Let’s start by figuring out what meditation is not. There are plenty of misconceptions about meditation, but the one that I will focus on here is that when you meditate, your goal is to clear your mind, empty it of all thoughts and just, be.

Anyone who is a real, live, breathing human being with a normally functioning mind should be able to tell you that this is impossible. Even if you did, somehow, manage to clear your mind of the literally billions of thoughts going through your head at any one moment, the fact that you are aware of having an empty head means you are thinking about not thinking. And now you are thinking about thinking about not thinking….and so on and so forth…

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in an acting class and had an instructor tell me, “Just don’t think about it.” How?? Have you ever been in a scene or been working on a monologue and had this happen to you:

“Focus on getting what you want, get that goal? What do I want? Oh yeah, I want to seduce him, make him mine, yes, make him melt in a puddle all over the–oh god, what is the teacher writing? Why is he taking notes, I thought I did that really well? Shit, what’s my next line? Oh yeah, okay, cover it with a dramatic pause. Ugh, I should not have worn these heels, my feet are killing me. Focus. Yes, my scene partner has blue eyes, I want to make him cry. Why isn’t he giving me anything? He looks like he’s in pain. Or like he’s pooping. Oh god, I said that terribly. Shit, he’s writing again. Okay, full out now, everything I’ve got. I’m so TIRED. I just have nothing left in me. Why can’t I focus? You call yourself an actor? Jesus, that was absolutely terrible. Why don’t you just give up? Just get through this scene. Man I’m hungry. Oh my gosh, I forgot to bring lunch. Crap. I can eat out, but I can’t afford it…”

Sound familiar?

Whether you’re in the theater or not, this stream-of-consciousness thought train has probably happened to you at some time or other. The thing that has been hardest for me to grasp is that this is actually the normal state of our minds. The reason it doesn’t always feel like we’re this scattered is because of focus. A thought crosses our mind that we grab onto and stay with it for a certain period of time until something else grabs our attention. We do this so automatically and unconsciously that sometimes we’ve grabbed onto a thought that we’re not even aware of–I can’t tell you how many times I find myself frustrated or sad or angry and I’m not even exactly sure why….until I let myself sift through my thoughts and find the one that I’ve latched onto.

When we’re onstage, we strive to stay “present”, but where exactly does our mind need to be to let that happen? With so many distractions pulling at us from all directions, how do we find some semblance of calm in a mind that naturally wants to think about everything all at once?

Here is the key fault in that last sentence: it is impossible to think of more than one thing at a time. We can think of two things very quickly so that it feels like it’s happening at the same time, but numerous research studies have proven that this is physically impossible. There’s a great story on NPR that talks about this in further detail, if you’re interested (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794).

Meditation does not try to clear the mind, erase our thoughts. Instead, meditation uses breath to allow us to focus on one thought at a time, as they come up. Your given focus is your breath: never-ending, always present, always alive. Occasionally your mind will wander away from the sensation of the breath and a thought will come up. Look at the thought without judgement, recognize that it is there, and then let it go with your exhale. More thoughts will invariably come up, and you might even find that you haven’t been thinking about your breath for the last five minutes because of some tangent you’ve latched on to…that’s okay. As soon as you become aware, breathe, bring the mind back to the sensation of the cool air coming in through your nostrils, and the warm air coming out.

Focus is a muscle. It can be developed, grown, sharpened. By practicing this type of focus, you are creating a mental habit that can repeat itself even when you are not meditating. Find yourself in the middle of a scene with your mind going off on a tangent? Breathe. Bring the mind back to the breath. And immediately you’ve put yourself back in the present moment, ready to listen, respond and yes, act.