I spend a lot of time staring at walls, which is strange to me. I never thought that would be something I spent so much time doing. From a young age I was always moving, climbing, and getting into things and that has never changed. It has lead me straight into my profession: Circus Variety Performer. This is a job that I absolutely love and can’t get enough of because I get to move and climb and travel! Something that has changed in the last couple months, though, is I’ve been practicing Soto Zen mediation. To the casual observer it looks like sitting on a cushion and staring at a wall. The more I get into it, though, the more I see the similarities between my circus practice and my meditation practice. I know it’s a weird correlation, but stay with me – I’ll explain.
Juggling was my first circus love and I would spend hours in a racket ball court facing the wall and practicing juggling patterns. When working on juggling, the tendency is to walk forwards to fix weird throws instead of standing there and drilling the trick correctly. I tend to be obsessive about the things that I like. I would stand there, for hours on end, drilling juggling patterns until I could do them without moving my feet or thinking about the pattern. It was just me, the wall, my props, and the invading thoughts I’m trying to dodge because I’m supposed to be concentrating. That stupid thing I said five years ago and everything I could have said instead is running through my head. It’s therapeutic in a masochistic kind of way. With the endless hours of isolated practice I’ve had plenty of time to work out all my internal struggles and come to terms them. Well, most of them. Ok, only some of them. That’s where meditation has come in.
Starting meditation was very similar to circus training for me, minus the circus props. It’s like when you’re about to fall asleep or when you’re taking a shower. Your mind says “Finally you’re not preoccupied with something!” Things just start bubbling up from the unknown. This has been a source of many fun ideas for me. Did you know that penguins have knees? Some of my best ideas have smacked me in the side of the head when I wasn’t thinking of anything and demanded that I bring them into the world, refusing to let me sleep peacefully until I did. I’d love to tell you that it’s all sunshine and roses that pop up, but it’s not. In both circus practice and mediation, it brought up a lot of pain that I didn’t want to deal with. There’s no running from your self, though. We’re all just going in circles and the faster you run away, the harder your problems will smack you in the face. Fear is a liar and you can’t control what anyone else says or does. No one can make you feel something; you do that to yourself. So why worry and spend so much time causing your own pain?
One of the reasons I love circus is that it’s not based on competition. As that kid in school that loved to move, I needed something to focus my energy on or I would literally crawl up the walls. That was gymnastics and dance at first, but as I got older and better, classes weren’t available unless I joined a team. The main purpose of the team was to go to competitions – I hated competitions and the feeling of going against others. Circus arts aren’t just about competitions. Its purpose is to work with your strengths to see how far you can go with your skills. That was a purpose I could really get behind.
Thus started my career as a performer and eventually as a circus teacher. During our warm up for my circus classes I do arm circles, where one arm circles forward and the other circles backward. Stop reading right now and give this a try. Seriously, don’t worry about looking silly. When one of my students first tries this, they often have a difficult time and have to do it very slowly if they can do it at all. Here’s the catch – if you have to think about it, you can’t really do it. If you can do it without thinking, it feels as natural as wiggling your fingers, but you often can’t figure that out without having to think about it first.
That was what mediation was like for me when I first started. You’re supposed to sit and not think, but all I could do was think about how I wasn’t supposed to be thinking. It’s a fun paradox, and by “fun” I mean “frustrating”. Zen is full of those. I’ve learned that thoughts will pop in, even if you’re good at mediation. Instead of trying to barricade thoughts, which as far as I know is damn near impossible, recognize them as they come up and gently guide them out. This is the heart of circus training as well. Props have a natural way they want to move built within them. When you guide it together with your movement rather than trying to force it, that’s when it works. There’s no distinction between you and the prop – you’re one with it. That’s the goal in circus – you train skills, the crazier the better, until they are as natural as tying your shoe. It’s not doing it until you get it right, it’s practicing until you can’t get it wrong.
Circus performers often become very strong. Though you do need to be strong for a lot of circus acts. I believe that one reason performers get stronger is because when we first learn skills, we do them wrong. It takes far more strength to practice circus skills when you’re not doing it correctly. We don’t know how the trick is supposed to feel or how to make the apparatus and the timing work for us instead of against us. You can tell someone has mastered a trick when they make it look effortless. That’s because instead of working against the rhythm of the trick, the performer and the apparatus are one. The apparatus is a natural extension of the performer. There’s a moment of weightlessness at the top of a swing and of power in a spin. You need to feel that moment, because no amount of thinking will ever tell you when it hits, and in that moment you can perform miraculous things.
Another big similarity between meditation and circus is that IT HURTS! Even if you do it with the right body position, let alone if you do it wrong. I have, on several occasions, been asked if I needed a “safe space” because on any given day I am covered in bruises from circus practice. Aerial hoop is particularly unforgiving. There’s an old saying that if a circus performer wakes up and they aren’t sore, then it means they’re dead. This is my life. Practicing these crazy tricks everyday makes you sore, bruised, and occasionally worse.
When you think of meditation, you don’t normally think about how much it will hurt. Try sitting in the same position for 30 minutes with crossed legs and see if you still have full blood circulation in your legs. Much like acrobalance, you need to have perfect posture and stack your weight correctly on your skeletal structure. Your body is otherwise forced to do much more work to hold your position for any length of time. Here’s that catch again, you have to do it without thinking about it. You can often tell your thoughts have started drifting if your posture starts to slag. Handstands and meditation are all about balance and it takes practice to find that. Once you do, though, it feels natural, like you should never have done it any other way.
Circus is about freedom and trusting yourself, as well as frustration, bruises, and calluses. Overthinking is a symptom of fear. You get so preoccupied with trying to get everything perfect or to not get hurt, that it just fails. The idea of what it should be overtakes the feeling of how it is. Don’t be afraid to get it wrong. Just pick yourself back up and do it again. If you fall 7 times stand up 8. You just need to let go, stop thinking, and start trusting. In that moment where you can feel it without your mind getting in the way, there’s freedom. It feels like going back to being a kid spinning in circles or it feels like you can fly. That’s the joy I chase. It’s the reason I perform and it’s the reason I teach. I help others overcome their fears and to trust themselves, to see they are capable of doing more than they ever thought possible.
Plenty of people have told me over the years that they could never juggle or do aerial. They think they aren’t coordinated enough or strong enough, as though these are things you have and not things that are developed. Kids ask me how I do it, as though there’s a magic button or a trick that makes it work. They say that about meditation too. What I really think they mean is, “I’m not willing to spend the time to get good at that”. Which is fine – you don’t have to meditate, juggle, or any of that. What most people don’t seem to understand after watching me perform, though, is that I have probably dropped more than most people will ever pick up. It never gets easier, you just get better. It is easy for me now, like shifting into autopilot, but what got me there was a stupid kind of stubbornness. It’s easy to want instant success and gratification, but as a circus performer, I settle for incremental improvement. Over time I get a little stronger, a little more flexible, a little better. With steady practice, it sneaks up on you until you look at past video of yourself and you realize how far you’ve come. As they say in Zen, if you walk through the fog long enough you’ll get wet. Some days I hit really hard tricks or new milestones and there’s much joy and happy dancing. Most days I feel like I’m tearing down a wall with a toothpick. But everyday I pick up that stupid toothpick and get to work because that wall isn’t going to tear itself down.
How do I stay motivated? I don’t. Motivation gets you started, but motivation is a fickle bitch. What you really need is discipline and repetition. Get in the habit of meditating, working out, or going to practice. Some days it is fun and easy, but not all days. Some days I’m tired, my leg hurts, there are a million other things that need to be done. I still practice. You decide what you give your time to during the day and those decisions show your priorities. Get to bed earlier, so you can get up in the morning and get your practice in. It sounds simple but I struggle with it. I mean, have you seen how many cute cat videos are on the internet?!
We often think there are right and wrong ways to do things, but both Zen and circus have taught me there is no wrong way. There’s no step you can take that isn’t a step on your path. You can run towards the horizon forever until you realize that you are already where the earth meets the sky. One of my favorite things about the arts is that you learn the rules so that you can break them better. Always point your toes? Not if your character is creepy. Always keep hold of your apparatus? Not if you’re doing catch and release moves. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely safer and easier ways to do things. Circus is often taught as though these ways are the right ways. Once you’ve mastered the skill and know how it’s supposed to feel, though, you can do it “wrong” intentionally. It’s not about following the designated rules, it’s about what you want to convey to the audience and how you want to spend your time. “Right” and “wrong” are perceptions.
Zen is in everything and since I’ve spent so much of my life in circus, it’s easy for me to see Zen in circus even if they seem like completely different things. Circus performing involves much more glitter and is a bit flashier. Zen mediation is much quieter with far less bruising. Both are where I find peace. There’s so much more to circus than the performance and there’s so much more to Zen than staring at a wall. And at the end of both, we bow to show our gratitude.