April 11, 2012

Maitri, The Middle Way & Musical Theatre. ~ Annie Passanisi

Photo: wikimedia

How a Buddhist Newbie Learned to Stop Emoting and Start Evolving

I can cry on cue. I’m not talking sniffing onions backstage to get that full-to-the-brim look. I’m talking a Hollywood single tear complete with a lip quiver so rhythmic and pronounced her Royal Highness Kate Winslet would take notes.

My undergraduate degree in Musical Theatre Performance has also afforded me a vast array of Irish dialects for my party trick arsenal, the ability to tap dance at a C+ level, and the knowledge that, despite my ample backside and childbearing hips, I play a damn convincing eight-year old boy.

Set the scene for January 12th, 2009. The day the boy I loved told me he tried to love me but failed. The day I became very acquainted with the contours of my kitchen floor. The day I had my first honest emotional reaction in years. There was no spotlight or audience or director to yell “Cut! That’s a wrap. Incredibly life-like sobbing there, Annie. Brava!” There was only pain—and in more strange ways than one, musical theatre was to blame.

Somewhere, sometime, in the midst of a movie musical marathon, my toddler brain latched onto the idea that love and life are meant to be gorgeously painful. “Life is suffering” set to music. Love wasn’t patient or kind or whatever that Bible verse people read at weddings says. It’s wandering in the gutter to deliver your obsession’s love letter to someone else. It’s having him hold you as your silly ass dies because of it. And life? It’s all about overcoming—Nazis, barn dances gone awry, and that awkward moment when your secret husband kills your brother in a knife fight.

After two decades of emotional etudes and award-worthy fits, having an unembellished emotion was terrifying. So, I did what I convinced myself any normal person would do and sought to destroy the pain by smashing it into tiny, carefully analyzed bits.

Weeks later, I found myself in an online Positive Psychology course. The Science of Happiness patched me up in all the right ways and has since become the cornerstone of my work as a motivational speaker and life coach. I learned how to stop a negative emotional spiral in its tracks, identify the root fear behind a freak-out in mere moments, and to prioritize Motown and bubble baths and sidewalk chalking.

Cue the panic attacks and the incessant analyzing. “If I feel this way, it’s because I really think this, and that is flawed in these fourteen ways, which is a habitual pattern stemming from that one time, and here’s a list of thirty-two things I can do about it arranged in order of potency.”

I spent my days promoting, journaling, laughter, and social support. I watched them work wonders, but personally, was more stressed than ever.

So, again, I did what I convinced myself any normal person would do and Googled “meditation.” I found Pema Chodron (whom I now refer to in my head as Auntie Pem). She introduced me to The Buddha and his search for The Middle Way (or, the moderate path between overindulgent sexy/sensual goodtiming and extreme self-deprivation.) She introduced me to maitri (or loving-kindness). She told me I didn’t need fixing but instead:

“That we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.”

~ Pema Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape and The Path of Loving-Kindness

For twenty-seven-and-a-half years, I’ve been my biggest fan, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been my friend.

It is this quest, an attempt at something resembling Zen in my utterly eccentric life, I aim for as I devour every elephant journal article and modern Buddhism text I come across. As I sweat into my own mouth during Camel pose. As I strive to be gentler to myself and to the people who pop their gum on the subway.

It is the Middle Way I’ll be seeking when I fish out my dancing shoes, highlight my script, and step back into the rehearsal room for the first time in years.

I have no idea what my performance will entail or if my legendary single lip quiver will be necessary. I only hope, whatever it may be, it’ll be of a braver, kinder kind.

Annie Passanisi, Happiness Advocate, Whimsy Coach, and Hungry Entrepreneur spends her days helping under-joyed people prioritize their positive emotions and over-worked entrepreneurs put food on the table. She spends her evenings singing duets with Nat King Cole in her bathtub, baking the best cherry pie in Chicago, and attempting to master the elusive triangle pose. Connect with Annie on Twitter or email.

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Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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