Mindfulness Meditation: To Be or Not to Be
What if I told you that it was possible to develop skills—for free—that could help you manage feelings of stress and difficulty with a sense of ease? I’m talking about the ones that actors are particularly prone to on a daily basis; like horrific auditions, agents who drop you or parts lost to fellow thespians? Sounds too good to be true, right? Wrong, believe it. It’s called mindfulness meditation, and it has scientific research to back up its efficacy.
The kind of meditation I’m talking about is extremely simple and doesn’t require an excursion to a mountaintop to contemplate your existence. It simply asks that you sit still, in a comfortable position, and focus your attention on inhaling and exhaling for ten or more minutes. That’s it. This simple task has been proven to have big effects on the brain and how you feel. If I didn’t personally experience the benefits of mindfulness, I would have some doubts. But, I’ve seen how the practice of mindfulness meditation has helped people, especially actors, to meet life’s challenges with equanimity and balance.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, a technology that monitors brain activity, on a handful of volunteers who meditated for an extended period of time. While studying the results, the researchers found that meditation activates sections of the brain in charge of the autonomic nervous system. This is also the area that governs the functions in our bodies we can’t control, like digestion and blood pressure. These are also the functions often compromised by stress. It makes sense, then, that modulating these functions would help to ward off stress-related conditions such as heart disease, digestive problems and even infertility.
Most actors live their lives in survival mode; they often don’t know when their next job will be booked, how bills will be paid, and whether or not they will be able to ace their next audition. The profession is riddled with stress. Operating under this kind of pressure has a negative impact on the body because it activates the “fight or flight response.” More specifically, this is the reaction one has when they tend to perceive everything in their environment as a possible threat to their survival. The result is chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream. This causes a number of dramatic changes in your body. There is an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. This state of alert bypasses our calm, rational mind–where our more well-thought-out beliefs exist–and moves us into “attack” mode. When fear is in the forefront, it exaggerates our view of the world and distorts our thinking. We can start to overreact to the slightest comment. For example, you may say things to yourself like: “That casting director doesn’t like me;” “My agent thinks I’m not talented enough;” “Based on my last audition, I will never work again.” This built-in survival mode is great when you are face-to-face with a Bengal tiger in the jungle, but it works against you in your daily life. You can begin to see how impossible it is to make good choices with positive long-term effects when you are stuck in short-term crisis mode. You just live from crisis to crisis with no relief in sight. When life overwhelms you with excessive stress, you lose the ability to relax and be present.
You can’t control the outside events, but you can control how you choose to handle them. Take a moment and think about how you presently handle your stress. Are you running, denying, covering up, or distancing from difficulties? If you are, there is a better way. Practicing mindfulness, even for just a few weeks, can bring a variety of physical, psychological, and social benefits. Here are some of these benefits:
- Mindfulness is good for our bodies: A seminal study found that, after just eight weeks of training, practicing mindfulness meditation boosts our immune system’s ability to fight off illness.
- Mindfulness is good for our minds: Several studies have found that mindfulness increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress. Indeed, at least one study suggests it may be as good as antidepressants in fighting depression and preventing relapse.
- Mindfulness changes our brains: Research has found that it increases density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy.
- Mindfulness helps us focus: Studies suggest that mindfulness helps us tune out distractions and improves our memory and attention skills.
- Mindfulness fosters compassion and altruism: Research suggests mindfulness training makes us more likely to help someone in need and increases activity in neural networks involved in understanding the suffering of others and regulating emotions. Evidence suggests it might boost self-compassion as well.
- Mindfulness enhances relationships: Research suggests mindfulness training makes couples more satisfied with their relationship, makes each partner feel more optimistic and relaxed, and makes them feel more accepting of and closer to one another.
For more on the science of meditation, view this video by neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson.
Because acting is an extremely stressful profession, actors must develop skills to manage their stress to maintain optimal mental and physical health. I have found, in my psychotherapy practice, that those patients who incorporate mindfulness into their lives become more self-reflective, handle everyday stress better and feel more connected to the people in their lives.
Mindful Magazine recently interviewed actress, Sandra Oh on how she started meditating and how it helped her to handle the stress of being an actress. Here is an excerpt from the interview:
Has mindfulness had any effects on your work as an actor?
“Deeply. Mindfulness and creativity go hand in hand. Around 2006, I simultaneously found my acting teacher (Kim Gillingham) and started doing some meditation, and I discovered that they sort of lived together in the same space. Being present is the actor’s job. Being aware of your body, in space, and the emotions that are occurring inside, is essential. Well, quite simply, the more aware one is—of yourself, of your surroundings, of other people—the more likely you are to respond truthfully.
How has it benefitted you?
”It has helped me through some very difficult times in my life and increased the joy of living. It helps me deal with stress—and there’s plenty of that to go around. It helps me to focus, and it helps me to have creative breakthroughs. Doing meditation practice has also challenged me to become a better person, to broaden my mind and remain curious. It’s a slow process, though, a gradual, organic process. It’s not like you sit for 20 minutes and suddenly your life is peaceful. But you can find ways to deal with life better as you learn how to sit and just be there on the cushion with your mind and your surroundings.
To view the full article, click here.
So with all the wonderful benefits of mindful meditation, why aren’t more people taking up the practice? Probably because people often want to fix rather than accept the way things are. Mindfulness involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. Lots of people don’t know how to find strength in the truth of what they are feeling. Meditation helps you to not run away from what is present, but rather to sit with it and grow stronger from it. To try a free guided meditation click here.
To try a free guided meditation click here.
For those actors on the East Coast, I will be teaching a one hour workshop at the Actor’s Pro Expo, April 26th entitled, “How To Create Unshakable Confidence Through Groundbreaking Neuroscience and Mindful Meditation.” This workshop is designed to help actors develop the necessary tools to successfully navigate through the day-to-day challenges of their profession. Participants will learn how to take obstacles and turn them into opportunities of personal growth.
Bonnie Katz, MFT is a licensed therapist in private practice. Her goal as a therapist is to help clients reach “optimal mental wellness,” so that they can feel happiness, fulfillment and joy in their everyday lives. For more information on Bonnie’s therapy practice, visit her website.
The Conscious Actor Inspiration Journal helps actors develop awareness of what inspires them. Beautiful pages filled with inspirational quotes help keep you strong minded. For New York actors, the journal is available at Drama Book Shop. Los Angeles actors may pick up the journal at Samuel French.
Conscious Actor articles are not a substitution for professional psychotherapy.