Breathing In Summer
By Nancy Houfek
Stop. Right now. Drop your shoulders. Drop them again — they will let go even more. Lengthen the back of your neck. Let your jaw release and your mouth hang open. Uncross your legs. Let your belly release. Let your body sink into your chair. Let your lungs fill with air. What do you feel? What do you hear? What do you sense?
Even on my most relaxed summer days, I find it easy to stay braced against the world. My mind is whirling with things to do, ideas to examine, words, words, words. Do I stop to breathe the world in? Can I see and hear and smell and taste and touch the beauty of each day? Can I experience my non-words self? Can I fully experience others?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the essence of theater training and how to incorporate it into helping people exercise leadership. Theater training for leadership usually centers around creating charismatic speakers. It’s a mistake, however, to imagine that charisma can provide the depth and facility that true leadership demands.
A good actor hopes to listen with all senses open. This isn’t a simple task. The multiple times an actor says the same words and responds to the same lines can cause her brain to go on automatic pilot. Interchanges become mechanical repetitions, neither person hearing the other’s words. If the actor is unsure of her lines, her only concern may be calling up the words, cutting off any ability to hear what’s coming in. The actor’s mind may be also distracted by questions, concerns, fears, mistakes, self-judgments, or irrelevant observations so that it cannot stay focused on anything else. What do actors do to bring listening back to a lively and present state?
Stop. Drop your shoulders. Release your belly. Let your jaw go. Allow a big breath to expand your ribcage.
In life, we are often too busy judging the content of what someone is saying, or framing a fantastic response, to really hear what’s being said. We might even be holding our breath to better focus on our own thinking, which keeps the body defended against really hearing.
A full breath expands our sensory awareness. Listening the actor’s way gives us a chance to hear “the song beneath the words,” allowing the sub-text (the intent or emotion behind the words) to be perceived. We can learn to listen more fully by learning to breathe more fully. We are literally breathing each other in by taking in the air around us.
But then a problem arises. Actors are taught to respond spontaneously with their instinctual selves. If an actor pauses to reflect, she may be told, “Don’t decide how to say the line, just say the line.” This unfiltered response may be a liability in exercising leadership.
A full breath can access a trustworthy physical response. We must learn to recognize that impulsive reaction, mentally investigate the loyalties that prompted it, negotiate with those loyalties, and then choose the most appropriate words and tone. Most of us err on the side of the actor, causing us to speak words that we might later regret.
How do we train to be both present with others and available to ourselves? How do we learn to listen fully, investigate our reactions, and then choose the text and manner of delivery that will move our leadership work forward? Breathing is the first step. Taking at least one deep breath between reaction and action gives us that essential moment of contemplation.
Again, drop your shoulders. Let your hands be soft. Let go of your belly. Soften your lips and your brow. Soften your eyes. Let your jaw drop and allow the air to fill your back. What do you sense behind you?
Performing in a play is like a long moving meditation, where the mind is focused on the immediate present. Worrying about what’s next or lingering on what just happened is a distraction. Actors bring their performance energy to this one task: existing moment-to-moment within the confines of their role. This mindful presence is a wonderful skill and breathing is at its center.
Unlike a performer, however, in the exercise of leadership one must try to see as much of the picture as possible. If an actor thinks in this way, she may be accused of having a director’s mind. The successful stage director quickly, easily and frequently traverses the gap between action and observation, moving from intimate conversation with each actor to seeing a broad view of the production.
Leadership action needs to combine both actors’ and directors’ skills: to be focused and present, yet able to see behind the scenes. She can then perceive what factions are in play, what’s at stake for each faction, and who is allied with whom. Director Robert Woodruff calls this kind of mindfulness “having soft eyes.” Breathing in the world around us is the core.
Do it now. Breathe. Feel the back of your neck open. Feel your feet on the floor. Breathe. Can you feel your awareness expand as your body expands?
Revealing oneself in public night after night is a high-risk activity. Every actor has a personal ritual of transformation prior to performance to manage this risk. Some do a physical or vocal warm-up. Others may listen to music or review the text as they slowly change into costume. Some do a set of push-ups or joke around with the crew. A small sacred space separates the concerns of daily life from the events to come onstage.
In leadership, this bulwark is often missing. We run from one meeting to another, prepare a talk on the fly, react to events without thinking, letting the stress of leading take a toll on both body and mind. This is where the nitty-gritty of actor training can really assist in act of leading: the body can be prepared, the mind cleared, and the focus reset on the tasks to come. And it all comes down to taking time to breathe.
I don’t need to be in the hurly-burly of my professional life to do this. I don’t need to be teaching or leading or performing. I can practice this daily. It’s not hard.
I can stop. Notice my tensions. Let them go. Watch my mind’s distractions disappear as I come back to the present. See the world around me. Breathe it in. Experience me. Experience the sky and the wind and my husband.
Be in the garden.