How Acting Classes are Helping me Heal and Find Peace
And how they can help you too - Lessons from my favourite turtle and inner peace's greatest advocate, Master Oogway.
To set the tone of this piece, I wish to steal a moment of your time. Indulge with me in the meditative mantra of "inner peace", spoken by Oogway the turtle.
Ah yes. No peace of modern cinematography better encapsulates the perils of finding your inner peace. You hum a chosen mantra, feel your legs grow light, energy pools in the pit of your stomach and by jingo you've done it.
And then a single cherry-blossom tumbles from the sky and finds refuge in your nose.
It's the story of my life, and one I shall recount to you now;
I lost my inner peace in 2013 when I dated a man with the reactivity of a stagnant pond. A murmur of dissent was a smooth rock skimming across the surface, causing ripples, resulting in irreparable damage to the ecosystem. I learned that I'd rather be silent than deal with his emotional hurricanes, so I made my voice as delicate as a wish upon a dandelion. I did this for so long that I forgot what it was to speak. Simple question like "how was your day?" had me choking on my answer, pushed down my throat with thoughts of "they probably don't want to know". So I stopped talking. And as a result I stopped creating, and I stopped feeling.
I have a lot to amend for in those years were I lived in apathy, but that's a project for another time. For now I'm very happy to say that I got my voice back. In early 2020 I felt a tug from the forgotten parts of me; my body was ready to feel again and so I nurtured that feeling by pursing things I'd always wanted to try, but had never had the time to do. The one unexpected hobby that changed my life for the better and helped me reconnect with my authentic self was acting.
Why it changed my life
One word... Metacognition.
It's the innate human ability to self-reflect, problem solve, and the thing that gives us conscious control over our thoughts (Martinez, 2006). Sounds pretty nifty, right?
Wrong. Metacognition is the Devil.
At it's finest, metacognition gives us the ability to become the best versions of ourselves. It allows us to introspect and to finetune our strengths and weaknesses. But metacognition is also what allows us to live in our heads - thus - it has the capacity to increase anxiety, obsessive thinking, and sap us of our ability to simply exist.
Learning to act requires you to completely dismantle the structures built in your brain by the metacognitive loop. You have to unlearn the skills you acquired that helped you become a successful adult, such as double-checking tasks, anticipating outcomes, and even traits that might have kept you alive, like self-doubt and inhibition. In it's place you have to restore your sense of childlike wonder that once allowed you to see the world as a place filled with curiosities.
Six months into acting classes and I am by no means a Sage but I have had tremendous success at rewiring my brain to accommodate creativity and wild-thoughts, both of which lead to a more sincere and interesting performance. To explore why acting classes have helped me on my journey to finding inner peace, I will share with you the key players that helped me along the way.
Yoga, Meditation, and Mindfulness
Something I never thought I would do, but here we are, sitting in a lotus pose, fingertips pinching air, mantras fluttering from my throat like butterfly kisses.
Twenty-four year old me is turning in her grave of unread research papers as she procrastinates her final assessment pieces, declaring that yoga and mediation are 'boring' and that she would rather lay in bed and stare at the ceiling. Twenty-four year old me was wrong, and I'm here to tell you why;
- Yogi’s can enjoy the fruits of their labour in the form of more positive moods, self-compassion, and a central (Riley & Park, 2015) and peripheral (Pascoe & Bauer, 2015) nervous system better equipped with responding to stress. Yoga has also been shown to be an effective tool for decreasing anxiety, especially when used in conjunction with other treatments (Nanthakumar, 2020).
- Yoga’s pretty cool, but meditation is where the magic’s at. As it turns out, practicing meditation makes you a wizard. Studies show that meditation can make your brain less susceptible to logical fallacies (Hafenbrack et al., 2013) and can increase memory, flexible thinking, and self-control (Helber et al., 2012).
It goes without saying that acting in front of a group of people can really get the heart-rate going, and don't even get me started on that negative-self-talk. So you can see why the benefits of yoga go hand-in-hand with a good performance. While yoga might help you control your physiological response to stress, meditation primes your thinking to reach higher levels of creativity and excellence. You can draw on old memories to inform your performance, improvise on the spot, and make purposeful decisions about your movements, all of which will make your performance more nuanced.
When you have a poor work ethic you spend a lot of time stressing about your poor work ethic. And when you spend a lot of time stressing about your poor work ethic, you a wasting valuable time that could be used for developing a better work ethic. Do you see the problem here?
One might think that spending seven years at university was enough to teach me a good work ethic. One would be wrong.
"This isn't an assignment you can do the night before"
was my personal call of arms to do exactly that. I never once failed an assignment, so I learned that this was an appropriate way to meet deadlines.
Turns out portraying the complexity of the human condition is a little more complicated than that. You can't do it through logic alone. To understand a piece of work is to deconstruct it it's very core; you must understand the time period, the emotional context, the relationships between every character, and this can't be done without allowing yourself the time to mull over your thoughts and discoveries.
Once these things have been properly considered your findings will converge into your own personal army of advisers that will inform everything from the quirk of your brow to the lilt in your voice. If you don't understand these things your performance will fall flat, and what better incentive than public shaming to encourage an acceptable work ethic?
Memories and Reflection
Analysing a piece of text is a meditative experience. One of the most enjoyable aspects of learning a scene is realising that the human condition is something we all share, so you can always find yourself in another persons work. This might be as simple as the word umbrella popping onto a page and reminding you of a sun-shower you once danced in, or as obvious as a scene perfectly mirroring your current life circumstances.
Sometimes we are lucky to read a piece of text that triggers the recollection of what was once a forgotten memory. And when you're analysing a piece of text to adapt into a performance, you have to actively search for this event on a regular basis.
Playing a scene requires you to draw on your own experiences and use them to deliver a performance with truth. I spent so long fashioning myself to the ideal image of partners and 'friends' that I forgot the reality of who I truly was, so no matter how I tried I was unable to deliver something that appeared authentic. Having a reason to explore old memories had me finding pieces of myself that I forgot existed. It was like roaming a fun-house, and each warped mirror presented a version of me that I was more than happy to make room for.
Creativity and Play
Human psychology says that we begin to consciously mould our identities around the age of eleven. While this can be important for developing a stable sense of self, it can also limit us to acting within the parameters of how we wish to be perceived. When we wish to be accepted by our peers, we mimic what is perceived as likeable, and we begin to wear masks over our true faces. This can lead to a number mental disorders associated with perfectionism, including OCD (Bouchard et al., 1999), and eating disorders (Dahlenburg et al., 2019).
Acting teaches you an incredibly liberating lesson; don't fit in.
We have a tendency to spend so much time trying to behave like everyone else that we forget that normal is not actually what people want to see. People aren't drawn to the mundane; they're drawn to the person in the room who laughs the loudest the one with enough confidence to dress out-of-fashion; the story-tellers, and the tricksters. Once you let go of your desire to live within a perfectly constructed image you gain the ability to live in a creative space, prepared for playful interactions and fun. And once you do, you'll be amazed by the kind of people you attract into your sphere.
I know that the process of rediscovering oneself, exploring old memories, and recovering from past hurts can be an incredibly daunting and difficult experience, but it is also infinitely rewarding, possible, and frankly... essential.
While it is true that I was unfortunate enough to become involved with a man who had the emotionality of a hurricane, it is also true that in time I became the natural disaster in his life. After many years of people pleasing to keep him appeased, my authentic self could no longer handle being kept under-water, so it broke through the surface like a growing tsunami, and left absolute devastation it's wake...
But that's not the story I want to tell today. Instead, I'm going to share something that leaves me with a smile.
Before I became a vessel for other people’s wants and whims, the trait that I most valued in myself was humour. I had always been free with a smile or a laugh, but during the years in which I struggled with apathy those responses were merely the result of social expectations; I plastered them on my face as an expert pantomime in people pleasing.
On a boring and warm Autumn day...
Yet, in brief moments of euphoria that mask would slip away, and I’d be exposed with nothing but my authentic self, which almost always came in the form of a full-bodied and unrelenting laugh. Which brings me to the reason why this piece on authenticity and healing teeters on the teachings of an animated turtle... I’ve always had a habit of laughing too loud and for too long at funny movies. A problem that is further exacerbated by the presence of my eldest brother, who finds himself in fits of giggles long after the joke has passed. At home, this isn’t issue. But in the cinema…
now that’s another story.
It had been years since my brother and I had lived in the same household, and I’d already started on my descent into apathy by the time he moved in with me in 2016. Our fits of laughter were – at this point – an old memory from childhood and not something that happened in our adult lives. One day, during a particularly boring and warm autumn, we left our tiny apartment in search of something fun to do. We found the local cinema, and when nothing in particular piqued our interest, we reluctantly decided on a movie that we both expected to be mediocre; Kung Fu Panda 3.
We bought our popcorn, found seats in the back row, and sat through the trailers.
The movie opened with a cute animation of Po running up a mountain to sit upon the DreamWorks Moon, which was met with appreciative chuckles from the other patrons. It was a fine and peaceful minute and a half - but unfortunately it was the only peaceful moment the other patrons would get for the rest of the movie. At the one minute and 35 second mark a single cherry blossom landed atop Oogway’s nose. Having it distract him from his meditation, he blew it to the sky, only to have it sucked back down as he took in a deep inhale, causing him to breath it in, choke it down, cough it back out, then calmly continue his meditation as if nothing had happened.
Taken aback by the absurdity of it, my brother and I doubled-down in a fit of uncontrollable laughter, which – to the annoyance of the surrounding patrons – was only able to be held in for minutes at a time before it took us over again, causing us to snort, wheeze, and tack the laughter onto the backs of other scenes in a way to try to keep it subdued. We simply couldn’t hold it in, no matter how hard we tried. It served as such a fond memory that Oogway’s face – caught mid sneeze – was my Facebook profile picture for almost a year before I replaced it with a candid shot of myself.
It’s simple moments like my day at the cinema that remind me that no matter how hard one might try to subdue it, the authentic self will always be ready bubble to the surface in unexpected and uncontrollable ways.
If you aren’t fostering a healthy sense of self, this eruption can be hurtful. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Your authentic self can appear as benign as a fit of uncontrollable giggles, or as powerful as a well-delivered performance. Whatever form your authentic self takes, it’s important to remember that authenticity is not only the best gift that you can give to others, but also the best gift you can give to yourself.
So whatever it is that you have discarded in favour of curating a 'productive life' - whether that be your dreams to be a writer, a dancer, or even a neuroscientist, I encourage you to blow the dust off of those figurative dancing shoes, and consider it one more time.
Bouchard, C., Rhéaume, J., & Ladouceur, R. (1999). Responsibility and perfectionism in OCD: An experimental study. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 37(3), 239-248. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0005-7967(98)00141-7
Dahlenburg, S. C., Gleaves, D. H., & Hutchinson, A. D. (2019). Anorexia nervosa and perfectionism: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 52(3), 219-229. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23009
Hafenbrack, A., Kinias, Z., & Barsade, S. (2013). Debiasing the mind through meditation: Mindfulness and the sunk cost bias. Academy of Management Proceedings, 2013(1), 11582. https://doi.org/10.5465/ambpp.2013.11582abstract
Helber, C., Zook, N. A., & Immergut, M. (2012). Meditation in higher education: Does it enhance cognition? Innovative Higher Education, 37(5), 349-358. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10755-012-9217-0
Martinez, M. E. (2006). What is metacognition. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(9), 696-699. https://doi.org/10.1177/003172170608700916
Nanthakumar, C. (2020). Yoga for anxiety and depression – a literature review. The Journal of Mental Health Training, Education and Practice, 15(3), 157-169. https://doi.org/10.1108/jmhtep-09-2019-0050
Pascoe, M. C., & Bauer, I. E. (2015). A systematic review of randomised control trials on the effects of yoga on stress measures and mood. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 68, 270-282. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.07.013
Riley, K. E., & Park, C. L. (2015). How does yoga reduce stress? A systematic review of mechanisms of change and guide to future inquiry. Health Psychology Review, 9(3), 379-396. https://doi.org/10.1080/17437199.2014.981778