WHEN WE CAN’T BE OPEN
Finding happiness as an actor and, for that matter in the world seems at times to be about being open to the possibilities. Possibilities of success, connections and jobs, recognition and gain, love and friends. All these sound so nice but let’s face it: when life gets in the way – and it does – some of us know a lot more about shifting around or even shutting down than opening up. Things don’t always go our way in life, even when we try our best to make things work. When we reach our limit, suddenly, all these wonderful possibilities seem out the window and we may find ourselves frustrated or hopeless. After we have exhausted ourselves being angry at people and situations for not going along with what we want, we may wonder, what is really going wrong here? We could learn what is going on beneath the surface and start to genuinely manage our experience. Doing this can be a way to great possibilities, but openness in this case means you are called upon to give up things. Things like your ideas about how things should go and being in control of the situation at all. This scary and unrealistic proposition could drive us to wonder what will happen to me if I give up what I want? An important clue in answering this question is, if what I’m doing now isn’t satisfying, what else is there?
Let’s use an example. I am standing in the audition room with the director and a few producers. I’m in front of the camera going through my scene with my reader who is off-camera. Everyone is watching me be on the spot. I perform the part of the exasperated wife, expressing emotion and such but there is a lot going on beneath the surface:
I wish I wasn’t nervous. Why is this happening right now? Gawd I can’t get rid of it, I hope I don’t lose confidence. I’m an experienced actor, I should be over this! Could I have prepared more? Am I screwing up? I hope they don’t notice.
The experience I want to be having and the one I’m actually having aren’t the same. As I’m auditioning, I’m busy talking to myself about the audition rather than living in the scene. Let’s face it; my desire to do well is dominating my experience. I want to be liked, to not screw up and I am busy talking to myself about it. My anxiety is completely running the show so it may come as no surprise that the director can’t see the scene at all but can tell I’m nervous and holding back. He couldn’t see my character because I was living in another moment. What is really going on for me is scary which is probably why I’m obsessing over it. So here is the opportunity to “open.” I can work with the real moment: my anxiety.
WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON
It may seem that opening to this level of anxiety seems impossible, but being true to the moment means I don’t get to pick what is going on. What we call “the moment” is what is always going on, whether I like it or not. In Meisner class we train in being “unconditionally” true to what is going on. We pay attention to the breath because it helps us pick up on what is happening in the body. My experience breathing tells me what is going on: I feel anxiety tense me up and I see that I start to spin off in my head:
I hope I don’t lose confidence, what if I drop I line? Crap! Wait… breathe. All I do right now is just breathe. … (Inhale…) (Exhale…)
As soon as I start talking to myself about what it means, I come back to the breath. I notice how I’m feeling, breathing and relaxing all the while:
(Inhale…) My heart is pounding and I am feeling hot and jittery. (Exhale…) I am completely freaking out and nervous. Breathe. (Inhale…) …. Let go… (Exhale…) I feel scared, I feel tense. Breathe… (Inhale…) …. Relax… (Exhale…)
I’m no longer wishing to feel something else: I just relax, let go and just feel it, feeling it all the way. I may not like what I feel, but I don’t bail on it by going into my head and talking to myself. Instead, I come back to just breathing and paying attention to what is happening until my relaxation and acceptance start to take over. Over time, this creates space to remove the pressure altogether. I feel I can face the truth, which allows me to stop manufacturing another reality. I regain confidence then.
GETTING BACK ON MY FEET
Because I am totally tuned in and letting things happen, I am working at 100%. What’s happening in the room and in my body are connected to my breathing, which means I now feel in control. Whatever will happen from here continues to be about breathing and noticing. Since this won’t change and I am already doing it, I feel confident to speak and move without restraint:
I’m so angry at my husband! I feel so hurt and shocked. How could he do this to me?
Regardless of whether I have “achieved openness” or become totally relaxed, I totally lean on my present moment experience to live out of my character. I may still feel anxious, but giving myself the space to notice gives me confidence. I could actually truthfully live out the experience of the exasperated wife from here.
On a basic level, this “coming back to the breath” is the beginning, middle and end of the entire process of opening. In… and out …. over and over and over until the entire audition is done. It’s like riding waves: we breathe to be present, to stay in the boat. The waves are what they are, regardless of how we feel about them. Some are really rough and scary, and some are so gentle we don’t notice them. Even if we get knocked out of the boat, we climb back in. We keep breathing and letting go, riding the waves because this helps us enjoy the trip much more. We can even practice breathing as we leave the audition lobby, on the drive home and when on the phone with our friend that night. We never have to stop staying with our breath.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Such a simple act as breathing seems almost too simple. We don’t totally trust that it can work. We would like to add things on top. We need action and results. We actually like telling ourselves how to feel because we want to feel better so we can get on with the audition and stop all this “noticing” and “breathing.” We rely on the chance that things will fit our expectations, hoping and fearing. Rather than rely on our innate ability to handle things, we set ourselves up for the cycle of gain and loss all over again. When the betrayal of our expectations becomes too much, we always have now. Our negative emotions don’t actually become resolved one day, liberating us from the practice altogether. In fact, these emotions are still the best places to practice breathing and relaxing. We can’t control the waves, but we could make it our business to practice riding in the boat.
It could be said that all you get in life is just the practice of opening up. Within the joy, love, success and celebration comes the constant cycle of life. Gaining the confidence that you can manage your problems completely, especially when the things we love don’t stay, is itself an attainment. We could keep practicing. As we practice breathing, we replace the anxiety experience with the experience of being totally present and relaxed with whatever is here. Being present becomes the basic joyful, open ground on which we can live.
OPENING TO THE POSSIBILITIES
If life and acting are just a practice, what about all those great possibilities of attaining happiness and success? Do we ever get there? Will I ever be happy? The moment you stop telling yourself how to attain success is the moment you start to trust that you can attain it.
There is no substitute for developing confidence and trusting that you can manage whatever comes your way. We can give up the sorry scheme of telling ourselves to feel confident when we are actually falling apart inside. By completely giving up talking to ourselves about how things should be, we can be much gentler and stronger. We can practice breathing and letting go. This is especially true when we lose footing again. Whether the director casts me in the part or not shouldn’t determine whether I practice working with my fears. No one said it was painless or easy to encounter our problems, which is why we often do our best to avoid it at all costs. By engaging totally in the encounter with the obstacle itself when it arises and not abandoning ourselves when things get hard, we become happy that we can do it. We appreciate life and see it for what it is: a series of ups and downs. We can move confidently forward and take the chances we want to take. In this way, we could rely on our real, ordinary experiences – just as they are – to carry us to much bigger things.