Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On Felt Experiences, Rituals, Saying Yes and Being Present

For the past two months, I have been practicing being fully present in the moment. But it wasn't until I went, again, to Sleep No More the immersion theater piece that I have written about in an earlier blog post, that some realizations about how to be fully in the present came together in powerful ways.

Sleep No More is a theater production that contains twenty-one characters, multiple plot lines loosely based on Shakespeare's play Macbeth and Hitchcock's film Rebecca that rotate three times each night and a six floor hotel as its setting. It also completely eliminates the "fourth wall" in a way that intentionally pushes the audience out of their comfort zone. In short, it is a wonderful creation to explore how to live in an experience-based way.

Jim James at the McKittrick Hotel, home of 'Sleep No More' in New York.

Some of the power of Sleep No More is that it is performed without language. The absence of the ability to speak (it is forbidden for the audience and cast) means that what you know most deeply over the course of the evening you know in your body first. In this case, unlike most of most of daily life, your body gives you the most immediate information about your surroundings. I tend to live in my head most consciously, and this theater piece confronts and confounds that impulse. During the course of my sabbatical year I have been experimenting with a process called Focusing--one that I described in detail in an earlier blog post. Perhaps the most revolutionary concept in the Focusing process is the ability to access what is called the "felt sense."

Focusing begins with the recognition of a "felt experience." The racing of our heart, our palms beginning to sweat, the aching in the pit of our stomach are all seen as our body recognizing something important occurring before our conscious mind can access what is happening. For example, the witches know that Macbeth is approaching through a felt experience, "By the pricking in my thumbs,/ Something wicked this way comes." Embodied cognition (as it is now called by some cognitive psychologists) is, for some people, a deeply powerful way to know something. While some literary critics see the witches as having supernatural powers, I think that they actually are just good at listening to their bodies. Acknowledging what we know in our bodies brings you into the present in dramatic ways.

A second factor increasing the capacity for being present was offered by the actor playing Macbeth in the talk back after the play. He explained that "since the the text is an unwritten one--it is physical and it is repeated three times every night--then becomes a routine that is like a ritual. You have to follow the ritual because that is what allows you to be fully present with the people who surround you."

Finally, the actor playing Hecate immediately pointed out that, even though there is a ritual, things never go as planned; there are always changes that have to be made spontaneously. What was most revelatory to me, however was what she said next, "You are not going to be able to fix what has been changed, so you have to accept the changes, not deny them. You have to say 'Yes!' to whatever happens."

One unusual aspect of Sleep No More is that in a show where everyone is wearing masks (see the picture above), the actors choose audience members at different times in the show to engage in a private "one on one." When someone asked how the actors chose the audience members to engage in one on ones, they answered, "There is usually just something about the way they are engaged with everything; they are the people who are most present."

Two months ago my wife had basal cell cancer and a subsequent surgery on her nose that meant that she was ordered to be immobile for the next six weeks. My role in this was just to be there--to be present. So, the daily routine for a month revolved around changing bandages twice a day. We would sit down to the dining room table--now covered with bottles of hydrogen peroxide, aquaphor gel, xenoform strips, boxes of sterile gauze pads and what would eventually be hundreds and hundreds of Q-tips--and methodically go through the ritualized procedure of taking off the old bandage and setting a new one in its place.

I was really more like a sous chef in this process--I layed out the materials and then was responsive whenever needed to supply the correct item. Since the procedure always had its little quirks, I had to simply watch and say whatever I thought was needed in the moment. As days went by, I began to notice that the consistent verbal chatter that I had been offering began to recede--oftentimes because I was being told it wasn't helpful. It felt like I had become the soccer coach I always abhorred and avoided--the one who constantly yelled out at the players while they were performing.

So, in response, I began to settle in to simply watching intently and stopped talking. If I had to describe it I would say that I was much more aware of the immediate surroundings, of where everything was on the table and how far away it was when I had to reach for it. I also became more aware of my own place in the surroundings, of my breathing and anytime my body moved. Finally, because there were always little things that would go wrong during the bandage changing, I was aware of the purpose of each part of the process and how things had to be improvised to go forward. It was always true that "What's done cannot be undone;" you could not fix what was happening, you could only accept it and move forward.


Over the month, as I became more and more grounded, centered and connected, the bandage changing process took on a levity and a lightness. What happened, I believe, is that we both became more fully present with each other and with the moment. And that feeling began to grow out from those moments to the rest of the day. Days would go by where we had just been with each other for the day.

The power of being productive holds great sway over my own life, I am trained to get things done and often to them quickly and efficiently.  But I have begun to notice that the power of presence seems to have changed me in ways that make the world look a bit different. The world, I think, may be looking at me differently as well. I have been to Sleep No More four times before the other night, but I never had a "one on one" with any of the actors; the other night I had three.

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