Improv as Spiritual Practice

Improv, unlike the culture at large, celebrates failure.
Improv, unlike the culture at large, celebrates failure.

I just passed the half-way point of an improvisational acting class, my first in many years. I enrolled out of a desire to have fun and practice spontaneity.  While “practicing spontaneity” might sound like an oxymoron, it’s not. Some of us, schooled to have the answer, be right or persuasive, and “look good” at all costs, need to unlearn if not unravel those conditioned responses to enter the ever fresh, ever unpredictable present moment. That’s where improv, and life, take place. That’s the place Western spiritual teachers, starting with Ram Dass’ Be Here Now, urge us to inhabit.

In a fast-paced future-oriented society, being present is harder than it sounds. Many days, it seems downright impossible. As a small example, I might not have even finished breakfast when my mind starts planning lunch and dinner.  If my attention is not focused on the yogurt I’m spooning into my mouth, I’m not fully there. And that’s when I’m by myself. Adding other people complicates things exponentially. Not only can conversations follow familiar conventions, the things we are “supposed” to say or ask, ignoring what is actually present, but participants might be fantasizing about their next meal, distracted by a digital device, or have an eye on another conversation partner. Sharing space with other humans doesn’t always mean sharing experience or reality.

Improv, like a sharp but silly Samurai sword, slices through distraction and gleefully demands full participation. If your mind is elsewhere, you’ll miss what is going on. The skit will falter or fizzle.  And like any spiritual training, parts of it can be awkward or downright uncomfortable to ego and its need to control. But fun, and even joy, await on the other side, when playing according to these guidelines:

1.  Be willing to be a fool

In improv, you’re submitting to the larger group, relinquishing rights to control the scene, the narrative or even the role you are playing.  If someone decides that everyone is going to crawl on the floor, bark and wag their tails, that’s what you do. If your scene-mate insists that you are Santa Claus, Mickey Mouse, or the Pope riding a motorcycle, you are. To assume another identity, even for a few minutes, subtly disrupts or dismantles one’s patterns that shape how we operate in the world, expanding what is possible.

2. Say “Yes, AND”

Improv is invented out of thin air. The only way to move a skit forward is to accept what happened in the previous moment. Even if a scene partner says something outrageous, nonsensical or internally inconsistent, one must swallow distaste, disbelief or the desire to set them straight and instead say, “Yes! AND…”.  It’s a far cry from the “No, BUT…” we often hear in the real world, or even “Yes, BUT…”, which can subtly put the other person on the defensive.

“Yes, AND” is radical because of its inclusivity, its acknowledgement that you heard what the other person has said and want to remain in relationship, even if you don’t agree with them. After saying “Yes, AND,” you can still take the narrative in a new direction without disrupting the container, without making one person “right” and the other “wrong”. For someone like me, conditioned to win arguments and appear smart, often at the expense of connection, “Yes, AND” can feel like speaking an unfamiliar language, if not being rubbed the wrong way. But imagine if members of Congress could respectfully address their peers with a “Yes, AND”, moving debates forward rather than shutting everything down; wouldn’t that be refreshing?

3. Celebrate failure

Since we’re human, we may forget to be a fool or to say, “Yes, AND.”  We might drift off and lose track of what is happening. Or, our brains might freeze. That’s when an improv scene or game might wobble if not collapse. At that point, rather than diagnosing what went “wrong”, or pointing fingers, we give up a loud cheer, punch our fists in the air, and start again. The burst of enthusiasm brings everyone into the present moment, energetically erasing the “failure”. Celebrating certainly feels a lot better than saying, “Oh, crap,” and sinking into doubt or self-recrimination. And by immediately wiping the slate, one can quickly resume practicing. Not to become perfect, but to become more present.

Ilona Fried blogs at about spiritual practice.

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