Improv Wisdom Musings, Vol. 1: Let Yourself Be Changed

This post marks the first 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 this August.
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.   The same maxim may eventually elicit more than one round.  Here’s our first . . .   

Let Yourself Be Changed

Lisa Rowland: We, as a civilization, seem to have developed an identity trajectory that moves us from a place of openness and malleability to a “grown-up” and “mature” station where we hang on tightly to what we’ve got and avoid situations that might threaten all that we’ve achieved.  As children, the whole world changes us.  It’s new and wonderful and we are encouraged to try new things and learn all the way up through college.  But once we’re out on our own, the message seems to change.  Figure out what you’re going to do and do it. Once we’re settled in that place, there’s so much of our identity wrapped up in having arrived there that it’s terrifying to consider changing it! A mix of external messaging that tells us we’ve gotten what we came for and internal fear that we might lose what we have if we open ourselves up to change keeps us right where we are.

We can get frozen in our identities, unable to flow with the larger tides that guide us.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

As adults, we often get frozen in our identities, unable to flow with the larger tides that guide us.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Improvisors, on the other hand, study the art of being changed.  A wise teacher told me once that rather than looking for ways to change my partner, I ought to enter a scene looking for opportunities to change.  Stories revolve around characters affecting one another; around people being thrown off balance and coming to rest in a different place than they started.  That’s how we know a story has been told.  Something’s different.  Someone’s been changed.  On an improv stage, we welcome in that momentary imbalance necessitated in change in order to see what happens next.  This might mean going along with someone’s idea, showing our vulnerability,  giving up our status, or asking for help.

If more people approached life with an aim to look for what might change them, there’d be no limit to the depths of happiness that people might experience.  They’d take that class they’d always been interested in, without the paralyzing fear of failure.  They’d accept others’ ideas, and creative collaborations would flow like water!  They’d listen deeply, empathize generously, and approach life with curiosity rather than suspicion.  They’d welcome in uncertainty with the understanding that if they’re to discover anything new, they’ll inevitably travel through a zone of unfamiliarity.  Hang in there!  Let it change you.  Find a new part of yourself, and allow yourself to be redefined, if that’s where the change takes you.

Patricia Ryan MadsonChanging or being changed . . . hmmmm.  There is a world of difference between these two.  In real life I notice what it is I want to change in myself and sometimes activate that choice.  Most self-help books give us keys to this process. For example I need to get a handle on how I waste time in distractions on my IPhone.  There’s a change I need to make.  Perhaps I put a time window on when I’m allowed to have open the phone, other than when it rings.  But the improv concept that we are studying here is about something fundamentally different.  At the heart the issue is control . . . whose control.  While I may be willing and even ready to change on my own most of us don’t like someone else making that decision for us.  I would balk at having my husband hold my IPhone hostage in an attempt to change that habit for me.

Even a hardened villain can change--and we love that story. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Even a hardened villain can change–and we love that story.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

So improv gives us opportunities to try on this way of working.  Perhaps I’m playing a character who is a bullheaded kind of woman.  She’s a CEO of a big corporation and is used to having things her way.  In the course of the scene she meets a little boy who has been damaged by the product she manufactures.  As she comes to know his story her veneer of arrogance melts and she offers to adopt the boy.  We love seeing a “badass” turn soft and kind.

It’s easy to hang on to whatever you are doing/thinking.  It takes little effort to stay right where you are.  Change requires openness and action.  Change brings adventure and surprises and new levels of living.  And, improv allows us to experience what it feels like to be influenced and moved by others.

Ted DesMaisons:  You both have reminded me how—again—improv teachings parallel those of Buddhism. Within that tradition, the Buddha taught, we generate so much of our suffering by resisting inevitable transition—or, at the other end of the spectrum, by trying to force it. Change represents one of the “seals” that holds life together. Fighting it means fighting reality. When we make peace with that truth, even embrace it, our mood relaxes and we exhale into noticing the beauty of the present moment.

Improv creates that learning lab where we can experience and enjoy the cauldron of change with little to no risk. When the “badass” opens her heart, the other players and the audience melt along with her. When the lowly servant finds a different dignity in the face of his overlord’s abuse, the whole house celebrates the status reversal. We embrace the change and come to see that it has results. As you mentioned, Lisa, the choice to let ourselves be affected makes a better story.

So what it is that makes us cling to the familiar, whether in life or on stage? Part of it, like you suggest, Patricia, is that change asks us to do something, to take responsibility for helping create a new world. We have to take more responsibility for the outcome of our story or our circumstance. Of course, we might also fail in the new effort. We might look clumsy or stupid. People might judge us or reject us. And then, we fear, we’ll be left alone.

Every caterpillar takes a faithful leap before becoming a butterfly. Image courtesy of Flickr Sharing.

Every caterpillar takes a faithful leap before becoming a butterfly.
Image courtesy of Flickr Sharing.

Ultimately, this question of letting ourselves be changed becomes a question of faith. Do we trust an unfolding scene—or life itself—to take care of us in the end? Do we trust ourselves to marshal the internal resources to grow into the change? Can we allow our stagemates and partners in crime to support us through whatever transitions happen? A caterpillar wraps itself in a cocoon that spells a certain kind of death, or at least a passing. But it’s that exact willingness that allows the butterfly to emerge. Letting ourselves be changed embraces that same, compelling life force. We dive into that dying, of sorts, and come out renewed.

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Walking at Omega, 2014

Image courtesy of MisterGuy11.

“Fireflies” Image courtesy of MisterGuy11.

Simple summer moments can prove so sweet.

I just recently returned from a wonderful retreat at the Omega Institute with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) luminaries Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli. We spent most of our time in the first few days engaged in mindfulness practice, cycling through sitting, walking, lying down and yoga meditations. Six AM to 9 PM, almost non-stop makes an endurance challenge, for sure, but it also brings a steadier mind and more open awareness. On one of our extended walking meditations, with 100 or so of us spread across one of Omega’s great lawns as the day’s light faded, the heart of the following poem came to me.

Here’s hoping the moment speaks to you as well.

.   .   .   .   .

Walking at Omega, 2014

We move over this open field like
early evening fireflies,
flickering lamps of awareness
in measured motion,
dancing with
the oncoming dark.

Each floats and pauses
under her own power;
Each honors his own track.
Still, we sense each other
in the soft periphery,
conjoined in pulsing multitude.

Surely, we are not alone.

Like any lights,
we, too, will someday extinguish,
falling into
that great darkness
which births
and swallows
all things.

For now, though
—in this moment—
let our hearts rest
in quiet reassurance,
this field of quiet fires
ever available
for those
who choose to see.

Moving alone, yet together. Image courtesy of the Center for Mindfulness at the UMass Medical Center.

Moving alone, yet together. Image courtesy of the Center for Mindfulness at the UMass Medical Center.

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9 Reasons Why Every Conference Needs More Introverted Experiences

Two years ago, I attended the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN) world conference in San Francisco. I had a blast: great games, provocative insights, big ideas, and loads of interaction with amazing yes-sayers from around the world. I also had trouble catching my breath. The conference designers that year had packed each day full with amazing workshop after amazing workshop, with little time for integration or even travel from space to space. Most sessions were loud with laughter too. Those of you who also count yourself among the introvert tribe won’t be surprised that all that heady excitement came with an exhaustion price tag. As I’m ramping up to head to this year’s AIN conference in Austin, Texas this November, I’m hoping the session planners will make more space for introverts by including more silence, more breaks, more opportunities for self-reflection and longer transition times.

Here are nine reasons why.

1)    Participants get the chance for greater processing and integration of what they learn. As my partner Melissa’s yoga mentor, Patty Townsend, asserts: all learning, growth and evolution happens in cycles of work and rest. The mug of learning can only take so much tea before new information spills over the edges. Continuous inhalation only makes us dizzy. Real meaning and real learning comes when we enjoy the tea before adding more. Real integration happens when we allow an exhale as well. And, importantly, this is true for introverts and extroverts alike.


Will you enjoy the cup of tea before pouring more into the mug? Image courtesy of

2)    More reflection allows for greater depth. When we skim straight from one full-throttle experience to another, we rarely get the chance to dig in. In order to keep up, we have to stay in motion. With all that action, the muddied waters never settle to clarity. If we stay still for a bit, however, we eventually see further into the bottom of our explorations, finding new, different—and often more creative—insights than we found on the surface.

3)    Multiple learning modes activate different parts of the brain. If teachers only engage students through the written word, for example, they let all sorts of intelligence lie dormant or, worse, atrophy. In contrast, when group leaders offer the opportunity to “study” through movement and music or through silence and contemplation, they open the door for a much wider range of potential neural pathways. We get more versatile in our thinking, more flexible in our creativity. We need more than extroverted experiences for the same reason.

4)    Introverts will feel more welcome. For an introvert, having to “work” a crowd in a loud room can feel like having to scratch a blackboard while getting a vaccination shot. Make that a crowd of mostly exuberant and charming improvisors and the process only gets more intimidating. Building in quiet time or opportunities for introspection tells those introverts “We value you too. We’re glad you’re here as well.” And that welcome builds more courage for fuller participation.

5)    You draw out insightful voices you might otherwise miss out on. Introverts and shy folks (two overlapping, but not identical sets) make as many great connections as do those who speak more freely and forcefully. Without a conscious effort to make space for—or to invite—those voices, however, other conference participants never hear that deeper wisdom. The introverts may scribble journal notes for future consideration or have select conversations over a quiet dinner, but most session-goers never get access to those valuable musings.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet:The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking , articulates why it makes sense to encourage participation from introverts.


6)    You lose out on selling opportunities. Many decision-makers in all sorts of organizations are introverts. Like any other professional group selling their services, applied improvisors need to make connections with such decision-makers in order to earn business. Giving those extroversion-tending consultants and trainers greater fluency in the quieter tones introvert-sensitive language will help them earn more business.

7)    You help international folks draw more from their conference experience. If you’ve travelled to a country where you’re new to the language, you know how exhausting that can be. You also know just how much of a difference it makes when the natives speak…slowly. Here’s where periods of silence again can make  a big difference. Whether it’s a more spacious 10 minutes between conference sessions to integrate what just happened or a brief pause at the end of a sentence to catch up with one’s internal translator, little gaps help the internationals take in all that’s going down as well.

8)    Greater spaciousness allows for more open hearts. If you want to spot the beauty of a rare bird or the grace of a wild animal, you can’t go crashing through the woods. The same is true for the tenderness of our more authentic—and more vulnerable—selves. Sometimes the soul shows up through animated play or vibrant music. Other times, it needs wider stretches of patient silence. Connecting with our deepest selves and with the same in others makes for truly memorable learning experiences. When we really know and are known, we grow.

Sometimes, one only makes contact with the power and beauty of wild insights by waiting more quietly.

Sometimes, one only makes contact with the power and beauty of wild insights by waiting more quietly. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

9)    What comes last matters just as much as what comes first. At a well-paced conference, I have as much attention to offer the final session as I did the first. In fact, each experience builds on the previous ones to a triumphant whole. At a more breathless conference, in contrast, I find myself glazing over or checking out during late-afternoon gatherings. My mind stumbles and lurches, zombie-like, to what I’ll have for dinner or to the oddly-soothing drone of my e-mail box—really, to anything other than the new information I’m trying to take in. I always feel badly for those late-session presenters, knowing that everyone needs a break. Thankfully, when I am that presenter, I can draw on a few reliable tools that restore some psychic balance before trying to pass along any additional lesson.

Don’t get me wrong: a rich buffet of delicious offerings can make any conference a delight. When you’ve only got a few hours or a few days with all these great people, you want to squeeze what you can out of each opportunity. That said, there’s a wisdom in finding a balance. Draw on the energy of the extroverts and ask for the depth of the introverts. That’s when the conference becomes most unforgettable. That’s where you get true transformation.

This summer’s Improv Wisdom for a Meaningful Life workshop that I’ll lead in northern California with my dear friend and colleague Lisa Rowland will make ample space for introverts and extroverts alike. Click on the link at the beginning of this paragraph or see the previous post for more information. We’d love to have you join the fun!

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This year’s Improv Wisdom workshop!!


A Playful Path to Courage, Creativity, and Connection 

Black Mountain Retreat Center, Cazadero, CA * Fri-Mon, Aug 22nd-25th, 2014

Enrollment limited to approx. 14 participants

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

Growing numbers know that improvisation offers far more than comedy. Improv cultivates a different presence, the kind that forges courage, fosters connection, and frees creativity.  In short: improv enriches the human experience. Creating in the moment, artists and athletes build resilience in the face of setbacks. Business leaders learn to innovate with nimble acuity. Educators find powerful paths for true development. And seekers of all sorts discover previously hidden layers of insight. This active and contemplative workshop explores such wisdom from the inside out. Together, we’ll create a safe, playful, and experiential learning lab that sharpens self-awareness and revitalizes relationship with the wider world. More specifically, we’ll help you:

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

Steeping myself in these principles for peaceful, playful living has been a true gift. Thank you.                                                                      –Kathy R. Ted and Lisa are awesome teachers! Patient, kind, and fun; they brought out a sparkle in all of us.                                                                      –Jen C. 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.

Prerequisites 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. About the Instructors Ted picture for webSince completing his graduate work at Stanford (MBA) and Harvard (Masters of Theology), Ted DesMaisons has taught religious studies and philosophy at Northfield Mount Hermon school in western Massachusetts. He has studied improvisation with Patricia Ryan Madson, Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS) and Loose Moose, and has trained extensively with the Center for Courage and Renewal. Combining humor with gravitas and intention with inspiration, Ted helps create safe spaces for exploring what really matters. He writes regularly about improv, contemplation, and positive reinforcement on his TED WORDS 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 seven 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 Stanford University and an uncannily astute observer of what’s needed next, Lisa was recently named the 2012 San Francisco Actor of the Year. Location and Accommodations

Black Mountain Retreat Center from the air.

Black Mountain Retreat Center from the air.

This retreat takes place at the Black Mountain Retreat Center in the glorious redwoods of Sonoma County, two hours north of San Francisco or Berkeley.  The Center’s rolling coastal hills and meditative spaces will make an idyllic setting for our time together.  The Sonoma Coast waits just a half hour away.  We will share three delicious vegetarian meals each day and guests will stay two to a room in simple, clean accommodations.  For more information about the setting, please visit the Center’s web site:

Accommodations at the Tara House.

Accommodations at the Tara House.

Cost $700 per person. Includes all program fees, three nights lodging, and three meals per day. Full payment due upon registration, though other arrangements can be negotiated as needed. Payment 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 If you would like to register, please fill out this form online (Click on the words “this form” to go to the form). If you have any questions about the workshop, please contact either facilitator. We’d be delighted to talk with you!

Ted DesMaisons:           Lisa Rowland:

The Sonoma Coast, 30 minutes from the retreat center.

The Sonoma Coast ,30 minutes from the retreat 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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A Visionary Victory for Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks: How a New Way of Thinking Bonded a Team and Brought Home a Championship

Coach Pete Carroll brought a new approach to the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Coach Pete Carroll brought a new approach to the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Pete Carroll had heard it for years and right up until Super Bowl game time. The ridicule. The doubt. The derision. Pete Carroll’s too much of a  players’ coach. That rah-rah style might work at USC, but it won’t work with grown men in the pros. Seattle’s too lax to win a championship. Now, after having shellacked the Denver Broncos’ supposedly juggernaut offense in Super Bowl XLVIII, Carroll and his Seahawks have sent those critics scurrying into the shadows. Turns out his careful approach to coaching—a potent blend of growth mindset, mindfulness techniques, and positive reinforcement—actually does gain traction on the field. Turns out you don’t have to scowl first to laugh last.

Back at the beginning of the season, Carroll detailed for ESPN the Magazine how he had chosen a different path. He knew that many thought him a pushover and that his detractors could point to a questionable track record. He’d been fired by the Jets in 1994. The Patriots had dismissed him after three seasons of seeming overmatched. And, though he’d had success at USC where he won two national championships, he left there under a cloudstorm of controversy too. Still, in the face of that criticism, he stayed strong and built a program that matched his mode.  In a world of aggressive hits and hard-ass reprimand, he opted for systematic kindness: “I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?”[1]

Growth Mindset

That generous slant shows up for the Seahawks in several ways, including Carroll’s commitment to a growth mindset. He focuses squarely on improvement rather than on native talent, exhorting his players, coaches, and staff to “Do your job better than it has ever been done before.”[2] He and his GM John Schneider cleared out employees who planted their feet in a fixed mindset mud and instead brought in guys willing to grow. That included Russell Wilson, the 5’11” quarterback who’d heard a few nay-sayers of his own and now-All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman who had come into the league as a lightly-regarded 5th-round pick. It also included Tom Cable, an assistant head coach earlier known for his testy demeanor who now feels he’s found a better way to work with players:

If I go ballistic on a guy because he dropped his outside hand or missed an underneath stunt, who is wrong? I am. I’m attacking his self-confidence and he’s learning that if he screws up, he’s going to get yelled at. If you make a mistake here, it’s going to get fixed.[3]

For everyone throughout the organization, the approach stays the same. Set goals. Reach goals. Learn from mistakes.

The principle even applies for significant errors in judgment. When second-year defensive stopper Bruce Irvin received a four-game suspension for a positive test for banned substances last May, Carroll coached Irvin to take responsibility for his actions and apologize to his teammates and to the league. “The fact that that happened to Bruce is a gift for the next guy,” Carroll reported. “He made a poor choice and got hammered by it so the next guy won’t have to go through with that.”[4]

When Sherman ignited a firestorm with an on-air rant following the NFC Championship, he found his coach taking a similar approach:

I haven’t exactly earned straight A’s in the [avoiding controversy] department lately, but [Coach Carroll] sees it as a learning experience, just like the games. He finds the positives when we lose, in addition to the things we can improve on.[5]


Early on in his tenure with the Seahawks, Carroll got his athletes practicing yoga as a way to build flexibility and core strength. He also knew it would help them develop focus and concentration. What started as an experimental program became a mandated requirement, with players like Wilson leading the charge for even more mental preparation: “We talk about being in the moment and increasing chaos throughout practice, so when I go into the game, everything is relaxed.”[6]

Quarterback Russell Wilson touts the benefits of mindfulness practice.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Quarterback Russell Wilson touts the benefits of mindfulness practice.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Seahawks now have a full-time sports psychologist on staff and a more thorough investment in mindfulness that’s taken root across the squad. Offensive tackle Russell Okung has also jumped fully on board:

Meditation is as important as lifting weights and being out here on the field for practice. It’s about quieting your mind and getting into certain states where everything outside of you doesn’t matter in that moment. There are so many things telling you that you can’t do something, but you take those thoughts captive, take power over them and change them.[7]

The mindfulness helps the athletes let go of regrets from the past and anxieties for the future so they can stay fully focused on the intense demands of the present.

Positive Reinforcement

Carroll and his coaches amplify the team’s growth mindset and commitment to mental preparation by employing the foundational principle of positive reinforcement: reward movement toward the behavior you want and ignore the rest. That means more than offering empty praise. It means giving timely feedback to focus players on doing the right thing now rather than having done the wrong thing in the past. “We don’t feel like we benefit from [harping on errors],” Carroll says. “We want to tell them the best thing we can tell them as quickly as we can. It isn’t necessary to scream at them or yell at them. There are other ways to do it.”[8]

"Here's what you're doing right, Russell."

“Here’s what you’re doing right, Russell.”
Photo: http-//

Though the league sees Carroll as a “players’ coach”—and his team members sing his praises—he’s no undisciplined pushover. There’s a backbone of intention behind the positivity. Linebacker and team captain Heath Farwell makes the argument: “[Coach] Carroll is respected by his players because of his clear teaching methods and his positive-reinforcement approach.”[9] ESPN NFL Analyst Eric Allen echoes the point: “Players’ coaches give you tools that you can use to be successful—so that no matter where you are, you’re able to understand the game—you grow as a player—you grow as a person. They prepare you and give you an opportunity to be a better player and then hold you accountable.”[10]

Multiple Fibers, Strong Rope

Pete Carroll’s not the first coach to preach the benefits of positivity, but he is the first to succeed on such a grand scale. And that success derives directly from his belief in his multi-strand vision. “[Carroll isn’t] coaching in the Super Bowl because he’s a nice guy,” wrote Sherman. “He’s here because he’s pulling off the most unique philosophy in football…Even when he finished 7-9 two seasons in a row in 2010 and 2011, coach Carroll stayed true to himself and the things he believed in, because it was finally his chance to do things his way.”[11]

Nice guys get trophies too. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Nice guys get trophies too.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Start with the life-changing shift to a growth mindset and clear out the deadbeats. Develop the discipline of mindfulness meditation. And teach with the targeted technique of positive reinforcement. Braid those fibers into a single rope and you’ve got the strength to reach the highest summits, no matter how loud the nay-sayers grow. Quarterback Wilson wisely acknowledges that “Other teams aren’t like this. We do stuff different here.”[12] For this year’s Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, that difference—Pete Carroll’s systematic commitment to positivity and kindness—made all the difference.

Congratulations, Coach, and thanks for the inspiration.


Thanks to the following articles for their insights and quotations:

A Love Letter to Coach Carroll” by Richard Sherman

Lotus Pose on Two,” by Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

Pete Carroll voted most popular,” by Terry Blount,

Pete Carroll’s Coaching Playbook: 5 Takeaways for Leaders and Managers” by Victoria Alzapiedi

Seattle Seahawks Changing Future of Football with Yoga and Meditation,” by YD

[1]Lotus Pose on Two,” by Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[2] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[3] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[4] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[5]A Love Letter to Coach Carroll” by Richard Sherman, for

[6] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[7] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[8]Pete Carroll voted most popular,” by Terry Blount,

[9] Blount,

[11] Richard Sherman, for

[12] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

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Under Pressure (The Wisdom of Mistakes Follow-Up Interview)

Shortly after the previous post, The Wisdom of Mistakes, appeared in the Northfield Mount Hermon School alumni magazine, a trio of students in the Video as Visual Art class asked if they could interview me for further reflections. I gladly obliged and felt even more thankful after hearing the sophistication of their questions—them boys made me think. Of course, they’re living and learning in the pressure-cooker world of a private prep school, but I think their queries will resonate with others in many settings. Here’s a refined version of the conversation we had.

No buffer means even small stresses can put us over the edge. *     *     * Photo courtesy of

No buffer means even small stresses can put us over the edge.
* * *
Photo courtesy of

How do you feel pressure contributes to negative feelings of failure?

We have to ask what kind of pressure we’re talking about. Certain kinds become particularly poisonous to learning because they amplify negative feelings. In part, that can happen when we jam our schedules too tight. We pack in more and more demands—you guys know this well—and miss out on the open time and space needed for integration and consolidation. In the process, these ongoing high-adrenaline demands blow our buffers out. Then, when challenge comes, we lack any cushion. It’s like metal scraping metal or bone pushing into bone. In that mode, even a small failure can prove exceedingly painful, making it hard to learn from mistakes.

It can also get tough when pressure gets linked to judgment of the person involved—if you don’t reach this level, you’re a nobody. That’s especially deadly. You may not hear such threats exactly, but the same message can be coded into other language, both verbal and non-verbal. A roll of the eyes or a shrug of the shoulders that expresses disapproval: those, too, can cut deep and interrupt the learning flow.

This is where mindset matters so much. If you and your teachers have a fixed mindset—thinking that your abilities and talents are given at birth—then you spend your days trying to prove yourself. If you’ve got a growth mindset, you know your abilities continue to develop through your dedication and hard work. In that mode, the pressure—as long as it leaves that time and space for integration—becomes a force for advancement.

Note that  community makes a big difference too. If you’re trying to learn in a growth mindset but everyone around you lives and breathes in a fixed mindset haze, you’re going to have a hard time bucking that current. In contrast, the tide of a growth mindset lifts all boats.[1]

In the learning or advancing process, do you think we should relieve the pressure we put on young people? Or do you think pressure pushes people to succeed?

As we just mentioned, mindset matters. Young people with a fixed mindset might fold under minimal pressure. Those with a growth mindset might thrive under great stress.

Even without that model, though, we can acknowledge that pressure does push some people to change. One of my close friends became an outstanding athlete and winning coach because he so hates to lose. Any mistakes he make drive him to improve. And I know he’s not alone. We all depend on some stress in order to grow. The pearl needs the sand in the oyster. The sword needs the heat of a forge. At the same time, as we’ve also mentioned, too much pressure can collapse the house of cards. The trick is finding the right balance.

Every pearl needed some sand. *     *     * Photo courtesy of

Every pearl needed some sand.
* * *
Photo courtesy of

Your question reminds me of a story about the Buddha. He grows up in the lap of luxury, his lordly father sheltering him from any troubles. Ornate palaces, delicious foods, gorgeous attendants, and able-bodied friends: Siddhartha seemingly has it all. Later, after he escapes the palace confines and catches a glimpse of suffering, he retreats to a life of asceticism for seven years, surviving without pleasure or sustenance.

It’s only after having lived both those extremes that he overhears a passing musician on a boat instructing a student: If the string is too tight, it will snap. If it is too loose, it will not play. In that moment, Siddhartha realizes he’s been searching in the wrong places and commits to finding a Middle Way. He builds his body back to full strength and goes to sit under the Bodhi tree until he eventually reaches enlightenment. Too little pressure leaves us slack. Too much makes us snap.

Just the right tension keeps the string in tune. *     *     * Photo courtesy of

Just the right tension keeps the string in tune.
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Photo courtesy of

Of course, the ideal tension is different for each learner and that’s what makes effective instruction so difficult. As a teacher, you have to pay super close attention to how your students respond—and to your own preferences and predilections as well. As a learner, you sometimes have to tune out or translate your teacher’s voice so you can honor what works best for you.

Personally, I still lean towards the premise of positive reinforcement. That model suggests that, yes, you can get short term behavioral adjustment through force or jacked-up pressure but that change motivated by the learner’s own curiosity ultimately becomes deeper, more joyful, and longer-lasting. When criticized, I might work hard to prove you wrong or earn your praise. I might well learn, but I’m also consuming valuable time and energy on an emotional component that muddies the lesson. If I can focus all my faculties—emotional and intellectual—on the task at hand, that’s a better platform for learning.

Is there a point where failure is no longer effective as a learning tool and one should accept a challenge as impossible?

Absolutely, there are times where it’s best to just move on. That might be in the big picture, as in, yep, this just ain’t gonna work out. (I’m remembering one crush, in particular, where I realized that absolutely nothing I did was ever going to gain her favor.) Or it might be in a given moment, where our frustration levels have peaked and we’re simply not capable of making progress. So we step aside, let the annoyance subside, and then come back at a later date. High level animal trainers know this well: back off, ask for a few well-developed behaviors you know will generate success, and wait for the next training session.

No information's getting through once the defenses get kicked up. *     *     * Photo courtesy of

No information’s getting through once the defenses get kicked up.
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Photo courtesy of

Again, this is where the judgment of too much stress comes in. If I feel pressure as attack, I’m likely to get reactive and defensive. My amygdala—the part of the brain that signals fight, flight, freeze or faint—fires up and hijacks any higher-level learning. A simple “No!” can trigger that kind of reaction, whether it’s an outside voice or our own self-judgment. Too many “failures” in a row can lead to the same outcome. In that brain space, you can forget about abstract reasoning, skill development, or high-level synthesis. Information will not pass through and settle in. The soil’s simply not receptive to the seed.

When we can move out of reaction mode into a more fluid and flexible response mode, then we can begin to learn again. Then the pathways reopen. Again, teachers and students need to monitor that line for themselves. When do I get reactive? What triggers me into that space? How do I bring myself back out of that defensiveness? Not surprisingly, developing the skills of mindfulness can prove incredibly helpful here. You can learn to catch the reaction just as it’s happening and pause with a moment of awareness. What other options are available to me?

Can you talk about the distinction between accepting failure as a step on the road to success and being constructively motivated to erase that failure?

The more I’ve been learning about failure, the more I think we have to grow in our relationship to it. Most of us are conditioned—or have conditioned ourselves—into what my friend Matt Smith calls the “cringe mode” in response to failure. We tense up, close off, and launch into a litany of self-judgments. We think that reaction protects us from further injury: if I communicate that I’m upset with my mistake, maybe you’ll back off from piling on. But it also shuts us down.

So maybe the first phase is to learn to take failure as motivation. My friend who’s the athlete and coach would applaud this step. Feel the frustration of that moment and use it as fuel. Work hard to make sure the mistake doesn’t happen again.

The master of the prototype: failure on the way to success. *     *     * Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The master of the prototype: failure on the way to success.
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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A second phase would be to view the error as one step on the road to success. It’s not just a foil, it’s a source of information. This echoes the growth mindset model, gathering more and more information from each iteration. Like Thomas Edison going through trial and error on his way to breakthrough innovation, we test our prototype behaviors, knowing we’ll fail along the way. Heck, we need to fail along the way. That’s how we learn.

A third phase makes even more space, admitting that we might be labeling our “failures” too soon. Maybe the mistake opens a door or leads to a path that had previously remained invisible. My grandmother used to say “Everything happens for a reason.” I don’t know if I believe that, but I do know that I can choose to use whatever happens, good or bad, for my betterment. In retrospect, it will look like that failure happened for a reason—and we won’t be able to imagine our lives without that so-called mistake.

Good improvisors live in a fourth phase that I find the most compelling, embracing failures as gifts. Audiences love to watch improv actors walk the crazy edge of failure—who knows where this scene is headed? The most delightful moments come not when a scene unfolds in perfect fashion, as if rehearsed, but rather when someone stumbles and then recovers with artful joy. Usually, that happens with the help of stagemates as well. The merry band justifies the failure, using it as exactly what needed to happen. The skillful response turns the mistake into a jewel. Admittedly, that’s a rarefied place to get to, truly welcoming failure for the gift it represents. It’s a radical level of self- (and other-) acceptance that may seem impossible. But there’s no reason we can’t aim for it.

[1]This is one of the great benefits of The Failure Bow. In that theater exercise, we step to the front of a stage, admit a mistake out loud and proudly declare I took a risk! I failed! I’m still here! WOO HOO! Rather than flinch, the “audience”—our team—roars in approval. In that moment, the improvisor gets to experience viscerally a more healing approach to failure. Yes, the community says. We saw the misstep. AND, we celebrate your effort, your transparency, and the courage it takes to get back on your horse for the risk of another creative response. How would hearing that kind of response to failure open up new channels of innovation and learning?

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The Wisdom of Mistakes

Mmm. Mistakes, you must make.  *** Image courtesy of

Mmm. Mistakes, you must make.
Image courtesy of

If you want to succeed, embrace failure.

A year ago, I would have expected such paradoxical advice to come from a Taoist monk or a Jedi master. Now, after a sabbatical year away from school, I find myself touting that same refrain as I explore questions about teaching and learning. How do I encourage the freshman boy who struggles on an early test? How do I help a rookie softball shortstop maintain her confidence when her throw sails over the first baseman’s head? How do I support the senior who’s worried about getting rejected by her first-choice school?

Even though we at Northfield Mount Hermon see ourselves as an open-minded prep school—not just getting kids to the “top” colleges, but to the schools and programs that fit them best—we still employ many of the same measuring sticks that our peers do. We want our kids to excel in academics, arts and athletics—nail all three, even better. To the teenage mind, a single failure can sometimes feel ruinous. Lose one game and you miss the playoffs. Get one B and you might get rejected at Princeton. Such a high-pressure house of cards leaves little room for exploring uncertain ground and crowds out the benefits of healthy risk-taking.

During  my sabbatical explorations last year, I studied how to foster a more courageous, creative, and connected classroom. More specifically, I explored how four varied fields—contemplative practice, improvisational theater, positive reinforcement behavioral training, and growth mindset work—could overlap in such an effort. Some of my colleagues chuckled at the scope and complexity of the project—a year long drink at the fire hydrant, eh?—but I sensed I’d find valuable insights.

My travels led me to create art in nature at an eco-spiritual community on the coast of Scotland and sing Spontaneous Broadway on the improv stages of San Francisco. I watched an NCAA champion softball coach lead practice in Florida and heard mythical tales of powerful horses in Iceland. I learned about mindset in a conversation with a psychology professor at Stanford and about compassion from some street vendors in Venice, Italy. Everything I encountered, it seemed, invited me to shift my way of thinking about failure.

For example, most contemplative traditions use a gentler approach to so-called mistakes. When attention strays from a focus point—the breath, for example—there’s no ridicule or shaming. One simply notices the straying and gets back to the focusing. The lapse becomes a lesson.

The stones fell many times. Clearly, I didn't understand them yet. And, yes, the water was cold.

The stones fell many times. Clearly, I didn’t understand them yet.
And, yes, the water was cold.

When I struggled last summer to build a fragile trail of stones extending from a boulder into a tidal pool, I remembered the words of nature artist Andy Goldsworthy in the documentary Rivers and Tides as he laments a fallen stone sculpture:

“The moment when it collapses is intensely disappointing. This is the fourth time it’s fallen, and each time I got to know the stone a little bit more, it got higher each time. It grew in proportion to my understanding of the stone.”

He then pauses before adding:

“I obviously don’t understand it well enough yet.”

Again, no self-flagellation, only the recognition that he’s learning—and needs to learn more.

The theater improvisors I met showed me how to rebound from muck-ups with a practice known as the Failure Bow. Rather than compound a mistake by wincing from expected punishment—external or internal—the actor defuses the failure by taking a proud step forward and throwing both arms in the air to declare “I failed! Woo hoo!”  In other words, Yes, I messed up. And yes, I’m still here. I’m still growing. Such cheerful resilience delights audiences and inspires stagemates. And the eagerness is infectious.

Correct hand position for a great swing: "click!"

Correct hand position for a great swing: “click!”

Behavioral trainers and coaches who employ positive reinforcement methods—reward movement toward the behavior you want and ignore the rest—don’t harp on failure either. I can use a  “tag,” a non-verbal audible marker like a snap or a click, to let a softball player know when she’s got her wrists in proper position to make a great swing, for example. The tag says “Yes.” If she doesn’t hear the sound, I don’t point out the error or offer more instruction. I stay silent. There’s no dishonor or derision, only the information the player needs. In the quiet, she then determines the necessary adjustment and receives reinforcement from me the moment she finds the right alignment. Her ‘failure’ provides feedback. It leads to the solution.

Someone with a fixed mindset believes that whatever abilities we have come set in stone. No amount of effort can make up for a lack in talent and, in fact, effort demonstrates a lack of talent. A growth mindset, in contrast, suggests greater fluidity in intelligence and ability. Those who see their apparent failures as prototypes for future success maintain the courage and resilience to keep going. They stoke their flames for further learning—and ultimately reach farther than others who think they’re fixed.

These attitudes toward failure may seem revolutionary in educational settings, where we so often focus only on success, but tilling new soil often bears huge fruit. Errors in the classroom—or on the playing field, or the stage, or wherever students are absorbing new information—offer valuable information for incremental improvement and sometimes bust open the window to previously unforeseeable innovation. In failure, we can all find wisdom and opportunities for real learning. No Jedi master or Taoist sage necessary.

An abridged version of this post first appeared in the November 2013 issue of the NMH Alumni magazine. Special thanks to Jennifer Sutton in the NMH Communications office for her help crafting the piece.

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Stillness at Summer’s End: Reflections from a Silent Retreat

And, so, the sabbatical comes to an official end. Tomorrow (August 26th) marks the first day of faculty and staff meetings at Northfield Mount Hermon School for the 2013-2014 year. Once again, I will need to move in concert with another’s clock. Once more, I’ll have to work a bit harder to find time for reflection and integration. Thankfully, I decided to sneak in one more official event just under the wire: a weekend silent meditation retreat with 70 other ‘yogis’ in the woods of Barre, Massachusetts. What follows are some notes reflecting on that just-finished experience.
The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA.

The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA.

My friends Allan Lokos and Susanna Weiss have always spoken highly of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre and the lessons they have learned there. Great teachers and powerful teaching, they’ve said. Supportive landscape too. Though I’ve lived in western Massachusetts for over 14 years now, I had surprisingly never made the trek or carved out the time to visit the place. This past weekend seemed perfect timing: I needed a clear ritual close to these last 15 months of rich learning, I have wanted to deepen my own mindfulness practice, and it just made good sense as a professional commitment. If I want to guide others on the path of contemplation, I need to keep walking it myself.

I figured such an immersive weekend would challenge me, but I welcomed that as well. Usually, I sit in meditation for twenty minutes or a half-hour and that grounds my day with greater presence and more sturdy resilience. Got breath, good to go. In contrast, this retreat included a near continuous cycle between sitting meditation and walking meditation: one half-hour in the hall on the cushion, one half-hour with the floorboards or garden path. We knew we’d stop for meals and, at some point, each have a work assignment to help keep the place running (mine was cleaning out the compost and kitchen trash on Saturday afternoon), but other than that, it was all meditation, all the time.

They say meditation retreats bear fruit--I was about to find out for myself.  (Apple tree at IMS.)

They say meditation retreats bear fruit–I was about to find out for myself.
(Apple tree at IMS.)

From the workshop opening, the staff also asked each participant, or yogi,[1] also to dive into another big-time commitment: renounce almost every form of communication with others. Most directly, that meant not talking but it also meant avoiding gesture-making and eye contact. For sure, we had to put cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices away. And we could do no reading or writing of any sort. If we needed to contact the housekeeping or kitchen staff to address a need, we were allowed to jot down a small, handwritten note. Even then, though, our teachers asked us to consider if we really needed the question answered before we stepped into the world of words. Our focus for the weekend would be the patterns and tendencies of our own minds. Anything with a strong pull away from that gravitational center made the renunciation list.

As I arrived on Friday afternoon, I anticipated that the toughest of those obligations for me would be the commitment to give up the written word. As you faithful readers might suspect, writing helps me understand and process my world. When clouds of worry or distress come my way, putting words to page helps me name their formations so they can pass along and bring back the blue sky. When good ideas arrive, fleeting and rare, writing helps me remember them or share them with others. Moreover, I’ve just come to the end of my sabbatical and have so many thoughts to pull together. Sure, I could see how extended, rambling discourses could pull me away from a meditative focus, but what about a quick jot-down? What about a short note-take? I decided to honor the challenge and to trust what would emerge.

I also wondered how I would do with such an interpersonally restricted approach in general. I’d just come off two workshops blending improvisation and spirituality, walking an outwardly playful path of co-creation. And I’m an experienced veteran of more raucous retreats with Amma, India’s beloved “Hugging Saint.” By design, her programs always include a festival of sensory overloads: saffron robes and multi-colored tapestries, sweet smells of incense mixing with curry and rice, full-throated trance-inducing bhajans, elaborate weddings and baby-blessings, and all the like. Everyone dances, everyone frolics, everyone hugs—and it all happens late into the night. The main idea, in one word: LOVE. I naturally lean in such expressive directions. Maybe I would find that these meditation retreats just didn’t fit so well.

(Ah, the many workings of the resistant mind!)

Amma's celebrations would not qualify as restrained. Photo courtesy of WIkimedia Commons.

Amma’s celebrations would not qualify as restrained.
Photo courtesy of WIkimedia Commons.

As we actually got into the ‘work’ of the retreat, I quickly got more comfortable. I appreciated the way that our teachers, Narayan Helen Liebenson and Michael Grady of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, offered three options for our “objects of attention” as we sat: the breath, whether at the nostrils or in the abdomen; our ‘points of contact’ (i.e., sitting bones on the cushion or chair, hands resting on knees or thighs, or feet and legs touching the mat); or whatever sounds we heard around us. Each could apply as a reference point during our meditation there in the hall—or at any other place in our lives. We focus our minds on one of the three and we come to the present moment, embodied. If we notice that our attention wanders, we gently bring it back to that object.[2]

My first walking meditation on Saturday morning proved valuable as well. Michael had suggested we find a twenty- or thirty-foot track, indoors or out, on which to walk slowly and attentively. We could notice our breath as we moved, our foot’s contact with the ground, or the movement of our body as a whole.

Other "yogis"  move into their walking meditations.

Other “yogis” move into their walking meditations.

Again, if our focus wandered far afield, we could simply bring it back to our walking. I chose to walk along the grassy path of a flower garden bursting with color, the ground still wet with early dew. At first, my slower pace made each step seem wildly wobbly, as if I were trying to find footing on a balance beam or thin rope. Eventually, as my arches and toes made their way around the nubs of soil or onto each slightly raised patch, my confidence and surety grew.

The same proved true as we passed through each iteration of sitting meditation. Where my posture had seemed uneven or unsteady at the start, I began to settle into more stillness and calm. My mind still had plenty of running around to do, but at least my body found some peace.

Michael and Narayan gave us more tools to work with that monkey-mind as well. If we found ourselves following a train of thought or having a reaction, for example, we could let that train itself become another focus object. Without accelerating or climbing on board, we could simply observe it. If we start feeling sleepy, for example, we need not judge ourselves; we can just notice “Oh, I’m feeling sleepy.”  Or, if we can’t register the sleepiness without having the judgmental reaction, we can simply notice that we’re having that reaction: “How about that. I’m not willing to accept my sleepiness.” We don’t need to ask why the reaction is there or where it comes from—though our simple observation might spontaneously generate such psychological insight—and we don’t need to hope for its departure or continuance. We only need note that it’s present. Such witnessing, he promised, leads to a freedom far more relaxing than any of our modern-day distractive entertainments.

As Saturday moved into Sunday, I continued settling into a slower, more attentive rhythm. Even though I woke up super-early both mornings (like, 3:15 am early!), I resisted the urge to write down my thoughts and instead did my best to follow my breathing or notice my body making contact with my bed. I got up before breakfast to do some yoga and take a mindful shower. Now, when I returned to the garden at the close of our last walking session, I found a simple stability and balance that had been absent before. My feet seemed more intelligent, picking up variation in the soil before I touched down. If I closed my eyes, my feet knew to stop moving forward when I went from a warmer sun-drenched patch to a still-cool shadowy area. Overall, my body wanted to walk at a gentler pace.[3]

The pace slows in a place like this.

The pace slows in a place like this.

Though I obviously hadn’t been checking in with anyone as we went along, I sensed that others had had similar experiences and that we had bonded as a result. Here we were, some 70-some-odd folk brought together by circumstance at a retreat center way out in the woods. We had exchanged no names, titles, or work histories. We had shared no words, no touch, and only rare glances to avoid bumping or to offer deference. And, yet, we had generated a real kind of intimacy. Perhaps it was the shared sense of purpose, the mutual care for each others’ journeys, or simply the side-by-side experience. Whatever the origin, the connection felt strong.[4]

In the end, I still have questions about forgoing the written word during the retreat. I chose not to take any notes through the last morning’s initial sitting and walking meditations, but I did also choose to jot down some thoughts before our last presentation (I wanted to harvest my own perceptions before speaking out loud or hearing others’ voices). I certainly wouldn’t want to cling to any inspiration that came, but nor would I would to ignore or dishonor that gift. I wasn’t tempted at all by the other commitments—cell phone, computer, reading—but I suspect that’s because I knew those lures would still be waiting for me when I finished as they had been before. An ephemeral idea or insight made no such promise. If (when) I go on a next retreat, I imagine I’ll bring a little notebook to scratch down any flashes of insight or turns of phrase worth remembering. I’ll say enough to trigger my memory without diving into the distraction of full-on exposition.

I know, too, that though this retreat asked me to restrain a naturally playful and connective mode, it also nurtured something new in me, a stiller and perhaps nobler side. I’m fascinated by the way I’m walking now, wider and slower. I’m intrigued by my deeper breath. Without clutching or clinging to the Insight Meditation experience, I can safely say that I’m wanting more. Sabbatical or not, I welcome the chance to grow more fully into this moment.

By choosing this retreat, I found a different kind of stillness.  Gaston Pond, on an IMS walking trail.

By choosing this retreat, I found a different kind of stillness.
Gaston Pond, on an IMS walking trail.

[1] “Yogi” actually comes from the Hindu tradition rather than the Buddhist one, but means “one traveling a path to Divine Liberation.”

[2] During a question-and-answer session later in the weekend, another yogi noted that the first two objects of attention seemed self-contained, while the third seemed external. Was there, he asked, a reason for that difference? I loved Narayan’s response: that actually all three could be seen as either internally- or externally-focused. Sound seems to come from outside us but it’s our ears that are doing the hearing. We’re involved in the sound’s impact. And though our breath and body sensations seem to be “our” experiences, they actually tie us into life’s larger forces. Who’s actually doing the breathing? Isn’t it more that we’re being breathed? And who’s making the contact that we experience as pressure against us? Whichever perspective we choose, the objects of our focus bring us into our bodies in the present moment—and put us in relationship with the world.

[3] That longing extended to my leaving the center as well. I knew I had tasks to get back to—e-mail, phone calls, other conversations—but I wanted to linger in pleasure of the moment’s tasklessness. I took a longer, more scenic route home and enjoyed the roll of forests and farms. The bit of buffer helped.

[4] Probably not surprisingly, it proved a bit bittersweet when we finally did get the chance to speak with each other at our closing lunch. In a short little window of time, I met another high school teacher looking to bring contemplative practice to his emotionally-challenged teenage students, a newly-minted Harvard neuroscience PhD on her way to a consulting job with McKinsey out in San Francisco, and a full-time rowing coach introducing mindful presence along the Charles River in Boston. So great to meet and so little time to enjoy it! Here’s hoping for continued connections….

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Calling Our World Into Being (Part 3 in a 3-part series on Improvisation and Spirituality)

The caption on Flammarion's engraving: "A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch."

The caption on Flammarion’s The Universe and Man:
“A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch.”

Part 1 of this three-part post introduced a working definition for spirituality—the whole-person practice of awakening, feeling, and expressing a connection to larger Mystery and deeper meaning—and for improvisation—the in-the-moment art of active creating in relationship to the many offers coming from one’s inner life and immediately surrounding circumstances.

Part 2 examined the ways that improvisation connects us to divine play, mindfulness, interdependence, Shadow, and paradox—each components of what many consider the spiritual life.

Part 3 here goes even further to explore the ways in which improvisation might represent a participation with larger forces around, behind, beyond, or within us.

In “The Universe and Man,” an ancient wood engraving that serves as the motif for this blog, a shepherd reaches through the visible curtain of his known world to catch a glimpse of the beauty and order that always lies behind it.[1] I have always imagined the shepherd as a humble seeker, perhaps surprised to have received such a clear vision, but also curious, willing to step into this new way of seeing. His body connects to the ground, as if thunderstruck or waking from sleep, at the same time the right arm lifts up, raised as if in praise or wonder. Maybe the vision came in response to a prayer or a daydream. Maybe he has concluded a quest. Whatever the path, the shepherd has called and the Universe has responded. He has found the point where the sky and the Earth touch. His life can never stay the same.

So it is with improvisation, if we turn our attention in the proper direction. We step on stage or onto a dance floor or into a concert hall and we play. We ask for a choreography to come and it arrives. Sometimes we need the ritual of our warm-ups to charge the space but our sincere call behind the curtain of what’s visible almost always connects us to a larger force that’s not. We tap in, and something moves through us. We can be blown away by what we find, but in those special moments, we see anew. We find ourselves changed.

Tending the Third Thing

My San Francisco colleague Lisa Rowland likes to say that two improvisors create a third thing on stage, something outside and separate from—and yet connected to—the two of them. Their job as actors is to serve that new creation rather than to serve their own hopes or wants. Ego concerns matter little when other more pressing questions demand attention: What does this story need? What’s being told through us? The performers have called. The third thing has arrived. Now they all dance together.

Oddly enough, the word “spontaneous” derives from the Latin sponte, meaning “of one’s own accord, willingly, of one’s free will.”[2] In improvisation, we willingly choose to engage with these hidden creative realms. Again, we may not always stop to notice that we’re doing so, but we are doing so. No matter our experience or processor speed—and trust me, folks like Lisa and her compatriot BATS performers in San Francisco or TJ and Dave in Chicago have plenty of both—scenes and songs still unfold too quickly for conscious explication. We’re still relying on ideas that come from…somewhere else. In yet another improv paradox, we employ our free will to let ourselves be used.

He seems to be serving his muses.The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, by Caravaggio. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, by Caravaggio.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Does this mean improvisors are possessed when performing? Are we asking to dance with demons and hoping the friendly ones arrive? I don’t think so. It’s more that we’re participating than being possessed. We’re asking for aid from beyond what’s visible and tending to that support when it shows up. Such help might indeed come from God or Ganesh or some other previously-named deity. It might stem from Life, or Light, or Love. The name of that source doesn’t matter so much. Choosing it and connecting with it does. We’re a conscious instrument playing an unconscious—or perhaps a more-than-conscious—song.[3]

New Improv Exercise #1: “Line-at-a-Time Deities”

During our recent Improvisation and Spirituality workshop, Cort Worthington and I introduced two new tools to make this connection more explicit.

The first leaned on a standard shared control exercise, Line-at-a-Time drawings. Cort coached our paired participants through the instructions, suggesting that they start by marking their blank sheet with two dots about two thirds of the way up the page and then leave an empty space at the bottom for future use. Then, in silence, they should alternate making one line, mark or gesture on the page until a complete image of a hitherto unknown deity emerged. Once the drawing felt finished, the pair could name the deity by spelling out its name one letter at a time in the blank space at the bottom of the page. The final direction was to go back and forth, sharing impressions of the deity that had just been created. For what might people pray to this god or goddess? How might you describe the deity’s tone or attitude? What was his or her ‘personality’ like? Each addition should build on earlier descriptions in fine “yes-and” fashion, the deity’s quality emerging as a shared improvisation.

I don’t know why I was so surprised, but I was stunned by the power and vitality of what emerged. We met Meditanzia, a calming and light-hearted goddess who helped maintain daily spiritual practice and Hural-Mago, a randy god who visited to encourage the peace that follows sexual release. We got to know the cheerleading support of Laren and the gracefully feminine acceptance of “Me.” Each deity we had called forward came through strong and clear, with good wisdom to offer. Each had been that “third thing,” well-tended.[4]

New Improv Exercise #2: “Invocation”

A second improvisation and spirituality exercise that Cort and I introduced derived from “Invocation,” an experience I first learned in a session with Rebecca Stockley and Matt Smith at the Applied Improvisation Network world conference in San Francisco, fall of 2012.[5]

In this ‘game,’ Rebecca and Matt asked four performers come to the front of the room and got a suggestion for an everyday, mundane object: hat, lamp, refrigerator, knife, or so on. Together, the players took a moment to bring to mind a specific example of that object from their own individual histories. Then, when moved, each spoke in snippets about their object in third person form. With the suggestion of ‘lamp,’ the first performer might have said It offered a soft light, with its gentle bulb behind a handwoven lampshade, beads dangling off the edges. The second could have relayed Even when lit, it reflected a dull shine, gun metal grey like the rest of Dad’s apartment. Again, each player spoke of a specific object from his or her own experience. All players spoke about the same type of object.

After a time of such 3rd-person observation, the players shifted to a 2nd-person perspective, speaking to the object as a “you.” You gave Grandmother enough light to knit by and that kept her sane during the long nights after Grandpa was gone. Or You matched Dad’s flannel suits, gray and boring, somehow lifeless even through the shine. Once each had contributed a round or two from that point of view, the players again switched to a round of “Thou,” a bit more formal and perhaps reverent in relationship to the object. Thou hadst traveled many miles and heard many stories, carrying a nobility in thine humility. Or Thou kept secrets, I’m sure, a steely knight of the bedside. With each utterance, the four objects gained in complexity and depth.

For the last round, the performers spoke as if they themselves were the objects, taking on its 1st-person perspective: I always appreciated sharing silence with you. Those nights were sweet even without words. Or I never wanted the burden I carried. My job was to shed light on the truth, not seal it away. These revelations from the objects themselves proved surprisingly poignant and powerful. Simply by switching viewpoints, the performer’s had worked the mundane into the profound. They had asked for the wisdom of that object—we could call it the Platonic form—and wisdom had arrived.

Lamp, I invoke thee. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Lamp, I invoke thee.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

That day, after a couple rounds in that manner, we wondered aloud what it might be like to try the exercise with more provocative ‘objects.’ What if, instead of choosing a lamp or a hat, we instead chose “Mother,” “Ambition,” or “Money?” What if we invoked an emotion like “Joy” or “Shame?” We played a bit with the notion in small groups but ran out of time before having the chance to try on a larger-scale performance.

The suggestion stuck with me all year until our workshop this past July. Cort and I first trained our participants in the Invocation exercise as I’d learned it from Matt and Rebecca. After that, we seized the opportunity to dive into a cycle of more experimental iterations, going with “Fear,” “Hope,” and “Lust.” Each round proved powerful, especially as those in front learned to speak from their own personal experience rather than from an abstract understanding of the term. Whenever we finished, it felt as if that emotion had entered the room as a teacher, offering unexpected insights and valuable challenges.

I wonder now what it would be like to try “God,” “Mystery,” “Mind,” “Boredom,” or any number of other ‘objects.’ What about “Music” or “Laughter” or “Inspiration?” Or elements like “Fire,” “Air,” and “Water?” The possibilities seem endless. Trusting the technique of collective improvisation, each person speaking truth from their own experience, we could ask for and participate in whatever wisdom we need.[6]

Spiritual Practice, Improv, and Pronoia

As we do in such exercises, we connect with spiritual powers to invoke new worlds in our everyday lives. Every moment, we call something into being. Our attention shifts, our intention chooses a focus. New thoughts create new perspectives and, in turn, generate new experiences. If we focus on the spirit of worry, we bring that god into being. If we concentrate on joy, we engender joy. We ask as we inhale. We create as we exhale. Again, even when we’re not conscious of such creation, we’re still doing it.[7]

Contemplative improvisation gives us the chance to get more skillful with our invocations, to become more conscious of what we call into our world. We can learn to delight in serving the third thing. We can practice creating with the people and circumstances we encounter instead of fighting them for control. Like the shepherd in The Universe and Man, we can tap the order behind the ordinary, simultaneously grounded to earth and receptive to revelation.

In this way, improv becomes a spiritual practice of pronoia, the belief that the world is conspiring to support you and shower you with blessings.[8] We make a call with our intention—and then simply pay attention for the opportunities and wonders that seek us out. We shift our weight into the dark of the unknown, trusting that the road will rise to meet our lifted foot. Allies emerge and the next line of our lives becomes clear. Characters reveal their truer traits. At the end of our days, without directing, we have participated in the wonder of an unfolding Reality. We have played. And, like the gods, we have created.

Rob Brezsny's Pronoia: The world conspires--breathes with us--on our behalf.

Rob Brezsny’s Pronoia: The world conspires–breathes with us–on our behalf.

[1] Some version of this piece may date from the 16th century but it is best known as published—and perhaps created—by French astronomer Camille Flammarion during the late 1800’s in L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire. According to Wikipedia, Flammarion was quite the spiritual seeker himself.

[2] From the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for “Spontaneity.”

[3] When I have conducted weddings, I have always invoked the spirits of the place and whatever ancestors and loved ones could not attend in person. I imagine those prayers as a shout-out to the universe: Hey four-leggeds, hey two-leggeds, hey earth and sky beings, take notice. Anyone who wants to support the joining of these two, come on down. We’re forming a circle and would love your help. We’re not asking them to take over. We want to celebrate with them.

[4] Tips for leading Word-at-a-Time Deities include:

a)   Remind folks to maintain silence throughout. The quiet helps keep the receptive mood.

b)   Encourage an openness to the nature of shared creation. If they find themselves wanting to control the drawing by making-one-gesture-but-leaving-the-marker-on-the-page-for-a-long-time, suggest they acknowledge that feeling and let it go.

c)    Have at least two colors available for each drawing but ask each artist to put their marker down after each gesture. That way, their partner can use the same color if they’re drawn to—so to speak—and the process slows down a touch.

[5] Funny story: I attended Rebecca’s and Matt’s session largely because I had heard great things about their teaching. When Rebecca asked for volunteers who “know what an Invocation is,” I proudly stepped forward, eager to impress with my Divinity School training. Why, yes, invocation means ‘to call into being’, stemming from the root ‘voc’ as in voice or vocalize.

As other volunteers made their way to the front of the room, she reiterated “I need to make sure those of you coming up know what an Invocation is.” One person reconsidered and returned to their seat while I remained up front, smugly beaming and waiting for my chance to shine. Invocation. Yeah, I got this.

It was only when Rebecca started explaining a novel improv game that I realized I had absolutely no clue what she was talking about. I only knew that it was no kind of invocation I’d ever done before. I sheepishly dropped my shoulders and slunk back to my seat, interrupting Rebecca with a mumbled explanation that trailed off into nothing: Oh, I’m sorry. I think I was thinking of a different term that doesn’t really have to do… Rebecca sighed—and I imagined shook her head in disbelief—and got another volunteer to come up. So much for my glorious first impression. J

I later found Matt at a lunch table and recounted the tale. To my relief, the story provoked much shared laughter and initiated a cherished friendship. The same held true when I finally got to tell Rebecca.

[6] Out of our brief experience with this modified version of Invocation, I offer a few tips for players and trainers:

a)   Keep each utterance short. Think of your offerings more as mosaic tiles than monologues. What you say will form a picture with your partners’ words.

b)   Maintain a brisker pace. While each line deserves a beat or two for settling, step forward with confidence and trust that words will arrive as needed.

c)    Speak from your own perspective. If doing the standard version, choose an object from your own memory. If doing the newer version, share from your experience with or perspective on that ‘object.’ How has that emotion or character played out in your life?

d)   Offer the chance to opt out. If you’re taking on the exercise authentically, it’s bound to expose some vulnerability. That’s part of its power. That said, it may dive into depths that remain too tender for exposure. Give your players a mechanism to pass, whether that means keeping an alternate sharp in the wings or taking another suggestion altogether.

[7] Maybe this is how and why addiction can seem like possession. We’re so unconscious of the ways we take part in creating our compulsion that it seems some outside force has taken us over.

[8] Pronoia’s opposite: paranoia, the belief that the world is out to get you. Check out Rob Brezsny’s website and book for more delightful invitations to say yes.

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Paths in Parallel (Part 2 in a 3-part series on Improvisation and Spirituality)

Part 1 of this three-part post introduced a working definition for spirituality—the whole-person practice of awakening, feeling, and expressing a connection to larger Mystery and deeper meaning—and for improvisation—the in-the-moment art of active creating in relationship to the many offers coming from one’s inner life and immediately surrounding circumstances.

 This piece will explore some first connections between the two while Part 3 will investigate some deeper, perhaps more esoteric synergies.

The improv path moves right alongside deeper streams. Photo courtesy of

The improv path moves right alongside deeper streams.
Photo courtesy of

Many improvisors know in their bones that the improv path offers more than entertainment and laughter. Goofiness shows up a bunch, yes, but there’s also a deeper vitality, a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging that comes from creating in this way. To those who perform with an inquisitive mind and open heart, the kinship between improvisation and spiritual expression will come as no surprise. The paths offer mutual support.

Exercising an Ethic

Even a foundation level improv course lays out groundwork principles that sound as much like an ethic for effective living as much as a guide for good performance: Slow down. Simplify. Pay attention. Connect with your stagemates. Let yourself be changed. Such suggestions affect the quality of on-stage scenes because they make for better stories. In much the same way, they also make for better lives. We’d rather watch—and take part in—an unfolding drama where the players look out for each other, working together to discover their shared experience. We enjoy our days more when we stop to notice the gifts in them. By giving the chance to practice skills we need elsewhere and to process challenges in a low-risk setting, improv expands the range of our capabilities. It wakes us up.

Divine Play

Many Hindus say the universe itself came into being through Lila, the divine’s creative play. Any improv troupe or scene ideally carries a bit of that lila as well—even when taking on a poignant or sensitive topic, there’s a buoyant sense of exploring the unknown. We go down paths we’ve never seen. We create obstacles for the fun of it. We get our heroes into trouble so they get the thrill of getting out of it. Good improvisation brings more joy, more vitality, more connection with others, and more intimacy. A healthy spiritual life engenders the same.

"Healing" by Autumn Skye Morrison.  Used with permission. See for more beautiful images.

“Healing” by Autumn Skye Morrison. One way of picturing the universe glowing with a playful creativity.
Used by permission of the artist. See for other similarly beautiful images.


Mindfulness weaves another connection between the two. Purposeful, non-judgmental attention to the present moment serves spiritual direction in a number of ways: our brains and beings wake up to more of reality. We see colors more richly, we taste experiences more deeply. We also build a capacity for complexity.

Like a color enhancing filter, mindfulness can bring sharper colors  and greater clarity to our lives. Photo courtesy of

Like a color enhancing filter, mindfulness can bring sharper colors and greater clarity to our lives.
Photo courtesy of

The same holds true in improvisation. By sustaining our focus, we stay fully alert to the story unfolding in real time. We improve our memory for the details that bring a scene alive. What was that character’s name from the first minute of our short-form scene? Where precisely did I place that space object wine bottle when I set it down? By practicing open awareness on stage, we remain nimble enough to notice our partner’s many offers, including subtle movements in the face or hands. Troupe members that perform with an intention of loving kindness for their stagemates find greater resilience and longevity. The generosity stitches the group together. Good improv demands mindfulness; even beginning improv can breed it.


Most wisdom traditions teach about the interconnectedness of the universe. That may look like unity in Islam or interbeing in Buddhism, like mirror cells in neuroscience or ecosystem in biological sciences. Hinduism offers the image of Indra’s net, a kind of web that covers the entire universe with a multifaceted jewel at each vertex, all jewels reflecting all the infinite others. The common message: we’re all stitched in to a larger tapestry. Pulling any single thread has implications for them all.

Every vertex in Indra's net reflects every other vertex. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Every vertex in Indra’s net reflects every other vertex.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Improvisation gives us direct experience with such truths. Whether playing a game that explicitly shares control—like a word-at-a-time exercise, gibberish translation, or one-person’s-hands-move-for-another-person’s-speaking—or simply enacting a regular scene, we live and breathe into that interdependent reality. The offers I make have an impact on how a scene emerges. Every choice my partner makes has an impact on me.


Psychologist Carl Jung suggested that integrating the Shadow—the hidden, disowned parts of ourselves—might prove the greatest challenge of an individual’s spiritual life. If left in the darkness of repression or denial, the Shadow can leak out in dangerous ways, either through projection (where we turn hostile to those who demonstrate the parts of ourselves we’d rather deny) or through more immediately destructive rupture (like when a public figure loses his position getting caught in the same act he’s decried for years). As poet Robert Bly has written, “Every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us.” If integrated and brought to light, however, the Shadow can bring greater power, depth, confidence, and even peace. It restores wholeness.[1]

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."  --Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
–Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas

Improvisation offers one avenue for safely exploring the Shadow. In the world of improv, for example, status relationships become a playful dance rather than a frozen stance. For that reason, we start to stretch the range of our expression on stage, often moving into uncomfortable or unfamiliar emotional territory. Those who tend to shrink get the opportunity to play imposing villains. Those who tend to dominate learn to inhabit quiet wallflowers. In doing so, players gain compassion for those different from themselves—and for parts of themselves they may have left behind.[2]

Carl Jung's painting of his own Shadow.

Carl Jung’s painting of his own Shadow.

Almost inevitably, improv invites us to places we’d rather not explore in real life. That’s part of its charm. A clear creative channel asks that we “yes, and” our fellow performers—and do the same with our own impulses. Characters who get themselves into trouble or who “go into the cave” make for more interesting stories. As those stories evolve, we can find ways to love the unlovable and to make peace with all of who we are. Sometimes, that process happens organically as individual players and teams develop their talents together. Other times, it happens more intentionally, through specific exercises designed for the purpose of personal expansion.


For many, walking the spiritual path means coming to terms with the paradoxical nature of ultimate Mystery. How can life serve up such stunning beauty and such repulsive ugliness? What loving god would allow such suffering? How can we be such a small part of the universe and yet sense an infinite, inherent worth in each life?[3] The deeper one looks, the more mystery one finds.

Improvisation offers the chance to marinate in the richness of such seeming contradictions. Do we pursue excellence or allow ourselves to “be average”? Make bold offers or defer to our partner’s? Stay present to the evolving moment or remain mindful of the overall arc of a show or a narrative thread? Invest with intention or choose to change? Contribute or control? The correct answer to each of these questions: Yes, and. The most artful improv embraces the challenge of such simultaneous opposites, diving into and emerging from the ambiguity. Each moment breathes between the two poles of paradox: this truth then that truth, this truth then that. Eventually, the two seem to blend into one three-dimensional reality. The storyline becomes a Moebius strip.

Keep walking the path of a Möebius strip and you track both sides of the paradox. ..... Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Keep walking the path of a Möebius strip and you track both sides of the paradox.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In sum, conscious, contemplative improvisation parallels other spiritual paths. It invites the presence of Lila, or divine play, letting us enjoy the delight of experimental creation. It provides a platform for mindfulness, sharpening the skills of sustained focus, open awareness and loving kindness. It gives us the chance to welcome and befriend long-hidden parts of ourselves. And it places us squarely in the presence of paradox. Improv makes a bold offer for greater growth. It’s up to us to “Yes, And” it back.

But wait, dear Reader: there’s even more to the connection between improvisation and spirituality. Look back here for the upcoming Part 3 of this series.

[1] Note that the personal Shadow can differ greatly by culture and gender. Some societies—like ours in the United States—glorify individualism at the expense of the collective. In that setting, a public longing for community can get demonized as—gasp!—socialism. In many other cultures, the communal represents the ideal and individual expression gets subsumed to shared needs. Men may keep their tenderness or vulnerability hidden, women their anger or aggression.

The Shadow can also include what most would think of as desirable qualities. Perhaps a young man represses his musical side because an early teacher tells him he shouldn’t sing in choir. Or maybe a young woman squelches her connection to her body because she always gets picked last for teams in gym class. What put such qualities into “long bag behind we drag behind us” is that we consider them somehow shameful or undesirable.

[2] My friend and colleague Lisa Rowland recently encouraged me to move past the limits of my own tendencies as a performer. “We know you can play the lovely, kind, attentive character,” she said. “You do that well. How about playing a character with a nasty streak? What about someone who’s downright unpleasant?” As she was speaking, I realized her nudge represented an offer to bring some of my shadow into open light. I also knew it would be a safe space to do so.

[3] In her poem “The Buddha’s Last Instruction,” Mary Oliver offers one of my all-time favorite lines: Clearly I’m not needed. Yet I feel myself turning into something of inexplicable value. Yes, yes, yes. I understand completely.

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