Improvisation As a Spiritual Practice

I have been doing some improv this fall—as a spiritual practice. Standard principles of improv include: stay in the present moment, listen carefully, do not get tangled up in your ego, keep letting go of your idea from a second ago, and trust what emerges from the group. Oh, and take care of each other.

Here’s my improv teacher Jay Sukow saying some of these things. But it’s not just Jay, there is wide agreement: this is how improv works.

Do these principles sound familiar? They are pretty much the foundation of most forms of meditation. Could improv really be the extraverted twin of what we’ve been doing on the cushion? I decided to find out.

I am finding the practice of improv sometimes fun and often insanely hard. Of course, neither of these is any indication of a good spiritual practice. But the kind of hard is telling: to do this thing well, one really does have to let go of ego concerns. Turning attention inwards—to look for guidance in the stream of self-referential mental talk and emotion—has to be dropped. Ditto, calculating how to look good; ditto, calculating how to protect yourself from the sometimes intense discomfort of not knowing what comes next. The difficulty in improv is precisely in stopping, dropping, those attentional habits.

In improv, the need for present-moment attention has some teeth to it: attention has to be fine-grained, continuous. Jay said it at the end of the YouTube above: “…going moment by moment.” There are consequences if attention lags, even briefly. Brian Posen said “Trust in the moment you’re experiencing right now, it will always move you to the next moment.” Present moment attention, which on the meditation cushion might have been a nice goal to try for most of the time, is suddenly your life-line: your only life-line.

Here’s a YouTube video of meditation teacher Shinzen Young—from about 6:30 to the end what he says seems as relevant to improv as to meditation (feel free to skip ahead and begin at 6:30, if you like):

Improv demands extraverted functioning. I have lived much of my life in an introverted way. According to Carl Jung (who pretty much coined these terms) “introverted” means going inside to make decisions, checking possibilities against something internal. Introversion is fine—except in situations where something else is called for. In improv, something else is called for: being willing to “take a chance and start flapping your lips without planning,” as Shinzen put it. Can improv be a training for riding the ox backwards?

Is improv liberative? How might one test its effects?

Chemistry has a term for substances that have the same formula—the same atoms making up each molecule—but that exist in right- and left-handed forms. Such molecules are enantiomers of each other. And it often turns out that the right- and left-handed forms do not have the same biological effects. One might be a wonder drug and its other-handed twin useless—or even toxic! So, while it seems clear enough to me that improv is the extraverted enantiomer of meditation—made up of the same elements—one can still ask about its effects. Can improv be liberative? How might one test the effects of this enantiomer?

One might look at the improv community. All I can say at present is that some improvisers talk as if improv provided them with something incredibly valuable—a way of orienting in life that includes attention and kindness rather than ego. Some of them say things like “Improv saved my life” or “It’s my religion.”

One might also try it and look at the short-term results in one’s own life. For me, curiously, the work of improv feels a lot like the work of meditation. And very often I screw up completely: pushed or (more often) frozen by old patterns. But sometimes I find myself responding to its demands by just stepping out of the familiar routines that impede freedom, setting them down, navigating from a different space, surprising myself. A practice that provides a steady stream of opportunities for stepping free—that demands and supports and even catalyzes that move—seems to have some transformative potential! In the moments when I can enter it, there’s a hint of salt in the air: that recognizable tang of freedom.

I will be having more to say about improv, I think—but in the mean time, readers who liked this might also like: Play as a Root of Sati (Mindfulness).

Update: now there is another post on the “improv” theme:

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Responses to Improvisation As a Spiritual Practice

  1. Suzanne says:

    The similarity of improv and no self is striking. I suppose you could say that what you are practicing in class can go directly to the cushion and beyond—to riding the ox backwards. It is so difficult to act without the inner judging ego, but I believe the freedom that results must be exhilarating! And terrifying, like jumping off a cliff. And, I hope, a lot of fun. :-)

  2. Jay Sukow says:

    Great work, Martha! I loved the video of Shinzen Young—very insightful. I do believe improv is a way of life, not about being funny. If everyone took just one improv class the world would be a better place, guaranteed.

  3. Mike Conover says:

    Interesting and provocative for me. I see meditation (and Quaker waiting worship) as paths to in-the-moment, expanded, (inter)connected, and otherly-creative spaces/states. I associate those states with what is being described in the Improv discipline and in/as meditation. I recognize that my definition of meditation is likely unsophisticated and perhaps Western; but that my experience that I describe as being down a meditative path might also be part of others’ definitions of meditation. So, semantics aside, I am very interested in the ramifications of extroverted, active, mentally engaged, and personally interconnected & engaged forms of an expanded state of being. For me, this is very pertinent to 24/7 expanded state, bringing together the inward & the outward, and marrying Heaven & Earth.

  4. Delia Serruya says:

    I find your inquiry an irresistible invitation to join you and play. Ultimately, don’t we improvise each and every self-construct that arises in a given moment? Even in those rehearsed again and again, when they come to action there has to be an element of faith in an intuitive sense of letting go of the rehearsed, a willingness to show up.

    We learn playing. The more we learn and practice towards embodying wisdom and kindness, the more able we are to show up to whatever life delivers. I know the felt sense of being caught in a conditioned loop: it’s restricting and not being present. Thank you, Martha, this is a rich exploration. Play can diffuse fear …. a trusted playmate is invaluable.

  5. Mary Theis says:

    Thanks for this Martha. It makes me want to do some more improv. I have always been interested in meditation, but sitting doesn’t feel like my way in. Improv (since you have been talking about it) and writing are calling to me now. I have also been doing some “Writes” ala “Writing the Mind Alive” which are very stimulating and helpful.

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