My confession for the day: I once used to say, “Being present is over-rated.” Surrounded by New Age acolytes who talked about being present and desperately trying never to leave their bodies, I took my oppositional defiance for a walk. Just to see what they would do. (They looked at me like I was crazy, not that THAT is anything new.) Now people seem to think I’m New Age because I play at Buddhism and yoga, because I teach actors to use themselves and release their inhibitions.
Oh, how everything I’ve ever said comes back to bite me.
I no longer think that presence is over-rated. I kind of think it’s GOD. I think that state of wide-awake aliveness calls to us all. I think joy lives there, along with deep sorrow, compassion, every living experience. Just don’t duck. Just don’t try not to feel what you feel. And if that is New Age, so be it.
What is presence? Sometimes called the “it” factor, sometimes being in flow, presence is the quality of aliveness we each possess fully when we live in the moment. Even when we don’t, we leave an imprint, but truly present people fill a space with their spirits, touching everyone in the room with who they are.
I once went to a Red Sox game in which David Ortiz hit a home run every time he came up to bat. I sat in the bleachers, and felt his ownership of the moment, his intense concentration, his absolute confidence. He was right THERE and nothing could get past him. After about 3 home runs they started to walk him when he came to the plate. Because presence is power.
Josh Pais, the creator of Committed Impulse, https://www.committedimpulse.com, teaches a practice for getting present–it is, basically (quoting), “Breathe. Feel your body. See the world around you. Say I’m back.” It is rooted in an understanding of mindfulness, the hot new thing that is thousands of years old. What people find is that when they are mindful–as in, noticing their moment-to-moment experience, slowing down enough to feel their bodies, being aware of what stimulates the senses and then what the senses experience–VOILA! They are present.
Mindfulness, ironically, involves awareness but not thinking. In fact, the mind simply directs traffic–awareness on moment-to-moment experience, which precludes having discussions with yourself about it, or drawing your awareness to your thoughts about what’s happening. Because guess what? The minute you start thinking, especially dialoguing with yourself, POOF! No more presence. (Hence Pais’ “I’m back” practice.)
Sanford Meisner made the other actors the focus of awareness in the beginning of training, and then later the act of doing and activities, and his quote is “Transfer the point of concentration to some object outside of yourself – another person, a puzzle, a broken plate that you are gluing.” But I like what Pais has added to this–the awareness of your own sensations. I think of it as an infinity loop–full awareness of without, a full, if background awareness, of your own field of sensation.
As I combine mindfulness, Josh Pais, Sanford Meisner, the friggin’ Buddha, yoga, authentic movement, weaving them together into a present and full-bodied expression for myself and, as much as possible, my students, I find that the deepest habits of mind are protective. Like, man, we just don’t think it’s all that safe to feel exactly what we feel. We’re scared. This is why acting IS courage–we have to just enter in and trust we’ll be fine not knowing and revealing and not knowing and revealing.
Here’s the secret: you can practice being present, practice the exercises that get you there. Because to be a present actor, for most of us and certainly for me, you have to be a present human.
Here’s my secret: when I did some of the sensation tracking exercises for the first, say 10 times, I cried my eyes out every time. And each time, after the release, I felt great, my acting work was completely free, and my days were full of gratitude and joy. So I’m signed on to be a present human as well as a present actor. I want that power and freedom.
It’s the only game in town.
Baseball. Or acting. Or walking the dog.
PS–I am a HUGE David Ortiz fan. I was wearing my shirt with his name on it just yesterday. But not on the streets of NYC.