You Are In a Safe and Warm Place

This post originally appeared on the USS Rock ‘N Roll blog on January 9, 2012:

The more I learn, the less I know. Or the less sure I am about what I thought I knew, which is similar but not the same thing.

Last night I was at a birthday party for some friends at a bar called the Grafton in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.  It’s a bar with a good draft list, sturdy dark wood furniture, and a great feel. I was talking with a guy about the experience of coaching my first Harold team, which I started doing in October.  This guy was saying that coaching had surprised him in that the ten people on the team do not improvise or understand improvisation in the same way he does. So when he gives them feedback he has to remember to communicate in a way that fits their individual needs.

He said this like the notion that people aren’t all like him was a bold realization or an epiphany. It was difficult for me to suspend my judgment, probably because I am reminded of that fact constantly.[1] I am so acutely aware that other people’s experience is different from mine (and inherently valid) that if I encounter any difficulty translating my thoughts and experiences into their vocabulary I can lose the thread of what I believe to be true.

On Tuesday night the team I’m coaching had their fifth show. They killed it. Beforehand I told them some things my (and the dandy’s) first Harold coach POB would say (which I more or less tell them before every show): that I wanted to see an opening that’s totally different from what I’ve seen them do before, three untouched two-person scenes in the first beats, and soft or creative group edits.[2] Then I said to have fun and just do whatever they wanted, which they laughed about because that was their response before their previous show and the opposite of what I had just said. Contradiction humor!

They did all of these things with élan and verve. They played strong characters, they made great choices, there were moments of pathos, and I even learned a little bit about Henrik Ibsen and the history of the fourth wall. I felt so happy and elated for them afterward, along with a strong feeling that I helped them create this wondrous Harold. But I didn’t do any of those things. I wasn’t with them while they were out there, I wasn’t helping them make any moves, I wasn’t creating their fun and funny characters. Why did I feel like I did, and why did I feel slightly guilty for feeling like this?

The team is connected to the rehearsals, ideas, and words I propagate, resulting in a specific effect.  If they didn’t have me telling them sweep edits are as unwanted as a limp dick in a bordello, they might have done one or two or (gasp) a bunch.  Or maybe they wouldn’t have. If some other coach was their coach, what would that show have looked like? What is happening in that parallel universe where another person is coaching them? Could they have done the exact same show, verbatim, word for word, monkeys punching out Hamlet? These questions are needless abstractions and yet somehow they seem thoroughly important to me because I can’t imagine a world where I am not in the world.[3]

Trying to reflect on the experience of coaching leads me to think perhaps I should implement something I’m going to call, “The Dolphin Test.” If I fear I am becoming unseated by abstraction, I can ask myself, “is this the type of thing dolphins consider when swimming?” I’m sure they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not swimming is really the best use of their time, or if they’re doing it right, or if they should maybe have gone to grad school and gotten married and own a home by now.

I imagine dolphins swimming feel kind of how I feel when I am throwing and catching a frisbee.[4] I do not ask myself, “how do I catch a frisbee?” or “am I as good at running and catching the frisbee as my friend who I saw running and catching the frisbee yesterday (or last year, or when I first started to see people throwing frisbees)?” or, “is it a worthwhile occupation to run and catch the frisbee?” No. I simply run and catch the frisbee and enjoy the hell out of it. [5]

At the heart of the matter, I know that I am not the reason the team I coach does the good show, nor am I the reason they do the less-good show. If we do not jump too high when we win, we do not need to flagellate too hard when we lose. Shows make me feel like I am a winner or a loser, depending on the last outing. This goes against the virtue of detachment which I have attempted, with varying[6] levels of success, to incorporate into my world over the last four years or so. Thich Nhat Hanh has this great book called True Love that I borrowed[7] from my old roommate Thomas Whittington. Thich Nhat says:

So I would propose a very simple practice for you, the practice of mindful breathing. “Breathing – I know that I am breathing in. Breathing – I know that I am breathing out.” If you do that with a little concentration, then you will be able to really be there, because in our daily life our mind and our body are rarely together.

I think it’s easier to be unattached to the emotional rollercoaster of the last outing (as a coach or a player) if I am present, and breathing like this really does make me feel calm. Sometimes in my mind I will say, “I am breathing in understanding, and I am breathing out expectation.” Expectation is a great struggle of late[8], and is a source of suffering in my life and my work. Breathing that way helped me greatly last week when I was upset while driving. Is that the kind of thing a Vietnamese monk who survived torture would want me using his teaching for? (I hope he would be glad that it helped me.)

For some reason, I believe I can trust the words of my past teachers and coaches more than I trust my own. For instance, before shows and sometimes at rehearsals I have the team say the call and response that POB taught us in Rattlesnake days, spoken by the leader and repeated by the group:

I am in a safe place. I am in a safe and warm place. Even if I have to go to the bathroom, and that becomes an emergency, and that becomes an embarrassing situation, you will not laugh at me.

You are in a safe place. You are in a safe and warm place. Even if you have to go to the bathroom, and that becomes an emergency, and that becomes an embarrassing situation, you will not laugh at me.

This is a very fun thing to repeat in a group, and it always makes me laugh while creating trust and support. Whether I understand how I communicate with the players or how I know what know I fades away when I tap into the ensemble and into being present. Hanh quotes the Buddha and it’s essential for us: “the past is no longer here, the future is not here yet, there is only one moment in which life is available and that is the present moment.”




[1] I still can’t tell if that makes him egotistical or me a Johnny Judger (probably a little of both, like many assertions in this article)

[2] If the “real world” honored my personal aesthetic, the sweep edit would be a hanging crime, or at least restricted exclusively to full group, high volume scenes along the lines of a 1929 bank run, or an epically hilarious send-up of Rwanda, 1994. A scene that bleeds raggedly into the following is almost always more compelling to me than a heavy-footed slowjog, kill me.

[3] Now who’s egotistical? But honestly, have you never watched It’s A Wonderful Life and wondered what it would be like if Clarence pulled the same gag with you?

[4] Can you believe autocorrect wants me to capitalize the word frisbee? Is Microsoft super worried about the intellectual property rights of the Wham-O corporation? It’s in the common parlance if you ask me. The Irish probably don’t capitalize hoover anymore, because to them it’s synonymous with vacuum cleaner.

[5] I suppose that I should go outside and play frisbee. We do have some very strange Chicago January weather going at the moment, 45 and sunny, if anyone wants to throw the frisbee this week or ever.

[6] minimal

[7] stole

[8] my entire life

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