What every improviser can learn from being present.
I once had the pleasure of improvising with a group of practicing Buddhists. It was this experience that led me to explore mindfulness and eventually to recognize its connection with my own mindful practice: improvisation.
Improvisation: listening and responding in the moment.
Mindfulness: “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leader in the field of mindfulness)
Where do the principles of improvisation align with the practice of mindfulness?
There are many principles known to improvisers that overlap with the mindful mindset.
There are six that stand out as being particularly well aligned:
- Listen and Respond
- Be Present
- Start Anywhere
- Embrace Uncertainty
- Be Kind
- Cultivate Generosity
Preparing to be mindful in improv
I often tell my workshop participants that they need to quieten their mind in readiness for the activities ahead. By this, I mean for them to leave their troubles behind, at least for the duration.
One of the tools I use for this is called a ‘deposit bank’. I give everyone post-it notes and ask them to write down anything that is on their mind and that could distract them from the focus of the workshop. Sometimes they’ll write things like “I feel hungry” or “I’m tired”. Others will write down every item on their to-do list for that week. Some even use it to keep track of their shopping list that day.
Whatever they need to deposit, I ask them to put the notes on a wall that is purposely situated out of sight. After all, the last thing we need is a wall of ‘stress’ notes staring at us during the session! I tell them they can pick up their notes at the end of the session if they would like to.
While doing this, somebody once asked me, “Does this bank pay interest?”. I replied, “Yes, I can add stress to your stress, no problem!”.
In improv, we have pay attention to what is going on inside the exercise or the scene. It is only by paying attention that we can truly understand what is happening and identify places to add value or support.
When improvising, we use active listening to listen and respond. We have to be present. As an improviser on the side of the stage watching a scene, if we get caught up in what happened five minutes ago, we are no longer in the present and any offer we make could potentially be irrelevant because we stopped listening and starting getting inside our own heads.
We should always look for opportunities to start anywhere. Starting anywhere essentially means jumping in or starting in the middle. Through improv, we are encouraging creativity and spontaneity. If you have an idea in the present, you don’t need to spend time refining it or evaluating it. You can just jump in with the offer and see where the scene or the discussion takes you.
The practice of starting anywhere goes hand in hand with embracing uncertainty. In improv, we sometimes speak of this as suspending judgement or letting go. Both in mindfulness and in improv, we do not have a set script or pattern to follow. We ask ourselves just to be present in the moment.
Another way to put it: be kind. It’s all about being kind to yourself and being kind to others. Allowing yourself and others time and space to think, listen and respond is one of the most generous things you can do.
This brings us neatly to cultivate generosity. In our current society, we focus a lot on consuming, doing and being productive. Sometimes we forget just to be and to experience deeply the things we are seeing and hearing.
Mindfulness practitioners learn how to pay attention on purpose by practicing mindfulness meditation and mindful movements. Over time, practitioners learn to slow down and stop the constant bombardment of random thoughts that comes with being a mentally active human being. These practitioners learn to experience the present moment as it really is.
The bottom line
As improvisers, we should look to become masters of mindfulness. Mindfulness can be amazingly powerful because it allows us to go with the emotion or situation as it is; not try to control it or make it more comfortable. Having the purpose of staying with our experience means that we are actively shaping the mind. Enacting this practice means that we surprise ourselves in two ways…
- by experiencing uncommon / uncomfortable emotions (developing our empathy for other peoples’ feelings)
- by giving ourselves the opportunity to take scenes and conversations to entirely new places
In short, both the practices of mindfulness and principles of improv allow us to make interesting and exciting discoveries about ourselves and each other.