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Growing up, acting was the only activity that sustained my existence. Mother recounts that at ten I told her rehearsals were the only events I looked forward to in life. Even as a kid, I remember feeling that performing was one of the few times I felt truly alive, powerful and free, when I felt like all my quirks and odd humor and out of control look-at-me-cross-eyed-and-I’ll-burst-into-tears kind of sensitivity were assets rather than detriments. And as a slothful child, content to skate along with as little effort as possible in most of my endeavors, theater was the only activity that I would work at with arduous, single-pointed discipline.
Megalomania aside, I wasn’t able to attend the Hardcore Dharma class’s in-class exam because I was performing a segment of a solo show at Catch!, a Brooklyn performance series. But don’t think I wasn’t hardcore dharma-ing it. Because as every actor who’s ever cracked a dharma book knows, performing is sooooooooo ridiculously Buddhist.
Let’s look at the jargon. What’s the number one goal of any actor at any time? Being in the moment. Resting and reacting in the present moment even though your conceptual mind knows the staging, the story, the lines, your character externals and the outcomes. How do you do this? Taking the attention OFF of your self. Getting inside the experience. Focusing on the outside person, on communicating to your audience, on LETTING GO. Having no expectations. Staying concentrated. Breathing. All the while staying extremely mindful of exactly what your voice and body are doing at every moment. The Buddha tells you to have a mind that’s not too tight and not too loose, David Mamet tells you to invent nothing and deny nothing. Dr. Reggie Ray’s body meditations sound almost word for word like the warm-up visualizations we did in our Meisner class. Viewpoints, a popular method taught to actors, teaches performers to break down their stage presence into time, space, story, emotion, shape and movement – that is mindfully dissecting your performance into malleable non-self interdependent factors.
And while I don’t know if I would have been receptive to it, I wish that meditation and mindfulness were taught in my BFA program alongside script analysis. Because until I started meditating, I did not know I could discipline my mind to get into the present on cue. Yes I generally could find the present moment, but I tended to think it came out of an unpredictable combination of my confidence level, what I ate for breakfast, adrenal vs. serotonin balance and air pressure. It was elusive and non-controllable. It came from talent not effort. So of course there were times when, psyching myself out, I simply couldn’t find that present moment and I felt there was nothing I could do about it. Since I’ve developed a mindfulness and meditation practice, I’ve found that while I might veer off from the present for a moment or two, I have the mental reigns to pull that old horse back on the path.
And that points back to meditation and mindfulness practice in itself. Sometimes I sit down to meditate and I simply do not want to stay with my breath. It seems absolutely impossible. It feels like wrestling with the slipperiest fish ere to have spawned. Likewise in life, sometimes I simply do not want to let an anxious thought go, and I let it tie me and bind me into a tangled slinky of obsession. Yet when I perform, it feels like no matter the circumstances, I’m able to focus my mind. What’s that about? Well, this weekend I decided it’s about stakes.
Sometimes when I sit down to meditate I’m not taking it seriously enough. The stakes are not high enough for me to settle my mind. There’s doubt or desire or laziness. Meanwhile my investment in performance is great enough that I can always rouse my mindfulness and apply it exactly as needed. So why can’t I do this on the cushion, or, kind of more distressingly, in my relationships? How do we get the stakes high enough to stay mindful when we’re speaking to our mother, father, lover or friend? How can we drill the impermanence of all conditioned phenomena into our stubborn brains enough to realize, as the popular theater geek tee-shirt espouses, that life is NOT a dress rehearsal?