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I recently read “The Power Of Now”, by Eckhart Tolle, and I’m all over it like a rash. Eckhart is a cute little Swiss gnome that knows everything, and he says that we should aim to be “mindful”, “present”, and “in the now”. Our thoughts, he says, are mostly unhelpful and even harmful, as they take us out of a very precious thing – the “now”. This “now” idea is associated with many spiritual practices like Buddhism as well as being popular with psychologists and cute little self-help gnomes.
This idea is nothing new to improvisers, who go on a lot about being present and listening, not being in your head. However, in a moment of non-presence, I had a thought: perhaps after the honeymoon stage of improv-love, when we pore over Johnstone and Close and so on, we may forget what being present on stage really means. I want to talk about it here. Though let me be the first to say, who knows if I have ever been truly present on stage? I don’t have the answers. Nevertheless, for the purposes of discussion, and maybe a free beer, I want to theorise on how the now Tolle talks about, may help us to improvise in a more joyful and rewarding way.
Allow me to generalise wildly, based on my experience as a beginner. Unless you are unnaturally gifted, when you discover improv, most of your moments on stage are characterised by fear. Fear, and a ridiculous pirate character that makes cameos like a compulsive tic. In those early moments you may feel intensely present. Your fear may be enough to shut down the constant chatter of your brain (which I’ll call “ego” to be controversial), forcing you to be present. Like a rock-climber without a harness, you fear that one moment’s inattention and you’ll slip, to the certain social death of, say, being the unfunny one that screwed up the scene and is just plain awful.
So what is it that you experience when you are present? Eckhart says that your attention is highly focussed on your sensorial experience. You could hear a twig snap in a distant forest. You are highly aware of heat, prickling, tingling, whatever, in your skin and internal organs. Your focus is also intensely on the other person in the scene, on every movement they make. You are hearing, experiencing and feeling, rather than your usual state of intellectualising, dwelling on the past and future, your worries and woes. Your life dramas melt away as you attend solely to the scene. During and afterwards, you feel enlivened, vibrant, awake, zesty, as if you’ve been given a much needed holiday from the nagging, vice-like grip of your mental noise. When you are in the moment, energy is free to flow through you and between you and your scene partner, and because of their attention on you, back and forth through the audience too. This free energy flow necessarily feels wonderfully… energising. It’s great.
Fear v flow
Unfortunately, in those early days, the intensity of your fear can send you into fight, flight or – most common – freeze response. You’re not climbing up a cliff face, you’re doing something creative, requiring a certain “flow” state, which I’ll touch on in a bit. You have the presence, but too much fear, to create the sort of magic with your scene partner that will make everyone involved laugh and cry and maybe follow a whim and move to Guernsey. Why wouldn’t they move to Guernsey?
Nobody can convince you, either, that - if not a harness - there’s at least a safety net (your team mates have your back, the audience is drunk and probably won’t remember who did what anyway, and may not even speak English, etc, etc, etc) so that the fall won’t hurt nearly as much as you fear it will. Indeed, sometimes it even seems that, after a “bad” show, your teammates are weird and avoid eye contact. You may become paranoid and interpret this as them icing you out – confirming that the “failure” was all your fault and you should go and live as a nun somewhere very remote. Rest assured that this is a paranoid delusion. As long as your teammates are free of serious personality disorders, they are likely nursing their wounded egos and blaming themselves, not thinking about you. Besides, what’s with you having paranoid delusions? Get this checked out.
Yet in spite of this fear and the inevitable “failures”, you experience enough being present, get a taste of the magic, and you’re hooked. You start to see improv as a metaphor for life. You “yes, and” new experiences, social occasions, the weird busker-hobo who puppets bundles of twigs, and end up bearing three of his children… And you’re right. If we could yield, say yes, offer and accept, listen, be playful and aware of status games, get each other’s backs, and stay out of our silly heads – if we could do all that in real life, all the time, then wow, what a difference it would make to our lives. It would also transform our improv, as we’d be practicing all the time.
After a while, you’re no longer a “newbie” and as time goes by, you find yourself in a bit of a comfort zone. You feel like you’ve stagnated. You still love it but you don’t feel the same … magic, very often. And you don’t feel a great sense of risk when you play. People say they enjoyed the show, but deep down, you feel a bit hollow about it. When you watch experienced improvisers now, you can acknowledge their skill and experience, but you feel a bit blasé about their scenes. It’s almost like you’ve learnt the illusionist’s secrets, and no “tricks” will fool you anymore – you know there is real magic to be had and you want it. Occasionally you can glimpse it when you watch a new improviser, and are utterly delighted by his or her originality, spontaneity and joy.
Why don’t you feel the joy anymore? Were you relying on fear to make you present, which allowed you to create with true originality and joy? Perhaps you stopped taking risks and pushing yourself? Are you improvising from your ego/mind, or from your spirit?
If you accept the wild but ancient proposition that you are not your mind, your thoughts, or your ego, then you must accept that there is something else there. Researchers (see me at the bar for footnotes) have shown that when people are engaged in a creative state, doing something amazing and artsy, they have quite few thoughts – they dip in and out of the thinking mind. Out into what? Into what Dr Brown, that way awesome clown guy, would probably call your “spirit”. That thing underneath your thoughts, your job, your achievements and your stuff. That spirit thing that, if an audience glimpses, gives them goose-bumps and maybe makes them cry and wee themselves, depending on their age and mental state.
Failure is not a thing
This spirit thing surprises everyone with its delightful energy, if you can let it out on stage, and it seems to know how to act and respond lightning fast – not being hampered by the judgement/humiliation screening process of the mind. It is your only true source of originality, and it has no concept of good or bad, success or failure. For you to really let it out, you can’t be immersed in your egoic thoughts of success and failure. You have to embrace the knowledge that there is ebb and flow in all things, and ratings will go up and down. Surrender to “failure”, embrace it, know that it is not a real thing. When I see an experienced improviser “fail” now, I become full of admiration for them, because it means they are still taking risks, still exploring. Similarly when you feel you are in the zone, take note to yourself, ebb and flow. To really be present, to be inspired – in spirit – you have to forget the fruit and focus on the tree. When I say fruit, I mean outcome, but to twist the metaphor another way - you are the only tree that grows your fruit, and you only grow the type of fruit that is yours. And you can only grow the fruit by being the tree. And trees are like, really present, right?
Or, you could not
But if you don’t accept that such an underlying spirit-y thing exists, if you measure yourself by your achievements, success, and how others see you, then you will unlikely be able to improvise without thought to success or failure. You may never be fully present, always trying to compete, win and succeed, to be the best, to impress people. If you see yourself as separate in this way, competing to out-survive, you probably won’t see your team-mates as equal beings, or see yourself as one part of their whole – so you probably won’t be very rewarding to play with either. You may become very good at improvising from your intellect, at pulling out tried and tested parlour tricks. Indeed, you will probably be satisfied with the hollow gratification you receive. But you won’t make people pee themselves and move to Guernsey, and you probably won’t experience the magic.
But if you want to, here’s how
Of course we do warm-up games to connect with each other and to try to get present, and they help. Obviously, the aim of trying to warm up your brain so you can think “better” is wholly inconsistent with all I’ve said here. On your own, you can do simple meditation practices like attentively noticing your breath. This brings you into your body and out of your head, as well as into the present moment. It’s my understanding that in Buddhism, body awareness is inextricably linked to enlightenment, which, according to Buddha, simply means the absence of suffering. The absence of constant unnecessary thoughts, which take you out of the present moment. Notice thoughts you are having without judgment and then bring your attention back. Also, you can focus on your body sensations on various areas of the body; the fingertips, the back, stomach, chest, and so on, noticing by feeling rather than thought, the sense of energy, any tingling, and so on. There are many more things that you can do, besides this. Mindfulness stuff, like eating one raisin for six minutes. Look it up. If you practice all this, then you get better at it, and you will find it easier and easier to be present, not just on stage, but in your life.
You can also, Tolle says, surrender. The way to be in the now is to totally accept the now, surrendering resistance to what is. To apply this to an improv context: only when you surrender to “failure” or “success”, and recognise that both are meaningless, external sides of the same coin, can you be free and present to discover the joy again.
I hope this has been stimulating and encourage you to give a go to what I’m talking about. I feel that it has helped me quite a lot. You may disagree with what I’m suggesting, and that’s fine. I’m not laying this down as gospel. If you do have any comments, I would be interested to hear what you think, and whether, or not, this all aligns with your experience. Thanks for reading!
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