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-//cbssports.com/images/blogs/carroll-wilson-happy.jpg.png

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, ESPN.com

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 CNNSI.com

[6] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[7] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

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

[9] Blount, ESPN.com

[11] Richard Sherman, for CNNSI.com

[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 freedigitalphotos.net

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

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 freedigitalphotos.net

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

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 freedigitalphotos.net

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

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 freedigitalphotos.net

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

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.
* * *
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 StarWarswikia.com

Mmm. Mistakes, you must make.
Image courtesy of StarWarswikia.com

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.” http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=spontaneous&allowed_in_frame=0

[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 Wikimedia.org.

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

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 www.autumnskyemorrison.com 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 http://www.autumnskyemorrison.com 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 WIkimedia.org.

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

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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Defining the Undefinable (Part 1 in a 3-part series on Improvisation and Spirituality)

My colleague Cort Worthington and I recently convened a 3-day inquiry into the many connections between Improvisation and Spirituality. We were joined at the Green Gulch Zen Center north of San Francisco by nine other wonderful improvisors. This post marks the first in a three-part series sharing some continuing reflections from that collaboration.

For new, specific exercises that integrate improv and spiritual practice, please see my earlier A Deeper Kind of Play post or check out the third post in this series once it’s available.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts in return and to continuing this rich exploration!

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

Author E.B. White once famously quipped that:

Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.

One could say something similar about trying to define the elusive term “spirituality.” Perhaps the word’s less a frog and more a chameleon—changing colors depending on who does the defining—but it, too, might suffer from close examination. Why drain the life from the term? Why not just let it go and live it out? As Chinese sages have recognized for centuries, The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.

I am the Chameleon you call Spirituality. Watch my colors change.

I am the Chameleon you call Spirituality. Watch my colors change.

However clever, though, White’s quip misses the value of exploring a word in greater depth. To start, people do show interest in spirituality, perhaps more than ever. Furthermore, a good dissection teaches about the structures of anatomy and physiology. We learn about our own insides by proxy, and more of what makes us work. And so it is with spirituality.  Those of us who want to connect others to–and connect with others in–ineffable springs of meaning need to develop a shared language. We may never have an exact or all-encompassing, absolute definition of SPIRITUALITY, but we can generate a working approximation. We can lay some stakes in the ground to mark a foundation. Even if we cannot fully name the Complete Truth, we can at least begin to approach it.

For starters, we can distinguish spirituality from religion. From the word’s roots, we can say that religion represents a shared institution of  beliefs, rituals, and practices that “tie us back” (from religio—to tie, or bind) from our failings and to something greater. Religion creates a community that offers support, correction, and celebration for the ups and downs of life’s uncertain experience. That togetherness can lead to incredible power and creativity, as demonstrated by houses of worship, religious art, and sacred music of all sorts.

Collective religion can lead to gorgeous expressions of praise. Photo (C) Ted DesMaisons, 2012.

Collective religion can lead to gorgeous expressions of praise.

Though spirituality can serve some of those same functions—especially when we sense our own in synch with another’s—spirituality seems to suggest a more fluid personal experience of that Mystery rather than a structured dogma around it. Religion provides a vehicle for collective spiritual expression.

When our workshop group responded to the prompt “For me, spirituality means…,” we got a wide range of responses. Laid side by side, however, those many images began to create patterns that in turn suggested a mood: wholeness in the face of paradox. Awareness in the present that bridges past and future. Alignment between inner wisdom and outer action. I include the list below.

“For Me, Spirituality Means…”
Notes from Improvisation and Spirituality Workshop
July 7-10, 2013

play…kindness….being awake….active participation in the world….a code of truthful living….awareness….engaging with mystery….100% commitment….
saying“no” to what’s wrong or doesn’t match my knowing….what leads to balance….what is inside us….different colors of light on the spectrum….listening and watching for life’s offers—and then acting on them….making choices….
faith that the positive pays off….being and doing….being in tune….
finding the genius in myself….honoring my connection to the past….
nourishing generous connection….searching….saying “yes” to everything
around you and saying “yes and” to the truth of what you are….
living my essence….being in love with all….finding our fire….honoring the power of words….presence….“my deal.”…the past, present, and future coalescing….
crying a little….an athletic readiness to engage with what’s happening and lightly held preparation for what might happen next….stillness and movement….religion….
not religion….witnessing….strength in vulnerability….holding or standing in paradox….breath….the subjective realm (and the greater than subjective)….
learning to love….finding or creating beauty in the process….meaningful work….
being part of a team….advocating for the shadow side, for what others see as unlovable….bringing the insides forward….dance….
having or finding a comfort with not knowing….new possibilities….searching….
having fun….taking responsibility for how I show up….
a path to enlightenment….strengthening the core….
shifting stuff in the world….accepting the reality of what is so.

Them’s some real fruits! When I distill the ripe harvest down to a more manageable serving, I find sweet potential in the following working definition for spirituality:

The whole-person practice of awakening, feeling, and expressing
a connection to larger Mystery and deeper meaning.

Walking the spiritual path. Image courtesy of WIkimedia Commons.

Walking the spiritual path.

In more detail, this definition suggests:

Whole-person —including all of one’s Self, the chosen and the given, the presentable and the shameful.

Practice—an ongoing and intentional commitment, as in expression of faith or preparation for performance. In this case, we practice to improve our humor, our compassion, our resilience.

Awakening—emerging from the trance of separation, consciously choosing to bring what’s laid dormant to life.

Feeling—a subjective experience that includes thoughts and emotions, body heart and mind.

Expressinggiving voice to joy, despair, wonder, curiosity and whatever else one finds inside.

Expressing belief. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Expressing belief.

Connectionrecognizing that our lives intertwine with our world and the many others in it. As Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says, we inter-be.

Larger Mystery—Life, Love, Light, God, or the unseen world. It could be Reality. Whatever name we choose, it contains a recognition that we live as part of something greater than our smaller egoic selves.

Deeper Meaning—what really matters to us, our sense of purpose and belonging.

Now that definition forms a foundation we can build on. Now we can start a conversation.

Spirituality includes wonder at the mystery of the world around us.  Image courtesy of WIkimedia Commons.

Spirituality includes wonder at the mystery of the world around us.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

Given our workshop cohort’s careful attention to laying out the boundaries of our sense of spirituality, I find it funny that we allotted no time for defining the word improvisation. As experienced improvisors, we assumed a language in common. In retrospect, that assumption probably remained a safe one—I never had the sense of worldviews colliding in our conversations—but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

For clarity’s sake, I’ll say that, for me, improvisation means…

The in-the-moment art of active creating in relationship to the many offers coming from one’s inner life and from the immediately surrounding people and circumstances.

Improvisation can come as dance or as music. It can take the shape of invention or problem-solving. Most often, I speak about and learn from improv through the lens of theater. In the end, of course, improvisation plays out in most moments and every arena of our lives. We wake up and have to make choices given the conditions placed before us. As comedian and improvisor extraordinaire Stephen Colbert pointed out during his 2011 commencement address at Northwestern University:

You are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. [With] no idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control.[1]

We all improvise. The question is: will we learn to improvise skillfully and in a way that satisfies our spiritual longing?

Part 2 of this 3-part post will explore the more conventional and non-controversial intersections between improvisation and spiritual practice: staying present, being kind to those around us, taming the internal critic, and the like.

Part 3 will dive into the more unconventional or speculative links between the two. When we improvise, where do our ideas come from? Are we expressing a shared intelligence and if so, which one? In what ways do we create shared ritual with our audiences?

Click the hyperlinks once they’re up and running to read more.

[1] Colbert concluded his speech with an improv exhortation: So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.

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Hey Jude: A Purr-tial Cat-a-log of a Year’s Learning

I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised, but my sabbatical studies in positive reinforcement have changed the way I relate with all animals, both human and other-than-human. That shift has become more obvious after these last 10 days I’ve spent with Jude the cat.

While I’ve been sticking around San Francisco this month, my good friend Lisa’s been fulfilling her yearly volunteer gig at a Girl Scout camp up in the Sierras. In exchange for a place to stay in the happening Mission district, I got the assignment of caring for her cat, Jude. He’s a handsome black and white beastie, strong in body and long in purr-sonality. He loves sitting on laps and he expresses affection with assertion, nudging his nose directly into lips for extended kitty kisses. And he’s super curious. Purr usual for me with cats, he offers a lot to like.

Jude, the Cat. A handsome fellow.

Jude, the Cat. A handsome fellow.

Before I arrived, though, Lisa had also offered some cautions. Jude is obsessed with food. Jude can insist on attention. Jude likes to bite when playing. Jude will wake you up every morning. Sure enough, several of those warnings played out even before Lisa had left, when I’d just come by the apartment for the first time. I watched him insert himself into the middle of our conversations and saw how he circled aggressively in the kitchen anytime one of us moved through that space. Crackers and grains, especially, seemed to grab his attention. Most times when Lisa picked him up to pet him, he’d eventually bite her hand or arm—not viciously or violently enough to really hurt, but enough to make me wonder for my future epidermal health. I hoped he and I would figure out some neutral ground between us, but I also acknowledged that it might be a long ten days.

At the same time, because of the studies in positive reinforcement I’ve done for my sabbatical—and with all my recent practice with our dog, Manny—I knew I could approach the challenge with a greater sense of calm. I started simply by watching Jude’s behavior without agenda, for example. I noticed that he liked being rubbed on the bones of his hips just above his tail.  Whatever else he was doing beforehand, he’d stop and stay still for the attention. In contrast, I saw that if I petted his head or neck, he could only take two or three strokes before turning his head and opening his mouth as if moving to bite me. Duly noted, I thought to myself. We don’t need to pet his head and neck so much. I didn’t need to fight where he was. I needed to figure it out.

Duly noted: Jude prefers his tried-and-true chewed-up straw to the laser toy Uncle Ted introduced.

Duly noted: Jude prefers his tried-and-true chewed-up straw to the laser toy Uncle Ted introduced.

From there, I started noting what I reinforced. If I were to react strongly to any of his negative behaviors—giving him food off my plate to get him off the table, snapping sharply in response to his bite—I might accidentally accelerate that same behavior. Instead, I quietly shooed him off the table or removed him from my lap. Most crucially, I recognized that I needed to take care with his early-morning behavior. Sure, if I wanted to go back to sleep after he’d woken me up, I could most easily do that by getting up to feed him so he’d shut his little yapper. However, of course, that would only encourage him to do the same thing the next day. Rather than reinforcing his noise-making, I decided to wait until a lull in his insistence, when he had at least temporarily given up on getting my attention. Then, when he was quiet, I got up and fed him. And then went back to bed.

The clicker training crowd has taught me to be more systematic and experimental in pursuing desired behaviors, so I started putting that hat on as well. How else could I get Jude to stay quiet in the morning? I knew I couldn’t put out dry food overnight: Jude had gotten way overweight with free access to food in the past and, besides, his tendency to not drink enough water meant that dry food put too much stress on his kidneys and digestive system. Normally, Lisa would give him ¼ can in the morning to quiet him down and ¾ of a can of food just before going to bed, hoping that would tide him over for the long stretch of night, but I had shifted the percentages a bit so he wasn’t so bothersome during the day.

A few nights in, a new idea presented itself: What if I gave Jude “more” to eat by adding water to his food?  Instead of putting his canned food on a plate, I doled it out into three cans and stirred each with warm water, creating a kind of cat-food slurry. I figured having to “drink” his dinner would both slow him down and put more in his belly to last through the night. Sure enough, Jude let me sleep in the next morning.

Since then, I’ve been using the method for all his meals. His one-can-per-day extends into more feedings and he now seems more mellow in between. He hasn’t been purr-fect in the mornings—he’s woken me up two or three times since—but he’s been lasting far longer. Moreover, we found an accidental side benefit: he’s getting plenty of water now.[1] I imagine the improved hydration affects his mood during the day as well.  As I’ve been writing this, he’s stayed quietly curled up on his bed in front of the heater. No noodginess. Just a happy cat.

Belly full and thirst quenched. Time for a mellow nap.

Belly full and thirst quenched. Time for a mellow nap.

I don’t claim to have become a cat whisperer by any means. Jude still bares his teeth from time to time and he still expresses interest in being on the table when I’m eating. He showed little to no interest in the laser toy and bouncy balls I bought for him, preferring instead to stick with the chewed-up straw he likes to chase around the apartment. But we’ve been figuring it out together. Given this chance to take stock of my sabbatical studies, I like the way that positive reinforcement has changed my mindset. I’m calmer in assessing a situation. I notice more of how I’m contributing to the problem and its solution. And I’m more eager to experiment.

Hey, Jude. Problems are morphing into opportunities. We must be doing all right.

[1] Good news for Lisa: Jude’s drinking water! Bad news for Lisa: Jude’s going through his super-expensive World’s Best Cat Litter at a greatly accelerated rate. I’ll have to clue her in to the amazing benefits of using chick starter feed instead. Are you talking about food for baby chickens as cat litter? Yup. It’s non-toxic (if you get unmedicated), super absorbent, clumping, flushable, odor-killing, largely dust free…and about one third the cost of premium litters made of basically the same stuff. If you’re a cat owner with access to a farm supply store, this tip will revolutionize your life.

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Little Purple Church: Still Building Community in the Castro

The little church still provides a warm welcome.

The little church still provides a warm welcome.

If I were to craft my life’s spiritual scrapbook—a collection of words and images to share the pivotal insights, difficult passages, and moments of deeper meaning—I would reserve at least one special page for San Francisco’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). It was there, as a college freshman on the verge of his adult manhood, that I first learned how shared faith can salve the most tender of wounds.

Almost every Sunday during that first year of college, I would head up from Stanford to the Castro District, a mostly-gay enclave known for its rainbow flags, randy shops, and resplendent characters. Back in the late ‘80’s, the neighborhood also served as ground zero for the AIDS crisis—and the church offered a haven of respite for those in suffering. Something close to 90% of the men who attended MCC then tested positive for HIV. As a result, the spectre of Death never got too far away. Every week, it seemed, someone was either passing on to the next life or moving into hospice care in preparation for doing so.

The beautiful skylight above the worship room: I can imagine spirits passing through in either direction.

The beautiful skylight above the worship room: I can imagine spirits passing through in either direction.

At the same time, a resilient spirit of Life raised the roof. For the most part, those who attended had been shunned, belittled, or rejected by their home churches. They’d been told that their sexual identities—a core piece of their sense of self—were somehow shameful or sinful. In that sense, they came to church not because they felt obligated to do so. They attended because they longed for the community and longed for God. No selective misinterpretation of scripture could keep them away. In valiant resistance to that hatred and to Death’s increasing reach, they prayed with palpable joy and abandon. They sang with heart-opening love. In such light, stand-by hymns took on even greater full-throated power. Words gained weight: Farther along, we’ll know all about it. Farther along, we’ll understand why.

Each congregant gets an individual prayer after communion.

Each congregant gets an individual prayer after communion.

I always enjoyed that music and found it deeply moving, especially as a backdrop to the communion ceremony. I had grown up in a Catholic setting and so was not familiar with the practice of receiving a short blessing after taking communion. The MCC ministers and other volunteers would wrap their arms around each congregant after serving the host and offer a few words. Sometimes the prayer felt personal, other times more generic, but always felt generous. That kind of simple kindness carried profound power. Lord, I ask a blessing for this young man’s week ahead. May God walk with him in his sorrow and celebrate with him in his triumph. May he know the depth of your peace and the warmth of your love. I regularly cried in gratitude or sadness when I sat in prayer back at my seat. I felt welcomed. I felt cared for.

Given all that, I delighted in the surprise chance to revisit the church this past Sunday after I’d had brunch with my friend Chris nearby. Though I was feeling spiritually stirred from the workshop I’d recently co-led at Green Gulch Zen Center, Chris and I hadn’t planned to stop by. We were just enjoying an improvisational no-agenda stroll through the Castro when we accidentally walked onto the church’s street. (Ah, how a stretch of openness makes space for serendipity!) As we passed by, we looked at our watches and realized that the service was happening in that moment. We ducked in and tiptoed up to find spots in the balcony.

Though the AIDS crisis has largely quieted in the face of increased awareness and improved drug treatments, and the congregation no longer fills the place, the church still communicates a sincere sweetness. The small choir sings with commitment. The current ministers carry on a message of welcome. Post-service prayers attend to those in particular need. And lovely signs now sit in each of the stained-glass windows, sharing and affirming the community’s values: Be equal. Be present. Be justice. Be inclusive. Be unique. Be peace. Be proud. Be authentic. Be community. Be love.

Artful windows communicate deep messages.

Artful windows offer important encouragement.

In other words, MCC still lives and breathes as a transformative spiritual community almost 25 years later. And it does so with a clear message. When you’re left out in the cold, we will provide warm shelter. When you’re down, we’ll help lift you back up. When you sing with thanksgiving, we’ll join in with a harmony. Would that we all find such a welcoming home, whatever our histories. Would that we all find such salvation.

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A Deeper Kind of Play—Three New Exercises to Link Improv and Spirituality

A merry band of daring pioneers recently gathered in the coastal hills north of San Francisco for a workshop exploring the many-layered relationship between improvisational theater and spiritual practice. A few exciting exercises came out of our time together—check out these three and see what you think. I’d joyfully welcome any and all feedback from your experience with them.

"Dear God..." Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net.

“Dear God…”Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net. 

Letter to God—For one of our warm-ups, we adapted a reliable standard, the word-at-a-time letter. Our instructions directed players in pairs to use that same format—alternating smoothly from player-to-player to “write” a vocal letter—to write a letter, yes, and to have the letter written to God from a child’s perspective. The issue, attitude, and theology of the child could emerge as he or she continued writing writing. Then, once that first letter had been written, we asked each pair to write a second letter back to the youngster…from God.

This single exercise may have generated the deepest laughter during our time together. Each pair, it seemed, found a sweet spot of creation through the construct. My partner and I, for example, discovered that our little girl was beseeching God for help with her little puppy’s recovery from an eye injury. It was only as we continued that we realized the sweet girl had played a role in the dog’s troubles—she had poked it with a fork! We got another surprise when God’s response suggested that such trivialities didn’t merit His concern or energies. Instead, God suggested she find a local vet or “some other deities” more likely to take up her plight. Nothing too brilliant, perhaps, but enough of a discovery to give us a lengthy and long-lasting laugh.

Some other groups also cackled with irreverent reaction—like when God suggested to their little girl that “God is everywhere and all around you. If you want to touch God, just touch yourself.”  Others channeled more poignant expression. Across the board, we all found delight in the discovery. The simple tweak took us to new places.

A spiritual scrapbook could show moments in the glow of enlightenment...

A spiritual scrapbook could show moments in the glow of enlightenment…

Spiritual Scrapbook—Earlier this year, my colleague Cort Worthington introduced me to Photo Album, a lovely exercise he uses with business school students to help them get to know each other and get comfortable with shared control improv story-telling. In Photo Album, one player “grabs” a photo album from a space-object shelf and begins to explain some of the imaginary photos in the book, recounting details and memories behind the “images” they find together. The listening player also adds in questions or clarifications which can be open-ended (“Who’s that with you in this photo?”) or more directly endowing (“What are you carrying all those books for?”). They can also build on what’s been mentioned before (as in, “Oh, your brother’s not in this one like he was before. How come?”). The exercise shows beginners they can find a natural creativity and demonstrates the fun of passing control of the ‘scene’ back and forth.

...or in the grip of depression. Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

…or in the grip of depression. The scrapbook’s creator chooses.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 



For our workshop, we adapted the photo album and turned it into a “Spiritual Scrapbook.” Here, we invited each person to share images from their own spiritual journeys, however they defined such a thing. Moments of personal breakthrough, difficult challenge, deep connection, and open vulnerability: whatever highlights or lowlights came to mind. Whatever made meaning.  In this case, we encouraged the listener to stay a bit more open-ended with inquiries, offering example prompts like:

  • Where’s the photo of where you felt most alive?
  • Ooh, that lighting’s cool. What’s going on there?
  • This one looks unusual. I wouldn’t have thought of that as spiritual.
  • The photos got kind of dark there.
  • How old were you in this one?
  • I can’t tell if your eyes are closed or open in this photo.

The Guest House—This exercise shares some elements with “House Party,” a playful short form piece that lasts until the host can name the endowed qualities of each of three guests at a party. It also goes much deeper.

We had just discussed the Shadow, a psychological term referring to the hidden or disowned parts of ourselves. According to Carl Jung, the term’s originator, Shadow integration represents some of the most challenging—and most rewarding—soul work we can do. The psyche longs for wholeness most, argued Jung. Those parts that we deny will leak out in toxic or destructive ways, whether through explosive release or more subtly pernicious projection.

The still-best-selling poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The still-best-selling poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi.Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

As illustration for how we might relate differently to the Shadow, we shared Rumi’s provocative poem “The Guest House” and then based a scene on its images.[1] We asked one player to play herself at home and to have three “unexpected visitors” show up, one representative each for “the dark thought, the shame, the malice” that show up in her life. We did offer our protagonist the option to have her audience choose the uninvited guests but, thankfully, she found the courage to make the unwanted visitors examples from her own personality: laziness, wishy-washiness, and ridicule of others. That vulnerability gave the scene that much more juice. We also encouraged the folks playing the three visitors to go bold in their characterizations without being cartoonish. We wanted an element of realism to work with. Commit to your character. Be open to gradual change.

Given the set-up, it proved utterly fascinating to watch our lead struggle. Her visitors were, in fact, quite annoying and unpleasant. The more the scene went on, the more unpleasant they became, enough so that the protagonist eventually wanted to leave the scene to go get yoghurt or walk the dog that she knew she didn’t have. Perfect! We do so often choose to avoid the Shadow!

From there, we coached a few tweaks into the game on the fly. What happens if you tell the visitors just what you think of them? What happens if they thank you for your feedback? What if the visitors share out loud what they have to offer? Having been recognized, the visitors relaxed and, touchingly, decided to leave of their own accord. Laziness found some motivation. Wishy-washiness found some spine. And Ridicule found some humility. We let our protagonist stay on stage for a few breaths more to integrate all that had just happened. We in the audience needed a moment to take it all in as well. We had traveled to an authentic place.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that a second iteration of the exercise—or a first iteration with another group—would go so well. Different visitors might prove more or less hostile or recalcitrant. A new protagonist might prove more or less resilient or creative. Improv is improv. By definition, we’re walking into the Unkown. Still, it seems the structure has a strength that will pass on. The immediacy, the tension, and the honesty of the exercise all speak well for its larger potential.

These were just three of the new exercises we tried out at our first Improvisation and Spirituality retreat. I look forward to writing more about some others and to hearing your thoughts in reflection. How do these games work for you? How might you change them to improve them or alter their focus?


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

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