It begins with a fearful thought that shatters your confidence the way a siren shatters the peace of a Sunday Morning. You'd like to think about other things but the wailing sound of pain and loss commands all your attention.
No matter how well you've rehearsed what you've planned to do, performance anxiety can shatter you. Your heart thumps and your palms sweat. Your tongue gets thick and stupid and your lips stick to your teeth. At one and the same time your body feels like it's burning from the inside out and freezing from the outside in. You feel stiff as an iron bar and yet so jellied that you can barely stand.
What happens inside the mind that so devastates the body when "the chips are down" and it isn't a rehearsal anymore?
Early in my musical career, I had my first bout of performance anxiety. I recall it as if it happened last night. I was 'sitting in' for a live audition with a Country Band. It wasn't the first time I had been on stage, but it was my 'debut for dollars'. I had thought I understood performance anxiety: it was a few nervous moments right before 'start time'. But on this occasion I wasn't singing for the fun of it. This time it counted.
I can remember this much about the event: I heard the bandleader tell the audience that one of his favorite little ladies was coming right up to sing You Ain't Woman Enough for them; and I saw him turn his head and gesture towards me as I stood at the base of the steps, stage right, and I'm sure I heard him say my name and then I vaguely recall that he asked them to give me a welcoming round of applause. After that I remember only that no condemned human being ever ascended a scaffold less vivaciously than I. I don't know how I got up to the microphone and I really don't remember what I did while I stood there. The spotlight was shining in my eyes and I stared ahead wide-eyed and incredulous... yes, like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. And if that deer had started whistling Dixie, it would have made a whole lot more music than I did that night.
I did not get the job but I did get the message: conquer my fear or forget my career. It was that simple.
Before I battled my enemy I had to identify it. What was the essential difference between singing at a rehearsal and singing in front of an audience? It wasn't the singing. It wasn't the band. It wasn't even the microphone. That left only the audience: something inside me was responding to them as they looked at me waiting to hear not what I was going to sing... but how I was going to sing it. They were going to judge me: if I sang well, they would love me; and if I didn't, they wouldn't. Naturally, my ego wanted them to love me. That's how egos are.
I felt pretty bad once I realized that singing, something I had loved to do, had become a tool, a device by which I was going to get people to love me. The music stopped being music the moment I mentally left it and put my attention inside the heads of the audience and started to look and listen to myself.
Often we hear radio talk shows when somebody calls in while his own radio is still playing.. and it becomes impossible for the host to hold an intelligent conversation with the caller because he's listening to himself. - he's leaving his own mind to put himself in the radio audience. He has divided himself between performer and observer. The host will shout at him, "Turn off your radio!" for until he ceases trying to be in two places at once, no intelligent conversation is possible.
I recalled an actress once being asked how it was that she could cry on camera and make real tears fill her eyes and roll down her cheeks. She surely knew that the situation was make-believe, that there was nothing to cry about. Yet the tears were real. "It's my job," she said. "I'm an actress." But still the question remained, how did she do it? "Well," she said, "I recite a little French poem. With each line, I scrunch up the muscles in my eyes, and contract my eyebrows into an impending frown. I had trained using a kind of biofeedback routine.. reinforcing each step as I visualized the tears. I riveted my attention to the poem, and then, after a few lines, Voila! Tears." The poem was Au Claire de la Lune and the specific lines that did the trick were, translated from the French, she said, "My candle is dead. I have no more fire. Open the door, for the love of God." It didn't seem particularly sad to me but evidently it tore her heart to shreds.
I decided that I needed a similar trick to keep my focus inside my mind and on my task. There could only be the music.
I visualized myself taking one step forward on the stage... as if I were approaching the entrance to Aladdin's cave. I deliberately put my shoulders back and took a deep breath and pushed my tongue up against the roof of my mouth and clenched my jaw, setting it in the determination mode. I tucked my hips under, making my back curve backwards rather than forwards. Then I faked a slight smile by turning up the corners of my mouth a little and contracting the muscles around my nose and at the edges of my eyes so that I squinted in that "facial yoga" asana that stimulates the release of endorphins. These natural hormones always compliment a confident posture and lift the mood. And then I would visualize myself walking towards the microphone, saying with each step, "Open, Sesame... yes, open. Open, Sesame, yes, open for me..." And as the band began to play a great stone would begin to roll back from the cave entrance and I would step safely inside as if it were my refuge. And on cue, I'd sing inside that cave. And all I could hear was the music resonating beautifully.
That is what I did: I trained myself to go inside myself and stay there... safe in my Buddha Refuge. No, it didn't improve my voice, but I was supremely poised. I often thought I'd get a bigger and more appreciative audience if I just stood there and demonstrated my poise trick. But that wasn't the problem I was trying to solve. I needed to conquer my performance anxiety and to gain a new perspective on my musicianship. And in that I succeeded.
Later, it became a simple matter to train myself to enter trance... to sit on a meditation cushion and dispense with those unruly thoughts that used to defy me, to stop seeing myself from the outside, observing myself in the act of observing myself. I would mentally put myself there in the Cave - or the Zone, as we call it.
This problem of seeing ourselves from the outside and worrying about how we look to others has been around a long time. Chuang Tzu describes it as "The Need to Win."
He says (Thomas Merton's translation):
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets-
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize
Divides him. He cares.
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting -
And the need to win
Drains him of power.
It doesn't matter what task we have to perform, for as long as we place our attention outside ourselves in the mind of others instead of keeping our attention where it belongs, safely within ourselves, in our own Buddha Mind, we'll suffer from anxiety and make a mess of things.
All it takes to solve the problem is fierce concentration, a trick of posture, and the magic words repeated like a mantra. "Open the door, for the love of God."
Last modified: November 22, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts