I saw a sign at Michael Howard Studios in NYC advertising Meditation for Actors. I had tried meditation several times, sitting reluctantly on my rug like a naughty child in time-out, trying to think of nothing at all in an effort to, somehow, improve my connection to the present moment. My legs cramped, my mind raced like a caffeinated ape about things too embarrassing to put in print. What was it for? And what place, if any, could it have in my acting work? I was curious enough to find my way into Parlan McGaw’s weekend workshop.
Increased focus, concentration, presence. Freedom from anxiety, self-consciousness, distraction. Using the breath to get out of my head and into the present moment. Parlan’s approach was so beneficial to me, I wanted to share his work and insights and perhaps provoke further discussion about mind-training for actors. We met for an interview.
Amanda Quaid: What misunderstandings do people have about meditation?
Parlan McGaw: It’s become so mainstream, in so many fields, that people are generally more accepting about it. But I think one of the misconceptions artists have–writers, actors, whatever–they think they need their quirks and neuroses to work from, to feed their work. “If I get rid of my rage, I won’t be as good an actor.” Ideally, meditation will make you a healthier human being, but it also helps you get in touch with everything that’s in you. All your anger, your negative stuff, you can still get in touch with it, and you can get in touch with it more freely.
AQ: I used to think that. I got into Buddhism in college, and I thought, I don’t want to go too far with this because it’s going to be bad for my acting. I’m going to get rid of so much and make myself so calm I won’t be reactive anymore. But it’s not that. It’s actually knowing yourself more deeply. How did you come to meditation?
PM: When I was traveling in Europe, I tried TM [Transcendental Meditation], and I didn’t really connect with it. I thought, I can’t do this, I can’t meditate. And I moved to New York, and somehow I was on the mailing list for the Open Center, and I would get these catalogs of classes, and there was one on the Shambhala approach, and there was like half a sentence about meditation in the description–if there had been more, I wouldn’t have taken it. But I did, and I immediately felt, with this technique: This is home.
AQ: What’s the difference between what you do and TM?
PM: With TM, you have your eyes closed and you repeat a mantra. You do it twice a day for 20 minutes. And you can’t eat for two hours before. Doing this mantra with my eyes closed, I would get a little bit tripped out. It was interesting, and I’m sure it was somehow restful. But I didn’t really feel like it connected me with myself in any kind of meaningful way. The technique I practice and teach is basic mindfulness-awareness meditation — similar to Zen practice or what Jon Kabat-Zinn teaches.
AQ: In the Shambhala approach, you just sit and watch the breath. And before your class, I’d never meditated with my eyes open. What is that about?
PM: We’re not trying to get rid of anything or shut anything out. The whole point of it is being present. And it’s easier to do that if your eyes are open. Your ears are open. All your senses are open. You’re smelling. There may be a taste in your mouth. A feeling in your body: clothes, breathing, temperature. It’s all there. The gaze is lowered, so you’re not looking around, you’re just there.
AQ: And how did you get the idea to use it as part of actor training?
PM: As I continued in Shambhala, I learned that Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche [a Tibetan teacher and the founder of the Shambhala meditation centers] had worked with actors and performers, he’d written plays, and he’d developed exercises for actors. Having acted for a long time, and having meditated for a long time, I felt there was some correlation. Eventually, I was studying with Michael Howard, and a lot of his exercises seem to have a meditative aspect to them. So I approached him about doing a program together, combining acting and meditation. He then told me that he’d been meditating for 25 years — I didn’t even know it. So, for two summers we did a retreat. I’d teach meditation in the morning, he’d teach acting in the afternoon. There wasn’t even any explicit connection made between the two, but nevertheless it was great what happened in the acting work as a result of spending three hours in meditation every day. People were opened up and free and alive. Actors, on the whole, seem to take to meditation very naturally — they’re used to working with awareness, presence, being in the moment.
AQ: There’s something about being able to stay in a creative place when you’re uncertain or uncomfortable or afraid. For performance anxiety, it’s extremely helpful. And one exercise you did stayed with me, about coming to your work from a place of gratitude as opposed to a place of terror for your own survival. I heard an interview once with an actor who talked about his process in the wings of moving the butterflies from his stomach to his heart. That was his task, to be nervous in his heart rather than his gut. Your exercise reminded me of that. Having gratitude for the audience. I think a lot of actors imagine an antagonistic relationship with the audience.
PM: Well, it’s a very vulnerable profession. Always being judged. It’s hard to be in this profession where you need to be sensitive, you have to have a thin skin sometimes and you have to have a thick skin other times.
AQ: At will.
PM: Exactly. And what that exercise you talked about does, it brings you to your heart. And that’s why we go to the theater, it’s why we perform, to share our hearts. We forget that. For years, I’ve been intrigued about why do I like it, why do I like doing it, why do I like seeing it. And the closest I can get is if you see something really good, it’s a reminder of something. It reminds you of yourself. And I was in this class at the Shambhala Center for teachers. And the teacher said that what we are doing is healing people’s connection with their hearts.
AQ: How does sitting with your breath heal your heart?
PM: Heal your connection to your heart. Just by being with yourself. If you take that 20 minutes to just be with yourself, even if you’re uncomfortable, if you’re feeling sad or nervous, just be with yourself and it’s okay. You’re not trying to make things other than they are. And you’re not resisting reality. And then when you do let things be as they are, let parts of yourself that you don’t particularly like be how they are, then they can start to change. When we resist them, they don’t change. They put up a fight.
AQ: And they show up everywhere.
PM: They show up everywhere.
AQ: Meditation also quiets the feedback that you give yourself while you’re working. You stop the running commentary.
PM: Yes. A lot of people think that in meditation you’re supposed to get rid of thoughts or stop thinking. You can’t really do that. But you can develop a different relationship with your thoughts, so that you don’t buy into them so much and they’re not running the show. The practice you do on the cushion helps you get out of your head and out of your own way when you’re working.
AQ: And in class, you do sitting meditation and walking meditation.
PM: And sensory awareness exercises. Being present in the space, and feeling the physical presence of other people. Then exercises to connect you to your artistic lineage and to yourself. Meditations on the five senses. And lately I’ve asked people to do that just on their own out in daily life, just pick one sense, and as you’re walking down the street, just work with sound, or the temperature. How the wind may be blowing and you feel cool on this cheek, but the sun is shining on that cheek and it’s a little warmer, and how it all changes from second to second. And for me doing that, it’s a very tender experience. It puts you in touch with your heart, and it’s all so delicate and fleeting.
AQ: It makes you feel mortal all of a sudden.
PM: And then there’s a traditional contemplative practice where you take in another person’s pain and send them good energy, and I have people do that with their characters. It’s an incredible way of really connecting with the characters and making discoveries of things you never knew about them. Really getting in touch on a heart level. And the next step is, as your character, doing this for other characters in the play. That’s also really intense. Even for the character that’s your antagonist, to see their pain and then go after them anyway. It brings in opposites. You know your antagonist better.
AQ: When I first heard you say that, I thought, why does acting have to be about pain? Why does it have to be painful to be deep? But in a way, thinking about another person’s pain is a way of accessing empathy.
AQ: Who were the famous meditators?
PM: Stanislavsky apparently meditated. And Michael Chekhov. Today, there’s Ellen Burstyn, Jeff Bridges, Harvey Keitel, Alan Arkin. I often think of Meryl Streep, who just amazes me, and seems like an incredibly healthy human being too. I don’t know if she meditates or not, I assume she doesn’t, or we might know about it. But she obviously has some way of really getting in touch with herself and freeing up everything that’s in her. I don’t think you have to meditate to be a great actor. But meditation can help us identify with people who are so different from us. In Tibetan, the word for meditation is gom, which means familiarity. You’re becoming familiar with yourself, so you can then identify on a deeper level with others. And how can that not be good for acting?
Parlan McGaw (AEA, SAG-AFTRA) has acted with the New York Shakespeare Festival, Old Globe Theatre, Virginia Stage Company, and other theatres in New York and regionally. He has been helping actors connect with the core of their creativity since 2005, when he codirected the first of two weeklong retreats with master acting teacher Michael Howard at Karme Choling Meditation Center in Vermont. He has since led workshops for actors at Villanova University, the Michael Chekhov Acting Studio, the Interdependence Project, and the Michael Howard Studios in New York. He has been an authorized meditation teacher in the Shambhala tradition since 1993. For more information on his approach, visit heartofacting.com.
Amanda Quaid is an actor from New York City. This is her third contribution to the TCG Circle. Follow @QuaidAmanda
For more on the Shambhala meditation approach, and for information on meditation instruction and free public sittings, visit ny.shambhala.org