Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Managing negative chatter

On the weekend of April 7-10, 2016, The Stanford Improvisors had a glorious 25th Reunion.  Over 130 students showed up to celebrate their memories of what it meant to be a SImp. They were there to reminisce, to perform with each other, to share life stories and to improvise songs around a piano. It was fascinating to watch the mix of old students (in their forties now with families and mortgages) with the new crop of undergraduates, so shiny with energy and creativity. What they had in common was the training as improvisors which predisposed them to be positive, helpful and supportive.  It was miraculous to watch old and young perform together on stage, making up stories and getting into mischief together.  My heart sang to see all this cooperation.  In a world where our legislators can't manage to do anything together it was heartwarming to observe how much fun got done with a room full of strangers, choosing to play together.  What a miracle.  Being a SImp meant that your team mates "had your back" and would accept whatever nonsense you might put forward.  Nothing like being around 100+ YES sayers.

During the breaks I had a chance to catch up on the lives of some of my old students now living as grown ups in the real world.  One special friend shared stories of recent disappointments at work.  She was struggling not to let the setbacks and annoyances in the workplace get her down.  A new mother, she was missing being with her gorgeous baby daughter since coming back to work from the pregnancy leave.  She found herself having been demoted and now working for a boss who was at best unappreciative of her work. 
Bummer.  I listened and attempted to console her.  "Sometimes when things are falling apart, they may actually be falling into place."  

After the weekend I sent her a card which said:  "The life we're living is not the wrong life." This is a John Tarrant quote that I find comforting.  

A week later I got an email from her which provoked the following exchange.  Perhaps some of this advice can be useful to others who are struggling as well. 

Student: "I received your cards, thank you so much, and thank you for listening to me during our visit.  Life is constantly a series of trials to test my ability to stay positive and do what's needed.  You gave me those skills all those years ago to get through tough times.  It is definitely no small thing."

Teacher:  "You are so right that life seems to be a series of trials. It is for us all. Sometimes if you can find a way to frame the notion of “trials” (which makes sense) into simply “events” it can help ease things.   The Buddhists talk about two kinds of suffering:  1. The shit that happens (pain, disease, death, unfairness, accidents, bad luck, etc.) and 2.  The suffering on top of suffering that our mind creates.  “This isn’t fair.”  "I’m never going to get the respect I deserve.”  Yada yada.  If we can begin to train our minds to not let this thinking run the show we can minimize suffering, at least, I believe."

Student: "What do you replace #2 thoughts with? Because I have many of those thoughts, they are very loud."

Teacher:  "An excellent question.
Well, here’s the thing:  we have zero control over when or whether these kinds of non-supportive thoughts “show up.”  They just appear, and if we give them any juice at all, they will stay and propagate and become creative.  It’s sort of like a bum showing up on the doorstep asking for a handout.  We notice, acknowledge, and maybe even empathize, but we don’t invite him in for a cup of tea. We often do this with our "yada yada" thoughts   by calling someone and complaining for an hour.  Or bitching to our spouses over the injustice of the world.  It's so easy to get the record stuck on: “It’s not fair.”  We get into a long legal debate over the merits, etc.  Our mind is obsessing over the injury or disappointment.  We will never win that case. 

Redirect your mind.  

So, I think the best strategy to dealing with the “suffering on top of suffering” thoughts is to #1. NOTICE what they are:  “Hmm . . .  seem to be having that “life’s a bitch, it’s not fair” paragraph rumbling around in my mind.”  Once you’ve identified a “non supportive thought train”  you are already in some manner detached from it.  The next step, rather than getting into the legal argument is to say, even out loud:  “That’s interesting.  Now what needs to be done?”  Then turn your full attention to something that needs doing and put your mind and body into that:  changing baby’s diaper, going to the store for milk, cleaning out a drawer, writing that thank you note, working on a brief.  Or even finding the “gift” inside the problem. (The asshole boss is also the one who signs my paycheck which allows me to life comfortably.) Tasks that use large body movements are especially good at redirecting the mind.  The trick with yada yada is to REPLACE them not with a counter argument, (that just continues the "having a cup of tea with your misery" metaphor).  Replace worry and chagrin with ACTION:  Doing what needs to be done.  And while this may not permanently get rid of the crapola thoughts, it allows you not to let them ruin your life. Remember “YOU are not your thoughts.  And, at least you get the kitchen clean or the brief written.”  

The longer I live the more I see that life's biggest challenge is learning how to work with the mind around negative and non-supportive thoughts.  I'm not a Pollyanna.  But I am able to see that "Life is good, even when it isn't."  It's helpful to be reminded.

Every moment a new one.  "The life you are living is not the wrong life." wise words from John Tarrant. And good luck redirecting the yada yada into constructive action.  

Thursday, February 4, 2016

You Decide

November, 2014

The name on her Deli Counter Employee badge said Linda.  I judged her to be right around my age  . . . just pushing into her 70’s.  There was a light in her eye as if she had just won the lottery.  “Having a good day?” she almost sang as I pushed my cart down a slender aisle near the Deli.  “I am,” I replied, “and it’s clear that you are too!” 

“Oh, well. It’s easy,” she beamed,  “You decide. You decide to be happy.  I mean, everybody’s got their junk, even the folks who seem to have it all. But you can decide to be happy, ya know.  That’s what I do.  And, her whole body virtually glowed with the truth of her simple idea. 

I’d been rereading Victor E. Frankl’s Man's Search for Meaning again and Linda’s point has reinforced his proud comment:  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

It’s important to remember that we decide how we look at life.  We attribute meaning to the world.  It’s easy to forget this as we encounter life and notice all the things that make us unhappy.  Like a magnet the mind goes to the negative.  Linda reminds us to turn this bad habit around.  Decide. 

Notice the gifts.  Notice all that you are receiving.  Notice the ease most of us have.  And, even for those with life challenges, notice how much help there is. 

There’s a Buddhist saying:  “Every day is a good day.” 

You decide.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Turning around the crazies

This was the third call to the Stanford University IT Computer helpline.  Isabella, my technical rep this round had been on the phone with me for just under three hours.  The issue was Stanford’s new Encryption software that is required of all users who have a sunet ID for the University’s email server.  As the world continues to go mad the pressure to secure our cyber identities goes up.  Stanford tries to stay ahead of the curve in Security precautions and programs that protect us from any kind of cyber terror.  While I don’t spend much time worrying about my data being secure (perhaps I should) I do always obey commands to update software and security protocols.  For reasons unknown installing the new encryption program on my MacBook laptop had become a nightmare.  The rep who was helping me continued to try new things to make the process go successfully.  Both of us began to take long, deep breaths attempting to still the rising anger and frustration that only a dysfunctional Apple device can provoke.  “All morning, I’ve spent all morning trying to make this procedure work.”  Each time we would go around the circle of downloads, proffering of logins and 24 character passwords, followed by the same set of questions asked and answered.  Nothing was working.  My devices manager continued to read “Non Compliant” no matter what we tried. 

I was fuming and felt ready to pop off expressing my most profound annoyance at this personal inconvenience.  You know that moment when your blood rises, and you just want to let expletives fly!  But something different happened: instead of giving in to that impulse to vent my mind did a 360 degree turn.  I changed what I was noticing, and I began thinking about the gift of our technology. I began reflecting about what was right about this moment while we were attempting to solve the security issue. So, changing my voice I exclaimed to Isabella:  “Despite this glitch, aren’t we lucky to have this amazing technology?  Isn’t the Internet a miracle?  Aren’t we blessed to have computers and the ability to connect and find the world’s bounty of information and knowledge?"  As I spoke I could sense immediately Isabella’s mood and voice change.  “Yes,” she declared cheerfully, “it is a miracle.  All that Stanford provides us with is such a great gift.”  We both clearly began to feel better and our former annoyance had been replaced by wonder.  Of course, the technical problem didn't disappear, but our relationship to it had made a dramatic shift.

I hope I can remember this “technique” if you can call it that.  When I feel ready to burst with anger and frustration instead of giving in to that useless emotion I should turn my mind to a catalogue of what I am receiving at that moment.  What are the everyday wonders and miracles that sustain us and console us and enrich our lives? 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Four Friends and Teamwork

Bhutan is a tiny country with a big heart.  One of their claims to world fame is the adoption of the concept of “Gross National Happiness” as the governmental measure of all things good.  The quality of life is prized over material wealth.  When I visited this cultural paradise in 2011 I kept noticing an image that was everywhere.  It’s the picture of “The Four Harmonious Friends” and it’s a symbol of the importance of cooperation.  I brought home a hand painted thanka with this image because I wanted to be reminded of this story. The values represented in the image are of key importance to the Bhutanese. It is often seen in Buddhist iconography as shown here.

The story of the four friends recounts how working together can produce not only harmony but also sustenance. Their combined forces allow them to obtain a continual supply of food. The peacock on top first found a seed and planted it in the earth.  The rabbit watered it, the monkey fertilized it and the elephant guarded it. When the fruit was ripe the tree was so high that no one could not reach the top on his own. The four animals made a tower by climbing on one another’s backs, and plucked the fruit from the high branches.  Then they shared the bounty.

Teamwork leverages both individual gifts as well as acts of cooperation.  As an improv teacher I am often called upon to help cultivate and develop teams.
It is often a focus in the study and practice of improvisation. In their recent bestseller Team Genius, Rich Karlgaard and Michael Malone’s make the scientific claim that teams with diversity are more likely to perform successfully.  The quality most needed in our changeable world is that of maneuverability. In their words: “Maneuverability is the capacity to turn, even reverse direction, quickly, to deal competently with whatever new change—technology, market opportunity, or competition—has just burst onto the scene, and to do so without losing internal cohesion and breaking up.” (p. 70)  

Improv teaches maneuverability.  Scenes and stories happen in real time and actors must be alert to new directions; they must change on the dime in order to make sense out of the moment.  There is no time to stop and have a committee meeting to vote on some possible future.  Improvisers create the future in real time, using their individual gifts and talents while pulling together to “get to the top of the tree to pluck the fruit.” 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Healthy Improviser

Staying Healthy
for the Professional Improviser

I’ve been watching improv actors make magic for over thirty years.  One of the deep joys of living in the Bay Area is having access to a remarkable array of Improvisational Theatre groups.  I’ve been the lucky audience for several thousand performances of “one of a kind” plays created out of shear grit and magic on the spot.  I’ve watched a number of groups come and go, form and dissolve; reform and spring back like the Phoenix.  Among them were Pulp Playhouse, True Fiction Magazine, Three for All,  San Francisco Improv Playhouse, Awkward Dinner Party and two decades of BATS shows to name a few. 

The community of artists who perform this work are both saints and crazies in my opinion.  Their talent and courage (and endurance over time) astonishes me.  I’ve been a theater person for half a decade.  I taught acting at Stanford University, spent summers doing stock with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, the Nebraska Repertory Theatre and several raucous southern Outdoor Drama productions.  I have not, however, trod the boards of the improv stage.  It’s far too scary for me, I tell my students. I’m okay with a script.  I like knowing when the show’s over. 

However, I teach improv and like to think that my long years experience in the classroom, if not on stage, allows me a voice.  What’s on my mind is the mental/spiritual health of the men and women who are professional improv actors.  I am writing this as a love letter to these courageous players in the hope that this advice might make sense.  You know who you are.  You have been gifting me and my students for decades.

When you improvise a performance you are using 120% of your humanity.  Becoming characters that live and breathe and struggle and die and change and love and mourn  (all in front of a paying audience) takes a gigantic human toll.  I’m guessing that when the lights go down after a successful show (or even a mediocre or lousy one) each of you is both exhilarated and exhausted.   To improvise means that you are using the whole self-- body, mind and spirit.  You are using your deep database of knowledge of literature, story, character, locale, vocal technique and social psychology.  It’s a miracle, when you really consider what is happening, especially in a long form show, but to a lesser extent, in short form improv as well.  I can’t think of any other human activity that uses ALL of our human capacity at the same time as this art does.  Even Olympic athletes, while using 100% of their physical and mental ability are not creating the scene and story on the spot before an audience.  I think professional improv actors are Gods and Goddesses, or at least Superheroes.  They are doing so much more than even great actors are called upon to do.  

So, my advice is this:  You must take time off from this work in order to regenerate.  Even if your physical health is excellent your soul and spirit/mind need time to refuel.  Improv actors need alone time, preferably in nature away from family and social requirements.  They need to ingest new nourishment.  They need to read stories and books of literature and poetry.  They need to see movies and television dramas of quality as well as those of dubious worth.  They need to take in images, characters, cultures and genres to stoke up their arsenal of fiction.  They benefit from travel both domestic and foreign.  They need time in which they are not required to perform and put out.  They need spaciousness, rest and as Michael Harris suggests: they need absence—real time and space in which they are not required to do anything.  I’m convinced that a week of this kind of regenerative space can produce large payoffs in terms of mental and physical health. 

I’m sure this all sounds like a good idea, but when will you ever find that open week?  It won’t fall in your lap . . . unless you so exhaust yourself that you become unwell and are quarantined.  Instead, those of you who give so much of your life on the improv stage (and in classes which also are high calorie life events) you must set aside the time.  Put it on your calendar as you would a work assignment.  And, then execute that week of refreshment. 

In addition to finding genuine sabbatical time (as mentioned above) it is also important to find “mini-vacations” in which you cultivate alone time, with your cell phones turned off.  Perhaps you can spend a free afternoon alone in a great science or art museum just wandering the galleries and soaking up the beauty and wonder of art and nature.  Or you can walk in the park slowly without an agenda, possibly people watching.  I have stressed the value of alone time.  The kind of regeneration I’m advocating happens more rarely when you are with a partner or spouse.  Find time to be alone.  Read a fine book.  Munch an apple.  Savor a cup of tea. 

If you begin to make a life habit of nourishing your humanity with spaciousness on a regular basis I predict that your on-stage improv life will flourish and grow.  You deserve this and you need this.  I hope some of you will take this to heart.  Let me know how it goes.

by Patricia Ryan Madson 
October  3, 2015