Taking Your Practice Off the Meditation Cushion with Improv

An unlikely tool for cultivating compassion lies well beyond the meditation cushion. We find it, instead, in improv communities.

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No longer seen as a soft, squishy term gaining traction in sectors from healthcare to the military, Big Tech to Wall Street (yes, Wall Street), compassion is now recognized as critical to building resilience, connection, and joy.

Increasing scientific evidence, thanks to the works of Drs. Thupten Jinpa, Kristin Neff, James Doty, and many others, has shown that compassion has benefits not to be ignored—lower stress responses and symptoms of depression, greater levels of life satisfaction, creativity, and physical health. Compassion is generative. Compassion motivates action.

We also know that compassion can be learned through formal meditation practices and gratitude journaling. These and other evidenced-based tools encourage self-compassion, empathy, non-judgment, capacity to listen, sense of shared humanity, and presence. However, one tool that cultivates compassion lies not on the meditation cushion, but in improv communities.

Everyday Compassion, Everyday Improv

Before you laugh (if you do, it’s OK. Laughing at me just gave you a pinch of endorphins and a dab of dopamine, so enjoy your moment of euphoria), let’s consider the role improv plays in  mindfulness practice—without us even realizing it. From mindfulness workshops in corporate boardrooms to curricula for youth programs on emotional management, mindfulness emphasizes the importance of being present and embracing what and who is in front of us. However, while mindfulness is useful training for improvisers, improvising is still often an underappreciated tool to build compassion. 

Most of us will think, Nope, never, not me—you’ll never catch me improvising on stage. Yet, we improvise every single day.

Deliberate improvisation is not simply about being funny—though our natural awkwardness at being human often makes it so. Improv is the practice of accepting what is, no matter how absurd, and building toward something—together.

Most of us will think, Nope, never, not me—you’ll never catch me improvising on stage. Yet, we improvise every single day. Every moment is an opportunity to tune into your emotional state and from there, how you choose to engage with others. While we can never script how others feel or respond to us, our interactions constantly offer nuggets of information that we can actively respond to. Sometimes, these nuggets are gold. Sometimes, they’re coal. No matter how pleasant or unpleasant the situation, when we accept and build on these gifts, we build compassion for ourselves and others. As Steve Clorfeine notes on the connection between mindfulness and improv, it is about “not knowing and using everything you have to go forward.” 

Similarly, improv and compassion are frequently misunderstood in many of the same ways. Here are just a few:

Common Myths About Improv and Compassion

1. Improv is About the Self

Improv is never about the individual. It requires us to be fully present and in touch with what our scene partners are doing/thinking/feeling. However, improvisers cannot get caught up in a never-ending cycle of emotional mirroring, but have the skill to build toward a memorable scene. Similarly, if we’re not careful, mirroring another person’s pain can lead to burnout and what we know as empathic distress. Compassion builds our discipline to feel and be with what’s present, while motivating us toward action.

2. Improv Doesn’t Require Practice

Improv is not a free-for-all exercise of random emotions and shouting over each other. There are, in fact, “rules” by which to follow. Improvlike compassionis about freedom and growth in discipline. Improvisers spend hours rehearsing together to build connection and trust with one another, and to strengthen the flexibility of mental, verbal, and physical muscles. Likewise, compassion isn’t just born; it requires constant and consistent practice.

3. Improv is All About Verbal Skill

While much of improv plays with verbal dexterity, improv is not simply an exercise in cognition or emotional call-and-response. Rather, it requires full embodiment of the mind, heart, and body. Improvisers must tap inward, be in sync with each other, and create entire new realities as a collective whole. Compassion much the same. As the Dalai Lama says, “True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason.”

Cultivating our improv skills can help us imagine new possibilities for the collective good, and meet uncertainty and fear with greater compassion and awareness.

Improvlike compassionis about fueling connection. Cultivating our improv skills can help us imagine new possibilities for the collective good, and meet uncertainty and fear with greater compassion and awareness. Institutions and systems we once thought were immutable are being shaken to their cores. Improvisational skills can help us find the hope and joy out of even the toughest timesnot to put on rose-colored glasses or avoid, but rather to meet what arises with equanimity, and then to discern how to proceed to serve and build toward the next steps.

Three Mindful Ways to Learn from Improv

1. Find a Moment to Laugh Every Day

Laughter builds connection, from improv exercises to virtual settings to nursing homes. Dani Modisett of Laughter On Call notes that, even when caring for patients with Alzheimer’s, “Not only is it okay to insert humor [but] we believe it is the key to keeping your sanity and connection to others.” Even if the day was heavy, treat yourself to “dessert” with a two-minute cats-doing-silly-things video or calling a friend to share a dad joke. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

2. Let Go and Don’t Overthink

A key benefit of self-compassion practices is reducing ruminationour “coulda-woulda-shoulda” tendency. Improv requires us to let go of the moment that came before. There isn’t time to overthink what you “coulda-woulda-shoulda.” Your job is to stay fully present so you can accept the next offering and keep building. The next time you catch yourself starting to go down a rabbit hole, stay present, and meet yourself with curiosity. Any thought that arises is an opportunity for growth.

3. Yes, And…

By now, many of us are familiar  with using “yes, and…” instead of “either-or.” Like compassion, improv skills build our muscles to turn toward, not away from each other. When we turn toward (even toward those who challenge every fiber of our being), we have greater capacity to be of service for a greater good. When you next find yourself in conversation with someone whose opinions or behaviors challenge you, recall what is important to the relationship, stay fully in it, and utilize “yes, and…” to find even a sliver of commonality.  

Especially during tough times, even the idea of new possibilities is vital to sustaining hope. Using key skills from improv, we can face reality with a belief that there are new ways of thinking, being, and doing. And these skills allow us toeven for a momentfind glimmers of hope and joy.

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