TED WORDS is moving to the ANIMA Blog!!

Anima-Logo Final horizontal pngHello, dear Readers!

It has been a bit over two years since I started this TED WORDS blog, when I was first on my sabbatical from teaching. Thank you so much for your dedicated and supportive readership.

Over the past few months, I have begun building a new consulting business, Anima Learning, to share more directly these insights and inquiries you all have helped me generate here. The web site for that business, www.AnimaLearning.com, now includes a blog that contains all of what I’ve written to date on TED WORDS. Until the new year, I will publish any new posts both there and here at TED WORDS. After the new year, I will switch to just publishing there.

If you follow TED WORDS via e-mail, don’t worry. I’ll add your name to the ANIMA Blog list so you don’t miss any posts. If you follow TED WORDS through WordPress, I don’t have access to your e-mail address directly, so you’ll need to actively come on over to the ANIMA blog and sign up there to make sure you stay in the loop.

For those who sign up for both in this transition period, please forgive any double notices you get over the next few months.

Again, thank you for your kind readership. It’s an honor to write for you.




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NEW!!! 2015 Way of the Mindful Improvisor Workshops!!!

The Way of the Mindful Improvisor

A Playful Path to Courage, Creativity, and Connection

Jikoji Zen Center, Los Altos Hills, CA * Thu-Mon, March 12th-15th, 2015

Enrollment limited to approx. 14 participants

 Jikoji porch bell

In the long history of humankind (and animal kind) those who learned to collaborate
and improvise most effectively have prevailed.   –Charles Darwin


Mindful improvisation offers far more than comedy, encouraging an embodied presence that breeds courage, connection, and creativity. We learn to pay acute attention and to delight in the discovery of each moment. In short: improv makes life better.

As improvisors ourselves, we know this truth in our bones and we’ve had it reaffirmed again and again with our students and clients. Artists and athletes build resilience in the face of setbacks. Leaders learn to innovate with nimble acuity and authentic relationship. Educators find powerful paths for true development. And seekers of all sorts discover previously hidden wellsprings of insight and joy.

Steeping myself in these principles for peaceful, playful living has been a true gift. Thank you.              –Kathy R.

This active and contemplative workshop explores wisdom of improvisation from the inside out. Together, we create a safe, playful, and experiential learning lab that sharpens self-awareness and revitalizes relationship with the wider world. Yes, you’ll laugh a lot. And you’ll almost certainly come to see your world with new eyes and a refreshed sense of possibility and vitality.

  • Find and express greater spontaneity
  • Transform your approach to failure
  • Increase your sensory acuity and in-the-moment awareness
  • Trust your creative leanings
  • Reach new levels of generosity
  • Improve your communication: better listening, clearer speaking, deeper understanding
  • Collaborate with greater ease
  • Get resourceful in the face of chaos
  • Tell better stories


This workshop is designed for those with little or no prior experience with improvisational theater. Those with more substantial improv chops who are just beginning to tap its deeper levels may also find the workshop fruitful. No particular religious or spiritual path is required, but those with an inquiring heart and open mind will gain the most from and contribute the most to the experience.

This workshop was everything I hoped for and much more. You created a safe environment for us to play and did so many things to foster our creativity.                                               –Eric H.               

About the Instructors

Ted teaching Buddhism for WebsiteTed DesMaisons has been synthesizing innovative approaches to learning for over 25 years. Combining humor with gravitas and intention with inspiration, Ted helps create safe spaces for exploring what really matters. Since completing his graduate work at Stanford (MBA) and Harvard (Masters of Theology), Ted has studied improvisation with Patricia Ryan Madson, Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS) and Loose Moose Theater in Calgary, Alberta. He is the founder and principal of ANIMA Learning and a trained Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) instructor. He writes regularly about improv, contemplation, and positive reinforcement on his ANIMA blog (www.AnimaLearning.com/blog).

lisashot10One of the most recognizable and most beloved teachers of improvisation in the world, Lisa Rowland has performed, coached, and conducted corporate trainings with San Francisco’s BATS mainstage company for more than eight years. Students from Palo Alto and the Presidio to Amsterdam and Arabia rave about the way she combines power and generosity in the service of their learning. A graduate of and faculty member at Stanford University and an uncannily astute observer of what’s needed next, Lisa was named the 2012 San Francisco Actor of the Year.

Together, Lisa and Ted have cultivated a seamless creative partnership. Fluid facilitators and skillful coaches, they prove both respectful and mischievous, refined and experimental, bold and space-giving. They love what they do and practice what they preach, applying a wide array of games, exercises and scene work structures to whatever’s needed in any given workshop moment.

Ted and Lisa are awesome teachers! Patient, kind, and fun; they brought out a sparkle in all of us.           –Jen C.


Location and Accommodations 

Jikoji bridge

This retreat takes place at the Jikoji Zen Center in the beautiful Santa Cruz mountains, just 45 minutes south of San Francisco and 20 minutes northwest of San Jose. The Center’s rolling coastal hills and meditative spaces make an idyllic setting for our time together. We will share three delicious vegetarian meals each day and guests will stay in simple, clean rooms, two to a room. For more information about the setting, please visit the Center’s web site: http://www.jikoji.org/faqs/.


$400 program fee/$450 food and facilities50% payment of total $850 due upon registration; full payment due within one month after registering or immediately if within one month of the program start. Deposit refundable (minus $25 processing charge) if the workshop is full and you or we are able to find a replacement. $50 discount for any referral who attends the workshop.

Registration/Contact Us

To register, click on one of the light blue buttons above or follow this link. if you have any questions about the workshop, please contact either facilitator. We’d be delighted to talk with you!

Ted DesMaisons: Ted@AnimaLearning.com   Lisa Rowland: lcrowland@gmail.com

Jikoji sunset

Sunset view from the trails at Jikoji Zen Center.

Who am I here in this moment?             What choice is needed now?

How can I help those around me?

How does this story connect me to something larger or deeper?

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AI-AI-AI!!!: The Applied Improvisation Definition Generator

You may have heard too. Just as with mindfulness outside the meditation hall, lots of folks have caught on to the transformative power of improvisation in arenas outside the theater. Business, health care, education, disaster relief, even the military: everyone needs nimble thinkers and flexible collaborators in this time of uncertainty. Everyone sees the value of focused presence.

Applied Improv Network logoI just got back from an amazing Austin, Texas conference of the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN), a group of professionals both feeding and riding this growing wave of interest. Stitched between the wake-up siren of breakfast tacos, the mid-day pull of gourmet food trucks, and the drifting evening scents of barbecue autentico, over 200 of us gathered to consider the field. How can we refine and translate our message? Where else in society can we contribute? How can we help save the world?

A few years back, knowing that any intro conversation about the topic almost always generates the question “What is applied improvisation?”, I came up with this definition brainstormer. Fresh from this year’s conference inspiration—and fuelled further by the insights of friend and colleague, Rebecca Stockley—I’ve refined the original list and added a bit of color. Hopefully you’ll find it helpful and telling. Or, at minimum, easy on the eyes.

What is Applied Improvisation? Form your own answer by using one word or phrase from each column and building ‘what comes next.’ And let me know if you come up with any words or phrases to add in!

Applied Improv Definition Generator 11.11.14 2If you’d like a larger, clearer pdf version of the Definition Generator, just click on the following link: Applied Improv Definition Generator 11.11.14. Enjoy!

Ted teaching Buddhism for WebsiteTed DesMaisons is the founder and principal of Anima Learning, a collaborative consultancy that honors and feeds the spark of curiosity in leaders, educators, and individuals. He also serves as the US Coordinator for the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Project.



REMINDER: TED WORDS is soon moving over to ANIMA Learning.  Make sure to sign up to follow our blog there so you receive new posts going forward! 


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From Fad to Fact: Bringing Mindfulness to Wider Circles

Time MindfulnessMindfulness has emerged from obscurity and has begun blooming in far-reaching fields. Whether in business or education, health care or athletics, law and criminal justice or any number of spiritual communities, increasing numbers of voices promote the practice. Better results through deeper presence, you hear. Success through non-striving. A practical panacea. These are heady times for those of us working in the mindfulness arena. Anything seems possible.

Of course, any healthy skeptic could label this tangible surge a passing fad, fifteen minutes of fame for a self-help delivery du jour. From that perspective, the seeming golden age might actually represent a bubble waiting to burst. I don’t subscribe to that notion, but it does provide a worthy challenge. As a willing investor in youth programs recently asked me, how do we ensure long-haul, systemic change with all this interest in mindfulness?

Here are seven suggestions to start.

Keep at it at a natural pace.
We can whip ourselves into a frenzy about the need for mindful programs without much effort. We sense the pain of poverty, violence, substance abuse, alienation, and deep-rooted oppression. We see that suffering, our hearts break, and we call to action. On the flip side, we just know the positive possibility of this work. Greater resilience! Improved decision-making! Deeper calm! Oh my gosh, how do I get this to as many people as possible?

While understandable, neither strident urgency nor unbridled enthusiasm further the cause in a sustainable way. Both pull us off-center. Both lack the kind of durable patience that emerges more naturally from present attention to the moment. Breathe. And breathe again. Now…what needs to happen next?

Preserve the integrity of practice.
As one of our first steps, we need to ensure that practice matches our preaching. Even if we believed in the value of water sports, we wouldn’t throw a beginner into the ocean without first offering guidance from an experienced swimmer. Similarly, we shouldn’t assume that an article (or a blog post) on mindfulness gives us the license—literal or figurative—we need to jump into teaching mindfulness to others. Without needing to veer into preciousness or elitism, there is real value in holding to a standard. Patience, perspective and sensitivity come most when we embody these principles we espouse. That takes time and steady effort. And should precede or supersede any rush to action.

If you’re looking to learn to swim in the waters of mindfulness, look for an experienced teacher. Or, find a seal of approval. Image courtesy of geograph.uk.

If you’re looking to learn to swim in the waters of mindfulness, look for an experienced teacher. Or, find a seal of approval.
Image courtesy of geograph.uk.

Invest in mindfulness teacher trainers.
Because of that need for congruent practice, the biggest bottleneck in ramping up effective, wide-reaching mindfulness programs remains the lack of well-trained teachers. And we have even fewer folks qualified to train them. Any philanthropist looking to further the cause would do well to fund a high-quality teacher trainer, freeing that person from the stresses and demands of other work to focus on the more crucial tasks at hand. This one lever promises to flip a whole bunch of levers below it, an exponential amplifier of that original investment.

Support key research.

Mindfulness research has exploded in recent years, partly because initial reports have appeared so promising.

Mindfulness research keeps growing, a reflection of societal interest in its benefits.

Mindfulness research keeps growing, a reflection of societal interest in its benefits.

Much of that investigation has lacked a certain rigor, however, and much of it has raised further questions.

• Which components of mindfulness training really make the active difference? Is it mindfulness skills, group experience, or quality of care from the teacher—or some combination of the three?

• Knowing we want to pass on an integrity with practice, what minimum “dosage” of exposure to mindfulness gets us that ongoing, long-lasting integrity?

• How much training does a mindfulness teacher need before developing requisite skill and sensitivity?

Each of these inquiries challenges assumptions we might make and can preempt erroneous claims or misguided initiatives.

Determine a common “scaffolding” for teaching mindfulness.
As societal interest in mindfulness has swelled, so has the supply of related curricula. Not surprisingly, some prove effective and some, not so much. The strongest and most widely recognized—like that of Mindful Schools in Oakland, CA or the Mindfulness in Schools Project of the UK –follow common threads. Establish connection and context, build attention, and invite curiosity and kindness before moving onto more complex skills like suspending reactions or watching thoughts and feelings. Such a backbone to mindfulness training helps with several of the suggestions above. We find an appropriate pace. We help preserve quality and integrity. And we make effective research a heck of a lot easier.

What’s the best scaffolding to ensure quality teaching? Photo courtesy of Nicholas Jones and Creative Commons.

What’s the best scaffolding to ensure quality teaching?
Photo courtesy of Nicholas Jones and Creative Commons.

Encourage interdisciplinary collaboration.
David Germano and his colleagues at the University of Virginia Contemplative Sciences Center have initiated thorough organizational change by targeting key players across traditional bounds within the university. By integrating all 11 schools—from professional programs in business and medicine to undergraduate liberal arts and sciences schools—the center gains layers of perspective that generate original insight. That broader insight, in turn, ensures wider buy-in across the entire school.

Reach out into the community.
At the Mindful Miami conference a few weeks ago, organizers had pulled together an impressive array of presenters from local government, health care, criminal justice, education, professional sports, social services, and research agencies. You could almost feel the resurgence among folks who had previously felt isolated in their efforts. Each of those folks now knows they’re part of a larger effort and they can trust that, together, they’re going to impact the wider Miami community. The rising tide means we are not alone. We need to find our allies and join with them.

This current interest in mindfulness offers a precious and seemingly-fleeting opportunity. In the words of the Roman Germans, carpe zeitgeist. At the same time, as Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the acclaimed UMass Center for Mindfulness, reminds us, the practice has a long history. In that light, we do well to place our efforts in the service of a long-term future. Bringing mindfulness to wider circles won’t work as a quick-fix solution. It will take time. It will take effort. As always, it will take practice.

Ted teaching close-up

Ted DesMaisons is the founder and principal of Anima Learning, a collaborative consultancy that honors and feeds the spark of curiosity in leaders, educators, and individuals. He also serves as the US Coordinator for the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Project.

Posted in Contemplation, Mindfulness, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lighthouse–A new poem

IMG_2204Sometimes, insights come through straightforward experiences. This poem voiced itself as I headed up the lighthouse tower in Bill Baggs State Park at the tip of Key Biscayne, Florida. Some of my fellow climbers–a curious crew of kids and couples, old-timers and polyglots–may have wondered why I was pecking away at my phone keyboard on a mid-tower stair landing, but there you have it. The park ranger at the base of the tower enjoyed the poem. Here’s hoping you do as well!

Lighthouse It takes a bit of dizzy-making to reach the top of the lighthouse. The heart quickens and the stomach grips as land fades further and further below. Cast iron steps Circle fast around and up the center column; Brick walls echo footfalls that close tighter and tighter as the tower thins (or is that the air?) up, up until —whoosh!— the view opens wide: sea for miles, sandy edges stretching to cityscapes, all the realms laid out for a watchman’s eyes. This is the work we do, enduring the discomfort of gravity’s weight, daring to loose the familiarity of earth’s tether, lighting a storm-tested lamp to lead others from dangerous shoals.

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Posted in Contemplation, Mindfulness, Poetry, Thought-Provokers | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

AAAACCKK!!! Here’s a Wince-Worthy Example of How NOT to Use a Clicker

Ah, the sting of watching a beloved technique get twisted into a pain-producer.

A selection of clicker tools. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.com.

A selection of clicker tools.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.com.

One of the most effective tools at the disposal of positive reinforcement is a clicker, a small device that generates a clearly audible “click” for marking a particular behavior in a particular moment. It doesn’t carry any of the emotional variation of words or vocal tone. It cuts through surrounding sounds. It’s a useful piece of equipment.

In positive reinforcement, that sound marks a success. Achieve a particular target behavior, get a click. With animal trainers, the sound—a secondary reinforcer—then gets followed by food—a primary reinforcer. Rover retrieves a ball, hears a click, and earns a treat. Yum. More fetching to follow. Everybody’s happy.

In human training circles, my colleagues and I use an analogous technique called TAG Teaching, where TAG stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. A gymnastics coach might click her athlete for completing the “tag point” of “Keep chin up.” A speech instructor might click for “eye contact with audience.” With humans—at least those out of younger childhood—the click becomes a primary reinforcer on its own, a stand-alone signal that triggers the positive feelings of success.

The TAG marks what's right.

The TAG marks what’s right.

Alas, not everyone works from the same model. Today, I came across a Boston Globe video that describes the work of ESL Rules, a group offering accent modification classes for Boston natives. Once you’ve pahked yah cah, you head into the room and work through reading exercises, getting a ‘click’ every time…you make a mistake!

I imagine the teacher here has positive intentions. She wants to help her clients. Some folks need to learn they’re making a mistake so they have the motivation to change. And she’s taking advantage of the clicker’s ability to mark a specific behavior.

Trouble is, she’s using the clicker as a punishment, a consequence intended to reduce an unwanted behavior. Could the technique “work,” in that it could lead to students correcting their errors? Maybe. This woman does have a 25-year career as a speech and language pathologist so she must have had some level of success. But it reaches that end while unnecessarily injecting feelings of frustration and humiliation.

Watch the video closely and you’ll notice a flinch response in the learner every time the click comes out—heck, you might feel one yourself! The teacher also rolls her eyes and smirks at a learner’s mistake. Though it might appear playful or humorous, that little judgment or rejection from the teacher puts a bit of poison in the mix. The reporter sharing the story picks up on that element too, describing the technique as a bit of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

This clicker mis-use makes me cringe even more because it comes within a larger context of vulnerability. Her students come to her to change a behavior that’s part of their cultural identity—a heritage that describes their home and family—but that they carry some shame about. Somehow they’ve gotten the sense that something’s wrong and they’re not good enough as they are. Amplifying that tenderness almost always generates reflexive defensiveness.

Change a Boston accent? Would you change Fenway Pahk? A Boston native might get a wee bit bristly at the suggestion.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.com.

Change a Boston accent? Would you change Fenway Pahk? A Boston native might get a wee bit bristly at the suggestion.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.com.

Not surprisingly, then, using a marker this way especially builds resistance and resentment in those who struggle. Note in particular when the reporter works with his Dad—around 1:52 of the clip—and you can see the tangible frustration on the father’s face. Will this older gentleman come back to continue with this “training”? I doubt it. In this moment on film, you see him actively resist it. Again, he seems partly playful, but he’s also irritated. Anyone wanting to change an accent would have to be motivated to do so. I’m not sure this man has that motivation but I have great confidence that this technique drains away whatever impetus he started with.

These teachers do have a choice and could make a simple switch to turn the wince into a win: use the clicker for marking when students get the pronunciation right. If they say a word with ‘r’s’ and don’t hear the click, they can catch themselves—with neutral recognition rather than pointed judgment—and make the adjustment on their own.

If students still struggle, they can practice listening for someone else’s patterns—put the clicker in their hands so they know what to look and listen for. Or, teachers could break the skill down into smaller steps by helping learners distinguish exactly the tongue and mouth placement needed to support the “r” sound. Then, click them for forming that structure in the mouth before even actually articulating any words.

In all of these cases, when students reach success through their own efforts, the sound becomes a celebration and one more reason to keep going. Click equals yes. Yes equals good. Good equals more.

Keep that clicker clean, friends. It’s meant as a positive reinforcer, not a pain-inducing punisher.

Posted in + Reinforcement, coaching, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

More Spontaneity School: Another 10 Improv Games to Enliven the Classroom or Workplace!

This fall will mark the first Labor Day in twelve years that I’m not gearing up to teach in a high school classroom, but that doesn’t mean I’m not feeling the excitement of a new school year. New books, new students, new lessons—all possibilities remain in play. In that spirit, I offer a fresh collection of improvisation exercises that can lighten spirits, develop courage, open spontaneity, and forge connection in classrooms of all sorts. The first installment of Spontaneity School has proven my most popular blog post. Here’s hoping this one resonates for as many readers!

  1. Sound Ball (further variations)
You might send the sound of vuvuzelas across a Sound Ball circle... (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

You might send the sound of vuvuzelas across a Sound Ball circle…
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

In that original Spontaneity School post, I outlined a basic explanation for Sound Ball, one of the most fundamental and helpful improv games around. To review, with the larger group in a circle, one person ‘throws’ a random sound to another person in the group. That second person ‘receives’ the sound with the motion of catching a potato or small beanbag and—importantly—repeats as precisely as possible the sound sent to them. Right away, that receiver tosses a new sound with a new gesture to another person in the circle. The zippier the movement of sounds around the circle, the better. As always, encourage active physical gestures to send and receive and remind folks to resist planning ahead for ‘clever’ or ‘creative’ sounds. What comes, comes.

...or that of waves crashing on shore. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

…or that of waves crashing on shore.
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Try these added variations to enliven the game even further:

  • Once you’ve gotten a few rounds of Sound Ball under your belt, have the group form pairs around the room. Each pair can then send their own sound ball back and forth in rapid-fire succession. To up the stakes, encourage a different physical gesture with each sound sent out. After a while in that mode, invite a new facial gesture with each sound. This variation gets good laughs, expands emotional and imaginative range, and builds the ability to pass the ball more quickly. Then, when you get the group back together, the game continues with far greater zip.
  • See if participants can keep their attention focused on the sound ball as it moves around the circle, even if they’re not directly involved in the transfer. Move with the ball’s pattern as if you were surfing or serving its “energy.”
  • Try a round of ‘Gesture Ball,’ where each person passes a random word illustrated by a hand or body movement. The gesture could demonstrate the word literally—like slapping hands together with the word ‘Clap!’—or it could offer the meaning more metaphorically, like throwing the hands out to the side with fingers flared and stepping forward with a bright smile to say ‘Jazz!’ In every case the person receiving the gesture ball should repeat the sound and the movement before sending a new combo along to the next person.
  1. Ball
Ah, the ideal "Ball" ball.

Ah, the ideal “Ball” ball.

Whereas sound ball relies on an imaginary sphere, this game uses an actual, real-life ball (thus the name of the game!). The rules of Ball resemble those of volleyball—minus a court, a net, and any sense of opposing teams. In this case, the group works as one unit to keep the ball up in the air, counting aloud each time the ball gets hit. As in volleyball, no player can hit the ball twice in a row. If that happens or if the ball hits the floor, the count starts back at one.

Every so often, take time to harvest whatever insights the group can generate about what’s working to keep the ball alive. You’ll likely hear “Hit the ball up!” or “Be bold about moving into the center!” Try giving the cue to “Pass the ball to someone else rather than just hitting it!”—that will transform the quality of the game-playing.

For sure, the joy of a good round of Ball lasts far longer than the time you play. Tim Orr, a superlative improvisor and one of my favorite long-form teachers, suggests that an improv workshop that contained nothing but the game of Ball would still teach those attending most of what they need to know about the art.

Insider tips:

  • Make sure to keep everyone counting aloud. It’s a great vocal warm-up that way and it builds a cohesion that’s valuable for whatever learning activity comes next.
  • Switch people’s positions in the circle every now and then—new spot, new neighbors—to generate different permutations and possibilities.
  • The ideal size for the ball is somewhere between a volleyball and a soccer ball. You want one that’s light enough not to damage your room or your players but light enough to travel without much effort. A Gertie ball works well. Even better for the fully dedicated, find a fabric Boingo ball and pull its bladder out. Then, put a Gertie ball inside it, stitch the whole thing back up, and reinflate. The ball’s just the right weight—and you’ve got the pride of having made your own!
  1. Three Things

This energy-builder works in any setting where you’ve got a few minutes between activities. The whole group forms a circle and chants in unison “Three things!” while bouncing their fists as if pounding a table. One leader then starts the game off by turning to an immediate neighbor and asking that person to name three things that fit a particular category. “Three brands of cars!” “Three things you’d find at the back of your closet!” or “Three terrible excuses for showing up late!” could all work. As quickly as possible, the receiver generates three responses and declares them with authority. When that person has finished, the group again chants “Three things!” and the person who just responder gives a category to the next person.

Maybe the answers will end up fitting the category “appropriately;” maybe they won’t. Or maybe the same answer will come out twice in one round. It’s all good. The crucial key: generate and celebrate the quick response. You’re trying to access a type of wisdom that comes before cognitive planning.

Three things you might purchase on a streetcorner: Franks!

Three things you might purchase on a streetcorner: Franks!



Fortunes! (Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.)

(Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.)

Insider tips:

  • Some folks will lessen the tension of the challenge by adding in a little preamble before each response. Maybe they repeat the category or toss another time-staller in: “For military vehicles, I would choose a tank. I would choose a jeep. And I’d go with a Navy Destroyer.” Much better—and more rewarding to just say “Tank! Jeep! Destroyer!”
  • Responders can build their own confidence by counting with authority on their fingers. Other players can help out by nodding or adding in small, affirmative sounds: “Mm-hmm; yes; right, of course,” though they don’t want to get so loud as to draw attention from the person on the spot.
  • While you don’t want to get stuck on “accuracy”—it doesn’t really matter if a response fits the category—players should at least try to have the responses fit. Throwing out completely random words misses the point here.
  • More abstract categories can stimulate a little more creativity—and a lot more laughs. “Three vegetables you’d find at the grocery store!” will work fine. “Three unpublished Harry Potter titles” might generate even more.
  • Unlike most of the other spontaneity exercises where we’re trying to keep our mind’s fresh, this one’s actually a game where it can be OK to plan ahead in forming categories.
  1. Jumpin’ Jehosephat

This playful but difficult game encourages dramatic commitment and generates good laughs by calling out the unexpected. Have two participants up at the front of the room sitting on chairs as if they were sitting on the porch of an old Country Store. One starts by slapping his or her knee and declaring “Well Jumpin’ Jehosephat and call me Christmas!” and then comes up with something surprising that character might have just learned: “Ole Mrs. Haverford’s getting ready to have another baby!”

"Well, Jiminy Christmas and string me up a vineyard!" (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

“Well, Jiminy Christmas and string me up a vineyard!”
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The second character responds by slapping his or her own knee and coming up with another two-part exclamation of surprise: “Well, kiss my gizzard and grab me an onion!” The amazement then shoots back and forth , continuing the two-part expressions of shock without hesitation by diving into even more absurd declarations: “Well, take out the trash and kick what’s on the curb!” “Well, I’ve got Fridays and nobody’s watching!” Well, spread me some peanut butter and get me back to Georgia!” The game can go back and forth for a certain amount of time or could become a competition of sorts: first one to flinch leaves the porch and a new player comes on.

Insider tips:

  • Encourage folks to start with the word “Well.” That way, they get a little momentum going into the declaration.
  • The declarations don’t have to be completely non-sensical, just spontaneous and enthusiastic: “Well, tip the table over and call the dog to clean it!” still works even though it could be, um, logical.
  • Alliteration can make for good laughs, as in “Well, sing along with Elvis and bring me back a biscuit!” Requiring such detail can make the game more challenging for those who master it quickly.
  • As in sound ball, see if players can leave a pre-planned “good” idea and just take the next one that arrives when their turn comes along.
  1. Shout the Wrong Name

This game builds the spontaneity muscle in an eat-your-spinach kind of way: it’s tough and can prove exhausting but builds a capacity for spontaneity in its purest form.

Start by having participants mill comfortably around whatever space they have. Then, for a first round, have them point to random objects around the room, shouting the name of whatever the thing is that they’re pointing to: “Desk! Doorknob! Trash can! Table lamp! Carpet! World map! Laptop!,” and so on.

Then, loosen them up with a second round where they say the name of the previous thing they’ve just pointed to. So if I were to start by pointing to the desk, I would then yell “Desk!” when pointing to the doorknob and “Trash can!” when pointing to the doorknob. See if they can get a good rhythm going there.

Lastly—and this represents the real challenge—have them point to objects and shout the name of anything else but that object’s real name. In this case, you could begin by pointing at the desk and yelling “Watermelon!” Or pointing to the doorknob and shouting “Cartwheel!” Offer a little demonstration and toss in a few abstract nouns as well, just to introduce the possibility of a wider vocabulary range. “Poverty!” when pointing at a coffee mug or “Alertness!” when pointing to a windbreaker on the wall.

"Watermelon!" (Image courtesy of pixabay.com)

(Image courtesy of pixabay.com)


Insider Tips:

  • In the ideal, this game taps into a streaming flow of non-linear utterances. To that end, encourage speed. Use the physical movement of the point to propel the word out of the mouth. Better to shout a fast and declarative non-sensical sound than to wait several beats for a “good” word.
  • Along those lines, try to limit any sense of judgment on words that come out, as in which are “better” or “worse.” Allow and observe repeats—always a good opportunity to see how the mind works! Odds are, any “Hey I’m doing well!” thought will snap folks right out of the flow anyway.
  • Discourage participants from pointing at people, especially for the last round. You want to avoid the accident (or the intention) of something unpleasant or hurtful coming out—yelling “Idiot!” when pointing at a classmate, for example—even if it technically qualifies as “the wrong name.”
  • Ask if anyone’s ‘strategizing’ to get themselves through. For example, I find this game much easier if I find my non-related words by moving through the alphabet: “Apple! Baseball! Carrot! Denver! Egg! Fahrenheit!” and so on. This can be a helpful aid for those who are struggling or a limiting crutch for those who could stand to push themselves further. Use such strategy as you see fit.
  1. Convergence

Though this game starts with simple rules, it regularly provides rewarding payoffs. One person bring a word, any word, to mind and declares, “One!” Another person brings their own word to mind and announces, “Two!” Those two players then face each other, make eye contact, and count “One, two, three…” before simultaneously saying their word aloud. Maybe that first round generates “snowshoe” and “Mercedes Benz.”

Having heard those two words, all players then silently seek a third word that combines, bridges, or encompasses those two. (I find it helpful to imagine locating a word midway between the two, as if they were on a spectrum.) The first to come up with one possibility shouts “One!,” the next shouts “Two!” and those two use the same count-out-loud ritual to see if their words match. Probably they won’t—maybe you get “Germany” and “snowtire” in our example—and you keep going. Eventually, the group converges on the same word, usually to great delight, and one round is done. Almost inevitably, folks want to keep playing.

One tricky feature to keep in mind: once a word has been mentioned in a given game, you’re no longer eligible to use it.

Narrowing in.... (Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Narrowing in….
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Insider tips:

  • Remember that you’re only trying to split the difference between the last two words mentioned, not making an ‘echo’ reference to something that came before.
  • Players who have just offered words remain fully eligible to get in on the next round. Follow whoever’s got an immediate hit and good energy.
  • It can be fun to watch how a given round weaves in and out of that feeling of convergence. The group can seem right on the edge of getting it and then drift back out to a wider gap before narrowing back down.
  • Want a challenge? Include three people in each round and try to converge three words at a time.
  1. Go! (Plus)

Here’s a great head-spinner to get folks moving and peripheral senses sharpening. Standing with the group in a circle, one person (A) starts by saying another person’s (B’s) name. Without moving, B responds to A, saying “Go.” A then slowly moves across the circle to fill in B’s spot. While A is moving B says another person’s (C’s) name. B stays in place until C gives ‘permission’ to move by saying “Go.” On that permission, B moves to C’s spot and the game continues in sequence. For the first round or two, it’s best to make sure everyone gets a chance to say “Go” and then move. You’re building up the game’s rhythm for the more challenging rounds to come. After a few rounds of “Go,” pause everyone and let them know you’re getting to the “Plus” stages of the game.

This time, create a pattern that moves from you to another person in the circle, from them to another, and then to another until it returns home to you. Initiate the sequence by choosing a category (“types of shoes,” for example) and then pointing to that first person on saying something that fits in that category (like “saddleshoes”). Unlike in Sound Ball, the recipient need not repeat what you sent, they only need to pass the pattern on to someone else, naming a different item in that category (like “pumps”). Eventually, the pattern returns home to you. Try that pattern a few times to make sure it’s well-established: each time sending the same item (shoe type, in our example) to the same person you sent to in the original go-round.

Then, clear those decks and establish another pattern with a different category (perhaps “international city,” or some such). Again, make sure everyone’s in the sequence and that the pattern comes back to you at the end. Once you feel confident folks have that pattern down, re-introduce the original pattern you created, executing both at the same time.

Go!  (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Lastly, when you’ve got both of those down, weave the “Go!” element back in. Now, you’ve got two patterns moving around the circle while people are also changing places and saying names and “Go!,” all at once. If the full-blown game sounds chaotic, that’s an appropriate read. When it works though, with kids and sounds breathing in and out of the circle, the game becomes a thing of beauty.

Insider tips:

  • When establishing the patterns for the “Plus” part of the game, have those who have been included in the pattern put a hand on their head so those choosing where to go next who’s still available.
  • Make sure that everyone establishes the patterns by sending to different people for each of the “Plus” rounds or it will get really confusing really quickly.
  • If the group is strong, try introducing multiple versions of each pattern at the same time. You might have one “Go” going, two “shoes” patterns and two “international cities,” for example.
  1. Three-Word-at-a-Time Poems

If you need a quiet experience to explore a given theme or want to help your learners understand the delights and challenges of shared control, this game may do the trick. Have folks arrange their desks or sit on the floor in a circle, each with a piece of paper and pen or pencil in front of them. Each person gets to start a poem, using only three words on the page. They should start with the title. If the title’s only one word long, they start the first two words of the poem. If the title’s incomplete after three words, they just write the first three words.

Then, once each person has written their three-word start, pass the poems to the next person, all poems moving in one direction. This second person then adds another three words before passing the poem again. Lines need not rhyme or contain any certain number of words—free verse usually works best. Depending on numbers, you can go around the circle however many times you need, though it provides a neat conclusion to have the same person who started the poem finish it.

Once the poems are complete, have each person read them aloud with great authority and distinction, as if they had written the whole thing themselves. If folks have played along sincerely throughout the exercise, you—and they—will likely be surprised with the quality and coherence of their work.

Insider tips:

  • Encourage students to build on—“Yes, and”—what’s been written before them rather than trying to generate laughs by canceling another’s offer or going off in some random direction.
  • Time the transfers so that everyone passes at the same time so you avoid getting multiple poems backed up at one spot and everyone’s got something to work on.
  • It may help to give the ‘poets’ a heads-up that the end approaches before actually getting there: “Know that we’ll be ending the poems in just three more rounds so start to find a conclusion,” for example.
  1. Shared Memory

This energizing game in pairs also comes from the shared-control/“Yes, And” family lineage. Divide your group into dyads and then set the stage for the following rules. Each pair needs to “reminisce” about an (imaginary) shared memory. “A vacation to Mexico” makes for a decent start, as would “The time we got lost in San Francisco.” Keep the topic light and somewhat breezy—you want your players to discovery joy in the shared memory.


"Remember that time we vacationed in Mexico?" Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

“Remember that time we vacationed in Mexico?”
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

One person starts by saying “You remember when we…” and continues on, making up some completely imaginary experience. At some point, the second person takes over, interrupting with an enthusiastic “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” or some such line, and then adding in another aspect to the ‘memory.’ Once each person has shared some part of the memory, send the lead back and forth so the memory keeps building.

In the ideal, the game gets going quickly with one player eager to jump in and add on what the other has offered. For variety’s sake, suggest that players experiment with pausing every now and then to leave some pregnant space between memories (as would often be the case with friends remembering a shared experience). Then, after soaking in the silence for a few seconds, they can listen for the next inspiration that comes and get the game moving again.

Insider tips:

  • Keep a watchful eye for folks slipping into a blocking mode where they deny, dismiss, or belittle the ‘memory’ that the other person generates.
  • Also make sure you don’t have two friends in a pair working on an actual The exercise is about discovering memories rather than actually recalling them.
  • As is true for almost all improv exercises, “memories” in this game need not prove clever, funny, or original. Sometimes the most delightful shared memories are the ones that seem obvious.
  • Offering a one-minute demonstration can help give folks an idea of what the game entails. It can also make for a fun little performance if you want to use it that way.

10. Diamond Dancing

This crowd-pleaser builds on groundwork laid in the game of Mirror (or Mirror Dancing), as described in the earlier Spontaneity School post. In this version, four players at a time take the stage to form a diamond shape with maybe 8 feet between each corner of the diamond. One person makes the front point of the diamond at the front of the stage, two stand at 45-degree angles behind that front person, and the last stands at 45-degree angles from behind those two, directly in line behind the front person.

Set up some lively, rhythmic music. Once it starts playing the student in front starts dancing in lead position—all other dancers follow the lead’s moves as closely as possible. After a good while in front, that dancer should turn to the right, bringing other dancers along and signaling that the dancer at the front of that direction of the diamond has now become the lead. Others follow that second person’s ‘choreography’ for a similar amount of time until he or she turns to pass the lead to the back point of the diamond. That third dancer directs the action before turning and passing to the fourth; the fourth assumes the lead before passing back to the front. Once all four have had their individual times to direct the diamond, dancers can lead and pass as they feel moved to. Whichever “DJ” runs the music can keep an active eye for when the piece looks finished and fade the music out before the next group cues up.

Do you suppose Beyonce's single ladies were Diamond Dancing behind her? Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Do you suppose Beyonce’s single ladies were Diamond Dancing behind her?
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Insider tips:

  • As with Mirror Dancing, lead dancers make it easier for their followers by moving more slowly. Or, as an alternative, by moving in quick-to-learn repetitive gestures. Dancers can also incorporate and reincorporate elements–movements, sequence, phrases—that other dancers first introduced. That helps make sense of the dance’s storyline, as it were.
  • Dancers should look forward into the audience, trusting peripheral vision for new cues rather than looking directly toward each other.
  • The dance gets tough if the transitions get sloppy. Encourage folks to be clear from head-to-toe when they’re turning that they’re handing over control. If the lead turns her hips in a new direction but leaves her shoulders facing the original way, how can the next player know what she means.







Posted in Improv, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Improv Wisdom Musings, Vol. 3: Make Bold Offers!

This post marks the third in a series of three-person explorations into the life wisdom found through improvisational theatre. You can find the first two here: Let Yourself Be Changed and Make Emotional Noises.
As has been mentioned earlier, three experienced teachers–Patricia Ryan Madson, founder of the Stanford Improvisors (SImps) and author of Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show UpLisa Rowland, improvisor extraordinaire and San Francisco 2012 Actor of the Year; and Ted DesMaisons, learning consultant and curator of this blog–have agreed to riff on a few improv maxims, sharing and building on each other’s thoughts to explore each principle in more detail.  Rowland and DesMaisons both studied with Madson and continue her work through their “Improv Wisdom for a Meaningful Life” retreats.
We agreed that each individual contribution would hold loosely to a three paragraph limit.  Each essay would then get passed to another teacher for comment or development until all three had offered a reflection.  As you can see, this topic inspired each of us to extend past that boundary. We’d love to hear any reflections you’d like to add in!    

Hilary Price cartoon

Make Bold Offers!

Patricia Ryan Madson: 

This delightful cartoon was created by Hilary B. Price, and it accompanies an essay titled “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” which serves as the End Note for the July/August, 2013 edition of Stanford Magazine, the university’s alumni publication. Hilary studied improv with me at Stanford and was a member of the Stanford Improvisers; she graduated in 1993. This cartoon embodies the cardinal sin in improv: “to wimp.”   When we wimp, we fail to define something or offer a choice. Since improvisers are trained to be agreeable, it’s not that hard to fall into the “whatever you want” syndrome. And, we all know that as pleasing as an agreeable attitude can be, in order to get things going we need an idea . . . a noun, actually. This cartoon reminds us of what happens to our fellow players when we cross our arms and defer. (Even when we do it with a smile on our faces.) Perhaps you find yourself doing this . . . wimping, that is.   Deciding takes effort and courage.

Today’s maxim: “Make bold offers” reminds me of the joys and responsibility of making choices and of leading. There may be something in the word bold that is a little intimidating. It could lead us to imagine that we need to bound onstage and proclaim “I’m divorcing you, Marge!” or “Look out, that meteor is about to strike us!”

While each of these offers will get us going onstage I don’t think that bold needs to mean dramatic, horrific, or zany. What bold says to me is to make concrete, specific suggestions or endowments. The invitation: “Would you like to go out this weekend?” misses the punch of “I’m going for a long walk in Golden Gate Park and then grabbing dinner at the Fort Mason food bazaar before the BATS show on Saturday. Would you like to join me?” Specificity is a blessing when we are improvising. And, I think life is like that, too. In Japan one never asks a guest “What would you like to do (eat/see)?” It is considered the highest rudeness to throw the onerous burden of choice onto the guest. Instead the host (who often worries a lot) makes all of the decisions and executes them so that the guest can simply receive and enjoy. It’s quite different in the West where we may consider our right to choose as the ultimate good.

"I'd love to go out for dinner to get a sushi assortment plate" would be much more polite than, "I don't know, whatever."  Can't you just taste the specificity? Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

“I’d love to go out for dinner to get a sushi assortment plate” would be much more polite than, “I don’t know, whatever.”
Can’t you just taste the specificity?
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Our modern world needs all of us to be proactive. Increasingly workers who want to stay employed during this rapid paced new economy are going to need to do more than just keep up with their current field of expertise. Thomas Friedman, a leading economist, warns that in this century we all need to learn how to become entrepreneurs. Doing one’s job effectively won’t be enough. Each of us within our own sphere needs to be on the lookout for ways to improve things and to innovate. We need to make bold offers in life within those spheres where each of us has control. How are you doing this?

Ted DesMaisons

Another close cousin of wimping is waffling—hovering between two or more possibilities without committing to either. Yes, holding the paradox of an uncertainty can help ensure we consider all sides of a big decision: Do we keep the ornery but skilled employee or cut her loose and take the risk of a new hire? Have a child and step into a different kind of purpose or remain child-free and preserve open space for life’s other work? In such cases, we sometimes force a solution before it’s had time to emerge.

Would you like some waffle to go with your wimp? Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Would you like some waffle to go with your wimp?
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Just as often, though, we waste time vacillating, avoiding a decision because we fear what we’ll lose. As you’ve said, Patricia, a bold offer is an active choice. Stepping onto one clear path indeed means giving up on an infinite range of other possibilities—and there’s a grief in that—but the move forward leads to greater action, depth, and adventure. It leads to other, more flavorful outcomes. Go with Door #1 and you forego Door #2, but at least you get out of the lobby.

Again and again, improv puts us in this place of creative tension. Any beginner class will introduce the practice of “Accept all offers.” go with the world our partner has created in the moment just passed, constantly letting go of—or at least refreshing—our own take on things.

In that light, a “Whatever you want” response to a dinner invite could be a kindness, right? Well, yes. And…we then have to measure our enthusiasm. If we simply acquiesce to dull offers, we get dull scenes. When we engage with commitment, making strong offers and letting them go if needed, we volley back and forth with our stage partners like skilled tennis players in a top-level competition.

"I see your bold offer and--unhh!!!--send one right back atcha!" Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

“I see your bold offer and–unhh!!!–send one right back atcha!”
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Maybe the analogy’s not quite right: we’re not working for winning zingers, but we are participating in an athletic and poetic dance where each player calls out the other’s best. Bold offer meets audacious return meets courageous response—and the scene takes off. Our investment lifts our partners. Our specificity lets the next line or next action unfold almost automatically.

Patricia’s right: boldness can be intimidating. That’s part of why improv (or life for that matter) ain’t for the faint of heart. But healthy chutzpah makes for the best collaboration. Everyone’s strong and everyone’s flexible. It’s not a rigid bravado or necessarily a loud one. It’s a daring kind of commitment and communication. We offer our biggest, brightest, and most bodacious selves. And our partners do as well. Every player goes full sail. All inspire each other to keep upping their games.

Lisa Rowland:  

I connect with what Patricia and Ted have written because I used to be a pretty polite improvisor. I was fantastic at enthusiastically “yes”sing my partner. I’d take them in any direction they pointed the scene. I was like a little improv springboard, giving helpful boosts to folks who already knew where they wanted to go. But I wasn’t big on setting the direction myself. That felt a bit too scary.

"I insist: you go first." Photo courtesy of www.us.ayushveda.com.

“I insist: you go first.”
Photo courtesy of http://www.us.ayushveda.com.

Part of my reluctance to make bold offers was politeness. As if to say, ‘I bet you know just where you want to go, so I won’t get in the way with any of my own offers that might distract from that. Go ahead! I’ll be right behind you!” I was very pleasant to play with! But I also knew that the improvisor I wanted to be should know how to make strong calls, so I tip-toed out onto limbs when I could screw up the courage.

At this point, I’ve worked on this area a lot–making my own narrative calls and big bold offers­­–and I’m better at it now. I’m more willing to make big story-changing confessions and play characters with unreasonable opinions and strong beliefs. I find it scary and exhilarating. But when I slip back into my old, more timid behavior, the particular cat that I find holding my tongue is not politeness, but rather fear of getting it wrong. A completely irrational sense that everyone else on stage knows where this story is going. They just see it. It’s obvious to them. But for some reason, the grand blue print of the scene has been withheld from me, so I probably shouldn’t make many big steps, because they’ll likely not fall on the right path. It seems ridiculous when I state it out loud like this, but that’s the fear!

I got wonderful advice from Barbara Scott once while working with True Fiction, an inspiring group doing a particularly difficult format. She said, “Any time you’re feeling tentative, just remember, no one else has any idea what’s going on either.” I try to remember that all the time. In improv and in life. We’re all just winging it here, right? No one has more information than you. You have everything you need to make a call.

You might feel like you're nuts, but get out there on that limb. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

You might feel like you’re nuts, but get out there on that limb.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Now, boldness takes guts. Big fat courage. You’re walking out on a limb, and you’re bringing a grand piano with you. And it also takes work. Because the price of admission to boldness is paying very close attention. You can get by not really listening if you never plan on contributing a whole lot. But if you’re throwing your two cents in, you’ve got to know everything that’s already in the pot. So sure, there’s a price. You have skin in the game. But the payoff of boldness is so worth it. Like so many other things, you get out what you put in. The bolder the choices, the grander the ride.

Posted in Improv, Miscellaneous, Thought-Provokers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

5 Easy Ways to Introduce Mindfulness into Your Classroom

You may have heard that mindfulness practice—learning to pay curious and kind attention to the present moment—brings a wide-ranging host of benefits to the classroom or workplace setting. Greater focus, improved self-awareness and collaboration, reduced anxiety and hostility: the evidence-based, scientifically-demonstrated list goes on.

Mindfulness can bring ripples of benefit to any classroom or workplace setting.  Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Mindfulness can bring ripples of benefit to any classroom or workplace setting.
Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Thankfully, you need not polish your pedagogy or meditate in a monastery for months on end in order to start reaping such benefits. These five easy-to-introduce mindfulness practices will have immediate effect and will plant valuable seeds for further exploration.

  1. Minute of silence and stillness. Almost everyone’s in some bit of swirl when they begin a class or arrive at a meeting. Taking a minute of quiet stillness allows folks to catch their breath and settle their minds before diving into a new experience.

Many students will ask “What should I do during that time?” One helpful answer: “You don’t have to do anything. For this minute, you can just be.” Suggest that folks bring attention to their own experience during that time. What can they notice about their breath, their body, or the sounds coming to their ears? What’s happening now?

Insider tips

  • Invite students to close their eyes or find a neutral spot of focus on the floor or desk in front of them. Some groups need time to work out their nervous giggles and desire to distract—most have little experience with shared silence—but eventually students come to cherish the quiet respite.[1]
  • A simple chime or tone can help to bring a focus for learning. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

    A simple chime or tone can help to bring a focus for learning.
    Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

    Some participants may ask, “Am I supposed to pray?” My response: it’s a time to bring yourself to the present moment, to let go of—or at least note—whatever tensions or concerns you’re bringing into the room so you can concentrate on what we’re doing here. If a silent prayer helps with that, go ahead and pray.[2] It’s an option, but most definitely not a requirement.

  • Using a chime or other peaceful sound to enter into and exit the silence helps to punctuate the transition as well. Letting the kids or other participants ring the chime gives them further ownership over the practice.
  1. Deep listening. When most of us listen, we’re rarely paying full attention—we’re preparing a critique or a response instead. Deep listening develops a more generous, focused presence that leads to real connection.

Group your students or colleagues into pairs with each partner facing the other. If you can, give enough space so that pairs won’t distract each other. One person starts as the speaker, responding for a set time to a basic prompt; the other simply listens. No questions, no feedback, no clarification, no striving to remember or respond. Just listening. If the speaker feels she has finished before the minute concludes, the two can sit in silence until more thoughts come—and often the best sharings emerge from that quiet—or until time’s up.

This dog knows how to make the phonograph feel heard. Good deep listening, pooch. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

This dog knows how to make the phonograph feel heard. Good deep listening, pooch.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Then, switch roles so the second speaker shares his own reflection to that same prompt. After each participant has had the chance to speak, the pair gets a third minute to dialogue like in normal conversational. Is there anything your partner mentioned that you appreciated or wanted to connect with? Did their comments raise any questions? And so on.

Doing this exercise early in a semester or project can generate a sense of community that pays dividends for the rest of the group’s time together, especially if you go through several rounds with new partners for each subsequent question.

Insider tips:

  • After a first session of deep listening, engage a group discussion to explore what it was like to speak and listen this way. Most likely you’ll hear a range: “It was weird.” “I didn’t know how to respond.” “I felt safe.” “I got time to hear my own voice.” “Knowing I wasn’t going to respond meant I could pay better attention.” “I felt like I wasn’t being kind.” Whatever, the responses, welcome them and acknowledge that skillful deep listening takes practice and, eventually, bears good fruit.
  • Early on, good prompts will ask non-threatening, open-ended questions that invite participants to share something authentic without getting too vulnerable. “What’s something you enjoy doing over the summer?” would work well. “What’s one of your deepest fears?” would prove unfair, if not irresponsible. Once a group has established greater familiarity, of course, deep listening offers a good structure for more intimate sharing. Be cautious and patient with testing such boundaries.
  • Forming “wheel-within-a-wheel” circles can help transition from partner to partner. Have one partner from each group help form a circle in the center with their chairs facing out. The other partners then form a second, wider circle by facing their chairs toward the center. Each pair forms a “spoke” radiating outward. After the first question, have the folks in the inner circle stand and move one partner to their right (clockwise). After the second question, have the folks in the outer circle stand and move one partner to their right (counter-clockwise). Everyone gets to move. Everyone meets new people.
  1. Where is your attention now? Like a spotlight, our attention always shines somewhere. With practice, we can learn to choose where that awareness falls, rather than lurching to and fro without intention. Every so often—including in the middle of other exercises or projects—ask your students “Where is your attention now?” and then give them a moment or two to stop and notice. Is their attention where they want it to be? Great. Has it gone elsewhere? That’s fine too. Either way, they’re developing an awareness about their awareness—and that they have some choice in the matter.
It's SO easy for the mind to wander.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

It’s SO easy for the mind to wander.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Insider tip:

  • Take care with your vocal tone when delivering the question. Avoid judgment or reprimand as in “Get your attention back here now!” Rather, invite curiosity and kindness in exploration, as in “Hmm. Check that out. My mind has wandered off entirely. What do I want to do about that.”


4. Breathing ratio. This simple breathing exercise takes just a moment and can help restore calm in a time of stress or chaos—without anyone else needing to know. Invite students to silently count as they inhale and start counting again as they exhale. There’s no need to adjust posture or shift breathing pace; again, they’re simply noticing what is. What number do they find on the in breath and on the out breath? Are they different? Do they change?

Simply counting the breath can help us find calm in a time of stress.  Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Simply counting the breath can help us find calm in a time of stress.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Insider tip:

  • Ask students to take stock of how they’re feeling in mind and body before they start the exercise and then again after they’ve finished. Almost universally, students experience greater groundedness—and an excitement to learn that they can create this sense of calm whenever they need it.
  1. Recognize transitions. Skillful mindfulness teachers will find others ways to mark transitions between lessons, activities, or learning modes. Maybe students take shoes off or drop cell phones into a box on their way into the classroom. Perhaps a quick pick-me-up game sloughs off the stress following a test. Or a slow, silent walk around the desks introduces a different kind of focus.

    Leaving shoes at the door can signal a transition. Photo courtesy of flickr.

    Leaving shoes at the door can signal a transition.
    Photo courtesy of flickr.

One of my favorites signals the end of class rather than having kids just trickle away without intention. Students put one hand toward the center of the room, as if forming spokes in one large wheel. Together, we’ll count to three and then lift our arms out, chanting “Spokes out!” The simple practice takes about 5 seconds but gathers the group’s energy one last time. We honor what we’ve shared and honor where we’re going.

Insider tip:

  • Infinite possibilities abound for this one. Find your own creative ways to mark transitions or, better yet, invite the students to generate their own.

Whatever approach you choose, remember that the more your kids practice some form of mindfulness, the more they (and you) will see its mind-shifting benefits. As is so often true, the oxygen principle holds: best to get your own mindfulness practice going before bringing your students to it. If you want to teach swimming, it helps to have survived a few swimming situations of your own.

A few words of caution to conclude. Sloppy or unskillful introductions to mindfulness may generate hesitation or even defiance—and such resistance can surface with surprising intensity. For one, mindfulness instruction can trigger sensitive religious concerns. Wise teachers and leaders learn to anticipate how even avowedly secular practices might threaten some faith traditions—or privilege others. In addition, deeper exercises—extended meditations, body scans, or movement practices—often bring up difficult emotions or memories. Any teacher who hasn’t explored his or her own inner landscape will have little to offer a student or colleague facing the challenge of theirs. Again, healthy humility, steady patience and a commitment to one’s own daily mindfulness practice all make good sense here.

[1] You know things are going well when your students remind you that you forgot the opening minute.

[2] Lord knows, I’ve often asked for guidance or good words before a challenging class!

Posted in Contemplation, Mindfulness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Improv Wisdom Musings, Vol. 2: Make Emotional Noises

This post marks the second in a series of three-person explorations into the life wisdom found through improvisational theatre. 
Three experienced teachers–Patricia Ryan Madson, founder of the Stanford Improvisors (SImps) and author of Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show UpLisa Rowland, improvisor extraordinaire and San Francisco 2012 Actor of the Year; and Ted DesMaisons, learning consultant and curator of this blog–have agreed to riff on a few improv maxims, sharing and building on each other’s thoughts to explore each principle in more detail.  Rowland and DesMaisons both studied with Madson and continue her work through their “Improv Wisdom for a Meaningful Life” retreats–including one coming up later this month.
We agreed that each individual contribution would hold loosely to a three paragraph limit.  Each essay would then get passed to another teacher for comment or development until all three had offered a reflection.   Here’s hoping you enjoy!    

Make Emotional Noises

Open emotion like this changes things. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Open emotion like this changes things.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Ted DesMaisons: 

We spend so much of our lives knotting up our emotions rather than letting them flow. We’re afraid—heck, I’m afraid—to be seen, really seen, by those around us. Why so, I’m not sure. Maybe it would mean we’re more vulnerable to emotional injury because others have sensitive information about us. Maybe it’s because we’d have to admit we’re permeable beings, affected by the world and other creatures—and we’d rather believe we’re self-sustaining individuals. We also block our feelings because we’re afraid of them ourselves. If I really open to this emotion, I might be consumed by it. Notice how much pain I feel for what’s happening to the planet? I’ll never get out of despair. Notice the depth of my gratitude for the love others show to me? I might explode in joy. We let others block our emotions and we block them ourselves.

Of course, as with most of the natural world, emotions are meant to flow through us. They come as visitors and just want our notice. Like in Rumi’s “The Guest House,” we can welcome them in—even though they may be dangerous—and we can invite their wisdom. Usually, once acknowledged, they’ll move on of their own accord. New ones will surely fill in the gap behind them. Reevaluation Counseling taught me this lesson beautifully: emotions might bring tears which can get messy, but it’s all good. The wet and snot carry toxins out of the body and allow for powerful healing. If we stifle the sob and sniffle the gunk back in—if we work to contain the emotion—we keep the toxins within us, more poison for another day.

The improv principle “Make emotional noises” serves as a wonderful antidote for such stern control. As in so many other improvisational ways of being, we’re asked to come back to a natural embodiment. So many beginner scenes get locked in talking heads: words, words, words. While that can seem entertaining for an audience if the improvisors have enough verbal dexterity, it ultimately proves unsatisfying, like empty white flour carbs in a meal. Emotions on stage, especially ones sounded without words, immediately offer a different kind of sustenance. The players drop into an authenticity that resonates throughout the theater. As improvisors, we not only let ourselves make emotional noises as they might emerge on their own, but we also learn to invite those sounds as a way of accessing that humanity. The feelings rise and fall. The healing’s wise for all.


Great vocalists invite emotion into every sound they make.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Great vocalists invite emotion into every sound they make.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Lisa Rowland

Make Emotional Noises. What a great reminder.

I’m interested in backing up and then also skipping forward from Ted’s starting point with Making Emotional Noises.

The backing up part is about awareness. As a performer, I connect with this piece of advice as not only reminding me to let my emotions be known, but to simply have emotions in the first place! If my character is going to make an emotional noise, I better have some feelings about things! So often we approach the stage just with information. With naming things and people and places, with stating facts about our backgrounds, but it’s easy to forget that a full-bodied character will have feelings about the different people in her story. Sometimes, improvisors get to have the feelings before they even know why they’re having them. I find myself saying to students “Have a big emotional reaction! Figure out why later!” or “Let us see you cry! You don’t need to know why you’re crying!” It’s exciting! Funnily enough, this is sometimes how I experience emotions in real life. An emotion overtakes me, and I need to take a moment and figure out just where it came from and what brought it on. How delightful it would be to see a character inexplicably emotional.

Sometimes joy cannot be contained in silence. And those feelings change relationships.  Photo courtesy of fotopedia.

Sometimes joy cannot be contained in silence. And those feelings change relationships.
Photo courtesy of fotopedia.

The other important part of having emotions, from my perspective, is what it does, not just to a character, but to a relationship. A scene will go from a collection of things happening to a story when characters start being affected by one another. And that is what an audience comes to see. Bringing that into daily life, I’m reminded of the power of the sometimes clichéd “I” statements. “I feel sad.” “I feel lonely.” Simply stating how an action or situation makes you FEEL can be very powerful. In some ways, I think our world has discounted emotions as unproductive or invaluable. They don’t accomplish anything. They’re not to be weighted too heavily. Or, we find safety in being just fine all the time, so we don’t let our emotions out. But they still drive so much of how we move through life! We go toward good feelings, we go away from negative ones. In relationships, reminding each other of how we feel is sometimes all it takes to create a positive change. Make emotional noises. Feel things, let them out, and make them known to the people around you.

Patricia Ryan Madson:  

What a useful topic!   I remember the first time I heard Keith give this instruction and the result. A lifeless scene became intensely interesting. Emotional sounds are sweet and powerful and playful. And, you don’t have to know what they mean. The sound itself creates the feeling. Like “jump and justify.”

So what is an emotional noise? Try some right now: Sigh. Sigh deeply. Sigh sadly. Sigh happily, sigh in frustration. Take the sigh into a laugh.   Using the breath . . .let some sound go up into your nasal chamber. Now play with the breath alone. See how many kinds of sounds/expressions happen when you invite your nonverbal sounding mechanism to simply play. Our breath tells so much. I can always know when my husband Ron is tense and then relaxes. He lets out an enormous sighing breath, while putting his feet up. You can feel his relief. There are all kinds of amazing feelings that manifest when we allow our closed lips the “mmmmmmmmmm” sound. Try it.

Try it out! Choose an emotion, make a noise.

Try it out! Choose an emotion, make a noise.

Or start with the emotion . . . try on grief, for example. Think of a very sad circumstance and don’t verbalize, but simply vocalize what grief might sound like. The sounds of grief will likely lead to tears. Emotional sounds often end in laughing and crying. How wonderful. How rich. An excellent reminder, Ted and Lisa. It’s healthy for improvisers and for ordinary life. Make emotional noises. I just thought of a great game. It’s the emotional noises “open a letter” game.   Open a letter and read it silently . . . but react by making emotional noises. Experiment! Woo hoo! I love making emotional sounds.

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