About Improvisation and Spirituality

March 12, 2019

Let’s try an exercise, says improvisor Jules Munns.

Ready for anything, I raise my hand and am chosen as one of eight volunteers. Without a great deal of instruction, we’re told we’re about to morph into a human plane. Who’d like to start by forming the fuselage, Munns asks?

One of my colleagues goes first, and gets down on all fours, waiting to see what happens next. Ok, Munns tells the rest of us, your job is to one-by-one form the plane’s appendages. But you have to stay connected with everyone else, all parts of the emerging plane.

The whole exercise takes maybe ten minutes and results in much laughter and the eventual bizarre approximation of a plane. Later we take on more complex tasks. We pretend we’re a corporate meeting, then we’re a record collection, and then we’re Brexit. It’s great fun.

Later, in a conversation with Munns, I shared that a lot of the skills that are required to do improv well are analogous to what’s required to engage in mindfulness practice, which I know a lot more about that improvisation or acting.

Meditators are asked to be present or stay in the moment, focus on breathing, notice any thought distractions that arise and then return attention to breathing. Improvisation is more externally focused and improvisors don’t have time to reflect on external distractions. But they’ll need to stay present or they’ll lose the thread. They need to sustain focus, and be alert to the story unfolding in real time.

Related to staying present is the requirement for both mindfulness practitioners and improvisors to avoid getting tangled up in ego. A good improvisor knows that their  idea of what the final scene of an exercise will look like has only limited relationship to the final product. Similarly, the meditator needs to detach from the goal or outcome of practice. The stream of self-referential mental talk and emotion just needs to be noticed and then dropped.

Having fun -- the third similarity between mindfulness training and improvisation – is a bit less obvious. Improv at its heart is all about play. Although a lot of people think of mindfulness practice as deadly serious business, the importance of play has long been a part of religious and spiritual traditions.

Hindus say the universe itself came into being through Lila, the divine’s creative play. Most faith traditions talk about the importance of not taking ourselves too seriously. The late theologian Margaret Guenther wrote “When we play, we also celebrate holy uselessness. Like the calf frolicking in the meadow, we need no pretense or excuses.”

Although it’s little explored, the practice of applied improvisation has a long history in spiritual practice. Meditation teacher Shinzen Young, the author of The Science of Enlightenment   has a system of “auto-think,” “auto-chant” and “auto-walk” exercises which are formal means of uncovering spontaneity. These techniques themselves are variants of older practices, such as the Japanese art of katsugen or spontaneous, regenerative movement: dynamic exercises intended to relieve stress and bring the body's energies into balance.

A case can be made that incorporating some form of improvisation into one’s spiritual practice can help balance out a tendency to overly rationalize, excessively plan, and attempt to structure every detail of life.

After all, in life we spend far more time improvising than we do planning: whether interviewing for a job, searching for the right answer, or faced with a difficult decision, we’re improvising all the time.

So why not consciously practice it, and learn to do it well?

Jules Munns, Fiona Robertson and I are facilitating the residential Waking Up! The Improvisation and Spirituality Weekend from 31 May through 2 June at the Redfield Centre in Winslow, Buckinghamshire, UK  Click here to register or for more  information.

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