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May 24, 2019

Improv as a Spiritual Practice.

When I was in my late teens, I began meditating. It was at the suggestion of my then eating disorder therapist, Tracey. She’d just guided us through a visual meditation –

Close your eyes. Feel your body. Breathe in… and out…

I felt myself sink deeply into my bones in a way I’d long forgotten.

Now imagine you’re in a field – the sun warm on your back, the grass cool under your feet…

It was at that point I left this realm of existence and went someplace else entirely. I could still hear her words, but distantly. I was still in the room – distantly. I was more at home than I’d been in years.

Nearly fourteen years later, I still meditate nearly every day. I’ve traversed all sorts of realms of existence, sometimes induced by some acronym or another, sometimes just through breathing, and sometimes – perhaps my favorite of all – through improv.

Uh, did you perhaps misspell “Zen meditation?” Or maybe you meant “Self… improvement?”

No, and no. I did, in fact mean improv. As in, improv comedy. (But thank you for checking, reader, who for some reason in my head still sounds just like my old therapist, Tracey! Perhaps it’s these italics…)

You see, when I was about 24, I started taking improv comedy classes. Immediately, I felt that same home feeling I did when first starting to meditate. Improv is an exercise of being in flow – of living in the moment and allowing the vibrancy and joy of life to bubble up and animate you. So of course, I was hooked.

I took classes in Austin, San Francisco, London. I was in a troupe in Bali (of all places), played in Seattle, and finally, made my way back to Austin, where these days, I teach improv among other things.

And after all these years, I truly believe that improv comedy is not just fun – it’s a practice in spirituality.

Hear me out.

These are the major tenets of improv:

  1. Be present: Don’t think about what will come; don’t fret about what just happened. Just pay attention to what is and try not to get stuck in thought.
  2. Remember, fear, stage fright, anxiety, and regret are just information – signals we’re not in the moment.
  3. Take risks: This is where the magic happens.
  4. Make mistakes: This is so huge in improv that there are multiple warmups and games specifically designed to have players mess up. We’re all just winging it anyway; improv is a great reminder of this.
  5. There is no one right choice: An improv scene or show can go one of infinite directions. Whichever one direction you decide on is the correct one. Because that’s the one you’ve decided on. If you say, “We’re at a zoo!”, you’re at a zoo! And it’s brilliant. Good job, you.
  6. Be supportive: Improv is all about helping the other players to look good. You’re a team. And what is there no I in? All sorts of things. But also – team.
  7. Trust yourself: Trust your instincts, your impulses, your body, your excitement. Remember, there’s no one right choice in creating stories or characters.*
  8. Commit: Once a direction is chosen in a scene, let go of what you thought it would look like. Commit 100 percent to the beautiful, weird thing you’re creating now.
  9. Give up some control: You don’t have to know the outcome before you start; the important thing is to get started.

*There is, however, one wrong choice, and that’s taking things to a racist, sexist, bigoted, unnecessarily negative place, or being otherwise just plain sh***y to other players. C’mon, Neil!*

* All characters named Neil in this article are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, or animals named Neil should be assumed.

Now, let’s take a look at this same list from above. With just a few minor tweaks, we now have the tenets of a peaceful, just, and spiritually rich life – or at least the chapters for a great Deepak Chopra book.

  1. Be present: Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. – Eckhart Tolle
  2. Remember, if you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present. – Lao Tzu
  3. Take risks: Great love and great achievements involve great risk. – Dalai Lama. Our growth – spiritually, physically, emotionally, or mentally – involves being at our edge. Evolution comes with not playing it safe.
  4. Make mistakes: A person who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. – Albert Einstein. Einstein was as smart as he was wise. If we’re not making mistakes, it means we’re not trying new things; not taking risks. If we’re truly living, we’re bound to make mistakes. As another unwitting guru says, Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Whatever you’re scared of doing, do it. – Neil Gaiman
  5. There is no one right choice: Your life changes the moment you make a new, congruent, committed decision. – Tony Robbins. We spend so much time second-guessing ourselves or laboring over which choice is the right choice. In life, as in improv, there is no one right choice. Whatever we choose – becomes the right choice, because that’s what is.
  6. Be supportive: The one characteristic of authentic power that most people overlook is humbleness. It is important for many reasons. A humble person walks in a friendly world. He or she sees friends everywhere he or she looks, wherever he or she goes, whomever he or she meets. His or her perception goes beyond the shell of appearance and into essence. – Gary Zukav
  7. Trust yourself: Listen to the wind, it talks. Listen to the silence, it speaks. Listen to your heart, it knows. – Native American proverb. When you find that quiet certainty inside, listen to it.
  8. Commit: Stay committed to your decisions but flexible in your approach. – Tony Robbins. Committing to a path – in impov or in life – is where growth happens. It’s where we can excel, transform, and create something new. It’s not in the space of indecision.
  9. Give up some control: You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step. – Martin Luther King Jr. We can’t know what will happen onstage or off, and we definitely can’t control the people or world around us. But we can make our way, one step at a time, and only later look back and see that it was perfect.

*Oh yeah, and Don’t be a jerk. – the Buddha (probably.)


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