‘Being In the Moment’
Most actors began their journey by getting high - not in the pharmaceutical sense but in the raw, natural experience of 'flow' and 'self-transcendence'. It's the kind of natural high that comes from the confluence of certain conditions, allowing one to completely let go of one's ego and sail into the void of effortless being. One could even say that many modern drugs seek to trigger this same kind of experience artificially. A loss of self, an alteration in consciousness, a letting go of the doing mind into the being mind, the allowing mind.
You might not know it or even remember it consciously, but chances are there was a time in your past, early on in your creative journey, when you experienced this kind of high. And you've been chasing it ever since. Of course, there are other reasons people start acting - fame, validation, love - and indeed those egoic tendencies are likely worming their way into your intentions too. But, those who really love the art began their journey in a moment of real self-transcendence. We call this experience being ‘in the moment'.
During this experience, we had no trouble concentrating or focusing on what was most important. In fact, the very possibility of not focusing would seem like a distant possibility. One feels both completely in control yet at the same time that control itself seems completely irrelevant. Everything is simply happening on its own as if we were merely a conduit for something greater to work through. Yet try as we might, we rarely find our way back to this state of being truly in the moment.
From Self-Obsession to Self-Transcendence
Like many things being in the moment isn't necessarily a black and white issue. The journey to full self-transcendence could be seen as a spectrum. With one being more or less present and engaged with the conditions that eventually lead to the full peak experience itself. That being said, there is a clear experiential difference once one does tick over into the various degrees of the 'self-less' world.
What I will say, is that despite the clear preference we would have for always being in this peak state, this is an unrealistic expectation. Even when we know what many of the conditioning factors in creating a state of 'peak flow' are, we have to accept that we are not always in control of all the conditions in our lives. Furthermore, even when we do manage to gather together all the practical prerequisites, there is never a guarantee that transcendence will arise. We have to accept that there is something inevitably mysterious about experiences like this that keep them somewhat elusive. All we can really do is set up the conditions in the best ways possible, be patient and wait for the muse to arrive. Any truly gifted writer will tell you that all one can do is sit down to write, set up the arena and make the attempt.
Practice Makes … ‘Good Enough’
But we needn't despair, because the more we practice, the better we get at setting up these conditions and the statistical probability of the experience arising increases dramatically. What's more, the conditions that we create do have a fundamental impact on our performances before ever ticking over into that wonderful elusive state itself. We are well on our way to a state of self-transcendence by occupying as much self-awareness as possible. The best news is that truly great performances can occur in this place. Audiences can be moved and transported through this engaged performing and we can be transported with them, without having to completely 'lose oneself' for the entire performance. In fact, it's possible, when it comes to theatre, that the makeup of the audience itself is one of the mysterious factors that lead to this peak experience. So the attempt itself, although not always carried to its fullest fruition, is more than enough. We've done our jobs at this point, and admirably at that.
In essence, as Steven Pressfield quotes of the famous Hindu work, the Bhagavad Gita:
There is much more to be said on this subject and this is likely to be one of many posts delving into the depths of 'self'. So, for now, I would like to focus on one particular area of acting this affects, one that almost every actor regularly struggles with - concentration.
Acting and Concentration
Preoccupation with 'self' or 'ego' is the very thing that thwarts our ability to concentrate. Whether that be in acting or everyday life. Consider this against one's own experience. When we are not trying to hold onto, protect and reinforce our preexisting conception of 'ourselves', we are free; free to remain concentrated and at peace and one with the moment, with this moment's reality. Try it! Observe when performing and your mind wanders, where does it wander to? If you uproot the 'self', you uproot the very cause of lost concentration and self-consciousness.
To gain a little background on what I am proposing, I suggest watching this short video by neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris:
Hopefully, that's given you a background on what I'm hypothesising. For more clarification you can also check out a short Q&A regarding self with psychologist Bruce Hood - https://samharris.org/the-illusion-of-the-self2/
So now allow me to unpack this. As I’ve said before, although the words self-consciousness and self-awareness sound synonymous, there is actually a huge difference.
Self-Consciousness vs Self-Awareness
The distinctions between self-consciousness and self-awareness can best be clarified by offering temporary name changes. We could say self-awareness is really 'experience awareness'. It's the awareness of experience as it occurs, without necessarily adding or imposing a sense of ‘self’ onto that experience. Self-consciousness, on the other hand, happens when we add on a perspective or interpretation of that experience that implies ownership, division or a preoccupation of 'mine'. It could be argued here that self-awareness or 'experience awareness' can hold the very process of self-consciousness itself, as it occurs. For awareness in a sense is boundless and is not predicated on any particular conditions apart from consciousness itself.
All this being said, this 'self' or 'ego' and its inherent complexities is perfectly natural. It’s just not always desirable or particularly helpful outside of basic survival scenarios. It comes to us from years of evolution as a helpful tool in sustaining and propagating genes that one could say are localised to a specific body or bodies. But let's not get into that here.
The reason for the distinction between self-consciousness and self-awareness misnomer is simple. One state can hold all of experience within itself, moulding to fit around that experience as it changes and grows. This is self-awareness.
The other state is like a small glass jug that can only fit in a certain amount of water (experience). Anything else that doesn't fit, is ignored or rejected experientially speaking. This is self-consciousness.
In a practical sense, the two are quite similar, they both involve a kind of awareness, but the parameters of each are different.
Self-Awareness = Mindful Awareness
‘Mindful awareness’, the kind we are after, is non-judgmental, accepting and rooted in the moment to moment experience. It is like an eternally graceful dinner host that allows and welcomes all to come and go from his/her home. Self-consciousness, on the other hand, is a kind of bastardisation of that awareness. It imposes judgemental distinctions and limitations on top of the awareness. Judging what is and isn't 'acceptable' experience. It's like the jug described above with its firm and defined walls, arbitrarily trying to distinguish what is and isn't allowed in. Or like the bouncer at a nightclub who tries to only allow the 'pretty' people in (the experiences he/she wants).
The experience of self-consciousness is really one of judgement or the 'inner critic'. This is especially true when we become identified with that 'inner critic' and begin to highlight it's interjections over all other experience.
Illusions & Delusions of ‘Self’
If we are properly introduced to the nuanced distinctions in experience between self-consciousness and self-awareness we can begin to see how liberated our performances can be. When one feels most free and in the moment while performing, there are very few moments where we are focusing on 'me', on how we are being perceived by others, how proud we are of ourselves, or any of this nonsense. This is because, in these moments, experience is not being shackled by delusions of a separate 'self'. And, if observed and reflected on correctly, it empirically reveals that there is no separate 'self' in the first place. It's just another thought, a concept that we've come to blindly accept.
This is why we often describe our experience as 'losing ourselves'. We lose or drop or forget to impose this false idea of separation from others and the world, in that moment, and in so doing, are free. It's like forgetting to put on one's glasses only to find one can see the world much clearer without them. Inevitably, however, we fall back into our old habit of waking up and putting our glasses back on, because we have been told by society (including ourselves of course) that we need glasses to see straight.
Testing This Out For Yourself
I understand that this sounds somewhat crazy in theory, but luckily I am not asking you to believe me based on my experience, but your own. Take some time to reflect on the times in your life when you have felt 'present', 'in the moment', in 'flow', 'at one with things' or any of the other descriptive phrases people use around the world. I believe you will see the truth in what I have described above.
This state of consciousness is the holy grail experience we are attempting to achieve as actors on a regular basis. But it needn't be as elusive as it often seems. In fact, there are ways to practice these skills so that the experience of present moment awareness becomes more consistent and reliable in its arising. Hint: Meditation
In fact to test this out, go one step further. Test this out in your experience now and in the future. Watch your mind as you perform, even for yourself or one other. See where the mind wanders to. It's probably best to start small with less stakes than doing this on tomorrow's evening performance. My bet is that whatever the content of your thoughts, feelings or tensions in the body, they will all be focused around this idea of 'I', 'me', 'mine', whether the content feels good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. The thought may very well be "I'm doing really well/ this is going great/ this is exactly what I wanted", or "Why am I so lost at the moment?". Or, perhaps the experience won't have such articulate expression in words. Maybe something will just indicate to you that you are or are not achieving the perception from others that you want. That is enough! That right there is it! The very momentary distinctions and preoccupations between 'self' and 'other' are what separate you from present moment awareness. Including the time it takes to make such a distinction. It arises in its very incarnation of 'you' distinguished from everything else, thereby preventing you from being truly in the moment.
Self-Discipline = Self-Love
Now I'm not simply suggesting that by reading and knowing this, you'll be cured. Intellectual understanding is only the first part of the solution. As with an illness, the identification of the disease is important and will help steer the treatment process. But diagnosis itself won't cure anything. If we want to treat an illness, we need to take concrete steps to address it and implement strategies. The best one I know of by far is meditation. Mindfulness in both its formal form of meditation and informal form of daily integrated mindful awareness are essential for addressing this issue. In fact, mindfulness is the very thing that helps me recognise these patterns in the first place.
Don't wait and hope you'll stumble your way into understanding these things simply by osmosis or good fortune. Some actors might have been lucky enough to do this. But if you're not lucky already it's unlikely you're simply going to get better in this area by divine intervention. So if concentration is a problem for you, as I know it is for all of us to varying degrees, do something about it. Stop hoping for the best and put the work in. Apply a bit of compassionate directness to yourself. Remember as Larry Moss says, 'self-discipline is self-love', or at least it can be. No more promising yourself you'll start tomorrow. Tomorrow might not come but you do have now. If you have the time to read this article you have time to start meditating, for 1 minute, 2 minutes, 5 minutes, whatever you can do to just start the chain. If you need inspiration or guidance, check out the myriad of apps, books and guided meditations to help you along the way. There are a number of them on my 'Inspirations' pages alone.
There is much more to be said about this topic and indeed there will be, but for now, we'll leave it here. With this simple reminder, that as always, these things above are “merely fingers pointing to the moon, they are not the moon”. To experience the moon, one cannot just look at the finger, one has to go there for oneself and see. Is the experience of the moon truly as I and others say? Go there and see.