zen Master (Blue Rider), their new book. They wax poetic over meditation—Bridges is a longtime practitioner—and classic “Lebowski” witticisms like “The Dude abides” and “The Dude is not in.” The book reads like you are sitting in the living room of Bridges’ Montana ranch, which is where they recorded their conversations.

Bridges and Glassman liken “The Dude is not in” to a state of free consciousness that is not weighed down or hampered by preconceived notions or expectations—the state that meditation leads to. Or, in Bridges’ case, some of the antics he whips up to create a fresh, blank canvas on which to work when he’s on a movie set.

When a scene doesn’t feel like it is gelling on a set, and Bridges begins to “feel tight,” he says he breaks into song or does somersaults around the stage—”something that’s apparently inappropriate. I’ll scream, get over on my back and just let it rip,” he says in The Dude and the Zen Master. “Once, I led the cast and crew in a big om session. They all chanted this weird syllable: Ommmm! And it shifted the vibe; it changed the tightness to looseness.

“When you do the unexpected, everyone starts wondering what else can happen. They start reassessing all the givens of that moment,” Bridges continues. “What’s great about the movies is that all of this is totally allowed; it’s even encouraged. Creativity is what’s called for. The idea is to get empty so the thing can come through, you know?”

One of the central plot points in “The Big Lebowski” occurs when the Dude’s rug is vandalized. “That rug really tied the room together,” the Dude proclaims in the film. In their book, Bridges and Glassman use the rug anecdote as a launching point for a discussion on “wholeness” and the connectedness of the universe. Bridges expands the concept to include “context,” which he says paves the way for wholeness and is created when goals are set.

“It’s similar to what John Kennedy did, when he said in ten years we are going to put a man on the moon,” Bridges says in the book. “There must have been all kinds of disagreements on the kind of rocket, the fuel, how we were going to do it. But once the context was created…then those disagreements became a good thing, because now we were working together.”

Bridges has discovered other tools to generate progress toward a greater good. In the book, he writes about how he wrestled with joining the anti-hunger movement as he questioned his ability to help. “So I made a deal with myself,” he says. He decided to commit to the cause, and that he would not be dissuaded from continuing the larger effort if he could not comply with a particular request.

“The same thing happens in other areas of my life,” he writes. “I do these little experiments: I know you feel like that, but just try it out and see what happens. If it’s not too far out of reach, I do it. And with each such experiment I learn something that I didn’t know before. I just feel my way into it: Whoa—this is okay—I feel good. It’s a stretch, and I’m feeling on purpose.”

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