Writing
Practice The Art Of Living
Who Do You Think You Are
It was a sunshiny Monday afternoon in the Sarasota airport as my family and I sat waiting for our flight back to Boston. We were coming off the perfect holiday week: 80 degree temps, connecting with friends and family and no bigger decision than yes or no to the second piece of key lime pie. This could last for a bit, I thought to myself. This feeling of being rested and restored could last… for…a bit…

Suddenly, the piece of metal vibrating in my palm jolted me out of my state of bliss. Email notification. Right. I'd gotten away from that ping, that alert, that distraction. Subject line: AUDITION THIS WEDNESDAY. The bliss state I had been floating in morphed into a state of panic that violently slammed me into a brick wall. Knots in my stomach. The rising up of tension. Sweat on the insides of my palms. I opened the email: "You have an appointment in NYC Wednesday at 11am with [insert big famous casting director] for a lead role in a new [insert big famous TV network] series." Seven pages of sides attached. Words, words, words…

I CAN'T BE IN NYC WEDNESDAY! I HAVE A VIDEO SHOOT IN BOSTON FOR AN ONLINE YOGA COMPANY THAT'S BEEN SET UP FOR MONTHS! I CAN'T LEARN ALL THESE LINES IN A DAY! I'M NEVER GOING TO GET A LEAD IN A SERIES ANYWAY! THIS WOULD BE A TOTAL WASTE OF EVERYONE'S TIME! I SHOULD JUST QUIT THE BUSINESS ONCE AND FOR ALL!

Stop. Step away from the ledge. Breathe. Take the action, let go of the result. Take the action, let go of the result. Take the action, let go of the result…Like a mantra, these words slowly replaced the yelling in my head as I tried to remind myself why I do what I do. And that I could stop doing it at any moment. I made the choice to become an actor. At any point I could make the choice to stop being one. But now was probably not the time to make that choice, from this state of frazzled nerves and bulging tear ducts. This was familiar territory I was flailing about in. The rant and panic are things I've wrestled with since I started acting twenty years ago. These thoughts and feelings were like close friends, the ones who visited frequently and stayed too long.

In the past, I would often become hijacked by this panicked state. I've made decisions and choices from this place of discomfort and insecurity and turned down great opportunities for fear of not having enough - enough experience, enough training, enough confidence.

In fact, it was the intensity and frequency of these episodes that sent me searching for more stable ground. Thus began my cycle of going to therapy, practicing yoga and reading every "How To Find Inner Peace" book I could get my hands on.

Over the years, I think the most valuable realization the physical practice of yoga has brought me to is that just because I think and feel something doesn't necessarily mean it's true. I may think my knee is stacked over my ankle but that may not actually be the case. I may think I can (or can't) do this pose or that, but that may, in fact, not be true.

Everyone loves a good story. The ones we seem particularly skilled at weaving are the ones we tell about ourselves. We go through life draping our insecurities in various layers of pretend so as not to strut and fret our way through the world naked and exposed.

"Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be." Even though Ophelia is thought to have lost her mind by the time she utters these words, perhaps she is, at this point in the play, with nothing left to lose, the most lucid character on stage.

We actually aren't our thoughts and feelings. We're much bigger than the stories we weave about ourselves. But discovering this doesn't necessarily prevent these mental and emotional outbursts from recurring. We realize that after years of going to therapy, practicing yoga and reading many "How To Find Inner Peace" books, our mind still struts and frets, desperate to convince us to believe the hype.

A woman recently asked me, "Who do you think you are?" The question sent me into a tailspin. Feelings of anxiety and panic rose to the surface (yeah, that again). The more I asked myself the question, the more I came up empty-handed. After some deep diving and late-night digging, I realized that one of the main reasons I had chosen the profession that I did was so that I would never have to answer that question. I didn't care to explore my own identity. I wanted to avoid being trapped by my own definition, or more importantly, by someone else's definition, of who I, or they, thought I was.

So why did I act as though I knew exactly who I was, and what I was or wasn't capable of? Why did I allow my fears and insecurities to dictate my actions, or worse, inaction?

Consider Pincha Mayurasana, forearm balance. This pose scares the crap out of me. Why? I have no idea. I have no fear of handstand, of back bending, of arm balancing but for some reason, every time I even think about doing forearm balance, the panic sets in.

After trying my hardest to avoid ever having to practice this pose again, I realized the thing that was holding me back wasn't just my fear of doing the pose but my deep need to actually get the pose right.

So I experimented with letting go of this need and focused instead on breaking down the pose into various actions. I would practice taking the action and letting go of the result, silencing Old Yeller in my head by giving my mind something more specific to focus on.

Now I can actually practice the pose. Does the panic still arise? Yes. Do I allow the panic to hijack the situation? No. Do I always get the pose? Sometimes. But not always.

And how about that audition? Did I take a pass? Did I quit the acting business once and for all? Did I shave my head and get a tattoo on my face? No. But I did think about it.

I realized that what I value most about this whole acting venture is building and nurturing relationships while practicing my craft every chance I get. This audition represented one of those chances. I had no excuse. I had to take it.

I decided to apply the same method to my audition opportunity as I had to forearm balance. I would take the action and let go of the result.

I had my audition moved to Friday. I learned those damn lines, all seven pages of monologue after monologue. I shot my yoga videos in Boston and then got myself to New York F@#$%&! City.

I woke up Friday morning with butterflies in my stomach. Panic immediately set in. Old Yeller returned, screaming at me in her high, shrill tones, "WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!"

I didn't know exactly. But I got dressed and did my hair and make-up anyway. I ran my lines over and over again on the train ride downtown. I walked into that [insert big famous casting director]'s office, grateful for having been invited.

While I waited for my name to be called, I reminded myself that I wasn't there to book a job. I was there to practice my craft and make a connection with another human being.

I heard my name being called. I walked my sweaty palms down the long, narrow hallway and into a tiny, brightly-lit room. I was met with a warm and friendly face, sitting behind the camera.

I sat in the chair opposite said face. I knew I needed to give my mind something to focus on to keep the panic at bay. So I pretended my skin was made of a fine wicking material as I summoned all my focus and energy, directing it away from me and onto that face. Line…by line…by line…

I didn't book the job. I'm sure [insert big famous actor] did. But I actually enjoyed myself. And I left there feeling like I had done something. And for now, that was enough.

On Impulse
As an actress, I've often been told to, "Follow that impulse!". Typically, the director's intention is to nudge me toward the enlightened path, towards that zone of uninhibited expression often sought by creatives. Some of the most exciting moments I've witnessed or experienced on stage have been ones that happened spontaneously, in that split second when the impulse was followed before the intellect had time to squash it. The result was often surprising and captivating. The impulse had escaped being dulled by the rational mind. Brilliance ensued!

Throughout my years as an actress, I've reinforced this practice of going with my gut. I developed a favorable bias toward first impressions. I formed a belief that bringing the intellect into decision making did nothing but cloud the process.

Because of my practice of yoga, however, I've become more aware that my impulsive style doesn't always serve me in life. Or those around me.

As an example, I have a 5 year old daughter. As anyone with kids can attest, one's patience is persistently tried while parenting. I've regularly caught myself at the mercy of an angry impulse and reflexively following that impulse out of habit. Every time I've indulged my impulse of anger, it has never ended well. I felt great in the moment - free, uninhibited, expressive - but the more I indulged the impulse the more I realized I was simply reinforcing a habit that wasn't serving me.

It's easy to believe that letting off steam does just that - empties the well of anger and prevents it from building up. On the contrary, indulging the angry impulse is akin to flaming the fire.

One of the reasons many of us turn to the practice of Yoga is to cultivate a greater awareness of our thoughts and feelings so that we may be more skillful in our actions.

Throughout my own practice, I've been curious about the principle of Brahmacharya.
Brahmacharya technically means self-restraint and, in the Sutras, is used in the context of celibacy. It breaks down as Brahma, the Sanskrit name of the Creative Force and Charya meaning observance or restraint.

As I think about practices that help me make more skillful choices in my life, I am starting to see the value of restraint. To that effect, I've been trying to practice how not to follow my impulses and to instead resist the urge to indulge them.

I'm constantly trying to find the union between acting and yoga. How can I be fully present and effective in each world without separating myself into parts?

I may have found the answer in the words of Patti Smith: "In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth."

The next time you feel a sudden impulse coming on, notice what happens if you refrain from following it. You may find the moments that follow are sweeter and ultimately more rewarding. You may feel a sense of balance and stealth. If you happen to be on stage, however, may you proceed with abandon.

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Naughty Or Nice
"You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not shout I'm telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town. He's making a list and checking it twice; gonna find out who's naughty or nice, Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good so be good for goodness sake! "

As my husband blared his favorite version of the song, he sang along to our 5 year old, pointing at her occasionally in that cool, Michael Buble kind of way. I quietly watched from the sidelines as our daughter's face morphed from delight to confusion to horror. "Not me, right?! I haven't been bad, right?!"
(cue mom from kitchen right as she lunges forward, shutting off the music, striking her best brooding-and-sightly-crazed Hamlet pose…)
"…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

Aye, there's the rub.

As Coots and Gillespie suggested, we're either naughty or nice, good or bad. And Santa, the omnipresent, all-knowing bearer or all things we wish for, will reward or punish us accordingly, so you better watch out. And whatever you do, don't cry.

As Shakespeare suggested, nothing has a preassigned or fixed goodness or badness. It's all in how we THINK about things. And we tend to think things are either good or bad.

Perhaps this is why the song became an instant hit when it was first played in 1934. It went on to become one of the biggest sellers in American history. Clearly people related to it. And maybe not just because it was a catchy tune.

I have never heard this song the way I did that morning. My protective mama bear instincts quickly rose to the surface as I responded to my daughter's plea, "No, no, not you, you're not bad!" (I didn't, in fact, jump into my best Hamlet, though in hindsight, I wish I had.)

What are we teaching our children, I've since thought to myself. But more importantly, do I hold these beliefs to be true? Do I deem something to be either good or bad as a way to determine how I'm going to respond to it?

Yes and yes.

Our tendency to label things is just one more way we strive to keep our minds and hearts safe from discomfort. If I know something is "bad" then I know I need to avoid it. If I've decided something is "good", it's worth pursuing and I should benefit from doing so.

This way of thinking perpetuates our compulsion to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Our compulsions, left unchecked, can turn into addictions. In an effort to avoid pain we continuously seek pleasure, whether to cover the pain or to make the pain more endurable. Often what we're left with, once the pleasure wears off, is a pain that is deeper than the one we started with. In an effort to make that pain go away, we repeat the cycle. Over and over and over again. Until we've solidified a habit.

But pain, as my PT assures me, is subjective. Or, as the famed Dr. Sarno claimed, is all in our heads.
If this is true, then Shakespeare was right. It's our thinking that gets us into trouble, in this case thinking something is either good or bad.

Whether subjective or not, we've all experienced pain, physical and psychological. What are we to do with it? What if we were satisfied with thinking that things just are?

In my meditation practice, I've been experimenting with the mantra "I am". The full yogic mantra is "so hum", so meaning "I am" and hum meaning "that". I find the truncated version more useful, allowing me to sit with no qualifier. I just AM.

My experiment is showing me just how disconcerting it is to sit with the idea that, "I am" rather than, "I am such-and-such."

But if I can practice just that, being with whatever is, thinking it neither good nor bad, what I'm left with is a truer experience of myself and the world around me. Because, for goodness sake, "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."
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