Yoga and the Twelve Steps: We’re Powerless Over Our Monkey Mind

I teach yoga to recovering alcoholics and addicts at a residential treatment facility. I also owe my happiness — if not my sanity and my life — to the Twelve Steps. I’ve learned as much in 12-step meetings about yoga as I have in the studio, and vice versa.

This is the first in a series of my personal* insights about the parallel and complementary practices of yoga and the twelve steps.

*I am in no way representing any of the 12-step conferences, their literature, or their traditions. I am not advocating you join a 12-step fellowship. These are my personal thoughts; and I’m curious about yours.

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Step One: We admitted we were powerless…and that our lives had become unmanageable.

For most of us, our mind has spun in a thousand directions for so long that we take the spinning for granted. We’ve accepted the “monkey mind” or “hamster wheel” as a fact of life. We may already believe we’re powerless over this constant insanity… and yet, we try anything and everything we can to distract ourselves, to ease the discomfort of the laundry list of to-dos, resentments, annoyances and shame triggers that we live with on a day-to-day basis.

We eat. We drink. We tweet. We Facebook. We judge other people. We judge ourselves. We buy. We collect pins of things we might want to buy one day on an imaginary internet pinboard. We diet. We work. We get so busy — unassailably, unforgivably busy — so busy that even if we WANTED to slow down and look at this stuff (which we don’t), we wouldn’t be able to.

We’re trying to escape the constant spin of our mind by making it spin faster. We run away so fast that the running just fuels the spin.

And if someone suggests we slow down? Do less? HA! Fuck that guy. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner to believe that we don’t have another choice. When someone tells us “Happiness is a choice,” we resist the urge to punch them in the face. We think they just don’t understand. This isn’t a choice, this is just the way it is.

The addicts and alcoholics I work with are the lucky ones. Their brains got so twisted up that they no longer had a choice — they were forced to stop, drop everything, and slow down. They leave their homes, their jobs, their families, their phones, their email. For 24 days (fingers crossed), their days are scheduled from 6am to 10pm, right down to six cigarette breaks a day. And they begin to learn a new way to live.

For many of us, life never gets so bad that we fall off the hamster wheel. We keep accruing frequent flier miles, credit card points, and transferring our debt to the next 0% APR credit card. We binge on king cake, crawfish bread, and Popeye’s, and then spend all of Lent on Whole30, avoiding sugar, caffeine, alcohol, flour, and food. (In places that aren’t New Orleans, we drink quad-breve extra-pump cinnaspice lattes, deep-fried cheese, half-pound burgers, egg rolls, and Frozen margaritas, and then get on the wagon on New Year’s Day.) We leave CNN/Fox News/CNBC/ESPN/NPR on in the background, follow mass shootings live on twitter, read as much as possible about ISIL, Syria, Obamacare, gun control, and the 2016 Presidential election, and still somehow manage to stay one step ahead of a nervous breakdown. We’re secretly afraid that someone will realize we have no idea what we’re doing and revoke our Adult Card. And we’re also secretly hopeful that someone might do exactly that.

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The second line of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (a fourth century yoga text often quoted in modern yoga studios) defines yoga as the “stilling of the mind into silence.” I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t want that. I have yet to meet someone who has achieved it. Go ahead, try it. Right now, stop thinking. No reasoning, no feelings, no memories, no plans, no judging, no stories, no evaluation of sensory perception.

No?

Even if we could, I think we’re terrified of what might happen if we were to stop distracting ourselves and actually look at what’s inside that never-ending whirlwind of thoughts, feelings, judgments, fears, anxieties and regrets.

A 2014 University of Virginia study suggests we’d rather receive electric shock therapy than be alone with our thoughts. Two-thirds of men and a quarter of women. Let me say that again: a significant percentage of adults self-administered electric shocks instead of being alone with their thoughts for fifteen minutes.

So maybe we take that first step, as yogis or friends in recovery. We admit we’re powerless over that spinning mind, and that it’s making our lives unmanageable. That admission gives us permission to separate ourselves from the mind, to see the mind as not us, and to get some perspective about what’s happening. It’s the tiniest shift, the very beginning of the practice. Paradoxically, this admission of powerlessness gives us the power to do it differently. The power to change.

For the next week, when your own mind starts to spin off its axle, practice this thought: “I am powerless over this spinning mind, this monkey mind, this mental hamster wheel. The brain is just doing what it does.” Find a phrase to describe your own whirling mind that makes sense to you. And if saying you’re powerless troubles you, phrase it as a question: “What if I’m powerless over this spinning mind? What if the brain is just doing what it does?”

See what happens and let me know how it goes.

xo,v

What Hurricane Katrina taught me about yoga

“Purification, Refinement, Surrender. These are the practical steps on the path of yoga.”

– Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.1, (trans. by Alistair Shearer)

I’ve gone back to basics lately with my practice, my teaching, and even my thinking about yoga. With over 1,000 hours of teaching, I keep coming back to the same question in my writing and conversation with other teachers: What is yoga, anyway?

My recent study with Doug Keller only underlined that question in my mind. He has a lovely overview of the history of yoga in his book about yoga philosophy Heart of the Yogi. He traces the long history of yoga – philosophy, practice, posture – to reveal there are only a few things that tie them all together: mindfulness and action.

Yoga is sometimes defined as Skill in Action. I like that.

I stayed with my mom over the weekend that I studied with Doug. She doesn’t ‘do’ yoga, so in many ways she’s my best audience. How can I explain yoga to someone who doesn’t already know what it is? I said to her, “It’s kinda like what they say about pornography: you know it when you see it.”

“That is not a good answer,” mom replied.

And she’s right.

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I have been avoiding the anniversary of The Thing this weekend. My teacher Mitchel is in town, and I’m looking forward to his Bowspring workshops and vinyasa classes. I would like very much to go on about my business, and not get sucked in to the ten-year anniversary. But yoga won’t let me.

Purification. That’s what fire does, and it’s why fire is often used as a metaphor to describe the yoga practice. Purification is not a pleasant process, and it usually requires tremendous hard work and a decent amount of discomfort – if not pain. Fire burns away everything that isn’t real.

Water also washes away everything that isn’t real. Water washed away everything that wasn’t permanent, that wasn’t deeply rooted, that wasn’t fully committed.

Refinement. Once the heat of the practice has built, then the true work begins. It’s in the tiny movements in our body that real change happens. We want to find a showy pincha mayurasana to post on Instagram, but we know that’s just the shell. The real work happens on the inside, when we feel those small adjustments starting to reveal huge change. Looking strong doesn’t hold a candle to feeling strong.

The last ten years have been a constant process of refinement. That has meant looking at the things we were doing – as individuals, community, leadership – thing things that were working, and the things that weren’t. Being brave and ruthless about our choices, doing our best to keep the heart of  our city along the way.

As my teacher Heide says: “You don’t learn perfectly. It’s not a straight line forward.”

Surrender. Everybody knows the best yoga pose is Savasana – after 60 or 90 minutes of working, you get to rest. Just rest. And no rest comes easier than the rest after hard, challenging work. Honestly, I MUST work that hard to truly surrender. Because surrender is the hardest part.

Surrender means accepting things as they are, even if they aren’t where you want them to be. Yet. It means yielding to the wisdom the pose has to offer you – letting the pose do you, instead of you doing the pose.

Surrender means being willing to let your life be molded by a power beyond your imagination. It’s a willingness to be humble, to make mistakes, to fail, to learn, and to grow. That is my understanding of yoga.

Yoga is a willingness to be humble, to make mistakes, to fail, to learn, and to grow.

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I want to avoid the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The tenth anniversary of a 17 hour drive to Houston; the tenth anniversary of watching helplessly while my city flooded and idiots on CNN called Elysian Fields Avenue “Elephant Farms Road”; the tenth anniversary of sharing a twin bed in a stranger’s Baton Rouge apartment; the tenth anniversary of a six-week exile from my home; the tenth anniversary of One Dead In Attic; the tenth anniversary of Superdome rapes; the tenth anniversary of watching my city-family being abandoned by a government I had trusted until that moment; the tenth anniversary of deep sense of uncertainty, foreboding, and tremendous loss.

I am not interested in reliving it. It purified me, and for that I will be forever grateful, in a strange, perverted way.

Today, I’m working on eternal refinement – and most importantly, surrender.

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I’ll be at K10 on the Levee on Saturday morning representing Wild Lotus, and the rest of the weekend I’ll be practicing with Mitchel. Come give me a hug. And do some yoga. It helps, I promise.

Why I Stopped Caring if My Yoga Was Right

Some yoga teachers claim authenticity of their practice because of how old it is. I’ve practiced with teachers who say their yoga is the “real yoga,” because their teacher taught them the “real teachings.”

Why do we need age or exclusivity to authenticate our personal experience in yoga?

I’ve been exploring a new approach to alignment called “The Bowspring.” It flies in the face what many of us were told and have believed for years that a strong core was “the belly pulled back and up,” and that an anatomical neutral pelvis was the safest and healthiest way to work. I have taught hundreds, if not thousands, of students these same principles: keep the tail moving down towards the heels (but don’t tuck it!), pull the belly back to protect the lower back, front shoulders back, shoulder blades flat on your back!

It’s a rigid shape. It feels hard to me, especially now.

bowtest
The Bowspring alignment echoes an article circulating recently from NPR about why indigenous cultures don’t have back pain. When the base of the buttocks lifts, the belly is full, the lumbar curve is greater than “anatomical neutral,” and the whole ribcage expands out and back. I’ll be the first to say I am not an anatomy expert (just an anatomy nerd) — but in my body, that feels better. It feels stronger, fluid, and dynamic. My body feels soft AND strong at the same time, and not at all rigid.

I was talking to a student about this after my lunchtime class today, and I’m beginning to wonder: Why do we care so much about which yoga practice(s) are “authentic”? Why do we care how old the poses are? Which sequence or alignment is the best? How could we say that anyone (or any country, or any religion) owns yoga? Does it matter that the vinyasa we all love is probably only 150 years old, and was influenced by British calisthenics?

I suddenly realized: Who owns love? Which love is the best? What love is the most authentic?

The answer, of course: none of us, and all of us, all at once. All love is the best, but none is better than another. To paraphrase my teacher’s teacher, “How can you compare infinites?”

That’s the kind of yoga I’m interested in. I want yoga that makes me curious. I want yoga that nurtures change and growth, and doesn’t elevate something static. I want yoga that helps me explore my body, my thought patterns, my emotional hang ups, and leaves me feeling more myself.

So I’ve been practicing the Bowspring. I might teach it in class or online somewhere down the line. But it doesn’t matter.  

If your practice leaves you feeling stifled, restricted, pent up, or somehow less than… I’m curious: what kind of yoga are you interested in?

Integrity

You’re made up of a million different parts. Perhaps even an infinite number.

It’s like the night sky. You can look up, and see twinkly lights — you know that some are stars and some are planets. You even know there are some that you can’t see because of light pollution. You know there are more than you can’t see because there so far away, but you still trust that they’re there. Millions of stars. Spread out across the universe – perhaps an infinite number across an infinite universe.

The gift of this life is exploring all the different pieces — and trusting that just because you can’t see some of those pieces right now, you trust that they are there. You keep exploring, keep looking closer, deeper, farther.

Despite being made of infinite parts, you also know you’re one whole. You’re both things: the pieces and parts of you that you can take apart, and the whole together. The old adage says your whole is more than just the sum of those million parts.

The remarkable thing about the matrix that is you is that one part also carries with it the connection to every other part. Sometimes the connection and relationship is easier to see, sometimes it’s more tricky. You know when you move your foot forward to step, something happens in your pelvis. It may be harder to experience what’s happening in your neck when your foot steps forward – but the more aware you are, the more willing you are to explore that connection.

It’s even harder to see those connections in the parts of us we can’t see — but know are there. When you offer someone a kind word, you know that’s connected to your history of experience with them. It might be harder to connect the kind word you offer to that person with your history of experience with someone else, but you’re willing to explore that connection.

What if it’s all connected? What if your foot is connected to the kind word? What if your history of experience is part of the miraculous matrix of your body?

Are you willing to see it? You’re one thing, refracted and reflected from an infinite number of angles.

Integrity is moving from that one thing in an infinite number of directions. You’re brave enough to make decisions from your center, instead of trying to be one thing in your day job and something else at home with your kids. You know the things you say to coworkers affect how you kiss your lover goodnight.

An infinite number of stars, one whole you.

Commencement — What I Wish Someone Had Told Me at My Graduation

I was invited to give the Commencement Address at Herzing University‘s December graduation last night.  It was one of those opportunities that came to me through a  series of unpredictable events (aka divine providence), but it meant I had just a few days to put together my thoughts for these graduates. I might have said something different if I had been given more time, but instead I just shared with them exactly where I’m living now. Check it out:


Good evening and welcome! I want to thank Jason for inviting me tonight. It is a deep honor for me to be among you, with your family and your friends and your partners and maybe even your children. I share with them deep pride in and inspiration by the dedication that got you here tonight. Please know that your work blazes a trail for everyone you meet – everyone who wants to make themselves better, their work better, and their world better. I want to a share a quote with you from one of my favorite authors, and it’s a quote I try to live my life by. Marianne Williamson says:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”

As you move forward after your time here at Herzing, you have two choices. You can move towards joy, or you can move away from fear.

We all have fears – even fears that we are powerful beyond measure. That power in us can be intimidating, and it encourages us to take risks – and sometimes those risks lead to failure. I don’t know about you, but I’m deeply afraid of failing. I might have been a little afraid to get up here tonight, afraid of what you think of me, afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, or that I’ll let you down.

But I made a choice – not to move away from that fear, but instead towards the deep joy of sharing with you something I believe so strongly. I know each of you were afraid to begin your studies here, I know each of you had moments when you thought, “I can’t do this.” And I know each one of you made a choice, with great courage in the face of that fear, to move forward.

I think you already know what so many people don’t know – you can live a life that you fall more deeply in love with every single day.

A very wise person once told me: if you want to be happy, do things that make you happy.

And you know what I mean by happy – I don’t mean pleasure; I don’t mean sit on the couch eating bon-bons and binge watching “Orange is the New Black.” When I say happy, I mean so excited to get up in the morning that you’re simply thrilled to be alive.

If you want to be happy, do things that make you happy.

Sometimes when I say this, people argue. They always say some variation of these two things: One, “I don’t know what makes me happy,” and two, “I’m not sure I can be happy.”

I think you graduates know – I think you already have an inkling of what makes you happy. And it’s what got you to this chair tonight. It’s what got you through all those tough assignments, group projects, and the moments when you thought you couldn’t do it.

And if you’re still not completely sure – keep trying. Keep trying things on in your life; take risks. Get curious about the things that make you happy. Don’t be afraid to find things that don’t make you happy – but for heaven’s sake stop doing those things!

If you want to be happy, do the things that make you happy.

If any of you, any of you, fall into that second group, with a deep doubt that it is possible to be that happy – to be in love with your own life – trust me when I say it’s possible.  It’s not just possible for some of us.  It’s possible for each of you.

I learned too late in life that I had a choice to believe this. I could change what I thought about myself and my life. I was not a prisoner of my past, and I could instead embrace my future. And that’s what got each of you here tonight. If you can’t quite believe now, let me believe it for you: You can have a life and work where you are rewarded for being your complete, authentic self, and you fall in love with your life a little more every day.

Just like any other lifelong relationship, you will have doubts. You will wake up some mornings and think: “I’m just not sure I can do this.” That’s normal. It’s actually a great sign – because it’s a sign you’re about to grow. And you already know that because of how many times you maybe thought it in the last few years.

My mom went to medical school when she was 40 years old and I was 6. She once said, “the amount you learn is directly proportional to how uncomfortable you are.” Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

And I know you already know something about this. You know what helps you. I want to share what helps me, and what helps the people I work with every day:

Breathe. They kick me out of yoga teaching if I don’t remind everybody to breathe. Your breath can’t lie – when you get nervous it gets short, quick, and hard. When you’re content or relaxed it’s slow, steady and expansive. So when you’re scared or nervous, slow your breath down. It will trick your brain into thinking you’re content and relaxed. Trust me, it works.

Pray. Americans have a lot of baggage around the word God, so I try not to say it very much. I encourage you to find a deep, abiding connection with a power greater than yourself. Connect to the mystery and the miracle that your heart continues to beat every minute of every day. Don’t be afraid to get quiet. That leads me to the next one:

Be Grateful. Give thanks for the good things in your life, focus on the things that you have, instead of focusing on what you don’t have yet. Your attention is one of the most valuable currencies you have: what you focus on grows. Remember and give thanks for the things that bring you joy. You might just find those things growing.

Be Kind. Be kind to people. Be kind to everyone. Even the people it’s hard to be kind to. I work with homeless drug addicts, corporate executives, and everyone in between. If I’ve learned anything it’s this: it doesn’t matter the circumstances of life, everyone is suffering. Be kind to the people you meet – everyone you meet. And please remember to be kind to yourself.

Laugh & Have Fun. Do things that make you laugh, just because they make you laugh. If you want to be happy, do things that make you happy. Laughter is like nature’s medicine – it’s also great ab work. Laugh as often as you can, and whenever possible, laugh with other people. Because the folks near you are struggling with all the same demons you are, and they need a laugh just as much as you do: maybe even more.

In closing, I want to say thank you. Thank you to your friends and your families for everything they did that got you here tonight. And thank each of you for not giving up when it got tough, but instead moving a little closer to your dreams every day.

The end of that Marianne Williamson quote I started with tonight is this:

“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Congratulations. I can’t wait to see how each of you makes the world a little brighter.

Thank you, and good night.

Never Without Fear

Nataraja’s Abhaya Mudra

One of the more common mudras in the yoga tradition is the Abhaya mudra.  Bhaya is often translated as fear, and a- is the negative modifier, so the abhaya means literally “No Fear.”  The gesture means “be not afraid,” or “have no fear.” It’s a welcoming, inviting mudra, and we often see the murtis (statues of hindu gods) with one of their hands in this position.

One of my teachers, Douglas Brooks, has a fascinating translation that may appear counterintuitive for this word – but I truly love it.

“While the raised open palm may appear to us a signal of caution or even warning, it is also an invitation and an opportunity to approach, then come closer, open the heart, and accept the journey of self-inquiry. Fearlessness is the beginning of all such journeys, not just the end. Fearlessness is never without fear but rather that way in which we step into our courage and bring the heart, mind, and body into a deeper appreciation of each and every situation.”

Douglas also suggests that a hero does the thing we are afraid to do, so that we don’t have to watch him do it.  In the oldest sense of this, we don’t want to watch the warrior defeat the enemy — we know without thinking that witnessing slaughter of another human would be traumatic — but we understand this is a “necessary evil,” and we’ll even throw him a parade when he returns.  Once we have matured past a certain age, we know that heroes are human, and if fact we want human heroes, since those who find joy in the slaughter are monsters, not heroes.

So is it possible that what makes a hero is her fear?  One who knows the power of her action, who steps strongly the direction of the task at hand although they may be terrified of each step.  The hero must understand the gravity of her action, and be aware of the inherent conflict of taking such a step.  The true hero is never without fear.

So for us, today — who hopefully have no experience of armed combat — what are our fears?  And how can we walk both fearlessly and never without fear into the things that frighten us the most?

What’s it like to walk into a room of people you haven’t seen in over ten years?  Or to start a new job or business?  How does it feel to walk into a first date with someone you don’t know well?  Or to ask someone on that first date?  How does it feel to ask for a raise? To stand up to your parents (or your partner, or your best friend, or your children) when you make a decision that they don’t like? To tell your partner you’ve been fired?  To end a relationship when you know it will devastate the other?

Instead of repressing that feeling, that anxiety, that fear, can you lean into it?  Can you be never without fear, instead using your fear as a guidepost, accepting it for what it is, and allowing it to inform your actions without ruling you?  Fear can only paralyze us if we resist it.  Next time, can you instead raise your hand, abhaya — fearless and never without fear, breathe, and take steady steps forward into and through it?

This playlist invokes Kali – that fierce quality in all of us that defends the ones we love – and Nataraja, the dancing face of Shiva who’s abhaya mudra invites into the dance of life, both through and despite our fears.

What I learned about life from… Acting Class

My undergraduate degree is in Theatre.

Yeah, that’s right, “theatre,” with an “re.”  Just so you know how pretentious I am. Which, ironically, is not that much; I’m just a slave to the right word. Theater is a place. Theatre is the transformative artistic experience of interpreted literature that elicits an emotional transcendence. (I had to reinforce the pretentious thing. Couldn’t help it).

I was trained as a professional actress. Five days a week for three years, I started my day the same way: with the same 20-something 20somethings. We all wanted to learn how to Act. At some point we all had dreams of being the next Sarah Bernhardt or Tom Cruise. We all did our Animal Work, resulting in a literal and proverbial zoo. (If I remember correctly Ebs Burnough’s snake ended up cornering my tamarind monkey underneath a chair. It was, actually, pretty traumatizing). We used metaphors to work on Chekhov; my Masha was “a runaway train.” We had our fair share of Meisner repetitions, which is especially amusing during understated Pinter dialogue. (“Would you like some tea?” “Would I like some tea?” “Would you like some tea?” “Would I like some tea?” “Would you LIKE some TEA?” and so forth..)

The reality of the 21st century is your undergraduate degree is pretty irrelevant. With few exceptions, your BA or BS (or BSSP in my case) is simply a necessity – you will not be considered for most well paid positions without finishing college, but that’s about it. It is now simply a hurdle, no longer a certification.  The first day of our program, my acting teacher – who was also the department chair – reminded us that theatre is actually an excellent training for almost anything. And he’s right. I often tell people I have a degree in collaboration, communication, and executing projects on time and under budget. That’s pretty relevant in any position.  (He also told us not to sleep with each other.  I find that’s still a pretty good tidbit.)

I often don’t get into the nitty-gritty of what an acting class is really like, because it perpetuates a certain stereotype that all actors are crazy and dumb and self-indulgent. Which we are. But who needs to reinforce that?

But my acting teacher taught me countless lessons about far more than “just” acting – about work, and about life. These are just a few.

1. “There are three parts of your life: your work, your primary relationship, and your home. If two outta three are good, you will be happy.”

This was part of a series of lectures our senior year designed to prepare us (aka: frighten us) for the reality of being a working actor. “Your first years out of school your working life will not be fulfilling – so find a great apartment and a lover because otherwise you’ll be miserable.” I have often returned to this advice over the years because it’s accurate no matter what your profession. Work sucks? Make your house a refuge and go on a date. Love life sucks? Pour yourself into work and repaint your bedroom. It’s a simple triad, but its true — and more importantly, it works.

2. “What do you know about this?”

I heard my teacher repeat this phrase a thousand times. A successful actor simply presents a mirror to the audience – and shows them themselves. In order to do that, as an actor, you have to recognize yourself in a role. You must be human. You must reveal yourself in the most vulnerable, honest, sometimes ugly ways. (It’s no wonder that so many actors and artists are alcoholics and drug addicts – the simultaneous pressure and fear of this can be unbelievable destructive.)

Now, in my day-to-day life, when I approach something somehow foreign, something scary, possibly insurmountable, I am able to stop and ask: “What do I know about this?” What part of this is familiar? Where can I find a toehold in this seemingly unscalable mountain? Because there is always a toehold. And once you find one, you find another. And before you know it, you’re halfway up.

3. “Let it land.”

This is a hard lesson to learn, especially when you repeat the same lines over and over, night after night. You already know the realization the audience should have – you have had it with other audiences a hundred times already. But each and every audience is different, new, and you take them on that journey for the first time. When you deliver an especially key line – Let it land. This is so true in everyday life I cannot emphasize it enough. In my current profession (fundraising) it is an invaluable lesson. If you can present to someone all of the information, with just enough of a hint, and you can restrain yourself enough to Let it Land – they will come to the conclusion on their own to support you. You have not convinced them, you have helped them convince themselves. This is vitally important, because once you go away – they are still convinced. And, possibly more important, they are now in the position to convince others.

4. “Work in the High Thin Branches.”

This is just as scary in real life as it is on stage. It’s so easy in a role to “phone it in;” to play at an emotion instead of playing it.  The metaphor here is this: when you’re climbing a tree, the safe place to stop is in the first fork in the trunk.  The branches are thick as your torso, and there to support you and if you do fall, it’ll only be four or five feet and you’re likely to not break any bones.  The higher you get, the more flimsy your support, the more careful you must be – because one misstep and suddenly you’re plummeting to your death.  So why on earth would anyone climb to the treetops?  First, because of the view.  It’s amazing what you can see from up there.  And, possibly more importantly, the exhilaration.  As an actor, it’s amazing what you can see and experience in the “high, thin branches.”  It’s amazing how you feel.
The same is true in life.   The greater the risk, the great the return.  If you always stick to what you know, and where you feel safe, you will not grow, you will not develop, and you will not accomplish great things.  There are thousands of adages that encourage this (‘leap and the net will appear’ and all that) – and I think there are so many because it is so very difficult to do.  The fact of the matter is, working in the “high, thin branches” can be exhausting – always watching your step, getting vertigo from looking down – but it can also be the most fulfilling place to work.

5. Don’t be a professional artist unless you have to be.

Our summer reading before our acting class started, we were assigned Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke.  This is not an easy read, for so many reasons.  The core of the first letter is: Do not do this because you want to do it.  Do it because you have to do it.  I’m pretty convinced that half of my acting teacher’s job was to weed out the weak ones and convince the rest of us that acting was the worst profession.  In reality, it’s the best lesson he could have taught me.  There is no romance in constant instability.  There is no pleasure in auditions (a good ratio: 100 auditions to 1 callback.  Imagine if that were a dating scenario, or any other job search). Acting is brutal.  And somewhere in those three years, I realized I simply was not cut out to be a professional actor.  There were other things that were too important to me.

The next thing he taught me, though, was just as important and is still core to my sense of self now: You will always be an actress.  Getting paid for it is a silly way to judge whether you are something or not.  And frankly, the most important things to me, those most core to who I am, are things I will never be paid to do.  That’s okay.  Your job is just a part of your life’s work.

6.  Do not put anything in an email you wouldn’t want the world to read.

Alas, this was not a lesson he was trying to teach, but it was taught all the same.  The year after I graduated, and two years before his impending retirement, my acting teacher sent an email to one of his students.  I cannot say I know the full details – nor do I feel comfortable repeating any, rumor mill being what it is, and all – but he sent an inappropriate email to a student.  You can only imagine the ensuing drama, but needless to say he went on a year-long sabbatical and then retired and I have no idea what happened to his pension or anything…   And honestly, I have learned this lesson myself once or twice.  We all make mistakes.

And that, perhaps, is the best lesson my teacher ever taught me.  For three years, I think he brought us on a personal and spiritual journey about learning who we were, and what we were capable of.  Nearly ten years later, I still draw on the things I learned from him almost every day.  And yet, he made one bad decision that ended his career.  Do I choose to remember him by that?  No.  I don’t.  But instead, I choose to remember him as a human being.  All his flaws, all his idiosyncrasies, but also all the joy he brought us, and challenges he made, the lectures and the encouragement and the love.

On Happiness

Yesterday evening, I was sitting with a dear friend at one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, Café Degas. It’s a little french restaurant with killer french onion soup and a great bartender. Uncle Nick makes the best Sazerac in town, and gracious lords over a bar of just four stools — and it may be my favorite bar in town.

Chez Degas, as we call this little corner of Faubourg St. John, is host to the best character study in New Orleans. I have sat there many a night, whether with friends or alone, and met the most incredible residents and visitors and exchanged stories and always learned something. The first night I visited it was almost at closing: I had my first sazerac ever (and after many, many more, I stand by my prior endorsement) and met a horse trainer who makes his living at the track nearby and the Commodore of the Southern Yacht Club. I have sat in one of those few stools discussing crime in New Orleans with a staff photographer of the Times-Picayune, and the joys of dining alone with an art director in the burgeoning local film industry.

But last night, I sat with an old friend and a new friend, and we met Mohsen. A slight man, with wire-framed glasses that are always a little tinted, Mohsen has a palpable accent despite immigrating here from Iran 33 years ago. He came to the U.S. alone at the age of 17, and has created his own life, which now involves working seven days a week at a coffeeshop he owns, that I happen to love.

Mohsed overheard us talking to Uncle Nick about the recent catastrophe in Norway. We all hypothesized on why someone would kill 80 (or 90+, from varying reports) innocent young people — regardless of your political beliefs. The rumor is that he was afraid of an Islamic takeover of Europe.  It was at this point Mohsed made an ironic comment about “those muslims – never trust them” – which is clearly a joke – and that set us out on a conversation about how many people are killed every day, every year, in every country in the world.  He referred to hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq, I thought about Sudan and a missing generation.

He made an apt point: at least 16,000 are killed in the U.S. every year.  He feels safer walking the streets of Tehran than the streets of New Orleans.  He may be right.  His underlying message – we all live in danger, and killing happens everywhere.  We are not told about all of the fear-making things because they aren’t always good news (as in, news that interests people – not new that is good) – so it’s easy to have a skewed perspective on our own reality, let alone foreign reality.

My friend Erica changed the subject to Mohsed’s life – in the typical way I think that U.S.-born Americans are fascinated with the American Dream we have never really had to pursue.  He is impressive – building his own business out of nothing, and now about to close for a month and travel to see family all over the country.

Erica asked the question: “Are you happy?”

Mohsed, without hesitation: “What is happiness?”  It seemed a useless question to him, unnecessary. “Define Happiness.  Tell me what this ‘happiness’ is?”


This has been a constant challenge for me, especially of late.  How much happiness is about fulfillment?  How much happiness comes from a decision to be happy?  Is it about being content with what we have, and striving towards a Buddhist idea of non-attachment?  Does our capitalist-commericialist society constantly telling us (via advertising) that we are missing something, do not have enough, and are not enough set us all up for constant discontent?

Is that discontent the secret to happiness?  Is working to overcome challenges the secret to being happy?

Or, as Mohsed went on to imply, is Happiness a figment? Is it some imaginary concept we have all been promised to give us something to do?

There’s a lot of philosophy written about this, and I don’t pretend to be well read in all of it.  But it is something we all constantly mull over, I believe.

As someone who manages her depression, this is a particularly fascinating question to me.  I’ve talked some about my depression publicly, and would like to talk more about it.  I am especially fascinated by the growing proportion of people who are diagnosed with some variety of mood disorder (depression, anxiety, and so forth) – and with the suggested reasons why.

Part of my depression comes from a feeling of paralysis about how to be happy.  And that being happy is the “correct” state — so when one is unhappy, one is incorrect.  Where did this come from?  When did this start?

There is no easy way to wrap up this thought.  I am thankful for Mohsed, for asking this question: “What is this ‘happiness’?”