Picture a group of monks waiting patiently to meet the Buddha at the start of a race. Then imagine the tape that held them at bay is cut and all heck breaks loose as the monks fight to get a head start—shoving, disrobing, hollering— exhibiting generally un-monk like behavior. That was the image my improvisation instructor used to describe the act of “Running to the Buddha” which she invoked to incite us to be spontaneous participants in class. I was curious to learn more about this notion, but my Google search only unearthed information about a grueling 100-day traditional Japanese Buddhist race toward enlightenment where a participating monk volunteers to take his own life if he cannot complete the journey.
Historical accuracy aside, I prefer the less punishing and more comical image of the race to the Buddha. One that I take to describe the moment when you shed your fear, long-held beliefs and pesky inner critics to raise your hand to say, “pick me first and quickly before I change my mind or somebody beats me to it.”
Last month my Buddha was an improv class at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. I go every year to “get out of Dodge” and to try new, largely introspective activities. (Although one year I flew on the trapeze and the only inner voice I heard was the Amazonian-like cry escaping from my lungs as I leapt from a 40-foot scaffold and was hoisted through a summersault backwards into a net.)
This time, however, when faced with the prospect of getting up in front of a group and being tossed scenarios (Be a chicken! A pig! A farmer! You’re in a barn! Go!) and prop hats (a Stetson, a bicycle helmet, a pink wig, a fairy crown), the thought of bailing did flash through my mind. I gave myself a lot of credit for quickly achieving a state of relaxed anticipation. I was there to run to the Buddha. And I did, every time save maybe one that involved a game of gibberish that I couldn’t quite get my head around. I raised my hand before my brain could stop me. The result was a good time, minimal self-effacing thoughts and less worry.
For me, the appeal of the Buddha in this setting was a strong desire to fail. I wanted to give myself permission to be awful so I could let go of my inner saboteur that tells me I have to get it right— insisting that unless I am an expert, I will be judged without mercy and labeled forever a nincompoop. That fear has gotten in my way more than once in my adult life. I have found creative ways around it, but the fact that I couldn’t comfortably get up in front a group when failure was at stake, left me missing important and vital opportunities for learning and for fun.
My challenge to high school juniors this summer: let yourself go in such a way. Granted, the college essay likely doesn’t provide the same incentive for you as the Buddha does for a group of monks, but the basic idea is the same: Don’t wait to be called on by your college counselor, or for an early application deadline to be decided, or for your parent’s pressure to advance—take it upon yourself to run to the essay. Run toward the possibility that there will be fun, freedom and a compelling essay on the other side. And if you can’t picture that, then just run to me, and we’ll spend a few hours of thought-time creatively getting you the material you’ll need for your essays.
Private workshops ALL SUMMER LONG or register for my COLLEGE ESSAY INTENSIVE at the JCC on the Hudson in Tarrytown, August 20-24: www.naomivladeck.com for event registration.