Everyday we tell stories. Be it on stage, on set, in rehearsal, to our friends, our children. Of all the stories though, the most compelling, are those we tell ourselves. You know the ones - where we’re the superhero fighting crime, the star of our own critically acclaimed West End show or humbly accepting our Olivier. But there are also the other stories. Where we’re not good enough, not tall enough, not pretty enough, don’t earn enough, aren’t [fill in the blank] enough.
We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world. But the problems start when we start believing these stories as capital-T “Truth” and start accepting the thoughts and feelings they evoke as facts.
As creatives, it’s all too easy to buy into these stories, to believe them; because after all it’s our job to do so, and the more convincingly we can do it the seemingly better we will be. Our imaginations can be our greatest asset and our biggest weakness. They are what allow us to imagine what it’s like to be an alien, to be a member of an Elizabethan court or what it’s like to lose a parent, lover, child.
But when lost in the excitement, how can we see ourselves and the world around us objectively? To appreciate the present moment? To be creative in such a practical, demanding, fast-paced society?
We must practice seeing ourselves with a little distance, training our ability to detach from our thoughts and building our awareness in whether these stories serve us, or not.
One way to do this is through mindfulness. That word seems to get bandied about nowadays but it is simply the process of bringing one's attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, and coming back when you realise you’ve become distracted or lost in thought.
Mindfulness is not a ‘think positive’ or ‘keep calm and carry on’ mindset. It teaches us to accept our thoughts and feelings for what they are rather than continually grasping for positive ones and avoiding negative ones. When we avoid or run away from them, we only make them stronger. When we show up to them, we diffuse their power over us. Much like how the Wizard of Oz seems all scary and powerful until Toto pulls back the curtain and reveals him for what he really is.
Before beginning any kind of introspection or meditative practice, we’re mostly just lost in thought and acting on whatever particular pattern of thought or emotion are there. But with mindfulness we begin to see the difference between being lost in a thought pattern and being mindful that the thought or emotion are present. Once we are aware, we can then ask ourselves, do I want to build on this, to feed it, or do I want to let it go?
Now imagine how incredibly useful these applications can be in acting. For instance, rather than seeing casting directors, agents, producers as almighty and powerful, what if we can see them for what they really are? Just another human, with thoughts, fears, hopes and desires. If we can do that, we can see them as creative equals and connect with them as such.
Or if we fluff a line, rather than getting caught in self-flagellation, beating ourselves up for not having learnt the lines well enough and equally castigating the casting director for sending it to you at 6pm the previous night, you can instead let it go and tune back in to your scene partner. Or simply ask for the line with no sense of threat to your identity, audition or career.
Mindfulness also gives you a clarity of action. To know the difference the things you can and can’t control. You didn’t get the job, that isn’t up to you. But the decision to keep going to acting class? That is.
So rather than paying no attention to that man behind the curtain, with mindfulness we are training ourselves to keep pulling the curtain back, to keep revealing the truth behind our stories. And as we practice, even though it feels like we are making no progress at all, we are turning new behaviours into habits, so learning is happening all the while. And if you do it regularly enough, cycling through being aware, losing focus and hauling yourself back, it's like how your body does bicep curls at the gym.
Mindfulness won’t cure all your problems but it will hopefully teach you the courage to accept what is rather than what you want it to/could/should be. To gain a more objective perspective from which to take action and to build resiliency in spite of set-backs.
So ask yourself, is the story you are telling yourself serving you? Or are you serving the story?
Tips to cultivate mindfulness:
Keep a journal - writing down your story gets it off your mind and on to the page. I would suggest doing this with pen and paper as it helps to slow down your thoughts, but go with whatever works for you. Once it’s on the page, re-read it to gain a little distance and perspective. Through the process of writing and reviewing we can start to notice patterns in our behaviours and thoughts; which in turn can help us to rewrite our lives by showing us where we need to take action. Read more about this here.
Start a mediation practice - no it doesn’t mean you have to see cross legged in the lotus position. Meditation can be as simple as focusing on what you can hear, see, smell, taste, feel. But the idea is to do so deliberately and proactively for a set period of time, say 5 mins. Like physical exercise, frequency is much more important than quantity. There are numerous websites, podcasts and apps out there to help you do this, my personal favourite being 10% Happier.
Create distance - a simple exercise is to try considering you problem from the perspective of someone else: your doctor, a child, or even your dog. It may seem a little absurd to do this, but not nearly as absurd as your dog thinks you are for screaming at your phone because it didn’t load something fast enough. We do this all the time for when we give our friends advice, we can see their problems as clear as day because we’re not the ones at the centre of them.
Tom is is a recent graduate of Arts Educational Schools. He works as an actor, writer and leads mindfulness workshops through The Mono Box. Outside of that he can be found with his nose in a book, at the cinema or losing his balance in ballet class.