Improvisation and Loss Part One


“What an odd thing tourism is. You fly off to a strange land, eagerly abandoning all the comforts of home, and then expend vast quantities of time and money in a largely futile attempt to recapture the comforts that you wouldn’t have lost if you hadn’t left home in the first place.” - Bill Bryson

"Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive."— Haruki Murakami


One of the most fascinating yet challenging things about life is that we have an unlimited ability to learn and renew.

Yet, in contrast, most people tend to gravitate toward a daily choosing what is familiar and select to recreate what is customary to them. This is understandable. But one can consider the possibility that there can be other ways to approach such moments.

Nothing will upset "normal" like the unwelcome experience of losing someone or something precious to us. This is "an experience with impermanence." It may be catastrophic or relatively calm. But when this type of chain of events begins... our way of being "normal" ceases.

The subsequent grief might be described as being involuntarily strapped into a roller coaster ride and being forced to ride until it comes to it's own end. Like at no other moment in our lives - these are the moments that offer the greatest opportunity to allow a major reviewing of our assumptions, to learn and renew... to decide what to keep and what to leave behind. We could think of it as a moment that is navigated by flow.

A few assumptions that we might hold could include:
-- I have control over much of my life
-- I will have a life-long relationship
-- Good things happen to good people
-- God loves me and I know this by the good things that happen
-- Everyone I care about should never die
-- I need to be partnered
-- I need to be a mother or father

I am certain we can all add more to this list. Our collective culture feeds these to us, and we participate in their creation.

Many grieving people, upon first being strapped onto the roller coaster, will want to get off the ride, grasp and cling to all of their favorite assumptions - and frantically try to recreate the former set of conditions while on the roller coaster ride. Depending on the circumstances - one may be able to shut ones eyes and hold ones breath to try mentally to avoid the ride. This is understandable. Yet in the passing of time after the initial loss, one can start to move with the ride, and with each movement comes an opportunity.

Introducing the Idea Of Improvisation

"Improvisation is the art of being completely O.K. with not knowing what the f-- you're doing." - Mick Napier.

In more polite terms, the best improvisers can accept the reality of change even when they have no idea what's going on.

Improvisation is the act of making and creating in response to one's immediate environment and feeling. The invention of new thoughts, practices, methods and things can develop and manifest. New assumptions can be formed. This typically has a function within the creative arts - to acting, music, dance, art... but for our discussion, we will look at improv as a method of dealing with the impermanence in our lives.

Improvisation stands in contrast to those things predetermined, conventional, permanent.
When faced with the work of facing impermanence, improvisation is a great tool to us weather the involuntary cycle after cycle of repeated suffering on the roller coaster.

With insight into impermanence and improvisation, the unchanging self and all it's variant assumptions will begin shift. If all is flow and change, then this might apply to our understanding of our “self” too. Much of our suffering is a result of thirsting after and clinging to bits of the world that disappear - things that we believe will give us "lasting" happiness.

Impermanence is not just about death. Impermanence is every moment. It’s a fundamental understanding from the beginning of the spiritual path all the way to the end. When we see that the nature of all things is impermanence, our attachment to the things around us will modify, and amazingly - our compassion for others will steadily increase. If anything unites us on this planet, it is our collective state of impermanence.

As we grow in loving, we learn to hold that which we love not like a closed fist, but like a relaxed, open hand.

What Might Improv Teach Us About Impermanence?

Forget that most people think of improv performance as comedy. For the purpose of our discussion humor is a mute point. As well, it is not a performance that we are examining either.

What is of interest is to observe that, in the world of improvisational acting or music (such as jazz), creative people are thrust onto stage without a pre-determined script or sheet music. No one knows where the song or story is going or how it will end. This is very similar to our lives.

Improv actors will often employ a set of rules that the team agrees upon to guide them in order to create, in situ, a cohesive narrative. These rules vary in their origin and number. I have selected a few to reflect on here.

Rule of Improv: Say "Yes... and"

Immediately after a loss, it is common for all of us to yell a resounding "NO!" at the situation. This is a normal and common reaction.

Yet, if we stay in this state for an extended time, we miss an opportunity to grow and we continue to suffer with prolonged clinging and anguish.

No one can tell anyone when it is time to move from "NO!" to "Yes... and." But, if you sense in yourself a prolonged suffering and desperation, you might ask yourself if you are still grasping and resisting. If you feel compelled to swiftly replace the lost object of your affection with another, you might ask yourself if you are still grasping and resisting. The choice is yours to make. It is just a thought to consider.

The "Yes" is the acceptance of the reality. We may stay in just "yes" for a good long while. "Yes, he is gone."... "Yes, it is over."... "Yes, I have lost ____."

Eventually, we can move to the "Yes... and". This presents the opportunity to add altogether new information.

An improvised scene or piece of music can't move forward or advance unless we add something new. Something new following a loss can begin with a small new commitment we make - like to a group, or an act of service, or finding ways to honor that which we have lost. For instance, it may start with "Yes, my beloved has died... and... I will go online today and donate $5 to a charity in their name." Because you never donated money to this charity before, you are starting to add something new. The beginnings can be so simple and humble. It may start with "Yes, my beloved has died... and... I will write a little bit about our story." Because you never wrote this story before, you are starting to add something new.

The beginnings can be so simple and humble.

Those that progress over time to "Yes... and" already are manifesting the beginning of an improvised response. They are beginning to move the narrative of their life along.

"Yes... and" will begin to work with our assumptions might begin to look like:

-- "Yes... _______ happened and"... I realize that we have little control over much of our lives
-- "Yes... _______ happened and" ... I had a beautiful relationship. I remain open for other kinds of relationships in my life.
-- "Yes... _______ happened and" ... I know that bad things happen to good people
-- "Yes... _______ happened and" ... I know that God loves me nevertheless

The next entry will cover more rules of improv and how they can help you deal this the impermanence in your life... I want this to be a helpful tool, in no way crippling or judging... let me know your wisdom!!