The Biggest Skill Non-Performers Can Learn From Performing Artists

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I’m currently reading an incredible book about, in essence, releasing the ego and stopping the voice in your head from messing everything up. It’s called Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, by Joe Dispenza (the bleakest title ever, I know), and it is extremely woo woo, but extremely good. And it’s got me thinking about performing artists, and the biggest skill everyone could learn from them.

Dispenza’s work is essentially about visualizing the type of person you want to be in such vivid detail that you feel it in your body. To do this, one of the essential skills you need to learn is how to be master over your thoughts and quiet down that voice in your head that talks to you all day. Along the lines of two of my other all-time favourites, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, and The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, Dispenza explains that the voice in our head isn’t really us – it’s our ego, our memories, our persona… everything we think makes us who we are. So most of us spend a lottt of time listening to it. 

Stop it, Dispenza says, because by listening to that voice all day, we live in our past or in worry about our future. The present is absolutely silent.

Which is where performing artists come in. In reading Dispenza’s book and trying out his methods, I am having mega flashbacks to my time in opera. As a performing artist, it is your absolute mission to find this point of silent but fully energized equilibrium within yourself, where you’re totally in the moment on stage and able to fully access your gifts. Many actors in particular talk about the feeling of being a vessel for the work – of being “open”, and not “blocking” the character, emotion, and je ne sais quoi of the moment from transmitting through them and out into the audience. Dancers talk about “losing themselves” and allowing the piece to move through them. Musicians talk about “being in the zone.”

All of these expressions capture the same incredibly rare feeling: being of no mind and being fully in the moment. When I was singing, I knew I was going to have a poor performance if I was on stage and could not get my mind to shut up. On the other hand, I have vivid memories of exceptional performances, and can feel them in my whole body still – and the unifying factor for them was that I was totally in it, calm but super energized, and not analyzing what I was doing while I was doing it. Zero brain chatter.

This skill – releasing the overactive, critical, talking “self” in favour of the quiet, all-knowing, deeper true self – is incredibly useful for so many interpersonal and business situations (let alone, for inner peace and fulfillment). Take public speaking, for example – a skill that petrifies many, but is demanded of so many of us, whether it’s in a corporate setting, at a PTA meeting, or giving a toast at a wedding. If you can picture yourself in a public speaking situation and imagine your mind totally calm, with no negative self-talk, no “what if I mess this up” chatter, no “wait should I change this at the last minute” funny business… that would feel pretty good, right? 

So here’s how to take a page out of the book of performing artists and get to that blissful, fully engaged, totally capable state of no mind, in public: massive amounts of preparation. I’m talking shocking amounts of preparation. As performers, this is an incredible, emotional, and frustrating process for each and every important performance, but it’s the only way to truly get there. Exceptional performers do so much active, gritty, intense labour before a performance in order to allow “themselves” to fall away in the moment and let the work transmit through them. Just like athletes, they think and work and plan and revise and experiment and revisit as the big moment approaches all so they can turn their brain off and just fucking do it at the critical moment.

Then, when the moment arrives – and this is the key – they know they’ve done everything they can do, so the chattery active brain has no more tasks to complete. They can say to the ego brain, “your work is done, so you can sit back and relax.” You see, as Dispenza, Tolle, and Singer all write, that “monkey mind” brain that talks to you all day is always trying to protect you. That’s its entire job. So when you’re about to walk out on stage to give a big presentation, it doesn’t want you to get embarrassed, so it tries to coach you while you’re trying to do the damn thing.  

But if you’ve put in the massive amounts of preparation, if you’ve done absolutely everything you could do within the constraints you’re operating in, you can say to the mind, “I’ve done my best, I’m ready.” Then, do what many performers do right before going on stage and take what they would call deep “centering” breaths. Feel your ego fall away. Breathe as if you’re being breathed, not as if you – the active human – are gasping for air. Take in, as a curious, grateful observer, all your surroundings. Feel openness across your chest and face. Allow yourself to feel nervous excitement, but know that you are ready.

Then, do as musicians do, and “lay it down.” Do as dancers do and “let it come through you.” Do as actors do and “lose yourself in the moment.” Just be. THAT is the biggest skill you can learn from performing artists.