Life as an Improvisational Practice

8 x 8 acrylic on canvas

8 x 8 acrylic on canvas

For a long time, now, I’ve thought of creative practices and spiritual practices as two methods of accessing the same expansive human potential, with that potential often called a variety of things including connection, magic, love, purpose, divinity, self-actualization, transcendence, wholeness, intuition, and many other names. In part, I came to this view as a result of studying yoga philosophy alongside social dance. During those years, I began to see my teaching of dance not merely as a transfer of skills, but also as a way of supporting others in their desire to increase connection and magic in their lives, however they might name it.

Funny thing, once those two things are linked in my mind, I started to see other parallels as well: family, sports, nature, service, activism, conversation, sex, religion. Are not all of these also ways that humans seek transcendence, purpose, or love? As I shifted away from dance, it became become more obvious to add these and many more activities to the list of ways that we all seek to expand and grow, so many that I have lost track.

These days, working as an empowerment coach, I am seeing life itself as the practice. Whatever we are doing, we have a choice in how we show up. It’s not always easy - in fact, often it’s very difficult, but we always have the opportunity to assign meaning and choose our own reaction, every second of every day. This inclusive view of life as practice has helped me resolve old conflicts and questions around organized religion, and to develop a broader understanding of spirituality that is not separate from “life,” but that IS life. That is, if we choose to make it so.

For the past few months I’ve been playing in a band, a kirtan band, to be precise. Kirtan is a devotional aspect of the yoga tradition, in which the leader and the assembled group sing lines of melodic chanting back and forth in a call and response format. The kirtan chants are sacred Names in the Hindu tradition, each of which represents an aspirational quality (love, compassion, creativity, consciousness). I love kirtan because it has that magical (for me) element of improvisation in which no one really knows what will happen next, not even the lead singer.

The central experience of improvisation, whether in dance, kirtan, or coaching, is the dialogue with the unknown. It’s intentionally putting yourself in a position where you don’t know what’s coming, and where you must act anyway. I can’t think of better life skills training, and I wish our public education system included robust training in improvisation at every level. Knowing things will be constantly changing, you must be prepared to act in the moment in an appropriate way, where “appropriate” is defined as whatever moves the plot forward. In theater improvisation, the first rule is say yes, and accept whatever your partner offers as truth. Imagine if we took this approach to life? Whatever happens, accept its existence and respond to it accordingly.

Sounds straightforward, but we actually don’t do that most of the time. We spend endless hours wishing our lives were different, that we’d taken that road instead of this one. We compare our stuff to others’ stuff. We judge ourselves harshly. We freeze and do nothing. There are strong emotional reasons that we get stuck in these unpleasant cul-de-sacs of behavior. It’s a massive effort to get ourselves out of negative patterns, which is why I find empowerment coaching so fascinating as a practice.

Many forms of improvisation bring two or more people into dialogue with the unknown as collaborators, and that is where the real magic happens. A social dance partnership is, perhaps, the clearest example of this, in which each role performs a set of actions precisely matched to complement the other.  Coaching is another such improvisational collaboration. Like social dance, the most successful work occurs when both partners know the techniques but let themselves enter into a dialogue with the unknown together.

A challenge for you: Try taking an improvisational approach in your next creative conversation, whether at work and at home. What might happen if you gave yourself permission not to know the answer yet? To wander a little way into the unknown with your partner and allow the discovery process to bring you fresh insight? Let me know how it goes, and leave your observations in the comments.