A friend of mine who does improvisational theater and comedy loves to regale us on Facebook with impromptu stories from his travels. You thought being stuck on the tarmac for hours in an overcrowded airplane is excruciatingly painful? So does Justin, so how does he manage to make a hilarious performance out of a cell phone conversation he overhears from the woman across the aisle? You and I wake up in the night and stumble to the bathroom. Justin tries this in Nigeria and suddenly an African-sized spider waiting for him in the darkness turns into a full-blown comedy skit. After his latest Facebook episode I finally had to leave a comment. “Justin,” I exclaimed, “your life is one long improv gig!” His reply came as a surprise: “Josie, isn’t that what life is for everyone??”
Now I really had to laugh! Do you mean each one of us is improvising our lives every inch of the way? If that’s true, I’m laughing out of relief. I’ve spent most of my life convinced that there’s a big long script somewhere and I’ve forgotten the lines. There’s a right way to do things and there’s a right thing to say. And I need to find them. And someone has hidden the script!
Do you mean to tell me I am allowed to write my own lines? That I can find my lines in the moment? That if I stay present to everything the moment brings me, I’ll be ready to give back to the moment in the way that only I can give?
When I’ve watched improvisational theater, I’ve been awestruck at the actors’ agility. They give back a striking and funny response to whatever their fellow actor throws their way. How do they do it? Sure, I’ll bet they are naturally funny, but I’m just as sure they are practicing a strict discipline. I found a set of rules for improvisational theater and noted that the first 5 rules sounded spot on for daily living:
- Listen: easier said than done, and that’s exactly the point
- Agreement: say yes and add something, don’t reject ideas
- Team Work: have a group mind, think of others
- Don’t Block: stealing jokes / not listening / changing topic
- Relationship: focus on connection between characters, not just subject of scene
These rules sound familiar. I’ve heard them in spirituality books and nonviolence training manuals. In daily life, ‘improvisation’ might just be another word for mindfulness. And as if to prove that the moment will give me just what I need, today I received an email with a reflection on Christian mindfulness by Father Jim Bacik.
Bacik explores Thomas Merton’s interest in interfaith dialogue with Zen Buddhism. He tells us that Thomas Merton “was convinced that western Christians could grow spiritually through dialogue with the Eastern religions.” Among the Zen teachers he met was the Vietnamese Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn.
Hanh has advice for us:
- concentrate your whole attention on whatever you are doing at the moment; wash a dish as if you were bathing the baby Buddha; practice mindful walking by being aware of your feet touching the ground and imagining a flower blooming in that spot;
- be attentive to the holiness all around you, for example, the blue skies and the curious eyes of a child;
- enjoy your work by staying relaxed and uniting yourself with the expenditure of energy;
- be aware of your thoughts and feelings but do not judge them; consider the individuals you are actually with as the most important persons and making them happy your most important task;
- concentrate on your breathing when meditating and when stressed because breathing unites our body and soul, helps us get hold of our feelings, and opens our heart to wisdom;
Merton offers a Christian perspective to enhance what we can learn about mindfulness from Zen practice. Among the examples that Bacik shares are the following:
- We should be attentive to each moment as a gift from God.
- We can think of our ordinary daily routine as a way of practicing [St. Therese’s] Little Way of Charity.
- Our work deserves our attention and best efforts because it is our way of cooperating with God in the ongoing creation of the world.
- Our time spent with family, friends and colleagues takes on greater meaning when considered as opportunities to encounter the Holy Spirit present in all persons.
- We can do a better job of attending to our thoughts and feelings without judging them if we remember that divine mercy has a fundamental priority over divine judgment.
That last point has special force for me. What freedom there is when judgment morphs into mercy! We can’t practice this by ruminating over past mistakes nor agonizing over future possibilities. Just like a good improv performer, right here in the present moment is where we can best practice. And as a Zen teacher once told me: “We can begin again with the next breath!”