Mime Over Matter
by Tricia Brick
From (The Boulder Weekly - O u t t a b o u n d s. Thursday, December 2, 1999)
Alessandra holds between delicate fingers a glass that I can't see. Concentrating, she lifts the invisible goblet, tilts its airy contents to her lips and takes a dainty sip. "You begin to develop an incredible awareness of how the parts of your body work together," the former triathlete says, flexing her elbow. "All these tiny movements are necessary to lift the glass. Do you see? It's not just my hand that moves; my whole arm, my whole body is involved."
In a gentle voice plentifully accented by subtly theatrical gestures, Alessandra describes the new awareness she's gained from coming to understand her body as more than a "mechanical" object. As a student of Samuel Avital, a world-renowned mime artist and director of Boulder's Le Centre du Silence, Alessandra has traded a career as a competitive triathlete for a form of "moving meditation" based on the oft-maligned dramatic art of mime.
Here in Boulder, at least, we've come to accept meditation practice as a valuable component to most any athletic regimen. But the idea that mime practice could likewise enhance athletic ability is a bit harder to swallow. Will the Pearl Street Mall soon be crowded with silent basketball players and Pierrot-costumed ultra-runners manipulating invisible boxes for pedestrians' spare change?
Avital is quick to assert that the art of mime is in fact a highly physical pursuit. It's also a discipline that's nearly unsurpassed for introducing students to the art of mindfulness-and the intense concentration that's so essential to excelling at one's sport.
"I'm talking about the orgasmic state. It's a sense of complete well-being, a total connection with everything," Avital explains. "For example, Michael Jordan is always in this state- because Michael Jordan and the ball are not two things." In its essence, this sense of connection is a reduction of the conceptual distance between thought and action: in effect, an effacement of the culturally learned gap between mind and body.
He describes a modern world that's cut us off from our bodies. On the Internet, we interact with others without ever touching or even seeing them. We're bombarded by the media's detached descriptions of horrific goings on in other parts of the world; wars unfold on TV like so many violent films.
Yet, he doesn't claim that athletic contests are innately harmful, any more than he professes technology to be evil. He does, however, maintain that we as a culture need to reformulate the way we understand ourselves. Our bodies and our ways of interacting with the external world. And the solution, he says, is "to live 500 percent, totally in the now."
Avital compares this "connection with yourself" to the "runner's high" athletes often experience in moments of peak performance. Notoriously difficult to quantify, this "high" or sense of "flow" is often dismissed as animal instinct, a rush of endorphins, a purely physical response. But, others describe a kind of transcendence of the self, as the athlete becomes one with the action she's performing: with her game, with the ball, with her teammates, with the act of dribbling or shooting.
Even recreational athletes can achieve this particular state of grace, when the ego seems to fall away, leaving the body to move as if by magic. In some sense, the runner's high is the link between the solitary jogger and the star quarterback - or Michael Jordan.
Avital recalls a young long-distance runner who studied at the Centre du Silence. She described the runner's high as " a kind of trick of the gods." When she runs, she gets a sense of being in the current of things, like a bird rising on a current of air. But it is not voluntary - it "just happens."
Avital shakes his head. Through awareness-raising exercises like Alessandra's mimed goblet, he says, "You can create you own endorphins! When my student learned awareness, she said, Now I can do this every day if I want! But we've been programmed to be sleepwalkers."
The difference, Avital insists, is in the athlete's attunement to her body. "If you're unaware, then you can believe that it happens when the gods and goddesses choose to grace you with it. But you can be the god and the goddess; you can cause this in your self.
"We can all be Michael Jordans if we only can learn to pay attention."
(Outtabounds is a weekly column about sports in the Boulder Weekly - Boulder, Colorado.