How Acting & Teaching Body Language Give Me a Unique Perspective as a Mindfulness Teacher
I was recently asked how my approach to teaching mindfulness is unique. The following is what I wrote in response:
How I typically respond when asked what makes my teaching unique – is that I have expertise in 3 areas of experience that gives me a perspective unlike any other mindfulness teacher I’ve ever met. I have spent almost 40 years as a professional working (classically trained) actress, 30 years as an acting teacher, 15 years as a film directing coach (teaching directors how to get good performances from actors), and 21+ years as a mindfulness meditation teacher (where I’ve also had the opportunity to work with researchers.) I also teach body language and expressive movement.
I teach actors how to create the suffering that meditators are usually trying to get rid of (or dismantle.) I know all the working parts of what creates a “suffering self” very well. (And, by the way, the parts you put together to create a character for acting are not the same parts you pull apart with mindfulness to create a liberated “self.” Or, rather, you view the components quite differently for each process.)
Where I grew up there were some boys (and men) who really enjoyed taking cars apart and putting them together again.
This usually had nothing to do with the car having a problem, they just liked doing it. If I’d ask them why they did it, they’d usually respond that – by doing it, they really got to “know” that car. I remember thinking that was an odd thing to want to do for no reason, but if I ever had anything wrong with my car – I wanted one of those boys around. You would, too.
Well, I think of myself as a “car guy” for the “sense of self” – and that I have become pretty handy to have around when you want to shift, create, or dismantle the component parts of that sense of self – especially the sense of a “suffering self.”
There are some core themes involved with this – like, for example, when helping an actor create a character who has a problem (which pertains to all characters in drama or comedy – i.e. we are always watching the character on the day that everything went wrong to see how they deal with it – not on the day that everything was normal and fine) – I am always having them delve into CONTENT: What is the circumstance? What is the history? What are the relationships? What does the character want? How do they try to get it? What is the conflict? What’s happening physically? What’s the story?
When helping people dismantle their suffering, we leave content by the side of the road and instead focus on arising & passing of sensory experience – and CONTOUR: What part of the experience is visual? Auditory? Somatic? Where is the sensation? What is the quality of it? Where are the boundaries? Does it move or change? Then, the exact same sensory experience that might have created suffering, can now move towards being a pleasant massage.
Both processes – that of creating suffering and that of dismantling suffer – also involve LETTING GO. The meditator must let go of the habit of always noticing (and even identifying with) content or meaning. The actor must let go of habitual tensions and emotional patterns that restrict their ability to embody the thoughts, feelings & movements of the character they are playing.
The other significant area in which I have expertise that plays a big role in my teaching – and has been pivotal to me as an actress and an acting teacher – is that of PHYSICALITY and being embodied. As an actor, I had to totally change how I held my body, how I moved it, and how I took care of it – to be able to play roles quite different from my physically tight WASPY upbringing.
I needed to play characters who had the physical power of men, or the sensuality of a big cat, or the vulnerability of a delicate child – and none of those would have been accessible to me without breaking through my physical and emotional habit patterns. I learned, through experience, that one’s “sense of self” – as well as one’s health and happiness – can all be so so strongly affected by the care and movement of the body.
In my teaching of body language, I found that this physical adjustment was especially helpful for creativity, productivity and clarity. The tension most people carry in their shoulders, neck and jaw can stifle thoughts and create emotions like anxiety or anger. So just releasing the jaw, for example, could help promote creative thinking and the ability to breathe more deeply (leading to a deeper relaxation.)
It is rare for a meditation teacher to have the years of movement and body healing work & study that I have (in various modalities – including Alexander Technique, Body-Mind Centering, Linklater Voice, Continuum Movement, and Feldenkrais) – much less the practical application of body language as an actress. At UCLArts & Healing, I have taught a very popular class called Shifting Positions to Shift Perceptions: How Your Body Language Affects How You Think and Feel. When giving public talks or presentations, I will often demo – and have the audience try – different body positions and movements to see how they feel – as much as what they communicate. Everyone is always amazed at how a simple shift in physicality can affect well-being so quickly.
One example I like to give is that it is much harder to be depressed when the body is aligned and the shoulders are resting back and down – with the chest open. (And, yes, it is easier to become depressed when the shoulders are rounded forward and the chest is collapsed.) The “tail” can indeed “wag the dog.”
I have found this information and experience to be invaluable in helping people become more mindfully embodied – whether as actors or meditators.
So, in a nutshell, I believe that my experience and expertise with acting and helping actors examine and experience all the layers of our moment by moment experience – along with my years of work with the presence, release and movement of the body which affects one’s relationship to self & world – and, of course, my years of closely training with and teaching for Shinzen Young and his Unified Mindfulness system that brings unparalleled clarity to our sensory experience – all help give me a unique and special perspective on this process of transformation, growth, and evolving into a more liberated experience. And I am always grateful for the opportunity to support this core process in those I work with.