In this two part article by Pete Turner (aka Peanut the Clown), Turner asks himself some essential questions, exploring the connections he has identified between the acts of clowning and meditation and further investigates the power of using both tools to work with children.
Why did you write this, Peanut?
For over ten years, I have watched increasing numbers of children in my workshops and shows exhibiting signs of being depressed and often losing self control. At the same time, I’ve seen their natural resilience being undermined by social medias and phone addiction with a proportionate loss of connection to their families and friends.
I began looking for ways (as a clown) to help them.
I spent several years looking to my own practice as a teacher and a clown seeing how I could help by using circus skills and performance training to raise their self-esteem through performance training and by teaching nonverbal communication skills to improve the quality of their interpersonal communication. That is important work — but it wasn’t enough. Then I took an 8 week course in mindfulness-based stress relief (MBSR). Through this, I discovered a simple and yet fascinatingly difficult skill to master — that of learning how to train my own attention.
In the months that followed (after developing and committing to a daily meditation of a few minutes per day) I began to see how my own behaviour was changing. After three years, I now have more peace, more interest, more joy, more understanding and less upset, less confusion and less depression in my daily life.
Then I discovered that I could train to teach this to children, in schools. So I did the training. And I found it works beautifully.
What would a clown know about mindfulness anyway?
The circus arts have (as a core value) the goal of attracting and holding the audience’s attention. Performers do this by embodying a certain physical potential. Hence, the brilliantly coloured costumes, the sparkle and glitter, the loud sounds, the extreme postures, the extraordinary skills and massed spectacle of the charivari. All of these things point at the presence of the performer and indicate that they are about to do something spectacular.
‘Presence’ in mindfulness terms is about being powerfully ‘in’ the present moment. The father of the mindfulness practice, Jon Kabat-Zinn, says: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.
Mindfulness is not a knowledge-based technique. It is a body-based practice (both sensory and sensual) that opens us up to a deeper understanding of how our brains work. Once we have begun to look at brain-based triggers to our reactivity, mindfulness helps create greater empathy for others, by first noticing how to create greater empathy for ourselves.
In the circus, as a performer, you’d better pay attention to your audience, because they are the only ones who can tell you if you are doing it right! Clowning is also a body based practiced.You feel it in your body,as you perform, so that the audience can feel it too. This isn’t something that can be taught directly, you need to notice it in your own body in order to understand how an audience might understand it.
If what you do makes you laugh, feel silly or sad, the chances are the audience will feel it too. This is the empathic understanding that results from creating comedy that is visceral and communicated directly to the audience without them having to think about it. This is vital to clowning. As you develop this skill, you can begin to explore your clown to more and more depth. But first you have to notice it.
And this ‘noticing’ behaviour is the door to where both mindfulness and clowning open.
Why would a clown be a good person to teach mindfulness?
Because clowns must develop an expertise in noticing the audience’s expressions and also being ‘noticed’ themselves, by using these skills they create a focus for the action (the skills of clowning) and help us to discover the extraordinary properties of real things (for instance slapstick) in the real world.
Sometimes the extraordinary properties of real objects actually hit us on the head!
When we practice mindfulness, we begin to notice how we are often complicit in creating our own problems in life. In clowning, there is always a subtext pointing at the disastrous way that the human mind, our emotions and our behaviours sometimes works against us.
We notice how we react in some situations and the words we choose can be triggers to our emotionality, in very undesirable ways. In other words – when our adrenaline takes over — we often mess up!
Take this example of Buster Keaton’s wonderful clowning in the Electric House 1922. His inventions are ingenious but completely unnecessary. He gets us to laugh at our own laziness at not wanting to walk up the stairs, go to the kitchen to get food or reach for a book. He is being ‘unmindful’ in his laziness and it results a catalogue of catastrophes and our intense amusement. That is because we (as the audience) also have the ability to empathise with the clown. We can see ourselves behaving and reacting in the same way. The clown makes us realise what ‘mindless’ action results will in.
This is why clowns can teach mindfulness to others – because we are experts at ‘getting it wrong’ – because we do it deliberately to get a laugh. We all fool ourselves at times, though we rarely admit it. But it is the clowns that know what to do about it!
What does mindfulness have to offer clowning as an art form?
Mindfulness is a psychological tool that teaches us about how our own mind works, by allowing us to forgive ourselves the tendency to be distracted by thoughts, feelings and sensations so we can notice when (and how) our attention wanders.
When mind-wandering happens, it take us out of the present moment (where we actually are) and puts us in our imagination (where we often think we are – but are often not!).
Clowning shows us over and over again that, in the real world, when we lose this connection to the present moment (when we behave ‘mindlessly’) damage will result.
All sorts of potentially funny misunderstandings, slapstick accidents and unintended consequences flow from these mindless moments. And these moments can easily escalate into angry exchanges, frustrated hopes and emotional upsets.
This is what we laugh at when these things happen to a clown.
Importantly, clowns are seen as being cartoon- like in their audiences’ imaginations and expectations. We know they aren’t really getting hurt (otherwise that wouldn’t be funny). This theatrical distance allows for even quite drastic things to happen to a clown that would be terrible in the real world–and it allows us to think about our own assumptions, fixed ideas and narrow emotions that often get us into trouble too.
The clowning buys us a moment to laugh at ourselves and possibly gain self understanding at a new level. In a sense, the clowns are teaching us what not to do in order to safely navigate through the evermore complex and confusing world that we live in.
Mindfulness does the same thing — but within our own minds. And by learning how to forgive ourselves our own mistakes we can teach ourselves how to look after ourselves better. By looking closer at how the human mind works (or rather how it often doesn’t work) I believe clowning could help people venture into new areas of experience, by finding new contexts to clown in. For instance,using clowning and other circus skills in teaching mindfulness to children in a school classroom. Some children might find this a more approachable way to understand mindfulness, because a meditation session can be intimidating for some people.
We could also perhaps claim the clown is a protector of children’s well being and mental health. Then perhaps we can begin to address the contemporary negative ‘scary clown’ trope. We could do this by creating a positive new type of clowning, teaching authenticity through humour and poignancy and the poetry of the clowning art form.
Does mindfulness create a new itch to clown?
Can clowning and mindfulness meet in performance? I suppose one answer is ‘why not’! Clowning should be able to deal with anything thrown at it – especially if it’s being thrown at it! So how could mindfulness change clowning?
In my own workshops, I explore moving very slowly (mindful movement); narratives about the breakdown and restoration of empathy between the clowns (loving kindness); exploring our different levels of attention (‘mindful versus mindless’ action); listening; setting our intention; noticing our breathing and (my personal favourite) looking at the power of stillness and silence in clowning.
I am only just beginning to look at these ideas as a teacher, but I have already incorporated several of the practices into my show; from using a breathing practice to prepare, to using bells and quietness to ‘draw the audience in’, to setting up slapstick moments by demonstrating my loss of mindfulness as the reason why I end up on my bottom!
And more than this – ideas for shows about mindlessness abound! Think about the nonsense that exists now that was never there before — everyone ignoring each other on their mobiles, the sadness of addictive FOMO, texting while walking, people ringing each other up whilst sitting next to that person — someone who they could be having fun with!
It begs for a clown to take it all on! (what would Buster Keeton make of all this!)
But when I am teaching mindfulness to children, I really understand that children are already mindful. It’s is natural for children to be curious, to forgive, to ask the awkward question, to be innocent fools, to constantly want to know why and to laugh and play. Mindfulness practice values these natural impulses and supports them in coping with the endless distractions and distress that the internet bring into their lives. It allows children to start looking after themselves in an endlessly fascinating and playful exploration of their own mind. And isn’t that what education should be after all?
Related content: On Clowning and Mindfulness–Meditating with Wide Open Eyes, Part Two
A short video showing a mindful clowning exercise with year 5 children. Thanks to Gomersol Primary, Kirklees.The exercise is repeated three times and a short 'pause and be' mindful practice is done between repeats. This is the end result -- greater expression, more focused movement and a palpable happiness.
All photos courtesy of Pete Turner