How Do I say “No” to Life? Let Us Count the Ways. . .

How many times do you let the thoughts you think about yourself keep you from saying, “Yes”?

It’s so simple, this thing called life. It unfolds naturally in a big “Yes”. Life itself is “Yes”! If it were a “No” you wouldn’t even be here.

But we’re so conditioned to saying “No” that most of the time we’re not even conscious that we’re doing it. We complain, we rationalize, we get impatient, we check out, we get angry, we assume the worst, we blame or victimize, we expect, we compare, we shut down.

We’re cranky, grumpy, moody, bitchy, negative, critical, bitter and entitled. All big no-no’s and “No’s” to life.

Mostly it’s our habituated thoughts that create such a negative reaction to things. We’ve been hurt, rejected, denied, penalized, made fun of, shamed and negated. We store those experiences inside us. We make up stories around them. They start to define us and then we come to expect more of the same based on our past hurts. Ultimately, they become preemptive strikes, which then close us out to where we want to go and what we’re trying to make happen in our lives.

Trying to stay open – which is another way of saying “Yes” is hard when most of the things we think about ourselves – or the world at large – are predicated on those habits. So we say “No” to:

1). The moment

2). The possibilities that the world is trying to offer you through the moment

3). Yourself

And really – point #3 encompasses the first two. It’s all interconnected. You, yourself are the moment. And you, yourself contain all the possibilities of what you’d like to see happen in your world, in this moment. But when you say “No” to them, there is no access to what you want.

I sometimes realize that it’s a wonder that my life even works half as good as it does in spite of me saying “No” to so many things. What a bummer. If I’d not demand or expect or believe that just because something has been one way for so long that it can’t be anything else. . . If I could just stay open to those spaces within myself that aren’t already preempting the moment by saying “No” to it, what might my life be like?

The beautiful thing about this discovery is that you see that no one is really denying you or saying “No” to you. You’re really doing it to yourself. And because the power then resides within you, you also have the ability to change it.

Such are the constructs of life. They’re your constructs. If you don’t like them, you can deconstruct them and build new ones. Or better yet, don’t build any at all. Just say “Yes”.

How to be a Real Artist

To be an artist has nothing to do with making art only – it has to do with how you see the world.

You’re not a poet just because you can write a poem but rather, because you see the world in poetry.

You’re able to see and express the beauty and possibility of the world and then capture that in inspiring words. You see the world like a poet does.

You’re not an artist just because culture deems you so. Being an artist is about seeing the world unlike how most of culture sees it. That requires taking risks in going against the masses and being willing to stand for something that might be ahead of its time or be on the fringes because it’s not yet been “accepted” by the masses. Most great things aren’t accepted by culture. That’s the irony of it all.

If you think about a great artist like Vincent Van Gogh – he wasn’t even considered artistic until after he died. He wasn’t traditional by any sense of the word. He wasn’t creating the kind of art, that at the time, people felt comfortable viewing. He pushed the envelope in capturing the world in ways painted on canvas that hadn’t been depicted before. He was bold. Different. He thought like an artist because he was one.

A lot of artists are outliers because they view the world in a way that isn’t common or base. Popular or obvious. They don’t see things the way everyone else tells them to see it. That takes innovation, courage, inspiration and commitment. And balls.

It’s hard nowadays to allow ourselves to be expressed at that level because we’re inundated by social media telling us how to think, feel, look, dress, be popular, liked or influential. The more we go to our phones and see examples of everyone trying to be like everyone else, we start to doubt our own ability to think differently. To create with wonder and uniqueness. Without realizing it, we get sucked into the wormhole of common-ness and sometimes cruelty, pettiness, superficiality and high-school- ness.

Steer clear of the stuff that makes you doubt and question your own weirdness. Let yourself elevate to those thoughts of why you wanted to create things in the first place. Let that artistry be a possibility for you. It is born in each of us but to really be living it means standing by the integrity of sharing your vision of the world with many people who won’t see it that way. They won’t simply because they can’t.

Taraji P Henson said in an interview recently that if she had listened to all the people who constantly told her it was impossible for her to pursue an acting career at the age of 25 (with a baby no less!) and move to California. . . she would “never have lived.”

That’s artistry. Not just because Ms. Henson “made it”. It’s wonderful she’s doing powerful film-work and TV. But she’s an artist because she was also brave enough to not listen to all the people telling her “No” and she chose to see the possibilities of her world in a different way.

So don’t let this business get you down. Think like an artist! See the world through beauty and compassion and love and simplicity.

To do that is art.

What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There

Los Angeles is a car culture. If you’re going two doors down to Chipotle, you hop in your car. (Calm down. Everyone here drives a Prius!) Regardless of where you live, though, most of us get around using a vehicle. Let’s say you want to go to the beach. Every day of the week, you think about Saturday, when you’re going to sit in the sun and listen to the waves and flirt with cute strangers. How insane would it be if, when Saturday rolled around you drove your car to Santa Monica, and instead of getting out and walking on the sand, you barrel over the bike path and start doing donuts around startled bathers? Personally, I don’t think my Jetta could handle driving on sand. But that’s the point – your car, the vehicle that brought you all the way across town and fulfilled your weeklong dreams of sun and sand, is no longer useful. It brought you there, but now that you’ve arrived, you have to leave it behind to do what you came to do. It’s the same with acting. And all creative processes.

We often get stuck on the thing that helps us get somewhere as the thing. But that’s the whole point about a vehicle. It’s a tool that allows us to get from Point A to Point B. It’s a device that allows us to experience something else. It’s an instrument that helps us navigate a moment. But we can’t get stuck in the vehicle.

Whether a beginner or seasoned professional, everyone comes to the work with their own abilities, habits, fears, flaws, healthy practices and coping mechanisms. And almost every single actor I’ve worked with has needed this lesson.

What got you here is not necessarily what will get you there. Which is where you want to go.

Maybe someone prefers to project an image of how they want to be perceived, so they build up a fictionalized life on social media that leaves out all their mess. Someone else might come from a history of unhealthy anger and abuse, so they control their temper so they won’t be like people who yell and scream. Someone else’s religious practices might teach abstaining from sex until marriage. Each of these examples can be positive and serve as a form of protection that allows them to walk through the world. Whatever the issue, though, there comes a point where the thing they’ve relied on often stops them from moving toward the things they want. They become stuck.

The good news is there’s a simple fix. The bad news is that while simple, it isn’t easy. Ready? Just. Be. Honest. Simple right? But in practice, it’s downright terrifying.

When I say be honest, I mean be honest about how you feel, not just what you think or believe. I believe that violence is wrong, but in moments of anger, I might feel like knocking someone’s block off. If I pretend that feeling didn’t happen, because I believe it’s unacceptable, then I’m denying the truth of what is actually happening in the moment. I’m denying a part of myself. And ultimately, that energetic non-expression of denial is going somewhere – so there’s no actual denial we can get away with ever, anyway.

When we are honest about how we feel, when we commit to the full expression of that feeling, the judgment we fear from others does not materialize. Instead, when we bare ourselves, stripping away our sense of control, our limiting beliefs, our self-doubt, and get down to what is really going on, right here and right now, maybe in the darkest, most hidden part of our hearts, we will hear from the audience a simultaneous gasp as they think – “Me, too. How could they know that about me? I feel that way too sometimes.”

They may love you for it. They may hate you for it. They may blame you. But everyone watching has been gifted the opportunity to recognize it. In you. In themselves. In others.

So it becomes universal because certainly nothing is limited to just our own experience. And you will have made it to the beach. And the vehicle that helped get you there can be traded in for a new upgrade as you’re ready to have a whole different experience from a different vantage point. Won’t that sand feel good between your toes? Better than just staying in the car that got you there, for sure.

Layers Are For Cakes

Sometimes when a moment in the work falls perfectly into place, people will be tempted to say “That worked on so many levels!” It’s meant as a compliment, or recognition of someone’s skill, but I’ll tell you a little secret: no, it did not work on “so many levels”. At most, it worked on two. It worked on two levels – what was said, and what was done. That’s it. (Or perhaps a third level – which is all that wasn’t said and wasn’t done that also was part of the entire experience.)

Acting classes will come up with terms like “You need more layers!” or “I need to see more layers in your work!” We don’t walk around with layers in life, like some platitude out of the movie Shrek. Well okay, yes, like the titular ogre, people are multifaceted. If I’m relating a story to someone about my parents and all the things they have lived in their lives, I’m feeling all kinds of things that come out of me in the telling of their story.

Layers are useful for studying the rock formations in the Grand Canyon, but not so much with people. It would be nice to think of our inner life as an orderly pile of thoughts, feelings, neuroses, and struggles that can be neatly separated, but we’re so much messier than that. And thank God for it!

In reality, everything is so much more connected. Think of it more like a spider-web. Every piece of the web, though it may vary in size or shape, fits exactly as it should. If one piece is disturbed, it will reverberate throughout the whole, because it’s all connected. So it is with our thoughts, feelings, and actions. They are each inseparable from the other, and each one affects the other in profound ways.

Laughter often turns to tears in an instant. Our secret weirdness exists in relation to what we allow to be seen. We get freaked out, we get angry, we love, we fight, we make love, we sit in stillness, or rage like a storm. All of these things exist within us, and each affects the other. See what I’m saying?

Recently, I visited a good friend of mine in the hospital. No one knew what was going on with her, she’d been hospitalized for days, unable to get out of bed.

First of all, hospitals are a very interesting place that evoke all the layers out of your being! You’re walking down the hallway, trying not to be rude or nosy and look in the open doors – but you can’t peel away your eyes, and you see room after room of human fragility. You see sickness, disease, hope, prayer, grief, boredom, futility and death. It makes you confront your perception of reality. Oh shit.

What is life? Why am I here? Why am I wasting time with garbage that doesn’t matter – especially when you witness the conclusion. If you’re lucky, or maybe not so lucky, depending on how you see it, all of a sudden you start grappling with something real, something true.

So I enter the hospital room and I see my friend, and she’s so fragile, and I’m like, “Oh my god.” I don’t want to freak out and make her more anxious than she already is. So I try to work through it. But of course, I start to cry. Then I crack jokes. Then we both laugh as my friend puts on mascara to look pretty for the hot nurse on duty, even though she could very well be near death. It’s not just Horror of Horrors! Likewise, these various, seemingly disparate feelings don’t come out one after the other in an orderly fashion. They’re not layered.

So if someone says to you in an acting class, “You need more layers in your work” what they’re really trying to say is, “Stop playing your idea of how this is supposed to look and let all of yourself be expressed, even if it doesn’t make sense.”

That’s more accurate. Or you could also just turn to them and say, “Look man. I’m not a piece of cake!”

The legendary psychoanalyst Carl Jung put it like this: “In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.” So why settle for layers, when there is a universe inside you?

Commitment Phobia: Why Do Actors Bail?

Commitment is an integral part of our lives. We hear it in our relationships: “Ugh. I wish he’d just commit already.” When an athlete is recruited by schools his decision is called a commitment. When we need to remember something important – in the old days, it was the phone number of our high school crush – we commit it to memory. When someone pulls off an incredible feat, on a playing field, in business, in life, and in art, we invariably praise that person’s commitment.

We say the same thing about acting- the holy grail, for most actors, is found in how deeply you commit to a role.

When the actor is not committed, it can often mean they are self-conscious about appearing to be “too much,” or they fear what they are going to look like if they step out on a limb. They fear embarrassment or being uncomfortable. But the irony in acting is that the lack of commitment makes us more uncomfortable than if the actor just went for it. It’s a safe thing to not give a full effort – if we fail, we can always say we didn’t really care; if we cared, we would have tried harder and gotten there for sure. It’s safe, and it’s also boring. See what I’m saying?

Why do we let discomfort keep us from committing? What do we think will happen if we commit? Will you crash and burn? Will you get to the mountaintop? There is fear in both outcomes.

We might fear what will happen if we commit to the wrong thing. When it comes to acting, and life, for that matter, the answer to that is: relax. The irony of fearing commitment is that if we didn’t give a f**k about what things looked like, we would blow doors wide open. We would be flying.

What does commitment look like to you? Loyalty? Self Acceptance? Intimacy? The actor may not realize “Oh, those all have something to do with committing in a funny, comedic scene.” But it’s all connected – drama, comedy; it doesn’t matter. When we commit, it’s like meeting this part of ourselves that we don’t think we’ve really ever met before. Of who you can become if you just commit. It’s scary to trust that.

Be honest. Don’t hide. Stand for something. Have things that you aspire to commit to that are personal without shame and judgment. It doesn’t matter what it is. We have to meet our own best self that is evoked out of overcoming these psychological obstacles we create.

And that simply requires commitment.


Actors in video: William Tyler Johnson and Tiffany Daniels

Yoga as a Metaphor for Acting (and Life)

Yoga is a metaphor for all aspects of living.

It means union with self. Or union with the Divine.

So through the practice of yoga you are actually coming to know yourself. That’s what all living practices of any art form are about. It’s the art of living explored through a practice that gets you to live your unfolding life more as art. Or one could say, any pursuit of anything that explores deeper than merely at the physical level will make you arrive at that insight. That your life is art.

This is yoga. And this is any creative process.

Sometimes we go to class and we’re like, “I got this downward facing dog shit down!”

And then we’re like, “Ummmm . . . no I don’t.”

Sometimes we snore through Shavasana.

Sometimes we contort our bodies and get to new levels of flexibility and strength in our poses.

Sometimes we contort our bodies and feel like we’re beginners all over again.

Sometimes your own sweat makes you slide out of the pose and you look ridiculous.

Sometimes you can’t hold the pose. At all. And handstands? Forget about it.

Sometimes other people’s poses distract you! “Look at their hot shit. Why are they so amazing and I suck?”

Sometimes you don’t even want to go. “I just want to sleep in!” “What’s the use?”

Sometimes you stretch too far and pull a muscle. Sometimes you’re bored.

Sometimes you’re angry. At yourself. At yoga. At your teacher. At life.

What gets you through? All that noise and obstacles and bullshit?

The breath. That’s it.

You breathe more deeply into where you are at any given moment. And that breath allows you to go deeper and to let go. That’s an art in itself. And that’s practice.

Acting is like that. It’s a process of showing up. Of being.

Anytime you think you’ve got it, you probably don’t. If it’s a constantly moving target then what is there to get, anyway?

We’re mistakenly taught that someday we’re going to wake up and have a perfect “formula” for acting. We will have finally arrived and “gotten it.”

That doesn’t exist. It’s like life. It’s constantly changing and moving you from phase to phase and moment to moment. It changes. You change. (Or perhaps you don’t and therein is the struggle and pain!)

There is nothing to get. You already are it.

And you let the practice keep refining you to get to those moments where you’re able to finally hold the pose. If even for a few seconds.

That’s victory. That’s worth attempting. And then it goes away and you start anew. And that’s what yoga teaches you. About life. Acting. And yourself.

Bruce Lee and The Actor’s Conundrum

Perhaps it should be called “the people’s conundrum” because it’s basically human nature. You finally get what you’ve wanted for a long time and, like any new shiny plaything, once you’ve had it for a while, you get bored and want something else.

That’s the nature of desire, and that’s also the trap.

At one level, when our awareness of attaining these things lies just at the base, material level, we set ourselves up for some mighty disappointments. So you want more money or the big job – and the notoriety that comes with it. Or you want the boyfriend or the house, the wedding ring or the cover of the magazine. And then you want something bigger or brighter. We mistakenly go from thing to thing thinking the thing we’re searching for is in the thing.

It’s not that we shouldn’t go for – or have – these things. Part of why we’re here is to realize this very subtle shift of why we want the things we think we want. And that occurs by actually attaining them.

But those things are metaphors.

They actually represent the misplaced spiritual longing we desire to discover potentialities within ourselves. Whether it’s to be more creative, or get emotionally freer, or be happier right now, or push ourselves to new heights, or discover we’re so much more than we ever thought we were. The accomplishment of something shows you who you are.

So the acting job becomes a metaphor for your ever-expanding self-expression. The boyfriend is a metaphor for your ability to love.

So getting these things is great at the material level, but if it stays only at that level, the expectations of what we hope those things bring (but ultimately can’t) – invariably leads to disappoint.

“This is it?” We often ask ourselves once we’ve finally gotten what we’ve worked so hard to achieve.

But if you put your awareness on who you become while experiencing these life events – the experiences can then become life changing. The expectations become minimized and you simply have fun learning and discovering all the latent talents that are within you.

Bruce Lee said, “There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”

That’s metaphor.

So our hearts naturally want us to ascend – but the part of us that’s gotten comfortable is scared to leap to the next level. Leveling up doesn’t necessarily only mean material leveling up – but rather, it’s who you become in the effort to level up.

If you don’t keep leaping, you’re going to find that even acting won’t provide you all the things you thought it would. It can’t. Neither can being a mom. Or a teacher. Or an astronaut. No one thing is ever going to be the answer. The answers are not in the thing. They’re in the pursuance of something that unveils you to yourself while being that thing.

So have zero expectations in anything or anyone. And just keep leaping. And eventually you’ll discover the metaphor of what it is you’re truly leaping for.

Stop Letting Your Adult “Self” Call All The Shots

Political science professor, Robert E. Kelly’s interview went viral this week. But probably not for the reasons he was hoping.

Sure he’s an intelligent expert who knows a lot about South Korean politics.

So, naturally, the BBC invited him on as a guest.

In this virtually-dominated world, where everything is photo-shopped – from our abs to our smiles to our moods to our vacations – and where so much of media advertising is about clever sound bites and catchy, provocative blurbs – how refreshing that life still happens. Not fabricated or polished or put together in a pretty package.

But unscripted.

Mistakes occur. You fall down. You cry. You start laughing when you shouldn’t. You have meltdowns. You get caught in the awkwardness that is life itself, unrehearsed and unplanned. The way life is and always will be, no matter how hard we try to orchestrate and spin things in a more controlled way.

And throw a toddler into the mix and everything goes to shit.

Let kids – or some connection to something besides your own self-importance – keep you tethered to all that’s good and true. Children show us that.

A light heart. A smile. A sense of humor. An understanding that what we do isn’t really important. How we do it, however – the intention and motivation and presence behind something – is.

Let kids show us how to play and let go of results. Let them show us how it’s about this moment right now. Not about our future plans or our talking points or how much we “know” or how cool we wish to look.

It’s about the incredible wildness of not knowing – of discovering – and falling into that wonderful chaos that the uncontrollability of life presents.

Once you “know”, there’s a sort of deadness to living. Unless you’re willing to throw away your “rightness” to learning and staying open, life can become gray and routine. How do you stay uncertain of your certainty? That’s a more brave and wild way to move through the world.

You can see Professor Kelly receive a Master Class in learning to live in joy and abandon (and letting go of control) by watching his video that went viral here.

With the disturbing news that seems to constantly fill our heads these days, I think it’s the best interview the BBC has done in a long, long time.

Two Auditioning Facts

Two things to remember on your journey of being an actor.

1) Famous people crash and burn in auditions. All the time.

2) They don’t apologize for it when they do. And neither should you.

And as a bonus – for once and for all – stop taking this entire acting thing so damn seriously. It’s not serious. It’s a freaking play for goodness sakes.

If you think of acting as an extension of the creation-destruction principle – which it is – you get less invested in how something looks or is being perceived because it’s all simply a process.

We build things and create things in order to destroy them and re-imagine them. We start all over again from scratch and try different approaches to achieve something we’re never fully content with but also understand that taking something apart is just as important as putting it together.

So why do you put so much pressure on just one aspect of being? They’re both necessary.

You have to blow things up. You have to wreck stuff. Kill your darlings. Creating isn’t devoid of missteps and blow-outs. It’s process.

When kids make a Play-Doh village, they enjoy constructing an imaginary world. It’s fun. They design it, create it and play with it. They’re the architects of their wild imaginings taking on clay form.

Then they demolish it. Rip it apart. Combine all colors of clay into a mash-up that turns the Play-Doh grey. That’s also creative. And also fun. It’s also process.

They don’t necessarily like one more than the other. Both phases are enjoyable. Then kids start to get older and affix judgments and labels to things saying one condition is better than the other. They equate doing things in terms of “right” or “wrong”. Or begin to fear making a mistake, which then starts to limit their access to freedom and real creativity. They start to take fewer risks and get caught up in how something is perceived. The expectations attached to creating become overburdened.

Don’t get too caught up in any of it. Acting is great when you do a scene and it goes well or when you feel like you nailed an audition. But it’s also great when everything goes to shit and you’re left trying to figure out what isn’t working and what the challenges are.

If it were a straight line of perfection throughout your life and your artistic exploration it would be a dull, dead trajectory.

Create. Destroy. Design. Demolish. Try. Attempt. Fail. Play. And try again. Step and repeat.

That’s it. That’s life as an artist – and really a human being. Keep doing that and you’ll start doing what the “famous” people do: make mistakes and not really worry so much about having made them.

What is an Actor’s Real “Homework”?

I often get asked by actors, “What is my homework?”

Obviously, if you’re doing a film that takes place in 1917 and is based on a true story of what happened during the Communist Russian Revolution, and you’re playing a famous Bolshevik revolutionary – then duh! of course you’re going to do your homework.

But is that really homework? Isn’t that just common sense? Isn’t that curiosity? Isn’t that the desire to play? And learn and grow? Isn’t that simply you wanting to know as much as you can about something you need to know before you jump in and portray someone who really existed? Isn’t that getting the facts straight instead of living in a world of “alternative facts”?

That’s research. That’s commitment. That’s you showing that you care.

But “homework” that actors often believe they should be doing often has very little to do with what we think it does. Actors often make the mistake of doing homework to prepare themselves for that which can’t be prepared. Like love, tragedy, loss, heartache, joy, desire, surprise, rage, ecstasy and anguish. Like life, these are actual moments that are evoked out of us and we allow ourselves to experience in the moment in our work.

In other words, the homework you need to be doing has to do with living your life.

I was recently teaching at our studio in London and had an experience on the tube, of all places, that’s an example of the kind of homework an actor should be focusing on. That is, discovering in your own life where you hold yourself back. Where you have judgments or shame. Where you edit or shut down. Where you become self-conscious or scared. That’s homework. I mean, it’s not “homework” – it’s conscious awareness about how you don’t allow yourself to be fully human. And it has ramifications for you in your work.

I was cruised on the tube. Hard. Like circa 1990’s hard. Like pre-social-media-dating-apps hard. The way people used to give each other “the look” before we all became chicken-shit and hid behind our phones to make a non-connected “connection”.

Anyway, this guy looked at me . . . like whoa! “You lookin’ at me?” Like I was thinking, “Take a picture it might last longer!” But he was hot so I stared back. And then I started feeling all weird. Embarrassed and self-judgy. Awkward and shameful. Like there was something wrong having an electric moment with someone. Like sexual connection between two people was something to hide from and be critical of.

So I became aware of all this stuff going on inside my head and how it made me feel and decided to just go with it. So I stared at him and decided I’d approach at the next stop. Which I did. Right when the train lurched and threw me off balance and practically in the lap of another commuter. Awkward. So much for keeping it “cool”.

I stared. He stared. The doors opened and I stepped out. And that was the end. I didn’t want to get his number. I wasn’t looking for any end-result. I just wanted to explore this as a “homework” exercise as to how vulnerable I might allow myself to be in a situation that I hadn’t experienced in a long time.

If you feel like you need homework in your “acting” start doing it in life. That’s where all the real homework occurs anyway. Being brave. Feeling feelings you normally don’t allow yourself to feel. Telling the truth. Communicating with someone what you need to say even if what you need to say might be difficult to express. Having an opinion. Moving out of your comfort zone. Trying something you normally wouldn’t do. Saying yes to the moment.

It’s a way of life. Acting isn’t “acting”. It has to be a philosophy of how to be. It’s the Art of Living that then shows up in your work. And you’ll begin to realize that the things that hold you up in your work are the very things that you’re working on in your life. All process. And so it all goes. A wonderful, bizarre journey of full-circle moments.

You might call epiphanies and awareness; evolution and expansion “homework”. I just call that being on the journey of you. And it’s more important than any acting homework you will ever be assigned.

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