For the next few posts, Spiritual Improvisers, I will be sharing insights from Sam Wasson's book, Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art. The book is a history of improv going back to the beginning of Second City, the Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade,  the comedy team of Elaine May and Mike Nichols, and the mother of improv, Viola Sporin.

One of the anecdotes Wasson  shares is about the pairing of two improvisers at Second City, Barbara Harris and Alan Arkin. The two of them worked on a long-form skit which came to be known as "The Museum Piece." The piece was killing it in live shows. It because so popular that a Canadian TV show  wanted to film a stage show of them. The pressure was on and the team began to choke. The pair was about to cancel the TV appearance because the skit no longer was working. In a last ditch effort, Alan Arkin changed his mind set. He stopped thinking about the "performance" and just began to love his scene partner. No matter what happened in the scene, his character loved everything about his scene partner. The result was magical, the scene was better than ever. Why?

Wasson writes, "He had permitted himself to plunge, feet first, into certain failure. 'The truth of the matter is,' he said, 'is if [improvisers] allow that to take place, and to be gone, and empty, it's gold.' Egolessness."

Letting go of ego and committing yourself to the scene and your scene partners is the essence of improv. Letting go is also the essence of the spiritual life. Christ calls us to "die to self" (Lk 9:23), to trust God for all our needs (Mt 6:28), and to give up wanting to be the center of attention (Ph 2:3). Buddhism teaches us that suffering is due to attachment but the mind can experience complete freedom, liberation and non-attachment if it lets go of any desire or craving. Peace and joy are found, not in seeking fame or striving to be the most important, but in letting go and giving of yourself.

Egolessness does not mean you will never be successful. Barbara Harris and Alan Arkin went on to have very long and respected movie careers. They got there, not by clawing their way to the top, but my letting go. They were open to being vulnerable and taking risks. They shared who they were and blessed those around them. Improv is just like life. It's not just about you, it's about the whole. It's about being truthful, open, and loving. It's about being ego-less.


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