What Clowns Can Teach Us About Building Resilience

When things are at their worst, mindfulness teacher Elaine Smookler suggests turning to the rules of clowning to face difficult emotions.

Audrey Shtecnjo/Stocksy

When confusion and anger turn you inside out, when you feel like you’ve lost your rudder and aren’t sure whose rudder to trust, this is an excellent moment to turn toward the wisdom of the clown.

All the world loves a clown! Actually, not so much. Let’s face it, clowns scare the bejesus out of people. When I tell folks that I trained as a clown I understand when they step back in primal terror and run away, screaming and sobbing.

Clowns stir up uneasy feelings even for the tough nuts. But fear not, kiddies, the clown has some helpful things to teach us about being free and alive and present when everything seems wretched, horrible, and hopeless.

Richard Pochinko, a visionary teacher and director, created the Pochinko Method, which trained performers to draw on their own anxieties and insecurities to create believable and compelling characters. These masked tricksters helped the audience take a journey into parts of themselves they would rather not see or know about.

By viewing these aspects of myself through the clown, I give myself a way to feel all kinds of strong and difficult emotions without getting trapped. I can feel them without being overtaken.

We call these anxieties and insecurities “masks.” Our masks are a rich source of insight. One of my masks was created out of my experiences with adolescent pain and hostility. Another of my masks hungers for connection. Other masks I can inhabit are wacky, seductive, playful, and judgmental. By viewing these aspects of myself through the clown, I give myself a way to feel all kinds of strong and difficult emotions without getting trapped. I can feel them without being overtaken.

For example, once during a performance, I accidentally dropped a bottle of pills all over the stage. My usual reaction would have been to berate myself for being such a klutz—on stage, no less!—and make the situation worse with my own chorus of mental chatter and anxiety. Instead, as the clown, I got on my hands and knees and spent a long time looking for every pill. The audience grew very excited and wanted to help me. It could have been a disaster. Instead it was fun.

Don’t Fear the Clown

The clown invites us to be aware of our masks. We can hold them with tenderness, and use all the energies they offer without getting lost, disarmed, or tangled in them. We don’t need to avoid any of these masks, we simply need to know we are wearing and using them.

How might you uncover some of your clown masks? Picture a scenario from your life that evokes strong feelings in you. Notice your body’s response. What is your mask urging you to do? You might find a clue if you notice whether your mask wants your fists to be open or closed. Does your mask want you to stand or sit? Are your teeth bared or smiling? Is your breath shallow, deep, or are you panting with fear? It’s OK to feel it all; these are all just masks.

The clown is by its nature curious and resilient. It bounces back because curiosity wins out.

The clown is by its nature curious and resilient. It bounces back because curiosity wins out. Looking at the world through the eyes of the clown becomes a way to offer ourselves an outrageous opportunity to respond to what might otherwise squash us. When I am on the phone and feel myself growing irritated or impatient, I can see one of my clown masks revving up. Seeing it helps me gain some playful distance rather than giving in to my moody intolerance. We can experience it all, finding the common humanity that exists behind every mask.

Explore each aspect of yourself with loving curiosity. Welcome and get to know the entire you, even the part you think you don’t like or want. Play around with the combustible urges, the clingy tendencies, the intolerant stances. Stay open to whatever comes.

A Set of Clown Rules to Live By

Richard Pochinko devised a set of Clown Rules that lay out the parameters of a way to live onstage and off with a sense of vividness, fire, presence, and electricity. Many of them offer a path for how to proceed when chaos and sadness might cause us to hold too tightly to our masks.

Clown rules include:

  • care enough not to care
  • be honest
  • have fun
  • take us into your world and bring us back with a new awareness
  • ride the wave
  • physicalize
  • be zany
  • listen to us (the audience)
  • listen to yourself
  • surprise us
  • surprise yourself
  • drop the script—you can always go back
  • know when to leave
  • keep the conversation going
  • breathe
  • go for the unknown
  • trust
  • believe
  • break the rules!
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