Improv, Dress Up, and Deity Yoga: Playing With Identity

I have already posted an article about how I see improv as meditation’s extraverted twin. But I got interested in improv because of another, rather different, connection—to a couple of other forms of meditation: those practices that work to deconstruct the sense of a solid and permanent self, particularly deity yoga.

Archetype Practice

Last February (2013) I participated in a session led by Shinzen Young (in his Home Practice Program) on one of the practices he groups under the heading “nurture positive”: “ideal practice,” or more specifically “archetype practice,” or still more specifically “deity yoga.” (Shinzen mostly teaches a form of vipassana, but he was originally trained in Japanese Shingon, a school descended from an early—9th century—form of Vajrayana.)

Participants each picked an archetype of their own choosing. Shinzen guided us in experimenting with creating and holding an image of that archetype in visual imagery, internal talk, and somatic emotion. He also distinguished three possible modes of identification with an archetype: shamanic possession, psychotic delusion, and insight—our aim was, of course, insight.

Specifically, insight into the fact that all identity is arbitrary and constructed. In this practice, we got to play very directly with the identity-constructing process. We also got to drop, temporarily, our habitual identities and to try on different ones. Shinzen directed us to keep the image “feather light and paper thin” or “vivid, like the reflection of the moon in a pond, but without ponderable mass.”

I had been thinking a lot about play around that time. It was immediately obvious to me that this practice was a form of dress up: putting on the attributes and emotions of another identity, imagining how that would feel, imagining acting in the way that being would act.

Stepping Out Of Identification

Now, the Theravadan-derived meditation traditions work with identity primarily by way of deconstruction: seeing how the elements (“aggregates”) that make up this problematic sense of self are themselves without stable essence or necessary connection. Seen deeply enough, this is liberating insight.

In Tibetan and other Vajrayana practice, elaborate visualizations of deities, and especially of oneself as these deities, aim at the same end by a different means. Rather than deconstructing, one learns to let go of belief in a spurious self by deliberately constructing and temporarily assuming other identities—thereby experiencing the arbitrary nature of all identity. Seen deeply enough, this too is liberating insight.

Very soon after I understood that these two approaches converge on the goal of taking identity or ego less seriously, I saw that improv parallels this sort of archetype practice: both are ways of playing actively with the sense of identity. And I began planning to do some improv to try out that hypothesis.

Improv and Identity

This is a point at which archetype practice potentially intersects interpersonal practice. In the little work I have done so far with improv, I have only occasionally and briefly been able to dip into this dynamic. (This is not surprising: in the Second City’s program, games and small scenes come first, work with characterization a bit later.) Most of my practice of improv has so far revolved around its demand for present moment attention, along with that demand’s corollary: vivid glimpses of how trying to protect myself takes me out of the moment and makes much of my intelligence unavailable. In those moments of “brain freeze,” my habitual self seems like an all-too-solid reality—one with “ponderable mass,” creating problems right and left.

And here’s an interesting thing: my habits re-enact that solidifying even when I’m not buying into it, because my motor circuits don’t (yet) know what else to do. There is a “rewiring opportunity” here—that’s another name for “spiritual practice”—and that opportunity is to drop those habits.

Even so, my small experience of improv has already included some elements of the playing with identity I first imagined. Just walking around the room the other night, trying on different emotions as our teacher called them out—suddenly, the advice to keep the imagined attributes “feather light and paper thin,” “like the reflection of the moon in a pond: vivid, but without ponderable mass” came to mind, with new depth and clarity. (Improvisers, too, talk about wearing a character like an overcoat, or a top hat, or a veil…) So this is what a self is: arbitrary, able to be chosen to work appropriately with a situation, able to be held lightly, ultimately insubstantial.

Dress Up and Transformation

Beyond undermining the belief that identity is necessary and all-pervasive, there are other benefits to the imaginative play of archetype practice or deity yoga.

  • I read somewhere (reference coming soon, if I find it again) that the Tibetan slant on detailed visualization has been documented to increase visual and spatial intelligence.
  • Putting on and holding a wholesome identity is a way of practicing positive emotions and character traits, making them more readily available in other meditation and in daily life.
  • And trying on any identity—imaginatively walking that mile in another’s shoes—supports the development of qualities along the spectrum of compassion-loving kindness-sympathetic joy.

The last two benefits, viewed more broadly, support social and emotional intelligence. (Pretty good for “just” play, huh?)

Yet surely there are other practices that share the same structure of trying on and holding an emotion, condition, or identity. These practices may be less intensive, but still quite deliberate. To give one small example: last week my improv teacher Jay Sukow spoke a little about how he used to work informally with a friend, sitting in a coffeeshop and trying on characters observed around them. They were not making fun of anybody, just exploring that move and learning to hold it steadily, to stay “in character” for a while. They were, of course, having a good time playing together while simultaneously training themselves as actors and improvisers. But they were also developing awareness and concentration in some specific physical, emotional, and social domains.

Jay’s story describes a lighter version of “dress up” than Shinzen’s archetype practice (already a “light” version of deity yoga). Challenged by the sights and sounds of the coffeeshop, the practice he shared with his friend was informal in its setting. Both challenged and supported by the interaction with each other, these friends’ practice was fully interpersonal. It was quite formal in its shared intention. Yet the basic structure was the same: imagining, trying on, and holding an identity. Their practice clearly exercised observation and imagination, and cultivated specific mind states—specific inner talk and somatic emotion. Approached with good will (evident in the telling), I don’t doubt that it tended to further develop empathy and compassion. It seems an easy conjecture that such practice would also be capable of fostering the habit of holding personal identity more loosely and freely.

While only one example, this story has me wondering. Other analogous forms of “dress up” must be possible. What other forms of play—also known as interpersonal practice—might bring the benefits of externally-focused awareness and concentration, the cultivation of wholesome mind states and the development of empathy, along with a loosening of the grip of identity?

For (a little) more information, see Shinzen’s (excellent though brief) YouTube on Archetypal Deity Yoga.

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