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?