Anima Learning http://animalearning.com Insights & inquiries for inspired learning Fri, 16 Jun 2017 01:43:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8 Stanford-trained improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend the “monster baby,” that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived. Visit http://monsterbabypodcast.com for more information. Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland ted@animalearning.com ted@animalearning.com (Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland) Anima Learning and Lisa Rowland A Curious Romp Through the Worlds of Mindfulness and Improvisation Anima Learning http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/MonsterBabyLogo.jpg http://animalearning.com TV-14 76618019 Monster Baby #27 Speaking of Spirituality or Why Lisa Might Be Going to Hell http://animalearning.com/2017/06/15/monster-baby-27-speaking-spirituality-lisa-might-going-hell/ Fri, 16 Jun 2017 01:40:59 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=4034 What’s spirituality got to do with it anyway? Ted and Lisa take on the thorny task of exploring the realms of spirit and what they have to do with mindfulness and improv. Lisa starts by explaining the Double Bounce Theory and why her coffee and exercise routine might play out in the episode (2:50). Ted [more…]

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What’s spirituality got to do with it anyway? Ted and Lisa take on the thorny task of exploring the realms of spirit and what they have to do with mindfulness and improv. Lisa starts by explaining the Double Bounce Theory and why her coffee and exercise routine might play out in the episode (2:50). Ted shares his individually designed spiritual background (5:03) and Lisa explains how as a kid she thought she might be going to Hell (10:49). The two get into notions of unity and interdependence (18:00) and take a stab at defining the word “spirituality” (22:29). They wonder if improv and humor qualify as religions or even as spiritual practices (27:04) and consider whether it matters what words we use (34:15). Both ask where improv “magic” comes from (40:13) and how they might raise kids if they had ‘em (49:11). Lisa tries to find a new word for spirituality and wonders whether “Reality” might work (52:13) and Ted raises his nervousness about appearing “woo woo.” (55:57) The pair bring the episode to a close by wondering if improv and mindfulness automatically shape us in a spiritual direction (1:01:55).
As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!

To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

The post Monster Baby #27 Speaking of Spirituality or Why Lisa Might Be Going to Hell appeared first on Anima Learning.

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What’s spirituality got to do with it anyway? Ted and Lisa take on the thorny task of exploring the realms of spirit and what they have to do with mindfulness and improv. Lisa starts by explaining the Double Bounce Theory and why her coffee and exercis... What’s spirituality got to do with it anyway? Ted and Lisa take on the thorny task of exploring the realms of spirit and what they have to do with mindfulness and improv. Lisa starts by explaining the Double Bounce Theory and why her coffee and exercise routine might play out in the episode (2:50). Ted shares his individually designed spiritual background (5:03) and Lisa explains how as a kid she thought she might be going to Hell (10:49). The two get into notions of unity and interdependence (18:00) and take a stab at defining the word “spirituality” (22:29). They wonder if improv and humor qualify as religions or even as spiritual practices (27:04) and consider whether it matters what words we use (34:15). Both ask where improv “magic” comes from (40:13) and how they might raise kids if they had ‘em (49:11). Lisa tries to find a new word for spirituality and wonders whether “Reality” might work (52:13) and Ted raises his nervousness about appearing “woo woo.” (55:57) The pair bring the episode to a close by wondering if improv and mindfulness automatically shape us in a spiritual direction (1:01:55). Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 1:06:11 4034
Monster Baby #26 Isn’t That Curious? http://animalearning.com/2017/06/05/monster-baby-26-isnt-curious/ Mon, 05 Jun 2017 18:05:14 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=4027 Ted and Lisa get curious about curiosity in Monster Baby Episode #26! They laugh their way through the opening challenge of a few Line-at-a-Time Limericks (1:48) and then enter their topic in earnest around the five-minute mark (5:29). They ask whether curiosity is fundamental to effective improv even though most teachers don’t talk about it [more…]

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Ted and Lisa get curious about curiosity in Monster Baby Episode #26! They laugh their way through the opening challenge of a few Line-at-a-Time Limericks (1:48) and then enter their topic in earnest around the five-minute mark (5:29). They ask whether curiosity is fundamental to effective improv even though most teachers don’t talk about it explicitly (7:45) and then muse on the virtuous cycle of noticing and accepting (10:25). Lisa considers whether it’s possible to be both hostile and curious (15:28) and the two compare their relative skill with curiosity in regular life (21:18). Lisa brings in the example of the Beautiful Anonymous podcast and Ted wonders if it’s easier to be curious with strangers (26:31) before they together explore Advance-Color-Emotion and other improv exercises that can be played in “stealth mode” (34:56). They close by discussing the benefits about getting curious about others’ curiousness—and by turning that lens on themselves (42:33).
As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!

To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

The post Monster Baby #26 Isn’t That Curious? appeared first on Anima Learning.

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Ted and Lisa get curious about curiosity in Monster Baby Episode #26! They laugh their way through the opening challenge of a few Line-at-a-Time Limericks (1:48) and then enter their topic in earnest around the five-minute mark (5:29). Ted and Lisa get curious about curiosity in Monster Baby Episode #26! They laugh their way through the opening challenge of a few Line-at-a-Time Limericks (1:48) and then enter their topic in earnest around the five-minute mark (5:29). They ask whether curiosity is fundamental to effective improv even though most teachers don’t talk about it explicitly (7:45) and then muse on the virtuous cycle of noticing and accepting (10:25). Lisa considers whether it’s possible to be both hostile and curious (15:28) and the two compare their relative skill with curiosity in regular life (21:18). Lisa brings in the example of the Beautiful Anonymous podcast and Ted wonders if it’s easier to be curious with strangers (26:31) before they together explore Advance-Color-Emotion and other improv exercises that can be played in “stealth mode” (34:56). They close by discussing the benefits about getting curious about others’ curiousness—and by turning that lens on themselves (42:33). Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 55:46 4027
Monster Baby #25 Be Average http://animalearning.com/2017/05/16/monster-baby-25-average/ Tue, 16 May 2017 11:50:20 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=4013 In Episode #25, Ted and Lisa dive into the paradoxical wisdom in the Improv maxim “Be Average.” They start with a chat about the San Francisco production of Hamilton and time they each spent with Moms (1:53) before introducing the subject of the day (6:48). They explore the value of just mucking about and the need [more…]

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In Episode #25, Ted and Lisa dive into the paradoxical wisdom in the Improv maxim “Be Average.” They start with a chat about the San Francisco production of Hamilton and time they each spent with Moms (1:53) before introducing the subject of the day (6:48). They explore the value of just mucking about and the need to better “understand the stones” (13:43) and then ask in what situations this advice holds true (16:43). Together,  they discuss if beginners can be as successful as long-time practitioners (18:32) and Lisa details how she takes specific comfort in the maxim (21:57). As devil’s advocates, they ask if there’s also value in pushing yourself (24:46) and consider why it is that we (or they) want to be excellent (28:46). To close the podcast, they move into the deeper philosophy behind the maxim, reintroducing Hamilton and introducing Buddhist Right Intention, (34:04) and name the next things they’ll each be average about (41:09).
As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!

 

To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com

 

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

The post Monster Baby #25 Be Average appeared first on Anima Learning.

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In Episode #25, Ted and Lisa dive into the paradoxical wisdom in the Improv maxim “Be Average.” They start with a chat about the San Francisco production of Hamilton and time they each spent with Moms (1:53) before introducing the subject of the day (6... In Episode #25, Ted and Lisa dive into the paradoxical wisdom in the Improv maxim “Be Average.” They start with a chat about the San Francisco production of Hamilton and time they each spent with Moms (1:53) before introducing the subject of the day (6:48). They explore the value of just mucking about and the need to better “understand the stones” (13:43) and then ask in what situations this advice holds true (16:43). Together, they discuss if beginners can be as successful as long-time practitioners (18:32) and Lisa details how she takes specific comfort in the maxim (21:57). As devil's advocates, they ask if there’s also value in pushing yourself (24:46) and consider why it is that we (or they) want to be excellent (28:46). To close the podcast, they move into the deeper philosophy behind the maxim, reintroducing Hamilton and introducing Buddhist Right Intention, (34:04) and name the next things they’ll each be average about (41:09).<br /> <br /> As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!<br /> <br /> To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 51:18 4013
Monster Baby #24: Get Presence http://animalearning.com/2017/04/26/monster-baby-24-get-presence/ Wed, 26 Apr 2017 21:15:16 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3994 Time to get present, y’all! Celebrating the one-year anniversary of the first Monster Baby podcast, Ted and Lisa offer Episode #24, a deep dive into presence and its role in our lives. A new warm-up creates some crazy acronyms (1:14) before the co-hosts check in about their prior commitment to try a gratitude practice (5:48). [more…]

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Time to get present, y’all! Celebrating the one-year anniversary of the first Monster Baby podcast, Ted and Lisa offer Episode #24, a deep dive into presence and its role in our lives. A new warm-up creates some crazy acronyms (1:14) before the co-hosts check in about their prior commitment to try a gratitude practice (5:48). They soon take on this episode’s topic more directly (10:40), exploring the difference between “having presence” and “being present.” (13:41) Ted talks about his recent experience with Patsy Rodenburg’s three Circles of Presence (18:48) with Lisa noting a curious phenomenon in the English language along the way (26:48). The two wonder whether we have to be so conscious ALL the time (32:21) and then consider how individuals’ presence within a group can affect the strength of an ensemble (37:39). Ted talks about getting ahead of ourselves in speech (41:01) and Lisa asks whether being aware of presence gets in the way of our actually being present (44:40). The two conclude the episode by outlining some of the impacts of getting fully present. (51:42)

As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!

 

To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

The post Monster Baby #24: Get Presence appeared first on Anima Learning.

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Time to get present, y’all! Celebrating the one-year anniversary of the first Monster Baby podcast, Ted and Lisa offer Episode #24, a deep dive into presence and its role in our lives. A new warm-up creates some crazy acronyms (1:14) before the co-host... Time to get present, y’all! Celebrating the one-year anniversary of the first Monster Baby podcast, Ted and Lisa offer Episode #24, a deep dive into presence and its role in our lives. A new warm-up creates some crazy acronyms (1:14) before the co-hosts check in about their prior commitment to try a gratitude practice (5:48). They soon take on this episode’s topic more directly (10:40), exploring the difference between “having presence” and “being present.” (13:41) Ted talks about his recent experience with Patsy Rodenburg’s three Circles of Presence (18:48) with Lisa noting a curious phenomenon in the English language along the way (26:48). The two wonder whether we have to be so conscious ALL the time (32:21) and then consider how individuals’ presence within a group can affect the strength of an ensemble (37:39). Ted talks about getting ahead of ourselves in speech (41:01) and Lisa asks whether being aware of presence gets in the way of our actually being present (44:40). The two conclude the episode by outlining some of the impacts of getting fully present. (51:42)<br /> <br /> As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!<br /> <br /> To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com <br /> Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 59:50 3994
Monster Baby #23: Attitude of Gratitude http://animalearning.com/2017/04/02/monster-baby-23-attitude-gratitude/ Sun, 02 Apr 2017 04:20:23 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3971 Episode #23 finds Ted and Lisa taking on an attitude of gratitude. A humorous warm-up (1:46) gets the ball rolling before the co-hosts start to clarify how gratitude differs from simply acknowledging what we like (6:18). They touch on gratitude’s relationship to vulnerability (12:34) and whether we can ever offer enough thanks for some of [more…]

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Episode #23 finds Ted and Lisa taking on an attitude of gratitude. A humorous warm-up (1:46) gets the ball rolling before the co-hosts start to clarify how gratitude differs from simply acknowledging what we like (6:18). They touch on gratitude’s relationship to vulnerability (12:34) and whether we can ever offer enough thanks for some of the gifts in our lives (17:17). They discuss how gratitude can serve as a tone-setter or lens-shaper (21:46) and consider the problematic implications of the common aphorism “Everything happens for a reason.” (24:57) Ted hearkens back to an old New Age standard when considering synchronicities and whether believing in luck makes you more lucky (31:22) and Lisa outlines the humorous approach found at San Francisco’s Gratitude Café (35:43). Ted’s favorite pre-show improv practice gets them into the topic of priming (39:07), Lisa tries out a Toothache Meditation, and Ted introduces the concept of “pronoia.” (41:25) They close the episode after finding a new way to understand and use the word “gratitude” itself. (47:35)

 

As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!

 

To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

The post Monster Baby #23: Attitude of Gratitude appeared first on Anima Learning.

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Episode #23 finds Ted and Lisa taking on an attitude of gratitude. A humorous warm-up (1:46) gets the ball rolling before the co-hosts start to clarify how gratitude differs from simply acknowledging what we like (6:18). Episode #23 finds Ted and Lisa taking on an attitude of gratitude. A humorous warm-up (1:46) gets the ball rolling before the co-hosts start to clarify how gratitude differs from simply acknowledging what we like (6:18). They touch on gratitude’s relationship to vulnerability (12:34) and whether we can ever offer enough thanks for some of the gifts in our lives (17:17). They discuss how gratitude can serve as a tone-setter or lens-shaper (21:46) and consider the problematic implications of the common aphorism “Everything happens for a reason.” (24:57) Ted hearkens back to an old New Age standard when considering synchronicities and whether believing in luck makes you more lucky (31:22) and Lisa outlines the humorous approach found at San Francisco’s Gratitude Café (35:43). Ted’s favorite pre-show improv practice gets them into the topic of priming (39:07), Lisa tries out a Toothache Meditation, and Ted introduces the concept of “pronoia.” (41:25) They close the episode after finding a new way to understand and use the word “gratitude” itself. (47:35)<br /> <br /> As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!<br /> <br /> To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com <br /> Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 59:45 3971
Monster Baby #22: A Cup of Courage http://animalearning.com/2017/03/09/monster-baby-22-cup-courage/ Thu, 09 Mar 2017 23:24:24 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3952 In Episode #22, Ted and Lisa share a conversational cup of courage. A brief and playful check-in (1:59) leads to defining what they mean by courage (4:27) and together, they wonder if Lisa’s courageous to do improv (8:52). Ted considers the last time he felt particularly courageous (11:51) and Lisa shares some stories about dating [more…]

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In Episode #22, Ted and Lisa share a conversational cup of courage. A brief and playful check-in (1:59) leads to defining what they mean by courage (4:27) and together, they wonder if Lisa’s courageous to do improv (8:52). Ted considers the last time he felt particularly courageous (11:51) and Lisa shares some stories about dating and nervousness of performing guitar in public (17:42). They both consider how improv games can build courage muscles (21:14) and then explore how mindfulness de-fangs the cobra of fear so we can dive deeper into our daily experience (30:37). Ted introduces the connection between courage and tenderness and the importance of support from others (35:46) and Lisa engages with the improv mindset of “Go into the cave.” (39:23). The two conclude the episode by promoting the notion of profligate practice as a method for developing courage (49:23).

 

As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!

To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com

 

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

The post Monster Baby #22: A Cup of Courage appeared first on Anima Learning.

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In Episode #22, Ted and Lisa share a conversational cup of courage. A brief and playful check-in (1:59) leads to defining what they mean by courage (4:27) and together, they wonder if Lisa’s courageous to do improv (8:52). In Episode #22, Ted and Lisa share a conversational cup of courage. A brief and playful check-in (1:59) leads to defining what they mean by courage (4:27) and together, they wonder if Lisa’s courageous to do improv (8:52). Ted considers the last time he felt particularly courageous (11:51) and Lisa shares some stories about dating and nervousness of performing guitar in public (17:42). They both consider how improv games can build courage muscles (21:14) and then explore how mindfulness de-fangs the cobra of fear so we can dive deeper into our daily experience (30:37). Ted introduces the connection between courage and tenderness and the importance of support from others (35:46) and Lisa engages with the improv mindset of “Go into the cave.” (39:23). The two conclude the episode by promoting the notion of profligate practice as a method for developing courage (49:23).<br /> <br /> As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!<br /> <br /> To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com <br /> Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 59:32 3952
Monster Baby #21: Puzzle Nuzzle http://animalearning.com/2017/02/04/monster-baby-21-puzzle-nuzzle/ Sun, 05 Feb 2017 03:34:54 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3940 Ted and Lisa welcome special guest (and Jeopardy contestant-to-be) Troy Steinmetz for a conversation about the wisdom of puzzles. They enter a warm-up game midstream to consider different kinds of puzzles (3:47) before Troy gets the group talking about flow and ideal challenge levels (13:37). Lisa introduces the notion of “futzing about” and puzzling for [more…]

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Ted and Lisa welcome special guest (and Jeopardy contestant-to-be) Troy Steinmetz for a conversation about the wisdom of puzzles. They enter a warm-up game midstream to consider different kinds of puzzles (3:47) before Troy gets the group talking about flow and ideal challenge levels (13:37). Lisa introduces the notion of “futzing about” and puzzling for the puzzle’s sake (20:08) which reminds Ted of Karma Yoga—which then gets the group thinking about fundraising, Burning Man, and sand mandalas (23:40). Troy wonders about the Quantified Self and how we measure the success of different types of mindfulness (31:59) and the trio discusses when it’s right to walk away from a puzzle, “tease the knot,” or wait for the charmed rabbit (36:04). They close the podcast by considering the notion of a center of gravity between creators and what’s created (41:22) and how effort and preparation precede the “gift” of insight or inspiration (46:55).

 

As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!

 

To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com

 

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

The post Monster Baby #21: Puzzle Nuzzle appeared first on Anima Learning.

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Ted and Lisa welcome special guest (and Jeopardy contestant-to-be) Troy Steinmetz for a conversation about the wisdom of puzzles. They enter a warm-up game midstream to consider different kinds of puzzles (3:47) before Troy gets the group talking about... Ted and Lisa welcome special guest (and Jeopardy contestant-to-be) Troy Steinmetz for a conversation about the wisdom of puzzles. They enter a warm-up game midstream to consider different kinds of puzzles (3:47) before Troy gets the group talking about flow and ideal challenge levels (13:37). Lisa introduces the notion of “futzing about” and puzzling for the puzzle’s sake (20:08) which reminds Ted of Karma Yoga—which then gets the group thinking about fundraising, Burning Man, and sand mandalas (23:40). Troy wonders about the Quantified Self and how we measure the success of different types of mindfulness (31:59) and the trio discusses when it’s right to walk away from a puzzle, “tease the knot,” or wait for the charmed rabbit (36:04). They close the podcast by considering the notion of a center of gravity between creators and what’s created (41:22) and how effort and preparation precede the “gift” of insight or inspiration (46:55). <br /> <br /> As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!<br /> <br /> To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com <br /> Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 58:07 3940
Monster Baby #20: Adventure Time! http://animalearning.com/2017/01/05/monster-baby-20-adventure-time/ Thu, 05 Jan 2017 22:07:13 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3875 For their first podcast of 2017, Lisa and Ted venture into the world of adventure. They demonstrate an adventurous improv game of “What Comes Next?” (1:43), define what they mean by adventure (6:59), and describe why a Keith Johnstone quote (10:07 ) and an exercise called “The Quest” (13:08) get them jazzed about the topic. [more…]

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For their first podcast of 2017, Lisa and Ted venture into the world of adventure. They demonstrate an adventurous improv game of “What Comes Next?” (1:43), define what they mean by adventure (6:59), and describe why a Keith Johnstone quote (10:07 ) and an exercise called “The Quest” (13:08) get them jazzed about the topic. They explore how adventure can generate both mindfulness and affection (19:43) and whether you can prepare for adventure (21:37) before Lisa describes her exploits in an Argentina night club (26:47). Ted gets personal, sharing how he brings adventure into his life (32:38) and how therapy, tackle football and Carol Dweck taught him about resilience (39:00). The two discuss adventures on the horizon (43:33) and how we always have the power of “Nope!” at our disposal (50:09).

As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!

To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com

 

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

The post Monster Baby #20: Adventure Time! appeared first on Anima Learning.

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For their first podcast of 2017, Lisa and Ted venture into the world of adventure. They demonstrate an adventurous improv game of “What Comes Next?” (1:43), define what they mean by adventure (6:59), and describe why a Keith Johnstone quote (10:07 ) an... For their first podcast of 2017, Lisa and Ted venture into the world of adventure. They demonstrate an adventurous improv game of “What Comes Next?” (1:43), define what they mean by adventure (6:59), and describe why a Keith Johnstone quote (10:07 ) and an exercise called “The Quest” (13:08) get them jazzed about the topic. They explore how adventure can generate both mindfulness and affection (19:43) and whether you can prepare for adventure (21:37) before Lisa describes her exploits in an Argentina night club (26:47). Ted gets personal, sharing how he brings adventure into his life (32:38) and how therapy, tackle football and Carol Dweck taught him about resilience (39:00). The two discuss adventures on the horizon (43:33) and how we always have the power of “Nope!” at our disposal (50:09). <br /> <br /> As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!<br /> <br /> To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com <br /> Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 59:27 3875
Monster Baby #19: The Monster Baby Mailbag! http://animalearning.com/2016/12/15/monster-baby-19-monster-baby-mailbag/ Thu, 15 Dec 2016 21:05:05 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3851 In the inaugural Monster Baby Mailbag episode, Ted and Lisa (and Lisa’s cats) take questions from a few loyal listeners. They wonder whether Monster Baby friendships are different from other connections (3:49), explore the tension between discovery and invention in both improv and mindfulness (15:32), celebrate an adventurous attitude for choices both large and small (25:28), and marvel [more…]

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In the inaugural Monster Baby Mailbag episode, Ted and Lisa (and Lisa’s cats) take questions from a few loyal listeners. They wonder whether Monster Baby friendships are different from other connections (3:49), explore the tension between discovery and invention in both improv and mindfulness (15:32), celebrate an adventurous attitude for choices both large and small (25:28), and marvel at ways in which such approaches can help transform decades-old difficult experiences (31:59).

As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!

To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com

 

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

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In the inaugural Monster Baby Mailbag episode, Ted and Lisa (and Lisa’s cats) take questions from a few loyal listeners. They wonder whether Monster Baby friendships are different from other connections (3:49), In the inaugural Monster Baby Mailbag episode, Ted and Lisa (and Lisa’s cats) take questions from a few loyal listeners. They wonder whether Monster Baby friendships are different from other connections (3:49), explore the tension between discovery and invention in both improv and mindfulness (15:32), celebrate an adventurous attitude for choices both large and small (25:28), and marvel at ways in which such approaches can help transform decades-old difficult experiences (31:59).<br /> <br /> As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!<br /> <br /> To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com <br /> Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 46:41 3851
Monster Baby #18: Harmony http://animalearning.com/2016/12/03/monster-baby-18-harmony/ Sat, 03 Dec 2016 20:45:56 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3841 What is harmony and what the heck makes it so delicious, both literally and metaphorically? Ted and Lisa start with a modified round of “Three Things!” (2:34) and then explain what made them chose today’s topic (7:08). Ted shares his impressions of Lisa’s erstwhile musical improv group, Lombard Street Experiment (12:06) and the pair considers [more…]

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What is harmony and what the heck makes it so delicious, both literally and metaphorically? Ted and Lisa start with a modified round of “Three Things!” (2:34) and then explain what made them chose today’s topic (7:08). Ted shares his impressions of Lisa’s erstwhile musical improv group, Lombard Street Experiment (12:06) and the pair considers whether some people just don’t care about harmony. (14:30). They explore how we can expand our ears to include new and unexpected sounds (17:39) and delight in the magic moment of separate parts coming together for the first time (20:19). They consider how harmony relates to mindfulness (24:40) and whether one can learn how to “do” harmony (32:01). Per usual, Ted and Lisa consider whether there’s a down side or “shadow” to the subject (43:30) and what might make up the value of an intentional practice of harmony (48:07). The episode closes with a musical example drawn from Ted’s and Lisa’s summer camp past lives (51:09). Listen all the way through for a special hidden track treat!

 

As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!

To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com

 

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

The post Monster Baby #18: Harmony appeared first on Anima Learning.

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What is harmony and what the heck makes it so delicious, both literally and metaphorically? Ted and Lisa start with a modified round of “Three Things!” (2:34) and then explain what made them chose today’s topic (7:08). What is harmony and what the heck makes it so delicious, both literally and metaphorically? Ted and Lisa start with a modified round of “Three Things!” (2:34) and then explain what made them chose today’s topic (7:08). Ted shares his impressions of Lisa’s erstwhile musical improv group, Lombard Street Experiment (12:06) and the pair considers whether some people just don't care about harmony. (14:30). They explore how we can expand our ears to include new and unexpected sounds (17:39) and delight in the magic moment of separate parts coming together for the first time (20:19). They consider how harmony relates to mindfulness (24:40) and whether one can learn how to “do” harmony (32:01). Per usual, Ted and Lisa consider whether there’s a down side or “shadow” to the subject (43:30) and what might make up the value of an intentional practice of harmony (48:07). The episode closes with a musical example drawn from Ted’s and Lisa’s summer camp past lives (51:09). Listen all the way through for a special hidden track treat!<br /> <br /> <br /> <br /> As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!<br /> <br /> <br /> <br /> To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 58:16 3841
Monster Baby #17: Post-Election Reflections http://animalearning.com/2016/11/11/monster-baby-17-post-election-reflections/ Sat, 12 Nov 2016 00:43:45 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3822 After a world-changing, head-spinning Election Day outcome, Lisa and Ted turn to each other to process their emotional turmoil. Lisa relays the experience of her first post-result class at Stanford and asks, “How can we play or teach when we’re in the face of a devastating loss?” (2:28) They discuss how mindful sharing offers one [more…]

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After a world-changing, head-spinning Election Day outcome, Lisa and Ted turn to each other to process their emotional turmoil. Lisa relays the experience of her first post-result class at Stanford and asks, “How can we play or teach when we’re in the face of a devastating loss?” (2:28) They discuss how mindful sharing offers one path to integration and healing (14:17) and how leaning on the practices of mindfulness or improv can help during times of intense disappointment (16:06). Ted wants to acknowledge the trouble with the meant-to-comfort phrase “Everything happens for a reason” (22:54) and Lisa wonders if we’re all still on the same team (26:45). The two explore the ongoing need for play (31:25) and then take up the benefits of a Brechtian approach to improv and social issues (35:39). Ted wonders if Donald Trump would make a good improvisor and the two close with a small bit of laughter as a salve. (48:32)

As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!

 

To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com

 

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

The post Monster Baby #17: Post-Election Reflections appeared first on Anima Learning.

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After a world-changing, head-spinning Election Day outcome, Lisa and Ted turn to each other to process their emotional turmoil. Lisa relays the experience of her first post-result class at Stanford and asks, After a world-changing, head-spinning Election Day outcome, Lisa and Ted turn to each other to process their emotional turmoil. Lisa relays the experience of her first post-result class at Stanford and asks, “How can we play or teach when we’re in the face of a devastating loss?” (2:28) They discuss how mindful sharing offers one path to integration and healing (14:17) and how leaning on the practices of mindfulness or improv can help during times of intense disappointment (16:06). Ted wants to acknowledge the trouble with the meant-to-comfort phrase “Everything happens for a reason” (22:54) and Lisa wonders if we’re all still on the same team (26:45). The two explore the ongoing need for play (31:25) and then take up the benefits of a Brechtian approach to improv and social issues (35:39). Ted wonders if Donald Trump would make a good improvisor and the two close with a small bit of laughter as a salve. (48:32) Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 52:53 3822
Monster Baby #16: A Conversation with Patricia Ryan Madson (Part 2) http://animalearning.com/2016/11/10/monster-baby-16-conversation-patricia-ryan-madson-part-2/ Thu, 10 Nov 2016 20:46:41 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3818   Lisa and Ted continue their conversation with teacher and mentor, Patricia Ryan Madson, drama teacher and author of the acclaimed Improv Wisdom. In this segment, Patricia explained how she first learned to say “Yes, and” from impro master Ketih Johnstone (1:09) and how one can approach improv games from multiple angles (5:06). The three [more…]

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Chillin' with Patricia in El Granada.

Chillin’ with Patricia in El Granada.

Lisa and Ted continue their conversation with teacher and mentor, Patricia Ryan Madson, drama teacher and author of the acclaimed Improv Wisdom. In this segment, Patricia explained how she first learned to say “Yes, and” from impro master Ketih Johnstone (1:09) and how one can approach improv games from multiple angles (5:06). The three discuss whether Reality has a design and the value of liking and not liking our circumstances (7:25) before moving on to Patricia’s most helpful improv maxim (10:40) and most challenging one (16:04). Ted and Lisa acknowledge their favorite maxims from Patricia’s book (19:00) and Patricia notes something she’s particularly proud of (25:59). Part Two comes to a close when Patricia has the opportunity to turn the tables on her hosts (32:01) and Ted and Lisa get the chance to reflect on their experience of the episode (36:17).

 

As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!

To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com

MonsterBabyLogo

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

The post Monster Baby #16: A Conversation with Patricia Ryan Madson (Part 2) appeared first on Anima Learning.

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  Lisa and Ted continue their conversation with teacher and mentor, Patricia Ryan Madson, drama teacher and author of the acclaimed Improv Wisdom. In this segment, Patricia explained how she first learned to say “Yes, Lisa and Ted continue their conversation with teacher and mentor, Patricia Ryan Madson, drama teacher and author of the acclaimed Improv Wisdom. In this segment, Patricia explained how she first learned to say “Yes, and” from impro master Ketih Johnstone (1:09) and how one can approach improv games from multiple angles (5:06). The three discuss whether Reality has a design and the value of liking and not liking our circumstances (7:25) before moving on to Patricia’s most helpful improv maxim (10:40) and most challenging one (16:04). Ted and Lisa acknowledge their favorite maxims from Patricia’s book (19:00) and Patricia notes something she’s particularly proud of (25:59). Part Two comes to a close when Patricia has the opportunity to turn the tables on her hosts (32:01) and Ted and Lisa get the chance to reflect on their experience of the episode (36:17). Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 41:45 3818
Monster Baby #15: A Conversation with Patricia Ryan Madson (Part 1) http://animalearning.com/2016/11/08/monster-baby-15-conversation-patricia-ryan-madson-part-1/ Tue, 08 Nov 2016 18:42:59 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3806   Lisa and Ted welcome their teacher and mentor, Patricia Ryan Madson, drama teacher and author of the acclaimed Improv Wisdom, for a two-part Monster Baby conversation. They explore how mindfulness and improv first joined together in Patricia’s work (3:21) and how the Stanford Improvisors first came into being, both as a learning/performance group and [more…]

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Chillin' with Patricia in El Granada.

Chillin’ with Patricia in El Granada.

Lisa and Ted welcome their teacher and mentor, Patricia Ryan Madson, drama teacher and author of the acclaimed Improv Wisdom, for a two-part Monster Baby conversation. They explore how mindfulness and improv first joined together in Patricia’s work (3:21) and how the Stanford Improvisors first came into being, both as a learning/performance group and as an ongoing supportive community. Patricia notes how she was able to leverage Stanford’s status to helpful effect (17:36) and shares a surprising note about how she feels about performing improv (20:14). Ted and Lisa ask about improv as a “lifeway” (27:01) and, in particular, how the Constructive Living model of David K Reynolds proposes new ways of recognizing our debt to capital-R Reality (31:02). Part One closes by offering a curious alternative to the goal of developing self-esteem. (44:22) Stay tuned for Part Two of the conversation in Episode #16!

 

As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!

To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com

MonsterBabyLogo

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

The post Monster Baby #15: A Conversation with Patricia Ryan Madson (Part 1) appeared first on Anima Learning.

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  Lisa and Ted welcome their teacher and mentor, Patricia Ryan Madson, drama teacher and author of the acclaimed Improv Wisdom, for a two-part Monster Baby conversation. They explore how mindfulness and improv first joined together in Patricia’s work (... Lisa and Ted welcome their teacher and mentor, Patricia Ryan Madson, drama teacher and author of the acclaimed Improv Wisdom, for a two-part Monster Baby conversation. They explore how mindfulness and improv first joined together in Patricia’s work (3:21) and how the Stanford Improvisors first came into being, both as a learning/performance group and as an ongoing supportive community. Patricia notes how she was able to leverage Stanford’s status to helpful effect (17:36) and shares a surprising note about how she feels about performing improv (20:14). Ted and Lisa ask about improv as a “lifeway” (27:01) and, in particular, how the Constructive Living model of David K Reynolds proposes new ways of recognizing our debt to capital-R Reality (31:02). Part One closes by offering a curious alternative to the goal of developing self-esteem. (44:22) Stay tuned for Part Two of the conversation in Episode #16!<br /> <br /> As always, please send a note, question, or comment if you feel so inspired: info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening—we love you all!<br /> <br /> To subscribe, go to: http://monsterbabypodcast.com<br /> Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 52:03 3806
Barrett the Barber, or the Value of Clearing Stuff Out http://animalearning.com/2016/08/26/barrett-barber-value-clearing-stuff/ http://animalearning.com/2016/08/26/barrett-barber-value-clearing-stuff/#comments Fri, 26 Aug 2016 23:04:20 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3679 Confusion can be funny. And even more so when it amplifies an insight. At a recent mindfulness teacher training in York, England, my colleague Gillian and I were sharing in pairs after having just come out of 12 hours of silence. Gill’s a lovely woman, a bright-eyed Mom with another boy-to-be kicking in her belly. [more…]

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Barber PoleConfusion can be funny. And even more so when it amplifies an insight.

At a recent mindfulness teacher training in York, England, my colleague Gillian and I were sharing in pairs after having just come out of 12 hours of silence. Gill’s a lovely woman, a bright-eyed Mom with another boy-to-be kicking in her belly. Especially because she’s got a delightful British accent, I enjoyed hearing how she appreciated the silence, that it felt natural and healing for her.

I, too, had enjoyed the quiet. The silence had reminded me how few words we actually need, that open spaces without sound bring a greater appreciation and wisdom when I do choose to use words. In that way, I explained, it reminded me of my efforts back home to clear out more of my belongings. I’ve already sloughed off a bunch with my move two years ago, but I could use even more trimming. I was excited to get back home to keep the momentum going—ultimately, I realized, I could do with even less stuff.

“I get it,” Gill chimed in. “It’s like Barrett the Barber.”

“Like who?” I replied, raising an eyebrow.

“You know, Barrett the Barber. He’s only got, like, two suits. He just needs one black and one blue and he can go anywhere.”

Had I missed another classic British character?

Had I missed another classic British character?

Huh, I wondered. Barrett the Barber. Despite the plainness of Gill’s matter-0f-fact tone, this was a name I’d never encountered. Was he a Sherlock Holmes kind of character, a sharp sleuth that all British kids would know about? Or a Mister Bean-ish cartoon, an easy breeze of comic relief? Did he fashion himself a Sweeney Todd, a trimmer with a dangerously shady side business? Or had I missed another great Monty Python character back in the day? Whoever this hairstylist was, I knew I must have communicated my consternation clearly. Gill looked downright gobsmacked herself.

“Are you serious?” she asked. “You don’t know who I’m talking about?”

“Really, I’ve never heard of Barrett the Barber,” I replied.

“You don’t know your president?”

“My presid–? OHHHH!!!,” it dawned on me, cutting through the clouds. Barack O-bama! I broke out laughing and when I shared why, Gill did too. In fact, we couldn’t stop giggling for the rest of that little session. Her British accent—pronouncing our forty-fourth president’s first name like an army barrack—had thrown me off-trail and my brain had processed the rest as best it could. On both sides, we acknowledged, we’d had good reason to wallow in such confusion.[1]

He'd probably be laughing too. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

He’d probably be laughing too.
(Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Once we wiped away our tears and picked ourselves up off the floor, I realized we could all make use of this accidental character. It’s been a while since I’ve needed a haircut, but I can remember bygone days of feeling too shaggy and enjoying the freedom of a fresh trim. As with a new ‘do, shedding unneeded belongings lets us see the world with clear eyes. We gain energy and move with streamlined ease. This elusive hairstylist, like a silent Santa Claus, could become a magical bringer of reboots, a piper of possibility.

Maybe you too you could use a trim off some of that shagginess.

Maybe you too you could use a trim off some of that shagginess.

So, from our unwitting communicative gaffe, Gillian and I would like to introduce you to our new-found friend. Choose some silence. Trim out the old. Make space for the new. Get ready, people: Barrett the Barber is coming to town.

[1] When I recounted our communicative mishap with the rest of our group, they got a good chuckle as well. And Barrett became a running joke for us all.

 

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Thanks, Harry Potter College (or 10 Reasons to be Thankful for the 2016 Applied Improvisation Network Conference) http://animalearning.com/2016/08/20/thanks-harry-potter-college-10-reasons-thankful-2016-applied-improvisation-network-conference/ http://animalearning.com/2016/08/20/thanks-harry-potter-college-10-reasons-thankful-2016-applied-improvisation-network-conference/#comments Sat, 20 Aug 2016 21:47:58 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3626 Turns out, Hogwarts does have magic to share. Though I didn’t speak with any ghostly portraits or pick up any dark arts spells in my time at Keble College, an Oxford University branch used as a model for the famed wizarding school, I did have a blast at the 2016 Applied Improvisation Network Conference. For [more…]

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Welcome to Hogwarts, er, Oxford University: home for the Applied Improvisation Network 2016 Conference!!

Welcome to Hogwarts, er, Oxford University: home for the Applied Improvisation Network 2016 Conference!!

Turns out, Hogwarts does have magic to share. Though I didn’t speak with any ghostly portraits or pick up any dark arts spells in my time at Keble College, an Oxford University branch used as a model for the famed wizarding school, I did have a blast at the 2016 Applied Improvisation Network Conference.

For six of these past August days, a spirited band of improvisors from around the world assembled at Keble. Each year, we gather to bring the principles of improvisational theater (and music and dance) to off-stage arenas like business, health care, government, education, and personal growth. Each time I’ve been, I’ve fallen in love with new friends, old acquaintances that become friends, inspiring mentors, and treasured colleagues. It’s always bittersweet to leave, but (and!) the positive echoes always linger.

This year, I’m thankful for these magical qualities in particular:

  1. Using improv to change the world—More than ever, folks at the conference are looking to leverage improvisation’s playful, resilient approaches to daunting issues facing us all. Marijn walked his inclusivity talk by welcoming a young man with Down’s Syndrome into his troupe—and the new guy has become a compassionate, dedicated, welcoming instructor of his own. Pablo, Mary, Gabe and many others pull together disaster preparedness groups in Africa and Asia so that when climate change disturbance gets real, local communities have the nimble cohesion to respond appropriately. Peter helps folks get at the underlying emotional wisdom in group conflict. Andy leans on improv to get his outdoor learning students “adventure ready” and to instill in them a protective love for nature. The list goes on, as does the inspiration.
  2. Drew Tarvin laying down some insight.

    Drew Tarvin laying down some insight.

    Minds like Drew Tarvin’s—Drew is an introverted engineer turned applied improvisor and standup comedian. The guy’s a hoot, stringing us artfully along for the payoff of a great punchline, and he thinks with amazing clarity. I wouldn’t call myself an organizational slouch, but when I hear Drew talk about business systems and clarity of mission, I realize I’ve got a long way to go in my own practice.

  3. The weather—Normally, if I’d thought of Oxford weather, I’d have thought of rain. Turned out, we got pleasant temperatures night and day with just enough sun to keep things joyous and enough clouds to make for changing light and striking photos. It never poured hard enough to prevent us from using outdoor spaces so the quadrangle that could have felt cramped maintained its openness. Thanks, sky.

    Keble College's impressive "chapel."

    Keble College’s impressive “chapel.”

  4. Keble College—I always wonder if places that look like museums can still maintain a vibrant intellectual energy. In this case, the answer is yes. The hallowed halls of Keble College stunned us all with their beauty—the “chapel” looks grander than many cathedrals in other places—and the staff proved resolutely charming and helpful. I especially loved the way they played well with status. When I missed the “Stay off the lawn” sign on arrival and crouched on the main quadrangle grass to snap an artful photo, a young man appeared within seconds with a stunning balance of deference and insistence: “Sorry, sir, so sorry, but you’re not allowed on the grass. No, sir, not even for photos. I’m so sorry, yes, sir, yes you’ll need to leave the lawn immediately.” I was obliged chuckling inside. (Don’t tell Keble, but I was also happy to sneak back on for a bad boy photo before I left….)

    Shhh!!! It'll just be our little secret.

    Shhh!!! It’ll just be our little secret.

  5. International camaraderie—Even though, the conference pulled together folks from all over—Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, the Philipines, Singapore, India, Estonia, Israel, Czech Republic, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, Canada, and of course, the United States—we snapped into a cohesive group through the shared language of improvisation (and English, thankfully).[1] I love my theatre community back home in San Francisco and it’s a helpful boost of perspective to see and hear globally-flavored exercises and different approaches to familiar standbys.

    In this photo alone, you've got folks from Hong Kong, Brazil, the Netherlands, Denmark, Bermuda, Washington DC and San Francisco. Love it, love it, love it!

    In this photo alone, you’ve got folks from Hong Kong, Brazil, the Netherlands, Denmark, Bermuda, Washington DC and San Francisco. Love it, love it, love it!

  6. Play—I left the conference on such a sustained high from hanging with others who love to play. Every encounter becomes an opportunity to explore, every apparent mistake a chance to recover and discover possibility. One of us tosses out an offer and whoever else happens to be nearby joins right in. In that sense, we feel like a pack of puppies, tails wagging every time we enter emergent scrums of laughter.
  7. The town of Oxford—The oldest university town in the UK, Oxford throbs with historic charm. Old cobble pathways, stunning churches and libraries, nearby fields and charming canals, pubs that date back to the 1400’s: it all pulls together to make an endearing setting for exploratory learning.[2]

8. Volunteers and a spirit of contribution—AIN is a completely volunteer effort. Conference organizers put in countless unpaid hours to help everyone else have a memorable experience—and barely get to soak in the wonder themselves. Presenters like myself might contribute a one- or two-day workshop or a 15-minute talk. Others might organize an open-space discussion on a particular topic or activity. None of us gets a stipend or paycheck as a result, and, while I’d be happy to make another buck, I also appreciate the opportunity to exercise my generosity and gratitude muscles.

9. Things to bump up against—It would feel weird for a conference to run perfectly and, of course, I found myself frustrated or beguiled at times. Can we stay on time? Why can’t folks be quieter with their side conversations? Will we need to evacuate because of that fire next door? Must my pub neighbors court death so continuously with their chain smoking? As Zen teacher Jakusho Kwong suggests, it’s these kind of differences in community that help us grow. Rather than exerting the effort to scrape each potato clean individually, put the potatoes in a pot of water and jiggle the pot left and right. That way the little hairs on each potato will scrub themselves in contact with the others. If I’m a potato, I feel well-scrubbed.

With this many potatoes in one place, we're bound to get some scrubbing.

With this many potatoes in one place, we’re bound to get some scrubbing.

10. Improv itself—Though some within the AIN community want to loosen the sense of obligation in tying applied improvisation to theatre creative performance in the interest of making it more accessible or reputable, I thrive on that direct link. It’s a vital, naked refresh of the living principles we teach. Sometimes, it feels like I could lead an applied workshop in my sleep. Helping create a 15-minute, fully improvised musical with a halfway decent narrative structure and a cast of seven who have met each other with only ten minutes of warm-up time? That’s a more difficult learning edge. Real-time on-stage improvisation provides inspiration. It’s a teacher. It’s a practice. It’s a gift. It offers insights that come no other way.

In the end, I met no house elves this past week (sorry, Dobby!). I procured no invisibility cloak (though the Spaniards did have some cool wands). And I rode no broomsticks (witch was a shame). Even so, the AIN 2016 Conference at Keble College still drew well on its association with the wizarding world of Harry Potter: I leave with a whole host of magical memories and portkey insights that will take me to places I have yet to imagine. Thank you to all who made it happen and we’ll see you in southern California in 2017!

 

[1] I recognize the enormous privilege it is to take in such a conference in my native language. And I have great admiration for those who did so—and still contributed!—in their second or third.

[2] On a pre-conference Learning Journey, I took part in a “Quest” with the prompts “red” and mirror”: go out and see what showed up as I looked for those prompts with a sense of adventure. With only that lead, I stumbled into conversations with folks living on houseboats; enjoyed pun-filled, British humor stories about the Four Candles tavern; picked up a few electronic goods I needed; and gathered several images combining “red” and “mirror” that I otherwise would have missed.

Click to view slideshow.

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Monster Baby #6: The Power of Positivity http://animalearning.com/2016/05/23/monster-baby-6-power-positivity/ Mon, 23 May 2016 23:05:12 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3577 Inspired by a new workshop they led in western Massachusetts, Ted and Lisa explore why we should talk about positivity (1:25) in improv and mindfulness, how one of Lisa’s improv groups has learned to make positive starts (16:05), and how beginning from gratitude lays the groundwork for transformation. (22:50). They also wonder about the perils [more…]

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Inspired by a new workshop they led in western Massachusetts, Ted and Lisa explore why we should talk about positivity (1:25) in improv and mindfulness, how one of Lisa’s improv groups has learned to make positive starts (16:05), and how beginning from gratitude lays the groundwork for transformation. (22:50). They also wonder about the perils that James Bond always has to face right off the bat (27:58) and introduce the Story Spine (28:48) and their new Positivity Spectrum exercise (34:33). Ted shares a helpful cloud image from the mindfulness world (46:07) and they close with an examination of the many stories we tell ourselves (56:40). It’s a longer ‘cast than normal so feel free to break it up as needed. And let us know what you think by sending a note to info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks for listening!

 

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San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

Make sure to subscribe to get all future episodes as well!

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Inspired by a new workshop they led in western Massachusetts, Ted and Lisa explore why we should talk about positivity (1:25) in improv and mindfulness, how one of Lisa’s improv groups has learned to make positive starts (16:05), Inspired by a new workshop they led in western Massachusetts, Ted and Lisa explore why we should talk about positivity (1:25) in improv and mindfulness, how one of Lisa’s improv groups has learned to make positive starts (16:05), and how beginning from gratitude lays the groundwork for transformation. (22:50). They also wonder about the perils that James Bond always has to face right off the bat (27:58) and introduce the Story Spine (28:48) and their new Positivity Spectrum exercise (34:33). Ted shares a helpful cloud image from the mindfulness world (46:07) and they close with an examination of the many stories we tell ourselves (56:40). It’s a longer ‘cast than normal so feel free to break it up as needed. And let us know what you think by sending a note to info@monsterbabypodcast.com. Thanks for listening! <br /> <br /> Http://monsterbabypodcast.com<br /> Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 1:10:06 3577
Monster Baby #5: Aspiration and Acceptance http://animalearning.com/2016/05/11/monster-baby-5-aspiration-acceptance/ Wed, 11 May 2016 22:42:22 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3568 In Episode #5, Ted and Lisa play with the tension between accepting what is and aspiring to excellence, starting with a game of Clover (3:19) and exploring whether mindfulness and improv are easy or hard—and how “hard” often leads to feelings of “not good enough” (7:02). They discuss the importance of a strong biochemical foundation [more…]

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In Episode #5, Ted and Lisa play with the tension between accepting what is and aspiring to excellence, starting with a game of Clover (3:19) and exploring whether mindfulness and improv are easy or hard—and how “hard” often leads to feelings of “not good enough” (7:02). They discuss the importance of a strong biochemical foundation (15:33) and what else gets in the way of our best selves (18:39), ultimately asking if desire to do well actually helps us do well (23:05). Using a Zen koan about picking and choosing (28:17) and a quotation from Alan Watts (47:28), they discuss their own aspirations and why process goals may serve us better than product goals.

Join the Monster Baby community by subscribing at the link below and please spread the word—enjoy!

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

Make sure to subscribe to get all future episodes as well!

The post Monster Baby #5: Aspiration and Acceptance appeared first on Anima Learning.

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In Episode #5, Ted and Lisa play with the tension between accepting what is and aspiring to excellence, starting with a game of Clover (3:19) and exploring whether mindfulness and improv are easy or hard—and how “hard” often leads to feelings of “not g... Ted and Lisa play with the tension between accepting what is and aspiring to excellence, starting with a game of Clover (3:19) and exploring whether mindfulness and improv are easy or hard—and how “hard” often leads to feelings of “not good enough” (7:02). They discuss the importance of a strong biochemical foundation (15:33) and what else gets in the way of our best selves (18:39), ultimately asking if desire to do well actually helps us do well (23:05). Using a Zen koan about picking and choosing (28:17) and a quotation from Alan Watts (47:28), they discuss their own aspirations and why process goals may serve us better than product goals. Enjoy! <br /> <br /> http://monsterbabypodcast.com Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 1:00:56 3568
Monster Baby #4: Shared Control http://animalearning.com/2016/04/26/monster-baby-4-shared-control/ Wed, 27 Apr 2016 00:54:08 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3554 Fresh off a trip to Phillips Exeter Academy, Ted and Lisa hop on the ‘cast to explore the fun and reward of sharing control in improvisation (5:53), Line-at-a-Time Drawing and what it has to do with Lisa’s trip to Buenos Aires (11:21), sharing control with life itself (15:58) and whether this approach is an elaborate [more…]

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Fresh off a trip to Phillips Exeter Academy, Ted and Lisa hop on the ‘cast to explore the fun and reward of sharing control in improvisation (5:53), Line-at-a-Time Drawing and what it has to do with Lisa’s trip to Buenos Aires (11:21), sharing control with life itself (15:58) and whether this approach is an elaborate excuse for a lack of discipline (20:49). They close by circling back to the notion of living life one line at a time and delighting in that precarious space between life’s trapeze bars (33:18). Join the Monster Baby community by subscribing at the link below and please spread the word—enjoy!

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

Make sure to subscribe to get all future episodes as well!

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Fresh off a trip to Phillips Exeter Academy, Ted and Lisa hop on the ‘cast to explore the fun and reward of sharing control in improvisation (5:53), Line-at-a-Time Drawing and what it has to do with Lisa’s trip to Buenos Aires (11:21), Fresh off a trip to Phillips Exeter Academy, Ted and Lisa hop on the ‘cast to explore the fun and reward of sharing control in improvisation (5:53), Line-at-a-Time Drawing and what it has to do with Lisa’s trip to Buenos Aires (11:21), sharing control with life itself (15:58) and whether this approach is an elaborate excuse for a lack of discipline (20:49). They close by circling back to the notion of living life one line at a time and delighting in that precarious space between life’s trapeze bars (33:18). Join the Monster Baby community by subscribing at the link below and please spread the word—enjoy!<br /> <br /> Http://monsterbabypodcast.com<br /> Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 42:15 3554
Why I’m Not Looking Forward to the Future Anymore http://animalearning.com/2016/04/26/im-not-looking-forward-future-anymore/ http://animalearning.com/2016/04/26/im-not-looking-forward-future-anymore/#comments Tue, 26 Apr 2016 17:19:59 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3537 It may seem sacrilege, but the title is true. I’ve stopped looking forward to the future. That said, fear not. I haven’t become a pessimist or a Donnie Downer. My internal curmudgeon knows how to flex his muscles, but he hasn’t yet commandeered my internal rudder. Generosity and gratitude still captain the ship. It’s just that [more…]

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It may seem sacrilege, but the title is true. I’ve stopped looking forward to the future.

That said, fear not. I haven’t become a pessimist or a Donnie Downer. My internal curmudgeon knows how to flex his muscles, but he hasn’t yet commandeered my internal rudder. Generosity and gratitude still captain the ship.

It’s just that I’m trying to live in the present.

Mindfulness practice encourages us to get here, now. To bring our spotlight of attention onto the experience and sensations right around us. And that means not ruminating on regret for the past or amping up anxiety for the future.

Anticipation has a seductive pull. Image by Harrison Fisher, 1909, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Anticipation has a seductive pull.
Image by Harrison Fisher, 1909, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps, surprisingly, it also suggests letting go of nostalgia—the longing for a long-ago time—and pulling back from anticipation. Or, more accurately, staying away from their sticky sides. No matter our mental machinations, we ultimately live our lives in this moment. The more we bring ourselves to what’s before us, the more we register with all our senses—body, mind, and heart—and the more we can savor. Or, when facing challenges, the more we can learn. We actually live our lives rather than just thinking about them.

So now I’m catching myself. In times and places when I would have said I’m really looking forward to something, I adjust my language. What’s actually happening is that I’m excited now for something I anticipate will arrive. I’m noticing my current experience.

I love the shift for two reasons. One, it simply seems more accurate. As someone who delights in language precision, there’s gold in that hill right off the bat. More importantly, it takes the future off the hook. With this adjustment, I’m not longer setting myself up for deflation if what I’m anticipating doesn’t come true. I don’t need the future to happen the way I want in order to gain the benefit of enjoying my excitement now. I can relax my inclination to control. The positive vibes get banked. If disappointment arrives down the road, I’ve got that buffer to soften the blow.

The moment before the bite has a deliciousness of its own. Image courtesy of mccun934 on flickr.com.

The moment before the bite has a deliciousness of its own.
Image courtesy of mccun934 on flickr.com.

A similar dynamic can apply with looking back on fond memories. Rather getting caught in clinging to what was, I can notice and enjoy the pleasure I still gain—here, now—from the echoes of that experience. I’m not gripping for that goodness. I’m letting it wash over me.

Some might say I’m blinding myself with a semantic smokescreen. The linguistic shift doesn’t keep me from lingering. That may be true. And…I notice a significant difference whenever I remember and choose different words. My anticipation gets lighter and sweeter. My planning gets more creative and less fearful. And my memories slough off their baggage while leaving their lessons.

Try it for yourself. See what you think. And, if you like, let me know how it goes.

In this case, I don’t need to look forward to enjoy the possibility. I’m excited now to learn what insights you gain.

 

Ted teaching Buddhism for WebsiteTed DesMaisons is the founder and principal of Anima Learning, a collaborative consultancy that feeds the spark of curiosity and connection in leaders, educators, and individuals. He also serves as the US Coordinator for the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Project.

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Monster Baby #3: Do Mindfulness and Improv Breed Community? http://animalearning.com/2016/04/20/monster-baby-podcast-3-mindfulness-improv-breed-community/ Wed, 20 Apr 2016 16:48:16 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3520 In Monster Baby Episode #3, Ted and Lisa explore the ways that improv and mindfulness create community (2:25), whether mindfulness generates excessive self-focus (17:36), and the need for a balance between activity and quiet (20:42). From there, they consider how community provides a “tribe” of belonging (29:40), how mindfulness and improv cultivate certain values (35:21), [more…]

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In Monster Baby Episode #3, Ted and Lisa explore the ways that improv and mindfulness create community (2:25), whether mindfulness generates excessive self-focus (17:36), and the need for a balance between activity and quiet (20:42). From there, they consider how community provides a “tribe” of belonging (29:40), how mindfulness and improv cultivate certain values (35:21), and how quality presence heals (43:24). Listen in and get inspired for finding—or building—your own sense of belonging. Better yet, make sure to subscribe to the podcast and join the budding Monster Baby community. More good stuff to come!

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

Make sure to subscribe to get all future episodes as well!

The post Monster Baby #3: Do Mindfulness and Improv Breed Community? appeared first on Anima Learning.

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In Monster Baby Episode #3, Ted and Lisa explore the ways that improv and mindfulness create community (2:25), whether mindfulness generates excessive self-focus (17:36), and the need for a balance between activity and quiet (20:42). From there, In Monster Baby Episode #3, Ted and Lisa explore the ways that improv and mindfulness create community (2:25), whether mindfulness generates excessive self-focus (17:36), and the need for a balance between activity and quiet (20:42). From there, they consider how community provides a “tribe” of belonging (29:40), how mindfulness and improv cultivate certain values (35:21), and how quality presence heals (43:24). Listen in and get inspired for finding—or building—your own sense of belonging. Better yet, make sure to subscribe to the podcast and join the budding Monster Baby community. More good stuff to come! Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 55:27 3520
Monster Baby #2: Defining Mindfulness and Impulse vs. Pause http://animalearning.com/2016/04/20/monster-baby-podcast-2-defining-mindfulness-impulse-vs-pause/ Wed, 20 Apr 2016 16:42:46 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3518   In this second episode, Ted and Lisa dive into defining (or at least describing) mindfulness (3:37), discuss what mindfulness is not (16:53) and then explore how improvisation amplifies or differs from mindfulness (21:06). They close by talking about the tension between honoring our impulses and taking a mindfulness pause before acting (42:26). Thanks for [more…]

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In this second episode, Ted and Lisa dive into defining (or at least describing) mindfulness (3:37), discuss what mindfulness is not (16:53) and then explore how improvisation amplifies or differs from mindfulness (21:06). They close by talking about the tension between honoring our impulses and taking a mindfulness pause before acting (42:26). Thanks for listening in—and remember to subscribe so you get future episodes as well!

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

Make sure to subscribe to get all future episodes as well!

The post Monster Baby #2: Defining Mindfulness and Impulse vs. Pause appeared first on Anima Learning.

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  In this second episode, Ted and Lisa dive into defining (or at least describing) mindfulness (3:37), discuss what mindfulness is not (16:53) and then explore how improvisation amplifies or differs from mindfulness (21:06). In this second episode, Ted and Lisa start with a game of Convergence and then dive into defining (or at least describing) mindfulness (3:37), discuss what mindfulness is not (16:53) and then explore how improvisation amplifies or differs from mindfulness (21:06). They close by talking about the tension between honoring our impulses and taking a mindfulness pause before acting (42:26). Thanks for listening in—and remember to subscribe so you get future episodes as well! Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 58:45 3518
Monster Baby Podcast #1: Intro and Relationship to Failure http://animalearning.com/2016/04/19/monster-baby-podcast-1-intro-relationship-failure/ Tue, 19 Apr 2016 07:44:32 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3507 A Monster Baby podcast is born! In this inaugural episode, Ted and Lisa introduce themselves and offer the Monster Baby origin story (1:10) and talk about how mindfulness and improvisation relate to failure (14:53), including whether or not it makes sense to celebrate failure (35:40). Welcome to Monster Baby—we hope you enjoy the curious romp!   [more…]

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A Monster Baby podcast is born!

MonsterBabyLogo

In this inaugural episode, Ted and Lisa introduce themselves and offer the Monster Baby origin story (1:10) and talk about how mindfulness and improvisation relate to failure (14:53), including whether or not it makes sense to celebrate failure (35:40). Welcome to Monster Baby—we hope you enjoy the curious romp!

 

 

San Francisco improvisors Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland explore the beautiful, surprising and unruly intersections between mindfulness and improvisation as they seek to befriend that oft-hidden and sometimes scary part of all of us that can lead to a life well-lived.

Make sure to subscribe to get all future episodes as well!

 

The post Monster Baby Podcast #1: Intro and Relationship to Failure appeared first on Anima Learning.

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A Monster Baby podcast is born! In this inaugural episode, Ted and Lisa introduce themselves and offer the Monster Baby origin story (1:10) and talk about how mindfulness and improvisation relate to failure (14:53), In this inaugural episode, Ted and Lisa introduce themselves and offer the Monster Baby origin story (1:10) and talk about how mindfulness and improvisation relate to failure (14:53), including whether or not it makes sense to celebrate failure (35:40). Welcome to Monster Baby—we hope you enjoy the curious romp (and remember to subscribe to future podcasts)!!! Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland clean 49:09 3507
Peace or Privilege? The Paradox of Mindfulness and Social Change http://animalearning.com/2016/03/01/peace-privilege-paradox-mindfulness-social-change/ Tue, 01 Mar 2016 21:01:51 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3430 When I consider mindfulness and social change, two contrasting impulses arise within me. One voice suggests coming to peace with what is. That voice recognizes that the problem may not be “out there” so much as it is within me. That I need to develop a quiet, a stillness, a readiness, a clarity of intention before I [more…]

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When I consider mindfulness and social change, two contrasting impulses arise within me.

One voice suggests coming to peace with what is. That voice recognizes that the problem may not be “out there” so much as it is within me. That I need to develop a quiet, a stillness, a readiness, a clarity of intention before I act so that that when I do act, I do so having filtered out the far-reaching traces of my greed, malice, confusion and grasping—as those energies will only re-insert and perpetuate the injustice I’m seeking to end. As mindfulness coach George Mumford asserts, I need to find and maintain the calm eye within the storm. To this voice, social change remains primarily an inside job.

The storm may swirl, but a calm eye remains at the center. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The storm may swirl, but a calm eye remains at the center.
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

At the same time, another voice calls, things do need to change. Now.

I need to wake up from my complacency and comfort, to open my eyes to the very real suffering happening around me. My privilege may let me linger in an apparent world where the universe feels fundamentally friendly. But—and—others have been dealt hugely different circumstances through no fault of their own.

For them, the universe often presents with greater ferocity. The woman—every woman?—who must run an instantaneous risk assessment every time she meets a new man. The faithful parent who feels a twinge of heartbreak every day she drops her kids at school because she knows the building has the word “Hebrew” or “Jewish” on its side, announcing to those who would do harm where her children are. Or the friend of black African heritage whose heart and hormones surge into life-protective overdrive when blue lights flash behind him on the road because he knows this could be the day a failed taillight leads to another tragic ending.

Is their universe fundamentally friendly? Is it truly safe? As a white man with layers of privilege to spare, I do well to sit in humility before I claim too much about the beauty and ease that come from accepting the world as it is—and I better get off my ass and do something about helping bring about the world I want.

My heart might race a bit to see this in my rear-view mirror, but I wouldn't fear for my safety. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia.)

My heart might race a bit to see this in my rear-view mirror, but I wouldn’t fear for my safety.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia.)

Paradoxically so, both voices ring true. All is well. All is not well. At the same time. And that simultaneous truth could lead to paralysis. I’ll never figure it out and I don’t want to make a mistake. So I’ll stay out of the fray.

This is where meditation and mindfulness practice come in. In some mysterious alchemical manner, each breath we take with intention and presence, we build our capacity to hold such paradox. Each time we return attention from its wandering way, we make more space for mystery. Any paralyzing properties transform into fuel for engaged inquiry and open-hearted participation. We build a more muscular strength for confronting the truth—and acting on it. We may not have an immediate answer, but we can lean into living the questions. We can take grounded and patient part in helping discover what comes next. We might make mistakes…and we might make a difference.

 

Ted teaching Buddhism for WebsiteTed DesMaisons is the founder and principal of Anima Learning, a collaborative consultancy that honors and feeds the spark of curiosity in leaders, educators, and individuals. He also serves as the US Coordinator for the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fifty Nifty Swifties http://animalearning.com/2016/02/16/fifty-nifty-swifties/ http://animalearning.com/2016/02/16/fifty-nifty-swifties/#comments Tue, 16 Feb 2016 21:31:59 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3415 Last week, I passed through Phoenix, Arizona for a work gig and got the chance to hang with my niece, Madison, and her mom, Priscilla. Passing along more of our family’s punning heritage, I introduced Madison to the Tom Swifty form, a pun-derful method of livening up quotations by linking the speaker’s content with the [more…]

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A Tom Swifty is a form of Wellerism, derived from the character of Samuel Weller, witty servant of Mr. Pickwick in the story Pickwick Papers (1836–37) by Charles Dickens. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

A Tom Swifty is a form of Wellerism, derived from the character of Samuel Weller, witty servant of Mr. Pickwick in the story Pickwick Papers (1836–37) by Charles Dickens.
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Last week, I passed through Phoenix, Arizona for a work gig and got the chance to hang with my niece, Madison, and her mom, Priscilla. Passing along more of our family’s punning heritage, I introduced Madison to the Tom Swifty form, a pun-derful method of livening up quotations by linking the speaker’s content with the manner in which it was said.1

It’s easier to show than to describe, so I pointed her to the archetypal example:

“We must hurry,” said Tom Swiftly.

From that original, the form eventually came to be called a ‘Tom Swifty.’ Many, many great Swifties have been formed since, like:

“I might as well be dead,” Tom croaked.

“I have no flowers,” Tom said lackadaisically.

“I have multiple personalities,” Tom said, being frank.

Madison and I couldn’t resist generating some of our own. Here’s some of what we came up with. What ones would you add? (Feel free to use the comments section!)

1. “Looks like the party’s been cancelled,” Tom said unabashedly.

2. “I’m so sad the Patriots lost,” Tom moaned deflatedly.

3. “Let’s cross the river,” Tom suggested swimmingly.

4. “I think the bread dough’s done,” Tom said needily.

5. “Send them to prison,” Tom declared with conviction.

6. “Aw, hell!” said Tom devilishly.

7. “I trust your judgment on the window dressings,” Tom said blindly.

8. “Refrigerator’s up and running,” Tom said chillingly.

9. “I used to hang around these parts,” Tom said hauntingly.

10. “If I could just knock these last two pins down,” Tom said sparingly.

11. “Let’s organize a union,” Tom said strikingly.

12. “Want to listen to my new pacemaker?” Tom asked brokenheartedly.

13. “It’s a bit small for an apartment,” Tom said flatly.

14. “Where should I throw the boomerang?” Tom asked to himself.

15. “Well, somebody has to make Greek sandwiches,” Tom said heroically.

16. “It sure takes a long time to get across Kansas,” Tom noted plainly.

17. “OK, she’ll get into Harvard,” Tom admitted.

18. “I’ve never seen such a feline mural,” Tom caterwauled.

19. “Those tenants left every window open!,” Tom vented.

20. “The engine’s dying,” Tom sputtered.

21. “Your rope and harness are all set, Senator Cruz,” Tom said belatedly.

22. “They make the best bats in Louisville,” Tom said sluggishly.

23. “I’ll leave you everything when I die,” Tom said willingly.

24. “How about we take in a Tennessee Williams show?” Tom asked playfully.

25. “Low five!” suggested Tom underhandedly.

"There are all sorts of Tom Swift stories," he added with novelty. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

“There are all sorts of Tom Swift stories,” he added with novelty.
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

26. “Ready, set, GO!” Tom said with a start.

27. “My account grows with compound interest,” Tom said appreciatively.

28. “I disliked that writing topic,” Tom said promptly.

29. “I wrapped the leftovers with cling wrap,” said Tom gladly.

30. “I love Halloween candy,” Tom snickered.

31. “I left my two children,” Tom said with abandon.

32. “I’m taking back my share of the blankets,” Tom said covertly.

33. “I’m going to feed the chickens,” Tom said peckishly.

34. “Doc, I dreamed I was a pony,” Tom said a little hoarsely.

35. “Look at my fish pond, “ Tom said coyly.

36. “Ronald McDonald and Hamburglar are here, sure, but the party doesn’t feel complete,” Tom said grimacingly.

37. “I can’t even,” Tom said oddly.

38. “I’d like to make a prune,” Tom said with aplomb.

39. “I also prefer Yves St. Laurent,” Tom said in like fashion.

40. “En garde, you watchman of the night!,” Tom said, taking a stab in the dark.

41. “I refuse,” Tom said trashily.

42. “Time to roll up our sleeves,” Tom said off the cuff.

43. “I can’t tell if I’m male or female,” Tom said with a hidden agenda.

44. “They sent Spock down to the planet’s surface!” Tom beamed.

45. “I’ve never felt this close to someone,” Tom intimated.

46. “This guitar lick is a challenge,” Tom fretted.

47. “I love playing catch,” Tom said intermittently.

48. “Marble looks better than formica,” countered Tom.

49. “I’d like to teach university students,” Tom proffered.

50. “I’ll never again argue about GPS directions,” Tom said, driving his point home.

[1] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Swifty for more complete info.

 

Ted teaching Buddhism for WebsiteTed DesMaisons is the founder and principal of Anima Learning, a collaborative consultancy that honors and feeds the spark of curiosity in leaders, educators, and individuals. He also serves as the US Coordinator for the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Project.

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Improvisation as Spiritual Practice: A Deepening Path http://animalearning.com/2016/01/07/improvisation-as-spiritual-practice-a-deepening-path/ http://animalearning.com/2016/01/07/improvisation-as-spiritual-practice-a-deepening-path/#comments Fri, 08 Jan 2016 00:13:09 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3367 Want to explore all this in person? Join our Monster Baby Live! retreat in Maine this June!       This fall, I had the immense pleasure of spending four days in the woods outside Montreal with a most beautiful crew of applied improvisors. We laughed, we danced, we played, we performed, we ate amazing food [more…]

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Want to explore all this in person? Join our Monster Baby Live! retreat in Maine this June!

 

 

 

This fall, I had the immense pleasure of spending four days in the woods outside Montreal with a most beautiful crew of applied improvisors. We laughed, we danced, we played, we performed, we ate amazing food and we shared incredible conversation. I think I fell in love with about 15 people and made or renewed connections with a dozen dozen more. Good times.1

In amidst that week, I also had the privilege of presenting a TED-type talk on Improvisation as Spiritual Practice.2 Here’s the video if you’d like to see it–let me know what you think!

 

Here are a few great photos from the week as well, almost all of which were taken by the talented Alex Tran of AlexTranphotography.com.

Click to view slideshow.

If you think you might like to join next year’s Applied Improvisation Network (2017) conference in Irvine, CA, this August, get your name on the conference wait list now!

2 Of course, all my speaking engagements are Ted Talks of a sort.

 

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Judgment vs. Discernment (Part 2 of 2 in a series on How to Evaluate Choices Without Shutting Down the Creative Muse) http://animalearning.com/2015/12/24/judgment-vs-discernment-part-2-of-2-in-a-series-on-how-to-evaluate-choices-without-shutting-down-the-creative-muse/ Thu, 24 Dec 2015 17:30:17 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3311 For Part 1 of this series, “Unleash the Hounds!” click here. An improvisor who wants access to a free flow of ideas needs to unleash her creative imagination from the shackles of self-judgment and self-censorship. He needs to let go of worrying what others will think of him. As the renowned improv teacher Keith Johnstone [more…]

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For Part 1 of this series, “Unleash the Hounds!” click here.

An improvisor who wants access to a free flow of ideas needs to unleash her creative imagination from the shackles of self-judgment and self-censorship. He needs to let go of worrying what others will think of him. As the renowned improv teacher Keith Johnstone asserts, it’s this very spontaneity that brings us closer to the power of authentic performance: “We struggle against our imaginations, especially when we try to be imaginative…[but]…we are not responsible for the content of our imaginations.”[1] Such release marks a crucial first step for early improvisors.

Judgment can be a brutal idea-squelcher. (Michelangelo's The Last Judgment, image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Judgment can be a brutal idea-squelcher.
(Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Eventually, of course, we can—and I would argue, need to—move to greater sophistication. While making internal space for uninterrupted flow, we can also recognize our responsibility to larger societal patterns and dynamics. Our work, especially when presented publically, becomes a force that perpetrates and perpetuates or one that illuminates and liberates. We may not be responsible for the content of our imaginations, but we are accountable for what we do with that content once it shows up.

How do we take on such intention without restraining creativity, then? How can we monitor our impulses without censoring them? In short, we move from judgment to discernment.

Judgment usually comes as an immediate reflexive reaction. It makes a personal assessment—about the self or others—and elevates the one judging while diminishing the judged. It declares a simple “yes” or “no” and calcifies that decision in a way that resists new information or changing conditions. Because it springs so quickly from the well-grooved channels of the unconscious mind, it often relies on prejudice or fear and thus serves dominant social paradigms. It’s no wonder that creativity would shrink in its presence.

Discernment, on the other hand, suggests a more patient, considered response. It makes a situational or behavioral assessment—rather than a personal one—and recognizes an inter-relationship between the discerner and the discerned. Rather than establishing a simple yes or no, it asks “how does this match my intention?” and engages in ongoing, flexible interaction to generate more understanding. It brings the conscious mind into friendly contact with the unconscious and, as such, can acknowledge prejudice and fear without giving in to them. It honors the creative

Judgment vs Discernment Grid PNG

Example #1: Working with

Improv maven Rebecca Stockley shared one great example of this kind of shift—from judgment of to working with—from one of her classes. In a two-person scene with one male and one female player, the man started onstage, sat down and immediately began to mime masturbating. The other students in the class gasped—clearly, the offer had struck a nerve of some sort—and Rebecca had to decide in a moment what to do. She knew the guy might have just been making a random, unfiltered offer or he might have been intending a kind of aggressive in-your-face maneuver. She also knew that a saucy improviser might slough off any potential offense by coming on stage—oops, pun not originally intended—and turning the tables on the guy or by making an honest, vulnerable scene out of the questionable start.

When Rebecca looked over to the female student, however, she sensed real discomfort. So, in that moment, she paused the group and asked the guy on stage a question: “OK, so you made the choice you did, which was fine. [acknowledging that this came from his imagination and is part of human experience] How do you think your partner feels about the offer?” Immediately, the young man realized that the offer might make his partner uncomfortable and that she might not know how to respond appropriately. Once he had that insight, Rebecca said, “OK, how about we start the scene over with a new choice.” It wasn’t that the first offer was wrong, per se, it was that it had an unwanted impact. So they quickly and easily shifted the scene to take better care of each other—all without shaming the creative mind.

Pretty straightforward. If your unleashed dog poops on the lawn, you clean up the mess. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Pretty straightforward. If your unleashed dog poops on the lawn, you clean up the mess.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Revisiting the analogy of letting a dog off leash, Rebecca’s situation might be the equivalent of having to clean an accidental poop off a neighbor’s lawn. You wish the dog hadn’t done it, but you need not freak out or get overly apologetic. Shit happens.[2] You just clean up the mess.

Example #2: Setting an intention

Another way skillful improvisors practice discernment with creative throughput is to set an intention. In other words, inviting or magnetizing a certain kind of idea to come forward. BATS Improv and the Improv Playhouse of San Francisco (IPSF) have a tradition and style that I like: start scenes with a positive outlook. Or at least in a place of everyday neutral. Everyone gets along fine. Nothing’s wrong. Nobody’s angry. Or if they’re angry, that’s just how they always are—like a curmudgeonly great uncle. Everyone else knows he’s that way and loves him anyway.

After a recent IPSF show, Tim Orr recounted his thought process as he first came on stage at the start of the show. As an audience, we had established that the story would take place in a psych ward. We also knew what components made up the stage: a pill dispensation desk, a time out platform, a few doors and entryways, a one-way mirror, and a somewhat ominous noose hanging on the wall. Lastly, another improvisor, Ben Johnson, had started on stage before the lights came up. He was sitting there, smoking and reading a book. Of course, Tim had a limitless range of options to choose from: his character could have been pissy, irritated, jealous, insecure or any other negative state. Instead, as Tim described, “I only knew that something good had just happened to me and that my character liked Ben’s character.” It was a sweet, simple choice that left plenty of room for spontaneity.

Why not start with happy and healthy? (Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Why not start with happy and healthy?
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

And that’s how almost every IPSF show starts: characters tend to like each other. They’re generally happy and healthy. They’re also flawed and inevitably stumble into some sort of conflict or tension but, in general, they’re likable and care about each other. That start sets a tone and draws the audience in. We get to spend time with characters that we come to love. Even if the story ends without a happy ending, we leave the theater feeling uplifted or nourished.

I know some improvisors, including those who espouse a mindful improv practice, who posit that it’s better to be honest with whatever comes through in the moment. If your character feels cranky, they say, start cranky. If things start broken, they start broken. On one level, I agree: once a scene has started in that direction, one needs to stay present with that reality. Best not to get too attached—or even attached at all—to a positive start. At the same time, one can still set an intention to establish a tendency or likelihood. In this more positive or at least neutral case, the improvisor—and even the character—chooses to begin in a place of discernment rather than judgment.

Example #3: Pause

A third way improvisors can take responsibility for creative flow without the interruption of self-censorship is simply to pause. Dave Dennison, also of BATS Improv, models this well as a performer and as a coach. In his approach, the relaxed pause is not a stammer, a waffle or a wimping out but, rather, an attentive moment to “look around” and engage the imagination. Once the imagination has kicked up a few possible responses to whatever offer has come up, the improvisor can make a choice among them.

“It’s not that one has to say everything out loud, but to allow it to move through. My feeling isn’t that the group should be ‘obscene,’ but that they should be aware of the ideas that are occurring to them. I don’t want them to go rigid or blank out, but to laugh, and say ‘I’m not saying that’ or whatever.” --Keith Johnstone (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

“It’s not that one has to say everything out loud, but to allow it to move through. My feeling isn’t that the group should be ‘obscene,’ but that they should be aware of the ideas that are occurring to them. I don’t want them to go rigid or blank out, but to laugh, and say ‘I’m not saying that’ or whatever.” –Keith Johnstone
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I recently had this happen on stage myself. My troupemates and I had started the evening with three and we had noticed aloud that in two of the stories, female characters had been abducted. We managed to avoid judging or shaming ourselves for it—stuff happens—and, at the same time, we noted what could be the start of an unwanted pattern. In the next scene of our emerging “Postapocalyptic: The Musical!,” my bad guy character had the woman he’d captured in his underground bunker and was trying to seduce her to help repopulate his zone. Looking for inspiration, I, as the character, reached into a nook on an imaginary wall and pulled out a cup-sized space object in my hand. My first thought was that I had pulled out a drugged drink that I would give the woman. That’s what my imagination offered up. In that moment, as I’ve been trying to do while taking Dave’s classes, I quietly paused and noted internally that, nope, I didn’t want to go there. Enough of the patriarchal mistreatment of women theme for tonight. I thanked the idea for coming forward and waited for the next: what else could this shape-of-hand indicate? Almost immediately, I ‘saw’ that it was a jar of gumsticks. My character pulled one out and gave it to the woman so her breath would be fresh. What would have been resolutely creepy or unsavory became much lighter and more whimsical. That tiny pause made space for a more responsible choice on stage.

A moment's pause can open up new vistas of possibility. (Image courtesy of Tyler Yeo on flickr.com)

A moment’s pause can open up new vistas of possibility.
(Image courtesy of Tyler Yeo on flickr.com)

This pause on stage or in an improv game almost precisely mirrors the quiet breath of mindfulness practice. An experience happens or a thought arises, one that I might register as pleasant or unpleasant, but rather than reacting in my typical way—grasping at attraction or flinching at aversion—I simply pause. In that space, more possibilities and options for my next move emerge. Now I have a range to choose from. Rather than reacting, I’m responding.

Example #4: Trust your team

Lastly, we can move from a restrictive judgment of our ideas to a healthy discernment by trusting our stagemates—or, off-stage, our teammates and friends—to call us on our missteps and take care of us when we’re hurting. We can each serve as the other’s loving filter, naming without blaming that “Ouch, that hurt” or “Check that out—that’s uncomfortable.” Skillful improvisors can also make sense of a ‘mistake’ in the moment by using it and building on it. Maybe a heinous character in a scene says or does something unsavory but the other characters rally in resourceful response to provide effective foil. Or maybe together we justify the hiccup by providing a glimpse of a grittier reality. Life includes unpleasantness and obscenity. Theater can too. With a reliable group dynamic, we can trust our support and freer ideas can keep coming.

Good teammates know how to raise an objection without blocking creative flow. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Good teammates know how to raise an objection without blocking creative flow.
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Another BATS scene brought some of these dynamics to life. This long-form show was a courtroom drama where a female prostitute was being questioned on the stand. The male defense attorney asked her to replay the sounds from her sexual encounter with the defendant—an understandable suggestion pushed forward from the imagination. In that moment, though, the improvisor playing the prostitute felt uncomfortable with the request—as her character did—and balked. Recognizing the awkwardness, the prostitute’s female lawyer, stepped in and blurted “Objection!” I love this maneuver: the improvisor sensed and sheltered her female colleague’s discomfort without shaming or rejecting what the male improvisor’s imagination had offered. In fact, while in character, she actually validated the offer, accepting the reality of courtroom tension and opposing character objectives. In doing so, she took care of both company members.

Different settings, different challenges

Of course, it’s easiest to welcome in any and all ideas when we’re simply playing improv games in a workshop or learning setting. The teacher or facilitator can protect the safety and deal with any upsets. You’re not likely to cut too deep. The stakes raise a bit when you start to move into scenework, where the lines between character and improvisor can get a bit blurry. Move into public performance and the impact of our choices grows even more significant: now we’ve got an audience who will go out into the world. We’ve got organizational and financial reputations to tend. And then there’s the crucible of our everyday lives: with spouses, bosses and workers, family members, and friends. What’s true in the safe setting of the improv class holds true for all the others, however: freer access to our creative ideas will bring greater joy, flexibility and adventure. And an approach of discernment rather than judgment will keep those ideas coming.

The hotter the crucible, the more care you need for bringing forth creative gold. (Image courtesy of Pixabay)

The hotter the crucible, the more care goes into bringing forth creative gold.
(Image courtesy of Pixabay)

Ultimately, we’re convincing our muses to trust our fundamental shift in attitude. We change our internal dialogue in relation to our suggestions. We choose to hang with others who celebrate and build upon our offers and we offer the same in return. Once the muses buy in to our overall stance—oh, you’ve finally established a pattern of welcoming in whatever we send! Great, we’ll send more!—they need not shrink or flinch, even in times of discerned evaluation. Not every idea needs acting on. The muses get that. Once a friendly rapport has been established, the unleashed mind need not run off in crazy abandon. It can settle into contented connection, both willfully wild and open to refinement. What a sweet spot that is.

[1] Keith Johnstone, Impro, p. 105.

[2] In this analogy, literally.

The post Judgment vs. Discernment (Part 2 of 2 in a series on How to Evaluate Choices Without Shutting Down the Creative Muse) appeared first on Anima Learning.

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Return of Spontaneity School: A Third Set of Improv Games for the Classroom and Work Environment http://animalearning.com/2015/12/09/return-of-spontaneity-school-a-third-set-of-improv-games-for-the-classroom-and-work-environment/ Wed, 09 Dec 2015 17:00:40 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=3227 Want to experience the joy of these games in person? Come to our Improv Wisdom workshop this June in Maine or this September in Petaluma, CA!   Over the last few years, this blog’s most-read post has been the original Spontaneity School: 10 Improv Games to Develop Courage, Compassion, and Creativity. Last year, we put [more…]

The post Return of Spontaneity School: A Third Set of Improv Games for the Classroom and Work Environment appeared first on Anima Learning.

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IMG_2679Want to experience the joy of these games in person? Come to our Improv Wisdom workshop this June in Maine or this September in Petaluma, CA!

 

Over the last few years, this blog’s most-read post has been the original Spontaneity School: 10 Improv Games to Develop Courage, Compassion, and Creativity. Last year, we put together a sequel list to complement the first. With another year of travels and workshops under the belt, here’s a third list to draw from. Hopefully, you’ll find them both useful and fun!

For anyone looking to tap more meaning and purpose from any of these games, try running a debrief that includes some version of the following questions:

1. What did you notice?
2. How did you feel during the exercise? What was your emotional experience of it?
3. What does this have to do with what we’re trying to accomplish? How does it apply?
4. What can you do going forward to implement these insights?

All right. That should count as enough prep. Let’s get to the games themselves! (You can follow the links immediately below if you want to go directly to a particular game.)

  1. 1-2-3 or Clap-Snap-Stomp
  2. Random Acts of Kindness
  3. Colombia Warm-Up
  4. You Pattern(s)
  5. Complementary Poses
  6. “Yes, and” Picnic
  7. Word-at-a-Time Customer Service Letter
  8. Portkey
  9. Clover

1. 1-2-3 or Clap-Snap-Stomp

This game lights opens up a fresh can of ready-to-learn. As such, it’s become my go-to for opening a class or workshop: good laughs, healthy challenge, and a reliably powerful kicker of an insight.

This exercise just might topple your ability to count normally. Image courtesy of Pixabay.com.

This exercise just might topple your ability to count normally.
(Image courtesy of Pixabay.com.)

Have folks break into pairs, one partner facing the other. Their task is to count to three again and again, as fast as they can, alternating numbers. Partner A says “One,” Partner B says “Two,” and A finishes the triplet by saying “Three.” As soon as they’ve finished, they start again, this time B leading with “One” so the counting loops around in continuous fashion. After a minute or so, check in with players to see how that went. You’ll likely find folks surprised by how difficult the task proved.

After that first round, offer directions for the second: with the same partners as before, count back and forth again, but instead of saying “One,” participants should clap. Now, the sequence goes Clap-“Two”-“Three.” Invite players to register their reactions if they “fail” or make a mistake. What happens, specifically, in their bodies, faces, or thoughts? After this round, you’ll often find that your pairs struggled even more—the toggling between verbal and kinesthetic processing takes a bit more brain time for most.

The next round ups the ante even further: instead of saying “Two,” players now snap their fingers so the rhythm goes Clap-Snap-“Three.” Same partners, same task: alternate back and forth, going as quickly as possible. Before sending folks off, however, offer one other instruction. If a player makes a mistake—saying the wrong number, making the wrong gesture, taking too long or just getting generally flummoxed—they should raise both their hands above their head with a joyous release of “Woo Hoo!!!” (Yes, this is a simplified version of the classic improviser tribe’s Failure Bow or Circus Bow.) In a brief debrief after the round, make sure to ask what it was like to inject the Woo Hoo! into the proceedings. Most likely, you’ll find that it lightens the mood, adds laughter, and makes the mistakes kind of fun. And there’s good reason for that.

The fourth round makes the entire pattern kinesthetic, shifting all the way from “One-Two-Three” to Clap-Snap-Stomp. Here, the task becomes like a step routine, a rhythm to sink into. After giving directions but before sending the troupe off to try, ask them to tweak their Woo Hoo! practice as well. This time, when either partner messes up, both should break into the enthusiastic Woo Hoo!. After giving a good bit of time for the practice, again check in with the group. How was that? What did you notice? Usually—though not always—your pairs will find this easier than the previous two rounds. And the shared Woo Hoo! builds the feeling of partnership. Interesting.

As a final challenge, invite your pairs to go all the way back to the beginning to try their original “One-Two-Three” verbal sequence. Almost inevitably, folks find that they’re faster, more comfortable, and more connected—and they make fewer errors. This makes a great teaching moment: in just a few minutes, we have put ourselves through an honest challenge and we’ve achieved real growth without even realizing it. The metaphors for teaching and learning are plenty here. Feel free to dive in explicitly or just to nod in their direction. Either way, the exercise will hold its sturdy own.

Insider Tips:

  • In each round, encourage folks to go even faster. We tend to slow down to keep ourselves safe and to do the job “correctly.” The point of this game is to get to that dangerous (and fun!) edge of imminent “failure.”
  • Pay attention to posture and stance. As is almost always true, an athletic, engaged, and ready position should help a pair’s performance.
  • When folks reveal that they’ve discovered a helpful pattern—I noticed early on that I could just concentrate on my responsibility as “1-3-2”—you can note how cleverly the mind looks for solutions to keep us safe. Honor that impulse and then encourage folks to put such ‘tricks’ on hold for the time being. Let them sink into the uncertainty.
  • When you first introduce the “Woo Hoo!,” practice a few times with everyone together so they can work through any hesitation for the goofiness of it. Oh, everyone else is participating? I guess I can go there too.
  • Invite participants to make eye contact with their partners and see if that changes the experience at all.

2. Random Acts of Kindness

Image courtesy of Heath Brandon. https://www.flickr.com/photos/heathbrandon/3296035191

Image courtesy of Heath Brandon.
(https://www.flickr.com/photos/heathbrandon/3296035191)

This brand new game comes from the warm heart of fellow Applied Improvisor, Nat Tsolak. With your whole group in a circle, one person shares a random act of kindness that the person to their right offered at some point in the recent past. Nearly without fail, the story of the random act will bring a smile to the face of the person who offered the kindness—even though the story and act have been invented on the spot. As Nat has written, “This game is good for all levels, beginners and advanced, can build trust quickly within the group,…helps to build a group mind, helps with character creation, gift-giving, and the game itself is an act of kindness toward the other person and toward oneself.”

Insider Tips:

  • Try having the storyteller speak to the group about the person or to the person directly and notice how each changes the tone or feeling.
  • Remind folks about the importance of making it up—as in, I wouldn’t share something that I saw my neighbor actually do in real life. The conceit maintains a bit of personal privacy within the game’s palpable tenderness.
  • As with Sound Ball, encourage folks to catch themselves if they start preparing. Invite them instead to listen wholeheartedly to each Random Act as the stories move around the circle and trust that what they need will be there when their turn arrives.
  • If a storyteller struggles to come up with something, encourage them to look in the eyes of the person they’re speaking about. That simple connection can open new channels of inspiration.
  • No need to make the acts impressive or clever or funny—the game isn’t a competition to see who can come up with the best story. Trust the power in mundane, everyday random acts of kindness.
  • My mentor Patricia Ryan Madson suggests a lovely “yes, and” adaptation for the game: have the recipient of the story—the alleged kindness-doer—add to the telling with a short affirmation. Even when we’re making it up, it can be hard to hear our good deeds brought to light. Take care to ensure the additional words actually affirm (“Yes, I could see that the old woman really needed a hand.”) rather than diminish (“I knew I’d earn brownie points with the wife.”) the kindness of the act.

3. Colombia Warm-Up

If you find your brain flapping in the wind after this game, you won't be alone. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

If you find your brain flapping in the wind after this game, you won’t be alone.
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

I learned this great game from Shawn Kinley of the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary, Alberta—and he learned it from a colleague in Colombia, South America. Paradoxically, it works well both for focusing attention and for building multi-channel awareness.

Have your group form pairs, one partner facing the other. One partner, the first leader, makes a gesture or takes a posture and holds it. Tell folks that you, as a facilitator, will establish a rhythm by clapping. With each subsequent clap, the leader should take a new position—and the follower should take the leader’s previous position. Both move at the same time and then hold their respective “new” positions. After a while with that leader-follower pairing, ask folks to switch roles and then play again.

For a second iteration, switch to a verbal version of the game. Here, the leader starts an improvised story. See if they can relax about having to create a “good” story—the quality isn’t really the point. Instead, with each rhythmic clap, the leader says the next word of the story. As with the kinesthetic version, the follower follows along, one word behind the story teller. When the leader says, “Once,” the follower waits. When the leader says “upon,” the follower says “Once.” And so on. Make sure to give the first follower a chance to lead as well.

For the brain melting piece de resistance, you can play both versions…simultaneously. One person leads the gestures while following the words. The other person leads the words while following the gestures. It takes great concentration and effort—or maybe it takes relaxing into a different kind of intelligence than we normally use. Either way, when pairs find the sweet spot of shared flow, even for a few moments, it creates strong feelings of accomplishment. And the ‘mistakes’ along the way prove great fun as well.

Insider Tips:

  • As the pace-setter, make sure to start slow and steady so folks get the idea of the game. Once they get the hang of it, you can slowly increase the tempo.
  • If the follower finds themselves in synch with the leader—those mirror neurons can take over!—just invite them to pause to reestablish the one-behind lag without being too hard on themselves.
  • Encourage the leader to challenge the follower by playing with their full range of possible movements. Go high, go low. Try big, try small. Make funny or emotional faces. Be bold.

4. You Pattern(s)

Oh, the patterns that can emerge! Image courtesy of BrewBooks. https://www.flickr.com/photos/brewbooks/3603084795

Oh, the patterns that can emerge!
Image courtesy of BrewBooks.
(https://www.flickr.com/photos/brewbooks/3603084795)

This pattern game takes a while to set up but proves well worth the wait, challenging the group’s attention muscles and bringing to light waves of insight for communication in chaotic settings.

Start with the group standing in a circle. Explain that you’ll be forming a pattern in the group that will include each person once before returning back to you. Gesture directly at someone else in the group—an open hand comes across as less aggressive than a finger point—and say “You.” That person then gestures to someone else and says the same “You.” Those who have received the “you” already should keep their non-pointing hand on their heart or on top of their head to show they’ve already been included. Eventually the pattern comes back to you, the facilitator.

Once the pattern is complete, review the pattern—each person pointing to the same person they did when the pattern was established—a few times to make sure the group has it well remembered. Experiment with starting a few simultaneous runs through the pattern so the group has three or four “you”s operating at once. Pause to debrief as necessary.

OK. So that’s the first pattern. Next, get a suggestion for a new category that has plenty of options to it (“animals,” “breakfast cereals,” “types of shoe” or something similar). This time, establish a new pattern where each person adds a different example of something in that category while pointing to a new person—not the person they pointed to during the “you” pattern. If animals were the category, we might hear “Iguana,” then “ocelot,” “seahorse,” “duck,” “leopard,” “owl,” “tortoise,” “honey badger,” “coyote,” “scorpion,” and “peacock.” Again, folks should indicate in some way that they’ve already been selected for the pattern.

As with the first, you can review the new pattern to make sure the group has it down, initiating a few concurrent cycles. Once the group has demonstrated mastery there, reintroduce the “You” pattern and see if you can get that successfully running with the new pattern at the same time.

When the group has two patterns down, establish a third with a new category—again, with folks pointing to another different person—and see if you can get all three going at once.

Insider Tips:

  • The first time through, recommend that folks pay careful attention who they send the “you” to and whom they receive it from.
  • If the group “drops” a pattern—you find that it has simply disappeared—you can simply reinitiate that pattern or, maybe more valuably, explore with the group why and how patterns get dropped. That conversation often proves fruitful for exploring a crucial component to the game. Your job as a sender is not just to put your message out there, it’s to make sure it was received.
  • Feel free to make the game even more challenging by adding even more patterns, establishing one pattern by throwing a koosh or other soft object, or by having people mill about the room. Or maybe you do one pattern silently. For an even crazier experience, add in a Go! Pattern.  Get creative and see what happens!

5. Complementary Poses

Complementary poses can look like dance. Photo courtesy of JD Hancock. http://photos.jdhancock.com/photo/2011-10-02-235943-revenge-of-return-of-the-jedi.html

Complementary poses can look like dance.
(Image courtesy of JD Hancock. http://photos.jdhancock.com/photo/2011-10-02-235943-revenge-of-return-of-the-jedi.html)

A super-simple exercise, but an important one as a lead-in to many other games like I Am a Tree or Build a Machine. One person, anyone, starts in the middle of a group circle and strikes a pose, any pose. A second person comes into the middle to take and hold a complementary pose. They could match the person in the middle, mirror them, or create a mini-story snapshot with the addition—again, anything’s valid. The first person then says “Thank you” to the second and someone new comes in to offer a complementary pose to the one left behind. Person #2 then says “Thank you” to person #3 and the game continues on from there.

Insider Tips:

  • Make sure the “Thank you” stays sincere and warm-hearted rather than sarcastic or dismissive.
  • Encourage folks to follow their impulses here—poses need not be funny, clever, cute, or original. Be average. They can even step into the circle before they even know what they’re going to do, letting their momentum of commitment lead them to the complementary pose they eventually take.

6. “Yes, and” Picnic

This game offers a guttural glimpse at the power of saying yes to our partner’s offers. I usually do this in pairs as well, though it could work fine in groups of three as well. After determining who will start, the first partner makes a suggestion for a picnic. Partner #2 responds by saying “No…,” making sure to offer a reason why they can’t or won’t do what Partner #1 recommended. (As with the “thank you” in complementary poses, it helps to keep the “no” here pleasant. It’s not dismissive or angry in response to the idea, it’s just that there’s a reason why it won’t work.) Then Partner #2 offers their own suggestion and Partner #1 responds with a “no” of their own, again with an explanation. Allow the pair to go back and forth a at least three times before pausing to debrief how the planning went.

You'd think it would be easy to plan a picnic. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

You’d think it would be easy to plan a picnic.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

For the second round, have the partners wipe the slate clean so they’re planning an entirely different picnic. This time, rather than starting with “no,” they should start each response with the words “Yes, but…” After a partner explains the “but,” they make their own suggestion for the picnic.

In a third round, have each partner start every offering after the first with “Yes, and.” See if they can have what they add be specifically related to whatever suggestion just came through. So rather than responding to “Let’s bring our guitars to the waterfront” with “Yes, and we can bring sandwiches,” they might offer “Yes, and we can bring microphones and an amplifier as well.”

Even a short debrief will almost always draw out the greater joy, stronger connection, and more imaginative creativity that comes from working in the lsat mode. As Keith Johnstone proffers, “Those who say yes are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say no are rewarded by the safety they attain.”

Insider Tips:

  • Most folks get absolutely nowhere with their picnic plans in the first round. They might make a touch of progress in the second, but often feel even worse because they’re hearing the “yes” but not feeling its full power. The “yes, and” round then provides a huge surge in energy and laughter as people start to make fantastical progress on their interesting picnics. That said, make sure all the way through to acknowledge whatever experience people are having—it’s not always predictable.
  • If you have time and want to explore the concept even further, you can try a fourth round where each partner starts with “What I like about that idea is…____________, and….” This keeps the “yes, and” momentum going while also helping folks see that the literal words matter less than the looking for something positive to build on and then doing that building.

7. Word-at-a-Time Customer Service Letter—This is a simple standby improv exercise but a powerful one for helping practice the principles of listening well, making your partner look good, and saying ‘yes, and.’ Working in twos and speaking aloud, have each pair write a customer service letter, alternating to contributions one word at a time. Once the letter feels done, they should “sign” it with a name and then write a return letter back from the customer service department.

Encourage game players to simply trust the obvious when listening for the next word. If they’re really paying attention to their partner—rather than trying to control or plan ahead—the next word will likely be right there.

Insider Tips:

  • The faster folks go, the easier it becomes because the letter starts to sound more natural.
  • To that end, recommend that players use a regular speaking tone of voice rather…than…opting…for…one…robotic…word…at…a…time.
  • Encourage participants to monitor their own inclination to maintain control over the outcome of the letter and to instead surf the wave of the uncertainty as it heads toward the shore of a completed letter.

8. Portkey

This has become one of my favorite improv exercises, a great way to develop confidence in one’s access to images and ideas, to sharpen eye for detailed locations, and to connect players with each other. It’s also a slower, quieter game that can be used as a healthy balance to more vocal, upbeat experiences.

The game’s name traces back to the Harry Potter books where a portkey was an everyday object that, when touched by wizards, would transport them away from the Muggle world off to Hogwarts or some other location in the wizarding world.

You might get transported somewhere magical. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

You might get transported somewhere magical.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia.)

Sitting in a circle, get a suggestion for an everyday object. Iron. Wristwatch. Bowling ball. Dining room table. Sneaker. Or something, anything, like that. That object will likely trigger a memory for someone. That person then starts the round by repeating the name of the object with “…takes me to…” and describes the location from their past where they see that object. For example, I might say “Iron takes me to the dining room of our apartment growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, where the ironing board opened up from a little mini-closet in the wall.”

Once that person has identified the location, they describe it as well as they can in detail: “We had a circular butcher block table with four metal legs that fanned out from a stainless steel center post. The wall-to-wall carpet was an olive/lime color, a tight weave that stayed close to the floor. There were no doors in the room but three passageways, one that went into the narrow kitchen, one that went to the bathroom and bedrooms, and one that opened up to the hardwood floor living room. Two second-floor windows faced across to the apartment building next door.” That person closes that turn by taking one of the objects they identified in their location and passing that along to the next person. Here, I might say “I give ‘carpet’ to Dominic.” And then Dominic would say “Carpet takes me to…” and begin the process again.

The purist version of the game sticks only to a strict description of the physical locale. Look around. What’s in that space? What colors, textures, sizes and elements? Who’s there? Adhering to this intention really develops the ability to “see” locations on stage and helps improvisors trust their own sense of what might be around them at any moment. It also takes less time.

A second version welcomes in a bit of story with each location. In the example above, I might have added, “Around the corner in the kitchen was where we one time accidentally left a chicken cooking in the oven when we went away and when we came back home later that afternoon, the whole place had been filled with smoke–the burnt chicken smell made us cough for weeks.” This version weaves a group together well as you create mini-snapshots, moments of meaning you wouldn’t otherwise think to share with each other.

Insider Tips:

  • Have the object take you to an actual memory, not something made up.
  • Remind folks they don’t need to work hard or wait for an “interesting” location or “clever” story. There’s a profundity in the mundane that emerges. We learn a great deal about each other from the neutral snapshots we rarely ever share.
  • It doesn’t matter if the object itself shows up in the new location, only that it takes you to that specific location. When someone mentioned “iron,” most might think of a steam iron for removing wrinkles. But the word could have taken me to railroad tracks behind my house or to a football field where my brother and I mimicked the Pittsburgh Steelers Iron Curtain defense of the mid 1970’s.
  • If you use the story version, keep an eye out for the tendency for the stories to keep elongating. That can take more time than you’d like and get away from a more pleasurable rhythm of using the portkey effect. One way to encourage shorter stories is to remind folks that they don’t have to provide background or explanation. They can concentrate on describing the location.
  • With the second version, you can also use the exercise as way to explore components of effective story-telling. Which stories were listeners most moved by? Which scenes held the group’s attention? What components do the more riveting stories share in common? And so on. If you use this approach, do take care so that it doesn’t become a competitive “who told the best story?” evaluation—that can seal off the good connections the game has just generated. (Thanks to Lainey Forman for this use of Portkey!)

9. Clover

This word association exercise claims the top spot in my friend and colleague Pam Victor’s pantheon of go-tos. It has a Zen-like meditative quality and breeds so much of what makes improv great: relaxed readiness, simple contribution, and an ongoing faith in the game’s unfolding.  In some ways, it’s similar to the game Convergence, but it’s a bit more subdued and naturally egalitarian.

Three times around and back to the center might make you a Clover lover as well. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Three times around and back to the center might make you a Clover lover as well.
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

With the group in a circle, get a suggestion for a noun. When someone responds (let’s say with “camera”), the whole group repeats that word in unison: “Camera!” The person to the left or right of the originator then generates a second word based on the first, like “snapshot.” The next person in the circle word-associates with that new word (with “snapshot,” not “camera”), doing their best to let go of any echo from the original word. Here, one could generate “moment” and that would clearly be free from “camera.” “Instagram” might still have some trace of it. And that’s fine. “GoPro,” on the other hand, would still be sticking to “camera” rather than responding to “snapshot.” One way to help is to prompt a person to silently start with “When I hear ‘snapshot’ it makes me think of…”

Eventually, the goal—though it remains loosely held—is to circle back around to the original word. It can take a while but it will happen. Ideally, the momentum becomes obvious enough that the whole group could say the original word in unison. Once the word association returns back to “camera,” start a second round with that same word and then, eventually, a third.

Insider Tips:

  • Help folks see that the word association need not be clever, provocative, or funny. It’s simply what comes logically and naturally to mind in response to the immediately previous word.
  • Though there are no ‘wrong’ answers to offer, less-right answers might include a created joke, a non-sequitur, or a forced lurch toward the original word. Go for the natural extension of the word that came before.
  • See if you can model the unhurried, effortless discovery that the game’s going for and coach folks away from lurching too quickly toward the first word. Admittedly, there’s a paradox here: you’re returning to the origin without trying to return to the origin. Pam calls it “skating the razor’s edge of non-doing,” going for “that eye-brightening sensation of recognition and natural association, which is quite different [from] an external, exerted force.” That sounds right to me.
  • Encourage participants to notice if they start judging their own (or others’) words as “good” or “bad.” Oftentimes, the words that seem like missteps or misdirections can take the game on a delightful side jaunt or can get you back home in an unpredictable way. It’s all good. Or, more accurately, it’s all what it is.

Good luck and have fun with these games–let us know how it goes!

If you want to check out the first list of Spontaneity School games, you can go here.
For the second list, try this link.

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3227
Pause (a new poem) http://animalearning.com/2015/06/29/pause-a-new-poem-2/ http://animalearning.com/2015/06/29/pause-a-new-poem-2/#comments Tue, 30 Jun 2015 00:36:03 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=2639 Practicing mindfulness has taught me that taking time to pause–in a moment, with a decision, for a life transition–draws out wisdom that remains unavailable when I scurry around with self-declared important busywork. I started working on this poem–or it started working on me–when on a silent meditation retreat, itself a valuable window of observation. Pause [more…]

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Practicing mindfulness has taught me that taking time to pause–in a moment, with a decision, for a life transition–draws out wisdom that remains unavailable when I scurry around with self-declared important busywork. I started working on this poem–or it started working on me–when on a silent meditation retreat, itself a valuable window of observation.

Pause

Rest a while at the river’s edge
   and you might receive
   a fleeting glimpse
      of leaping salmon,
   silver shuttles threading home
   to seal an ancient journey.

Wait a midnight moment
   at the driveway’s end
and look up— there—
a milky swath of stars
   might remind you
      of a lineage long forgotten.

Stand still long enough
at the forest’s edge
and even the
      Great Stag
may present himself,
      antlers vaulting upward,
      oaken haunches pressing down to
      root and earth.

In that instant,
his chest
   will heave
      in sympathetic astonishment,
sculpted muscles proud
   with wild promise,
nostril vapor fading into the
   haunting quiet of dawn.
 
His dark eyes
   will lock with yours,
      pausing
in recognition.

Surely, and as breathtakingly as he arrived,
the stag must turn and
leap back
into the shadows
   that shared him with you,

but his simple presence
   will have shattered
   the dullness of your
         knowing

leaving only
   the resonant wisdom
of this next breath
   in your tender body.

--Ted DesMaisons

"Red Deer Stag" by Richard Fisher. Used via Creative Commons License. (www.flickr.com/photos/richardfisher/8331816773)

“Red Deer Stag” by Richard Fisher. Used via Creative Commons License. (www.flickr.com/photos/richardfisher/8331816773)

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AI-AI-AI!!!: The Applied Improvisation Definition Generator http://animalearning.com/2014/11/11/ai-ai-ai-the-applied-improvisation-definition-generator/ Wed, 12 Nov 2014 03:24:10 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=2561 You may have heard too. Just as with mindfulness outside the meditation hall, lots of folks have caught on to the transformative power of improvisation in arenas outside the theater. Business, health care, education, disaster relief, even the military: everyone needs nimble thinkers and flexible collaborators in this time of uncertainty. Everyone sees the value [more…]

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You may have heard too. Just as with mindfulness outside the meditation hall, lots of folks have caught on to the transformative power of improvisation in arenas outside the theater. Business, health care, education, disaster relief, even the military: everyone needs nimble thinkers and flexible collaborators in this time of uncertainty. Everyone sees the value of focused presence.

Applied Improv Network logoI just got back from an amazing Austin, Texas conference of the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN), a group of professionals both feeding and riding this growing wave of interest. Stitched between the wake-up siren of breakfast tacos, the mid-day pull of gourmet food trucks, and the drifting evening scents of barbecue autentico, over 200 of us gathered to consider the field. How can we refine and translate our message? Where else in society can we contribute? How can we help save the world?

A few years back, knowing that any intro conversation about the topic almost always generates the question “What is applied improvisation?”, I came up with this definition brainstormer. Fresh from this year’s conference inspiration—and fuelled further by the insights of friend and colleague, Rebecca Stockley—I’ve refined the original list and added a bit of color. Hopefully you’ll find it helpful and telling. Or, at minimum, easy on the eyes.

What is Applied Improvisation? Form your own answer by using one word or phrase from each column and building ‘what comes next.’ And let me know if you come up with any words or phrases to add in!

 

Applied Improv Definition Generator 11.11.14 2If you’d like a larger, clearer pdf version of the Definition Generator, just click on the following link: Applied Improv Definition Generator 11.11.14. Enjoy!

Ted teaching Buddhism for WebsiteTed DesMaisons is the founder and principal of Anima Learning, a collaborative consultancy that honors and feeds the spark of curiosity in leaders, educators, and individuals. He also serves as the US Coordinator for the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Project.

 

 

 

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2561
From Fad to Fact: Bringing Mindfulness to Wider Circles http://animalearning.com/2014/11/01/from-fad-to-fact-bringing-mindfulness-to-wider-circles/ Sat, 01 Nov 2014 22:36:14 +0000 http://animalearning.com/?p=2494 Mindfulness has emerged from obscurity and has begun blooming in far-reaching fields. Whether in business or education, health care or athletics, law and criminal justice or any number of spiritual communities, increasing numbers of voices promote the practice. Better results through deeper presence, you hear. Success through non-striving. A practical panacea. These are heady times [more…]

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Time MindfulnessMindfulness has emerged from obscurity and has begun blooming in far-reaching fields. Whether in business or education, health care or athletics, law and criminal justice or any number of spiritual communities, increasing numbers of voices promote the practice. Better results through deeper presence, you hear. Success through non-striving. A practical panacea. These are heady times for those of us working in the mindfulness arena. Anything seems possible.

Of course, any healthy skeptic could label this tangible surge a passing fad, fifteen minutes of fame for a self-help delivery du jour. From that perspective, the seeming golden age might actually represent a bubble waiting to burst. I don’t subscribe to that notion, but it does provide a worthy challenge. As a willing investor in youth programs recently asked me, how do we ensure long-haul, systemic change with all this interest in mindfulness?

Here are seven suggestions to start.

Keep at it at a natural pace.
We can whip ourselves into a frenzy about the need for mindful programs without much effort. We sense the pain of poverty, violence, substance abuse, alienation, and deep-rooted oppression. We see that suffering, our hearts break, and we call to action. On the flip side, we just know the positive possibility of this work. Greater resilience! Improved decision-making! Deeper calm! Oh my gosh, how do I get this to as many people as possible?

While understandable, neither strident urgency nor unbridled enthusiasm further the cause in a sustainable way. Both pull us off-center. Both lack the kind of durable patience that emerges more naturally from present attention to the moment. Breathe. And breath again. Now…what needs to happen next?

Preserve the integrity of practice.
As one of our first steps, we need to ensure that practice matches our preaching. Even if we believed in the value of water sports, we wouldn’t throw a beginner into the ocean without first offering guidance from an experienced swimmer. Similarly, we shouldn’t assume that an article (or a blog post) on mindfulness gives us the license—literal or figurative—we need to jump into teaching mindfulness to others. Without needing to veer into preciousness or elitism, there is real value in holding to a standard. Patience, perspective and sensitivity come most when we embody these principles we espouse. That takes time and steady effort. And should precede or supersede any rush to action.

If you’re looking to learn to swim in the waters of mindfulness, look for an experienced teacher. Or, find a seal of approval. Image courtesy of geograph.uk.

If you’re looking to learn to swim in the waters of mindfulness, look for an experienced teacher. Or, find a seal of approval.
Image courtesy of geograph.uk.

Invest in mindfulness teacher trainers.
Because of that need for congruent practice, the biggest bottleneck in ramping up effective, wide-reaching mindfulness programs remains the lack of well-trained teachers. And we have even fewer folks qualified to train them. Any philanthropist looking to further the cause would do well to fund a high-quality teacher trainer, freeing that person from the stresses and demands of other work to focus on the more crucial tasks at hand. This one lever promises to flip a whole bunch of levers below it, an exponential amplifier of that original investment.

Support key research.

Mindfulness research has exploded in recent years, partly because initial reports have appeared so promising.

Mindfulness research keeps growing, a reflection of societal interest in its benefits.

Mindfulness research keeps growing, a reflection of societal interest in its benefits.

Much of that investigation has lacked a certain rigor, however, and much of it has raised further questions.

• Which components of mindfulness training really make the active difference? Is it mindfulness skills, group experience, or quality of care from the teacher—or some combination of the three?

• Knowing we want to pass on an integrity with practice, what minimum “dosage” of exposure to mindfulness gets us that ongoing, long-lasting integrity?

• How much training does a mindfulness teacher need before developing requisite skill and sensitivity?

Each of these inquiries challenges assumptions we might make and can preempt erroneous claims or misguided initiatives.

Determine a common “scaffolding” for teaching mindfulness.
As societal interest in mindfulness has swelled, so has the supply of related curricula. Not surprisingly, some prove effective and some, not so much. The strongest and most widely recognized—like that of Mindful Schools in Oakland, CA or the Mindfulness in Schools Project of the UK –follow common threads. Establish connection and context, build attention, and invite curiosity and kindness before moving onto more complex skills like suspending reactions or watching thoughts and feelings. Such a backbone to mindfulness training helps with several of the suggestions above. We find an appropriate pace. We help preserve quality and integrity. And we make effective research a heck of a lot easier.

What's the best scaffolding to ensure quality mindfulness teaching? Photo courtesy of Nicholas Jones and Creative Commons.

What’s the best scaffolding to ensure quality mindfulness teaching?
Photo courtesy of Nicholas Jones and Creative Commons.

Encourage interdisciplinary collaboration.
David Germano and his colleagues at the University of Virginia Contemplative Sciences Center have initiated thorough organizational change by targeting key players across traditional bounds within the university. By integrating all 11 schools—from professional programs in business and medicine to undergraduate liberal arts and sciences schools—the center gains layers of perspective that generate original insight. That broader insight, in turn, ensures wider buy-in across the entire school.

Reach out into the community.
At the Mindful Miami conference a few weeks ago, organizers had pulled together an impressive array of presenters from local government, health care, criminal justice, education, professional sports, social services, and research agencies. You could almost feel the resurgence among folks who had previously felt isolated in their efforts. Each of those folks now knows they’re part of a larger effort and they can trust that, together, they’re going to impact the wider Miami community. The rising tide means we are not alone. We need to find our allies and join with them.

This current interest in mindfulness offers a precious and seemingly-fleeting opportunity. In the words of the Roman Germans, carpe zeitgeist. At the same time, as Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the acclaimed UMass Center for Mindfulness, reminds us, the practice has a long history. In that light, we do well to place our efforts in the service of a long-term future. Bringing mindfulness to wider circles won’t work as a quick-fix solution. It will take time. It will take effort. As always, it will take practice.

Ted teaching close-up

Ted DesMaisons is the founder and principal of Anima Learning, a collaborative consultancy that honors and feeds the spark of curiosity in leaders, educators, and individuals. He also serves as the US Coordinator for the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Project.

Learn to shift from a fixed mindset—where intelligence, talent and ability appear static—to a more creative, more resilient growth mindset, where aptitude develops through focused effort and hearty challenge.</p> <p>Once you see your mindset, you can start to choose your mindset and:</p> <ul> </ul> <ul> <li>improve your ability to learn and grow,</li> <li>get back up after getting knocked down, and</li> <li>seek collaboration with outstanding colleagues.</li> </ul> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/growth-mindset/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-146" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/growing-triskele-150x150.png" alt="growing-triskele" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul>
The most skillful teachers and learners maintain a radical relationship to failure. And that means more than just seeing mistakes as iterations on the path to success (though that helps too). Learn the six types of so-called failure and gain practical tools to open up new levels of creative possibility.</p> <p> </p> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/growth-mindset/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-146" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/growing-triskele-150x150.png" alt="growing-triskele" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/contemplative-practice/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-99" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/tree-icon-150x150.png" alt="tree-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/applied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/positive-reinforcement/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-101" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/dolphin-icon-150x150.png" alt="dolphin-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul>
</p> <p>Do you find yourself shrinking from valuable opportunities for connection or driving others away with unintentional intimidation?</p> <p>Based on the work of legendary British acting coach Patsy Rodenburg, engage in safe and playful movement, breathing, and speaking exercises that show you how to inhabit “Second Circle,” a physical and attitudinal way of being that generates:</p> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul> <li>resilient confidence</li> <li>creative power</li> <li>authentic connection</li> </ul> <p>Guaranteed to shift how you move in the world!</p> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/contemplative-practice/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-99" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/tree-icon-150x150.png" alt="tree-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/appplied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul>
</p> <p>Improv training games do more than make you laugh: they can create tension or release it, generate humor or insight, and provide challenge or comfort. With a skilled facilitator, they also build:</p> <ul> <li>focus</li> <li>self-awareness</li> <li>self-confidence</li> <li>empathy</li> <li>listening skills</li> <li>effective collaboration</li> <li>problem-solving skills</li> </ul> <p>Experience these exercises for yourself so you can energize your own workplace or classroom.</p> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/applied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul>
</p> <p>We improvise every moment of our work and personal lives—no one’s got a set script—yet we rarely pay attention to how we improvise.</p> <p>Go behind the curtain to take on the curious principles and practices—like “yes, and,” “Be average,” “make your partner look good,” and “let yourself be changed”—that theatre professionals use to cultivate the skills needed for top-quality, in-the-moment performance:</p> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul> <li>spontaneous speech</li> <li>flexible status transactions</li> <li>careful attention</li> <li>deep listening</li> <li>multi-level memory</li> <li>powerful presence</li> <li>interpersonal care</li> <li>collaborative discovery</li> <li>emotional range</li> <li>effective storytelling</li> </ul> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/growth-mindset/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-146" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/growing-triskele-150x150.png" alt="growing-triskele" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/applied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul>
</p> <p>Life changes and, these days, it changes faster than ever. Many respond to that uncertainty by seeking further control, but that effort almost always leaves us more rigid and less responsive. Build your ambiguity tolerance muscles and replace the impulse to control with a more nimble intention to:</p> <ul> <li>commit</li> <li>contribute</li> <li>connect, and</li> <li>co-create</li> </ul> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/growth-mindset/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-146" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/growing-triskele-150x150.png" alt="growing-triskele" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/contemplative-practice/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-99" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/tree-icon-150x150.png" alt="tree-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/applied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/positive-reinforcement/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-101" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/dolphin-icon-150x150.png" alt="dolphin-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul>
</p> <p>From the cover of Time magazine and the U.S. military to the halls of academe and the locker rooms of professional sports teams, mindfulness has become a media darling du jour.</p> <p>Learn why and how mindfulness offers more than a passing fad, delivering measurable changes for leaders, teachers, and learners:</p> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul> <li>focused attention</li> <li>effective recall</li> <li>executive function</li> <li>empathic connection</li> <li>stress reduction</li> <li>sense of calm</li> <li>sturdy resilience</li> <li>well-being</li> </ul> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/contemplative-practice/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-99" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/tree-icon-150x150.png" alt="tree-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/applied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul>
</p> <p>Leaders, teachers, and coaches are discovering the paradoxical truths that slowing down can improve efficiency and non-striving can lead to greater accomplishment. They’re also realizing how the many forms of contemplative practice offer access to deeper insights and breakthrough innovations.</p> <p>Learn the relevance and rigor behind this growing movement—and bring home experiential examples for your workplace or classroom.</p> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/contemplative-practice/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-99" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/tree-icon-150x150.png" alt="tree-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/applied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul>
</p> <p>Shift how you think about teaching and learning with a simple ‘dolphin training’ exercise to illustrate the central principle of positive reinforcement—reward movement toward the behavior you want and ignore the rest.</p> <p>Teachers will leave with a keener understanding for the crucial importance of clear instruction, keen attention, and artful feedback. Learners begin to understand the importance of experimentation and engagement. Both groups learn to stay connected with each other.</p> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/applied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/positive-reinforcement/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-101" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/dolphin-icon-150x150.png" alt="dolphin-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul>
</p> <p>Teaching with Acoustical Guidance (TAGteach) draws on cutting edge tools to cut teaching time in half and improve learner retention.</p> <p>Develop practical skills through fun, hands-on training so you can:</p> <ul> </ul> <ul> <li>use fewer words for more efficient instruction</li> <li>deliver precise, timely feedback to maximize and solidify improvement</li> <li>reinforce the skills you intend to develop</li> <li>keep your learner focused and thirsty for more</li> <li>build loyalty and trust between teacher and learner<strong> </strong></li> </ul> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/growth-mindset/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-146" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/growing-triskele-150x150.png" alt="growing-triskele" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/positive-reinforcement/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-101" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/dolphin-icon-150x150.png" alt="dolphin-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul> </ul> <ul>
Full disclosure—I serve as US Coordinator and teacher trainer for MiSP.
Think, for example of a layered GPS map that compares wildlife populations and rail traffic patterns in a particular geographic region. You wouldn’t necessarily expect any correlation between the two, but seeing one map overlaid on the other might uncover surprising information.
On an individual school level, this would mean reaching out to faculty, staff, alumni, and current parents as a supplement to any program with teachers and students. Again, the more diverse the buy-in, the more resilient the commitment.

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Lighthouse–A new poem http://animalearning.com/2014/10/19/lighthouse-a-new-poem/ Sun, 19 Oct 2014 15:23:33 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=2268 Sometimes, insights come through straightforward experiences. This poem voiced itself as I headed up the lighthouse tower in Bill Baggs State Park at the tip of Key Biscayne, Florida. Some of my fellow climbers--a curious crew of kids and couples, old-timers and polyglots--may have wondered why I was pecking away at my phone keyboard on a mid-tower stair landing, but there you have it. The park ranger at the base of the tower enjoyed the poem. Here's hoping you do as well!

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IMG_2204Sometimes, insights come through straightforward experiences. This poem voiced itself as I headed up the lighthouse tower in Bill Baggs State Park at the tip of Key Biscayne, Florida. Some of my fellow climbers–a curious crew of kids and couples, old-timers and polyglots–may have wondered why I was pecking away at my phone keyboard on a mid-tower stair landing, but there you have it. The park ranger at the base of the tower enjoyed the poem. Here’s hoping you do as well!

Lighthouse

It takes a bit of dizzy-making

      to reach the top of the lighthouse.

The heart quickens and 

      the stomach grips

           as land fades 

               further and further below.

Cast iron steps 

       Circle fast 

              around and up

                    the center column;

              Brick walls 

  echo footfalls

     that close tighter 

          and tighter
  
           as the tower thins

             (or is that 

               the air?)

             up, up

            until

       —whoosh!—

the view opens wide:

      sea for miles,

sandy edges stretching

      to cityscapes,

all the realms laid out for

      a watchman’s eyes.


This is the work we do,

    enduring the discomfort of

         gravity’s weight,

    daring to loose the familiarity 

         of earth’s tether,  

    lighting a storm-tested lamp

         to lead others 


from dangerous shoals.

Click to view slideshow.

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AAAACCKK!!! Here’s a Wince-Worthy Example of How NOT to Use a Clicker http://animalearning.com/2014/09/19/aaaacckk-heres-a-wince-worthy-example-of-how-not-to-use-a-clicker/ http://animalearning.com/2014/09/19/aaaacckk-heres-a-wince-worthy-example-of-how-not-to-use-a-clicker/#comments Fri, 19 Sep 2014 21:36:25 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=2210 Ah, the sting of watching a beloved technique get twisted into a pain-producer. One of the most effective tools at the disposal of positive reinforcement is a clicker, a small device that generates a clearly audible “click” for marking a particular behavior in a particular moment. It doesn’t carry any of the emotional variation of [more…]

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Ah, the sting of watching a beloved technique get twisted into a pain-producer.

A selection of clicker tools. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.com.

A selection of clicker tools.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.com.

One of the most effective tools at the disposal of positive reinforcement is a clicker, a small device that generates a clearly audible “click” for marking a particular behavior in a particular moment. It doesn’t carry any of the emotional variation of words or vocal tone. It cuts through surrounding sounds. It’s a useful piece of equipment.

In positive reinforcement, that sound marks a success. Achieve a particular target behavior, get a click. With animal trainers, the sound—a secondary reinforcer—then gets followed by food—a primary reinforcer. Rover retrieves a ball, hears a click, and earns a treat. Yum. More fetching to follow. Everybody’s happy.

In human training circles, my colleagues and I use an analogous technique called TAG Teaching, where TAG stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. A gymnastics coach might click her athlete for completing the “tag point” of “Keep chin up.” A speech instructor might click for “eye contact with audience.” With humans—at least those out of younger childhood—the click becomes a primary reinforcer on its own, a stand-alone signal that triggers the positive feelings of success.

The TAG marks what's right.

The TAG marks what’s right.

Alas, not everyone works from the same model. Today, I came across a Boston Globe video that describes the work of ESL Rules, a group offering accent modification classes for Boston natives. Once you’ve pahked yah cah, you head into the room and work through reading exercises, getting a ‘click’ every time…you make a mistake!

I imagine the teacher here has positive intentions. She wants to help her clients. Some folks need to learn they’re making a mistake so they have the motivation to change. And she’s taking advantage of the clicker’s ability to mark a specific behavior.

Trouble is, she’s using the clicker as a punishment, a consequence intended to reduce an unwanted behavior. Could the technique “work,” in that it could lead to students correcting their errors? Maybe. This woman does have a 25-year career as a speech and language pathologist so she must have had some level of success. But it reaches that end while unnecessarily injecting feelings of frustration and humiliation.

Watch the video closely and you’ll notice a flinch response in the learner every time the click comes out—heck, you might feel one yourself! The teacher also rolls her eyes and smirks at a learner’s mistake. Though it might appear playful or humorous, that little judgment or rejection from the teacher puts a bit of poison in the mix. The reporter sharing the story picks up on that element too, describing the technique as a bit of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

This clicker mis-use makes me cringe even more because it comes within a larger context of vulnerability. Her students come to her to change a behavior that’s part of their cultural identity—a heritage that describes their home and family—but that they carry some shame about. Somehow they’ve gotten the sense that something’s wrong and they’re not good enough as they are. Amplifying that tenderness almost always generates reflexive defensiveness.

Change a Boston accent? Would you change Fenway Pahk? A Boston native might get a wee bit bristly at the suggestion.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.com.

Change a Boston accent? Would you change Fenway Pahk? A Boston native might get a wee bit bristly at the suggestion.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.com.

Not surprisingly, then, using a marker this way especially builds resistance and resentment in those who struggle. Note in particular when the reporter works with his Dad—around 1:52 of the clip—and you can see the tangible frustration on the father’s face. Will this older gentleman come back to continue with this “training”? I doubt it. In this moment on film, you see him actively resist it. Again, he seems partly playful, but he’s also irritated. Anyone wanting to change an accent would have to be motivated to do so. I’m not sure this man has that motivation but I have great confidence that this technique drains away whatever impetus he started with.

These teachers do have a choice and could make a simple switch to turn the wince into a win: use the clicker for marking when students get the pronunciation right. If they say a word with ‘r’s’ and don’t hear the click, they can catch themselves—with neutral recognition rather than pointed judgment—and make the adjustment on their own.

If students still struggle, they can practice listening for someone else’s patterns—put the clicker in their hands so they know what to look and listen for. Or, teachers could break the skill down into smaller steps by helping learners distinguish exactly the tongue and mouth placement needed to support the “r” sound. Then, click them for forming that structure in the mouth before even actually articulating any words.

In all of these cases, when students reach success through their own efforts, the sound becomes a celebration and one more reason to keep going. Click equals yes. Yes equals good. Good equals more.

Keep that clicker clean, friends. It’s meant as a positive reinforcer, not a pain-inducing punisher.

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More Spontaneity School: Another 10 Improv Games to Enliven the Classroom or Workplace http://animalearning.com/2014/09/01/more-spontaneity-school-another-10-improv-games-to-enliven-the-classroom-or-workplace/ http://animalearning.com/2014/09/01/more-spontaneity-school-another-10-improv-games-to-enliven-the-classroom-or-workplace/#comments Mon, 01 Sep 2014 06:21:44 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=2142  Want to learn the kind of presence and activities described here? Join us for a residential retreat! Monster Baby: Live! June 9-14, Mere Point, ME Or subscribe to the new Monster Baby podcast by clicking here!   The fall of 2014 marked the first Labor Day in twelve years that I hadn’t been gearing up to teach in a high school [more…]

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 MonsterBabyLogoWant to learn the kind of presence and activities described here?
Join us for a residential retreat!
Monster Baby: Live! June 9-14, Mere Point, ME

Or subscribe to the new Monster Baby podcast by clicking here!

 

The fall of 2014 marked the first Labor Day in twelve years that I hadn’t been gearing up to teach in a high school classroom, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t feeling the excitement of a new school year. New books, new students, new lessons—all possibilities remain in play every fall. In that spirit, I offer a fresh collection of improvisation exercises that can lighten spirits, develop courage, open spontaneity, and forge connection in classrooms of all sorts. The first installment of Spontaneity School has proven my most popular blog post. Here’s hoping this one resonates for as many readers!

1. Sound Ball (further variations)

You might send the sound of vuvuzelas across a Sound Ball circle... (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

You might send the sound of vuvuzelas across a Sound Ball circle…
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

In that original Spontaneity School post, I outlined a basic explanation for Sound Ball, one of the most fundamental and helpful improv games around. To review, with the larger group in a circle, one person ‘throws’ a random sound to another person in the group. That second person ‘receives’ the sound with the motion of catching a potato or small beanbag and—importantly—repeats as precisely as possible the sound sent to them. Right away, that receiver tosses a new sound with a new gesture to another person in the circle. The zippier the movement of sounds around the circle, the better. As always, encourage active physical gestures to send and receive and remind folks to resist planning ahead for ‘clever’ or ‘creative’ sounds. What comes, comes.

...or that of waves crashing on shore. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

…or that of waves crashing on shore.
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Try these added variations to enliven the game even further:

  • Once you’ve gotten a few rounds of Sound Ball under your belt, have the group form pairs around the room. Each pair can then send their own sound ball back and forth in rapid-fire succession. To up the stakes, encourage a different physical gesture with each sound sent out. After a while in that mode, invite a new facial gesture with each sound. This variation gets good laughs, expands emotional and imaginative range, and builds the ability to pass the ball more quickly. Then, when you get the group back together, the game continues with far greater zip.
  • See if participants can keep their attention focused on the sound ball as it moves around the circle, even if they’re not directly involved in the transfer. Move with the ball’s pattern as if you were surfing or serving its “energy.”
  • Try a round of ‘Gesture Ball,’ where each person passes a random word illustrated by a hand or body movement. The gesture could demonstrate the word literally—like slapping hands together with the word ‘Clap!’—or it could offer the meaning more metaphorically, like throwing the hands out to the side with fingers flared and stepping forward with a bright smile to say ‘Jazz!’ In every case the person receiving the gesture ball should repeat the sound and the movement before sending a new combo along to the next person.

2. Ball

Ah, the ideal "Ball" ball.

Ah, the ideal “Ball” ball.

Whereas sound ball relies on an imaginary sphere, this game uses an actual, real-life ball (thus the name of the game!). The rules of Ball resemble those of volleyball—minus a court, a net, and any sense of opposing teams. In this case, the group works as one unit to keep the ball up in the air, counting aloud each time the ball gets hit. As in volleyball, no player can hit the ball twice in a row. If that happens or if the ball hits the floor, the count starts back at one.

Every so often, take time to harvest whatever insights the group can generate about what’s working to keep the ball alive. You’ll likely hear “Hit the ball up!” or “Be bold about moving into the center!” Try giving the cue to “Pass the ball to someone else rather than just hitting it!”—that will transform the quality of the game-playing.

For sure, the joy of a good round of Ball lasts far longer than the time you play. Tim Orr, a superlative improvisor and one of my favorite long-form teachers, suggests that an improv workshop that contained nothing but the game of Ball would still teach those attending most of what they need to know about the art.

Insider tips:

  • Make sure to keep everyone counting aloud. It’s a great vocal warm-up that way and it builds a cohesion that’s valuable for whatever learning activity comes next.
  • Switch people’s positions in the circle every now and then—new spot, new neighbors—to generate different permutations and possibilities.
  • The ideal size for the ball is somewhere between a volleyball and a soccer ball. You want one that’s light enough not to damage your room or your players but sturdy enough to travel without much effort. A Gertie ball works well. Even better for the fully dedicated, find a fabric Boingo ball and pull its bladder out. Then, put a Gertie ball inside it, stitch the whole thing back up, and reinflate. The ball’s just the right weight—and you’ve got the pride of having made your own!

3. Three Things

This energy-builder works in any setting where you’ve got a few minutes between activities. The whole group forms a circle and chants in unison “Three things!” while bouncing their fists as if pounding a table. One leader then starts the game off by turning to an immediate neighbor and asking that person to name three things that fit a particular category. “Three brands of cars!” “Three things you’d find at the back of your closet!” or “Three terrible excuses for showing up late!” could all work. As quickly as possible, the receiver generates three responses and declares them with authority. When that person has finished, the group again chants “Three things!” and the person who just responder gives a category to the next person.

Maybe the answers will end up fitting the category “appropriately;” maybe they won’t. Or maybe the same answer will come out twice in one round. It’s all good. The crucial key: generate and celebrate the quick response. You’re trying to access a type of wisdom that comes before cognitive planning.

Three things you might purchase on a streetcorner: Franks!

Three things you might purchase on a streetcorner: Franks!

Flowers!

Flowers!

Fortunes! (Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.)

Fortunes!
(Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.)

Insider tips:

  • Some folks will lessen the tension of the challenge by adding in a little preamble before each response. Maybe they repeat the category or toss another time-staller in: “For military vehicles, I would choose a tank. I would choose a jeep. And I’d go with a Navy Destroyer.” Much better—and more rewarding to just say “Tank! Jeep! Destroyer!”
  • Responders can build their own confidence by counting with authority on their fingers. Other players can help out by nodding or adding in small, affirmative sounds: “Mm-hmm; yes; right, of course,” though they don’t want to get so loud as to draw attention from the person on the spot.
  • While you don’t want to get stuck on “accuracy”—it doesn’t really matter if a response fits the category—players should at least try to have the responses fit. Throwing out completely random words misses the point here.
  • More abstract categories can stimulate a little more creativity—and a lot more laughs. “Three vegetables you’d find at the grocery store!” will work fine. “Three unpublished Harry Potter titles” might generate even more.
  • Unlike most of the other spontaneity exercises where we’re trying to keep our mind’s fresh, this one’s actually a game where it can be OK to plan ahead in forming categories.

4. Jumpin’ Jehosephat

This playful but difficult game encourages dramatic commitment and generates good laughs by calling out the unexpected. Have two participants up at the front of the room sitting on chairs as if they were sitting on the porch of an old Country Store. One starts by slapping his or her knee and declaring “Well Jumpin’ Jehosephat and call me Christmas!” and then comes up with something surprising that character might have just learned: “Ole Mrs. Haverford’s getting ready to have another baby!”

"Well, Jiminy Christmas and string me up a vineyard!" (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

“Well, Jiminy Christmas and string me up a vineyard!”
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The second character responds by slapping his or her own knee and coming up with another two-part exclamation of surprise: “Well, kiss my gizzard and grab me an onion!” The amazement then shoots back and forth , continuing the two-part expressions of shock without hesitation by diving into even more absurd declarations: “Well, take out the trash and kick what’s on the curb!” “Well, I’ve got Fridays and nobody’s watching!” Well, spread me some peanut butter and get me back to Georgia!” The game can go back and forth for a certain amount of time or could become a competition of sorts: first one to flinch leaves the porch and a new player comes on.

Insider tips:

  • Encourage folks to start with the word “Well.” That way, they get a little momentum going into the declaration.
  • The declarations don’t have to be completely non-sensical, just spontaneous and enthusiastic: “Well, tip the table over and call the dog to clean it!” still works even though it could be, um, logical.
  • Alliteration can make for good laughs, as in “Well, sing along with Elvis and bring me back a biscuit!” Requiring such detail can make the game more challenging for those who master it quickly.
  • As in sound ball, see if players can leave a pre-planned “good” idea and just take the next one that arrives when their turn comes along.

5. Shout the Wrong Name

This game builds the spontaneity muscle in an eat-your-spinach kind of way: it’s tough and can prove exhausting but builds a capacity for spontaneity in its purest form.

Start by having participants mill comfortably around whatever space they have. Then, for a first round, have them point to random objects around the room, shouting the name of whatever the thing is that they’re pointing to: “Desk! Doorknob! Trash can! Table lamp! Carpet! World map! Laptop!,” and so on.

Then, loosen them up with a second round where they say the name of the previous thing they’ve just pointed to. So if I were to start by pointing to the desk, I would then yell “Desk!” when pointing to the doorknob and “Trash can!” when pointing to the doorknob. See if they can get a good rhythm going there.

Lastly—and this represents the real challenge—have them point to objects and shout the name of anything else but that object’s real name. In this case, you could begin by pointing at the desk and yelling “Watermelon!” Or pointing to the doorknob and shouting “Cartwheel!” Offer a little demonstration and toss in a few abstract nouns as well, just to introduce the possibility of a wider vocabulary range. “Poverty!” when pointing at a coffee mug or “Alertness!” when pointing to a windbreaker on the wall.

"Watermelon!" (Image courtesy of pixabay.com)

“Watermelon!”
(Image courtesy of pixabay.com)

 

Insider Tips:

  • In the ideal, this game taps into a streaming flow of non-linear utterances. To that end, encourage speed. Use the physical movement of the point to propel the word out of the mouth. Better to shout a fast and declarative non-sensical sound than to wait several beats for a “good” word.
  • Along those lines, try to limit any sense of judgment on words that come out, as in which are “better” or “worse.” Allow and observe repeats—always a good opportunity to see how the mind works! Odds are, any “Hey I’m doing well!” thought will snap folks right out of the flow anyway.
  • Discourage participants from pointing at people, especially for the last round. You want to avoid the accident (or the intention) of something unpleasant or hurtful coming out—yelling “Idiot!” when pointing at a classmate, for example—even if it technically qualifies as “the wrong name.”
  • Ask if anyone’s ‘strategizing’ to get themselves through. For example, I find this game much easier if I find my non-related words by moving through the alphabet: “Apple! Baseball! Carrot! Denver! Egg! Fahrenheit!” and so on. This can be a helpful aid for those who are struggling or a limiting crutch for those who could stand to push themselves further. Use such strategy as you see fit.

6. Convergence

Though this game starts with simple rules, it regularly provides rewarding payoffs. One person bring a word, any word, to mind and declares, “One!” Another person brings their own word to mind and announces, “Two!” Those two players then face each other, make eye contact, and count “One, two, three…” before simultaneously saying their word aloud. Maybe that first round generates “snowshoe” and “Mercedes Benz.”

Having heard those two words, all players then silently seek a third word that combines, bridges, or encompasses those two. (I find it helpful to imagine locating a word midway between the two, as if they were on a spectrum.) The first to come up with one possibility shouts “One!,” the next shouts “Two!” and those two use the same count-out-loud ritual to see if their words match. Probably they won’t—maybe you get “Germany” and “snowtire” in our example—and you keep going. Eventually, the group converges on the same word, usually to great delight, and one round is done. Almost inevitably, folks want to keep playing.

One tricky feature to keep in mind: once a word has been mentioned in a given game, you’re no longer eligible to use it.

Narrowing in.... (Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Narrowing in….
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Insider tips:

  • Remember that you’re only trying to split the difference between the last two words mentioned, not making an ‘echo’ reference to something that came before.
  • Players who have just offered words remain fully eligible to get in on the next round. Follow whoever’s got an immediate hit and good energy.
  • It can be fun to watch how a given round weaves in and out of that feeling of convergence. The group can seem right on the edge of getting it and then drift back out to a wider gap before narrowing back down.
  • Want a challenge? Include three people in each round and try to converge three words at a time.

7. Go! (Plus)

Here’s a great head-spinner to get folks moving and peripheral senses sharpening. Standing with the group in a circle, one person (A) starts by saying another person’s (B’s) name. Without moving, B responds to A, saying “Go.” A then slowly moves across the circle to fill in B’s spot. While A is moving B says another person’s (C’s) name. B stays in place until C gives ‘permission’ to move by saying “Go.” On that permission, B moves to C’s spot and the game continues in sequence. For the first round or two, it’s best to make sure everyone gets a chance to say “Go” and then move. You’re building up the game’s rhythm for the more challenging rounds to come. After a few rounds of “Go,” pause everyone and let them know you’re getting to the “Plus” stages of the game.

This time, create a pattern that moves from you to another person in the circle, from them to another, and then to another until it returns home to you. Initiate the sequence by choosing a category (“types of shoes,” for example) and then pointing to that first person on saying something that fits in that category (like “saddleshoes”). Unlike in Sound Ball, the recipient need not repeat what you sent, they only need to pass the pattern on to someone else, naming a different item in that category (like “pumps”). Eventually, the pattern returns home to you. Try that pattern a few times to make sure it’s well-established: each time sending the same item (shoe type, in our example) to the same person you sent to in the original go-round.

Then, clear those decks and establish another pattern with a different category (perhaps “international city,” or some such). Again, make sure everyone’s in the sequence and that the pattern comes back to you at the end. Once you feel confident folks have that pattern down, re-introduce the original pattern you created, executing both at the same time.

Go! (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Go!
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Lastly, when you’ve got both of those down, weave the “Go!” element back in. Now, you’ve got two patterns moving around the circle while people are also changing places and saying names and “Go!,” all at once. If the full-blown game sounds chaotic, that’s an appropriate read. When it works though, with kids and sounds breathing in and out of the circle, the game becomes a thing of beauty.

Insider tips:

  • When establishing the patterns for the “Plus” part of the game, have those who have been included in the pattern put a hand on their head so those choosing where to go next who’s still available.
  • Make sure that everyone establishes the patterns by sending to different people for each of the “Plus” rounds or it will get really confusing really quickly.
  • If the group is strong, try introducing multiple versions of each pattern at the same time. You might have one “Go” going, two “shoes” patterns and two “international cities,” for example.

8. Three-Word-at-a-Time Poems

If you need a quiet experience to explore a given theme or want to help your learners understand the delights and challenges of shared control, this game may do the trick. Have folks arrange their desks or sit on the floor in a circle, each with a piece of paper and pen or pencil in front of them. Each person gets to start a poem, using only three words on the page. They should start with the title. If the title’s only one word long, they start the first two words of the poem. If the title’s incomplete after three words, they just write the first three words.

Then, once each person has written their three-word start, pass the poems to the next person, all poems moving in one direction. This second person then adds another three words before passing the poem again. Lines need not rhyme or contain any certain number of words—free verse usually works best. Depending on numbers, you can go around the circle however many times you need, though it provides a neat conclusion to have the same person who started the poem finish it.

Once the poems are complete, have each person read them aloud with great authority and distinction, as if they had written the whole thing themselves. If folks have played along sincerely throughout the exercise, you—and they—will likely be surprised with the quality and coherence of their work.

Insider tips:

  • Encourage students to build on—“Yes, and”—what’s been written before them rather than trying to generate laughs by canceling another’s offer or going off in some random direction.
  • Time the transfers so that everyone passes at the same time so you avoid getting multiple poems backed up at one spot and everyone’s got something to work on.
  • It may help to give the ‘poets’ a heads-up that the end approaches before actually getting there: “Know that we’ll be ending the poems in just three more rounds so start to find a conclusion,” for example.

9. Shared Memory

This energizing game in pairs also comes from the shared-control/“Yes, And” family lineage. Divide your group into dyads and then set the stage for the following rules. Each pair needs to “reminisce” about an (imaginary) shared memory. “A vacation to Mexico” makes for a decent start, as would “The time we got lost in San Francisco.” Keep the topic light and somewhat breezy—you want your players to discovery joy in the shared memory.

 

"Remember that time we vacationed in Mexico?" Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

“Remember that time we vacationed in Mexico?”
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

One person starts by saying “You remember when we…” and continues on, making up some completely imaginary experience. At some point, the second person takes over, interrupting with an enthusiastic “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” or some such line, and then adding in another aspect to the ‘memory.’ Once each person has shared some part of the memory, send the lead back and forth so the memory keeps building.

In the ideal, the game gets going quickly with one player eager to jump in and add on what the other has offered. For variety’s sake, suggest that players experiment with pausing every now and then to leave some pregnant space between memories (as would often be the case with friends remembering a shared experience). Then, after soaking in the silence for a few seconds, they can listen for the next inspiration that comes and get the game moving again.

Insider tips:

  • Keep a watchful eye for folks slipping into a blocking mode where they deny, dismiss, or belittle the ‘memory’ that the other person generates.
  • Also make sure you don’t have two friends in a pair working on an actual The exercise is about discovering memories rather than actually recalling them.
  • As is true for almost all improv exercises, “memories” in this game need not prove clever, funny, or original. Sometimes the most delightful shared memories are the ones that seem obvious.
  • Offering a one-minute demonstration can help give folks an idea of what the game entails. It can also make for a fun little performance if you want to use it that way.

10. Diamond Dancing

This crowd-pleaser builds on groundwork laid in the game of Mirror (or Mirror Dancing), as described in the earlier Spontaneity School post. In this version, four players at a time take the stage to form a diamond shape with maybe 8 feet between each corner of the diamond. One person makes the front point of the diamond at the front of the stage, two stand at 45-degree angles behind that front person, and the last stands at 45-degree angles from behind those two, directly in line behind the front person.

Set up some lively, rhythmic music. Once it starts playing the student in front starts dancing in lead position—all other dancers follow the lead’s moves as closely as possible. After a good while in front, that dancer should turn to the right, bringing other dancers along and signaling that the dancer at the front of that direction of the diamond has now become the lead. Others follow that second person’s ‘choreography’ for a similar amount of time until he or she turns to pass the lead to the back point of the diamond. That third dancer directs the action before turning and passing to the fourth; the fourth assumes the lead before passing back to the front. Once all four have had their individual times to direct the diamond, dancers can lead and pass as they feel moved to. Whichever “DJ” runs the music can keep an active eye for when the piece looks finished and fade the music out before the next group cues up.

Do you suppose Beyonce's single ladies were Diamond Dancing behind her? Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Do you suppose Beyonce’s single ladies were Diamond Dancing behind her?
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Insider tips:

  • As with Mirror Dancing, lead dancers make it easier for their followers by moving more slowly. Or, as an alternative, by moving in quick-to-learn repetitive gestures. Dancers can also incorporate and reincorporate elements–movements, sequence, phrases—that other dancers first introduced. That helps make sense of the dance’s storyline, as it were.
  • Dancers should look forward into the audience, trusting peripheral vision for new cues rather than looking directly toward each other.
  • The dance gets tough if the transitions get sloppy. Encourage folks to be clear from head-to-toe when they’re turning that they’re handing over control. If the lead turns her hips in a new direction but leaves her shoulders facing the original way, how can the next player know what she means.

For a third group of games, make sure to check out Return of Spontaneity School!

 

 

 

 

 

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Improv Wisdom Musings, Vol. 3: Make Bold Offers! http://animalearning.com/2014/08/18/improv-musings-vol-3-make-bold-offers/ Mon, 18 Aug 2014 06:22:48 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=2081 This post marks the third in a series of three-person explorations into the life wisdom found through improvisational theatre. You can find the first two here: Let Yourself Be Changed and Make Emotional Noises.   As has been mentioned earlier, three experienced teachers–Patricia Ryan Madson, founder of the Stanford Improvisors (SImps) and author of Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just [more…]

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This post marks the third in a series of three-person explorations into the life wisdom found through improvisational theatre. You can find the first two here: Let Yourself Be Changed and Make Emotional Noises.
 
As has been mentioned earlier, three experienced teachers–Patricia Ryan Madson, founder of the Stanford Improvisors (SImps) and author of Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show UpLisa Rowland, improvisor extraordinaire and San Francisco 2012 Actor of the Year; and Ted DesMaisons, learning consultant and curator of this blog–have agreed to riff on a few improv maxims, sharing and building on each other’s thoughts to explore each principle in more detail.  Rowland and DesMaisons both studied with Madson and continue her work through their “Improv Wisdom for a Meaningful Life” retreats.
 
We agreed that each individual contribution would hold loosely to a three paragraph limit.  Each essay would then get passed to another teacher for comment or development until all three had offered a reflection.  As you can see, this topic inspired each of us to extend past that boundary. We’d love to hear any reflections you’d like to add in!    
 

Hilary Price cartoon

Make Bold Offers!

Patricia Ryan Madson: 

This delightful cartoon was created by Hilary B. Price, and it accompanies an essay titled “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” which serves as the End Note for the July/August, 2013 edition of Stanford Magazine, the university’s alumni publication. Hilary studied improv with me at Stanford and was a member of the Stanford Improvisers; she graduated in 1993. This cartoon embodies the cardinal sin in improv: “to wimp.”   When we wimp, we fail to define something or offer a choice. Since improvisers are trained to be agreeable, it’s not that hard to fall into the “whatever you want” syndrome. And, we all know that as pleasing as an agreeable attitude can be, in order to get things going we need an idea . . . a noun, actually. This cartoon reminds us of what happens to our fellow players when we cross our arms and defer. (Even when we do it with a smile on our faces.) Perhaps you find yourself doing this . . . wimping, that is.   Deciding takes effort and courage.

Today’s maxim: “Make bold offers” reminds me of the joys and responsibility of making choices and of leading. There may be something in the word bold that is a little intimidating. It could lead us to imagine that we need to bound onstage and proclaim “I’m divorcing you, Marge!” or “Look out, that meteor is about to strike us!”

While each of these offers will get us going onstage I don’t think that bold needs to mean dramatic, horrific, or zany. What bold says to me is to make concrete, specific suggestions or endowments. The invitation: “Would you like to go out this weekend?” misses the punch of “I’m going for a long walk in Golden Gate Park and then grabbing dinner at the Fort Mason food bazaar before the BATS show on Saturday. Would you like to join me?” Specificity is a blessing when we are improvising. And, I think life is like that, too. In Japan one never asks a guest “What would you like to do (eat/see)?” It is considered the highest rudeness to throw the onerous burden of choice onto the guest. Instead the host (who often worries a lot) makes all of the decisions and executes them so that the guest can simply receive and enjoy. It’s quite different in the West where we may consider our right to choose as the ultimate good.

"I'd love to go out for dinner to get a sushi assortment plate" would be much more polite than, "I don't know, whatever."  Can't you just taste the specificity? Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

“I’d love to go out for dinner to get a sushi assortment plate” would be much more polite than, “I don’t know, whatever.”
Can’t you just taste the specificity?
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Our modern world needs all of us to be proactive. Increasingly workers who want to stay employed during this rapid paced new economy are going to need to do more than just keep up with their current field of expertise. Thomas Friedman, a leading economist, warns that in this century we all need to learn how to become entrepreneurs. Doing one’s job effectively won’t be enough. Each of us within our own sphere needs to be on the lookout for ways to improve things and to innovate. We need to make bold offers in life within those spheres where each of us has control. How are you doing this?

Ted DesMaisons

Another close cousin of wimping is waffling—hovering between two or more possibilities without committing to either. Yes, holding the paradox of an uncertainty can help ensure we consider all sides of a big decision: Do we keep the ornery but skilled employee or cut her loose and take the risk of a new hire? Have a child and step into a different kind of purpose or remain child-free and preserve open space for life’s other work? In such cases, we sometimes force a solution before it’s had time to emerge.

Would you like some waffle to go with your wimp? Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Would you like some waffle to go with your wimp?
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Just as often, though, we waste time vacillating, avoiding a decision because we fear what we’ll lose. As you’ve said, Patricia, a bold offer is an active choice. Stepping onto one clear path indeed means giving up on an infinite range of other possibilities—and there’s a grief in that—but the move forward leads to greater action, depth, and adventure. It leads to other, more flavorful outcomes. Go with Door #1 and you forego Door #2, but at least you get out of the lobby.

Again and again, improv puts us in this place of creative tension. Any beginner class will introduce the practice of “Accept all offers.” go with the world our partner has created in the moment just passed, constantly letting go of—or at least refreshing—our own take on things.

In that light, a “Whatever you want” response to a dinner invite could be a kindness, right? Well, yes. And…we then have to measure our enthusiasm. If we simply acquiesce to dull offers, we get dull scenes. When we engage with commitment, making strong offers and letting them go if needed, we volley back and forth with our stage partners like skilled tennis players in a top-level competition.

"I see your bold offer and--unhh!!!--send one right back atcha!" Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

“I see your bold offer and–unhh!!!–send one right back atcha!”
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Maybe the analogy’s not quite right: we’re not working for winning zingers, but we are participating in an athletic and poetic dance where each player calls out the other’s best. Bold offer meets audacious return meets courageous response—and the scene takes off. Our investment lifts our partners. Our specificity lets the next line or next action unfold almost automatically.

Patricia’s right: boldness can be intimidating. That’s part of why improv (or life for that matter) ain’t for the faint of heart. But healthy chutzpah makes for the best collaboration. Everyone’s strong and everyone’s flexible. It’s not a rigid bravado or necessarily a loud one. It’s a daring kind of commitment and communication. We offer our biggest, brightest, and most bodacious selves. And our partners do as well. Every player goes full sail. All inspire each other to keep upping their games.

Lisa Rowland:  

I connect with what Patricia and Ted have written because I used to be a pretty polite improvisor. I was fantastic at enthusiastically “yes”sing my partner. I’d take them in any direction they pointed the scene. I was like a little improv springboard, giving helpful boosts to folks who already knew where they wanted to go. But I wasn’t big on setting the direction myself. That felt a bit too scary.

"I insist: you go first." Photo courtesy of www.us.ayushveda.com.

“I insist: you go first.”
Photo courtesy of www.us.ayushveda.com.

Part of my reluctance to make bold offers was politeness. As if to say, ‘I bet you know just where you want to go, so I won’t get in the way with any of my own offers that might distract from that. Go ahead! I’ll be right behind you!” I was very pleasant to play with! But I also knew that the improvisor I wanted to be should know how to make strong calls, so I tip-toed out onto limbs when I could screw up the courage.

At this point, I’ve worked on this area a lot–making my own narrative calls and big bold offers­­–and I’m better at it now. I’m more willing to make big story-changing confessions and play characters with unreasonable opinions and strong beliefs. I find it scary and exhilarating. But when I slip back into my old, more timid behavior, the particular cat that I find holding my tongue is not politeness, but rather fear of getting it wrong. A completely irrational sense that everyone else on stage knows where this story is going. They just see it. It’s obvious to them. But for some reason, the grand blue print of the scene has been withheld from me, so I probably shouldn’t make many big steps, because they’ll likely not fall on the right path. It seems ridiculous when I state it out loud like this, but that’s the fear!

I got wonderful advice from Barbara Scott once while working with True Fiction, an inspiring group doing a particularly difficult format. She said, “Any time you’re feeling tentative, just remember, no one else has any idea what’s going on either.” I try to remember that all the time. In improv and in life. We’re all just winging it here, right? No one has more information than you. You have everything you need to make a call.

You might feel like you're nuts, but get out there on that limb. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

You might feel like you’re nuts, but get out there on that limb.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Now, boldness takes guts. Big fat courage. You’re walking out on a limb, and you’re bringing a grand piano with you. And it also takes work. Because the price of admission to boldness is paying very close attention. You can get by not really listening if you never plan on contributing a whole lot. But if you’re throwing your two cents in, you’ve got to know everything that’s already in the pot. So sure, there’s a price. You have skin in the game. But the payoff of boldness is so worth it. Like so many other things, you get out what you put in. The bolder the choices, the grander the ride.

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5 Easy Ways to Introduce Mindfulness into Your Classroom http://animalearning.com/2014/08/07/5-easy-ways-to-introduce-mindfulness-into-your-classroom/ http://animalearning.com/2014/08/07/5-easy-ways-to-introduce-mindfulness-into-your-classroom/#comments Thu, 07 Aug 2014 06:55:06 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=2047 You may have heard that mindfulness practice—learning to pay curious and kind attention to the present moment—brings a wide-ranging host of benefits to the classroom or workplace setting. Greater focus, improved self-awareness and collaboration, reduced anxiety and hostility: the evidence-based, scientifically-demonstrated list goes on. Thankfully, you need not polish your pedagogy or meditate in a [more…]

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You may have heard that mindfulness practice—learning to pay curious and kind attention to the present moment—brings a wide-ranging host of benefits to the classroom or workplace setting. Greater focus, improved self-awareness and collaboration, reduced anxiety and hostility: the evidence-based, scientifically-demonstrated list goes on.

Mindfulness can bring ripples of benefit to any classroom or workplace setting.  Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Mindfulness can bring ripples of benefit to any classroom or workplace setting.
Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Thankfully, you need not polish your pedagogy or meditate in a monastery for months on end in order to start reaping such benefits. These five easy-to-introduce mindfulness practices will have immediate effect and will plant valuable seeds for further exploration.

 
  1. Minute of silence and stillness. Almost everyone’s in some bit of swirl when they begin a class or arrive at a meeting. Taking a minute of quiet stillness allows folks to catch their breath and settle their minds before diving into a new experience.

Many students will ask “What should I do during that time?” One helpful answer: “You don’t have to do anything. For this minute, you can just be.” Suggest that folks bring attention to their own experience during that time. What can they notice about their breath, their body, or the sounds coming to their ears? What’s happening now?

Insider tips

  • Invite students to close their eyes or find a neutral spot of focus on the floor or desk in front of them. Some groups need time to work out their nervous giggles and desire to distract—most have little experience with shared silence—but eventually students come to cherish the quiet respite.[1]
  • A simple chime or tone can help to bring a focus for learning. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

    A simple chime or tone can help to bring a focus for learning.
    Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

    Some participants may ask, “Am I supposed to pray?” My response: it’s a time to bring yourself to the present moment, to let go of—or at least note—whatever tensions or concerns you’re bringing into the room so you can concentrate on what we’re doing here. If a silent prayer helps with that, go ahead and pray.[2] It’s an option, but most definitely not a requirement.

  • Using a chime or other peaceful sound to enter into and exit the silence helps to punctuate the transition as well. Letting the kids or other participants ring the chime gives them further ownership over the practice.
  1. Deep listening. When most of us listen, we’re rarely paying full attention—we’re preparing a critique or a response instead. Deep listening develops a more generous, focused presence that leads to real connection.

Group your students or colleagues into pairs with each partner facing the other. If you can, give enough space so that pairs won’t distract each other. One person starts as the speaker, responding for a set time to a basic prompt; the other simply listens. No questions, no feedback, no clarification, no striving to remember or respond. Just listening. If the speaker feels she has finished before the minute concludes, the two can sit in silence until more thoughts come—and often the best sharings emerge from that quiet—or until time’s up.

This dog knows how to make the phonograph feel heard. Good deep listening, pooch. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

This dog knows how to make the phonograph feel heard. Good deep listening, pooch.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Then, switch roles so the second speaker shares his own reflection to that same prompt. After each participant has had the chance to speak, the pair gets a third minute to dialogue like in normal conversational. Is there anything your partner mentioned that you appreciated or wanted to connect with? Did their comments raise any questions? And so on.

Doing this exercise early in a semester or project can generate a sense of community that pays dividends for the rest of the group’s time together, especially if you go through several rounds with new partners for each subsequent question.

Insider tips:

  • After a first session of deep listening, engage a group discussion to explore what it was like to speak and listen this way. Most likely you’ll hear a range: “It was weird.” “I didn’t know how to respond.” “I felt safe.” “I got time to hear my own voice.” “Knowing I wasn’t going to respond meant I could pay better attention.” “I felt like I wasn’t being kind.” Whatever, the responses, welcome them and acknowledge that skillful deep listening takes practice and, eventually, bears good fruit.
  • Early on, good prompts will ask non-threatening, open-ended questions that invite participants to share something authentic without getting too vulnerable. “What’s something you enjoy doing over the summer?” would work well. “What’s one of your deepest fears?” would prove unfair, if not irresponsible. Once a group has established greater familiarity, of course, deep listening offers a good structure for more intimate sharing. Be cautious and patient with testing such boundaries.
  • Forming “wheel-within-a-wheel” circles can help transition from partner to partner. Have one partner from each group help form a circle in the center with their chairs facing out. The other partners then form a second, wider circle by facing their chairs toward the center. Each pair forms a “spoke” radiating outward. After the first question, have the folks in the inner circle stand and move one partner to their right (clockwise). After the second question, have the folks in the outer circle stand and move one partner to their right (counter-clockwise). Everyone gets to move. Everyone meets new people.
  1. Where is your attention now? Like a spotlight, our attention always shines somewhere. With practice, we can learn to choose where that awareness falls, rather than lurching to and fro without intention. Every so often—including in the middle of other exercises or projects—ask your students “Where is your attention now?” and then give them a moment or two to stop and notice. Is their attention where they want it to be? Great. Has it gone elsewhere? That’s fine too. Either way, they’re developing an awareness about their awareness—and that they have some choice in the matter.
It's SO easy for the mind to wander.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

It’s SO easy for the mind to wander.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Insider tip:

  • Take care with your vocal tone when delivering the question. Avoid judgment or reprimand as in “Get your attention back here now!” Rather, invite curiosity and kindness in exploration, as in “Hmm. Check that out. My mind has wandered off entirely. What do I want to do about that.”

 

4. Breathing ratio. This simple breathing exercise takes just a moment and can help restore calm in a time of stress or chaos—without anyone else needing to know. Invite students to silently count as they inhale and start counting again as they exhale. There’s no need to adjust posture or shift breathing pace; again, they’re simply noticing what is. What number do they find on the in breath and on the out breath? Are they different? Do they change?

Simply counting the breath can help us find calm in a time of stress.  Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Simply counting the breath can help us find calm in a time of stress.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Insider tip:

  • Ask students to take stock of how they’re feeling in mind and body before they start the exercise and then again after they’ve finished. Almost universally, students experience greater groundedness—and an excitement to learn that they can create this sense of calm whenever they need it.
  1. Recognize transitions. Skillful mindfulness teachers will find others ways to mark transitions between lessons, activities, or learning modes. Maybe students take shoes off or drop cell phones into a box on their way into the classroom. Perhaps a quick pick-me-up game sloughs off the stress following a test. Or a slow, silent walk around the desks introduces a different kind of focus.

    Leaving shoes at the door can signal a transition. Photo courtesy of flickr.

    Leaving shoes at the door can signal a transition.
    Photo courtesy of flickr.

One of my favorites signals the end of class rather than having kids just trickle away without intention. Students put one hand toward the center of the room, as if forming spokes in one large wheel. Together, we’ll count to three and then lift our arms out, chanting “Spokes out!” The simple practice takes about 5 seconds but gathers the group’s energy one last time. We honor what we’ve shared and honor where we’re going.

Insider tip:

  • Infinite possibilities abound for this one. Find your own creative ways to mark transitions or, better yet, invite the students to generate their own.

Whatever approach you choose, remember that the more your kids practice some form of mindfulness, the more they (and you) will see its mind-shifting benefits. As is so often true, the oxygen principle holds: best to get your own mindfulness practice going before bringing your students to it. If you want to teach swimming, it helps to have survived a few swimming situations of your own.

A few words of caution to conclude. Sloppy or unskillful introductions to mindfulness may generate hesitation or even defiance—and such resistance can surface with surprising intensity. For one, mindfulness instruction can trigger sensitive religious concerns. Wise teachers and leaders learn to anticipate how even avowedly secular practices might threaten some faith traditions—or privilege others. In addition, deeper exercises—extended meditations, body scans, or movement practices—often bring up difficult emotions or memories. Any teacher who hasn’t explored his or her own inner landscape will have little to offer a student or colleague facing the challenge of theirs. Again, healthy humility, steady patience and a commitment to one’s own daily mindfulness practice all make good sense here.

[1] You know things are going well when your students remind you that you forgot the opening minute.

[2] Lord knows, I’ve often asked for guidance or good words before a challenging class!

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Improv Wisdom Musings, Vol. 2: Make Emotional Noises http://animalearning.com/2014/08/04/improv-wisdom-musings-vol-2-make-emotional-noises/ Mon, 04 Aug 2014 04:51:18 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=2032 This post marks the second in a series of three-person explorations into the life wisdom found through improvisational theatre.    Three experienced teachers–Patricia Ryan Madson, founder of the Stanford Improvisors (SImps) and author of Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up; Lisa Rowland, improvisor extraordinaire and San Francisco 2012 Actor of the Year; and Ted DesMaisons, learning consultant and curator of this [more…]

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This post marks the second in a series of three-person explorations into the life wisdom found through improvisational theatre. 
 
Three experienced teachers–Patricia Ryan Madson, founder of the Stanford Improvisors (SImps) and author of Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show UpLisa Rowland, improvisor extraordinaire and San Francisco 2012 Actor of the Year; and Ted DesMaisons, learning consultant and curator of this blog–have agreed to riff on a few improv maxims, sharing and building on each other’s thoughts to explore each principle in more detail.  Rowland and DesMaisons both studied with Madson and continue her work through their “Improv Wisdom for a Meaningful Life” retreats–including one coming up later this month.
 
We agreed that each individual contribution would hold loosely to a three paragraph limit.  Each essay would then get passed to another teacher for comment or development until all three had offered a reflection.   Here’s hoping you enjoy!    

Make Emotional Noises

Open emotion like this changes things. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Open emotion like this changes things.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Ted DesMaisons: 

We spend so much of our lives knotting up our emotions rather than letting them flow. We’re afraid—heck, I’m afraid—to be seen, really seen, by those around us. Why so, I’m not sure. Maybe it would mean we’re more vulnerable to emotional injury because others have sensitive information about us. Maybe it’s because we’d have to admit we’re permeable beings, affected by the world and other creatures—and we’d rather believe we’re self-sustaining individuals. We also block our feelings because we’re afraid of them ourselves. If I really open to this emotion, I might be consumed by it. Notice how much pain I feel for what’s happening to the planet? I’ll never get out of despair. Notice the depth of my gratitude for the love others show to me? I might explode in joy. We let others block our emotions and we block them ourselves.

Of course, as with most of the natural world, emotions are meant to flow through us. They come as visitors and just want our notice. Like in Rumi’s “The Guest House,” we can welcome them in—even though they may be dangerous—and we can invite their wisdom. Usually, once acknowledged, they’ll move on of their own accord. New ones will surely fill in the gap behind them. Reevaluation Counseling taught me this lesson beautifully: emotions might bring tears which can get messy, but it’s all good. The wet and snot carry toxins out of the body and allow for powerful healing. If we stifle the sob and sniffle the gunk back in—if we work to contain the emotion—we keep the toxins within us, more poison for another day.

The improv principle “Make emotional noises” serves as a wonderful antidote for such stern control. As in so many other improvisational ways of being, we’re asked to come back to a natural embodiment. So many beginner scenes get locked in talking heads: words, words, words. While that can seem entertaining for an audience if the improvisors have enough verbal dexterity, it ultimately proves unsatisfying, like empty white flour carbs in a meal. Emotions on stage, especially ones sounded without words, immediately offer a different kind of sustenance. The players drop into an authenticity that resonates throughout the theater. As improvisors, we not only let ourselves make emotional noises as they might emerge on their own, but we also learn to invite those sounds as a way of accessing that humanity. The feelings rise and fall. The healing’s wise for all.

 

Great vocalists invite emotion into every sound they make.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Great vocalists invite emotion into every sound they make.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Lisa Rowland

Make Emotional Noises. What a great reminder.

I’m interested in backing up and then also skipping forward from Ted’s starting point with Making Emotional Noises.

The backing up part is about awareness. As a performer, I connect with this piece of advice as not only reminding me to let my emotions be known, but to simply have emotions in the first place! If my character is going to make an emotional noise, I better have some feelings about things! So often we approach the stage just with information. With naming things and people and places, with stating facts about our backgrounds, but it’s easy to forget that a full-bodied character will have feelings about the different people in her story. Sometimes, improvisors get to have the feelings before they even know why they’re having them. I find myself saying to students “Have a big emotional reaction! Figure out why later!” or “Let us see you cry! You don’t need to know why you’re crying!” It’s exciting! Funnily enough, this is sometimes how I experience emotions in real life. An emotion overtakes me, and I need to take a moment and figure out just where it came from and what brought it on. How delightful it would be to see a character inexplicably emotional.

Sometimes joy cannot be contained in silence. And those feelings change relationships.  Photo courtesy of fotopedia.

Sometimes joy cannot be contained in silence. And those feelings change relationships.
Photo courtesy of fotopedia.

The other important part of having emotions, from my perspective, is what it does, not just to a character, but to a relationship. A scene will go from a collection of things happening to a story when characters start being affected by one another. And that is what an audience comes to see. Bringing that into daily life, I’m reminded of the power of the sometimes clichéd “I” statements. “I feel sad.” “I feel lonely.” Simply stating how an action or situation makes you FEEL can be very powerful. In some ways, I think our world has discounted emotions as unproductive or invaluable. They don’t accomplish anything. They’re not to be weighted too heavily. Or, we find safety in being just fine all the time, so we don’t let our emotions out. But they still drive so much of how we move through life! We go toward good feelings, we go away from negative ones. In relationships, reminding each other of how we feel is sometimes all it takes to create a positive change. Make emotional noises. Feel things, let them out, and make them known to the people around you.

Patricia Ryan Madson:  

What a useful topic!   I remember the first time I heard Keith give this instruction and the result. A lifeless scene became intensely interesting. Emotional sounds are sweet and powerful and playful. And, you don’t have to know what they mean. The sound itself creates the feeling. Like “jump and justify.”

So what is an emotional noise? Try some right now: Sigh. Sigh deeply. Sigh sadly. Sigh happily, sigh in frustration. Take the sigh into a laugh.   Using the breath . . .let some sound go up into your nasal chamber. Now play with the breath alone. See how many kinds of sounds/expressions happen when you invite your nonverbal sounding mechanism to simply play. Our breath tells so much. I can always know when my husband Ron is tense and then relaxes. He lets out an enormous sighing breath, while putting his feet up. You can feel his relief. There are all kinds of amazing feelings that manifest when we allow our closed lips the “mmmmmmmmmm” sound. Try it.

Try it out! Choose an emotion, make a noise.

Try it out! Choose an emotion, make a noise.

Or start with the emotion . . . try on grief, for example. Think of a very sad circumstance and don’t verbalize, but simply vocalize what grief might sound like. The sounds of grief will likely lead to tears. Emotional sounds often end in laughing and crying. How wonderful. How rich. An excellent reminder, Ted and Lisa. It’s healthy for improvisers and for ordinary life. Make emotional noises. I just thought of a great game. It’s the emotional noises “open a letter” game.   Open a letter and read it silently . . . but react by making emotional noises. Experiment! Woo hoo! I love making emotional sounds.

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Improv Wisdom Musings, Vol. 1: Let Yourself Be Changed http://animalearning.com/2014/07/20/improv-wisdom-musings-vol-1-let-yourself-be-changed/ http://animalearning.com/2014/07/20/improv-wisdom-musings-vol-1-let-yourself-be-changed/#comments Mon, 21 Jul 2014 01:17:11 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=2015 This post marks the first in a series of three-person explorations into the life wisdom found through improvisational theatre.  Three experienced teachers–Patricia Ryan Madson, founder of the Stanford Improvisors (SImps) and author of Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up; Lisa Rowland, improvisor extraordinaire and San Francisco 2012 Actor of the Year; and Ted DesMaisons, learning consultant and curator of this [more…]

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This post marks the first in a series of three-person explorations into the life wisdom found through improvisational theatre.  Three experienced teachers–Patricia Ryan Madson, founder of the Stanford Improvisors (SImps) and author of Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show UpLisa Rowland, improvisor extraordinaire and San Francisco 2012 Actor of the Year; and Ted DesMaisons, learning consultant and curator of this blog–have agreed to riff on a few improv maxims, sharing and building on each other’s thoughts to explore each principle in more detail.  Rowland and DesMaisons both studied with Madson and continue her work through their “Improv Wisdom for a Meaningful Life” retreats–including one coming up this August.
 
We agreed that each individual contribution would hold loosely to a three paragraph limit.  Each essay would then get passed to another teacher for comment or development until all three had offered a reflection.   The same maxim may eventually elicit more than one round.  Here’s our first . . .   

Let Yourself Be Changed

Lisa Rowland: We, as a civilization, seem to have developed an identity trajectory that moves us from a place of openness and malleability to a “grown-up” and “mature” station where we hang on tightly to what we’ve got and avoid situations that might threaten all that we’ve achieved.  As children, the whole world changes us.  It’s new and wonderful and we are encouraged to try new things and learn all the way up through college.  But once we’re out on our own, the message seems to change.  Figure out what you’re going to do and do it. Once we’re settled in that place, there’s so much of our identity wrapped up in having arrived there that it’s terrifying to consider changing it! A mix of external messaging that tells us we’ve gotten what we came for and internal fear that we might lose what we have if we open ourselves up to change keeps us right where we are.

We can get frozen in our identities, unable to flow with the larger tides that guide us.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

As adults, we often get frozen in our identities, unable to flow with the larger tides that guide us.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Improvisors, on the other hand, study the art of being changed.  A wise teacher told me once that rather than looking for ways to change my partner, I ought to enter a scene looking for opportunities to change.  Stories revolve around characters affecting one another; around people being thrown off balance and coming to rest in a different place than they started.  That’s how we know a story has been told.  Something’s different.  Someone’s been changed.  On an improv stage, we welcome in that momentary imbalance necessitated in change in order to see what happens next.  This might mean going along with someone’s idea, showing our vulnerability,  giving up our status, or asking for help.

If more people approached life with an aim to look for what might change them, there’d be no limit to the depths of happiness that people might experience.  They’d take that class they’d always been interested in, without the paralyzing fear of failure.  They’d accept others’ ideas, and creative collaborations would flow like water!  They’d listen deeply, empathize generously, and approach life with curiosity rather than suspicion.  They’d welcome in uncertainty with the understanding that if they’re to discover anything new, they’ll inevitably travel through a zone of unfamiliarity.  Hang in there!  Let it change you.  Find a new part of yourself, and allow yourself to be redefined, if that’s where the change takes you.

Patricia Ryan MadsonChanging or being changed . . . hmmmm.  There is a world of difference between these two.  In real life I notice what it is I want to change in myself and sometimes activate that choice.  Most self-help books give us keys to this process. For example I need to get a handle on how I waste time in distractions on my IPhone.  There’s a change I need to make.  Perhaps I put a time window on when I’m allowed to have open the phone, other than when it rings.  But the improv concept that we are studying here is about something fundamentally different.  At the heart the issue is control . . . whose control.  While I may be willing and even ready to change on my own most of us don’t like someone else making that decision for us.  I would balk at having my husband hold my IPhone hostage in an attempt to change that habit for me.

Even a hardened villain can change--and we love that story. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Even a hardened villain can change–and we love that story.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

So improv gives us opportunities to try on this way of working.  Perhaps I’m playing a character who is a bullheaded kind of woman.  She’s a CEO of a big corporation and is used to having things her way.  In the course of the scene she meets a little boy who has been damaged by the product she manufactures.  As she comes to know his story her veneer of arrogance melts and she offers to adopt the boy.  We love seeing a “badass” turn soft and kind.

It’s easy to hang on to whatever you are doing/thinking.  It takes little effort to stay right where you are.  Change requires openness and action.  Change brings adventure and surprises and new levels of living.  And, improv allows us to experience what it feels like to be influenced and moved by others.

Ted DesMaisons:  You both have reminded me how—again—improv teachings parallel those of Buddhism. Within that tradition, the Buddha taught, we generate so much of our suffering by resisting inevitable transition—or, at the other end of the spectrum, by trying to force it. Change represents one of the “seals” that holds life together. Fighting it means fighting reality. When we make peace with that truth, even embrace it, our mood relaxes and we exhale into noticing the beauty of the present moment.

Improv creates that learning lab where we can experience and enjoy the cauldron of change with little to no risk. When the “badass” opens her heart, the other players and the audience melt along with her. When the lowly servant finds a different dignity in the face of his overlord’s abuse, the whole house celebrates the status reversal. We embrace the change and come to see that it has results. As you mentioned, Lisa, the choice to let ourselves be affected makes a better story.

So what it is that makes us cling to the familiar, whether in life or on stage? Part of it, like you suggest, Patricia, is that change asks us to do something, to take responsibility for helping create a new world. We have to take more responsibility for the outcome of our story or our circumstance. Of course, we might also fail in the new effort. We might look clumsy or stupid. People might judge us or reject us. And then, we fear, we’ll be left alone.

Every caterpillar takes a faithful leap before becoming a butterfly. Image courtesy of Flickr Sharing.

Every caterpillar takes a faithful leap before becoming a butterfly.
Image courtesy of Flickr Sharing.

Ultimately, this question of letting ourselves be changed becomes a question of faith. Do we trust an unfolding scene—or life itself—to take care of us in the end? Do we trust ourselves to marshal the internal resources to grow into the change? Can we allow our stagemates and partners in crime to support us through whatever transitions happen? A caterpillar wraps itself in a cocoon that spells a certain kind of death, or at least a passing. But it’s that exact willingness that allows the butterfly to emerge. Letting ourselves be changed embraces that same, compelling life force. We dive into that dying, of sorts, and come out renewed.

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Walking at Omega, 2014 http://animalearning.com/2014/06/16/walking-at-omega-2014/ Mon, 16 Jun 2014 20:29:17 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1984 Simple summer moments can prove so sweet. I just recently returned from a wonderful retreat at the Omega Institute with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) luminaries Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli. We spent most of our time in the first few days engaged in mindfulness practice, cycling through sitting, walking, lying down and yoga meditations. Six [more…]

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Image courtesy of MisterGuy11.

“Fireflies” Image courtesy of MisterGuy11.

Simple summer moments can prove so sweet.

I just recently returned from a wonderful retreat at the Omega Institute with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) luminaries Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli. We spent most of our time in the first few days engaged in mindfulness practice, cycling through sitting, walking, lying down and yoga meditations. Six AM to 9 PM, almost non-stop makes an endurance challenge, for sure, but it also brings a steadier mind and more open awareness. On one of our extended walking meditations, with 100 or so of us spread across one of Omega’s great lawns as the day’s light faded, the heart of the following poem came to me.

Here’s hoping the moment speaks to you as well.

.   .   .   .   .

Walking at Omega, 2014

We move over this open field like
early evening fireflies,
flickering lamps of awareness
in measured motion,
dancing with
the oncoming dark.

Each floats and pauses
under her own power;
Each honors his own track.
Still, we sense each other
in the soft periphery,
conjoined in pulsing multitude.

Surely, we are not alone.

Like any lights,
we, too, will someday extinguish,
falling into
that great darkness
which births
and swallows
all things.

For now, though
—in this moment—
let our hearts rest
in quiet reassurance,
this field of quiet fires
ever available
for those
who choose to see.

Moving alone, yet together. Image courtesy of the Center for Mindfulness at the UMass Medical Center.

Moving alone, yet together. Image courtesy of the Center for Mindfulness at the UMass Medical Center.

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9 Reasons Why Every Conference Needs More Introverted Experiences http://animalearning.com/2014/06/04/9-reasons-why-every-conference-needs-more-introverted-experiences/ http://animalearning.com/2014/06/04/9-reasons-why-every-conference-needs-more-introverted-experiences/#comments Thu, 05 Jun 2014 03:06:41 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1969 Two years ago, I attended the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN) world conference in San Francisco. I had a blast: great games, provocative insights, big ideas, and loads of interaction with amazing yes-sayers from around the world. I also had trouble catching my breath. The conference designers that year had packed each day full with amazing [more…]

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Two years ago, I attended the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN) world conference in San Francisco. I had a blast: great games, provocative insights, big ideas, and loads of interaction with amazing yes-sayers from around the world. I also had trouble catching my breath. The conference designers that year had packed each day full with amazing workshop after amazing workshop, with little time for integration or even travel from space to space. Most sessions were loud with laughter too. Those of you who also count yourself among the introvert tribe won’t be surprised that all that heady excitement came with an exhaustion price tag. As I’m ramping up to head to this year’s AIN conference in Austin, Texas this November, I’m hoping the session planners will make more space for introverts by including more silence, more breaks, more opportunities for self-reflection and longer transition times.

Here are nine reasons why.

1)    Participants get the chance for greater processing and integration of what they learn. As yoga teacher Patty Townsend asserts: all learning, growth and evolution happens in cycles of work and rest. The mug of learning can only take so much tea before new information spills over the edges. Continuous inhalation only makes us dizzy. Real meaning and real learning comes when we enjoy the tea before adding more. Real integration happens when we allow an exhale as well. And, importantly, this is true for introverts and extroverts alike.

Cup_of_green_tea_and_tea_pot_on_table

Will you enjoy the cup of tea before pouring more into the mug? Image courtesy of wikimedia.org.

2)    More reflection allows for greater depth. When we skim straight from one full-throttle experience to another, we rarely get the chance to dig in. In order to keep up, we have to stay in motion. With all that action, the muddied waters never settle to clarity. If we stay still for a bit, however, we eventually see further into the bottom of our explorations, finding new, different—and often more creative—insights than we found on the surface.

3)    Multiple learning modes activate different parts of the brain. If teachers only engage students through the written word, for example, they let all sorts of intelligence lie dormant or, worse, atrophy. In contrast, when group leaders offer the opportunity to “study” through movement and music or through silence and contemplation, they open the door for a much wider range of potential neural pathways. We get more versatile in our thinking, more flexible in our creativity. We need more than extroverted experiences for the same reason.

4)    Introverts will feel more welcome. For an introvert, having to “work” a crowd in a loud room can feel like having to scratch a blackboard while getting a vaccination shot. Make that a crowd of mostly exuberant and charming improvisors and the process only gets more intimidating. Building in quiet time or opportunities for introspection tells those introverts “We value you too. We’re glad you’re here as well.” And that welcome builds more courage for fuller participation.

5)    You draw out insightful voices you might otherwise miss out on. Introverts and shy folks (two overlapping, but not identical sets) make as many great connections as do those who speak more freely and forcefully. Without a conscious effort to make space for—or to invite—those voices, however, other conference participants never hear that deeper wisdom. The introverts may scribble journal notes for future consideration or have select conversations over a quiet dinner, but most session-goers never get access to those valuable musings.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet:The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking , articulates why it makes sense to encourage participation from introverts.

 

6)    You lose out on selling opportunities. Many decision-makers in all sorts of organizations are introverts. Like any other professional group selling their services, applied improvisors need to make connections with such decision-makers in order to earn business. Giving those extroversion-tending consultants and trainers greater fluency in the quieter tones introvert-sensitive language will help them earn more business.

7)    You help international folks draw more from their conference experience. If you’ve travelled to a country where you’re new to the language, you know how exhausting that can be. You also know just how much of a difference it makes when the natives speak…slowly. Here’s where periods of silence again can make  a big difference. Whether it’s a more spacious 10 minutes between conference sessions to integrate what just happened or a brief pause at the end of a sentence to catch up with one’s internal translator, little gaps help the internationals take in all that’s going down as well.

8)    Greater spaciousness allows for more open hearts. If you want to spot the beauty of a rare bird or the grace of a wild animal, you can’t go crashing through the woods. The same is true for the tenderness of our more authentic—and more vulnerable—selves. Sometimes the soul shows up through animated play or vibrant music. Other times, it needs wider stretches of patient silence. Connecting with our deepest selves and with the same in others makes for truly memorable learning experiences. When we really know and are known, we grow.

Sometimes, one only makes contact with the power and beauty of wild insights by waiting more quietly.

Sometimes, one only makes contact with the power and beauty of wild insights by waiting more quietly. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

9)    What comes last matters just as much as what comes first. At a well-paced conference, I have as much attention to offer the final session as I did the first. In fact, each experience builds on the previous ones to a triumphant whole. At a more breathless conference, in contrast, I find myself glazing over or checking out during late-afternoon gatherings. My mind stumbles and lurches, zombie-like, to what I’ll have for dinner or to the oddly-soothing drone of my e-mail box—really, to anything other than the new information I’m trying to take in. I always feel badly for those late-session presenters, knowing that everyone needs a break. Thankfully, when I am that presenter, I can draw on a few reliable tools that restore some psychic balance before trying to pass along any additional lesson.

Don’t get me wrong: a rich buffet of delicious offerings can make any conference a delight. When you’ve only got a few hours or a few days with all these great people, you want to squeeze what you can out of each opportunity. That said, there’s a wisdom in finding a balance. Draw on the energy of the extroverts and ask for the depth of the introverts. That’s when the conference becomes most unforgettable. That’s where you get true transformation.

This summer’s Improv Wisdom for a Meaningful Life workshop that I’ll lead in northern California with my dear friend and colleague Lisa Rowland will make ample space for introverts and extroverts alike. Click on the link at the beginning of this paragraph or see the previous post for more information. We’d love to have you join the fun!

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This year’s Improv Wisdom workshop!! http://animalearning.com/2014/05/21/this-years-improv-wisdom-workshop/ Wed, 21 May 2014 23:51:18 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1955 IMPROV WISDOM for a MEANINGFUL LIFE A Playful Path to Courage, Creativity, and Connection  Black Mountain Retreat Center, Cazadero, CA * Fri-Mon, Aug 22nd-25th, 2014 Enrollment limited to approx. 14 participants   In the long history of humankind (and animal kind) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.   –Charles Darwin Growing numbers [more…]

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IMPROV WISDOM for a MEANINGFUL LIFE

A Playful Path to Courage, Creativity, and Connection 

Black Mountain Retreat Center, Cazadero, CA * Fri-Mon, Aug 22nd-25th, 2014

Enrollment limited to approx. 14 participants

Black Mountain  In the long history of humankind (and animal kind) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.   –Charles Darwin

Growing numbers know that improvisation offers far more than comedy. Improv cultivates a different presence, the kind that forges courage, fosters connection, and frees creativity.  In short: improv enriches the human experience. Creating in the moment, artists and athletes build resilience in the face of setbacks. Business leaders learn to innovate with nimble acuity. Educators find powerful paths for true development. And seekers of all sorts discover previously hidden layers of insight. This active and contemplative workshop explores such wisdom from the inside out. Together, we’ll create a safe, playful, and experiential learning lab that sharpens self-awareness and revitalizes relationship with the wider world. More specifically, we’ll help you:

  • Find and express greater spontaneity
  • Transform your approach to failure
  • Increase your sensory acuity and in-the-moment awareness
  • Trust your creative leanings
  • Improve your communication: better listening, clearer speaking, deeper understanding
  • Reach new levels of generosity
  • Collaborate with greater ease
  • Get resourceful in the face of chaos
  • Tell better stories

Steeping myself in these principles for peaceful, playful living has been a true gift. Thank you.                                                                      –Kathy R. Ted and Lisa are awesome teachers! Patient, kind, and fun; they brought out a sparkle in all of us.                                                                      –Jen C. This workshop was everything I hoped for and much more. You created a safe environment for us to play and did so many things to foster our creativity.                                                                                                                  –Eric H.

Prerequisites This workshop is designed for those with little or no prior experience with improvisational theater. Those with more substantial improv chops who are just beginning to tap its deeper levels may also find the workshop fruitful. No particular religious or spiritual path is required, but those with an inquiring heart and open mind will gain the most from and contribute the most to the experience. About the Instructors Ted picture for webSince completing his graduate work at Stanford (MBA) and Harvard (Masters of Theology), Ted DesMaisons has taught religious studies and philosophy at Northfield Mount Hermon school in western Massachusetts. He has studied improvisation with Patricia Ryan Madson, Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS) and Loose Moose, and has trained extensively with the Center for Courage and Renewal. Combining humor with gravitas and intention with inspiration, Ted helps create safe spaces for exploring what really matters. He writes regularly about improv, contemplation, and positive reinforcement on his TED WORDS blog (www.tedwordsblog.com). lisashot10One of the most recognizable and most beloved teachers of improvisation in the world, Lisa Rowland has performed, coached, and conducted corporate trainings with San Francisco’s BATS mainstage company for more than seven years. Students from Palo Alto and the Presidio to Amsterdam and Arabia rave about the way she combines power and generosity in the service of their learning. A graduate of Stanford University and an uncannily astute observer of what’s needed next, Lisa was recently named the 2012 San Francisco Actor of the Year. Location and Accommodations

Black Mountain Retreat Center from the air.

Black Mountain Retreat Center from the air.

This retreat takes place at the Black Mountain Retreat Center in the glorious redwoods of Sonoma County, two hours north of San Francisco or Berkeley.  The Center’s rolling coastal hills and meditative spaces will make an idyllic setting for our time together.  The Sonoma Coast waits just a half hour away.  We will share three delicious vegetarian meals each day and guests will stay two to a room in simple, clean accommodations.  For more information about the setting, please visit the Center’s web site: http://www.blackmountaincenter.com.

Accommodations at the Tara House.

Accommodations at the Tara House.

Cost $700 per person. Includes all program fees, three nights lodging, and three meals per day. Full payment due upon registration, though other arrangements can be negotiated as needed. Payment refundable (minus $25 processing charge) if the workshop is full and you or we are able to find a replacement.  $50 discount for any referral who attends the workshop.

Registration/Contact Us If you would like to register, please fill out this form online (Click on the words “this form” to go to the form). If you have any questions about the workshop, please contact either facilitator. We’d be delighted to talk with you!

Ted DesMaisons: teddyd@stanfordalumni.org           Lisa Rowland: lcrowland@gmail.com

The Sonoma Coast, 30 minutes from the retreat center.

The Sonoma Coast ,30 minutes from the retreat center.

Who am I here in this moment?       What choice is needed now?

How can I help those around me?

How does this story connect me to something larger or deeper?

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A Visionary Victory for Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks: How a New Way of Thinking Bonded a Team and Brought Home a Championship http://animalearning.com/2014/02/04/a-visionary-victory-for-pete-carroll-and-the-seattle-seahawks-how-a-new-way-of-thinking-bonded-a-team-and-brought-home-a-championship/ http://animalearning.com/2014/02/04/a-visionary-victory-for-pete-carroll-and-the-seattle-seahawks-how-a-new-way-of-thinking-bonded-a-team-and-brought-home-a-championship/#comments Tue, 04 Feb 2014 13:43:11 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1917 Pete Carroll had heard it for years and right up until Super Bowl game time. The ridicule. The doubt. The derision. Pete Carroll’s too much of a  players’ coach. That rah-rah style might work at USC, but it won’t work with grown men in the pros. Seattle’s too lax to win a championship. Now, after [more…]

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Coach Pete Carroll brought a new approach to the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Coach Pete Carroll brought a new approach to the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Pete Carroll had heard it for years and right up until Super Bowl game time. The ridicule. The doubt. The derision. Pete Carroll’s too much of a  players’ coach. That rah-rah style might work at USC, but it won’t work with grown men in the pros. Seattle’s too lax to win a championship. Now, after having shellacked the Denver Broncos’ supposedly juggernaut offense in Super Bowl XLVIII, Carroll and his Seahawks have sent those critics scurrying into the shadows. Turns out his careful approach to coaching—a potent blend of growth mindset, mindfulness techniques, and positive reinforcement—actually does gain traction on the field. Turns out you don’t have to scowl first to laugh last.

Back at the beginning of the season, Carroll detailed for ESPN the Magazine how he had chosen a different path. He knew that many thought him a pushover and that his detractors could point to a questionable track record. He’d been fired by the Jets in 1994. The Patriots had dismissed him after three seasons of seeming overmatched. And, though he’d had success at USC where he won two national championships, he left there under a cloudstorm of controversy too. Still, in the face of that criticism, he stayed strong and built a program that matched his mode.  In a world of aggressive hits and hard-ass reprimand, he opted for systematic kindness: “I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?”[1]

Growth Mindset

That generous slant shows up for the Seahawks in several ways, including Carroll’s commitment to a growth mindset. He focuses squarely on improvement rather than on native talent, exhorting his players, coaches, and staff to “Do your job better than it has ever been done before.”[2] He and his GM John Schneider cleared out employees who planted their feet in a fixed mindset mud and instead brought in guys willing to grow. That included Russell Wilson, the 5’11” quarterback who’d heard a few nay-sayers of his own and now-All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman who had come into the league as a lightly-regarded 5th-round pick. It also included Tom Cable, an assistant head coach earlier known for his testy demeanor who now feels he’s found a better way to work with players:

If I go ballistic on a guy because he dropped his outside hand or missed an underneath stunt, who is wrong? I am. I’m attacking his self-confidence and he’s learning that if he screws up, he’s going to get yelled at. If you make a mistake here, it’s going to get fixed.[3]

For everyone throughout the organization, the approach stays the same. Set goals. Reach goals. Learn from mistakes.

The principle even applies for significant errors in judgment. When second-year defensive stopper Bruce Irvin received a four-game suspension for a positive test for banned substances last May, Carroll coached Irvin to take responsibility for his actions and apologize to his teammates and to the league. “The fact that that happened to Bruce is a gift for the next guy,” Carroll reported. “He made a poor choice and got hammered by it so the next guy won’t have to go through with that.”[4]

When Sherman ignited a firestorm with an on-air rant following the NFC Championship, he found his coach taking a similar approach:

I haven’t exactly earned straight A’s in the [avoiding controversy] department lately, but [Coach Carroll] sees it as a learning experience, just like the games. He finds the positives when we lose, in addition to the things we can improve on.[5]

Mindfulness

Early on in his tenure with the Seahawks, Carroll got his athletes practicing yoga as a way to build flexibility and core strength. He also knew it would help them develop focus and concentration. What started as an experimental program became a mandated requirement, with players like Wilson leading the charge for even more mental preparation: “We talk about being in the moment and increasing chaos throughout practice, so when I go into the game, everything is relaxed.”[6]

Quarterback Russell Wilson touts the benefits of mindfulness practice.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Quarterback Russell Wilson touts the benefits of mindfulness practice.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Seahawks now have a full-time sports psychologist on staff and a more thorough investment in mindfulness that’s taken root across the squad. Offensive tackle Russell Okung has also jumped fully on board:

Meditation is as important as lifting weights and being out here on the field for practice. It’s about quieting your mind and getting into certain states where everything outside of you doesn’t matter in that moment. There are so many things telling you that you can’t do something, but you take those thoughts captive, take power over them and change them.[7]

The mindfulness helps the athletes let go of regrets from the past and anxieties for the future so they can stay fully focused on the intense demands of the present.

Positive Reinforcement

Carroll and his coaches amplify the team’s growth mindset and commitment to mental preparation by employing the foundational principle of positive reinforcement: reward movement toward the behavior you want and ignore the rest. That means more than offering empty praise. It means giving timely feedback to focus players on doing the right thing now rather than having done the wrong thing in the past. “We don’t feel like we benefit from [harping on errors],” Carroll says. “We want to tell them the best thing we can tell them as quickly as we can. It isn’t necessary to scream at them or yell at them. There are other ways to do it.”[8]

"Here's what you're doing right, Russell."

“Here’s what you’re doing right, Russell.”
Photo: http-//cbssports.com/images/blogs/carroll-wilson-happy.jpg.png

Though the league sees Carroll as a “players’ coach”—and his team members sing his praises—he’s no undisciplined pushover. There’s a backbone of intention behind the positivity. Linebacker and team captain Heath Farwell makes the argument: “[Coach] Carroll is respected by his players because of his clear teaching methods and his positive-reinforcement approach.”[9] ESPN NFL Analyst Eric Allen echoes the point: “Players’ coaches give you tools that you can use to be successful—so that no matter where you are, you’re able to understand the game—you grow as a player—you grow as a person. They prepare you and give you an opportunity to be a better player and then hold you accountable.”[10]

Multiple Fibers, Strong Rope

Pete Carroll’s not the first coach to preach the benefits of positivity, but he is the first to succeed on such a grand scale. And that success derives directly from his belief in his multi-strand vision. “[Carroll isn’t] coaching in the Super Bowl because he’s a nice guy,” wrote Sherman. “He’s here because he’s pulling off the most unique philosophy in football…Even when he finished 7-9 two seasons in a row in 2010 and 2011, coach Carroll stayed true to himself and the things he believed in, because it was finally his chance to do things his way.”[11]

Nice guys get trophies too. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Nice guys get trophies too.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Start with the life-changing shift to a growth mindset and clear out the deadbeats. Develop the discipline of mindfulness meditation. And teach with the targeted technique of positive reinforcement. Braid those fibers into a single rope and you’ve got the strength to reach the highest summits, no matter how loud the nay-sayers grow. Quarterback Wilson wisely acknowledges that “Other teams aren’t like this. We do stuff different here.”[12] For this year’s Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, that difference—Pete Carroll’s systematic commitment to positivity and kindness—made all the difference.

Congratulations, Coach, and thanks for the inspiration.

 

Thanks to the following articles for their insights and quotations:

A Love Letter to Coach Carroll” by Richard Sherman

Lotus Pose on Two,” by Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

Pete Carroll voted most popular,” by Terry Blount, ESPN.com

Pete Carroll’s Coaching Playbook: 5 Takeaways for Leaders and Managers” by Victoria Alzapiedi

Seattle Seahawks Changing Future of Football with Yoga and Meditation,” by YD


[1]Lotus Pose on Two,” by Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[2] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[3] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[4] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[5]A Love Letter to Coach Carroll” by Richard Sherman, for CNNSI.com

[6] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[7] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[8]Pete Carroll voted most popular,” by Terry Blount, ESPN.com

[9] Blount, ESPN.com

[11] Richard Sherman, for CNNSI.com

[12] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

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Under Pressure (The Wisdom of Mistakes Follow-Up Interview) http://animalearning.com/2013/11/20/under-pressure-the-wisdom-of-mistakes-follow-up-interview/ Wed, 20 Nov 2013 05:59:10 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1884 Shortly after the previous post, The Wisdom of Mistakes, appeared in the Northfield Mount Hermon School alumni magazine, a trio of students in the Video as Visual Art class asked if they could interview me for further reflections. I gladly obliged and felt even more thankful after hearing the sophistication of their questions—them boys made [more…]

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Shortly after the previous post, The Wisdom of Mistakes, appeared in the Northfield Mount Hermon School alumni magazine, a trio of students in the Video as Visual Art class asked if they could interview me for further reflections. I gladly obliged and felt even more thankful after hearing the sophistication of their questions—them boys made me think. Of course, they’re living and learning in the pressure-cooker world of a private prep school, but I think their queries will resonate with others in many settings. Here’s a refined version of the conversation we had.

No buffer means even small stresses can put us over the edge. *     *     * Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

No buffer means even small stresses can put us over the edge.
* * *
Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

How do you feel pressure contributes to negative feelings of failure?

We have to ask what kind of pressure we’re talking about. Certain kinds become particularly poisonous to learning because they amplify negative feelings. In part, that can happen when we jam our schedules too tight. We pack in more and more demands—you guys know this well—and miss out on the open time and space needed for integration and consolidation. In the process, these ongoing high-adrenaline demands blow our buffers out. Then, when challenge comes, we lack any cushion. It’s like metal scraping metal or bone pushing into bone. In that mode, even a small failure can prove exceedingly painful, making it hard to learn from mistakes.

It can also get tough when pressure gets linked to judgment of the person involved—if you don’t reach this level, you’re a nobody. That’s especially deadly. You may not hear such threats exactly, but the same message can be coded into other language, both verbal and non-verbal. A roll of the eyes or a shrug of the shoulders that expresses disapproval: those, too, can cut deep and interrupt the learning flow.

This is where mindset matters so much. If you and your teachers have a fixed mindset—thinking that your abilities and talents are given at birth—then you spend your days trying to prove yourself. If you’ve got a growth mindset, you know your abilities continue to develop through your dedication and hard work. In that mode, the pressure—as long as it leaves that time and space for integration—becomes a force for advancement.

Note that  community makes a big difference too. If you’re trying to learn in a growth mindset but everyone around you lives and breathes in a fixed mindset haze, you’re going to have a hard time bucking that current. In contrast, the tide of a growth mindset lifts all boats.[1]

In the learning or advancing process, do you think we should relieve the pressure we put on young people? Or do you think pressure pushes people to succeed?

As we just mentioned, mindset matters. Young people with a fixed mindset might fold under minimal pressure. Those with a growth mindset might thrive under great stress.

Even without that model, though, we can acknowledge that pressure does push some people to change. One of my close friends became an outstanding athlete and winning coach because he so hates to lose. Any mistakes he make drive him to improve. And I know he’s not alone. We all depend on some stress in order to grow. The pearl needs the sand in the oyster. The sword needs the heat of a forge. At the same time, as we’ve also mentioned, too much pressure can collapse the house of cards. The trick is finding the right balance.

Every pearl needed some sand. *     *     * Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Every pearl needed some sand.
* * *
Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Your question reminds me of a story about the Buddha. He grows up in the lap of luxury, his lordly father sheltering him from any troubles. Ornate palaces, delicious foods, gorgeous attendants, and able-bodied friends: Siddhartha seemingly has it all. Later, after he escapes the palace confines and catches a glimpse of suffering, he retreats to a life of asceticism for seven years, surviving without pleasure or sustenance.

It’s only after having lived both those extremes that he overhears a passing musician on a boat instructing a student: If the string is too tight, it will snap. If it is too loose, it will not play. In that moment, Siddhartha realizes he’s been searching in the wrong places and commits to finding a Middle Way. He builds his body back to full strength and goes to sit under the Bodhi tree until he eventually reaches enlightenment. Too little pressure leaves us slack. Too much makes us snap.

Just the right tension keeps the string in tune. *     *     * Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Just the right tension keeps the string in tune.
* * *
Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Of course, the ideal tension is different for each learner and that’s what makes effective instruction so difficult. As a teacher, you have to pay super close attention to how your students respond—and to your own preferences and predilections as well. As a learner, you sometimes have to tune out or translate your teacher’s voice so you can honor what works best for you.

Personally, I still lean towards the premise of positive reinforcement. That model suggests that, yes, you can get short term behavioral adjustment through force or jacked-up pressure but that change motivated by the learner’s own curiosity ultimately becomes deeper, more joyful, and longer-lasting. When criticized, I might work hard to prove you wrong or earn your praise. I might well learn, but I’m also consuming valuable time and energy on an emotional component that muddies the lesson. If I can focus all my faculties—emotional and intellectual—on the task at hand, that’s a better platform for learning.

Is there a point where failure is no longer effective as a learning tool and one should accept a challenge as impossible?

Absolutely, there are times where it’s best to just move on. That might be in the big picture, as in, yep, this just ain’t gonna work out. (I’m remembering one crush, in particular, where I realized that absolutely nothing I did was ever going to gain her favor.) Or it might be in a given moment, where our frustration levels have peaked and we’re simply not capable of making progress. So we step aside, let the annoyance subside, and then come back at a later date. High level animal trainers know this well: back off, ask for a few well-developed behaviors you know will generate success, and wait for the next training session.

No information's getting through once the defenses get kicked up. *     *     * Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

No information’s getting through once the defenses get kicked up.
* * *
Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Again, this is where the judgment of too much stress comes in. If I feel pressure as attack, I’m likely to get reactive and defensive. My amygdala—the part of the brain that signals fight, flight, freeze or faint—fires up and hijacks any higher-level learning. A simple “No!” can trigger that kind of reaction, whether it’s an outside voice or our own self-judgment. Too many “failures” in a row can lead to the same outcome. In that brain space, you can forget about abstract reasoning, skill development, or high-level synthesis. Information will not pass through and settle in. The soil’s simply not receptive to the seed.

When we can move out of reaction mode into a more fluid and flexible response mode, then we can begin to learn again. Then the pathways reopen. Again, teachers and students need to monitor that line for themselves. When do I get reactive? What triggers me into that space? How do I bring myself back out of that defensiveness? Not surprisingly, developing the skills of mindfulness can prove incredibly helpful here. You can learn to catch the reaction just as it’s happening and pause with a moment of awareness. What other options are available to me?

Can you talk about the distinction between accepting failure as a step on the road to success and being constructively motivated to erase that failure?

The more I’ve been learning about failure, the more I think we have to grow in our relationship to it. Most of us are conditioned—or have conditioned ourselves—into what my friend Matt Smith calls the “cringe mode” in response to failure. We tense up, close off, and launch into a litany of self-judgments. We think that reaction protects us from further injury: if I communicate that I’m upset with my mistake, maybe you’ll back off from piling on. But it also shuts us down.

So maybe the first phase is to learn to take failure as motivation. My friend who’s the athlete and coach would applaud this step. Feel the frustration of that moment and use it as fuel. Work hard to make sure the mistake doesn’t happen again.

The master of the prototype: failure on the way to success. *     *     * Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The master of the prototype: failure on the way to success.
* * *
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A second phase would be to view the error as one step on the road to success. It’s not just a foil, it’s a source of information. This echoes the growth mindset model, gathering more and more information from each iteration. Like Thomas Edison going through trial and error on his way to breakthrough innovation, we test our prototype behaviors, knowing we’ll fail along the way. Heck, we need to fail along the way. That’s how we learn.

A third phase makes even more space, admitting that we might be labeling our “failures” too soon. Maybe the mistake opens a door or leads to a path that had previously remained invisible. My grandmother used to say “Everything happens for a reason.” I don’t know if I believe that, but I do know that I can choose to use whatever happens, good or bad, for my betterment. In retrospect, it will look like that failure happened for a reason—and we won’t be able to imagine our lives without that so-called mistake.

Good improvisors live in a fourth phase that I find the most compelling, embracing failures as gifts. Audiences love to watch improv actors walk the crazy edge of failure—who knows where this scene is headed? The most delightful moments come not when a scene unfolds in perfect fashion, as if rehearsed, but rather when someone stumbles and then recovers with artful joy. Usually, that happens with the help of stagemates as well. The merry band justifies the failure, using it as exactly what needed to happen. The skillful response turns the mistake into a jewel. Admittedly, that’s a rarefied place to get to, truly welcoming failure for the gift it represents. It’s a radical level of self- (and other-) acceptance that may seem impossible. But there’s no reason we can’t aim for it.


[1]This is one of the great benefits of The Failure Bow. In that theater exercise, we step to the front of a stage, admit a mistake out loud and proudly declare I took a risk! I failed! I’m still here! WOO HOO! Rather than flinch, the “audience”—our team—roars in approval. In that moment, the improvisor gets to experience viscerally a more healing approach to failure. Yes, the community says. We saw the misstep. AND, we celebrate your effort, your transparency, and the courage it takes to get back on your horse for the risk of another creative response. How would hearing that kind of response to failure open up new channels of innovation and learning?

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The Wisdom of Mistakes http://animalearning.com/2013/11/10/the-wisdom-of-mistakes/ http://animalearning.com/2013/11/10/the-wisdom-of-mistakes/#comments Mon, 11 Nov 2013 04:22:52 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1864 If you want to succeed, embrace failure. A year ago, I would have expected such paradoxical advice to come from a Taoist monk or a Jedi master. Now, after a sabbatical year away from school, I find myself touting that same refrain as I explore questions about teaching and learning. How do I encourage the [more…]

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Mmm. Mistakes, you must make.  *** Image courtesy of StarWarswikia.com

Mmm. Mistakes, you must make.
***
Image courtesy of StarWarswikia.com

If you want to succeed, embrace failure.

A year ago, I would have expected such paradoxical advice to come from a Taoist monk or a Jedi master. Now, after a sabbatical year away from school, I find myself touting that same refrain as I explore questions about teaching and learning. How do I encourage the freshman boy who struggles on an early test? How do I help a rookie softball shortstop maintain her confidence when her throw sails over the first baseman’s head? How do I support the senior who’s worried about getting rejected by her first-choice school?

Even though we at Northfield Mount Hermon see ourselves as an open-minded prep school—not just getting kids to the “top” colleges, but to the schools and programs that fit them best—we still employ many of the same measuring sticks that our peers do. We want our kids to excel in academics, arts and athletics—nail all three, even better. To the teenage mind, a single failure can sometimes feel ruinous. Lose one game and you miss the playoffs. Get one B and you might get rejected at Princeton. Such a high-pressure house of cards leaves little room for exploring uncertain ground and crowds out the benefits of healthy risk-taking.

During  my sabbatical explorations last year, I studied how to foster a more courageous, creative, and connected classroom. More specifically, I explored how four varied fields—contemplative practice, improvisational theater, positive reinforcement behavioral training, and growth mindset work—could overlap in such an effort. Some of my colleagues chuckled at the scope and complexity of the project—a year long drink at the fire hydrant, eh?—but I sensed I’d find valuable insights.

My travels led me to create art in nature at an eco-spiritual community on the coast of Scotland and sing Spontaneous Broadway on the improv stages of San Francisco. I watched an NCAA champion softball coach lead practice in Florida and heard mythical tales of powerful horses in Iceland. I learned about mindset in a conversation with a psychology professor at Stanford and about compassion from some street vendors in Venice, Italy. Everything I encountered, it seemed, invited me to shift my way of thinking about failure.

For example, most contemplative traditions use a gentler approach to so-called mistakes. When attention strays from a focus point—the breath, for example—there’s no ridicule or shaming. One simply notices the straying and gets back to the focusing. The lapse becomes a lesson.

The stones fell many times. Clearly, I didn't understand them yet. And, yes, the water was cold.

The stones fell many times. Clearly, I didn’t understand them yet.
And, yes, the water was cold.

When I struggled last summer to build a fragile trail of stones extending from a boulder into a tidal pool, I remembered the words of nature artist Andy Goldsworthy in the documentary Rivers and Tides as he laments a fallen stone sculpture:

“The moment when it collapses is intensely disappointing. This is the fourth time it’s fallen, and each time I got to know the stone a little bit more, it got higher each time. It grew in proportion to my understanding of the stone.”

He then pauses before adding:

“I obviously don’t understand it well enough yet.”

Again, no self-flagellation, only the recognition that he’s learning—and needs to learn more.

The theater improvisors I met showed me how to rebound from muck-ups with a practice known as the Failure Bow. Rather than compound a mistake by wincing from expected punishment—external or internal—the actor defuses the failure by taking a proud step forward and throwing both arms in the air to declare “I failed! Woo hoo!”  In other words, Yes, I messed up. And yes, I’m still here. I’m still growing. Such cheerful resilience delights audiences and inspires stagemates. And the eagerness is infectious.

Correct hand position for a great swing: "click!"

Correct hand position for a great swing: “click!”

Behavioral trainers and coaches who employ positive reinforcement methods—reward movement toward the behavior you want and ignore the rest—don’t harp on failure either. I can use a  “tag,” a non-verbal audible marker like a snap or a click, to let a softball player know when she’s got her wrists in proper position to make a great swing, for example. The tag says “Yes.” If she doesn’t hear the sound, I don’t point out the error or offer more instruction. I stay silent. There’s no dishonor or derision, only the information the player needs. In the quiet, she then determines the necessary adjustment and receives reinforcement from me the moment she finds the right alignment. Her ‘failure’ provides feedback. It leads to the solution.

Someone with a fixed mindset believes that whatever abilities we have come set in stone. No amount of effort can make up for a lack in talent and, in fact, effort demonstrates a lack of talent. A growth mindset, in contrast, suggests greater fluidity in intelligence and ability. Those who see their apparent failures as prototypes for future success maintain the courage and resilience to keep going. They stoke their flames for further learning—and ultimately reach farther than others who think they’re fixed.

These attitudes toward failure may seem revolutionary in educational settings, where we so often focus only on success, but tilling new soil often bears huge fruit. Errors in the classroom—or on the playing field, or the stage, or wherever students are absorbing new information—offer valuable information for incremental improvement and sometimes bust open the window to previously unforeseeable innovation. In failure, we can all find wisdom and opportunities for real learning. No Jedi master or Taoist sage necessary.

An abridged version of this post first appeared in the November 2013 issue of the NMH Alumni magazine. Special thanks to Jennifer Sutton in the NMH Communications office for her help crafting the piece.

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Stillness at Summer’s End: Reflections from a Silent Retreat http://animalearning.com/2013/08/25/stillness-at-summers-end-reflections-from-a-silent-retreat/ http://animalearning.com/2013/08/25/stillness-at-summers-end-reflections-from-a-silent-retreat/#comments Mon, 26 Aug 2013 01:33:24 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1836 And, so, my sabbatical year off from teaching came to an official end. This post came just before school started back up again during the 2013-2014 academic year. Once again, I needed to move in concert with another’s clock. Once more, I had to work a bit harder to find time for reflection and integration. Thankfully, I decided [more…]

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And, so, my sabbatical year off from teaching came to an official end. This post came just before school started back up again during the 2013-2014 academic year. Once again, I needed to move in concert with another’s clock. Once more, I had to work a bit harder to find time for reflection and integration. Thankfully, I decided to sneak in one more official event just under the wire: a weekend silent meditation retreat with 70 other ‘yogis’ in the woods of Barre, Massachusetts. What follows are some notes reflecting on that experience.
The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA.

The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA.

My friends Allan Lokos and Susanna Weiss have always spoken highly of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre and the lessons they have learned there. Great teachers and powerful teaching, they’ve said. Supportive landscape too. Though I’ve lived in western Massachusetts for over 14 years now, I had surprisingly never made the trek or carved out the time to visit the place. This past weekend seemed perfect timing: I needed a clear ritual close to these last 15 months of rich learning, I have wanted to deepen my own mindfulness practice, and it just made good sense as a professional commitment. If I want to guide others on the path of contemplation, I need to keep walking it myself.

I figured such an immersive weekend would challenge me, but I welcomed that as well. Usually, I sit in meditation for twenty minutes or a half-hour and that grounds my day with greater presence and more sturdy resilience. Got breath, good to go. In contrast, this retreat included a near continuous cycle between sitting meditation and walking meditation: one half-hour in the hall on the cushion, one half-hour with the floorboards or garden path. We knew we’d stop for meals and, at some point, each have a work assignment to help keep the place running (mine was cleaning out the compost and kitchen trash on Saturday afternoon), but other than that, it was all meditation, all the time.

They say meditation retreats bear fruit--I was about to find out for myself.  (Apple tree at IMS.)

They say meditation retreats bear fruit–I was about to find out for myself.
(Apple tree at IMS.)

From the workshop opening, the staff also asked each participant, or yogi,[1] also to dive into another big-time commitment: renounce almost every form of communication with others. Most directly, that meant not talking but it also meant avoiding gesture-making and eye contact. For sure, we had to put cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices away. And we could do no reading or writing of any sort. If we needed to contact the housekeeping or kitchen staff to address a need, we were allowed to jot down a small, handwritten note. Even then, though, our teachers asked us to consider if we really needed the question answered before we stepped into the world of words. Our focus for the weekend would be the patterns and tendencies of our own minds. Anything with a strong pull away from that gravitational center made the renunciation list.

As I arrived on Friday afternoon, I anticipated that the toughest of those obligations for me would be the commitment to give up the written word. As you faithful readers might suspect, writing helps me understand and process my world. When clouds of worry or distress come my way, putting words to page helps me name their formations so they can pass along and bring back the blue sky. When good ideas arrive, fleeting and rare, writing helps me remember them or share them with others. Moreover, I’ve just come to the end of my sabbatical and have so many thoughts to pull together. Sure, I could see how extended, rambling discourses could pull me away from a meditative focus, but what about a quick jot-down? What about a short note-take? I decided to honor the challenge and to trust what would emerge.

I also wondered how I would do with such an interpersonally restricted approach in general. I’d just come off two workshops blending improvisation and spirituality, walking an outwardly playful path of co-creation. And I’m an experienced veteran of more raucous retreats with Amma, India’s beloved “Hugging Saint.” By design, her programs always include a festival of sensory overloads: saffron robes and multi-colored tapestries, sweet smells of incense mixing with curry and rice, full-throated trance-inducing bhajans, elaborate weddings and baby-blessings, and all the like. Everyone dances, everyone frolics, everyone hugs—and it all happens late into the night. The main idea, in one word: LOVE. I naturally lean in such expressive directions. Maybe I would find that these meditation retreats just didn’t fit so well.

(Ah, the many workings of the resistant mind!)

Amma's celebrations would not qualify as restrained. Photo courtesy of WIkimedia Commons.

Amma’s celebrations would not qualify as restrained.
Photo courtesy of WIkimedia Commons.

As we actually got into the ‘work’ of the retreat, I quickly got more comfortable. I appreciated the way that our teachers, Narayan Helen Liebenson and Michael Grady of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, offered three options for our “objects of attention” as we sat: the breath, whether at the nostrils or in the abdomen; our ‘points of contact’ (i.e., sitting bones on the cushion or chair, hands resting on knees or thighs, or feet and legs touching the mat); or whatever sounds we heard around us. Each could apply as a reference point during our meditation there in the hall—or at any other place in our lives. We focus our minds on one of the three and we come to the present moment, embodied. If we notice that our attention wanders, we gently bring it back to that object.[2]

My first walking meditation on Saturday morning proved valuable as well. Michael had suggested we find a twenty- or thirty-foot track, indoors or out, on which to walk slowly and attentively. We could notice our breath as we moved, our foot’s contact with the ground, or the movement of our body as a whole.

Other "yogis"  move into their walking meditations.

Other “yogis” move into their walking meditations.

Again, if our focus wandered far afield, we could simply bring it back to our walking. I chose to walk along the grassy path of a flower garden bursting with color, the ground still wet with early dew. At first, my slower pace made each step seem wildly wobbly, as if I were trying to find footing on a balance beam or thin rope. Eventually, as my arches and toes made their way around the nubs of soil or onto each slightly raised patch, my confidence and surety grew.

The same proved true as we passed through each iteration of sitting meditation. Where my posture had seemed uneven or unsteady at the start, I began to settle into more stillness and calm. My mind still had plenty of running around to do, but at least my body found some peace.

Michael and Narayan gave us more tools to work with that monkey-mind as well. If we found ourselves following a train of thought or having a reaction, for example, we could let that train itself become another focus object. Without accelerating or climbing on board, we could simply observe it. If we start feeling sleepy, for example, we need not judge ourselves; we can just notice “Oh, I’m feeling sleepy.”  Or, if we can’t register the sleepiness without having the judgmental reaction, we can simply notice that we’re having that reaction: “How about that. I’m not willing to accept my sleepiness.” We don’t need to ask why the reaction is there or where it comes from—though our simple observation might spontaneously generate such psychological insight—and we don’t need to hope for its departure or continuance. We only need note that it’s present. Such witnessing, he promised, leads to a freedom far more relaxing than any of our modern-day distractive entertainments.

As Saturday moved into Sunday, I continued settling into a slower, more attentive rhythm. Even though I woke up super-early both mornings (like, 3:15 am early!), I resisted the urge to write down my thoughts and instead did my best to follow my breathing or notice my body making contact with my bed. I got up before breakfast to do some yoga and take a mindful shower. Now, when I returned to the garden at the close of our last walking session, I found a simple stability and balance that had been absent before. My feet seemed more intelligent, picking up variation in the soil before I touched down. If I closed my eyes, my feet knew to stop moving forward when I went from a warmer sun-drenched patch to a still-cool shadowy area. Overall, my body wanted to walk at a gentler pace.[3]

The pace slows in a place like this.

The pace slows in a place like this.

Though I obviously hadn’t been checking in with anyone as we went along, I sensed that others had had similar experiences and that we had bonded as a result. Here we were, some 70-some-odd folk brought together by circumstance at a retreat center way out in the woods. We had exchanged no names, titles, or work histories. We had shared no words, no touch, and only rare glances to avoid bumping or to offer deference. And, yet, we had generated a real kind of intimacy. Perhaps it was the shared sense of purpose, the mutual care for each others’ journeys, or simply the side-by-side experience. Whatever the origin, the connection felt strong.[4]

In the end, I still have questions about forgoing the written word during the retreat. I chose not to take any notes through the last morning’s initial sitting and walking meditations, but I did also choose to jot down some thoughts before our last presentation (I wanted to harvest my own perceptions before speaking out loud or hearing others’ voices). I certainly wouldn’t want to cling to any inspiration that came, but nor would I would to ignore or dishonor that gift. I wasn’t tempted at all by the other commitments—cell phone, computer, reading—but I suspect that’s because I knew those lures would still be waiting for me when I finished as they had been before. An ephemeral idea or insight made no such promise. If (when) I go on a next retreat, I imagine I’ll bring a little notebook to scratch down any flashes of insight or turns of phrase worth remembering. I’ll say enough to trigger my memory without diving into the distraction of full-on exposition.

I know, too, that though this retreat asked me to restrain a naturally playful and connective mode, it also nurtured something new in me, a stiller and perhaps nobler side. I’m fascinated by the way I’m walking now, wider and slower. I’m intrigued by my deeper breath. Without clutching or clinging to the Insight Meditation experience, I can safely say that I’m wanting more. Sabbatical or not, I welcome the chance to grow more fully into this moment.

By choosing this retreat, I found a different kind of stillness.  Gaston Pond, on an IMS walking trail.

By choosing this retreat, I found a different kind of stillness.
Gaston Pond, on an IMS walking trail.


[1] “Yogi” actually comes from the Hindu tradition rather than the Buddhist one, but means “one traveling a path to Divine Liberation.”

[2] During a question-and-answer session later in the weekend, another yogi noted that the first two objects of attention seemed self-contained, while the third seemed external. Was there, he asked, a reason for that difference? I loved Narayan’s response: that actually all three could be seen as either internally- or externally-focused. Sound seems to come from outside us but it’s our ears that are doing the hearing. We’re involved in the sound’s impact. And though our breath and body sensations seem to be “our” experiences, they actually tie us into life’s larger forces. Who’s actually doing the breathing? Isn’t it more that we’re being breathed? And who’s making the contact that we experience as pressure against us? Whichever perspective we choose, the objects of our focus bring us into our bodies in the present moment—and put us in relationship with the world.

[3] That longing extended to my leaving the center as well. I knew I had tasks to get back to—e-mail, phone calls, other conversations—but I wanted to linger in pleasure of the moment’s tasklessness. I took a longer, more scenic route home and enjoyed the roll of forests and farms. The bit of buffer helped.

[4] Probably not surprisingly, it proved a bit bittersweet when we finally did get the chance to speak with each other at our closing lunch. In a short little window of time, I met another high school teacher looking to bring contemplative practice to his emotionally-challenged teenage students, a newly-minted Harvard neuroscience PhD on her way to a consulting job with McKinsey out in San Francisco, and a full-time rowing coach introducing mindful presence along the Charles River in Boston. So great to meet and so little time to enjoy it! Here’s hoping for continued connections….

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Calling Our World Into Being (Part 3 in a 3-part series on Improvisation and Spirituality) http://animalearning.com/2013/08/20/calling-our-world-into-being-part-3-in-a-3-part-series-on-improvisation-and-spirituality/ http://animalearning.com/2013/08/20/calling-our-world-into-being-part-3-in-a-3-part-series-on-improvisation-and-spirituality/#comments Tue, 20 Aug 2013 17:40:50 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1815 Part 1 of this three-part post introduced a working definition for spirituality—the whole-person practice of awakening, feeling, and expressing a connection to larger Mystery and deeper meaning—and for improvisation—the in-the-moment art of active creating in relationship to the many offers coming from one’s inner life and immediately surrounding circumstances. Part 2 examined the ways that [more…]

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The caption on Flammarion's engraving: "A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch."

The caption on Flammarion’s The Universe and Man:
“A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch.”

Part 1 of this three-part post introduced a working definition for spirituality—the whole-person practice of awakening, feeling, and expressing a connection to larger Mystery and deeper meaning—and for improvisation—the in-the-moment art of active creating in relationship to the many offers coming from one’s inner life and immediately surrounding circumstances.

Part 2 examined the ways that improvisation connects us to divine play, mindfulness, interdependence, Shadow, and paradox—each components of what many consider the spiritual life.

Part 3 here goes even further to explore the ways in which improvisation might represent a participation with larger forces around, behind, beyond, or within us.

In “The Universe and Man,” an ancient wood engraving that serves as the motif for this blog, a shepherd reaches through the visible curtain of his known world to catch a glimpse of the beauty and order that always lies behind it.[1] I have always imagined the shepherd as a humble seeker, perhaps surprised to have received such a clear vision, but also curious, willing to step into this new way of seeing. His body connects to the ground, as if thunderstruck or waking from sleep, at the same time the right arm lifts up, raised as if in praise or wonder. Maybe the vision came in response to a prayer or a daydream. Maybe he has concluded a quest. Whatever the path, the shepherd has called and the Universe has responded. He has found the point where the sky and the Earth touch. His life can never stay the same.

So it is with improvisation, if we turn our attention in the proper direction. We step on stage or onto a dance floor or into a concert hall and we play. We ask for a choreography to come and it arrives. Sometimes we need the ritual of our warm-ups to charge the space but our sincere call behind the curtain of what’s visible almost always connects us to a larger force that’s not. We tap in, and something moves through us. We can be blown away by what we find, but in those special moments, we see anew. We find ourselves changed.

Tending the Third Thing

My San Francisco colleague Lisa Rowland likes to say that two improvisors create a third thing on stage, something outside and separate from—and yet connected to—the two of them. Their job as actors is to serve that new creation rather than to serve their own hopes or wants. Ego concerns matter little when other more pressing questions demand attention: What does this story need? What’s being told through us? The performers have called. The third thing has arrived. Now they all dance together.

Oddly enough, the word “spontaneous” derives from the Latin sponte, meaning “of one’s own accord, willingly, of one’s free will.”[2] In improvisation, we willingly choose to engage with these hidden creative realms. Again, we may not always stop to notice that we’re doing so, but we are doing so. No matter our experience or processor speed—and trust me, folks like Lisa and her compatriot BATS performers in San Francisco or TJ and Dave in Chicago have plenty of both—scenes and songs still unfold too quickly for conscious explication. We’re still relying on ideas that come from…somewhere else. In yet another improv paradox, we employ our free will to let ourselves be used.

He seems to be serving his muses.The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, by Caravaggio. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, by Caravaggio.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Does this mean improvisors are possessed when performing? Are we asking to dance with demons and hoping the friendly ones arrive? I don’t think so. It’s more that we’re participating than being possessed. We’re asking for aid from beyond what’s visible and tending to that support when it shows up. Such help might indeed come from God or Ganesh or some other previously-named deity. It might stem from Life, or Light, or Love. The name of that source doesn’t matter so much. Choosing it and connecting with it does. We’re a conscious instrument playing an unconscious—or perhaps a more-than-conscious—song.[3]

New Improv Exercise #1: “Line-at-a-Time Deities”

During our recent Improvisation and Spirituality workshop, Cort Worthington and I introduced two new tools to make this connection more explicit.

The first leaned on a standard shared control exercise, Line-at-a-Time drawings. Cort coached our paired participants through the instructions, suggesting that they start by marking their blank sheet with two dots about two thirds of the way up the page and then leave an empty space at the bottom for future use. Then, in silence, they should alternate making one line, mark or gesture on the page until a complete image of a hitherto unknown deity emerged. Once the drawing felt finished, the pair could name the deity by spelling out its name one letter at a time in the blank space at the bottom of the page. The final direction was to go back and forth, sharing impressions of the deity that had just been created. For what might people pray to this god or goddess? How might you describe the deity’s tone or attitude? What was his or her ‘personality’ like? Each addition should build on earlier descriptions in fine “yes-and” fashion, the deity’s quality emerging as a shared improvisation.

I don’t know why I was so surprised, but I was stunned by the power and vitality of what emerged. We met Meditanzia, a calming and light-hearted goddess who helped maintain daily spiritual practice and Hural-Mago, a randy god who visited to encourage the peace that follows sexual release. We got to know the cheerleading support of Laren and the gracefully feminine acceptance of “Me.” Each deity we had called forward came through strong and clear, with good wisdom to offer. Each had been that “third thing,” well-tended.[4]

New Improv Exercise #2: “Invocation”

A second improvisation and spirituality exercise that Cort and I introduced derived from “Invocation,” an experience I first learned in a session with Rebecca Stockley and Matt Smith at the Applied Improvisation Network world conference in San Francisco, fall of 2012.[5]

In this ‘game,’ Rebecca and Matt asked four performers come to the front of the room and got a suggestion for an everyday, mundane object: hat, lamp, refrigerator, knife, or so on. Together, the players took a moment to bring to mind a specific example of that object from their own individual histories. Then, when moved, each spoke in snippets about their object in third person form. With the suggestion of ‘lamp,’ the first performer might have said It offered a soft light, with its gentle bulb behind a handwoven lampshade, beads dangling off the edges. The second could have relayed Even when lit, it reflected a dull shine, gun metal grey like the rest of Dad’s apartment. Again, each player spoke of a specific object from his or her own experience. All players spoke about the same type of object.

After a time of such 3rd-person observation, the players shifted to a 2nd-person perspective, speaking to the object as a “you.” You gave Grandmother enough light to knit by and that kept her sane during the long nights after Grandpa was gone. Or You matched Dad’s flannel suits, gray and boring, somehow lifeless even through the shine. Once each had contributed a round or two from that point of view, the players again switched to a round of “Thou,” a bit more formal and perhaps reverent in relationship to the object. Thou hadst traveled many miles and heard many stories, carrying a nobility in thine humility. Or Thou kept secrets, I’m sure, a steely knight of the bedside. With each utterance, the four objects gained in complexity and depth.

For the last round, the performers spoke as if they themselves were the objects, taking on its 1st-person perspective: I always appreciated sharing silence with you. Those nights were sweet even without words. Or I never wanted the burden I carried. My job was to shed light on the truth, not seal it away. These revelations from the objects themselves proved surprisingly poignant and powerful. Simply by switching viewpoints, the performer’s had worked the mundane into the profound. They had asked for the wisdom of that object—we could call it the Platonic form—and wisdom had arrived.

Lamp, I invoke thee. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Lamp, I invoke thee.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

That day, after a couple rounds in that manner, we wondered aloud what it might be like to try the exercise with more provocative ‘objects.’ What if, instead of choosing a lamp or a hat, we instead chose “Mother,” “Ambition,” or “Money?” What if we invoked an emotion like “Joy” or “Shame?” We played a bit with the notion in small groups but ran out of time before having the chance to try on a larger-scale performance.

The suggestion stuck with me all year until our workshop this past July. Cort and I first trained our participants in the Invocation exercise as I’d learned it from Matt and Rebecca. After that, we seized the opportunity to dive into a cycle of more experimental iterations, going with “Fear,” “Hope,” and “Lust.” Each round proved powerful, especially as those in front learned to speak from their own personal experience rather than from an abstract understanding of the term. Whenever we finished, it felt as if that emotion had entered the room as a teacher, offering unexpected insights and valuable challenges.

I wonder now what it would be like to try “God,” “Mystery,” “Mind,” “Boredom,” or any number of other ‘objects.’ What about “Music” or “Laughter” or “Inspiration?” Or elements like “Fire,” “Air,” and “Water?” The possibilities seem endless. Trusting the technique of collective improvisation, each person speaking truth from their own experience, we could ask for and participate in whatever wisdom we need.[6]

Spiritual Practice, Improv, and Pronoia

As we do in such exercises, we connect with spiritual powers to invoke new worlds in our everyday lives. Every moment, we call something into being. Our attention shifts, our intention chooses a focus. New thoughts create new perspectives and, in turn, generate new experiences. If we focus on the spirit of worry, we bring that god into being. If we concentrate on joy, we engender joy. We ask as we inhale. We create as we exhale. Again, even when we’re not conscious of such creation, we’re still doing it.[7]

Contemplative improvisation gives us the chance to get more skillful with our invocations, to become more conscious of what we call into our world. We can learn to delight in serving the third thing. We can practice creating with the people and circumstances we encounter instead of fighting them for control. Like the shepherd in The Universe and Man, we can tap the order behind the ordinary, simultaneously grounded to earth and receptive to revelation.

In this way, improv becomes a spiritual practice of pronoia, the belief that the world is conspiring to support you and shower you with blessings.[8] We make a call with our intention—and then simply pay attention for the opportunities and wonders that seek us out. We shift our weight into the dark of the unknown, trusting that the road will rise to meet our lifted foot. Allies emerge and the next line of our lives becomes clear. Characters reveal their truer traits. At the end of our days, without directing, we have participated in the wonder of an unfolding Reality. We have played. And, like the gods, we have created.

Rob Brezsny's Pronoia: The world conspires--breathes with us--on our behalf.

Rob Brezsny’s Pronoia: The world conspires–breathes with us–on our behalf.


[1] Some version of this piece may date from the 16th century but it is best known as published—and perhaps created—by French astronomer Camille Flammarion during the late 1800’s in L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire. According to Wikipedia, Flammarion was quite the spiritual seeker himself.

[2] From the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for “Spontaneity.” http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=spontaneous&allowed_in_frame=0

[3] When I have conducted weddings, I have always invoked the spirits of the place and whatever ancestors and loved ones could not attend in person. I imagine those prayers as a shout-out to the universe: Hey four-leggeds, hey two-leggeds, hey earth and sky beings, take notice. Anyone who wants to support the joining of these two, come on down. We’re forming a circle and would love your help. We’re not asking them to take over. We want to celebrate with them.

[4] Tips for leading Word-at-a-Time Deities include:

a)   Remind folks to maintain silence throughout. The quiet helps keep the receptive mood.

b)   Encourage an openness to the nature of shared creation. If they find themselves wanting to control the drawing by making-one-gesture-but-leaving-the-marker-on-the-page-for-a-long-time, suggest they acknowledge that feeling and let it go.

c)    Have at least two colors available for each drawing but ask each artist to put their marker down after each gesture. That way, their partner can use the same color if they’re drawn to—so to speak—and the process slows down a touch.

[5] Funny story: I attended Rebecca’s and Matt’s session largely because I had heard great things about their teaching. When Rebecca asked for volunteers who “know what an Invocation is,” I proudly stepped forward, eager to impress with my Divinity School training. Why, yes, invocation means ‘to call into being’, stemming from the root ‘voc’ as in voice or vocalize.

As other volunteers made their way to the front of the room, she reiterated “I need to make sure those of you coming up know what an Invocation is.” One person reconsidered and returned to their seat while I remained up front, smugly beaming and waiting for my chance to shine. Invocation. Yeah, I got this.

It was only when Rebecca started explaining a novel improv game that I realized I had absolutely no clue what she was talking about. I only knew that it was no kind of invocation I’d ever done before. I sheepishly dropped my shoulders and slunk back to my seat, interrupting Rebecca with a mumbled explanation that trailed off into nothing: Oh, I’m sorry. I think I was thinking of a different term that doesn’t really have to do… Rebecca sighed—and I imagined shook her head in disbelief—and got another volunteer to come up. So much for my glorious first impression. J

I later found Matt at a lunch table and recounted the tale. To my relief, the story provoked much shared laughter and initiated a cherished friendship. The same held true when I finally got to tell Rebecca.

[6] Out of our brief experience with this modified version of Invocation, I offer a few tips for players and trainers:

a)   Keep each utterance short. Think of your offerings more as mosaic tiles than monologues. What you say will form a picture with your partners’ words.

b)   Maintain a brisker pace. While each line deserves a beat or two for settling, step forward with confidence and trust that words will arrive as needed.

c)    Speak from your own perspective. If doing the standard version, choose an object from your own memory. If doing the newer version, share from your experience with or perspective on that ‘object.’ How has that emotion or character played out in your life?

d)   Offer the chance to opt out. If you’re taking on the exercise authentically, it’s bound to expose some vulnerability. That’s part of its power. That said, it may dive into depths that remain too tender for exposure. Give your players a mechanism to pass, whether that means keeping an alternate sharp in the wings or taking another suggestion altogether.

[7] Maybe this is how and why addiction can seem like possession. We’re so unconscious of the ways we take part in creating our compulsion that it seems some outside force has taken us over.

[8] Pronoia’s opposite: paranoia, the belief that the world is out to get you. Check out Rob Brezsny’s website and book for more delightful invitations to say yes.

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Paths in Parallel (Part 2 in a 3-part series on Improvisation and Spirituality) http://animalearning.com/2013/08/06/paths-in-parallel-part-2-in-a-3-part-series-on-improvisation-and-spirituality/ http://animalearning.com/2013/08/06/paths-in-parallel-part-2-in-a-3-part-series-on-improvisation-and-spirituality/#comments Wed, 07 Aug 2013 03:17:01 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1796 Part 1 of this three-part post introduced a working definition for spirituality—the whole-person practice of awakening, feeling, and expressing a connection to larger Mystery and deeper meaning—and for improvisation—the in-the-moment art of active creating in relationship to the many offers coming from one’s inner life and immediately surrounding circumstances.  This piece will explore some first [more…]

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Part 1 of this three-part post introduced a working definition for spirituality—the whole-person practice of awakening, feeling, and expressing a connection to larger Mystery and deeper meaning—and for improvisation—the in-the-moment art of active creating in relationship to the many offers coming from one’s inner life and immediately surrounding circumstances.

 This piece will explore some first connections between the two while Part 3 will investigate some deeper, perhaps more esoteric synergies.

The improv path moves right alongside deeper streams. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.org.

The improv path moves right alongside deeper streams.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.org.

Many improvisors know in their bones that the improv path offers more than entertainment and laughter. Goofiness shows up a bunch, yes, but there’s also a deeper vitality, a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging that comes from creating in this way. To those who perform with an inquisitive mind and open heart, the kinship between improvisation and spiritual expression will come as no surprise. The paths offer mutual support.

Exercising an Ethic

Even a foundation level improv course lays out groundwork principles that sound as much like an ethic for effective living as much as a guide for good performance: Slow down. Simplify. Pay attention. Connect with your stagemates. Let yourself be changed. Such suggestions affect the quality of on-stage scenes because they make for better stories. In much the same way, they also make for better lives. We’d rather watch—and take part in—an unfolding drama where the players look out for each other, working together to discover their shared experience. We enjoy our days more when we stop to notice the gifts in them. By giving the chance to practice skills we need elsewhere and to process challenges in a low-risk setting, improv expands the range of our capabilities. It wakes us up.

Divine Play

Many Hindus say the universe itself came into being through Lila, the divine’s creative play. Any improv troupe or scene ideally carries a bit of that lila as well—even when taking on a poignant or sensitive topic, there’s a buoyant sense of exploring the unknown. We go down paths we’ve never seen. We create obstacles for the fun of it. We get our heroes into trouble so they get the thrill of getting out of it. Good improvisation brings more joy, more vitality, more connection with others, and more intimacy. A healthy spiritual life engenders the same.

"Healing" by Autumn Skye Morrison.  Used with permission. See www.autumnskyemorrison.com for more beautiful images.

“Healing” by Autumn Skye Morrison. One way of picturing the universe glowing with a playful creativity.
Used by permission of the artist. See www.autumnskyemorrison.com for other similarly beautiful images.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness weaves another connection between the two. Purposeful, non-judgmental attention to the present moment serves spiritual direction in a number of ways: our brains and beings wake up to more of reality. We see colors more richly, we taste experiences more deeply. We also build a capacity for complexity.

Like a color enhancing filter, mindfulness can bring sharper colors  and greater clarity to our lives. Photo courtesy of WIkimedia.org.

Like a color enhancing filter, mindfulness can bring sharper colors and greater clarity to our lives.
Photo courtesy of WIkimedia.org.

The same holds true in improvisation. By sustaining our focus, we stay fully alert to the story unfolding in real time. We improve our memory for the details that bring a scene alive. What was that character’s name from the first minute of our short-form scene? Where precisely did I place that space object wine bottle when I set it down? By practicing open awareness on stage, we remain nimble enough to notice our partner’s many offers, including subtle movements in the face or hands. Troupe members that perform with an intention of loving kindness for their stagemates find greater resilience and longevity. The generosity stitches the group together. Good improv demands mindfulness; even beginning improv can breed it.

Interdependence

Most wisdom traditions teach about the interconnectedness of the universe. That may look like unity in Islam or interbeing in Buddhism, like mirror cells in neuroscience or ecosystem in biological sciences. Hinduism offers the image of Indra’s net, a kind of web that covers the entire universe with a multifaceted jewel at each vertex, all jewels reflecting all the infinite others. The common message: we’re all stitched in to a larger tapestry. Pulling any single thread has implications for them all.

Every vertex in Indra's net reflects every other vertex. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Every vertex in Indra’s net reflects every other vertex.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Improvisation gives us direct experience with such truths. Whether playing a game that explicitly shares control—like a word-at-a-time exercise, gibberish translation, or one-person’s-hands-move-for-another-person’s-speaking—or simply enacting a regular scene, we live and breathe into that interdependent reality. The offers I make have an impact on how a scene emerges. Every choice my partner makes has an impact on me.

Shadow

Psychologist Carl Jung suggested that integrating the Shadow—the hidden, disowned parts of ourselves—might prove the greatest challenge of an individual’s spiritual life. If left in the darkness of repression or denial, the Shadow can leak out in dangerous ways, either through projection (where we turn hostile to those who demonstrate the parts of ourselves we’d rather deny) or through more immediately destructive rupture (like when a public figure loses his position getting caught in the same act he’s decried for years). As poet Robert Bly has written, “Every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us.” If integrated and brought to light, however, the Shadow can bring greater power, depth, confidence, and even peace. It restores wholeness.[1]

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."  --Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
–Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas

Improvisation offers one avenue for safely exploring the Shadow. In the world of improv, for example, status relationships become a playful dance rather than a frozen stance. For that reason, we start to stretch the range of our expression on stage, often moving into uncomfortable or unfamiliar emotional territory. Those who tend to shrink get the opportunity to play imposing villains. Those who tend to dominate learn to inhabit quiet wallflowers. In doing so, players gain compassion for those different from themselves—and for parts of themselves they may have left behind.[2]

Carl Jung's painting of his own Shadow.

Carl Jung’s painting of his own Shadow.

Almost inevitably, improv invites us to places we’d rather not explore in real life. That’s part of its charm. A clear creative channel asks that we “yes, and” our fellow performers—and do the same with our own impulses. Characters who get themselves into trouble or who “go into the cave” make for more interesting stories. As those stories evolve, we can find ways to love the unlovable and to make peace with all of who we are. Sometimes, that process happens organically as individual players and teams develop their talents together. Other times, it happens more intentionally, through specific exercises designed for the purpose of personal expansion.

Paradox

For many, walking the spiritual path means coming to terms with the paradoxical nature of ultimate Mystery. How can life serve up such stunning beauty and such repulsive ugliness? What loving god would allow such suffering? How can we be such a small part of the universe and yet sense an infinite, inherent worth in each life?[3] The deeper one looks, the more mystery one finds.

Improvisation offers the chance to marinate in the richness of such seeming contradictions. Do we pursue excellence or allow ourselves to “be average”? Make bold offers or defer to our partner’s? Stay present to the evolving moment or remain mindful of the overall arc of a show or a narrative thread? Invest with intention or choose to change? Contribute or control? The correct answer to each of these questions: Yes, and. The most artful improv embraces the challenge of such simultaneous opposites, diving into and emerging from the ambiguity. Each moment breathes between the two poles of paradox: this truth then that truth, this truth then that. Eventually, the two seem to blend into one three-dimensional reality. The storyline becomes a Moebius strip.

Keep walking the path of a Möebius strip and you track both sides of the paradox. ..... Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Keep walking the path of a Möebius strip and you track both sides of the paradox.
…..
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In sum, conscious, contemplative improvisation parallels other spiritual paths. It invites the presence of Lila, or divine play, letting us enjoy the delight of experimental creation. It provides a platform for mindfulness, sharpening the skills of sustained focus, open awareness and loving kindness. It gives us the chance to welcome and befriend long-hidden parts of ourselves. And it places us squarely in the presence of paradox. Improv makes a bold offer for greater growth. It’s up to us to “Yes, And” it back.

But wait, dear Reader: there’s even more to the connection between improvisation and spirituality. Look back here for the upcoming Part 3 of this series.


[1] Note that the personal Shadow can differ greatly by culture and gender. Some societies—like ours in the United States—glorify individualism at the expense of the collective. In that setting, a public longing for community can get demonized as—gasp!—socialism. In many other cultures, the communal represents the ideal and individual expression gets subsumed to shared needs. Men may keep their tenderness or vulnerability hidden, women their anger or aggression.

The Shadow can also include what most would think of as desirable qualities. Perhaps a young man represses his musical side because an early teacher tells him he shouldn’t sing in choir. Or maybe a young woman squelches her connection to her body because she always gets picked last for teams in gym class. What put such qualities into “long bag behind we drag behind us” is that we consider them somehow shameful or undesirable.

[2] My friend and colleague Lisa Rowland recently encouraged me to move past the limits of my own tendencies as a performer. “We know you can play the lovely, kind, attentive character,” she said. “You do that well. How about playing a character with a nasty streak? What about someone who’s downright unpleasant?” As she was speaking, I realized her nudge represented an offer to bring some of my shadow into open light. I also knew it would be a safe space to do so.

[3] In her poem “The Buddha’s Last Instruction,” Mary Oliver offers one of my all-time favorite lines: Clearly I’m not needed. Yet I feel myself turning into something of inexplicable value. Yes, yes, yes. I understand completely.

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Defining the Undefinable (Part 1 in a 3-part series on Improvisation and Spirituality) http://animalearning.com/2013/07/22/defining-the-undefinable-part-1-in-a-3-part-series-on-improvisation-and-spirituality/ http://animalearning.com/2013/07/22/defining-the-undefinable-part-1-in-a-3-part-series-on-improvisation-and-spirituality/#comments Mon, 22 Jul 2013 07:29:02 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1756 In the summer of 2013, my colleague Cort Worthington and I convened a 3-day inquiry into the many connections between Improvisation and Spirituality. We were joined at the Green Gulch Zen Center north of San Francisco by nine other wonderful improvisors. This post marks the first in a three-part series sharing some continuing reflections from [more…]

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In the summer of 2013, my colleague Cort Worthington and I convened a 3-day inquiry into the many connections between Improvisation and Spirituality. We were joined at the Green Gulch Zen Center north of San Francisco by nine other wonderful improvisors. This post marks the first in a three-part series sharing some continuing reflections from that collaboration.

For new, specific exercises that integrate improv and spiritual practice, please see my earlier A Deeper Kind of Play post or check out the third post in this series .

I look forward to hearing your thoughts in return and to continuing this rich exploration!

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

Author E.B. White once famously quipped that:

Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.

One could say something similar about trying to define the elusive term “spirituality.” Perhaps the word’s less a frog and more a chameleon—changing colors depending on who does the defining—but it, too, might suffer from close examination. Why drain the life from the term? Why not just let it go and live it out? As Chinese sages have recognized for centuries, The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.

I am the Chameleon you call Spirituality. Watch me change.  Photo courtesy of www.angiwallacephotography.com

I am the Chameleon you call Spirituality. Watch me change.
Photo courtesy of www.angiwallacephotography.com

However clever, though, White’s quip misses the value of exploring a word in greater depth. To start, people do show interest in spirituality, perhaps more than ever. Furthermore, a good dissection teaches about the structures of anatomy and physiology. We learn about our own insides by proxy, and more of what makes us work. And so it is with spirituality.  Those of us who want to connect others to–and connect with others in–ineffable springs of meaning need to develop a shared language. We may never have an exact or all-encompassing, absolute definition of SPIRITUALITY, but we can generate a working approximation. We can lay some stakes in the ground to mark a foundation. Even if we cannot fully name the Complete Truth, we can at least begin to approach it.

For starters, we can distinguish spirituality from religion. From the word’s roots, we can say that religion represents a shared institution of  beliefs, rituals, and practices that “tie us back” (from religio—to tie, or bind) from our failings and to something greater. Religion creates a community that offers support, correction, and celebration for the ups and downs of life’s uncertain experience. That togetherness can lead to incredible power and creativity, as demonstrated by houses of worship, religious art, and sacred music of all sorts.

Collective religion can lead to gorgeous expressions of praise. Photo (C) Ted DesMaisons, 2012.

Collective religion can lead to gorgeous expressions of praise.

Though spirituality can serve some of those same functions—especially when we sense our own in synch with another’s—spirituality seems to suggest a more fluid personal experience of that Mystery rather than a structured dogma around it. Religion provides a vehicle for collective spiritual expression.

When our workshop group responded to the prompt “For me, spirituality means…,” we got a wide range of responses. Laid side by side, however, those many images began to create patterns that in turn suggested a mood: wholeness in the face of paradox. Awareness in the present that bridges past and future. Alignment between inner wisdom and outer action. I include the list below.

“For Me, Spirituality Means…”
Notes from Improvisation and Spirituality Workshop
July 7-10, 2013

play…kindness….being awake….active participation in the world….a code of truthful living….awareness….engaging with mystery….100% commitment….
saying“no” to what’s wrong or doesn’t match my knowing….what leads to balance….what is inside us….different colors of light on the spectrum….listening and watching for life’s offers—and then acting on them….making choices….
faith that the positive pays off….being and doing….being in tune….
finding the genius in myself….honoring my connection to the past….
nourishing generous connection….searching….saying “yes” to everything
around you and saying “yes and” to the truth of what you are….
living my essence….being in love with all….finding our fire….honoring the power of words….presence….“my deal.”…the past, present, and future coalescing….
crying a little….an athletic readiness to engage with what’s happening and lightly held preparation for what might happen next….stillness and movement….religion….
not religion….witnessing….strength in vulnerability….holding or standing in paradox….breath….the subjective realm (and the greater than subjective)….
learning to love….finding or creating beauty in the process….meaningful work….
being part of a team….advocating for the shadow side, for what others see as unlovable….bringing the insides forward….dance….
having or finding a comfort with not knowing….new possibilities….searching….
having fun….taking responsibility for how I show up….
a path to enlightenment….strengthening the core….
shifting stuff in the world….accepting the reality of what is so.

Them’s some real fruits! When I distill the ripe harvest down to a more manageable serving, I find sweet potential in the following working definition for spirituality:

The whole-person practice of awakening, feeling, and expressing
a connection to larger Mystery and deeper meaning.

Walking the spiritual path. Image courtesy of WIkimedia Commons.

Walking the spiritual path.

In more detail, this definition suggests:

Whole-person —including all of one’s Self, the chosen and the given, the presentable and the shameful.

Practice—an ongoing and intentional commitment, as in expression of faith or preparation for performance. In this case, we practice to improve our humor, our compassion, our resilience.

Awakening—emerging from the trance of separation, consciously choosing to bring what’s laid dormant to life.

Feeling—a subjective experience that includes thoughts and emotions, body heart and mind.

Expressinggiving voice to joy, despair, wonder, curiosity and whatever else one finds inside.

Expressing belief. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Expressing belief.

Connectionrecognizing that our lives intertwine with our world and the many others in it. As Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says, we inter-be.

Larger Mystery—Life, Love, Light, God, or the unseen world. It could be Reality. Whatever name we choose, it contains a recognition that we live as part of something greater than our smaller egoic selves.

Deeper Meaning—what really matters to us, our sense of purpose and belonging.

Now that definition forms a foundation we can build on. Now we can start a conversation.

Spirituality includes wonder at the mystery of the world around us. Image courtesy of WIkimedia Commons.

Spirituality includes wonder at the mystery of the world around us.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

Given our workshop cohort’s careful attention to laying out the boundaries of our sense of spirituality, I find it funny that we allotted no time for defining the word improvisation. As experienced improvisors, we assumed a language in common. In retrospect, that assumption probably remained a safe one—I never had the sense of worldviews colliding in our conversations—but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

For clarity’s sake, I’ll say that, for me, improvisation means…

The in-the-moment art of active creating in relationship to the many offers coming from one’s inner life and from the immediately surrounding people and circumstances.

Improvisation can come as dance or as music. It can take the shape of invention or problem-solving. Most often, I speak about and learn from improv through the lens of theater. In the end, of course, improvisation plays out in most moments and every arena of our lives. We wake up and have to make choices given the conditions placed before us. As comedian and improvisor extraordinaire Stephen Colbert pointed out during his 2011 commencement address at Northwestern University:

You are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. [With] no idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control.[1]

We all improvise. The question is: will we learn to improvise skillfully and in a way that satisfies our spiritual longing?

Part 2 of this 3-part post will explore the more conventional and non-controversial intersections between improvisation and spiritual practice: staying present, being kind to those around us, taming the internal critic, and the like.

Part 3 will dive into the more unconventional or speculative links between the two. When we improvise, where do our ideas come from? Are we expressing a shared intelligence and if so, which one? In what ways do we create shared ritual with our audiences?

Click the hyperlinks to read more.


[1] Colbert concluded his speech with an improv exhortation: So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.

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Hey Jude: A Purr-tial Cat-a-log of a Year’s Learning http://animalearning.com/2013/07/21/hey-jude-cat-a-log-of-a-years-learning/ http://animalearning.com/2013/07/21/hey-jude-cat-a-log-of-a-years-learning/#comments Sun, 21 Jul 2013 19:28:38 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1743 I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised, but my sabbatical studies in positive reinforcement have changed the way I relate with all animals, both human and other-than-human. That shift has become more obvious after these last 10 days I’ve spent with Jude the cat. While I’ve been sticking around San Francisco this month, my good [more…]

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I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised, but my sabbatical studies in positive reinforcement have changed the way I relate with all animals, both human and other-than-human. That shift has become more obvious after these last 10 days I’ve spent with Jude the cat.

While I’ve been sticking around San Francisco this month, my good friend Lisa’s been fulfilling her yearly volunteer gig at a Girl Scout camp up in the Sierras. In exchange for a place to stay in the happening Mission district, I got the assignment of caring for her cat, Jude. He’s a handsome black and white beastie, strong in body and long in purr-sonality. He loves sitting on laps and he expresses affection with assertion, nudging his nose directly into lips for extended kitty kisses. And he’s super curious. Purr usual for me with cats, he offers a lot to like.

Jude, the Cat. A handsome fellow.

Jude, the Cat. A handsome fellow.

Before I arrived, though, Lisa had also offered some cautions. Jude is obsessed with food. Jude can insist on attention. Jude likes to bite when playing. Jude will wake you up every morning. Sure enough, several of those warnings played out even before Lisa had left, when I’d just come by the apartment for the first time. I watched him insert himself into the middle of our conversations and saw how he circled aggressively in the kitchen anytime one of us moved through that space. Crackers and grains, especially, seemed to grab his attention. Most times when Lisa picked him up to pet him, he’d eventually bite her hand or arm—not viciously or violently enough to really hurt, but enough to make me wonder for my future epidermal health. I hoped he and I would figure out some neutral ground between us, but I also acknowledged that it might be a long ten days.

At the same time, because of the studies in positive reinforcement I’ve done for my sabbatical—and with all my recent practice with our dog, Manny—I knew I could approach the challenge with a greater sense of calm. I started simply by watching Jude’s behavior without agenda, for example. I noticed that he liked being rubbed on the bones of his hips just above his tail.  Whatever else he was doing beforehand, he’d stop and stay still for the attention. In contrast, I saw that if I petted his head or neck, he could only take two or three strokes before turning his head and opening his mouth as if moving to bite me. Duly noted, I thought to myself. We don’t need to pet his head and neck so much. I didn’t need to fight where he was. I needed to figure it out.

Duly noted: Jude prefers his tried-and-true chewed-up straw to the laser toy Uncle Ted introduced.

Duly noted: Jude prefers his tried-and-true chewed-up straw to the laser toy Uncle Ted introduced.

From there, I started noting what I reinforced. If I were to react strongly to any of his negative behaviors—giving him food off my plate to get him off the table, snapping sharply in response to his bite—I might accidentally accelerate that same behavior. Instead, I quietly shooed him off the table or removed him from my lap. Most crucially, I recognized that I needed to take care with his early-morning behavior. Sure, if I wanted to go back to sleep after he’d woken me up, I could most easily do that by getting up to feed him so he’d shut his little yapper. However, of course, that would only encourage him to do the same thing the next day. Rather than reinforcing his noise-making, I decided to wait until a lull in his insistence, when he had at least temporarily given up on getting my attention. Then, when he was quiet, I got up and fed him. And then went back to bed.

The clicker training crowd has taught me to be more systematic and experimental in pursuing desired behaviors, so I started putting that hat on as well. How else could I get Jude to stay quiet in the morning? I knew I couldn’t put out dry food overnight: Jude had gotten way overweight with free access to food in the past and, besides, his tendency to not drink enough water meant that dry food put too much stress on his kidneys and digestive system. Normally, Lisa would give him ¼ can in the morning to quiet him down and ¾ of a can of food just before going to bed, hoping that would tide him over for the long stretch of night, but I had shifted the percentages a bit so he wasn’t so bothersome during the day.

A few nights in, a new idea presented itself: What if I gave Jude “more” to eat by adding water to his food?  Instead of putting his canned food on a plate, I doled it out into three cans and stirred each with warm water, creating a kind of cat-food slurry. I figured having to “drink” his dinner would both slow him down and put more in his belly to last through the night. Sure enough, Jude let me sleep in the next morning.

Since then, I’ve been using the method for all his meals. His one-can-per-day extends into more feedings and he now seems more mellow in between. He hasn’t been purr-fect in the mornings—he’s woken me up two or three times since—but he’s been lasting far longer. Moreover, we found an accidental side benefit: he’s getting plenty of water now.[1] I imagine the improved hydration affects his mood during the day as well.  As I’ve been writing this, he’s stayed quietly curled up on his bed in front of the heater. No noodginess. Just a happy cat.

Belly full and thirst quenched. Time for a mellow nap.

Belly full and thirst quenched. Time for a mellow nap.

I don’t claim to have become a cat whisperer by any means. Jude still bares his teeth from time to time and he still expresses interest in being on the table when I’m eating. He showed little to no interest in the laser toy and bouncy balls I bought for him, preferring instead to stick with the chewed-up straw he likes to chase around the apartment. But we’ve been figuring it out together. Given this chance to take stock of my sabbatical studies, I like the way that positive reinforcement has changed my mindset. I’m calmer in assessing a situation. I notice more of how I’m contributing to the problem and its solution. And I’m more eager to experiment.

Hey, Jude. Problems are morphing into opportunities. We must be doing all right.


[1] Good news for Lisa: Jude’s drinking water! Bad news for Lisa: Jude’s going through his super-expensive World’s Best Cat Litter at a greatly accelerated rate. I’ll have to clue her in to the amazing benefits of using chick starter feed instead. Are you talking about food for baby chickens as cat litter? Yup. It’s non-toxic (if you get unmedicated), super absorbent, clumping, flushable, odor-killing, largely dust free…and about one third the cost of premium litters made of basically the same stuff. If you’re a cat owner with access to a farm supply store, this tip will revolutionize your life.

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Little Purple Church: Still Building Community in the Castro http://animalearning.com/2013/07/18/little-purple-church-still-building-community-in-the-castro/ http://animalearning.com/2013/07/18/little-purple-church-still-building-community-in-the-castro/#comments Thu, 18 Jul 2013 07:20:25 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1723 If I were to craft my life’s spiritual scrapbook—a collection of words and images to share the pivotal insights, difficult passages, and moments of deeper meaning—I would reserve at least one special page for San Francisco’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). It was there, as a college freshman on the verge of his adult manhood, that [more…]

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The little church still provides a warm welcome.

The little church still provides a warm welcome.

If I were to craft my life’s spiritual scrapbook—a collection of words and images to share the pivotal insights, difficult passages, and moments of deeper meaning—I would reserve at least one special page for San Francisco’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). It was there, as a college freshman on the verge of his adult manhood, that I first learned how shared faith can salve the most tender of wounds.

Almost every Sunday during that first year of college, I would head up from Stanford to the Castro District, a mostly-gay enclave known for its rainbow flags, randy shops, and resplendent characters. Back in the late ‘80’s, the neighborhood also served as ground zero for the AIDS crisis—and the church offered a haven of respite for those in suffering. Something close to 90% of the men who attended MCC then tested positive for HIV. As a result, the spectre of Death never got too far away. Every week, it seemed, someone was either passing on to the next life or moving into hospice care in preparation for doing so.

The beautiful skylight above the worship room: I can imagine spirits passing through in either direction.

The beautiful skylight above the worship room: I can imagine spirits passing through in either direction.

At the same time, a resilient spirit of Life raised the roof. For the most part, those who attended had been shunned, belittled, or rejected by their home churches. They’d been told that their sexual identities—a core piece of their sense of self—were somehow shameful or sinful. In that sense, they came to church not because they felt obligated to do so. They attended because they longed for the community and longed for God. No selective misinterpretation of scripture could keep them away. In valiant resistance to that hatred and to Death’s increasing reach, they prayed with palpable joy and abandon. They sang with heart-opening love. In such light, stand-by hymns took on even greater full-throated power. Words gained weight: Farther along, we’ll know all about it. Farther along, we’ll understand why.

Each congregant gets an individual prayer after communion.

Each congregant gets an individual prayer after communion.

I always enjoyed that music and found it deeply moving, especially as a backdrop to the communion ceremony. I had grown up in a Catholic setting and so was not familiar with the practice of receiving a short blessing after taking communion. The MCC ministers and other volunteers would wrap their arms around each congregant after serving the host and offer a few words. Sometimes the prayer felt personal, other times more generic, but always felt generous. That kind of simple kindness carried profound power. Lord, I ask a blessing for this young man’s week ahead. May God walk with him in his sorrow and celebrate with him in his triumph. May he know the depth of your peace and the warmth of your love. I regularly cried in gratitude or sadness when I sat in prayer back at my seat. I felt welcomed. I felt cared for.

Given all that, I delighted in the surprise chance to revisit the church this past Sunday after I’d had brunch with my friend Chris nearby. Though I was feeling spiritually stirred from the workshop I’d recently co-led at Green Gulch Zen Center, Chris and I hadn’t planned to stop by. We were just enjoying an improvisational no-agenda stroll through the Castro when we accidentally walked onto the church’s street. (Ah, how a stretch of openness makes space for serendipity!) As we passed by, we looked at our watches and realized that the service was happening in that moment. We ducked in and tiptoed up to find spots in the balcony.

Though the AIDS crisis has largely quieted in the face of increased awareness and improved drug treatments, and the congregation no longer fills the place, the church still communicates a sincere sweetness. The small choir sings with commitment. The current ministers carry on a message of welcome. Post-service prayers attend to those in particular need. And lovely signs now sit in each of the stained-glass windows, sharing and affirming the community’s values: Be equal. Be present. Be justice. Be inclusive. Be unique. Be peace. Be proud. Be authentic. Be community. Be love.

Artful windows communicate deep messages.

Artful windows offer important encouragement.

In other words, MCC still lives and breathes as a transformative spiritual community almost 25 years later. And it does so with a clear message. When you’re left out in the cold, we will provide warm shelter. When you’re down, we’ll help lift you back up. When you sing with thanksgiving, we’ll join in with a harmony. Would that we all find such a welcoming home, whatever our histories. Would that we all find such salvation.

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A Deeper Kind of Play—Three New Exercises to Link Improv and Spirituality http://animalearning.com/2013/07/17/a-deeper-kind-of-play-three-new-exercises-to-link-improv-and-spirituality/ http://animalearning.com/2013/07/17/a-deeper-kind-of-play-three-new-exercises-to-link-improv-and-spirituality/#comments Wed, 17 Jul 2013 17:59:14 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1708 A merry band of daring pioneers recently gathered in the coastal hills north of San Francisco for a workshop exploring the many-layered relationship between improvisational theater and spiritual practice. A few exciting exercises came out of our time together—check out these three and see what you think. I’d joyfully welcome any and all feedback from [more…]

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A merry band of daring pioneers recently gathered in the coastal hills north of San Francisco for a workshop exploring the many-layered relationship between improvisational theater and spiritual practice. A few exciting exercises came out of our time together—check out these three and see what you think. I’d joyfully welcome any and all feedback from your experience with them.

"Dear God..." Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net.

“Dear God…”Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net. 

Letter to God—For one of our warm-ups, we adapted a reliable standard, the word-at-a-time letter. Our instructions directed players in pairs to use that same format—alternating smoothly from player-to-player to “write” a vocal letter—to write a letter, yes, and to have the letter written to God from a child’s perspective. The issue, attitude, and theology of the child could emerge as he or she continued writing writing. Then, once that first letter had been written, we asked each pair to write a second letter back to the youngster…from God.

This single exercise may have generated the deepest laughter during our time together. Each pair, it seemed, found a sweet spot of creation through the construct. My partner and I, for example, discovered that our little girl was beseeching God for help with her little puppy’s recovery from an eye injury. It was only as we continued that we realized the sweet girl had played a role in the dog’s troubles—she had poked it with a fork! We got another surprise when God’s response suggested that such trivialities didn’t merit His concern or energies. Instead, God suggested she find a local vet or “some other deities” more likely to take up her plight. Nothing too brilliant, perhaps, but enough of a discovery to give us a lengthy and long-lasting laugh.

Some other groups also cackled with irreverent reaction—like when God suggested to their little girl that “God is everywhere and all around you. If you want to touch God, just touch yourself.”  Others channeled more poignant expression. Across the board, we all found delight in the discovery. The simple tweak took us to new places.

A spiritual scrapbook could show moments in the glow of enlightenment...

A spiritual scrapbook could show moments in the glow of enlightenment…

Spiritual Scrapbook—Earlier this year, my colleague Cort Worthington introduced me to Photo Album, a lovely exercise he uses with business school students to help them get to know each other and get comfortable with shared control improv story-telling. In Photo Album, one player “grabs” a photo album from a space-object shelf and begins to explain some of the imaginary photos in the book, recounting details and memories behind the “images” they find together. The listening player also adds in questions or clarifications which can be open-ended (“Who’s that with you in this photo?”) or more directly endowing (“What are you carrying all those books for?”). They can also build on what’s been mentioned before (as in, “Oh, your brother’s not in this one like he was before. How come?”). The exercise shows beginners they can find a natural creativity and demonstrates the fun of passing control of the ‘scene’ back and forth.

...or in the grip of depression. Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

…or in the grip of depression. The scrapbook’s creator chooses.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

 

 

For our workshop, we adapted the photo album and turned it into a “Spiritual Scrapbook.” Here, we invited each person to share images from their own spiritual journeys, however they defined such a thing. Moments of personal breakthrough, difficult challenge, deep connection, and open vulnerability: whatever highlights or lowlights came to mind. Whatever made meaning.  In this case, we encouraged the listener to stay a bit more open-ended with inquiries, offering example prompts like:

  • Where’s the photo of where you felt most alive?
  • Ooh, that lighting’s cool. What’s going on there?
  • This one looks unusual. I wouldn’t have thought of that as spiritual.
  • The photos got kind of dark there.
  • How old were you in this one?
  • I can’t tell if your eyes are closed or open in this photo.

The Guest House—This exercise shares some elements with “House Party,” a playful short form piece that lasts until the host can name the endowed qualities of each of three guests at a party. It also goes much deeper.

We had just discussed the Shadow, a psychological term referring to the hidden or disowned parts of ourselves. According to Carl Jung, the term’s originator, Shadow integration represents some of the most challenging—and most rewarding—soul work we can do. The psyche longs for wholeness most, argued Jung. Those parts that we deny will leak out in toxic or destructive ways, whether through explosive release or more subtly pernicious projection.

The still-best-selling poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The still-best-selling poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi.Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

As illustration for how we might relate differently to the Shadow, we shared Rumi’s provocative poem “The Guest House” and then based a scene on its images.[1] We asked one player to play herself at home and to have three “unexpected visitors” show up, one representative each for “the dark thought, the shame, the malice” that show up in her life. We did offer our protagonist the option to have her audience choose the uninvited guests but, thankfully, she found the courage to make the unwanted visitors examples from her own personality: laziness, wishy-washiness, and ridicule of others. That vulnerability gave the scene that much more juice. We also encouraged the folks playing the three visitors to go bold in their characterizations without being cartoonish. We wanted an element of realism to work with. Commit to your character. Be open to gradual change.

Given the set-up, it proved utterly fascinating to watch our lead struggle. Her visitors were, in fact, quite annoying and unpleasant. The more the scene went on, the more unpleasant they became, enough so that the protagonist eventually wanted to leave the scene to go get yoghurt or walk the dog that she knew she didn’t have. Perfect! We do so often choose to avoid the Shadow!

From there, we coached a few tweaks into the game on the fly. What happens if you tell the visitors just what you think of them? What happens if they thank you for your feedback? What if the visitors share out loud what they have to offer? Having been recognized, the visitors relaxed and, touchingly, decided to leave of their own accord. Laziness found some motivation. Wishy-washiness found some spine. And Ridicule found some humility. We let our protagonist stay on stage for a few breaths more to integrate all that had just happened. We in the audience needed a moment to take it all in as well. We had traveled to an authentic place.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that a second iteration of the exercise—or a first iteration with another group—would go so well. Different visitors might prove more or less hostile or recalcitrant. A new protagonist might prove more or less resilient or creative. Improv is improv. By definition, we’re walking into the Unkown. Still, it seems the structure has a strength that will pass on. The immediacy, the tension, and the honesty of the exercise all speak well for its larger potential.

These were just three of the new exercises we tried out at our first Improvisation and Spirituality retreat. I look forward to writing more about some others and to hearing your thoughts in reflection. How do these games work for you? How might you change them to improve them or alter their focus?


[1] THE GUEST HOUSE

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

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Another Iteration of the Failure Bow http://animalearning.com/2013/06/29/another-iteration-of-the-failure-bow/ Sat, 29 Jun 2013 17:03:37 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1699 Folks love the Failure Bow. It’s a simple exercise, and it can be goofy, but its implications and ramifications go deep. Thanks to his TedX talk in Bellevue, Washington, Matt Smith’s message keeps spreading. Just this morning, I watched a short video by Jon Trevor, a fellow member of the Applied Improvisation Network, and got [more…]

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Folks love the Failure Bow. It’s a simple exercise, and it can be goofy, but its implications and ramifications go deep. Thanks to his TedX talk in Bellevue, Washington, Matt Smith’s message keeps spreading.

Just this morning, I watched a short video by Jon Trevor, a fellow member of the Applied Improvisation Network, and got another helpful tweak for the Bow. He articulates clearly how when we applaud the Failure Bow, we’re not cheering the mistake, but the willingness to admit the mistake and move on. We make ourselves vulnerable by admitting our frailties—even the ones that have real, negative impacts—and by giving ourselves the chance to learn from them without shame.

When I’ve recently taught the Failure Bow, I’ve had folks improvise a mistake they’ve “made” and work with that. They make it up. Jon asks his clients to use an actual mistake they’ve made within the last week. He doesn’t demand inappropriate vulnerability—they can choose a little goof if they’d like—but he does request authenticity. I imagine that realness shifts the energy in the room in powerful ways.

I also appreciate the way Jon encourages us to extend that same gentleness to others. So often, even those of us who say we embrace the learning opportunity in failure actually lift our noses in derision or turn away in disgust when others slip up. We attach the failure to the person’s character. We think a little less of them. Jon invites us to offer generosity instead. Engaged with an open heart, the Failure Bow breeds compassion, for self and for others.

Watch Jon’s video here and you’ll get a sense of his commitment and warmth:

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1699
Mindfulness Momentum: 7 Reasons to Start (or Boost) Your Practice Now http://animalearning.com/2013/06/26/mindfulness-momentum-7-reasons-to-start-or-boost-your-practice-now/ http://animalearning.com/2013/06/26/mindfulness-momentum-7-reasons-to-start-or-boost-your-practice-now/#comments Thu, 27 Jun 2013 03:58:54 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1674 If you listen carefully, you can hear multiple streams of mindfulness growing into a larger tide. Here are seven good reasons you might want to start surfing the mindfulness wave. 1) It’s simple. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the famed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts-Worcester, has defined the practice [more…]

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If you listen carefully, you can hear multiple streams of mindfulness growing into a larger tide. Here are seven good reasons you might want to start surfing the mindfulness wave.

1) It’s simple.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the famed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts-Worcester, has defined the practice as,

Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

Thich Nhat-Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen monk perhaps most responsible for the current surge of Buddhism in the west, chooses a more succinct definition, describing the technique as

“…keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality.”

In short, mindfulness means an active but gentle, kind and curious witnessing of what is—without preconception or wanting it to be otherwise.[1] It doesn’t take a lot of doing.

Mindfulness can be as easy as an afternoon by a pond.

Mindfulness can be as easy as an afternoon by a pond.
The Meditation Pond, photo courtesy of Bob Peterson, North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth.

While many practice mindfulness through some form of meditation—sitting, walking, yoga and the like—others boost their awareness by writing in a journal, making art, or paying close attention to the body’s experience during physical activity.[2] Still others just notice their inhalation and exhalation. You need no special equipment or expensive training. You can start in any location, from a mountaintop monastery to an inner-city subway. You can practice for the breadth of a long retreat or for the retreat of a long breath. No doubt, options range as widely as the people choosing them.

Whichever window into mindfulness you choose, the simple promise remains the same: opening any sliver of awareness will shed new light.

2) It works.

The incredible list of benefits from mindfulness practice reads like the high-gloss label on a bottle of modern-day snake oil:

Reduces blood pressure! Calms aggression! Eases pain!

Quells anxiety! Deepens sleep! Boosts the immune system!

Dissolves depression! Improves focus, attention, and memory!

Sharpens athletic and academic performance! Stimulates creativity!

Builds connection and compassion! Strengthens resilience!

Reduces substance abuse! Enhances motivation! Retrains the brain!

(Apply in all fields at all times for best results.)

Step right up! Really, *this* snake oil works! Photo courtesy of David Loong, South Canberra, Australia.

Step right up! Really, *this* snake oil works!
Photo courtesy of David Loong, South Canberra, Australia.

Indeed, the sales pitch can sound like a stretch at best. Thing is, these claims aren’t bunk. More and more scientific studies prove them true every week.[3]

Whatever the mechanism behind the magic, whatever the dynamic that does the deed, paying closer attention to our experience brings a cartload of deep-reaching benefits.

Go back and read the list above again and soak it in. Really, go ahead. Mindfulness can blast you out of boredom and bring boldness to blandness. It will vitalize your senses and generate gratitude. It lives up to the sales pitch. It’s superfood for the mind and heart.

3) It’s everywhere. 

Given the impact mindfulness has on well-being and performance, more and more institutions continue to commit themselves to developing specific, trainable techniques for their fields. Hospitals teach patients to manage their own hypertension and ease their own pain. Prisons help inmates calm and re-channel decades’ worth of anger. Schools generate greater interest in learning, dissolve disciplinary issues, and calm the stress of college applications.[4] Elite sports programs refine their athletes’ performances by sharpening the senses for chaotic environments.

Chade Meng Tan of Google's Search Inside Yourself program.

Chade Meng Tan of Google’s Search Inside Yourself program.

Behind the work of Jolly Good Fellow Chade Meng Tan—yes, that is his official title—Google has become a trailblazer for mindfulness in the corporate world as well. Their internal “Search Inside Yourself” program still attracts waiting lists of employees clamoring to get in and has spawned a leadership institute (SIYLI, pronounced “silly”) to spread their methods far and wide. The program’s goals remain both simple and audacious: Achieve success, happiness, and world peace. Given the company’s reach and the corporate world’s increasing welcome of the message–look at Target, General Mills, Goldman Sachs and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters for further examples–they just might reach those goals.

The astute may notice the irony of allowing “what is” as a method of achieving even more. If you’re really practicing mindfulness, can you care about the outcome so much? It’s a fair question and one worth asking. Regardless of the answer—and I suspect the inquiry may drop us straight into the realm of capital “P” paradox—all these institutions aren’t waiting around or worrying. They’re finding success with mindfulness, however they define that success. And that’s enough to go on.[5]

4) It’s hard.

If mindfulness proves so beneficial, why don’t we teach this to every kid in every class? Why don’t all parents and bosses know about it? Why doesn’t everyone embrace it?

For one, mindfulness brings stuff up. When you pause the frantic drive to achieve, you start to notice what’s really happening. The grief of a lost child, the uncertainty of a violent world, the numbness of any addiction: such pains float to the surface when our emotional waters grow still. Mindfulness may give us tools to work through such challenges—namely by letting them be—but that makes them no less real. The same holds true on a wider-level: a community practicing mindfulness may come to see the ways in which they participate in perpetuating their own struggles. And that hurts too. It takes a certain strength to face the demons head-on.[6]

Mindfulness also takes discipline. Forces are lined up to keep us from staying fully present. Many (most?) corporations don’t want us waking up to what we really need and spend their advertising dollars to keep us all in a zombie-like state of consumption. Better we miss the abuses in the factory farm or pass by the cruelties in creating our clothes. Hollywood and the internet media spend millions to distract us with more overbloated blockbusters or addictive internet memes. Even governments that promote ‘transparency’ and ‘freedom’ would rather keep their reach under wraps. Better we stay frozen in some fear about our future than find promise in our present.

Corporations and the media would love for us to remain mindless zombies.

Corporations and the media would love for us to remain mindless zombies.

On a smaller level, our friends and bosses can resist change too. Anything new or different can seem a threat. It’s not just others that can block our progress, though. We, too, can get in our own way. Either we fall prey to our own internal hesitation or we create external turbulence by coming off as righteous or holier-than-thou. Yes, the growing tide of mindfulness may well wash away all such resistance, but for now, fighting all these forces—inside and out—still demands enough resilience to swim upstream.

5) It’s an antidote to our turbo-charged, multi-tasking illness.

I know very few people who don’t feel too busy or too overwhelmed with the amount of responsibility they carry and information they try to process—and I live in a sleepy, rural town of 3,000. Technology keeps promising to simplify our lives but instead makes them more demanding. Cell phones and wireless coverage reach further and further into previously private spaces so we’re always reachable and, as the NSA knows too well, always trackable. Rather than simply enjoying what’s in front of us—say, a movie—we gobble for more, following the director’s notes on the tablet while we leaf aimlessly through e-mail on a laptop or send status updates by smartphone. God forbid we’re trying to study or grade papers or write a blog post.

OK, maybe she would be able to handle multi-tasking. Photo by Steve Jurvetson, flickr.

OK, maybe *she* would be able to handle multi-tasking.
Photo by Steve Jurvetson, flickr.

A different kind of technology, the practice of mindfulness cuts through the clatter of such multi-tasking and virtual reality, bringing us back to a body-based experience rooted firmly in place and time. Our renewed focus means we actually get more done and we can enjoy ourselves while we do it. We come back from the edge of hyper-drive and slow down to a healthier human speed.

As the Irish priest John O’Donohue wrote in his poem “A Blessing for One Who is Exhausted,”:

…You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.
 
Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through….
 
Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells within slow time.[7]
 

6) It will change your brain.

I mentioned this well-researched fact earlier when covering the benefits of mindfulness but it bears repeating. The more time we spend cultivating attention and compassion, the more attentive and compassionate we become. We build gray matter density in the hippocampus—the area most responsible for learning and memory—and decrease density in the amygdala, the area responsible for stress and anxiety responses.[8] We form new neural pathways that build our capacity.

The brain makes new connections based on the choices we make.

The brain makes new connections based on the choices we make.

Of course, neuroplasticity holds true in the other direction as well. The brain changes form to accommodate whatever choices we make. If we “practice” aggression, anxiety, and reactivity, that’s the pattern we develop. Which path will we choose?

7) You don’t need to believe anything.

Yes, mindfulness meditation derives from yogic and religious practices developed in India and East Asia thousands of years ago, but you don’t have to follow the Buddha or any god to reap its rewards.

Partly that’s because modern-day teachers of mindfulness like Kabat-Zinn have translated the practice into secular terms. One can develop “focused attention”—i.e., simply noticing when concentration drifts from a particular point (the breath, the body, a tree) and then gently bringing concentration back to that point—without adhering to the Four Noble Truths. One can foster “open monitoring”—a soft, non-judgmental awareness of whatever thoughts or feelings pass by—without committing to the Eight-Fold Path. Scientific research backs the practice up. No religious support needed.[9]

It’s also because the Buddha wouldn’t have wanted you to take his word for it, even if you were a follower. Make of yourself a light, he said as his followers asked for a last bit of wisdom while he lay on his death bed. [10] In other words, find the same truth yourself. Run your own experiments. Observe your own experience. The Buddha taught mindfulness meditation, among his many other lessons without teaching “Buddhism.” You can learn it that way too.

Make of yourself a light, Buddhist or not.

Make of yourself a light, Buddhist or not.


[1] If the idea of mindfulness still seems elusive, consider the more approachable definition of mindlessness: that numb, glazed-over auto-pilot where we give little or scattered attention to what’s happening right in front of us. The state where we pay passing heed—if any—to the consequences of our behavior. Then figure its opposite. Where mindlessness means numbness, mindfulness means feeling, noticing, experiencing. Where mindlessness suggests a hazy surrender of our own responsibility, mindfulness indicates an intention to stay sharp, focused, and conscious of the influence we have. It’s being here, now.

[2] Though mindfulness can serve as a form of meditation and vice versa—and folks often use the words interchangeably in public conversation—they overlap more than mirror each other. The same is true for contemplation, the usually quiet practice of considering experience with open, honest questions and waiting for insight or direction. Mindfulness can function as contemplation, in essence asking the honest question “What am I experiencing in this moment?” But contemplation could also explore wider, non-local, future- or past-oriented inquiries as well.

[4] Check out the South Burlington, Vermont school district; the Bay School in San Francisco, and the Middlesex School in Massachusetts for some striking examples.

[5] I suspect that, over time, the wider practice of mindfulness will actually lead more of our institutions to shift their focus—at least somewhat—from profit, growth and achievement to wellness, community service, and personal development.

[6] Many dismiss mindfulness in the school or in the workplace as “woo-woo,” as if sitting in silence for a moment or ringing a chime could somehow transform you into a New Age crystal-toting caricature. To my ear, that’s another way of saying “This gets me in touch with my emotions and makes me uncomfortable. I’m afraid to feel vulnerable so I’ll belittle the experience instead.”

[7] ©John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us (New York:  Doubleday, 2008), p.125, 126. Drawn from http://www.transformingcenter.org/2010/08/a-blessing-for-one-who-is-exhausted/.

[8] Christie Nicholson of Scientific American, as linked to at http://www.modernmeditation.ca/your-brain/.

[9] Of course, I don’t mean to imply that the rigorous discipline and time-tested wisdom of Buddhism and yogic practices—among the more meditative traditions—don’t add to the benefits of mindfulness training. They can provide an even wider foundation and perspective on the teachings.

[10] See Mary Oliver’s poem “The Buddha’s Last Instruction” for a gorgeous rendering of that exquisite moment.

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Improv Wisdom for a Meaningful Life http://animalearning.com/2013/03/23/improv-wisdom-for-a-meaningful-life/ http://animalearning.com/2013/03/23/improv-wisdom-for-a-meaningful-life/#comments Sat, 23 Mar 2013 12:13:20 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1636 IMPROV WISDOM for a MEANINGFUL LIFE A Playful Path to Courage, Creativity, and Connection  Green Gulch Zen Center, Sausalito, CA * Mon-Wed, July 22nd-24th, 2013 Enrollment limited to approx. 14 participants   In the long history of humankind (and animal kind) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.   –Charles Darwin Dig [more…]

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IMPROV WISDOM for a MEANINGFUL LIFE

A Playful Path to Courage, Creativity, and Connection 

Green Gulch Zen Center, Sausalito, CA * Mon-Wed, July 22nd-24th, 2013

Enrollment limited to approx. 14 participants

Path to Heaven Detlef Kuonen  In the long history of humankind (and animal kind) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.   –Charles Darwin

Dig below the surface and improvisation means much more than comedy. Creating in the moment, artists and athletes sharpen awareness and build resilience in the face of setbacks. Business leaders learn to innovate with nimble responsiveness. Educators find profound direction for teaching and learning. And spiritual seekers of all sorts discover layer after layer of philosophical and ethical insight. Approached with an open heart and contemplative mind, improvisation opens up uncountable paths of wisdom and meaning—all over the landscape of human experience.

This workshop will explore such possibility from the inside out. Together, we’ll create a safe, playful, experiential learning lab that stretches self-awareness and strengthens connection with others. Holding up the mirror of improv insights and exercises and  drawing from the well of rigorous contemplation, you will learn to:

  • Find and express greater spontaneity
  • Transform your approach to failure
  • Increase your sensory acuity and in-the-moment awareness
  • Trust your creative leanings
  • Improve your communication: better listening, clearer speaking, deeper understanding
  • Reach new levels of generosity
  • Collaborate with greater ease
  • Tell better stories

Prerequisites

This workshop is designed for those with little or no prior experience with improvisational theater. Those with more substantial improv chops who are just beginning to tap its deeper levels may also find the workshop fruitful. No particular religious or spiritual path is required, but those with an inquiring heart and open mind will gain the most from and contribute the most to the experience.

About the Instructors

Ted picture for webSince completing his graduate work at Stanford (MBA) and Harvard (Masters of Theology), Ted DesMaisons has taught religious studies and philosophy at Northfield Mount Hermon in western Massachusetts. He has studied improvisation with Patricia Ryan Madson, Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS) and Loose Moose, and has trained extensively with the Center for Courage and Renewal. Combining humor with gravitas and intention with inspiration, Ted helps create safe spaces for exploring what really matters. He writes regularly about improv, contemplation, and positive reinforcement on his TED WORDS blog (www.tedwordsblog.com).

Lisa Rowland pic for webOne of the most recognizable and most beloved teachers of improvisation in the world, Lisa Rowland has performed, coached, and conducted corporate trainings with San Francisco’s BATS mainstage company for more than seven years. Students from Palo Alto and the Presidio to Amsterdam and Arabia rave about the way she combines power and generosity in the service of their learning. A graduate of Stanford University and an uncannily astute observer of what’s needed next, Lisa was recently named the 2012 San Francisco Actor of the Year.

Patricia Ryan MadsonFounder of the Stanford Improvisors (SIMPS) and author of the artfully sage Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, special guest instructor Patricia Ryan Madson has followed a life path that has led her to landscapes, art forms, and deeper inquiries of all sorts. She has mentored multiple generations of compassionate players, many of whom continue to spread the good news of improv in her familiar, generous style. She has graciously agreed to join us for an evening’s session to share some of her insights and to help us generate our own.

Location and Accommodations

Gardens at Green Gulch.

Gardens at Green Gulch.

This retreat takes place at historic Green Gulch Zen Center just north of San Francisco.  The Center’s rolling hills, organic gardens, and meditative spaces will make an idyllic setting for our time together.  Muir Beach lies a short walk away.  With both private and communal space available, we will share three organic, primarily vegetarian meals each day. Guests will stay in simple, clean rooms, two to a room.  For more information about the setting, please visit the Center’s web site: http://www.sfzc.org/ggf/.

Cost

$550 per person. Includes all program fees, two nights lodging, and three meals per day. Full program fee due with registration. Payment refundable (minus $25 processing charge) if the workshop is full and you or we are able to find a replacement.  $35 discount for any referral who attends the workshop.

Registration/Contact Us

If you would like to register or if you have any questions about the workshop, please contact either facilitator. We’d be delighted to talk with you!

Ted DesMaisons: teddyd@stanfordalumni.org           Lisa Rowland: lcrowland@gmail.com

Muir Beach

Muir Beach, a short walk from the Green Gulch Zen Center.

Who am I here in this moment?       What choice is needed now?

How can I help those around me?

How does this story connect me to something larger or deeper?

The most skillful teachers and learners maintain a radical relationship to failure. And that means more than just seeing mistakes as iterations on the path to success (though that helps too). Learn the six types of so-called failure and gain practical tools to open up new levels of creative possibility.</p> <p> </p> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/growth-mindset/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-146" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/growing-triskele-150x150.png" alt="growing-triskele" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/contemplative-practice/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-99" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/tree-icon-150x150.png" alt="tree-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/applied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/positive-reinforcement/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-101" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/dolphin-icon-150x150.png" alt="dolphin-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> <ul> <ul> <ul>
</p> <p>Life changes and, these days, it changes faster than ever. Many respond to that uncertainty by seeking further control, but that effort almost always leaves us more rigid and less responsive. Build your ambiguity tolerance muscles and replace the impulse to control with a more nimble intention to:</p> <ul> <li>commit</li> <li>contribute</li> <li>connect, and</li> <li>co-create</li> </ul> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/growth-mindset/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-146" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/growing-triskele-150x150.png" alt="growing-triskele" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/contemplative-practice/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-99" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/tree-icon-150x150.png" alt="tree-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/applied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/positive-reinforcement/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-101" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/dolphin-icon-150x150.png" alt="dolphin-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> <ul> <ul> <ul>
</p> <p>Shift how you think about teaching and learning with a simple ‘dolphin training’ exercise to illustrate the central principle of positive reinforcement—reward movement toward the behavior you want and ignore the rest.</p> <p>Teachers will leave with a keener understanding for the crucial importance of clear instruction, keen attention, and artful feedback. Learners begin to understand the importance of experimentation and engagement. Both groups learn to stay connected with each other.</p> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/applied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/positive-reinforcement/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-101" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/dolphin-icon-150x150.png" alt="dolphin-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> <ul> <ul> <ul>
</p> <p>Teaching with Acoustical Guidance (TAGteach) draws on cutting edge tools to cut teaching time in half and improve learner retention.</p> <p>Develop practical skills through fun, hands-on training so you can:</p> <ul> <ul> <li>use fewer words for more efficient instruction</li> <li>deliver precise, timely feedback to maximize and solidify improvement</li> <li>reinforce the skills you intend to develop</li> <li>keep your learner focused and thirsty for more</li> <li>build loyalty and trust between teacher and learner<strong> </strong></li> </ul> </ul> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/growth-mindset/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-146" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/growing-triskele-150x150.png" alt="growing-triskele" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/positive-reinforcement/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-101" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/dolphin-icon-150x150.png" alt="dolphin-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> <ul> <ul> <ul>
The most skillful teachers and learners maintain a radical relationship to failure. And that means more than just seeing mistakes as iterations on the path to success (though that helps too). Learn the six types of so-called failure and gain practical tools to open up new levels of creative possibility.</p> <p> </p> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/growth-mindset/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-146" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/growing-triskele-150x150.png" alt="growing-triskele" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/contemplative-practice/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-99" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/tree-icon-150x150.png" alt="tree-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/applied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/positive-reinforcement/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-101" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/dolphin-icon-150x150.png" alt="dolphin-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> <ul> <ul> <ul>
</p> <p>Do you find yourself shrinking from valuable opportunities for connection or driving others away with unintentional intimidation?</p> <p>Based on the work of legendary British acting coach Patsy Rodenburg, engage in safe and playful movement, breathing, and speaking exercises that show you how to inhabit “Second Circle,” a physical and attitudinal way of being that generates:</p> <ul> <ul> <ul> <li>resilient confidence</li> <li>creative power</li> <li>authentic connection</li> </ul> </ul> </ul> <p>Guaranteed to shift how you move in the world!</p> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/contemplative-practice/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-99" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/tree-icon-150x150.png" alt="tree-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/appplied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> <ul> <ul> <ul>
</p> <p>Life changes and, these days, it changes faster than ever. Many respond to that uncertainty by seeking further control, but that effort almost always leaves us more rigid and less responsive. Build your ambiguity tolerance muscles and replace the impulse to control with a more nimble intention to:</p> <ul> <li>commit</li> <li>contribute</li> <li>connect, and</li> <li>co-create</li> </ul> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/growth-mindset/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-146" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/growing-triskele-150x150.png" alt="growing-triskele" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/contemplative-practice/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-99" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/tree-icon-150x150.png" alt="tree-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/applied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/positive-reinforcement/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-101" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/dolphin-icon-150x150.png" alt="dolphin-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> <ul> <ul> <ul>
</p> <p>From the cover of Time magazine and the U.S. military to the halls of academe and the locker rooms of professional sports teams, mindfulness has become a media darling du jour.</p> <p>Learn why and how mindfulness offers more than a passing fad, delivering measurable changes for leaders, teachers, and learners:</p> <ul> <ul> <ul> <li>focused attention</li> <li>effective recall</li> <li>executive function</li> <li>empathic connection</li> <li>stress reduction</li> <li>sense of calm</li> <li>sturdy resilience</li> <li>well-being</li> </ul> </ul> </ul> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/contemplative-practice/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-99" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/tree-icon-150x150.png" alt="tree-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/applied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> <ul> <ul> <ul>
</p> <p>Leaders, teachers, and coaches are discovering the paradoxical truths that slowing down can improve efficiency and non-striving can lead to greater accomplishment. They’re also realizing how the many forms of contemplative practice offer access to deeper insights and breakthrough innovations.</p> <p>Learn the relevance and rigor behind this growing movement—and bring home experiential examples for your workplace or classroom.</p> <p><a href="http://animalearning.com/contemplative-practice/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-99" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/tree-icon-150x150.png" alt="tree-icon" width="50" height="50" />  </a><a href="http://animalearning.com/applied-improvisation/"><img class="alignnone wp-image-143" src="http://animalearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sun-icon-150x150.png" alt="sun-icon" width="50" height="50" /></a></p> <ul> <ul> <ul> <ul>

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The Diversity-Unity Double Helix http://animalearning.com/2013/02/10/the-diversity-unity-double-helix/ http://animalearning.com/2013/02/10/the-diversity-unity-double-helix/#comments Sun, 10 Feb 2013 06:13:44 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1600   Teachers at Northfield Mount Hermon met this week to work through concerns about equity and justice raised by our faculty of color. While at times difficult, the honest conversation opened up some previously blocked avenues for healing. I wrote the following as a continuation of that conversation. Hello all. I’m very glad that I [more…]

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Teachers at Northfield Mount Hermon met this week to work through concerns about equity and justice raised by our faculty of color. While at times difficult, the honest conversation opened up some previously blocked avenues for healing. I wrote the following as a continuation of that conversation.

Hello all.

I’m very glad that I came in for our faculty meeting yesterday so that I could listen to and learn from our conversations there. I especially appreciate the courage of you who spoke honestly about ways in which you’ve felt hurt, isolated, or underappreciated. That takes guts—and your courage impels us all to take further responsibility for building the community and school we intend. I’ve been thinking about our meeting since then and hope that sharing some of those thoughts here contributes to more discussion.

The Wheeler School's logo--an interweaving blend of two equally valuable elements.

The Wheeler School’s logo–an interweaving blend of two equally valuable elements.

A few years ago, I attended an alumni function at the Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island.[1] It caught my attention to see and hear that the school now frames its multicultural programs under the heading of “Unity and Diversity.” Though I’ve taken part in many multicultural trainings and worked hard to investigate and challenge my own considerable levels of privilege—I grew up male, white, heterosexual, educated, middle-class Christian—I’d never heard those two words linked so directly and so intentionally. The combination conveys an elegant truth I’d previously only felt: both diversity and unity are crucial components of full humanness. Calling for one without the other, I notice, activates a kind of defensiveness. I don’t want to have to give up or ignore either of the pair.

Unified, we create patterns impossible in isolation.

Unified, we create patterns impossible in isolation.

I long—and I trust that we all long—for some measure of unity. We thirst for connection, we yearn for belonging, and we seek shared experiences that stitch us together. We find untapped reserves of resolution and resilience when we have a common purpose. When we’re a part of an effective team, we accomplish far more than we could on our own. Athletes working in unison in the heat of competition, musicians finding the sweet spot of harmony, different folks pulling in the same workplace direction: they all generate significant joy and achievement.

Diverse patches make for a beautiful quilt......Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Diverse patches make for a beautiful quilt.
…..
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I also know that we thrive when we can recognize and celebrate our differences. Each of us brings a unique perspective to any situation. Bringing out those multiple perspectives adds richness, vitality, flavor, and color. Our worldviews open up to wider vistas. As is true in any ecosystem, greater diversity increases our resilience to threats from outside. You can see and respond to threats that I cannot—and I offer the same for your blind or weak spots in return. We harness the difference in diversity and reach creative combinations that otherwise remain impossible. Faulty assumptions get corrected. The alloy strengthens the steel.

The tricky part comes in finding the right balance. Promoting diversity without a conscious effort toward unity can lead to a splintering that furthers distance and isolation. It can calcify resentment and fear—why are they getting privileges? what about my suffering? they can’t possibly understand what it’s like!—and foster self defeating hesitation—will I misstep? will they mock me? why would they want me to join them?

Unity programs with no political awareness can actually serve to whitewash over important differences.
…..
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Likewise, promoting unity without a full accounting for diversity can cause more harm than good, encouraging superficial smiles to whitewash histories of real division and pain. Calls for unity can morph into demands for conformity, especially destructive when the required conforming means having to adhere to a dominant ideal or privilege paradigm. “Can’t we all get along?” asks the naïve-to-racism white person, not realizing that the ‘getting along’ they suggest includes hopping on board with a white cultural, emotional, and interpersonal standard.

It’s important that this work addresses such deeper political questions head-on. As one colleague noted when she and I processed the meeting afterwards, maybe we should bypass calling this work “diversity” and instead go directly for “social justice and equity” instead. It’s not just the differences that matter. Yes, honoring and celebrating difference is good. But we also need to name and undo the institutional structures and systems that codify and replicate inequalities based on those differences. Such power injustice may not be intentional. That makes it no less real.

Take this very meeting, for a subtle example. We were encouraged by an intelligent, well-meaning white faculty member to use a Quaker-style approach to our conversation: we stay quiet until feeling moved to speak, then one person at a time stands to share. In that mode together, we’d find a collective wisdom rather than engage in a debate or a dialogue. Lord knows, I go all in with such ritual forms. Quakers have developed a powerful ‘technology’ for talking about what really matters and for discerning shared wisdom (though it should be noted that any Quaker Meeting would be a religious meeting designed to find Spirit’s leading). They also have long demonstrated a commitment to social justice concerns. In this case, the format worked to create what seemed like a valuable conversation. That said, it’s also still an exceedingly white form.

A Quaker Meeting for Business: admittedly, a white form. .....Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Quaker Meeting for Business: admittedly, a white form.
…..
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

An African-American church, in contrast, might employ a call-and-response format. In that setting, silence between speakers would indicate lack of resonance or even disagreement. The meeting would lack life rather than demonstrate respect. By choosing the approach we did—and without naming it as a white approach or explaining its benefits—we unwittingly offered a conversational advantage to those more likely to be familiar with it. A subtle advantage, perhaps, but again, it’s a real one. I wonder if some felt silenced rather than welcomed by the form.

The ideal would simultaneously promote two fundamental and paradoxical truths: we are each unique—a singular combination of identities and affinities—and we’re also interconnected, radically interwoven into one grand whole. Unity and diversity work can rise together like a double helix, always turning into and around each other.

The double helix swirls in dynamic relationship......Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The double helix swirls in dynamic relationship.
…..
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Or perhaps they can form a Möbius strip, one actually leading directly into the other.

A Möbius strip crafted with a piece of paper and tape. If one side is Unity and other Diversity, you can walk both paths just by moving forward......Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A Möbius strip crafted with a piece of paper and tape. If one side is Unity and other Diversity, you can walk both paths just by moving forward.
…..
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In that way, we’d find and build an active, engaged, vital diversity that serves a larger totality. At the same time, we’d develop a unity that thrived on the gifts and perspectives of every individual.

How do we make all this happen then? What tangible steps can we take? I can think of at least five.

  1. As institutions and individuals, we can begin telling our truthful stories. The vulnerability of honesty is a real risk: if you know about my tender places, you can hurt me. I have to figure out how to take that risk, though: it’s a necessary step for building connection.
  2. We can assume positive intentions. The various smogs of oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, and the rest—have poisoned and blinded us. But we aren’t born with hate in our hearts. Speaking to the positive core in others softens defenses and builds generosity.
  3. We can work to earn that assumption. Actions do more to engender trust than words do. Those of us who attend a diversity conference, bring a different perspective into the curriculum, or even sit at a new table make tangible our commitment to healing past hurts and building a diversity-welcoming unity. We embody our intention.
  4. We can take the risk of failing—and then be willing to forgive ourselves and others for those failures. Walls of injustice won’t fall under hesitant dismantling. Only bold authenticity will break the barriers down. Call each other out on the occasional hurts and offenses, yes—that’s part of how we learn—but do so in a spirit of generosity and resilience.
  5. We can shift our language. When we talk about diversity, we can offer a nod to unity. When we promote unity, we can remember our difference. Doing so prevents any reflexive defensiveness or dismissal that results from having one of the elements ignored or devalued.

Take these thoughts as you will, one man’s (one white, educated, heterosexual, middle-class man’s) beginning reflections on a profoundly complex and important topic. I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts in return.


[1] Though I graduated from a different high school, my middle school years at Wheeler proved formative enough that I still consider myself an alum.

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Improvisation and Spirituality: A Personal and Collaborative Inquiry http://animalearning.com/2013/02/09/improvisation-and-spirituality-a-personal-and-collaborative-inquiry/ http://animalearning.com/2013/02/09/improvisation-and-spirituality-a-personal-and-collaborative-inquiry/#comments Sat, 09 Feb 2013 15:04:35 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1586 My friend and colleague Cort Worthington and I were delighted to offer this inaugural Improvisation and Spirituality workshop  at the Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. We came with some provocative questions and exercises to get us rolling and the group dove in with full commitment to find all [more…]

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My friend and colleague Cort Worthington and I were delighted to offer this inaugural Improvisation and Spirituality workshop  at the Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. We came with some provocative questions and exercises to get us rolling and the group dove in with full commitment to find all sorts of insights and inspirations. We hope this will serve as the first of many such gatherings to explore this fertile ground. Check out the “flyer” we used below and let us know if you’d like information about our next one (probably next year at some point)!

Warmly,

Ted

Improvisation & Spirituality

A personal and collaborative inquiry

Green Gulch Zen Center, Sausalito, CA * Sun-Wed, July 7th-10th, 2013

Enrollment limited to approx. 14 participants

Green Gulch Tea GardenMany seasoned improvisors recognize the depth of meaning and insight available through this art form.  When we apply improv principles to our everyday lives, we find greater vitality, resilience, and joy.  We learn to pay careful attention, to embrace possibility, and to play well with others.  These positive outcomes are strikingly similar to those found on many spiritual paths.

This experiential workshop will explore the numerous synergies between improvisational theater and the spiritual life.  We will use improv games and scenework as tools for personal reflection.  We will enter contemplative practice as a vehicle for deeper improv. Together, we’ll ask big questions—and find intriguing answers.  Participants can expect significant space for self-inquiry as well as ample opportunity for productive groupwork.

Prerequisites

Participants should be well-versed in improv principles and willing to practice them “on stage” in front of others.  No particular religious or spiritual path is required, but those with an inquiring heart will gain the most from the workshop.

Location and Accommodations

Lindisfarne HouseThis retreat takes place at historic Green Gulch Zen Center just north of San Francisco.  The Center’s rolling hills, organic gardens, and meditative spaces will make an idyllic setting for our time together.  Muir Beach lies a short walk away.  With both private and communal space available, we will share three organic, primarily vegetarian meals each day. Guests will stay in simple, clean rooms, two to a room.  For more information about the setting, please visit the Center’s web site: http://www.sfzc.org/ggf/.

 

– EVALUATION QUOTES FROM FUTURE PARTICIPANTS –

  • “What a delicious opportunity to draw from the depth of these two wells!”
  • “The food, the place, the leaders, my fellow participants: everything came together to make one magical whole.”
  • “To my whole life, I now say ‘Yes, And!’  Thank you, thank you.”
  • “A perfect combo of me-time and we-time.  Just what I needed.”

 

About the Instructors

Ted photoSince completing his graduate work at Stanford (MBA) and Harvard (Masters of Theology), Ted DesMaisons has taught religious studies and philosophy at Northfield Mount Hermon in western Massachusetts, including the senior elective “Identity and Transformation: Models of Spiritual Adulthood.” He has studied improvisation with Patricia Ryan, Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS) and Loose Moose, and has trained extensively with the Center for Courage and Renewal. Combining humor with gravitas and intention with inspiration, Ted helps create safe spaces for exploring what really matters. He writes regularly about improv and contemplation on his TED WORDS blog (www.tedwordsblog.com).

Cort photoCort Worthington is a full-time lecturer in leadership at the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business.  His current research focuses on improvisation and human development.  Trained to improvise at BATS in San Francisco, Cort has spent the past 15 years exploring the connections between improvisation, leadership, and personal growth. Founder or co-founder of numerous businesses, his first experience with improvisation was leading elite crews fighting wilderness forest fires as a parachuting U.S. Forest Service Smokejumper.  Cort holds an MA in Communication from Stanford, and MBA degrees from Columbia and UC Berkeley.

Patrica Ryan for Improv and Spirituality workshop

Founder of the Stanford Improvisors (SIMPS) and author of the artfully sage Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Upspecial guest instructor Patricia Ryan Madson has followed a life path that has led her to landscapes, art forms, and deeper inquiries of all sorts. She has mentored multiple generations of compassionate players, many of whom continue to spread the good news of improv in her familiar, generous style. She has graciously agreed to join us for an evening’s session to share some of her insights and to help us generate our own.

Cost

$750 per person. Includes all program fees, three nights lodging, and three meals per day. Full payment due upon acceptance. Payment refundable (minus $25 processing charge) if the workshop is full and you or we are able to find a replacement.  $50 discount for any referrals.

Application/Contact Us

To ensure an ideal balance and diversity in our circle, we ask anyone interested in registering for this retreat to respond to a few reflective questions first. To receive an application, or if you have any questions about the workshop, please contact either facilitator. We’d be delighted to talk with you!

Ted DesMaisons: teddyd@stanfordalumni.org

Cort Worthington: cort@stanfordalumni.org

If you would like to save or print a copy of this workshop information in PDF form, please click here:

 Improvisation and Spirituality Flyer

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Cruising Toward Community http://animalearning.com/2013/01/26/cruising-toward-community/ http://animalearning.com/2013/01/26/cruising-toward-community/#comments Sat, 26 Jan 2013 22:47:33 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1526 I wouldn’t normally consider myself a cruise ship vacation kind of guy. Overabundant opulence with a dash of seasickness tossed in? A confined setting where entertainment options run from smoky casino to overpriced spa? Descending upon destination harbors with hordes of other pasty-faced travelers to be met by pushy vendors selling questionably authentic goo-gaws? Toss [more…]

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The Norwegian Pearl: not a place you'd normally guess you could find me.

The Norwegian Pearl: not a place you’d normally guess you could find me.

I wouldn’t normally consider myself a cruise ship vacation kind of guy. Overabundant opulence with a dash of seasickness tossed in? A confined setting where entertainment options run from smoky casino to overpriced spa? Descending upon destination harbors with hordes of other pasty-faced travelers to be met by pushy vendors selling questionably authentic goo-gaws? Toss me overboard. Given all that, why did I leave the Norwegian Pearl this last week wishing I could squeeze a few more days in? Call it the Cayamo Community.

For starters, Cayamo combines a standard cruise itinerary with the big bonus of a full-fledged summer music festival. Headliners like Brandi Carlile, Lyle Lovett, Keb Mo’, and Richard Thompson join mid-level folks like Shawn Mullins, Joan Osborne and Edwin McCain on board. Rising jewels like Teddy Thompson, Liz Longley, and Delta Rae come along for the ride too. Six indoor and outdoor venues crackle with talent and passion throughout the day and into the early morning. With 40 bands and more than 90 musicians, every day gets packed with more great music than a mere mortal could possibly take in.[1] If you dig folk-rock or alternative country, you’ll dig this boat.

Pool Deck concerts on the Pearl.

Pool Deck concerts on the Pearl.

Great music alone won’t weave a sense of community, though. Cayamo relies on a number of other factors to generate that feeling:

Abundance. Yes, you’re stuck on a big boat with loads of other folks, but you’re also “stuck with” the ample sunshine and mid-winter warmth of the Caribbean. Vibrant Miami to the historic seaside promenades of San Juan, Puerto Rico and then on to the crystal-blue beaches of Antigua and Tortola: it could be worse. A concerned citizen could also rightly question the decadence of 24/7 buffet lines with foods from all over the world—and of paying handsomely for them. At the same time, that citizen could not deny that access to such deliciousness puts travelers in a more relaxed state of mind. It is a vacation, after all.

Freedom from responsibility. Life gets a lot easier when you don’t have to worry about cooking, cleaning, or housekeeping. From galley to bridge, the Norwegian Cruise Lines staff proved remarkably courteous, cheerful, and proficient. Everyone seemed sincerely interested in making the trip both comfortable and easy and they clearly understood the value of taking a break from life’s regular demands.

Isolation from isolating technologies. This may not hold true even two or three years from now, but, for the moment, the ship still offers a haven from the houndings of the digital world. Cell phone coverage and internet connection, while available, remain prohibitively expensive. TV selection stays thin. Without the distractions of texting, e-mail, and social networking, folks turn their attention to each other and to the musical wonders in front of them. They settle into the now.

Sixthman works behind the scenes so Cayamo crowds get to enjoy great music.

Sixthman works behind the scenes so Cayamo crowds get to enjoy great music.

Good cheer. The trip’s promoters, a merry and motley crew called Sixthman, do a good job creating a welcoming, playful atmosphere. They respond flexibly to good suggestions and they give generously to make sure that passengers have a great time. The Sixthman folks work hard, often into the wee hours, and they have as much fun as anyone else.

An invested crowd. Unlike most cruises or winter break junkets, Cayamo cruisers don’t take the trip just to laze around or booze it up. With a shared sense of purpose and joy, there’s little need for the idiocy and obnoxiousness of overt, intentional drunkenness.[2] Folks come for the music. That makes a strong sense of connection.

Collaboration. The musicians on Cayamo revel in the opportunity to play with other musicians. Everyone stays on the boat so they get time to dream up original arrangements and to rehearse them. And every night brings some new combination of artists. Shawn Mullins’ lead guitarist delivered an incandescent exchange with Taylor Goldsmith, the lead singer of Dawes. Goldsmith in turn showed up to help power a driving Delta Rae version of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” Keb Mo’ sang a touching duet with Joan Osborne. Brandi Carlile raced from her closing set to sneak into the end of a multi-artist concert tribute to Levon Helm of The Band. The multiple permutations create a kind of magic—the audience never knows who’s going to use that extra microphone or step behind that added drum set but it knows someone will.

Keb Mo' teaming up with Joan Osborne for a memorable duet.

Keb Mo’ teaming up with Joan Osborne for a memorable duet.

Stewardship. The artists recognize they’ve got it good and want to pass their fortune along. On this trip, well-seasoned vets like Lyle Lovett and Buddy Miller graciously ceded stage time to lesser-known newcomers or long-time band members. Chart-toppers like Edwin McCain (he of “I’ll Be” [link to McCain song]) spoke of someone else having given them a shot and feeling a drive to return the favor. Brandi Carlile pulled an understandably wide-eyed 17-year old girl on stage in the middle of a concert to give her a brand new electric guitar. Such visible generosity inspires a similar sense of responsibility among audience and crew members alike. People want to take care of the trip’s preciousness.[3]

Brandi Carlile takes a supporting role to help the Hanseroth twins out.

Brandi Carlile takes a supporting role to help the Hanseroth twins out in their breakout show.

Serendipity. Again, because the whole trip happens with everyone tucked in so tightly, you never know who you’ll run into or what magic moment will appear out of nowhere. One late night, just after I had prepared myself for bed, I called down to the front desk to make last-minute arrangements for the next day. I got frustrated when they insisted that I had to come to the service desk to make my request in person, but reluctantly got myself appropriate and trudged my way down a few floors and back to the middle of the boat. On my return trip to our room, I heard a beautiful voice singing a Patty Griffin song to simple piano accompaniment and when I turned the corner saw Brandi Carlile performing for about a dozen slack-jawed folks. I joined them and got to enjoy a half-hour’s worth of acoustic sing-along requests. So much for my frustration. I heard similar stories from other nights when I had gone to bed early.

So Ian and I got to talking...

So Ian and I got to talking…

Mingling with the talent. Cayamo breaks down the standard consumer mindset of fandom and allows for a much more relational interaction. You run into artists on the elevators or in the buffet lines. You sit next to them on the beach or at another artist’s show in the main theater. And it’s all cool. As we stood in the waves waiting for a tender boat back to our day-trip shuttle, I chatted with Ian Hölljes, a lead singer of Delta Rae, about his experience of the band’s budding fame. Walking out from lunch on the last full day, I ran into the drummer and bassist from Dawes and got to share my admiration for their songwriting and musical originality. I shared a lovely conversation with Joanne Hanserroth, mother of Phil and Tim, the über-cool identical twins who back Brandi Carlile, before their outdoor showcase set. (Apparently, I bear a striking resemblance to the twins’ older brother, an impression they laughingly confirmed when my sister, Melissa, and I got a photo with them after the show.) Such connections dissolve the usual hierarchies of stardom. The literal truth becomes figurative as well: we were all on the same boat, all fans of great music.

The Hanseroth twins share the Cayamo joy.

The Hanseroth twins share the Cayamo joy.

Appreciation for the music. In the end, Cayamo comes back to the music. All those other factors—the abundance and withdrawal of vacation, the collaboration and stewardship of gifted artists, the investment of other cruisers and the serendipity of precious moments—lets the music reach even deeper. One mid-trip morning as we both got teary recalling Dawes’ poignant lyrics to “A Little Bit Of Everything”, my partner Melissa put it well:

Every day on this trip, I’m getting more and more of a sense how music is such a gift. It’s a gift for the musicians who write and play because they get to make sense of the complexities in their own lives in ways that simple words just can’t do. And it’s a gift for us that they bring us along for the ride, that we get to witness their vulnerability—and that they help us face our own.

Melissa and I shared that experience and I’m confident that most of the more than 2300 other passengers were feeling similarly. There’s a tenderness, a joy, and an intimacy that comes from creating that kind of open-hearted time together. Life gets fuller and more vibrant.

The fading light of the cruise's last show makes for a bittersweet beauty. Such a taste of community leaves me wanting more.

The fading light of the cruise’s last show (in this case, Devil Makes Three) creates a bittersweet beauty. Such a taste of community leaves me wanting more.

It’s true that a cruise ship wouldn’t usually make the top of my list for an ideal vacation. But Cayamo’s no ordinary cruise ship. Mix golden sunshine and Caribbean blue with all these other components and you get more than a vacation—you get a healthy community. It’s no wonder that people return to Cayamo year after year (my folks have gone on all six sailings!). It’s no wonder too that I’m drawn to similar settings for my work. Summer camp, off-site professional retreats, boarding school: each offers the chance for immersive growth experiences. When we put down our distractions and turn toward each other in common purpose—and do so kindly and generously—we cruise to greater creativity. We build a better moment and eventually a better world.


[1] Not surprisingly, this kind of cornucopia has the capacity to leave you feeling more exhausted than eager. Most Cayamo cruisers need a few days to learn how to calibrate drinking from the fire hose.

[2] This point came into sharper focus when we took a shore excursion boat trip to the island of Jost Van Dyke in Tortola. The smaller boat operators were of the booze-it-up variety and their eager entreaties got as much lift as a lead balloon. On our return home, one young staff member shouted out Why are you all so quiet? I will not tolerate soberness. This is what life’s all about: getting wasted!!! Maybe our average age of 50 years allowed us to see it more clearly, but, my dear, there is actually more to life than that…

[3] Edwin McCain demonstrated a special nobility in this regard. Not only did he bring younger musicians up to sing with him, but he also reached out to the NCL staff. Apparently, he’s super-big in the Phillipines, home to a large percentage of the crew. Rather than take his own well-deserved day off in Antigua, he stayed behind to perform a special show just for the crew—many of whom apparently trembled and shrieked at the delight of such close interaction.

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A Curious Resolution http://animalearning.com/2013/01/07/a-curious-resolution/ Tue, 08 Jan 2013 04:47:20 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1495 Historically, I’ve considered curiosity among the list of core virtues. I’m drawn to those who demonstrate the quality; I aim to cultivate it in myself. When we wonder—or wander—about the world with open, welcoming eyes, we see differently. Life gains a vitality, a playfulness, a sense of possibility. Curiosity leads us to learn, to grow, [more…]

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Curiosity: A great name for a Mars rover that sends back new information.

Curiosity: A great name for a Mars rover that sends back new information.

Historically, I’ve considered curiosity among the list of core virtues. I’m drawn to those who demonstrate the quality; I aim to cultivate it in myself. When we wonder—or wander—about the world with open, welcoming eyes, we see differently. Life gains a vitality, a playfulness, a sense of possibility. Curiosity leads us to learn, to grow, and to improve. All good, all good. Or, at least, so I had thought before this week.

A few days ago, I read a collection of New Year’s Resolution lists written by a small range of celebrities. Woody Guthrie’s 1942 list covered a bunch of bases, ranging from the mundanely hygienic (“Take bath” and “Wash teeth if any”) and the intellectually stimulating (“Read lots good books”) to the family-supportive (“Love Mama. Love Papa. Love Pete.”) and politically-charged (“Help win war—beat fascism,” and “Wake up and fight”). Marilyn Monroe’s 1959 list ached for a desire to lift herself out of self-limitation, ending with “try to enjoy myself when I can—I’ll be miserable enough as it is.” All proved fascinating, offering unusual glimpses inside.

Like Scooby-Doo, I was a bit confused. .....Image courtesy of Scooby Doo Facebook fan page.

Like Scooby-Doo here, I was a bit confused when I read Sontag’s resolution.
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Image courtesy of Scooby Doo Facebook fan page.

Of all the interesting snippets, however, one from author Susan Sontag’s 1972 list stood out in particular: I will try to confine my reading in the evening. (I read too much—as an escape from writing.) My head tipped in a Scooby-Doo confusion. Aroo?!? Read ress!?! Reading is one of the most powerful expressions of curiosity, a direct avenue into new worlds and opening minds. What the heck was she thinking?

I have always loved to read. I started at the age of three—right around the time Sontag was making her resolution actually—by going through the sports pages with my older brother and rarely looked back from devouring more. World Book encyclopedias. Time-Life compendia covering the Great Wars, American westward expansion, or the scientific wonders of the world’s oceans. The collection of Newsweeks and National Geographics shelved in the basement of my Mom’s office building, colorful documentaries that stretched back through years of wonder. I wanted to take it all in, to know everything.

Stack of Library Books on Piano

Stacks of books opened worlds of wonder.
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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Such voraciousness served me well as a child and as a young man. I always enjoyed school, never seeing it as a burden but instead welcoming it as an invitation. I suspect it’s part of why I love teaching now. Especially at a private, independent school, our community thirsts for development. Learning defines our success. Curiosity drives our engines. The more I learn, the more I bring to the classroom. I can see it in my students’ eyes that my teaching comes alive.

Now that I’m trying to write more regularly, however, I’m also aware that, like Sontag, I’d do well to turn down—and even turn off—the incoming spigot from time to time. The pace of my posting here has dwindled over the last two months and that has frustrated me. I could lean on several excuses if I wanted to: I returned home after several months away and needed to catch up on unattended matters; the holiday season brought its usual whirlwind of shopping and family travels; and Melissa and I took in a three-legged foster dog—and have come to find that he unexpectedly has not been previously housetrained. Sure, these factors have contributed to my lag in production, but they’re not the main culprit. More directly, it’s the never-ending stream of seeking—a caffeinated curiosity looking for the next thrill—that serves as procrastination.

Wouldn't you have a hard time focusing with this face asking to go outside again?

Wouldn’t you have a hard time focusing with this face asking to go outside again?

Though I don’t often get the chance to just sit and read in a leisurely way any more, I do still read tons. As in my childhood, Newsweek, National Geographic, and sports magazines keep me up-to-date. Alumni magazines, updates from non-profits we support, missives from the many networks we’ve joined: every day brings more compelling material to my mailbox, both physical and electronic. Most powerfully, of course, I wander into the never-ending kaleidoscope of the internet. I just need to check the news or I just want to see the scores, I say, before getting sucked in for hours. Humorous lists. Celebrity hijinks. Consumer comparisons. Add in videos of sports highlights and adorable kittens and it ain’t pretty. In fact, it’s a wonder I can get off the computer at all. For sure, the curiosity virtue crosses into a distraction vice.

Even as it’s happening and the more responsible parts of me suggest getting back on target, a bit of self-righteous defensiveness raises up: It’s not a bad thing to learn about the world. How could that be wrong? Just five more minutes.” It’s those last four words that expose the ruse, however. Just five more minutes becomes another five minutes no top of that. The seeking function, truly a virtue in many settings, takes on an addictive quality that steamrolls over other priorities. Each little exploration—justifiable in isolation, perhaps—adds to the next and hours slip away. I’ve avoided the challenge of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. When I feel frustrated for not having written more, I often turn back for more distraction. The cycle snowballs: the more exasperated I get, the harder it becomes to actually start.[1]

Even the path of curiosity can become a rut that leads nowhere. .....Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Even the path of curiosity can become a rut that leads nowhere.
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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I know others struggle with procrastination as well. For many, such stalling takes another form than reading or curious exploration. Some clean. Others sort. Still others exercise. Whatever the diversion, I’m not alone in turning a virtuous path into a rut. Perhaps it’s just that resolve is weak and temptation strong, but I sense something more at work. I think we resist the deeper calling because it scares us to get real and get big. We’re more powerful and we’re more vulnerable when we’re taking the risk of our real work—and we somehow manage to fear both sides of the same coin. Marianne Williamson’s prayer from A Return to Love often comes to mind when I get to such internal struggles. I’d do well to post it at home as I post it in my classroom:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.[2]

I recognize that mastering the discipline of writing will help bring my best to the world. And I also see that runaway reading and seeking gets in the way of such mastery. That said, I have no intention of shutting down my curiosity as whole. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.

WIthout focus, the flow of information can get a bit overwhelming.

Well-harnessed, the flow offers astounding power.

My work now, perhaps, lies in training it, harnessing it, and honing a focus that moves in alignment with larger, deeper goals. To a great extent, that’s been the work—and the joy—of this sabbatical so far, turning the lens of my seeking onto the ideas and topics that most interest me rather than on those that just happen to cross my doorstep or desktop. Each day of this year gives me another chance to choose and strengthen that focus. And every time I turn the spigot off, even just for a bit, I reaffirm my commitment to that something deeper.

Curiosity still shines brightly as a virtue in my world. Thanks to Susan Sontag’s list, I’m now more aware of the shadow it throws as well. I look forward to the added relief and depth of this new resolution.


[1] I recognize, too, the delicate challenge of writing a blog, in particular. In order to post any thoughts, I need to get on my computer. Even if I turn my wireless signal off while actually writing—no e-mail, no internet—I still have to connect before actually posting. That’s like asking an alcoholic courier to make a delivery in the backroom of a saloon. Oh, just pass right on through to drop it off. You’ll be fine.” Even if I make it safely in one direction, the return trip back out from WordPress can trip the cycle again. I’ve never done drugs or gotten into alcohol and I don’t eat sugar, but I’d say I still inherited my grandfather’s addictive brain chemistry.

[2] This quotation often gets misattributed to Nelson Mandela’s first inaugural address. Not only did he not write it, he didn’t even cite it during that speech. It does seem like it would fit though. The actual source is Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles in A Course in Miracles, Harper Collins, 1992. From Chapter 7, Section 3 (Pg. 190-191).

 

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A Positive-Minded Primer on Punishment and Reinforcement–with a Buddhist Twist (Part 2 of 2) http://animalearning.com/2012/12/14/a-positive-minded-primer-on-punishment-and-reinforcement-with-a-buddhist-twist-part-2-of-2/ http://animalearning.com/2012/12/14/a-positive-minded-primer-on-punishment-and-reinforcement-with-a-buddhist-twist-part-2-of-2/#comments Sat, 15 Dec 2012 04:59:32 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1446 [This is the second half of a two-part post. Part 1 can be found here.] Negative Reinforcement (R-) makes a wanted behavior more likely by taking away or reducing something the learner does not enjoy. It “eliminates an aversive,” as they say in the field. In this sense, it’s a kind of relief from unpleasantness. [more…]

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[This is the second half of a two-part post. Part 1 can be found here.]

Negative ReinforcementNegative Reinforcement (R-) makes a wanted behavior more likely by taking away or reducing something the learner does not enjoy. It “eliminates an aversive,” as they say in the field. In this sense, it’s a kind of relief from unpleasantness. Negative reinforcement would work well on me if I were in a super-loud bar, for example. You could get me to do a whole bunch of things I might struggle to do otherwise if you supported my behavior by turning the noise down, down, down. Another example: a horseman trying to get his animal to turn will apply pressure with the reins. When the horse turns toward the reins and the pressure stops, that’s negative reinforcement at work.[1]

When a horse turns in a desired direction and the pressure on the reins loosens, that's negative reinforcement. Of course, some horses keep going in circles no matter the feedback......Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.com

When a horse turns in a desired direction and the pressure on the reins loosens, that’s negative reinforcement. Of course, some horses keep going in circles no matter the feedback.
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Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.com

The mistake-prone softballer will experience negative reinforcement when she makes the play correctly and hears her coach stop nagging.[2] The kid who tends to stay out late might find chores reduced when he comes home on time. At the messy one’s first gesture towards cleaning the kitchen, the cleaner partner might quietly do the kindness of relieving some other burden: taking the dog out for a walk or offering a ride to work the next morning. In each case, the movement toward the desired behavior elicits a reduction or elimination of something unpleasant.

Positive ReinforcmentPositive Reinforcement (R+) accelerates or increases a behavior by adding something desirable. Raises, honor rolls, bonuses, and the like usually strive to serve as positive reinforcement. Though they may unwittingly undermine their own cause, many parents and teachers intend praise the same way.  In TAGteaching, the “click” that says Yes, that’s it! becomes a reinforcer. As with the three other forms of operant conditioning, the positive reinforcement most tailored to the specific learner will be most effective. Chocolate and candy will work wonders for some folks. They won’t do a thing for me—I don’t eat sugar.

In the case of our softball example, a coach might note a properly-made play as the team returns to the bench after a defensive inning. Probably the more powerful reinforcer will be to increase the athlete’s playing time. When the wayward teen comes home on time, maybe he finds a gift certificate on his pillow for his favorite pizza place. Or maybe he gets a sincere smile and warm welcome from his folks. The moment the messier partner does clean up—or even begins to do so—would be a good time to play a favorite song or walk through the kitchen wearing a preferred perfume or cologne. In many homes, a simple Thank you is enough.

A Positive Reinforcement Spectrum

The principles of operant conditioning suggest that behavior can be shaped using any of the four quadrants. That said, those of us in the positive reinforcement community—TAGteachers, clicker trainers, members of the Positive Coaching Alliance, and the like—train from the premise that positive reinforcement works best. It’s not a cure-all and it takes hard work: an effective teacher must get crystal sharp about which behaviors she wants to shape and which steps will best help her learner get there. When executed skillfully, however, positive reinforcement draws out the fastest, deepest, most durable and most joyful kinds of learning. Humans and non-humans alike: they keep coming back for more. The progress becomes a reinforcer all its own.

If we take the four quadrants from the operant conditioning 2 x 2 matrix and lay them out from least desirable to most desirable, we generate the following spectrum:

Positive Reinforcment Spectrum for Blog jpg

A spectrum of operant conditioning options–pointing towards positive reinforcement.

As I make choices about working to shape behavior in my classroom and at home—or about shaping my own progress—I try to keep this spectrum in mind. When I instinctively generate an internal response that seems or feels to me like punishment, I challenge myself by asking How can I at least move my reactions toward positive reinforcement? Maybe I’ll only slide one box over in the heat of a moment, but it makes a difference. In other moments, I realize I can do my best to stay neutral and buy time to make a wiser choice. Over time, my instincts have followed my intention. More and more often, my mind generates ways to reinforce the behavior I want rather than railing against what I don’t. I find my students have become more joyful as a result. I know I have.

The Buddhist Twist

The Buddha has something to say too......Image courtesy of http://sathyasaibaba.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/buddha-wallpapers-photos-pictures-h2o-lily.jpg

The Buddha has something to say too.
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Image courtesy of http://sathyasaibaba.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/buddha-wallpapers-photos-pictures-h2o-lily.jpg

Among his many sage lessons, the Buddha taught that “Right Intention” consisted of two elements, seeking the abiding peace of enlightenment and ending suffering for all beings. In other words, build well-being and reduce affliction. For those still struggling to grasp the four quadrants of operant conditioning, we can overlay the Buddha’s words and gain even more clarity. Does the box deal with well-being or suffering? Are we talking about adding or reducing?

Teasing out the answers generates a new Buddha-influenced operant conditioning 2 x 2 matrix that looks like this:

Positive Reinforcement Matrix Buddhist style for blog jpg

When we pull these four boxes into a second spectrum, one can see that the Buddha would agree that we do best to lean toward the right pole. Reinforcement achieves the twin goals of Right Intention. Punishment goes against them.

Positive Reinforcement Spectrum Buddhist style for blog jpg

Which operant conditioning methods would the Buddha use?

I don’t mean to sound flippant or reductive about one of the world’s great religious traditions. The Buddha didn’t clicker train his disciples. Still, I find the language of suffering and well-being helps me ‘get’ the four options of operant conditioning in a much clearer way. I’ll bring more Buddhist principles into the blog when I write my next posts about a similar—but also surprisingly different—feedback matrix and spectrum. More to come…


[1] Note the application of a mild aversive here. In that moment, one could argue that the horse receives some ‘positive punishment’—the pull on the reins—for continuing to trot straight forward. The negative reinforcement comes when the pressure lets up. What’s key is that the let-up happens when the horse makes a choice. That will be a predictable consequence for the behavior of turning into the pull. In contrast, the ‘punishment’ of the pressure to turn doesn’t get applied in any consistent or recognizable pattern.

[2] It kills me how many coaches will continue their nagging even after the athlete has succeeded. As if the original, unhelpful hector weren’t bad enough, now we add in something like “Finally! Now why couldn’t you have done that before?!?” Let it go, Coach. Let it go.

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A Positive-Minded Primer on Punishment and Reinforcement–with a Buddhist Twist (Part 1 of 2) http://animalearning.com/2012/12/14/a-positive-minded-primer-on-punishment-and-reinforcement-with-a-buddhist-twist-part-1-of-2/ http://animalearning.com/2012/12/14/a-positive-minded-primer-on-punishment-and-reinforcement-with-a-buddhist-twist-part-1-of-2/#comments Sat, 15 Dec 2012 04:58:15 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1437 People often misunderstand positive reinforcement because those of us who espouse and employ the technique can get sloppy with our definitions. As we’ve discussed before, for example, the “positive” in positive reinforcement need not mean ‘happy,’ ‘kind,’ or ‘joyful.’ It simply means “added in,” as in the reinforcer added in to make a behavior more [more…]

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Please oh pleasePeople often misunderstand positive reinforcement because those of us who espouse and employ the technique can get sloppy with our definitions. As we’ve discussed before, for example, the “positive” in positive reinforcement need not mean ‘happy,’ ‘kind,’ or ‘joyful.’ It simply means “added in,” as in the reinforcer added in to make a behavior more likely to occur in the future. Sometimes, we get loose with positive reinforcement talk because we want to avoid sounding too technical or jargony—as some would say I just did in the previous sentence. If we want the world to operate on positive reinforcement principles, wouldn’t it be helpful to have a clear, concise, layman’s-language way to explain what the heck we’re talking about? I say yes, and that’s why I put together a few visual aids—a matrix, a spectrum, and a Buddhist-flavored frame—to help keep things clear. Feel free to use for yourself and share with others if you think these tools might help at all.

The Operant Conditioning Matrix

Positive reinforcement springs from the study of operant conditioning. Based on the often polarizing work of Harvard professor B.F. Skinner, the field of behavioral psychology suggests we operate on our environments—in other words, we act and interact—and that our choices then have consequences—both for ourselves and for others. Any results that select, strengthen, or maintain the original behavior serve as reinforcers. Any outcomes that cause us to avoid, weaken, or eliminate that specific behavior serve as punishers. Neutral consequences that have no effect on the likelihood of the original behavior appearing again—not reinforcers. Operant conditioning, then, uses a variety of stimuli—shaping, schedules, and reinforcements—to encourage or discourage certain behaviors.

Often, you’ll see the options for operant conditioning explained with a 2 x 2 matrix similar to the one pictured below. The top ‘shelf’ shows the two kinds of reinforcement that increase the frequency of a desired behavior, the bottom ‘shelf’ names the two types of punishment that decrease the frequency of an undesired behavior. The left column includes the two “positive” conditioners—those where the consequence meant something added in to the learner’s environmentwhile the column on the right contains the two “negative” conditioners—those where the consequence took something away from the learner’s environment. Feel free to take a moment to really “get” this. I still find staring at the four blocks helpful.

Positive Reinforcement Matrix for blog jpg

The success of any of these conditioning techniques relies directly on the skillfulness of the trainer employing them. The feedback has to be timed well: reinforcement happens best exactly as the behavior is happening. The consequence needs clarity, not getting linked with other conflicting or conflating messages. Frequency matters as well—too often can become meaningless, too rare can create apathy or confusion. In all cases, the consequence must have relevance for the learner. If he or she doesn’t care, the reinforcement or the punishment won’t hold.

Let’s run through each of the four quadrants with examples. I’ll mention responses a ‘trainer’ (i.e., a coach, parent, or significant other) could use in three different troublesome situations: an athlete making a repeated error in practice, like an errant softball throw; a teenager staying out past curfew; and a partner continuing to leave a kitchen messy.[1] None of my examples will be perfect, and I imagine you’ll have responses of your own spring to mind. Noting your own suggestions will help the ideas grab hold.

Positive PunishmentPositive Punishment (P+) adds something unpleasant to the learner’s environment. Most of us have an intuitive sense what we mean by the word “punishment.” Harsh words or a slap to the face would qualify, but the pain need not be so obvious. A disapproving look a roll of the eyes, or even the threat of future punishment can serve the same function: they decrease the likelihood of an undesired behavior. Major or minor, they inflict some kind of pain.

"I'll get you, my pretty...and your little dog too!!!".....The threat of future punishment can act as a punishment of its own. In this case, the Wicked Witch of the West wants to *decrease* the likelihood that Dorothy will continue her trouble-making incursions. I'm not sure the witch worked so closely with Skinner, though.

“I’ll get you, my pretty…and your little dog too!!!”
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The threat of future punishment can act as a punishment of its own. In this case, the Wicked Witch of the West wants to *decrease* the likelihood that Dorothy will continue her trouble-making incursions. I’m not so sure the witch worked closely with Skinner, however.

In the case of the softball player making the errant throw, the coach might throw her clipboard to the ground in disgust or add extra wind sprints—both would qualify as positive punishment though the second would likely have little effect for its significant time lag. Screaming at the kid would as well. For the teenager out too late carousing, a parent could add extra chores or otherwise make life miserable. A partner finding dirty dishes in the sink could throw the dishes against the wall, put them on the offending partner’s desk, curse and yell, and so on.

Negative PunishmentNegative Punishment (P-) takes away or reduces something the learner enjoys or wants. It’s a kind of penalty, as in football where an offending team has to give up yardage or in hockey where a player who gets his stick too high in the air has to sit off-ice for a few minutes. Some imagine that negative punishment hurts less than positive, but it can pack just as much of a wallop. Yes, physical abuse, a positive punishment, is awful. But an active withdrawal of love or an abandonment, both negative punishments, can be cruel as well. Negative punishment doesn’t have to be harsh, but it can be.

Applying this method to our ongoing examples, a coach might pull her softball player making the error from the lineup, either right away or for the next.[2] The teenager continually coming home late might get grounded (taking away freedom of movement), lose cell phone privileges (reducing connection with friends), or have to box up the video game (loss of entertainment). The cleaner housemate might stop smiling around the ‘offender’ as long as the kitchen stays dirty or perhaps might cease cooking dinner for the other.

Note that a consequence can have elements of both positive and negative punishment, in this ‘adding in’ and ‘taking away’ sense. A speeding ticket adds points to an offender’s driving record and takes away money from his bank account. A prison sentence takes  away freedom and access to loved ones (negative punishment) and adds unpleasant living conditions and a social stigma (positive punishment). In such cases, the two types operate in tandem.

Note also that much of our society turns to punishment, both positive and negative, almost as a default. Partly it’s because we’ve been told that it works—even where it doesn’t—and we experienced it as kids (so it must work, right?). Maybe just as much, it’s because it seems to satisfy the trainer on some emotional level. Often, we think of and enact punishment as retribution, like it’s an agent of moral righteousness. The miscreant got what they deserved, we think. Now they’ll know. Of course, none of that motivation or emotional involvement as a trainer measures whether the punishment gets the learner any closer to the behavior we do want.

[Part 2 of this post can be found here.]


[1] One could ask whether these situations actually qualify as ‘problems’ or if they’re merely inconveniences for an outsider wanting to change someone else. That’s a fair question. When applying these techniques, it most certainly makes sense to check if we’re trying to encourage a behavior because it gives us a feeling of control and makes our lives more convenient or because it’s truly in the learner’s best interest—from their point of view. Our choices will often contain both motivations, of course, but it’s best to keep them distinct and to at least admit our own less-than-savory reasons for doing what we do. Hopefully, that keeps our eye on the ball of what matters most: the learner’s development.

[2] This is one of toughest dilemmas I face as a coach, particularly in softball, where we get limited flexibility with substitutions. If a player continues to make mistakes defensively, I may need to get her out of the game for the team’s sake, but I don’t want it to come across as a punishment. This is where all the relational and growth mindset ground work we do before such charged moments comes into play.

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4 Reasons We Avoid Our Inner Knowing–and 7 Things We Can Do About It http://animalearning.com/2012/12/12/4-reasons-we-avoid-our-inner-knowing-and-7-things-we-can-do-about-it/ http://animalearning.com/2012/12/12/4-reasons-we-avoid-our-inner-knowing-and-7-things-we-can-do-about-it/#comments Thu, 13 Dec 2012 02:18:56 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1405 In you are natural powers. You already possess everything necessary to become great.                                                                                     –Chief Crow The above quotation hangs over the sink in our kitchen, a quiet touchstone for a truth so easily forgotten. It’s a message I want to pass along to every young person (and adult) I work with. It’s also a [more…]

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In you are natural powers. You already possess everything necessary to become great.

                                                                                    –Chief Crow

"Homeward Bound" by E. Martin Hennings.....Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Museum of Art

“Homeward Bound” by E. Martin Hennings
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Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Museum of Art

The above quotation hangs over the sink in our kitchen, a quiet touchstone for a truth so easily forgotten. It’s a message I want to pass along to every young person (and adult) I work with. It’s also a reminder I often need myself.

So much of what we do—at the school where I work and in our culture at large—leads us away from the wisdom we carry within. We tell our kids and each other that we have to learn more before anyone will take us seriously. Experts have the answers. We think others and outside events control the way we feel.  We work to tap meaning from the dried-out shells of a culture that has been co-opted by corporations. Rarely do we notice—yet alone resist—such notions. We buy the superficial slop we’re being sold and turn right around and sell it to others. We fall for the lies. We move even further from our inner guidance.

When I noticed Chief Crow’s words again this week, a few questions called out:

  • Why don’t we turn to our inner wisdom more often?
  • If we were to make an active connection more often, what might our lives look like?
  • Assuming that it would be a good thing, how can we transition from Point A—from the surface-oriented society we are now—to Point B, the deeper, inner-guided community we want to be?

I’ll take them on one at time….

Why don’t we turn to our inner wisdom more often?

1. So many forces lead us away from looking inside, from making space for internal guidance. For one, we’re unexperienced and uneasy with listening for it. When things get too quiet—or to make sure they don’t—our society serves up stimulation around every corner. The extroverts among us think the introverts shy, hesitant, or otherwise odd. Taking time alone seems anti-social. We’re also told that our inner leanings aren’t trustworthy. Intuition floats to us on a woo-woo cloud, they say. We’d do better to follow the sound surgical logic that comes from external reasoning. In addition, most of us lack role models to show us how to turn inward. When friends, colleagues, and everyone around us seems to live their lives on the surface, how can we know what’s possible? Maybe we get an inkling or feel a longing—an impulse flares—but we have no idea how to follow it up. In that vacuum, the flicker fades.

2. Most of us also spend our time in the overlapping trances of consumption, technology, and obligation. We try to stay conscious but get pulled into the vortex of celebrity gossip, sports results, and media-made controversy. We spin ever faster to keep up with the latest news, the trending Twitter feeds, and the crazy cats and epic fails of YouTube. Our work schedules compound with our “entertainment” demands and available time shrinks to nothing. Those with children struggle to even remember what a free moment feels like. We intend to trim the distractions away, but we rarely do.

Oooh, shiny things! Must….have….now!
…..
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

To some extent, such addiction has developed by design. Advertisers leverage our genetic history and neuroscientific coding to draw our attention outward. We turn to shiny things almost automatically—is that a threat on the landscape? is this a potential partner? what beauty!—and reinforce the short-term rush of sugar, shopping, and caffeine. We long for real intimacy but get seduced by the siren song of sexual titillation. If only we could be slimmer, stronger, more striking. If only, we lament, and the outward pull continues.

3. Even those of us with the intention of turning inward often lack the community to support doing so. We talk with colleagues about the affairs of the day rather than finding friends who follow the tracks of our hearts. Our conversations become snippier and snarkier, more focused on the clever quip than the patient insight. We rarely notice how our friendships drift toward correction, skepticism, and advice-giving—none of which helps welcome the hesitant soul out of its hidden thicket.

4. More than anything, I contend that we avoid our inner landscape because we’re afraid of what we’ll find. If I stop to breathe and to notice what’s really going on inside, I may see that, even with a generous circle of friends and a lovely life partner, I still feel lonely. I may notice deep sadness for a past relationship or for my own lost potential. Maybe I fear for the future of the planet in the face of ecological and political threats. Or maybe I’m angry with myself for having denied my truest desires or with the world for continuing violence and injustice. An honest look below the surface can bring unsavory qualities or tendencies to light—maybe I’m not the man I hoped I was. Maybe I’m an impostor. And while new insights from turning the searchlight inward can prove helpful, they can also make demands of their own. The genie won’t go back in the bottle. He’ll make us take responsibility for our wishes.

If we were to make an active connection with our inner world more often, what might our daily lives look like?

To start, we would have more open space in our schedules. A relationship with the inner world needs space for wandering and wondering. That’s true in a literal sense, physically getting ourselves outside to move about, and it’s true in a metaphorical sense as well. We need free time. We need enough quiet to hear our intuitive guidance.

In addition, we would nurture and support paths that bring inner wisdom out into the world. We’d teach kids (and adults) the many paths of contemplation, our classes would include the subjective perspective that asks “What stirs in me in response to this subject matter?,” and we’d reinforce the value of silence. We’d encourage creative expression in any format—painting, drawing, ceramics, dance, music, theater—that calls forward native intelligence. Coaches for sports and other athletic endeavors would offer instruction in mental alignment and conscious breathwork, much as happens in the multiple branches of yoga.

One can find many paths inward on the tree of contemplative practices.

One can find many paths inward on the tree of contemplative practices.
…..
Image courtesy of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

We would set healthy boundaries with (and sometimes against) the many forces that pull us away from that inner groundedness. How many advertisements do we consume? How much time do we interact with screens? When and where will we answer our cell phones or respond to text messages? The ideal need not require cold turkey withdrawal, but it most certainly demands conscious choice-making rather than a hazy drift into addictive entertainment or outer-world stimulation. We need to be in conversation with these demons, perhaps inviting them for a cup of tea–but without letting them take over the house.

We would seek and build genuine circles of community. Like the Circles of Trust workshops offered by the Center for Courage and Renewal, we’d seek ‘communities of solitude’ where each member recognizes the inherent wisdom of the other members. Rather than trying to fix or advise anyone else, we’d work to invite deeper self-reflection. Honest and open questions—the kinds we actually don’t know the answer to—would serve a spirit of inquiry rather than drifting toward debate or dialogue. Your soul knows what you need more than I could ever guess.

Acknowledging clouds of feeling allows the blue sky to re-emerge......Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Acknowledging clouds of feeling allows the blue sky to re-emerge.
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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

We would acknowledge and allow the full range of our feelings. Ignoring, denying, or stuffing emotional responses doesn’t make them go away. On the contrary, it leaves them to fester and poison the rest of our lives.  If we allow ourselves to honestly feel the isolation, the fear, and the self-doubt—and even better if we share it with other open-minded souls—we begin to build connection, generate courage, and stir new confidence. We see that the walls we’d built to fend off our fears and frustrations had been sealing off our joys as well. Grey clouds clear to blue skies. Our lethargy flushes away and new energies start to surge through us.

Maybe most importantly, we adults would practice what we preach, making sure to pursue these paths ourselves—and to let others know about our experiences. We would need to challenge our chock-full schedules, slow the pace of our consumptive ambitions, and enter the cave of our own feeling-worlds. It’s far easier to talk about the need to go inward than it is to actually go inward.[1] Get to the yoga mat. Sit for meditation. Write in the journal. Breathe. And then trust that we have everything we need. Those around us will notice our congruence. Those receiving from us will appreciate our consistency.

Assuming that it would be a good thing, how can we transition from Point A—from the surface-oriented society we are now—to Point B, the deeper, inner-guided community we want to be?

1. Note the issue. The first step in addressing any problem is to admit that there is a problem. So many of us feel this separation from our inner lives without even consciously registering it. As author and facilitator Parker Palmer says, we long for undivided lives. Trouble is, we usually don’t recognize our ‘tragic gap,’ the distance between what we do and who we truly are. Without the diagnosis, we won’t ever find the remedy.

2. Name the desire for something different. Once we’ve found the root of our suffering, we can start to articulate what we’d want in its place. This post outlines some of what I’d love to build into and around my life. I imagine you’d want your own way of connecting with your inner world. When we declare our intentions clearly, the universe conspires (“breathes-with”) on our behalf. Opportunities arise. Unanticipated solutions emerge.

3. Ask great questions. Honest inquiry has great power. We need not know every answer for how to proceed from Point A to Point B. Honest, skillful questions have a magnetic power of their own. They draw allies towards us and they loosen the soil for new growth. They encourage curiosity and humility, two essential qualities for effective change-making. How do we build a relationship with our inner worlds? I don’t know for sure, but I know that I’ll enjoy the exploration.

4. Pay attention. Once we’ve seeded our fields with great questions, we need to listen and watch carefully for the responses that come back our way. This may mean carving out quiet time or temporarily shutting off the spigot of information flowing into our lives. Or it may simply mean waking up amidst the hubbub we find ourselves in. Either way, we tune our awareness in preparation for the answers coming in.

One step at a time can lead to beautiful places.
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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

5. Take little steps. We can admit and accept that change may not happen overnight. We likely won’t shake the sleep off our eyes to learn that we’re suddenly undivided no more. Instead, we can find ways—little ways, incremental ways—to support moving in this direction. We can celebrate our own choices that reestablish connection with our inner lives. And we can honor those who make such choices around us. You remembered to close your eyes and to check just how hungry you actually were before plowing into the lunch buffet? Good work. I took five minutes of silence before leaping into my day? Nicely done. Each small step adds more to the great journey.

6. Seek the new skills we need. Again, most of us haven’t had practice for turning inward. We haven’t seen role models. There’s no shame in admitting that we’ll have to learn. Try a mindfulness meditation class. Head to a yoga studio. Take a Deep Listening workshop. Train with a positive reinforcement instructor. Jump into an improvisational theater group. Stretch your body and your mind in ways that honor your own wisdom and forge your self-integrity.

7. Find allies. The Buddha recommended that, before ever stepping onto the Eight-Fold Path toward ending suffering, we should establish Right Association—hanging with the proper posse. The kind of work we’re proposing here invites big change in established systems that actively resist change. As one friend recently noted, “The system is most interested in seeing the system continue.” Who can support our vision? Who sees past our blind spots? Who can make us laugh? Who has the emotional depth, maturity, and curiosity to hold the weight and wonder of what we find when we turn inward? These are the friends we need. These are the allies we seek.


[1] Trust me, I know. This particular blog post has, ironically, taken more time to write than any other I’ve taken on. The persuasive pull of my outer-world dealings—some productive and some not so productive—has kept me from getting back here. One step at a time. Back on track.

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Kohn of Uncertainty: Raising Questions About How to Raise Kids (or Why Positive Reinforcement Might Not Be All It’s Cracked Up to Be) http://animalearning.com/2012/11/28/kohn-of-uncertainty-raising-questions-about-raising-kids-or-why-positive-reinforcement-might-not-be-all-its-cracked-up-to-be/ http://animalearning.com/2012/11/28/kohn-of-uncertainty-raising-questions-about-raising-kids-or-why-positive-reinforcement-might-not-be-all-its-cracked-up-to-be/#comments Wed, 28 Nov 2012 05:26:24 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1391  I’ve just started reading Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason and I can already tell it will stir my pot. Kohn has no love for positive reinforcement. Quite the opposite, he considers it both dangerous and destructive. Given my investment in the topic and my eagerness to examine [more…]

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Alfie Kohn’s provocative challenge to positive reinforcement.

 I’ve just started reading Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason and I can already tell it will stir my pot. Kohn has no love for positive reinforcement. Quite the opposite, he considers it both dangerous and destructive. Given my investment in the topic and my eagerness to examine all sides of the approach, I know the book will make an important read. Good insights and new questions have already bubbled to the surface.

Alfie Kohn has challenged traditional techniques—and even many alternative ones—in the field of education for years. Two of his earlier books, No Contest: The Case Against Competition and Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, first articulated his contrarian stance and earned him predictably polarizing reviews. Some see his work as revolutionary. Others think he’s off the deep end.[1] I get the sense that those in the latter camp have heavy investment in the models he critiques. That inkling of mine doesn’t automatically make him right, but it does lead me to question my own knee-jerk resistance to his take-down of positive reinforcement.  

In the first few chapters, he’s already raised valuable points. Most often, Kohn argues, positive reinforcement works to control behavior not in the direction of a child’s growth or natural unfolding but instead in the interest of compliance, convenience, or adult preference.[2] We use our techniques to develop docility or reward well-behavedness rather than to cultivate curiosity, caring, or creativity. Maybe this critique should be aimed more at curriculum and assessment design—What skills and behaviors do we strive to develop? How do we best measure those? Should we focus on attitudes and mindsets instead?—but it’s still a valid concern for positive reinforcement as well.

Kohn also notes how, by design, positive reinforcement focuses almost exclusively on behavior, leaving out information about a learner’s emotion or intention. Maybe I can elicit a particular action I’m looking for, but if the learner chooses that action to please me or to get a reward rather than choosing it for the joy of its own doing, have I really succeeded? What if she can demonstrate the behavior but does so with hostility or emotional numbness? Maybe my learner struggled because of troubles elsewhere in her life and so was acting out in unpleasant ways. Now she’s learned that she’ll get my approval—earn her reward—only when she puts those feelings away. She may have succeeded with the specific task, but she has also added significant content to what Robert Bly calls “the long bag we drag behind us,” those emotions and ways of being we excise from self-expression to avoid the shame they bring.

Educational consultant Alfie Kohn makes some great points.
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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Kohn’s main argument is that parents should offer children unconditional love, celebrating that they are rather than what they do. Positive reinforcement, he asserts, automatically teaches a child that love comes with conditions. Succeed at the task I’ve put in front of you and you get my delight and approval. Do the behavior I want, we celebrate. Sure, kids will take praise over punishment or over nothing at all. What they really want and need, though, is to be seen and loved without having to earn that approval.

Again, these are all fair challenges that deserve—and will receive—further consideration during my sabbatical. For sure, I don’t want to buy in to or promote a technique that actually does more harm than good. I expect I’ll include much of those musings in this space as I go. I will be curious to hear Kohn flesh out his arguments further and I’ll be especially keen to hear his suggestions for alternative approaches. In the meantime, I’ve got questions of my own for him.

Kohn says, for example, that extrinsic rewards necessarily diminish intrinsic motivation. If we work for a reward, that undermines the joy we receive from the action itself. In some cases, though, I’ve experienced the opposite. My partner Melissa and I have different standards for cleanliness in our home. I wouldn’t call myself a slob, but neither would I qualify as a neatnik. She has patiently and consistently rewarded me for efforts I make to help meet a higher standard. She never carps or chirps acerbically. She offers a simple “thank you” or a hug and leaves it at that. Even though I know exactly what she’s doing, it’s had an effect over time. I would never have found an intrinsic motivation to clean more often or more thoroughly. That desire simply wasn’t in me. But I have now developed a positive association with doing so. I dare say I’m even coming to enjoy it on my own. When I spent these past two months in California on my own, I kept my space much cleaner than I ever had before even though I was living by myself. Rather than weakening intrinsic motivation, the reinforcement has created it.

Yoga demands balance…AND creates it, whatever the original motivation.
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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes, too, the motivation behind the behavior actually doesn’t matter. What does matter is doing the behavior. As Stanford psychologist Amy Cuddy describes, simply taking certain physical positions can create a chemical cascade in our brains that creates a new mood, a new confidence, a more focused creativity. Suddenly, clouds lift and joy moves in. The same can hold true in the practice of yoga. Maybe a novice comes to yoga class because he wants to get toned and trim. He has no spiritual aim in mind; he’s seeking no Self-revelation. He only wants to look good so he’ll have a shot with the hotties in spandex.[3] Even without any noble intention, though, the practice will change his insides. Standing and sitting in dynamic, balanced poses; aligning breath with movement; settling and calming his mind: every class will lead him closer to his spiritual center. Finding his Self more fully might eventually lead him back to class for deeper reasons.

I’ve seen positive reinforcement help build intrinsic motivation on the softball field and in the classroom as well. Maybe the success comes at cross-currents to the method’s downsides, but it still comes. When I encourage my softball girls to stay focused in their hitting drills—even if they’re resistant or they wouldn’t choose that work on that day—they start to develop their skill. Once they have the skill in place and achieve success during a game, they start to want more. They attack the tee or tossed balls with greater focus and ferocity without my having to do a thing. The reps through resistance built their ability. The increased sense of agency fueled their intrinsic motivation. In class, students learn how to annotate their books, write more coherent essays, or ask better questions of their peers. The more they find the joy of mastery, the more they come to class eager to learn.

I don’t pretend to know all there is to know about positive reinforcement. Far from it. As a result, I will take Alfie Kohn’s critique, however blistering, into honest consideration. At the same time, I won’t reflexively shrink in submission to the challenge. I’ve got questions for his questions. I know—I can feel—there’s some truth here, and it’s good truth. I’m confident I’ll keep finding it.


[1] For the record, he was a great inspiration when I was in college and grad school.

[2] Kohn usually talks about carrot-and-stick motivations so he’d include punishment and reward alike. He also makes special mention of his concerns about positive reinforcement specifically, partly to address folks like myself who eschew punishment but still look to shape through affirmation and acknowledgment.

[3] When we study Hinduism in World Religions, I joke with my students that this branch of yoga stems from the Assaghidardha tradition. As in, you do this yoga, your ass’ll get harder.

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The Death Show: A Perspective-Giving Production http://animalearning.com/2012/11/27/the-death-show-a-perspective-giving-production/ http://animalearning.com/2012/11/27/the-death-show-a-perspective-giving-production/#comments Tue, 27 Nov 2012 05:13:02 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1373 This past weekend, my partner Melissa and I attended The Death Show (A Recital), an intriguing community theater production in Hudson, New York. Simultaneously provocative, poignant, peace-giving, harrowing, and hilarious, the evening has left me thinking about the impact of death in my life—and how to bring its air-clearing quality into my classroom more purposefully. [more…]

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Artwork for The Death Show (A Recital), Walking the Dog Theater
Image by Nikita Lev Emery

This past weekend, my partner Melissa and I attended The Death Show (A Recital), an intriguing community theater production in Hudson, New York. Simultaneously provocative, poignant, peace-giving, harrowing, and hilarious, the evening has left me thinking about the impact of death in my life—and how to bring its air-clearing quality into my classroom more purposefully.

The Death Show was conceived and crafted by Melania Levinsky and other members of the Walking the Dog Theater company. Each of the five players contributed mightily to the show’s success, reciting a seamless weave of poems, songs, and monologues. Some of the pieces had been tightly rehearsed (like the litany of diseases sung to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy); others rode improvisational waves in tune with our night’s specific audience (as when “Brother Death” walked silently through the cast and audience, tapping people on the shoulder to indicate that now was their time).

Most memorably, each cast member took the spotlight for a few moments to share individual reflections on the subject. All five of these stories proved deeply personal yet also universal, artfully articulating questions that rarely find the light of day. Each monologue was followed by an improvised “death” based on suggestions given by the audience before the house had opened— we saw “a clown dying of happiness during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade” and “death by mascara while driving down the Taconic Parkway,” for example—and a ritual-like delivery of epitaphs for that particular player. As a whole, the show felt less like a play and more like an open-hearted conversation about the many roles of Death: tormentor, rib-tickler, priority-clarifier, ambassador to the other side, familiar companion.

After the performance, we went out with our dear friend Benedicta—one of the players—and a few other audience members for a drink. Not surprisingly, the show continued to cast its spell, leading us to share stories of our own experiences and perspectives on death. I realized that, for the most part, I’ve escaped any close contact with the Reaper’s blade. Yes, all of my grandparents have passed on but I wouldn’t say that I knew any of them particularly well. A classmate in high school died in a sledding accident, but I was just getting to know her. One of my colleagues at work took his own life this summer—and I have missed his presence—but our connection had always been more peripheral than central. A handful of my closest friends have gotten cancer or suffered heart attacks but all have survived the scare. I have never lost a parent, sibling, partner, or dearest pal. In most senses, that feels lucky. In the wake of last night’s performance, I wonder if my own living lacks a depth for lack of death.

Had I participated in the show as a cast member, I probably would have told the story of losing my beloved Ocicat, Madsen, five years ago. When I first picked her up ten years earlier, I had taken a ferry from the San Juan Islands of Washington state over to Victoria, British Columbia to get her—hop off the boat, get the cat, hop back on the boat—and we had been best buddies since. When I went away for a weekend and accidentally left a ground level window open, however, Maddie got out and never came back home.

I still feel Maddie’s loss. She was a fine feline friend.

For weeks, I struggled with whether to make every effort I could to find her or to face the likelihood that she was gone and I should let go. The thought of her waiting for me, cold and injured somewhere in the woods, haunted me for months, even as her odds of survival dwindled. I never found her collar or any other evidence of her demise. I only had the lasting hole in my heart to remember her by. It felt like a full year before I was able to imagine the joy of welcoming another feline beastie into my world. Death has broken my heart, but I know that (or I imagine that) the death of a pet and that of a human companion differ immensely.

Our post-show conversation at the bar also stirred the memory of when I volunteered at a Palo Alto non-profit during graduate school and met a woman in her eighties named Amelia Rathbun. She had retired from her leadership of Beyond War, a group working to end the use of nuclear weapons, but still looked in on the surviving organization. When I visited her house for a meeting one evening, she brought me to her living room and lifted a silk scarf on a side table to reveal a bleached-bright human skull. “It’s important to welcome death into your home, Ted,” she advised me. “He’s one of the greatest teachers and friends you’ll ever meet.”

Amelia Rathbun was on to something when she welcomed death to her living room.
“Still Life With a Skull” by Philippe de Champaigne
Image from Wikimedia Commons

And there, Amelia reminded me, lies the precious paradox: opening the door to what we’re most afraid of actually can free us the shackles of our fear. When we remember that the end could be near, we can speak more honestly. We can choose more boldly. We need not pussyfoot—we can create and connect more authentically. Rather than welcome such wisdom, however, we in this culture tend to hide from death, trying to keep its icy hands as far from us as possible. We send our elderly off to community homes. We fend off the advance of age with botox and creams and fitness programs. When the physical end finally does come, we whisk bodies off and either cremate them or preserve them for a final viewing, rarely taking full stock of the final mystery: this body breathed with life and now lies still. Thinking we’re keeping ourselves safe from death, we shackle ourselves to certain shallowness.

I can now see that I need to find a way to welcome Death more directly into my classroom. If I’m trying to develop a learning space that promotes courage, creativity, and community, what better guest speaker could I invite? What better theme could I choose? Each group I teach does encounter Mystery Questions, an exercise where we anonymously write our most vexing questions about self, others, and life and the universe—and those often include inquiries directly about death and dying. When we read the questions aloud a week later, the ritual inevitably takes on a reverent and humbling tone. The kids are both moved and comforted to hear that others have struggles similar to—and different from—their own.

Inspired by the production’s spoken epitaphs, I’m also thinking about the idea of having students write their own obituaries—or maybe even having the group collaborate on writing each other’s. Clearly, this wouldn’t be an exercise for the first week of class—we’d need to know each other and have developed a requisite level of trust. With a semester’s worth of sharing, however, it could have memorable and long-lasting impact. When I took a leadership course in business school, we did a similar exercise, each lying with our eyes closed on a table, surrounded by friends as they read our obituaries aloud. I remember the peace of knowing I’d made a difference and the inspiration of having really been seen.

I most certainly intend to revisit the work of Joanna Macy, a Buddhist scholar, deep ecologist, and one of the most innovative teachers I’ve ever learned from. Joanna has done powerful thinking about what she calls Deep Time, helping us harvest the gifts of all our ancestors—from stardust and galaxies to parents and grandparents—and our descendants—those who will look back on the choices we made—alike. When we inhabit a larger time frame, death need not feel so final. We get to see its humor as well as its horror.

Death has a funny side, too.
—–
Arnie Levin in The New Yorker magazine, November 26, 1992.

In her workshops, Joanna often uses a meditation from the Buddhist tradition that invites us to reflect on two facts: a) death is certain and b) the time and circumstance of death is uncertain. Allowing those realities to rise into full consciousness can feel painful but can also shake us awake to life’s miraculous quality, its resilient beauty, and the precious uniqueness of each object and being. The meditation, usually read slowly by a facilitator after group members have walked in quiet focus for a few minutes, works best when standing face-to-face with another:

Look at the person you encounter (stranger or friend). Let the realization arise in you that this person lives on an endangered planet. He or she may die in a nuclear war; or from the poisons spreading through our world. Observe that face, unique, vulnerable…Those eyes still can see; they are not empty sockets…the skin is still intact…Become aware of your desire that this person be spared such suffering and horror, feel the strength of that desire…keep breathing…Also let the possibility arise in your consciousness that this may be the person you happen to be with when you die…that face the last you see…that hand the last you touch…it might reach out to help you then, to comfort, to give water…Open to the feelings for this person that surface in you with the awareness of this possibility… Open to the levels of caring and connection it reveals in you.[1]

Even reading the words makes me more thankful for and more protective of the opportunity in each person I meet. I feel more compassionate.

Some might say such exercises dig too deep for teenagers. Experiences like these reach into spaces left undisturbed. And some would say the same for adults as well. Best to keep death as far at bay as we can. I respectfully disagree. As The Death Show artfully demonstrated, we can tell these stories. We can acknowledge these truths. And we can wake from this slumber. I’m eager to get started.


[1] From Joanna Macy’s website and from her book, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (New Society Publishers: British Columbia, 1998). www.joannamacy.net/engaged-buddhism/221-meditation-on-death.html

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Queen of the Hill: Punishment or Principled Practice? http://animalearning.com/2012/11/21/queen-of-the-hill-punishment-or-principled-practice/ http://animalearning.com/2012/11/21/queen-of-the-hill-punishment-or-principled-practice/#comments Wed, 21 Nov 2012 17:42:08 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1349   In general as a coach, I choose to avoid using punishment as a motivator. The method reeks of domination, intimidation, and fear, all of which poison the waters of learning. While punishment may sometimes ‘succeed’ in the short term—it also breeds resentment and disenchantment. Even then, as my friend and colleague Luca Canever points [more…]

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Punishment: an outdated and overused method of training.
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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In general as a coach, I choose to avoid using punishment as a motivator. The method reeks of domination, intimidation, and fear, all of which poison the waters of learning. While punishment may sometimes ‘succeed’ in the short term—it also breeds resentment and disenchantment. Even then, as my friend and colleague Luca Canever points out, it only works as long as the learner keeps the potential consequence in mind. In other words, as long as she occupies mental bandwidth that would be better applied to whatever task lies at hand. Especially if delivered with anger or malice, punishment remains both cruel and crude. When given the option to bare such teeth, I continue to say “No, thanks.”

My evolving clarity on that preference has me looking ever more closely at the structure of my practices and even of the drills I use when coaching. What about the benefit of using ‘punishment’ as a conceit, a constructed game playfully agreed upon by those involved? Or one, at least, ‘imposed’ playfully by the coach or teacher?

Take, for example, Queen of the Hill, one of my favorite drills to use with the Northfield Mount Hermon softball team. I want my players focused on the precision of their technique during throwing warm-ups. Almost every athlete can improve her form and that, in turn, will increase her power, reinforce her accuracy, and help her prevent injury. Grip on the ball. Height of the elbow. Strong point to the target. Proper footwork. Solid follow-through. We have plenty that demands our attention.

A skillful throw is a beautiful thing.
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Photo courtesy of Risley Sports Photography, 2012
www.jtrsports.net

Of course, warm-ups also serve as the most social part of practice. Transitioning from their school day, the girls want to gossip, to catch up on news, to laugh and rib each other. I recognize—and even appreciate—the value of such interaction. Unfortunately, there’s almost always a strong inverse correlation between the volume and frequency of such chatter and the focus on and effectiveness of the throwing technique. The more they talk, the more they go through the motions. The more they ingrain improper muscle memory.

So we use Queen of the Hill. Throwing pairs line up with one partner on the left field foul line and the other in foul territory. Each pair leaves eight feet or so of space between themselves and the next pair so the group as a whole extends down the foul line. The two closest to home plate qualify as “Queens of the Hill,” and the others aspire to move up into that spot. Girls maintain their relative position by completing a clean throw and catch. If a pair overthrows a target or flubs a catch, that pair cedes their spot in the ‘hierarchy’ and sprints to the bottom spot along the foul line.[1] If they forget (or choose not) to actually sprint, the whole team stops, drops their gloves, and comes to the foul line for a single wind sprint out past centerfield and back. Then they all resume their places in the chain and continue.

Full-speed hustle forces errors from the other squad.
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Photo courtesy of Risley Sports Photography, 2012.
www.jtrsports.net

For sure, the drill sharpens focus, improves hustle, helps with throwing form, and increases accuracy—at minimum for the duration of the drill, but going forward as well. Energetically, I don’t sense the drill building fear or resentment. Usually, it seems to stoke the girls’ competitive fire and playful spirit. Again, their focus and form both improve dramatically. Other coaches have had success with similar set-ups.

All that said, the drill also employs a form of punishment. I may not yell or scream, but I am looking to decrease unwanted behavior (distracted chattering and lollygagging between spots on the field) by adding in an aversive, something ‘unpleasant’ like losing a place in line or having to sprint, either as a pair or as a team. I could frame it for myself that I’m promoting and rewarding the desired behavior—stay focused and successful and you keep moving up—but such a frame seems a bit dishonest, or at least a cop-out. The underlying structure remains punishment. It may be mild, but it’s still punishment. And that sits uneasy within me, at best.

Am I shunning the one who ‘fails’?
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Photo courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net

I don’t yet have a complete answer for myself. I know that my attitude as a coach greatly affects the tone of the experience. If I’m angry or disappointed—or even appear that way, sharpening my voice or rolling my eyes—I communicate an emotional or relational failure on their part, as if they’ve injured our personal connection. That’s not a healthy dynamic and it doesn’t help learning. If I can stay neutral and even playful in tone, then I’m holding them accountable while also recognizing we’re playing a game. That I usually participate in the drill myself lessens the ‘punishment’ aspect even further. If I drop a ball or overthrow a target while warming up, my partner and I have to sprint as well. If we or someone else lags in our sprinting, I’m on the foul with everyone else, racing to centerfield and back.

Moreover, the cost of failure in this case remains relatively light—an intense, but short sprint—and actually serves as another improvement to one’s game. When you make a mistake during the live action of a game, going full-tilt to recover might preserve a run—and a win. Hustling matters. The so-called aversive delivers a hidden benefit. Along the same lines, the drill delivers other valuable messages. When you as an individual mess up during a game, it does, in fact, affect the whole team. There is a consequence. And, the whole team can have your back. If teammates run to the foul line for our corrective sprint with enthusiasm, knowing that you didn’t intend to mess up, we communicate togetherness. We build resilience.

Knowing a team and its individual players well also makes a difference in how such a drill gets received. Most likely, it will work better on some days than on others. The moment can alter the mindset. It also seems reasonable that the joy in such a drill can evolve over time. Maybe we don’t like the ‘punishment’ at first, but we can fake it until we do. Extend the arms while running your sprint. Find a chant to change brain chemistry. Smile—or imagine taking a bow—to flush out the failure and regenerate optimal attention.[2] In that way, the ‘punishment’ becomes an opportunity to develop other skills and recoveries we actually need during the heat of competition. The benefits abound.

Good teamwork leads to jubilation.
—–
Photo courtesy of Risley Sports Photography, 2010
www.jtrsports.net

My questions still hold, however. I wonder about the rules for moving up, for example. Players may achieve perfection in the quality of their own work, but never reach the queen’s ‘throne’ without others making mistakes. On one level, the game teaches the girls to celebrate their teammates’ failures. Occasionally, I’ll see girls pull back on the intensity of their warm-ups, thinking that if they don’t throw hard that they’re less likely to make a mistake. I can usually get them to shift back just by pointing their adjustment out, but the ‘punishment’ of the drill may work at odds with my desire for fearlessness. More subtly, I wonder if using such a game undermines the positive reinforcement spirit I’m trying to instill during the rest of our practice. Maybe I’m chipping away at trust that I could well use for detailed instruction later. And this all may happen below the surface of awareness. “It’s all good,” the girls might say. But is it really?

I’ll admit that part of me likes never knowing for sure. The uncertainty helps me preserve greater alertness and curiosity. I pay attention to how my words and posture affect the girls’ demeanor. I listen for the enthusiasm—or lack of it—in their vocal tone and body language. I stay open to making adjustments on the fly. Given the larger goals I carry for the team, however—to help each player improve her skills, to build a resilient and supportive unit, to play our best and win ballgames—I can see that greater certainty could help. Positive reinforcement remains a subtle and challenging art. I know I’m just a beginner.


[1] The drill also works on the team’s commitment to hustle.

[2] For more on these dynamics, see my earlier posts on The Transformative Failure Bow, Part 1 and Part 2.

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Chicken Sexers, Plane Spotters, and the Elegance of TAGteaching http://animalearning.com/2012/11/16/chicken-sexers-plane-spotters-and-the-elegance-of-tagteaching/ http://animalearning.com/2012/11/16/chicken-sexers-plane-spotters-and-the-elegance-of-tagteaching/#comments Fri, 16 Nov 2012 22:31:47 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1333 Neuroscientist David Eagleman’s Incognito mentions two fascinating stories of unexpected learning. Both attest to the mysterious powers of the human brain—and encourage a radical reexamination of how we teach and train. Eagleman explains how many in the poultry industry of the 1930’s turned to the Japanese for a technique for training chicken sexers, workers who [more…]

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Neuroscientist David Eagleman’s Incognito mentions two fascinating stories of unexpected learning. Both attest to the mysterious powers of the human brain—and encourage a radical reexamination of how we teach and train.

Boys or girls?
…..
Photo courtesy of bsmalley at commons.wikipedia.org

Eagleman explains how many in the poultry industry of the 1930’s turned to the Japanese for a technique for training chicken sexers, workers who sort one-day-old hatchlings based on the sex of the bird. An untrained eye can’t tell the difference between a male and female chick; their bodies are just too similar. Trained masters could sort the birds effectively, even though they could not describe what they details they used for their decisions. As Eagleman writes, the selection “was somehow based on very subtle visual cues, but the professional sexers could not report what those cues were.”[1] They just knew, and they knew in a moment’s time.

The training for newcomers didn’t derail in a bog of mystery, however. Instead, masters stood over the apprentices and simply watched. As students examined each hatchling and made their choice—male or female?—the master offered feedback with a simple yes or no. After a few weeks of working this way, the student’s brain learned to distinguish what remained imperceptible to the conscious mind. The learner became a master and could now do the job with reliable and near-instantaneous accuracy. Amazing.

Around the same time period, Eagleman relays, British military advisers were trying to take advantage of a super-valuable skill enjoyed by several airplane hobbyists: being able to identify incoming aircraft quickly and accurately. (You don’t want to shoot down your own pilots returning home and you don’t want to give open air to German bombers.) Trouble was, as with the chicken sexers, the enthusiasts couldn’t articulate how they did what they did. In fact, when they tried to explain, they had even less success.

Sure it’s German, but would you know that from a distance?

Fortunately for the Allies, the British stumbled on a training technique parallel to that of the Japanese: trial-and-error feedback. A novice would work in partnership with an expert, getting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ based on the accuracy of each guess. Over time, the students could identify the planes as successfully as their trainers could. They didn’t know how they had become experts specifically, but they knew that they could now safely do the job.

When I first heard these two stories, I was blown away (yet again) by the power of the unconscious mind. Many tasks—including such highly-refined, subtly-defined jobs as these—simply don’t need words or explanations for us to ‘get’ them. In fact, the words can actually obstruct the learning. We don’t even need to be able to identify just what it is we’re getting. We only need clear, well-timed neutral feedback—sight, sound, touch—that indicates whether or not we’ve done it right. With enough repetitions, our below-the-surface brain narrows in on the ‘right’ answer. Over time, we come to predictably produce the desired result. We get knowledge even if we lack detailed awareness. We can guess the chicken’s sex. We know which plane is friend and which is foe.

Even if we’re working on skills we can articulate, these simple but surprising stories present a radical challenge to the ways we usually teach. I, for one, love explaining things. An aspiring poet of precision, I hope that my words can bring light to darkness and clarity from confusion. Given enough time—or even on the fly—I’ll look for the cleanest, clearest, most concise way to describe what’s needed. Ideally, I’m a master craftsman drawing from a broad and deep instructional toolkit, one I’ve spent years developing. I know I’m not alone among teachers. We like sharing the secrets of our subject. The words justify the investments we’ve made. But these stories suggest the self-importance might get in the way. That’s all well and good, they interject. You can have all the verbal fluency you want. It just may not be necessary for good teaching.

Behavior accomplished? A circle of clicks.

I don’t have enough information from Eagleman’s stories to know for sure how the chicken sexer and plane spotter trainers signaled ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to their learners. Maybe they simply spoke the words. Or perhaps they punished wrong answers with a slap of the wrist. Whichever method they used, the positive reinforcement method of TAGteaching seems an elegant refinement. [2] In TAGteach, we don’t need to hear the ‘no,’ see a red light, or feel any sort of shocking buzzer. We just need to know when we’ve done it right. Click. Green light. Instant tap. Without that affirmative reinforcement, the learner knows he needs to adjust and does so—on his own—until hearing the click. No words, vocal instructions, or social dynamics muddy the instructional waters. The student—or at least his unconscious brain—sorts it out and waits for the simple, neutral message: ‘yes, that’s it’ or ‘keep trying.’

Note well that, though words don’t matter nearly as much, the teacher still does. For one, she needs to know and be able to spot the correct behavior as it’s happening. If the target behavior can be broken into smaller chunks, she needs to choose which steps will lead most fluidly to the desired ability: too easy and learners get bored, too demanding and they’ll get frustrated. And she needs to mark the behavior with exquisite accuracy, capturing the ‘yes’—even anticipating it— in real time so the reinforcement holds with maximum depth and duration. Not everyone has the patience for such painstaking precision. Not everyone has the emotional savvy to maintain an even keel throughout the struggles and successes along the way. Not everyone has the flexibility to adapt on the fly when a learner keeps getting stuck. You still need skill to teach well.

An amazing learner, even without words.

Let me declare, then, that I intend to develop such precision, neutrality, and flexibility in myself. Like almost everyone else I know, I’m still struggling to dismantle the well-calcified model that suggests teachers and coaches dispense information like soup from a pot or software from a server. Transmit. Bequeath. Download. Building a new model will take some unlearning of the old and much steady practice at the new. Still, I’m committed. Like the chicken-sexers and plane-spotters of old, I can rely on the sub-verbal intelligence of my learners. I can trust the brain’s ability to integrate indescribably complex information. Pedagogical elegance through experiential design rather than through wordy exposition? Yes.


[1] This quotation and the chicken sexer and plane spotter stories come from David Eagleman’s Incognito, Vintage Books: New York, 2011, pp. 57-58.

[2] In TAGteaching, the learner and instructor determine a desired behavior or ability. We may be able to articulate with words the elements that compose the skill or we may not, like with the chicken sexers and plane spotters. It doesn’t matter so much. What does matter is breaking the behavior down into achievable steps and working through those steps one at a time, using consistent, neutral markers to communicate the moment the task has been performed correctly. For example, a powerful and efficient softball throw includes multiple micro-components, each of which could become a TAG point: proper grip on the ball; a cock-and-flip motion of the wrist; correct position of the glove hand and throwing elbow in the ready position; weight shift of the feet; and so on. The smaller the task, the greater the likelihood of success in learning it quickly.

With this method, the ‘yes’ feedback can come through visual or tactile channels—via a flashing light or a precise press against the skin, for example. That said, most TAGteachers use a distinctive sound like a snap or a click, and that’s where the method’s name comes from: you create a “TAG” by Teaching with Acoustical Guidance.

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Why I Love BATS (Ode to an Improv Community) http://animalearning.com/2012/11/12/why-i-love-bats-ode-to-an-improv-community/ http://animalearning.com/2012/11/12/why-i-love-bats-ode-to-an-improv-community/#comments Tue, 13 Nov 2012 03:13:06 +0000 http://tedwordsblog.com/?p=1298 For these past two months, I have reveled in the singularly delightful energy and ethos of Bay Area Theatresports (BATS).[1] Now that I’ve finished my many-miled journey back home to New England, I’ve had the chance to catch my breath and take stock of the group’s greatness. And, man, is it rich. Housed in the [more…]

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BATS Improv by the San Francisco Bay.
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Photo courtesy of www.theuglybugball.wordpress.com

For these past two months, I have reveled in the singularly delightful energy and ethos of Bay Area Theatresports (BATS).[1] Now that I’ve finished my many-miled journey back home to New England, I’ve had the chance to catch my breath and take stock of the group’s greatness. And, man, is it rich.

Housed in the historic Fort Mason waterfront warehouses on the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula, BATS is one of the nation’s longest-running companies dedicated to the art of improvisational theater. BATS also runs a school, serves as an experimental hothouse, and comprises a vibrant learning community. To be sure, great people do great improv all over the country. That said, BATS stands on special ground for a number of reasons.

Commitment to story and character. When most folks think of improv, they often think of stand-up comedians, college boys pulling together wacky hijinks as display behavior, or pipeline groups like the Groundlings of Los Angeles or Second City of Chicago whose alums have starred on shows like Saturday Night Live and Whose Line Is It Anyway? Most of those groups bill themselves as comedy troupes first. Come see the side-splitting production! We guarantee a belly workout! Mega-laffs per minute! And that’s understandable. We all like to laugh and improv can be hilarious. Unfortunately, working for laughs can set players up to go for gags rather than developing a scene or can draw players to connect with the audience more than with their teammates on stage.

BATS takes a different approach, focusing instead on the nuances of story and character. Protagonists get foiled on their heroic journeys and villains maintain moral complexity. Sometimes, a scene stays quiet and the story gets told through facial expression and the subtleties of body position. Of course, BATS scenes and stories do often prove uproariously funny, but the humor more often comes out of the unfolding idiosyncracies of humanness rather than from a schtick or a cop-out. Players don’t strive to be funny; instead they allow funny to emerge through the natural creative process. Because of that, the stories do more than entertain for a transient moment; they come alive and endure. BATS players create more than improv; they produce improvisational theater.

Music generates energy on stage……
Photo courtesy of Dwayne Individual and Improv Elements. 

Fantastic music. Not many troupes that I’ve seen make such a commitment to including music in their shows. All BATS shows that I’ve ever taken in have had one of several outstanding keyboardists providing soundtrack, sound effect, and accompaniment. The musical improviser has to pay close attention to the scene work, including timing, content, and character relationships. Like the players more centrally on stage, the music-maker also has to follow the improv principles of sharing control, making bold offers, taking care of teammates, and having a sense of adventure. It’s a complex and demanding post, but BATS makes the financial and programmatic commitment to make sure it gets filled with skill. Each show generates richer color and deeper texture as a result.

Players at BATS know their craft.

Breadth and depth of talent. For sure, many groups develop and showcase skillful performers. From top to bottom, though, the BATS established players do incredible work—and the long-timers have been doing it for more than twenty years. Barbara Scott’s willingness to linger with the moment generates maximum dramatic tension. Regina Saisi’s facial and vocal intricacies carve indelible characters. William Hall’s trouble-making leads the group to places that demand skillful problem-solving. Tim Orr’s commitment to spatial relationships and willingness to push traditional boundaries together build vibrant realism. Rebecca Stockley’s investment and generosity generate eye-tugging gravity. Paul Killam’s attention to what’s needed pulls together wandering storylines. And Rafe Chase’s bold offers and natural realism propel action with fearless aplomb. The players know each other well and the long history shows.

The relative newbies in the troupe raise the bar even further. Lisa Rowland channels the creative spirit with a magnetic force that must be reckoned with. Ben Johnson uses his training as an actor and a clown to full effect, nailing scenes of poignant emotion and goofy comedy with equal fluency. Rebecca Poretsky dives into the unknown with full commitment. Zoe Galvez compels as hero or villain. And the list goes on and on. The entire clan—including those I haven’t mentioned specifically—brings the goods each and every night, supporting superlative improv with artful acting. Though the scenes aren’t predictable, the magic is.

Willingness to experiment. BATS runs shows and classes in a wide variety of formats—and continues to find more. Over the two months I spent in San Francisco, I saw traditional TheatreSports, improvised Shakespeare, free-flow short form, Spontaneous Broadway, long-form family drama, Horror Musicals, and a Halloween Super Scene show that winnowed six opening scenes until the audience had been treated to one full story (and five uncompleted treasures). A student-led and player-supported “Cave Match” production on the final weekend pitted an original Silent Movie format against an extended musical set in 1969 San Francisco. Both groups did breath-taking work, carving out new territory for themselves and for the community as a whole. Such a cornucopia of creativity might seem striking to an outsider. At BATS, it’s business as usual.