Webster’s Dictionary defines Mindfulness as The practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. I define mindfulness as the Practice of Presence. When you are consciously or subconsciously fully present and aware within a moment or yourself, you are mindful.
There are many mindful practice types – from guided meditation to breathing exercises and even actual exercise (looking at you yogis). Improv, however, was not an activity that I considered a mindful practice until a short while ago. Looking back on my experience thus far, improvising has perhaps been the most effective and rewarding practice in presence.
To this day, I’m not entirely sure what made me take that level one class back in the summer of 2018. I think I saw it as a challenge to overcome and a way to foster leadership and public speaking skills. I only now realize the deep connection that exsits between the discipline needed for improv and what’s required to maintain a healthy practice of presence.
In improv, there are three basic tenets;
- Yes, And – This philosophy is what makes improv work the way it does; as an active participant in the scene, you are continually listening and accepting the scene set by you and your partners. Everything is a gift to expand upon, not to disagree or counter.
- Statements – Make statements, don’t ask questions. Questions aren’t worthwhile, they create stale scenes that don’t go anywhere, and when you have maybe less than 3 minutes to make today the day you ___, you just need to get there.
- No Mistakes – There’s no time to ruminate in your thoughts or analyze them when you’re on stage. What comes to you first is what matters and means the most. Go with it, because your first thoughts are your best thoughts.
Those three basic tenets align with mindfulness in that ultimately, behind the intricate dynamics of storytelling and humor, lies a framework of intense discipline in presence. On that stage, my partner is the most crucial person in the world, the story we’re both are creating is the most important story we’ve ever told, and my feelings are the most substantial feelings I’ve ever had. All because I am fully present at that moment.
When I first started learning, there was a simple joy in just learning something new and getting a taste of creative imagination. As the weeks went by and we honed in on what makes excellent improv work, it became much more of a mental workout. During a short-form scene, there isn’t room to critically analyze 20 different scene outcomes before deciding the best one. You have to thoroughly listen to your partner who may have just handed you a golden nugget of detail that changes the course of all of those outcomes and be ready to give them a golden nugget in return so you can both take the scene forward.
I know it sounds as if this is the opposite of what mindfulness is, but in my opinion, this act of actively listening and being a part of the environment is one of the best presence-building workouts. You’re training your mind not to overthink, overanalyze, or ruminate – you’re going with what feels most natural. You’ve left the thoughts about what you’re going to eat that night or the meaning of life at the door and are letting your mind know that you’re in charge today.
Here’s another thought – as children, we became so immensely immersed in the games we conjured up, it took forever for someone to break your character. If you were an astronaut on your way to the moon, it didn’t matter if the rocketship was a cardboard box or your bedsheets; you were present in that story that your mind continued to weave. It took an immense amount of creative discipline to be that astronaut, no matter what reality was around you. Being able to create new stories collaboratively leads us back into that creative discipline as we make up an entire world to be engaged in on stage.
Whether you’ve read this far or have skipped to the bottom – improv as a mindfulness practice has its merits. At the core, what I’ve discovered for myself is that being fully present when I am on a stage is just as if I was in my backyard being powerfully present inside the cardboard rocket on its way to Pluto.
The challenge to maintain a discipline of creativity and presence that was once so seemingly easy has become less challenging through continued practices in mindfulness – especially through improv. These crucial skills aren’t just for the stage; they carry over into ‘adulting’ – innovating and presenting at work, leading with courageous vulnerability and heart, interacting in social gatherings, and ultimately living every moment fully. That’s presence.
For background: I’ve been practicing mindfulness in one way or another since my freshman year of college (2013). I started learning and practicing improv at ComedySportz Houston in the summer of 2018. This not an advocation of improv or mindfulness to treat any medical conditions; I’m not qualified to make those recommendations. However, it is an advocation to think of mindfulness as more than just meditation or breathing – think of it as your cardboard rocketship in the backyard. Thanks to Stuart Nelson from The Institute for Spirituality and Health for his time discussing this topic.