Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Dancing Lesson

The Dancing Lesson
By Patricia Ryan Madson  1992
Published in Rainbow Rising From a Stream, edited by Dr. David K. Reynolds

On the dance floor Mrs. Tara, the curly-red-haired instructor, announced brightly, “Today, the waltz!” She smiled, pressing the button on the elaborate tape deck of the fine stereo system in the ballroom.  The strains of “The Emperor’s Waltz,” by Strauss, filled the room.  Martha sighed with pleasure.  More than anything she wanted to learn to dance with a partner, more than anything.

“You must learn two skills as you dance together,” explained Mrs. Tara.  “The first is attention to your footsteps and to those of your partner.  You must always continue to notice where you are stepping, carefully doing your best to avoid treading on your partner as you go.  Particularly while you are learning; this attention takes a great deal of effort.

“The second skill is the development of an attitude of cheerful tolerance when your partner steps on your toes.  You must be understanding and compassionate toward your partner’s mistakes.  If he knows that you can accept his mistakes without jeopardizing the dance, he can dance with greater freedom.  Of course you realize that no matter how sincerely you practice you will step on one another.  Stepping on each other unintentionally is in the nature of dancing.  You cannot learn to dance without doing so.  It is useful to adopt the viewpoint that your partner is doing the best he can.

“Again, if you want to dance you must accept the inevitability of being stepped on occasionally—it is in the nature of the experience of moving closely together. So, shall we begin?”

Martha took a deep breath, smiled, and lifted her arms to Harold, her class partner.  Off they glided, or rather bumped, onto the floor.  One, two, three: one, two three; one, two three—  “Oops, oh, excuse me,” sputtered Harold as he crunched the tip of Martha’s patent leather pump.

“That’s all right,” said Martha soothingly, really meaning it.  One, two, three, one, two, three . . . and on they moved, fumbled, smiled, stumbled, laughed, apologized.  And sometimes they even really, really danced.

COMMENTARY by David K. Reynolds

Whenever human beings become partners, it is natural that some conflict occurs.  It is unrealistic to imagine that partners should move smoothly and perfectly without incident.  Mrs. Tara’s advice was sound. Knowing that this jostling is likely to happen prepares partners to develop a healthy, charitable attitude toward having their toes stepped on.  If your purpose is to build a strong and loving partnership, it would be wise to attend to your own and your partner’s footsteps as they fall.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Naikan at Senkobo 1987

Naikan at Senkobo

Patricia Ryan lives in San Francisco and teaches drama at Stanford University.  She is certified to practice Morita guidance.

My journey began at Kyoto station on the morning of July 8, 1987 as I boarded a sleek air-conditioned bus and watched the Japanese countryside fly by on my pilgrimage to Kuwana.  I changed from the bus to the national railroad train at Nagoya and finished my journey with a taxi across rice fields which took me to Senkobo, a rare combination of Zen and Shinshu temple set inconspicuously in a farming area.  The head of Senkobo is Reverend Shue Usami.  He recently completed koan training and is qualified to practice both Shinshu and Zen Buddhism.
As the taxi pulled into the courtyard of the monastery Mrs. Usami, the priest’s wife, appeared full of smiles to greet us.  A forty-eight-year-old retired American surgeon accompanied me to do the practice of Naikan.  I proffered a kilo of bananas as a small offering.  Our bags were taken from us and brought along.
We entered the monastery compound via wooden sliding doors.  Over the entrance were crossed a Japanese and an American flag.  I was moved by this thoughtful welcome.  We were led into a reception room where a second set of flags was hung to greet us.  Okabe San, our young translator, sat down with us on the tatami and pulled out a large white pad of paper.  It would be used to write our questions and comments to assure that we were clear in our communications.  This system of writing was used throughout the week for all communications except the mensetsu, or formal interview itself.  We were never asked to write down our Naikan reflections.
Mrs. Usami appeared with a tray of tea cakes made from red adzuki beans and two bowls of the thick frothy green tea used in the Tea Ceremony.  There was a refreshing cube of ice in each bowl.
The mood gently shifted to one of business.  We were given some instructions handwritten in English.  Our passports and valuables were collected for safekeeping.  A rule sheet read: “Manners: There are two very important rules during Naikan.  Never talk to others and don’t get up or walk around unless there is a specific purpose.  Please keep these two rules.” We were further instructed that we would be told daily when to come to meals, when to bathe and when to go to bed.
We next considered the way to practice Naikan.  Naikan is a form of self-reflection, a system designed to look at reality from a unique vantage point: that of our indebtedness.  By the practice of systematically recalling the past from a new purview we may come to a less egocentric and more complete perspective on our lives.
After the tea and instructions I expected to be shown to my sleeping place and allowed to unpack and relax after our long journey.  Instead we were taken directly to our meditation cubicles bounded by byobu screens and instructed to begin our Naikan practice immediately.  My first assignment was to reflect on my relationship to my mother from my birth until age six.  This reflection was to take the following form: I should contemplate specific examples of 1. What I received from her. 2. What I returned to her and 3. What trouble and bother I caused her during that period of my past.  I was told that the mensetsu or formal interview in which I would report on my reflection would be held in one and a half to two hours.  I was given a small thin square pillow and left alone.
It was somehow like the thunderous sound of a cell gate being closed and locked.  At this instant I knew that I was in both heaven and hell.  There was no going back on the path that I had chosen.  The knowledge which I was about to receive would change me profoundly.  I experienced a deep sense of grief over the notion that in this practice I was somehow dying to my old picture of myself.  I would never again be able to crawl inside the simple self-centered view of myself in relation to my parents or to anyone else in the world.
My personal environment was stark.  I occupied a small defined space in a large shrine hall before a low window facing out onto the side courtyard of the monastery.  Directly below my window was a basin.  Occasionally I would see other Naikansha (those doing the practice of Naikan) washing their hair or doing laundry during their brief personal time.  When I faced out from the wall I was looking toward the open floor of the shrine hall with its fifty or sixty tatami mats (each three feet by five feet). To my left was the central altar with a large statue of the Buddha, flanked by two minor dieties.  The altar contained numerous offerings, including my small gift of inexpensive chocolates.  This meager gift sat proudly on the altar all week to remind me of how little I was giving back to those who were devoting their lives to assisting me in this practice.
The perimeter of this large shrine room housed the Naikansha.  Each participant had his or her own space.  These were demarcated by vertical cardboard screens placed at six foot intervals.  There were eight cubicles overall in this space.  Elsewhere in the monastery was a large dormitory-type room that was used for Naikan practice.  Indeed, few spaces went unused.  Naikansha were placed along the walkways outside the building, as well.  They were awaiting their chance to be admitted to the temple to do formal Naikan.
At Senkobo Naikan practice runs parallel with Zen practice.  An assistant directs the practice periods and administers the calls for zazen and kinhinZazen is the sitting meditation form practiced in Zen, and kinhin is the walking meditation form.  The assistant, Takano San, was a small Japanese man of indeterminate age, perhaps thirty-five years old, who customarily sat in the cubicle opposite mine doing zazen. When not sitting he did various routine jobs such as clapping blocks to announce walking practice.  He announced the time of formal mensetsu each evening, and he sat at the head of the table during the brief ritualized meals, leading the recitation of sutras.  His attention, efficiency and implacable face were noteworthy.  He lived the quality of alertness associated with sincere Zen practitioners.
Alone in my tiny empty space, I began Naikan.  The shock of actually being there gave way to a wave of fears and doubts about my ability to go through with this endeavor.  I was committed to a week of fifteen hours a day sitting and reflecting on my own selfishness.
My body started to rebel.  Even with some training in seiza, the formal sitting posture in Japan, I was certain that a backrest would be necessary in time.  Indeed, the entire question of the possibility of physical comfort began to dominate my thinking. During the next week I would learn a great deal about the myriad ways the mind would attempt to divert itself from this practice.
Over and over again I brought my mind back to the questions: what I had received from my mother from birth to age six.  Of course, I owed her by birth. My birth…my birth…what could I remember of my birth? I had been told that I was born in a blackout during the war and that my mother first saw me by flashlight.  And then I recalled that my mother had a Caesarean section to give me birth.  She had been cut open just to give me life.  To this day she carries a scar on her body which was caused by my birth.  When this memory burst upon me I began to sob.
I remembered also being washed in a kitchen sink and looking at a rainbow, crawling on the floor in the kitchen while my mother stood cooking at a stove.  Other memories surfaced.  Mrs. Usami came to receive my first collection of memories.  As I recounted my list to her I was unable to hold back my own tears.  She listened with empathy while making small noises of understanding.  We finished our session with formal bows and she gave me the next assignment: to continue this practice on my mother for the next three years.  She left and I faced my thoughts again.  Night fell, a three-quarter moon appeared behind the glass of the window in my cubicle.  I squirmed.  I was angry at sitting so long.  My legs and back hurt.  I overheard the sound of those doing the walking meditation practice behind me.  At about forty-five-minute intervals the assistant rang a bell.  Then he and a few others would do kinhin for several  minutes.  The room was dark now.
The dinner bell rang and the other Naikansha shuffled to get in line for the meal.  The entire meal period form took no more than five minutes.  We recited a meal chant in Japanese (we had been provided with a phonetic translation), ate our food rapidly and silently, cleaned our bowls with a pickle, passed the dishes up to the head of the table, recited a closing chant and went back immediately to our cubicles.  We were instructed to continue Naikan at all times, even when eating or going to the bathroom.
I continued my reflections.  Around 8:30 p.m. the last mensetsu of the day was to be given to the Rev. Usami himself in his study.  Giving Naikan to Rev. Usami was somewhat frightening.  He sat in his black robes like a stern-faced Buddha.  On hearing my confession he responded in clear and measured English: “Please continue Naikan on your mother for the next three years…Do you have any questions?” I had none.
I was directed to a small room that was used normally as an infirmary.  There was a table and several acupuncture charts along the walls. To my delight an aging air conditioner hummed proudly from a transom.  I was very grateful for this kindness.  July in Japan can be brutally hot.
The second day began at 4:30 a.m. I was permitted to delay my first session in order to get physical exercise.  After rising I washed my face and dressed. I went outside and took a wonderful forty-minute walk along paths by the rice paddies.  On returning to my room I did yoga stretches and wrote a few lines in my journal.
At 6:00 a.m. I was seated in my cubicle thinking about my mother. At midmorning there was a forty-five-minute worship service led by Rev. Usami.  We assembled into rows sitting seiza. The assistant hit several resonant wooden gongs to signal our attention.  We recited a sutra and then turned our attention to the daily sermon.  After speaking briefly in Japanese Rev. Usami turned on a small tape recorder and we all listened to a five-minute dharma talk in English.  The first talk was a well-known Zen story about a learned teacher who guides his new student into receptivity by filling his teacup to overflowing.  When the student protests this action the teacher points out that one must be like the empty cup in order to be ready to receive knowledge.
Immediately following the service we returned to our cushions to continue Naikan.  The first day was interminable.  My brief notes at the end of this day began: “Everything hurts.” My lower back was aching, and I experienced a bone tiredness.  I wondered if I would ever survive the week.
Day three began with a long early-morning walk.  At 6:30 a.m. I was on my cushion reflecting on what I had received from my mother from age twenty-two to twenty-four.  This day was surprisingly different.  A deep calm and peacefulness fell over me as I sat focusing on the face of my mother.  It was as if the struggle of the second day had been resolved.  Something within had accepted the reality of doing this practice.  I was no longer tortured with thoughts of resistance.  Indeed, there began a feeling of pleasure at the simplicity of this world.  My memory seemed to improve.  The initial sense that I couldn’t remember anything about this period disappeared.  I felt myself walking down corridors of the mind and opening doors long closed from memory.  Because the mind had been instructed to look only for that which I had received from my parents, the memories were often drenched in happiness.  I found myself crying from joy and gratitude several times each day.  The sounds of muffled sobs of those in nearby cubicles could be heard.
At Senkobo Naikansha wore a folded scarf tied around the forehead, the scarf was often pulled down to cover the eyes partially or completely.  On the fourth day I tied a cotton bandana around my own forehead to see if this emblem had any practical significance.  My Naikan became “deeper” in that I was able to concentrate more consistently and access memories in grater detail while wearing the blindfold.  It was also a badge, identifying me with the group.
Each day revealed a unique schedule.  There was never any certainty about the exact times of eating, bathing or the interviews.  On the evening of the day I arrived, dinner was at 6:00 p.m. On subsequent days the dinner bell rang as late as 7:50 p.m. This “never knowing” occupied my thoughts.  It intensified the sense that time was important and that we must never waste it.  The third day’s dharmatalk concerned the previous nature of time.  Each day and each instant counts.
I found myself angry about the emphasis on using time well.  This eternal diligence seemed too much to bear.  I wanted some rest and recreation from my labors at Naikan.  Instantly I recognized the old habit of selfishness rising to the surface.  Three days of Naikan had sensitized me to my own egocentricity.
The fourth day dawned muggy and rainy, too wet for my walk.  I enjoyed a period of lying down, resting.  From the third day I joined the walking meditation with the students.  When the assistant rang a small bell a few of us rose from our cubicles, bowed together and then joined him in the slow walking practice.  The practice lasted only three or four minutes, but it was very valuable.
At the conclusion of the first pass over my life with respect to my mother and father I was assigned the theme of “lies and stealing” beginning with first memories and continuing in three year periods throughout my life.  Lies and stealing were to include those occasions in which there was any disparity between thought and deed: for example, times when I might have been saying prayers but thinking of something else.
Dreading this assignment, I undertook it, finding in every three year period instances of my own immorality.  I came to look at the Patricia Ryan who is greedy, selfish and deceitful.  It was not a pleasant picture, but it was instructive.  As I lifted each moving picture of myself as troublemaker from the archives of memory I found another process ongoing.  I was able to take in these truths and accept them.  Further, at some level I felt myself forgiving myself for these actions.  Notice I wrote “forgiving” not “absolving.”  The quality of forgiveness was simple acceptance.  I swallowed and owned this information, and felt more human for doing so.  Painful honesty heals.
On the fifty day of Naikan I completed the reflections on lying and stealing.  At approximately each hour-and-a-half interval someone came to hear my recollections.  Often it was the tireless Mrs. Usami.  Sometimes former Naikansha volunteered their time to come and receive my reflections. I was causing them considerable trouble by speaking English.  I was touched by the fact that some volunteers came great distances after a long work day just to sit and listen to my Naikan.  I was told that they did it in gratitude for their own Naikan experiences.
On the fifth day I was permitted to select significant others in my past on whom to reflect.  I chose two beloved friends who had been like adopted parents to me.  It gave me great joy to enumerate the gifts and kindness that had come to me from them.  Doing Naikan began to feel like a great privilege, albeit hard work.  I could see how a longer course of practice would provide benefit.  Some people apparently do brief Naikan daily for the rest of their lives.
After the final Naikan interview of the day we were summoned for a small celebration.  The flags of Japan and the United States were the centerpiece.  There was a tray of gifts, including the small box of candy that I had brought on my arrival.  Mrs. Usami brought refreshments.  We opened our presents.  Mine included a beautiful cloisonné pencil tray.  I felt overwhelmed and embarrassed that after a week of receiving everything: meals, lodging, laundry service and the hourly gift of receiving my Naikan I was once again receiving gifts from Senkobo.  This outpouring of gifts and kindness mirrored the discoveries that had surfaced in Naikan.  I knew without question or qualification that I continue to be loved and cared for with a bounty that is incalculable.
On the sixth day at Senkobo I was up at 5:30. I took one last morning walk to stretch my legs and say goodbye to the large lotus pond in the neighborhood.  Even though I would be leaving in a taxi at 9:00 a.m. I was required to go to my cushion at 6:30 to continue my Naikan reflections.  At around 8:00 a.m. Okabe San came to receive my last formal mensetsu.  After the final bows he instructed me to continue doing Naikan throughout my life.
We were served a special breakfast in a dining room separate from the other Naikansha, and our baggage magically appeared at the front door.  Our passports and wallets were returned.  A taxi waited in the courtyard.  At this moment I assumed that we would be saying our farewells, but to my surprise Rev. and Mrs. Usami and Okabe San all jumped in the taxi with us.  Further they not only accompanied us all the way to Nagoya where we were to catch the “bullet” train to Tokyo for our flights home, but insisted on paying for our taxi, local and express train tickets!
This final generosity was overwhelming.  I had planned on making a donation to Senkobo and had set aside money which I placed in a gift envelope and offered to the Reverend just as I was boarding the train.  He flatly refused the gift, putting the envelope back into my handbag, saying quite emphatically: “Foreigners do not pay for Naikan at Senkobo.” We shook hands (the Japanese farewell) and hugged awkwardly but sincerely (the California farewell) and boarded the train to take our reserved seats.  As the train pulled out we all waved furiously.  Tears of gratitude filled my eyes.
Sitting on the train, a young Japanese woman in the next seat handed me a tissue.  Again and again the world was giving to me. Malcolm, who was writing in his journal, leaned over to ask if I knew how to spell “Buddha.”
I wrote in my journal as we neared Tokyo: “I have learned at Senkobo that there is no resting on this path, and that the gifts of life are endless and abundant.  Even in the midst of suffering there is a kind of joy that comes from the sure knowledge of this treasury.  At the very least we can do our part by recognizing these unparalleled gifts and their givers.  How wonderful it is to be alive and to have the chance to give something back to the world.  Today is the day to start.”
There is no question that the experience of doing Naikan at Senkobo fundamentally changed my way of looking at the world. I came to see my own selfishness as a kind of giant iceberg. Naikan was the flamethrower that began the melting.
The flame also cast a sharp light on my greed, gluttony, lust, envy, sloth and indifference.  It was more powerful because no one but I passed judgment on these findings.  No one set for me definitions of what I had received or what I had stolen.  I left Senkobo with a deep desire to begin to repay the world.  The ledger showed my unmistakable debt.  There was a great deal that needed to be done.  I could hardly wait to begin.

Monday, May 15, 2017


On a short commuter flight from John Wayne airport back to SFO I sat next to a quiet well dressed businesswoman in her 40's. On board she watched a film on her IPad.  At a half hour into the flight the attractive African American stewardess stopped at our seats for the customary in flight drink.  
"Would you like something to drink?" she asked.  
My companion replied "Do you have cranberry juice? "
"We have crab-apple juice, will that be okay?"
"Yes," she nodded.
"Would you like ice?"
" Just a little please."
Turning to me, she repeated her query.  
"I'd like tomato or V-8 if you have it."
"We have tomato or Bloody Mary mix," she said. 
"I'd like the Bloody Mary mix with no ice, " 

The stewardess began making the drinks.  She put a half cup of ice into one of the small plastic glasses. Then she poured water into the cup with ice. Following this she poured Bloody Mary mix into the other cup.  She then handed the ice water to my seat mate who accepted it with a smile.  I received my drink, thanked her, and the cart moved on. 

After a while my curiosity surfaced and I took the liberty of asking my companion, "Excuse me, didn't you order cranberry juice?"
"Yes, I did." she replied.
"How kind of you," I said, "to accept the water."
"She was busy," she said thoughtfully, leaving it at that.

And I wondered how often it happens that someone accepts a mistaken order out of respect for the convenience of the server?  

Would you have?

What a perfect example of kindness.  

May 14, 2017

On board United 5809

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The influence of Peter Brook

Manuscript of Peter Brook: A Survey of His Directorial Achievements, 1968

December 31, 1965  Martin Beck Theater, New York City

It was New Years eve over fifty years ago. I remember it clearly. The new year 1966 was about to be heralded in all over Manhattan. Outside Times Square was packed for the dropping of the ball.  But I was not out celebrating. I was sitting in my third row center orchestra seat in the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway ten minutes after the house had cleared. The orchestra was now empty following the performance. An occasional usher was checking under the seats for programs or debris. I was still sitting sobbing gently and my whole body was shaking.  Trying to understand my state the word ‘catharsis’ came to mind. I felt fundamentally changed. The theater as a vehicle for transformation seemed obvious now. What had happened?  The final notes of  Richard Peaslee’s music still hung in the auditorium. Kokol spoke directly to me and screamed: “When will you learn to take sides?” I found this a personal message.

 I had to speak with someone connected with the production.

Still shaking and with tears running down my face I made my way outside and to the backstage door and knocked.  A stage manager opened it and seemed surprised on seeing a 23 year old woman, clearly in extremis.  “Can I help you?” he said, with concern in his voice.  “I need to speak to somebody in the company please,” I begged.  I expect that my emotional state was justification for him to invite me backstage.  He ushered me down the hall toward the dressing room for Patrick McGee and Ian Richardson, the stars of the play, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Maret as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Cheranton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade which had been directed by the incomparable Peter Brook. The play was in its final week of previews and I had scored a ticket out of great good luck or by providence.

Ian Richardson opened the door to his dressing room and seeing me still sobbing, almost shouted:  “What happened to you?”  .  .   .   “I just saw YOUR PLAY,” I blurted out. 
He and McGee actually laughed and then he said:  “Looks like you need a drink.” And he went over to a bottle of Scotch and poured some into a paper cup.  I think I began babbling something about how much this had affected me. I didn’t stay long and I don’t remember much more about that moment except to say that these two world famous actors were very kind to this crazy lady who was still under the spell of their profoundly disturbing and inspiring production. 

It’s not hyperbole to say that this play “changed my life.”  The injunction to “take sides” led me to become actively involved in political action around the civil rights struggle that was going on in the South were I lived.  Segregation was being challenged, and I knew that I had to go back to Virginia and do something to help the cause.  I chose to put together a mixed race acting company to perform a Readers Theater production of “In White America,” a docudrama about civil rights issues.  It was intended to instruct as well as open up the conversation about race.  Just traveling together in the same vehicle provoked stares and the occasional rude remark or gesture.  Lunch counters were still segregated in most of the South, so our little group of integrated players had many challenges.  I had to take sides.

I was in graduate school at the time all this happened, and I was making decisions about what to do with my life. This experience of feeling the enormity of theater in Marat/Sade was the cause of my decision to pursue theater as a career. From a meta perspective, I learned that theater could have the power of atomic fusion.  And so strong was my interest in this particular theatrical event that I chose to write my Master’s Thesis on the achievements of Peter Brook, who was then a rising star at age 43.  Peter’s father, Simon Brook kindly invited me to his home to peruse his mountain of scrapbooks with articles about his son.  A link to this ms is at the beginning of this article.

A few years later I met up with Brook at the Roundhouse when he was in the final stages of rehearsing The Tempest.  I made the acquaintance of Yoshi Oida with whom I studied in Paris in the summer of 1984. A few years later I marveled at the magic of Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the spiritual message of his Mahabarata which I saw in LA.

In the nearly half century since I saw Marat/Sade the world has spun on a new axis.  I wonder what we would make of this experience if the play were produced today? I know it still speaks to us.  I have a deep gratitude to Peter Brook for his visionary leadership.   I admire that he has always been a seeker. His work raises the level of the art into the realm of the spirit. 

Thank you, Peter Brook, my own career was inspired by your work.  I am grateful.
With appreciation and respect,

Patricia Ryan Madson

April 21, 2017
El Granada, CA 94018

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

To all teachers of improvisation: some advice

Teaching Improv

“We teach what we most need to learn.”
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by J Bach

In an interview with Hiromachi Kimura, a Japanese improviser and graduate researcher he asked me: “What’s most important when you teach improv?”  Immediately I said  “You must model what you teach.  You need to be improvising as you teach others to do so.  That is, you simply cannot come into a classroom and “execute your syllabus” or “give your lecture.”  You need to be wild-eyed awake.  (Almost like a man just let out of jail) but focused on what needs to be done now. 

Of course you “have some plan” (I’ll teach the necessity of listening well, of attention to the present moment, etc.) but when you show up to lead the lesson you have to be fully awake to everything that is going on . . . the climate in the room, the acoustics and most especially to who is in the room, their expressions, their names, the complete gestalt.  And then you must teach from this reality, not from any premeditated idea of how the lesson should go.

You have to notice everything that is going on, and then you need to follow your impulses and try things.  You have to make mistakes and correct them as you go. You have to show yourself human in the presence of the assembled students.  Your own vulnerability is one of your greatest teaching assets.  Allow yourself to be surprised and even be thrown off guard.

In the spring of 2013 Dan Klein invited me to give a guest lecture at Stanford.  (Well, it’s never really a ‘lecture’ when you teach improv but you share some improv experiences.)  The class was an experiment to see just how large a class you could handle to teach the basic improv experience.  I think there were 90 students in the cavernous room where we billeted that day. The venue was a full court gymnasium with forty-foot ceilings and a basketball court floor.  Imagine the acoustics. We were kindly provided with stacks of metal folding chairs that we all pulled out and arranged and rearranged as we moved from one activity to another. (Improv learning always happens all over the place and rarely in tidy rows of students facing the instructor and a chalkboard.)

To speak with 90 students siting on metal folding chairs in a cavernous room was already a challenge.  After playing a listening game in partners I reassembled the group into a series of seating rows in an oval.  I tried to get all of us as close together as practical so that my voice could actually be heard. I was standing in front telling a story about how True Fiction Magazine (a top end professional improv troupe) would routinely practice repeating long stories back to each other, verbatim, to stretch their memory muscles, when a four inch dragonfly lit on my left arm.  And sat there. It was unexpected and I stopped mid sentence to observe the insect. For what seemed an eternity we all starred in silence at the wonder of this creature and its audacity to interrupt my lecture.  It was a stunning moment. 

A year later a student from that class, a journalist, wrote me a note thanking me for my teaching and he mentioned the incident with the dragonfly.  He reflected that my stopping everything to attend to that little winged fellow taught him more about the value of attention than any encyclopedia or power point.

We must be improvising when we teach.  It’s the only way.  We must trust reality and respond to it freshly.  We must allow insight/inspiration to come through us.  We must model what it is to change course, make discoveries, make mistakes, learn things as we go. When you are teaching/speaking from this vantage point you are alive and open to inspiration.  So, go ahead and make your lesson plan, but then tuck it away in favor of showing up and being there 100%. Remember that you already have what you need.