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Learning from Improv

Be like the sun for grace and mercy.

Be like the night to cover others' faults.

Be like running water for generosity.

Be like death for rage and anger.

Be like the Earth for modesty.

Appear as you are. Be as you appear.


Recently I attended a "day of enrichment" with about 18 other spiritual seekers participating in experiential exercises based on improvisation techniques. The presenter, Carol Schindler, is an experienced improvisational actor, who now has a consulting business teaching improv in organizations, to business executives, teams, and community groups.

Carol brought the program to a group of people who, like myself, practice Centering Prayer. In Centering Prayer, a meditation practice in the Christian tradition, you settle into stillness with the intention of consenting to the Divine. You sit, giving space to allow the Divine to move and grow within you. As a direct result of the process, you discover love within and around yourself in your everyday interactions. You could describe the whole process as becoming aware of love.

I came to this program as a painter, and a journeyer on a spiritual path with the other participants who have been practicing for many years.

Carol began the day by quoting her teacher who told her

“Do not invent, discover”

This quote resonated with me as an artist. I describe my painting process as a conversation, I am open to where the colors and forms will lead me, as images are unearthed from a synthesis of my experiences, of nature, of other art work and of the world around me. In my studio practice, I must suspend the “judging” mind if I am to enter flow with my creative intuition. Only when we are willing to live with ambiguity will we be able to discover.

Welcoming change and living with ambiguity is incorporated into the lives of those who “center”. Through the practice we gradually begin to open to what life brings. We learn to suspend the labeling of experiences as ”good” or “bad”, allowing life to unfold as we witness the unfolding. A sense of mutual connection underlying our individual physical existence slowly emerges and we in turn become more compassionate toward others.

“I rarely let the word NO escape from my mouth,

because it is so plain to my soul that God has shouted,

Yes! Yes! Yes! To every luminous movement in existence.”


These were people who were primed and ready to hear the first principle of improvisation :

“Yes, and”

I knew this was a tool that could encourage conversation and rapport. My understanding grew as Carol stepped through exercises demonstrating the alternative responses:

“No” and “Yes, but…”

I think we can all readily recognize that a “No“ response to someone’s statement will immediately stop the conversation. However, the “Yes, but…” also stifles conversation. I immediately recognized that I fall into the trap of “Yes, but…” rather frequently. How does that play out? Someone speaks to me and I think of all the ways that person is not correct, or all the things I cannot accept. And while I say “yes,” I then follow up with all the “buts”.

We did an exercise where we experienced immediately accepting the other person’s point of view by committing to “yes, and” . Using the “Yes and” frame of mind, we give the other person’s ideas an opportunity to grow. We contribute to their growth. We are nourished by adopting this as a strategy as we participate in the blossoming idea.

Meet this transient world with neither grasping nor fear, trust the unfolding of life, and you will attain true serenity.

— Bhagavad Gita, Hindu scripture

Extending this practice of not only accepting everything that comes our way, but building on it,

we now turn to…

“Make your partner look good”

For this to work, you must listen with your whole body, remaining alert and aware with a focus on the other person, willing to participate with, and support them.

Applying this technique fundamentally changes your thinking. Instead of thinking about self-protection, your ego is diminished for the sake of the other.

Equanimity is about dwelling with things the way they are. It is a power that can help us meet the intense challenges of this time,

in which we face so much disruption and breakdown.

— Kaira Jewel Lingo, author

“Blocking or denying stops all progress”

What stops “Yes and”? Resistance.

Blocking or denying, is what happens when we resist. This resistance stops you from experiencing the moment, and it takes you out of the flow.

As human beings our “default" setting is a negative one. We are on the lookout for how to protect ourselves from what might harm us. In this state, negative thoughts take over.

Carol asked, “Why be negative about the weather? Nothing will change it. Only your mood worsens as you grumble.”

“Why be negative about how another person is behaving? Most of the time you are receiving their stressors.”

Note: To say you should accept and not resist does not mean you agree with everyone all the time. Of course there are times when one must stop bad things from happening. However, most of the time, when we feel the need to resist, we can still listen and try to understand the person underneath the behavior. We can show, “I am listening to you, I am seeing you and I am allowing you to be as you are”

As we followed along with the next exercise, many discovered previously unrecognized psychological patterns. (OK me. I noticed something unexpected.)

How do you resist your experience?

Doing this exercise, we asked each other repeatedly “How do you resist your experience?” As the exercise went on, I realized the many ways I avoid uncomfortable feelings and deflect what I perceive to be negative experiences. Noticing all the tricks I play on myself to maintain this false face, I began to feel quite exposed and vulnerable. It also allowed me to lower my defenses as I began to realize that I may never be able to live up to the ideal I hold for myself. I knew in that same moment that never being perfect is part of my humanness and I accepted that too.

Again we ask: Can we communicate in a way where the other person feels seen and heard? Yes, aim to be curious about the other’s experience. Have empathy.

One way is by reminding yourself to ask:

How can I take care of this other person?”

When you stop and reflect on this question, you stop plotting how to correct that person and how to ensure that your opinion is heard. Instead, you are now concerned with another person. As you are connected with that person, you are in the present moment.

The heart of every wisdom tradition I have encountered is connection to every living being. Improvisation becomes a spiritual practice as we forge connections with others.

There Is A Wonderful Game

There is a wonderful game we should play,

and it goes like this:

We hold hands and look into each other's eyes

and scan each other's face.

Then I say, "Tell me a difference

you see between us. "

And you might respond, "Hafiz, your nose

is ten times bigger than mine!"

Then I would say, "Yes, my dear, almost

ten times!"

But let's keep playing.

Let's go deeper, go deeper.

For if we do, our spirits will embrace

and interweave,

our union will be so glorious

that even God will not be able to tell us apart.

This would be a wonderful game to play.


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