Improv is a spiritual practice

May 4th, 2011


Yesterday my friends and I went to a quiet pub down the street to hang out. My friend group in Wuhan has retracted and solidified and so I almost always hang out with the same people. The group of us Josh, Marlene and Shanshan, were playing a game. Each of us would have one turn to ask the group a question and then everyone would take turns answering. My question was about your earliest childhood memory. I’d read that this is a question therapists ask to try and see their patients world view, childhood is often where that view is formed and this memory can help a therapist try to see the lens that the patient is using to filter the world.

My memory was not of my parents, (sorry mom and dad), nor my brothers (sorry guys) but my friend Ashley. She was my neighbour when I was four years old. And I remember sitting in her room looking through her dolls trying to find one to take home. The day before, I had given Ashley a very expensive doll that my grandmother had given me for Christmas. It was Ashley’s birthday and so I needed to give her a present. My mom was I think a bit surprised that I had chosen that gift, I did it without her knowing, and she thought I might regret it. So she asked Ashley’s mom if I could have it back, but I didn’t want it back. So instead, I was allowed to choose one of Ashley’s dolls to take home. I remember fingering the doll I had chosen’s face and playing with her woollen hair. She was an Asian style doll with mock silk clothing and straight black horizontal stitches as eyes. I loved her. But I also remember being angry with Ashley. I had asked her if she loved my present the best and she said that she loved all her presents the same. I had given her an expensive doll but the girl down the street had only given her a few drawings. I felt gypped and jealous and only then did I regret the gift.

The next question was “what is your proudest moment”. My friend Marlene didn’t hesitate. It was the moment when she found out that her scientific paper had been published and she was sent to San Francisco to present her findings. Josh took a bit longer but finally said it was when he had been made editor for his school’s newspaper. Then it was Shanshan’s turn.

Shanshan works as an editor for a in-flight magazine in Shanghai. She’s young and fashionable, lives downtown and has free thinking parents that support her in her decisions. As a Chinese girl, she’s made it; she’s one of the lucky ones. But you’d be hard pressed to get her to see it that way. Shanshan hates China. She hates it with a passion. In fact, she often refers to the country as “all of this shit.” She thinks of herself as Western and takes pride in telling stories of the people who confused her for a foreigner.

Shanshan confessed her proudest moment was her graduation from university in the UK where she was the only Chinese person studying her major. She had made it, but since then she said she’s struggled to find that feeling again.

Then it was my turn and though I had the most time to think about it, nothing came to mind. Why was it that when I was trying to think about my successes, all I could think of were the failures that accompanied them? Let me see, was it when I had gotten a lead role in a play at university, no because I messed up my lines and broke character. Was it being selected for French for the Future? No, because I had made so many mistakes in French and never really belonged in Quebec and then of course there was that terrible fiasco with my French teacher in university.

I felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything; I hadn’t done anything really great or even that good and if I had well it wasn’t enough. I stumbled and said I couldn’t think of anything and that it was much easier to see in all the ways I had failed. And then, I saw my friends start to take back what they had said. They said that maybe they weren’t exactly proud and that it wasn’t that great an achievement. And that made me feel even worse. Not only could I not think of a very proud moment in my own life, but my doubt rubbed off on my friends and made them doubt themselves too.

It’s only now that I see the connection between my childhood memory and my lack of a proudest moment. Many of the things I have done in my life have been a means to an end and that end is acknowledgement by others. And those are the things I connect most closely to the failures in my life. You can never get enough acknowledgement. There’s always a critic. And more than that, most people are so busy hoping you acknowledge them to worry about acknowledging you. And the rare times you do get acknowledged something in your brain stops that feeling from truly sinking in. We are taught to be modest and not believe the best about ourselves.  But I like Eckhart Tolle’s theory. The ego is a powerful force and my ego says I am a failure. It’s a great story and she’s sticking to it.

Ironically, (because it is a usually thought as a performance art) improv is one of the few things I did out of true love with no desire to be acknowledged for it at all. In fact, in university, my favourite part of improv was the practices and I seldom participated in the competitions or shows. Improv was always about love of the art for me and the audience just got in the way. But I safeguarded that love, and protected it from being destroyed by not pursuing a career in improv (though it isn’t as if opportunities exactly abound) and somehow keeping it something I did for myself, when I wanted, and having nothing to do with others.

Improv allows me to be present. The ego is silenced and it’s all about living in that moment. The greatest improvisers work with their environment and off their co-improvisers flawlessly; they are truly alive. You don’t live off a script, you can’t plan ahead. You don’t know what’s coming. And that feeling is thrilling.

If only I could do that in life. Why can’t I see life as improvisation? That’s what it is after all. It’s one big long-form sketch. But instead I am tuned out, living in the past, thinking about sketches that didn’t go as planned (as if improv were meant to follow a plan), and not connecting with what is here in the now. Forgetting the beauty and passion of the moment!


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