Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Teaching Kindness

Teaching Kindness

An NPR announcer dubbed the 18-35 year old set “Generation C;”  C stands for connected.  Or it could be communication.  For the first time in human history there is an entire demographic who is linked to one another 24/7 through social media and cell phone technology.  One wonders how we ever survived when we would need to wait for days to get a message to one another.  I suspect there are few of the Generation C folks who have participated in a phone tree.  Remember when your church steering committee needed to reach everyone in the congregation? Phone trees allowed me to telephone three people and be assured that a phone call would go out to everyone eventually. Those were the days when we spoke on the telephone instead of texting in the middle of a concert.

 As a teacher of improvisation, I’m aware of the need people have to show up together in the same room and interact in a positive way.  I observe a longing to have a reason to play together, tell stories.  Those of us who teach recognize that this social urge extends beyond play. People want guidance in how to behave.  Improvisation status games teach the consequences of raising yourself above others, shared control games teach cooperation and value people over ideas.  

Here, I believe, improv teachers can assert themselves as moral guides.  In order to improvise collectively we simply must learn to exercise our “muscles of affirmation.”  This means I learn to leave my sarcastic, negative self-centered persona at the door in favor of that part of me which is moderately cheerful, optimistic and ready to support the ideas of others.  I’ve observed that each of us has this capacity: to be kind, useful and nonjudgmental.  We just need some practice (and support) leading with this side of our character. I tell my students that sarcasm and criticism is poison in improv.  There is no payoff in going there.  Why not strengthen our compassionate selves?

The leader of an improv exercise can both model and teach this good-natured way of being together.  Every improv class session is an opportunity to foster this social norm.  I’m convinced that one of the reasons students leave an improv workshop with a “feel good” sense is because we create an environment of good will. You have to love this culture and stand ready to defend it.  Improvising is so much more than a technique for finding innovative solutions, it is a way of learning how to be human together in the best possible light.  So much becomes possible when competition is supplanted by true cooperation.  Teach this.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

David K. Reynolds "Obstacles to Attention"

David K. Reynolds who founded the "Constructive Living" movement has been a generous contributor to the monthly "Constructive Living Newsletter," edited and distributed by Paul Kroner.  This month's issue contained a very useful article by Dr. Reynolds which he titled:  "Obstacles to Attention".  With this permission I share it here.  Thanks for these insights.

From Dr. David K. Reynolds (

ObstaclesWhat interferes with purpose-focused attention? Here is a list of obstacles to constructive activities. They represent a variety of distractions that need to be avoided.

1. Rushing

Doing something in a hurry makes it difficult to attend carefully to purposeful activity.

2. Repetition
Doing the same action many, many times, the routine nature can interfere with the potential newness of an activity.

3. Alternative desires
Thinking of some preferred activity can be a distraction from the present task.

4. Physical condition

When tired or ill or in pain or excited, proper attention to behavior may be disturbed.

5. Laziness

The thought that getting around to doing an irksome task can be troublesome.

6. Environmental distractions

Television sounds, noises in the house or neighborhood, lighting, other people moving about nearby, and the like can interfere.  Also, when the temperature is particularly high or low, it may be difficult to focus on the task at hand.

7. Lack of information

Not knowing how to go about a task properly can be a problem.

8. Worry

Over-concern about the possibility that the task is not going well can be a distraction that compounds the problem of distracted attention.

9. Two tasks at once

Attending to a smart phone while doing something else reduces the quality of attention to both. Watching television while writing a letter can make both activities less than adequate.

10. Cluttered surroundings

A messy environment can hinder focused attention on the task at hand.

11. Daydreaming

Mentally spacing out, of course, interferes with proper attention to tasks at hand.

12. Planning too far ahead

Planning is fine. However, while engaged in some other task, the planning can be a distraction. If planning is necessary, it is better to stop and plan, writing down notes so that you can return to the planning after the task at hand is completed.

13. Preparation interference

When preparing to do a task (e.g., getting out tools, changing clothes, traveling, organizing space) is bothersome, the task becomes harder to do. It can be helpful to think of the preparation itself as a task. Thus, there are two tasks to do. Finishing the preparations is completing a task. Success already. It may be possible to separate the two tasks over time. Two successes whenever the original task is completed. Furthermore, once involved in finishing preparations, it is sometimes quite natural and relatively easy to slide into doing the task immediately.

14. Comparison interference

Comparing a difficult but necessary task with some pleasant, easy, restful alternative throws up an unnecessary barrier. Of course, prioritizing what needs to be done is up to you. However, more useful comparisons are possible, such as what the situation will be like when the task is completed, what rewards are possible after finishing the task, how much more fun is possible in anticipation after completing the task, how satisfied you will feel after the task is done, and so forth. When something needs to be done, do it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

My grandpa Dempsey

September 5, 2018
This is my maternal grandfather, Dempsey Pittman. Seen here in his military uniform in the forties.  He spent his adult life as a coal miner in the small town of Minden, WVA.  Everyday he went down in the mines with his lunch pail.  He died in 1963 of black lung disease from his years of toiling in those mines.
Dempsey could tap dance and play the Banjo. His great grandson Brian Pittman has his banjo as of 2012.  It was said that there was a "black bar" in town in which Dempsey was the only white person who was let in since he could tap dance and play the banjo so well that he would entertain the patrons.  On Labor Day let me remember my grandpa.

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Month of Septembers: Right Here, Right Now

A Month of Septembers: Right Here, Right Now

"A Month of Septembers” RightHere, Right Now
(For a month every day)

September 20, 2018. The sound of someone hammering. I sliced the homemade bread too thick this morning but I’m glad to finish the Meyer lemon marmalade.  There will be some quiet time when Ron goes over the hill to meet the basketball guys for coffee. I need to message Karen to see if they are on for Sunday. I’ll make Shepherds Pie.  Make a list of games to play on Saturday. Do this first thing. Writing feels hard this morning.

 September 19, 2018 2:55pm.  Reading Maya and friends’ entries for today. I too read the Anita Hill NYT editorial. She’s a wise women. But all over the news is the pushback from the men. I wish there was something I could do. I also just made deviled eggs for lunch. I’m envious of homemade mayonnaise. In order to record my teaching and prep time for Peninsula Bridge I needed to download an app. Where were we before apps.  Apparently my email copy of my W9 was not readable as a .jpeg. Gorgeous clear weather. Ron taking advantage to run Mt Montana. An Arnold Palmer. Quiet in the house.

         September 18, 2018. 10:00am.
         Maya’s lament about a grumpy, sullen teenager strikes a cord this morning.   Just spent 10 minutes with Ron trying to figure out why NO matter what we     do his events and my events don’t end up on each other’s calendars. When I check I have 14 different calendars on my Ipad app. Aaaaaaarg. Technology is mind numbing. I must look out at nature. The astonishing Etegami        created by a new found friend in Saudi Arabia which included a drawing of a fish and the quote: “ What is essential is invisible to the eye.” A scary moment when I had no short term memory of having eaten a peach this          morning. Ron assured me I had eaten it. Wishing deeply for some rain. So    strange to see the endless images of the hurricane on the east coast and look    out at our parched California landscape. Want rain so much. Tuesday is       trash night. Fears flash when I think of having to teach teenagers again on    Saturday. Maya, how do you do it?

         September 16 11:00am
         Getting the house baby-ready. I’m so lucky Ron does so much to help. I’m    still reeling a bit from a whole day in a cavernous gymnasium with 60   teenagers attempting to lead improv games. I’ve never felt this old before.     How is it possible to have such expressions of deep boredom and distain?        Their faces were emotionless as if to show any kind of enthusiasm would boot them out of the tribe. Are ALL teens this unhappy? The only thing all   day they seemed to care about was the pizza at lunch. Nothing I tried seemed to please or excite them. When I told everyone “There’s a wrapped gift package sitting on the floor in front of you. Pick it up.” More than half of them (the boys especially) mumbled something like: “I haven’t got anything.” (Or some variant of ARE YOU NUTS?) I was completely stumped over   how to handle this improv mutiny. I felt so old and helpless and sad for the    teens of this world.  

September 14. 9:14am The weather channel appears to be working hard to find newsworthy moments in Florence’s ongoing story.  Weird how the lack of disaster images feels like a letdown.  Relieved and grateful that from what I’ve heard so far “the catastrophe” isn’t exactly that . . .yet, perhaps.  Wishing some of that over abundance of rain could make its way to California.  Cinnamon oatmeal with sautéed bananas this morning.  So great to eat, a pain to wash up the pots and frying pan.  Friday is vacuuming day at our house. It’s Emily and Reid’s anniversary. I finished the tribute for Jeremy and emailed it to Stephen. The celebration of his life is somewhere in Canada.

         September 11, 2018 We we’re actually IN Manhattan on THE day. Ron      was running in Central Park and I was in an uptown hotel room watching         the Towers go down in real time. As I sit now in the comfort and serenity of my California home looking out on the Pacific I sink into that memory. We        were en route to our niece Emily’s wedding. The wedding went forward but        we were all changed. I just sent an email to Emily. A clear sunbeam lights onthe white couch. The old clock ticks. I am grateful for this life.

September 10, 2018.  5:30pm.    How satisfying to set up an exhibition of Etegami art at the SENIOR Center today in Half Moon Bay.  Ron helped so much by making the little wooden holders.  We went to JOES for lunch. Minestrone.  The new crockpot is easy to use because you can brown the meat on the stove before the slow cook part. My mother’s Spagetti sauce recipe continues to be delicious.  I was surprised to learn that the version of my book isn’t compatible with the library’s format.  Seems my contract with ACX gives them exclusive rights.  The customer rep is checking to see if I can change the contract after four years.  I must not forget to show up to a Zoom online meeting at 6:30.  I love the feeling of cool air blowing on my neck. On October 10 the Stanford Authors club is discussing Improv Wisdom. I’ll go to sign books.

September 8, 2018 8:30pm  
My preferred way to watch Stanford football is from the recline-lounger.  Ron, on the other hand, just LOVES being at the games. All the noise and excitation and lousy hotdogs.  There’s a timeout now and the ads are selling more sports on the Fox networks. Stanford is ahead 17-3.  Miso soup with noodles and a couple of my killer oatmeal chocolate chip, caramel chip cookies.  At the library today I was listening to the Michael Pollen book, How to Change Your Mind, thanks to Gary who sent me the audiobook on a USB drive.  Oh, and Lisa DID get the book, The Secret Life of Clownswhile she was at camp.  Thanks to the Canadian post. 

September 7, 2018 8:45am  
On my Facebook feed I’m reminded that four years ago today I watched the delightful movie Saving Mr Banks with Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.  Yesterday I borrowed the same DVD from the library and watched it thinking it was for the first time.  The blackberries I enjoyed on my bran flakes this morning were so large that I had to cut them in half.  Monster berries.  The phone call with Marion about teaching was changed until 2:00pm today. It was done by an automated system that informed me and my calendar.  I remember the good old days when you just made a phone call, you didn’t need an appointment.  What a world.

September 6, 2018  9:30pm   The film about the life of Emily Dickinson was a heartbreaking story.  Her loneliness was profound. I wonder what she would think of her fame almost two centuries later? A long telephone conversation with a very old friend with whom I’ve been disconnected.  She and her husband both have been struggling with health issues. A lunch with another friend living with cancer and recent eye surgery. Amid all this suffering these friends are still positive and optimistic. All of these folks including me are in our 70’s. The Buddha taught that we shall all face old age, disease and death finally. Thinking all this doesn’t feel morbid. I feel grateful for this life and these friends.

         September 5, 2018
         Right here, right now 3:00Pm
         The Quiet Room in our new Half Moon Bay Library is my new favorite       special place to work and be. Some wise person designed windows that open    in this room so that not only can we enjoy the natural light we can also feel   the cool coastal air.  It’s rare in public buildings to have open windows.  
         One of our oldest and most precious friends, Jeremy Brown, aged 84, died    recently.  Yesterday would have been his birthday.  I’ve heard tell that the         Buddhist say that if you die on or very near your birthday it means that you have completed your life, having lived it fully and in a perfect cycle.  Certainly, Jeremy was someone who lived that fullness on every front. This    morning I took part in a webcam meeting of a group called “The Briar         patch” This gaggle of old hippies formed nearly three decades ago was         devoted to right livelihood.  Until you’re in a “quiet room” you don’t rightly         notice how noisy laptop keyboards are.   The carpet design is a grey    background with white angular splotches.  I will enjoy some Earl Grey tea when I get home.  

         September 4. Right here, right now. 
         A Facebook friend suggests we write a book together titled “Grandparent      Improv Wisdom”, the boiled egg 🍳was perfect this morning although I need to remember that a piece of the walnut pumpkin bread is stuck in the    toaster.  Will’s surgery appointment tomorrow is rescheduled to a chilly 6:30    am. The house is especially quiet and the clock sounds seem exaggerated right now.  My back aches just a little, probably need to stretch.  Ron was     just reading that Jane Stanford limited the number of women to 500 in 1899, fearful that Stanford might become the “Vassar Of the West”. That was changed in 1933.

         Day 3   September 3, 2018 “Right here, right now” 11:20am
         Smiling over our Sunday gift of being with Christian, the new grandchild.     We are learning how to be Grandparents. It never occurred to me that this is a learning curve. The German Swiss Cheese Mac and Cheese with hot sausage was a big hit, albeit an over the top fatty choice. Sometimes it's great to fill up with fats and carbs. I was heartened to see the boy pick up real objects (paper cups, cracker boxes, spoons, water bottles) instead of the shiny plastic toys designed to dazzle and attract attention. What fun to speculate on what these early choices mean. "Looks like we've got a young engineer on our hands!" After they left returning to our normal retirement house.   Amazing how swiftly Ron can clean up the paraphernalia of kiddo-ness.

         Day 2 
         September 2, 2018  9:45am
         Grey LLBean worn slippers.  Looking down onto my feet propped up.  Ron sitting in his morning perch trolling Facebook. The occasional audio from a       post blaring. The Audubon clock tweeting a bird call on the hour.  The taste of the Farmers Market walnut/pumpkin bread with last months Meyer         lemon marmalade.  Sunday, “change the sheets day” at our house.  I picked      the 10-year-old floral jersey sheets softer than a baby’s butt from a decade of       laundry.  Thinking about 10-month-old Christian coming over for Sunday    dinner after church.  The sound of the washing machine tumbling the beige   sheets we’ve slept on all last week.  Looking forward to a favorite weekly        ritual when I fold the just laundered sheets and put them away. Ron’s newly         fixed family heirloom Scandinavian clock ticking softly. Quiet joy before the        shrieks of the grandchild arrives.

         Day 1 September 1, 2018
         On this day, Maya Rachel Stein, the poet, and my Facebook friend invited   us to join her in a thirty-day writing challenge. It’s called “Right here, Right now” and the idea is to stop for moment at any time and to record your          present experience.  No rules on what to include.  Just a quick check in with your world. Maya is posting these and I’ve decided to join her.  My first        actual day doing this is on September 2 and my first post is below.  Here’s to noticing and writing.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Art for All: Etegami

I was invited to write an article for the journal Thirty Thousand Days, a quarterly publication of the ToDo Institute in Vermont.  If you'd like to view my Etegami I have them posted on  If you like this article you might enjoy joining the ToDo Institute. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Late for the Train

Late for the Train, an essay on selfishness

by Patricia Ryan Madson

When a student called that morning to reschedule his appointment it offered me a window of time that I hadn't counted on.  Mentally running over my list of "What needs to be done today" I remembered that I had promised my husband that I would retrieve some IRS forms from the Federal Building downtown.  Normally I drive everywhere, but because of this gift of extra time I decided I would combine two purposes: pick up the forms and learn something about the public transportation system in our area.   We had just moved to a neighborhood with great access to public transport.  It made sense to learn how to get around on it.  I had picked up a tram schedule at the library but hadn't bothered to consult it before leaving the house.

I knew where the electric car stopped on a platform in the middle of Ocean Avenue.  As the street came in sight the "K" cable car was already approaching.  Several dozen passengers were waiting to board.  
"Only two blocks away.  I think I can make it," I thought.  I set off running fast.  I arrived at the sidewalk directly across from the stop just as the last passenger was boarding.  The driver saw me and knew I wanted to board, but the light changed and a stream of motor traffic now moved between us.  I motioned to the cable car driver to stop, but there was no break in the traffic.  Finally, the driver glided away leaving me standing on the sidewalk flushed and disappointed and angry.  Neither the automobile traffic nor the cable car driver had stopped for me.  "After I ran all that way it wasn't fair that the driver didn't wait!"  I grumbled to myself.

When it was safe I finally crossed to the median strip and stood there flush with all my "stuff" about this moment.  My hear pounded, lungs pumped from the run and the frustration.  A big deal.  Or was it?

After noticing this self righteous monologue I began to think of Constructive Living's three reflections on what I have received, what I have given, and what trouble and bother I have caused in these moments.  Immediately the third theme demanded attention.  I was the one causing trouble in this situation.  By being late for the tram and insisting on boarding anyway I had inconvenienced the driver.  Indeed, he had actually paused longer than required to give me a chance.  I had troubled automobile drivers as I pranced and waved trying to get them to stop so I could get across the street.  Furthermore, I had inconvenienced all the other passengers who had been on time and were already aboard.  This new perspective took the wind out of my sails.

I became sharply aware of the tenacious way in which I cling to the notion that whatever I am doing is proper and anything that impedes my progress is the problem.  Stopping to ask the Constructive Living questions borrowed from Naikan allows me to see that my personal needs and goals are just one part of a larger reality.  So viewed I become one of the supporting characters in Reality's play.  Without this view life is no more than an endless monologue titled "The World According to My Desires."  Constructive Living reflection helps me drop that adolescent and selfishly simple misconception.  Situations are complex and rich with others' desires as well as mine.

Taking a clear look at my ongoing selfishness is a bitter but instructive experience.  The truth is that I AM selfish.  Acknowledging that specific moment of my wanting ALL traffic to stop for ME and Everyone to wait for ME to board the bus is part of my practice of CL.  I have little expectation that I will ever extinguish my selfish impulses.  Perhaps with CL's Naikan reflection I shall see them more clearly and save myself time and energy repeating stories of how the world has troubled me.  This practice allows me more time to "smell the roses" and the pumpernickel bread and the exhaust fumes from the buses and cable cars that serve me every day.  Perhaps next time I'll check the tram schedule that the public library provided for me free.  Then I can arrive at the stop in time to notice the expressions on the drivers' faces and the colors of the passengers' clothing.

Written in 1999

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Penn State Walk

The Penn State Walk

My second university teaching job was at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. As an Assistant Professor in Theatre Arts I had a lot on my plate.  I remember one particular stressful day in the fall of my second-year teaching in 1976.  It was just after a fast lunch in the school cafeteria and I was walking at a rapid clip across the campus rushing to the Theatre Arts Building for my three oclock class.  I was in high gear.  My mind was racing with a growing sense of panic.  The inner monologue was something like this: And when I get to the office Id better photocopy the class exercise sheets, and then after the Voice class I have to go to rehearsal until 9:00 PM, and then I have to pick up the dry cleaning before it closes, and then I have to drop off the books at the library, and then I have to be sure to remember to call Ellen about tomorrows lecture, and then I have to get gas, and then...” My mind became a demon date book’ barking at me.  As my frustration mounted I tripped slightly on the path and all of sudden I heard a voice inside my head, speaking quite calmly, clearly and resonantly: Patricia, PATRICIA, did you know that all you have to do right now actually is walk to the Theatre Arts building? That is all you have to do.  So, why not just do that?   (My memory is that this was the voice of God speaking.)

Thats true, I thought.  All I can do right now is walk to the building.  I cant actually do the photocopying or any of the other tasks I was listing in my litany of things I had to do.’  All I can do right now is walk.  Why not do that really well?  Just walk to class. 

It was as if I had woken up suddenly.  I slowed down and began looking around at the colorful fall maples which lined the path abundantly.  What lovely trees! As I walked I noticed the beauty of the campus, I felt the crisp fall air brush my cheeks, I noticed the other people on the path, all hurrying, too. All at once I was simply living that walk.  All I had to do at that moment was walk to my office.  That was forty-two years ago.  I can still remember the color of the leaves and the warmth of the sun on that walk.

The lesson here is to remind yourself to do just what is in front of you now.  Brian Lohmann, founder of Pulp Playhouse, told me once: "I try and slow down time when I come on stage."  It’s important to avoid the panicky, frenzied state that overtakes new improvisers in particular.  Instead of being in a hurry (to contribute something) the players should take on what appears to be a relaxed watchfulness.  From that alert state they are free to join in or wait, whatever is needed.  There is a quality to the attention that is very ordinary.  It is, of course, extraordinary, however, to call up this everyday mind in front of an audience.  William Hall, a master improviser and teacher, reminds us that a trade secret to successful stage improvisation is to breathe. And keep breathing.

I've noticed that everything around me seems to be speeding up these days.  But I can choose another way.  
Problem: Not enough time?
            Solution: There is.  Slow down. Breathe.  And just do the thing you are doing . . .well.

El Granada, CA
June 16, 2018

Monday, June 11, 2018

Was the Buddha an Improviser?

I think he was.  In fact, I’ll argue that Shakyamuni may have been the first improviser.  Not the first comedian (although by all reports he had a good sense of humor) but among the first humans who came to perfect attitudes and behaviors that are central to the practice of improvising.  

I’m not a Buddhist scholar. I’m more of a Buddhist dilettante, having sampled Zen, Pureland, and several Tibetan forms.  I never met a religion that I didn’t like, and I’ve been keen to explore both the philosophy and the practices of the many incarnations of the Buddha way.  I’ve chanted “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” andNamo Amitabha Bu,sat Naikan practice in a Japanese Zen temple in Kuwana, spent a week at a Vipassana retreat in rural Japan observing the sensations in my body; I’ve attempted the rigors of Zazen and have gotten lost in the intricacies of a Tibetan visualization in a monastery in Nepal.  Alas, I have not been faithful to any of these fine practices, although I went a step farther than simply reading about them.  It’s true, I lack credentials on things Buddhist.

What I do know something about is what it means to improvise and how improvisation works.  I wrote a book about it:  Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up.I came to this work/play out of desperation.  I was hired to lead the Acting Program in Stanford’s Department of Drama (during the Punic Wars or sometime in 1977).  My students were incredibly bright men and women who could produce on cue whatever the director demanded.  They were champs at “giving you the right answer.”  What they lacked was the ability or reflex to access their own voices.  “What do youthink/feel about your character?” often produced a deer-in-the-headlights look.  To help these students I needed strategies for entering the creative zone.

Enter improvisation.

During a tai chi workshop with Chungliang Al HuangI was introduced to Keith Johnstone, the Canadian “father” of modern improvisation theory and practice. His brilliant book, IMPRO, (and his teaching) hooked me.  I discovered that one could learnto improvise.  There were rules and guidelines.  When I followed these improv maxims I could bypass the natural habit of planning everything in advance or looking for the “right answer.”  Instead, improv training taught me to start where I am, look around and make sense out of the moment.  (Does that sound like mindfulness?)   “A good improviser is someone who is awake, not entirely self-focused, and moved by a desire to do something useful and give something back and who acts upon this impulse.” (p. 15 Improv Wisdom) Isn’t improvisation what we are doing most of the time?  Yes, likely we are, if we are really paying attention.    

Improvisation is founded on two principles that feature prominently in the Buddhist perspective: Impermanence and interdependence.  The fact of groundlessness and constant change is a given in improv.  Eternal instability: that is our playing field.  The improviser practices her art on her feet with others.  We learn that we aren’t in this alone.  We need and depend upon our fellow improvisers.  Only stand-up comics go it alone.  Improvisers look to their fellows for help, inspiration, ideas and fuel. Improv training is a form of meditation in action.   

So what are the principles that guide an improviser?  I’ll call them the Five A’s of Improv

1.    Attention
2.    Affirmation
3.    Acceptance
4.    Appreciation
5.    Action

In order to move forward without a plan we must first pay attention to what is actually going on. And isn’t this what meditation is all about?  Meditation always starts with attention.   You stay on your cushion and attend to the reality of your situation.  Sometimes there is an object of attention such as a mantra or the breath.  And as we try to keep our mind focused on this object we discover the tendency we all have to hop all over the place.  If we stay on the cushion we may find a way to return again and again to that object.  We discover how to outwit or coexist with our propensity to be distracted. 

When we step up to an improvisation our “job” is to notice everything that is going on: what our partner just said and did and the expression on her face as well as anything else that may be in our peripheral vision.  The immediate past is also part of the picture.  Then from this information we craft a story and place ourselves in it.  “What is needed now?” becomes my mantra.  The onstage player, pantomiming opening a newspaper, calls out:  “Honey!!!” and I come on stage as his wife, placing my hand on his shoulder, “Yes, dear?”   

If attention starts the ball rolling, then AFFIRMATION keeps it moving.  I need to say YES to whatever is going on in order to join it. Affirming does not necessarily mean liking or approving of the scene, but it does mean saying yes to the basic premise and building upon what is known. The universal law of improv is YES-AND.  This brings us to improv principle #3:  ACCEPTANCE.  I must accept the reality that is happening.  I must look realistically at the scene and join it, accepting all that is known.  It’s not my job to change this into something I’d prefer.  I can work, however, to move the known scene in an interesting direction. As I accept the situation my job is to add something useful to move the scene forward. The next player in turn must accept my offer . . . and so on.

The fourth A is APPRECIATION.  Improvisers know that the glass is never empty.  “There is always something in the box” is their credo. When I look around with the eye of appreciation I begin to see that there is a gas fireplace warming me now, that an Ikea chair is caressing my butt and supporting my back, a painted ceramic mug holds the dregs of my tea, sunlight is casting light on the keyboard, prescription glasses focus my vision and turn the blur into clear words. A word processor holds this writing and a Mac laptop stores this essay.  Appreciation warms my world.  I am able to see even disagreeable things as “offers” . . . something to work with.  

When we improvise we never take time to “come up with a good idea.” Life is too short.  Instead, we take whatever idea is in front of us (that something in the box above) and make something artful with it.  Everythingthat comes my way, that happens to me (pleasant or un . . ) is grist for the mill: an opportunity to advance the story of my life.  “What can I make of this?” becomes the operating question.  Notice the utility of this question as opposed to: “How do I like this?”  We simply turn off the LIKE button and don’t ask the question.  We don’t permit our preferences to push us around. 

Finally the fifth A is ACTION.  The improviser always starts before he is ready.  Ready, fire, aim.  Until we get going and have our bodies engaged in the flow of reality we simply don’t have enough to go on.  By stepping into the river we discover its temperature, the speed of the current, if and where there are rocks and who else is in the water.  The truth here is that we simply don’t have time for theoretical speculation.Deciding is not an option. After stepping we know exactly what the temperature is and so on.  NOW we are engaged in life and follow what needs to be done.  Cross the river?  Fish? Gather stones for a garden wall? Cool our toes from a humid day?  Take samples of the water for chemical analysis?  Notice how the action of stepping into the water (without a plan) produces a myriad of possibilities.  Improvisation teaches us the wisdom of action.  The Buddhist notion of Right Action comes to mind.  

The tenets of the Buddha way and the maxims of improvisation share similarities.  Both invite us to show up, stand up and engage with the world in a constructive manner.  Both involve waking up from the slumber of our preoccupation and getting involved with the everyday work of living.  Great improvisers are generous folks.  They listen, build upon what you are saying and always “make their partner look good.” 

In a recent NPR interview the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield mused about the rise of the collective community as leader over the hierarchical Guru system of the past. “Community is the new Buddha,” he said. Perhaps there is mistrust of a single person to embody the wisdom necessary to provide guidance to those studying the Buddha’s path.  Instead of a single teacher, the community may regulate, teach and inspire. Some suggest that the Sangha has replaced the need for an omniscient leader.  We see this in the way social media is functioning: giving advice, helping an individual to correct a view or a behavior.  If the collective whole of the Sangha is now the bedrock of sanity and wisdom, then advice which helps us cooperate and collaborate is important.  Improv can do this.

The study of improvisation teaches us a way to be together, a method of cooperating in order to create the stories of our lives.  Improv guides us to set our personal preferences aside in favor of the greater good . . . the story that is emerging moment by moment on stage.  When Shakymuni stood up and took his first steps he was entering his first improvisation.  He said yes to life.  John Tarrant proclaimed: “Improv has become a wisdom tradition of its own.”  Hanging out with a gaggle of improvisers might be a good way to strengthen your practice.  I really do think that the Buddha was an improviser.  Wouldn’t you like to be on stage with him?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Changing what we notice

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?

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Improv Tips for Sales

One of the deep pleasures of having written a book (IMPROV WISDOM: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up) is that I am often invited into the living rooms of Podcasters.  Recently I was invited by Taylor Loht to join him in a conversation about improvising and sales.  Taylor is a lively host and I thoroughly enjoyed our talk.  An improv mindset can be applied to many topics.  I think we came up with some pretty good advice for anyone involved in sales.  Click on this link to have a listen:  Taylor Loht's Seven Figure Sales Podcast INTERVIEW with Patricia Ryan Madson