An Unlikely Meditator
Interview by Basia Hellwig
When I say that I meditate, people tend to laugh in disbelief because I’m the opposite of calm. I’ve worked as a stand-up comedian for more than 20 years. I’m anxious, obsessive, distracted. That’s who I am. The great thing about stand-up is that you can let your mind go in any direction. A thought pops into your head, someone yells something from the audience, and you must let your brain go there—you process it organically so you say something funny back. That’s what improv and comedy are all about. Nothing still or calm about it.
The life of a stand-up is crazy, too. You’re working all the time. I used to be on the road for about 30 weeks a year. I’d be in a college town for a night and then off to another place 400 miles away. And even if I’m at home, I’m always thinking, carrying a notebook. I’ll be sitting at dinner with friends and a thought or the beginnings of a bit pop into my head and I’ll say, excuse me I have to write something down. My brain doesn’t get a break, a chance to slow down.
I started meditating five years ago when I became pregnant with my son Ben. I was feeling anxious and my therapist convinced me that just like a car engine needs to turn off, my brain needed a rest sometimes, a chance to clear out. I had taken anti-anxiety medications before, but I didn’t want to now. So he suggested a meditation tape for beginners by Andrew Weil. I liked Weil’s introduction to how meditation works, the history, and how meditating affected him personally because when I do something I like to know what the hell it’s about. And Weil is very forgiving: If thoughts come into your head, he tells you, just breathe and let them go again.
I meditated with the tapes almost every day during my pregnancy. The greatest thing for me is that some of the meditations are five minutes long. I like how meditation works on the most elemental thing in life—your breath.
Then, just recently, meditation became part of my professional life, too. At about the time Ben was born, I began working on a play about Jewish mothers with writer Kate Moira Ryan. Over the next five years, wherever I had a stand-up gig, Kate and I would arrange interviews with women in that town. We ended up interviewing about 50 Jewish women of different ages, ethnicities, and occupations, weaving their stories into what became a—yes—critically acclaimed one-woman show called 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother. I performed it Off-Off-Broadway last winter; it was nominated for a Drama Desk Award, and reopens in New York this fall.
This is a scripted play so it’s a whole different world from stand-up. Hello, the playwright actually wants her words spoken. And there’s stage direction. Each night I became these women—I had a story to tell and I had to remember the lines. I couldn’t let my brain go off in any direction it wanted. So I began to meditate backstage for anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes (depending on how late I got to the theater) just before each performance. I walked onstage completely focused.
I have to say that I think about meditation every day. It’s even made me realize how playing the piano has always been a form of meditation for me. I started taking lessons when I was five, and it was the one thing that I could focus on for stretches of time. Now, when I play a piece of Chopin or Mozart—my favorites—I am completely absorbed and calmed.
Occasionally, I’ve let my meditation practice slip, but I know it’s helpful and I come back to it. And every day I use the skills I’ve learned to help me calm my mind. I don’t mean to say it’s like a Band-aid, but I’ve taken the idea that if I’m trying to concentrate on one thing, I don’t have to desperately try and ignore the extraneous thoughts that intrude. I can let them come in, accept them, and then move on. I try to use that in my life.
Emmy-award-winning actress and comedian Judy Gold is the host of HBO’s At the Multiplex with Judy Gold and has also hosted Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time. She was recently seen in the hit film The Aristocrats.