Cultivate Creative Courage With The Improviser’s Mindset

Spring is all about buds and blossoms and reminders that we can always make new starts. The cold, hard ground warms up and softens, is organically receptive to seeds and inclined to nurture them. It performs even better when cultivated. We have to clear the space, loosen the dirt, and pull out the wild weeds with wills of their own and no regard for our intentions. These tasks are not the sexiest part of process but worth the effort because they set the stage for a new season of growth. Once the seeds are planted, nature needs no director. We do not control any part of that magical interaction between the soil that offers up the conditions for growth and the life force within the seed that propels its cells to divide. We do not control that activity any more than we control the weather, but we do partner with it through every action and choice to tend the garden. Even if last year’s garden did not turn out so well, many of us will try again. Planting a garden is an act of courage because there is no guarantee our efforts will pay off, and an act of faith in the unseen but unstoppable “push” that comes from within a seed. Our hope is that the invisible but powerful force that turns acorns into oaks is on our side, as it always is if nature is the guide.

If we think of our ideas, plans and desires in life as seeds that require some degree of creative courage to take root, developing an improviser’s mindset is like what a gardener uses to prepare the soil and maintain the conditions for growth. Through the creative experience of improvisation — whether that is playing improv games or learning how to build complex scenes — we cultivate a skill set and way of connecting with other people that allows exploration of ideas and a story to unfold in real time. We can experience what it is like to take creative risks and respond to our own internal impulses that are like the “push” within a seed. This translates into the ability to change, to make new starts, to live with a sense that spring is an internal, ever-renewing emotional and mental state, one that we can choose.

Creativity requires courage because it takes us to the edge of what we know and can predict. That is why that internal “push” — our hopes and dreams, our envy of what others possess or have accomplished that is an enormous neon sign of what we need to be moving toward— is essential and especially challenging. On the one hand, we want things to get better, we want to grow. At the same time, change is disorienting and we know that growth is almost definitely going to require letting go of the familiar. Uncertainty can feel so threatening that we wind up in defensive postures that block emotional awareness and consume creative energy. Cultivating creative courage through improvisation is a way to experience repeated risk-taking in supportive interactions with others that empower the capacity to navigate through a process of change. And have a ton of fun.

What gives creativity its rich rewards is that tension between what is and what is emerging. The discomfort of this can range from uncomfortable to unbearable, but research shows that we can grow our capacity to withstand this tension and direct it toward learning and discovery. “Research on brain plasticity has shown how connectivity between neurons can change with experience,” according to Mindsetworks.com, a resource for educators and change agents. “With practice, neural networks grow new connections, strengthen existing ones, and build insulation that speeds transmission of impulses. These neuroscientific discoveries have shown us that we can increase our neural growth by the actions we take.”

Human beings are risk-averse by nature, which equipped us with a bigger thinking brain than the other animals who have claws and huge teeth and the capacity to run or climb with astonishing speed and agility. While we are vulnerable to the natural world in ways that animals are not, we do have the creative edge and have designed our way into heated homes, communications at the speed of light, comfort, convenience, medical treatments and astonishing technological advancements. We are also capable of making meaning out of events and that is the blessing and curse of having this big thinking brain. Our emotional life and ability to analyze events can saddle our great big thinking brain with memories of past threats and visions of potential ones, triggering the same survival response that an animal needs to get by day to day in the great outdoors. The stress response is involuntary, an automatic “click” out of our thinking brain and into the raw, reactive emotional survival response. In this high-stress state, we can lose up to 20 IQ points, because activity in the prefrontal cortex is great reduced.

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For us humans, perceived threats can be based on anything from an angry look on another person’s face to an unanswered text message. We have the capacity to imagine what a change would do to our life and sense of self, and this is both our sticking point and our salvation. We will almost certainly project what we think a change will bring about, only to find that the actual experience is something we simply could not see from our former roles and perspective. This is partly because the emotional and psychological shifts involved in a change process transform our perceptions and also because fear and anxiety distort information. Psychological stress elicits the same biochemical fight/flight/freeze survival reaction in the body induced by running from a moving train, but with no clear signal as to when the threat has passed. Exposed to so many triggers, we can remain in that heightened, anxious state so often that this reactive state becomes normalized. Stress is something we feel before we understand its underlying causes, but who has time to figure it out when it is sometimes all we can do just to keep up. To hide or manage an ongoing state fear is physically exhausting and consumes creative energy in a zero-sum game that leaves us at greater risk for seeking short-term energy jolts with long-term consequences.

There is no shortcut around the some of that fear. Some of it we just have to walk through — or “follow” as improvisation teachers guide us to do. Improvisation is all about engaging with fear and uncertainty, with the higher purpose of strengthening the ability to think and act effectively when under stress. It is the practice of thinking in a new way that can bring about new perceptions of self and of the world, and through this way of thinking and relationship develop the skills to nurture our ideas and visions into material form.

Creative courage grows through cultivating the psychological space and emotional connection of the improviser who says “yes” to what life offers up, which is not to say we approve of, agree with or even like it. This “yes” is the seed and our readiness to accept it is the soil in which it can grow. This “yes” has nothing to do with making a positive judgment about things. It is not about giving approval, or expressing an emotion. What this “yes” implies is a state of mind that takes in the truth of what is happening without judgment, an acceptance of the moment as it occurs. It requires listening and suspension of judgment. This “yes” is a connection with what is. To live in that mindset is to engage with what we are given, no matter how dark or devastating and through doing this raise the possibility, no matter how remote, of building on it in order to respond consciously and creatively. “Yes…and” simply means we comprehend and recognize what is happening, and are responding in way that shapes the outcome toward something we do approve or, agree with or life.

Its okay to start small. Start with how things are, saying “yes” and building on them step by step. Because what drives everything in nature, where the cycles of change are clear and foreseeable, shows us what can happen through engagement with the invisible and unstoppable momentum that transforms a tiny acorn into a towering oak. Every single cell of an acorn is teeming with life force. And for a cell, it is either change or die. A naturally-occuring enzyme within the cell facilitates the series of stages that result in transformation, but the process itself liberates energy at specific points, which is then available for use in other pathways. Creativity is a kind of spiritual enzyme that drives the ongoing change process, but we determine the direction that change will take. The stages of this transformation may be stress-filled and illusion-shattering, they can feel at times pointless and plain wrong, or just too damn difficult. But just as in nature, the process itself frees energy along the way, energy that we can dedicate to new, expanded choices and pursuits.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is President of Lifestage, Inc, a training and consulting company based in Smithtown, NY and writer/performer who designs and facilitates creative professional development workhops and is a NYS-approved provider of Continuing Ed for social workers. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a show that features true stories — with a twist — told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds, and music. Contact her at bookings@lifestage.org, Follow her on Twitter @JuTrWolff

When emotionally prepared and confident that we possess the skills to deal with as-yet unknown aspects of a new idea or situation, even the worst-case scenarios come to be seen as manageable.

“The first principle of improvisation -hearing offers- hinges on attunement, leaving our own persepctive to inhabit the perspective of another,” writes Daniel Pink in To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. “And to master this aspect of improvisation, we must rethink our understanding of what it is to listen and what constitutes an offer.” Digging into the meaning of improvisation exercises designed to cultivate these skills, he concludes that “once we listen in this new, more intimate way, we begin hearing things we might have missed. And if we listen this way during our efforts to move others, we quickly realize that what seem outwardly like objections are often offers in disguise.” (p. 192)

Improvisation may sound intimidating at first, but if the exercises and games are properly designed to gradually develop skills and psychological “muscles” for thinking and behaving in ways that make this spontaneous creative process possible, it is an ideal approach to understanding how this broaden-and-build theory works in real life. Creative activities, whether solo or in a community, activate the brain’s sense of reward in a way that makes us want to do them again and gain more mastery, which in turn increases the enjoyment and desire to continue. And its not so much about being happy at any given moment as it is about knowing we can be unhappy about some difficult life circumstances and at the same time engaged in something that makes us feel good. As a psychiatric inpatient I treated years ago once told me after a long afternoon in which the group improvised a sad, serious but often hilarious play and wrote a theme song, “even when your life is falling apart, you can still have a really good day.” And the laughs — especially the ones we have when our backs are against the wall — the social connection, the knowledge that through our own effort and action are the building blocks of happiness.

The daily experience on the psychiatric unit of St. Michaels Medical Center in downtown Newark, NJ where I worked early in my career as a music therapist was a continuous improvisation. Patients landed there from every possible life circumstance. Rutgers students with suicidal thoughts were roommates wit

will not be moved to act on a change by even the most compelling set of facts about its benefits if not emotionally prepared for the transition that will result. And if he could, he might consider such a world more like a prison than a palace. The question is — just as it is when we humans are faced with a possible future that hinges on a change in our choices — whether the opportunity is worth the cost.

Through the tools of improvisation, we can learn to respond to the stress triggered by uncertainty with some skills: experimentation, trying different approaches, learning what works and building on it. One definition of improvisation — which is play with a creative purpose — is “the conception of action as it unfolds, drawing on available affective, social and material resources,” from a paper titled Improvisation and Learning: Soulmates or Just Friends? The conception of what is possible becomes available through the creative process of using what we have available. Creative courage grows through using whatever emotional and social resources are at hand.

The entire relationship is an improvisation, just like a relationship I might have with a client when working as a therapist, an audience when performing or a class when teaching. We co-create a relationship one interaction at a time. We cannot imagine ahead of time what will come of it. We have to improvise our way through and discover it. And through learning to manage uncertainty and practice staying in the creative, improvisational mind set in the face of emotional stress we can consider changes that might be beneficial, even if at one time they were beyond our understanding of what is possible.