Circus News

On Clowning and Mindfulness–Meditating with Wide Open Eyes, Part Two

In this second part of and 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.
How does clowning address the practice of mindfulness?

Could clowning, in return, change mindfulness as a practice?

Mindfulness isn’t Buddhism but the prevailing image of mindfulness is someone sitting with eyes closed, cross-legged on the floor with the tips of the fingers touching. That may happen in a mindfulpractice but mindfulness is about how you behave in your day to day life, in real life situations. That’s why we say we  practice mindfulness— because the regular practice ensures we have it to hand when we need it.

Mindfulness and clowning share the principle that regular practice changes our level of skill. The brain science coming from mindfulness (type ‘neuroplasticity’ into your search engine) shows that practice leads to brain change. The more you do it, the longer you do it, the more grey matter you produce and, effectively, your brain gets rewired, becomes more resilient, more compassionate, more focused.

If your clowning practice, rehearsal and devising sessions are done mindfully –that is if you are present, open, sensitive, embodied, compassionate, aware — then you are practicing mindfulness too. What’s more – you are demonstrating mindfulness to the world. This is what mindfulness looks like on the outside. That’s why this piece is called ‘Meditating with Eyes Wide Open’ because – from this perspective – that is what clowning actually is and always has been!

What about the other arts? Does it only apply to clowning?

By using any art form to teach and explore mindfulness, we learn to better integrate our feelings and thoughts in day-to-day real life situations and so liberate mindfulness from a confusion with any religious practice. This is why I think that clowning, circus skills training and performance skills training when taught alongside children developing a mindfulness practice is so exciting and such a powerfully creative tool.

Mindfulness is scientific and medical in origin and was created in order to address chronic pain in sufferers who couldn’t or didn’t wish to use powerful pain killing drugs, but mindfulness has so many more applications — and this is only just becoming apparent.

There is a case to be made for mindfulness and music, and dance, and painting, and drawing, and sculpture. In fact, any art form that has an aspect ofperformance to it. (For this reason sports people are amongst the first major social groups to adopt mindfulness into their daily practice sessions).

But it is the universal acceptance of clowning in the world’s culture – its ability to transcend culture and deal directly with everyday human frailtyand our strengths that

I believe may have the biggest appeal in exploring the potential for mindfulness teaching with children.

This could directly change clowning itself – for instance learning a skill such as juggling or slapstick is, of necessity, a ‘mindful’ practice. You can’t do these things properly if you are distracted by random thoughts and feelings. Similarly, having a regular daily practice of mindfulness meditation will enable higher levels of skill attainment if combined with a regular daily practice of a circus or performance skill, if for no other reason, that you will be able to concentrate for longer.

Do people still love Clowns?

Because we help people make ‘light’ of life’s trials and disappointments and celebrate the little gifts to be found in life, clowns and clowning will always be loved.

Clowns fill their performance with moments of thoughtfulness (or mindfulness) that point to their caring and compassion. When we care about what happens to the clown we feel connected to everyone else too. Their skill and ingenuity of clowning allows us to wonder and laugh in delight. Clowns trip up the tyrannical, the unjust and the unkind found in day-to-day life, defeating them with innocence, playfulness and truth.

Clowns are just like ‘us’, with all the usual human fragilities. The clown succeeds by being alive with the possibilities of succeeding through love, resilience and good humour. These are the values a mindfulness practice consciously develops.

The clowns, through exemplifying tenderness, get themselves and other people out of trouble with a kind of happy magic that people universally adore.

The clown exemplifies the power of kindness and empathy in changing people minds about whatreally matters in life and how to communicate despite conflict, in a compassionate manner and so bypass the brain’s reactivity, it’s usual defensiveness.

This is the same hope of what mindfulness holds for many people who practice it — it suggests a better way of being human.

I guess it might not be too far fetched to say that clowning and mindfulness together might be about discovering a new visual poetry of the human mind.

The It of ‘It’

But aren’t many people scared of clowns?

My guess is that most people aren’t in reality scared of clowns, they are scared of what clowns have been made to represent in the world. Clowning as an art form is at a transgressive moment in the world. I believe it is the misuse and misattribution of the symbolic nature of the Clown and the symbolic freedom from restraint that clowning represents that has led to the coulrophobia ‘epidemic’.

I also think that this moment had to happen in order for clowning to update itself, so that it remains ready for the unique and quite strange challenges of the twenty first century.

If feels to me like we are all quietly asking ourselves “What is there to find joy and laughter in, if everything has become irredeemably tragic and sad? Who is ‘innocent’ anymore? How can we trust anyone, really?” And so on.

My tentative answer is that we need to get to know our own mental reality at a much deeper level and learn to think and behave much more skilfully, moreconsciouslyand with that in mind, to challenge the simplistic moralities, and second-hand values that have been handed to us by our commerce, our culture and our personal history.

We need to find ways to examine ‘humans’ in all their complexity and contradictions in order to create truly authentic communities once again. We need to be able to answer this question: how can we be with daily unacceptable realities of our own and other people’s lives and still be whole and healthy human beings?

Well, an answer lies with the magic of the clowns because (somehow) they always survive and thrive despite andbecause of what happens to them!

All Clowns are Really Super Heroes!

Why do clowns persist in being so silly?

Because it’s the secret of the clowns (and our) emotional resilience. This silliness ensures their enduring place in the world of entertainment. I prefer the word ‘innocent’ rather than ‘silly’ (although originally they both meant the same thing). It’s that child-like ability to laugh at one’s own mistakes that gives us purchase over those mistakes and weaknesses so that we can afford to forgive ourselves and other people too.

So many of the difficult things in life stem from misunderstandings, breakdowns in communication or the clash of different values leading to conflict. Mindfulness helps us to see for ourselves that it is our conditioning that leads to areaction(automatic unmindful behaviour) and that this gets triggered when we are aren’t present (mindful) in the moment. In that moment (by being mindful) we can see that whatever it was that happened before (that hurt us) that makes us react, isn’t happeningnowand so we then havechoice in how werespond.

This ability to ‘get over ourselves’ and engage with the world on our own terms, with kindness and understanding, must be one of the most powerful gifts we could develop as a species.

I believe that if we clowns ‘‘model’ how behaviour can change through mindfulness and through our humour and skill and we combine this with an artistic sensibility, then we can create a truly mindful clowning, and tantalising possibilities arise.

Bringing mindfulness to clowning might just be one of the best ways for children to learn how to cause their own peace of mind. They could learn how to be mindful in the same way they learn how to read, write and add up. They would then be able to learn how to accept life as it unfolds moment by moment, as it is, and as a result care more about what happens to themselves and to their fellow human beings.  

Then, perhaps, when enough children know how to do this, these children may grow up to cause peace in the world. I like to believe so anyway.

Related Content: On Clowning and Mindfulness–Meditating with Wide Open Eyes, Part One

AUTHOR
Pete Turner
Pete Turner is Peanut the Clown. He was born in New York and lives in Leeds in the UK. He has been clowning for over thirty years. He trained with John Lee and Reg Bolton and somewhere along the way founded Leeds Children’s Circus (which he ran for seventeen years) and found time to perform for over ¼ million children. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1995 and is trained to teach ‘paws b’ (Mindfulness for Primary School Children) ‘dotb’ (Secondary School Children) by the Mindfulness in Schools Project in the UK and ‘Mindful Schools in Essentials’ and ‘Mindful Communication’

Pete comes from a community circus background and believes that circus has the power to transform lives. It has certainly transformed his!

Pete Turner

Pete Turner is Peanut the Clown. He was born in New York and lives in Leeds in the UK. He has been clowning for over thirty years. He trained with John Lee and Reg Bolton and somewhere along the way founded Leeds Children’s Circus (which he ran for seventeen years) and found time to perform for over ¼ million children. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1995 and is trained to teach ‘paws b’ (Mindfulness for Primary School Children) ‘dotb’ (Secondary School Children) by the Mindfulness in Schools Project in the UK and ‘Mindful Schools in Essentials’ and ‘Mindful Communication’ Pete comes from a community circus background and believes that circus has the power to transform lives. It has certainly transformed his!