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Yes…And: Lessons from Improv

Yes…And: Lessons from Improv

Most New Year’s messages involve inspiration to start over, set goals, and kick those bad habits once and for all! We make vision boards, come up with affirmations, and lists of good intentions.  But so often these convictions lose their steam and we end up doing the same things over and over. These habits may offer short term pleasure but no lasting relief from the dissatisfaction that fuels the need for those habits. I’ve been reading a lot about addiction and trauma lately. Addiction expert Dr. Gabor Mate teaches that “addiction is not a choice anybody makes. It’s a response to emotional pain.” Addiction doesn’t have to be to alcohol or drugs, it can be to TV, your phone or social media, exercise, sugar, sex, or shopping. It’s those habits we want to get control over but find we are powerless against and for example, without awareness, we realize we just binge watched 2 hours of TV instead of going to bed early or reading that stack of books by our bedside.

We are wired from the time we are born to seek pleasure and safety and avoid pain. Our nervous system becomes trained to seek those pathways that give some kind of reward. The majority of us experienced some kind of pain or trauma in childhood. No one’s parents were perfect and no one’s life experiences are without challenges. As kids we learn what helps us avoid or numb the pain or gain approval. These become subconscious programs that become part of our default or automatic reactions. For some of us, that involved eating something sweet, or escaping into the imagination or literally running away. As adults those pathways don’t go away, we just learn grown-up ways to keep them going – alcohol, shopping, the internet, etc.  All the resolutions, affirmations, good intentions, and vision boards won’t do any good unless we actually face the pain or discomfort we are avoiding. It is through compassionate self-awareness we can finally be with the younger self that gets triggered unconsciously and provide the love and safety we are really seeking when we turn to those addictive distractions.

Many spiritual teachers preach acceptance of the present moment as the way to end suffering.  Here’s an example from author and speaker Eckhart Tolle:

“Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? what could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”

Such promise! But such a challenge to our human selves who learned to say no to things that made us uncomfortable, feel unsafe or inflicted pain at a young age and yet, I have learned that is the key to unraveling those habits that keep us in patterns of suffering.

I have a few friends who have recently taken improv classes and shared the basic improv concept of “Yes, And”. This concept is the key to creating successful funny scenes where actors cooperate with each other creating possibilities that would not be possible if one of them had said No.

From Second City: “The basic concept of these two words is that you are up for anything, and will go along with whatever gets thrown your way. Essentially, you don’t use the word “No” in improv very often! The “And” part comes in when you are in a scene and can add to what your partner started rather than detract from it.

A large part of improv is that you are always there for your scene partner or partners, and, in turn, they are always there for you. This is the goal of “Yes, And”! By saying yes to your scene partner, you create something much more entertaining. If you start a scene by saying that you are an alien, and your scene partner completely commits to also being an alien, being abducted by an alien, etc., both of you know you can count on the other person. On the other hand, if you start by saying you are a puppy, but your scene partner says “Wait, I thought you were a cat!”, the scene is compromised. Not only do you feel less confident, but also the audience is less entertained.”

I started wondering if this could this be a way to understand and live this teaching of acceptance. If life is your scene partner, (and as Shakespeare so wisely observed, that we are all actors on a stage) might it respond differently when you have the attitude of “Yes, And”? What if life is giving you exactly the experiences that you need to learn what your triggers are thus revealing the aspects of you that need to seen, heard and healed? Instead of resisting, maybe with intention and awareness we can learn to say “Yes, And.”

Dr. Dan Siegel wrote a parenting book entitled The Yes Brain. In a lecture he instructed his listeners to close their eyes and feel the reactions in the body and state of mind when you simply respond to the words “Yes” or “No”. Remarkably, with no other word attached, my body tightened up and my mood darkened with the word no, and became relaxed and optimistic with the word yes. When you say No to life, your body, mind and spirit shut down and you are not open to possibilities that are presenting for creative problem solving and potential lessons and gifts. When you say Yes, And, you stay relaxed, flexible, curious, resilient, and willing to try new things. You remain open to yourself and others allowing for creative solutions, empathy, and the opportunity for grace to move through you. Possibilities you could not have imagined open up as you say Yes, I accept this feeling, this situation; And, I choose to remain present, and  instead of reacting automatically, respond with wisdom and compassion. Yes, And is also a wonderful communication technique that opens up conversation allowing everyone to feel heard while at the same time, contributing something new.

In summary, the Yes, And approach involves the following steps:

  1. Pause before indulging in your favorite “bad habit”.  “Yes, I want to eat this whole pint of ice cream!”
  2. Bring your awareness into your heart, in other words, approach yourself with compassion, like you were relating to a 5 year old child.
  3. Notice what you hope to gain from the habit – be honest about what you need. Some benefits include, pleasure, escape, stress relief, connection, etc. “Yes, I need comfort.” Most of these behaviors are fine in moderation as are the rewards – it’s when you lose power over your choices that they become destructive.
  4. Ask your self what you are avoiding. Observe feelings and thoughts coming up with neutrality.
  5. Say Yes to the feelings – allow them to bubble up. Feelings are energy that if allowed, will move through you in just a few minutes. Don’t get pulled down the river and identify with the victim role, rather, stay anchored in compassionate awareness.
  6. Ask your higher self or Spirit to show you the root cause – is there a memory that comes up for you? Perhaps you will get an insight about a false belief you are holding onto.
  7. Be with that aspect of your small self – that inner child, and give him/her the love and compassion and encouragement you didn’t get in the past. Yes, this happened, And I have so much love and compassion for myself.
  8. Choose another option that is healthy and aligned with your goals or intentions. Yes, I need comfort, And I have a plan for what that other option is. Maybe that’s taking a bath, doing a guided meditation, talking with a friend, seeking out a hug, having a cup of tea with a favorite blanket, etc. Bring positive emotion to the enjoying of whatever it is – that will help the brain create new circuits you will want to repeat. Visualize yourself choosing this when you are in a relaxed state such as waking up and falling asleep when the brain’s slower wavelength help to shift your patterns.
  9. Seek outside help if this becomes overwhelming for you or need help in the process.

This is a heart-centered approach that is a form of meditation – you are meditating yourself from a higher perspective, allowing for healing. Enjoy the fruits of this practice as you will notice the compulsions, cravings and low level dissatisfaction with your life being replaced with joy, contentment and flow. Please contact me if you are interested in experiencing and learning more about this powerful practice.

What I love about now, is that it is always a beginning – Byron Katie
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