31 Flavors of . . . TED


The more I live life, the more I’ve come to realize that the input stream of data that we experience every day is like a flavor.

There’s the flavor of my Facebook stream, the flavor of my email (personal and business).  There’s the flavor of people trying to get my attention on Linked In. There’s the flavor of the news.  There’s the flavor of the books I read, the apps I engage in, the music I listen to.  And then there’s the flavor of my own friends and family and the daily goings on of a life full of to do’s.

Last week I attended TEDActive 2015 in Whistler, a simulcast event coinciding with TED’s annual conference held in Vancouver.  More than 700 people attended; and if life’s data streams can each be equated to a flavor, then TEDActive is like an ice cream sundae. 

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The thing about TED and TEDActive that’s so powerful is our immersion into the bowl of ice cream for a full week.  Now, to be fair, anything that immersive is going to make a big impact on your life.  The flavor of TEDActive lingers in my brain especially through the variety of technologies that allow us to keep the flavor alive, e.g. an app called TED Connect, a Facebook group, access to all of the TED Talks (which allows me to relive the ones I saw and catch up on the ones I missed when I had to bail out to take a nap in order to catch up on sleep from the 3AM party the night before).

But even were we to compare TEDActive to a weeklong yoga retreat in Arizona or a weeklong excursion to Burning Man (which, in full disclosure, I’ve never attended), or a weeklong health getaway to a Costa Rican organic food resort, I still believe TED and TEDActive have something special to share to which no other flavor compares: and that’s global connectivity.

Any powerful experience can rock the brain, massage the neurons and coax oxytocin from our synapses and glands. But the underlying TED concept is global and growing exponentially: the power of ideas worth spreading.  TEDx, the localized, all volunteer, community organized version of TED has reached all corners of the Earth; and a large plurality, if not majority of TEDActive attendees were, in fact, TEDx organizers from around the world. 

Attending, for example, Lollapalooza, or even Woodstock, can have a lasting impact on your life and your mind, can fill you with memories, can be a pivotal moment in a personal journey, can alter the course of your life, could even alter the course of a generation, but a multi-day rock concert, or week long retreat doesn’t connect thousands of people to thousands of other people, to potentially billions of people, once the music has died down and once the memories have faded.  TED does.

The exponential growth of TED, it’s affiliate events, the amplification of the ideas shared at any and ALL TED events through TED Talks and TED.com, have started a revolution.  Like a web, descending, expanding, growing organically from within, TED is permeating the very fabric of society, bringing people from urban centers and small towns together in the name of intelligence and tolerance. TED has become a platform for ideas and is approaching critical mass, a tipping point, whereupon an idea or vision of a better future can resonate throughout a global network within minutes of being released onto a local stage. 

There are many platforms for messaging in today’s modern world, many outlets for social commentary, many microphones for verbal assault, many distribution points for flavored concoctions of all kinds, but TED, I believe, is something special, a special flavor, one that I crave and one that millions of global citizens are developing a taste for.  Once you’ve savored the flavor of TED, it’s sobering to taste some of the other media streams that pass for intelligent debate.  They’re second rate.  If you’ve attended a TEDx event, you know a little of what I mean.  If you’ve attended a major TED event, you’ve absorbed the flavor of hope and possibility and civility and creativity and curiosity and change, deep into your veins, deep into your brain; and from there and then, thankfully to TED, and to the marvels of 21st century technology and social connectivity, you will never be the same.




Sponsorship is a relationship.

Social media is a conversation.

“Knowledge isn’t power: sharing knowledge is power.”

Everyone’s heard the phrase by now “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  Here’s my humble variation on that: “When the student is ready, what the teacher’s been saying over and over will suddenly make sense!”

Has that ever happened to you?

When I was in my first year of law school at UCLA I won an award called the American Jurisprudence Award in the subject area of legal research and writing. I tell you this not to impress you, but, as Tony Robbins says, to impress upon you the concept of  being ready to hear what the teacher is saying.

In the beginning of the year the teacher told all of us that legal writing was different than any writing we had ever done.  She told us that we needed to do away with frilly prose and extended metaphors and focus on the facts.  She told us that the judges had no time for our opinions, they only wanted the truth about the case.  She told us EXACTLY how to lay out our argument and she even gave us a model to follow.  She told us that we had to get rid of all of our phrases and clauses and compound sentences.  She even told us that we had to get rid of ALL of our adjectives.  We could only use nouns and verbs.

In the first half of the year all of us failed to understand that what she was telling us was not only important, but essential, if we wanted to get an A and if we wanted, more importantly, to win our case in the courtroom.

We ALL knew better.  We were ALL great writers.  We were ALL “A” students.  We were ALL going to show her what great writing truly looked like . . . We ALL got B’s and C’s.

Fortunately for me, I had an epiphany.  I’m not sure how or why it happened, but somewhere toward the end of the first semester I realized that the professor was spoon feeding us a model of success and that ALL I had to do was follow the model in order to succeed.  But more importantly, all I had to do was let go of what was stopping me from succeeding.  I had to let go of my pre-conceived notions of what a legal brief should look like or what legal prose should sound like, taste like, smell like.  I had to open my mind to something new that was being delivered up on a platter for me.

I spent this past weekend with an amazing group of people at an event put on by Roberto Candelaria (@humanreturns) called Sponsorship Boot Camp®.  This isn’t a pitch or an ad for Roberto but it is a pitch and an ad for opening your mind to someone else’s successful working model.  Roberto’s true talent up until now has been building relationships with corporations that lead to successful sponsorships for for-profit and, of particular importance to me, non-profit organizations.  But now, Roberto is emerging as a new talent in the realm of sharing knowledge to empower others, a professor, if you will, serving up a model for how to go about building sponsorship relationships with corporations so that you can fund your for-profit or not-for-profit enterprise and achieve all of the hopes and dreams and goals that you have for serving your clients, constituents and populations in need.

Roberto introduced another individual at the event and gave some great airtime to Mr. Raphael Love (@raphaellove).  Raphael’s expertise is as a social media business strategist.  He’s an overflowing fountain of knowledge willingly sharing how to connect with your target audience in today’s digital, social world.  Whether you are running a fortune 500 company, a small business, the United Way® or a local lemonade stand to benefit a local charity, social media is the new driving force that is making the difference for these organizations and helping them grow and spread their message both domestically and internationally in real time, and at speeds never before imagined, due to the viral nature of the internet and the global connectivity of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, to name two.

Another rising talent showcased by Roberto was a man named Michael Hunter (@akaJett).  Michael is a young, successful marketing strategist who understands the value of strategic planning and how marketing, sponsorship and social media are inexorably intertwined with the fundamentals of your business/ organizational strategy.  According to Michael, to put anything ahead of strategy is in essence to put the cart before the horse and guarantee a fast track really to nowhere, spinning the wheels of your company or non-profit.

All of these individuals were serving up a message and a model that we could use to increase the success of our endeavors.  So many more successful leaders, speakers, authors, business owners and non-profit visionaries were in the audience hoping to learn, wanting to learn, wanting to improve some aspect of what they themselves were offering or hoping to offer to their own clientele.  But like so many who have come to learn before at events like these, or even through books and CD’s in the comfort of their own home, the true success that we have depends less on the message of the teacher than on the willingness and readiness of the student to listen and to be open to the ideas that are being offered up, sometimes eloquently and magnificently, on a silver platter.

And so, when I had the following recent (meaning yesterday) epiphany, I simply wanted to share it with those in attendance and those in future attendance and those who will attend similar events or seek similar guidance from other sources:

What I awakened to in the presence of Roberto was that a corporate sponsorship is a relationship.  Throw away all of your pre-conceived notions and think “Friendship (real people, long term) with a mutual, tangible business/organizational benefit.”

What I awakened to in the presence of Raphael was that social media is a conversation.  Think “Friendship, listening, talking, sharing, caring, adding value to the relationship.”

What I awakened to in the presence of Michael was that “knowledge isn’t power: sharing knowledge is power.”  Think “Friendship, giving, adding value, differentiating yourself by your willingness to share and the credibility and authority you create and true generosity you demonstrate by sharing.”

All of these individuals probably delivered up more messages that maybe I didn’t awaken to, but that someone else did.  Even though I’ve spent the past few paragraphs emphasizing the common thread of friendship, sharing and conversation that is woven throughout the specific world of business and non-profit corporate sponsorship, social media and strategic planning,  the purpose of this particular blog isn’t just to share the specifics about yesterday’s epiphany or what I learned at any particular continuing education conference.

The purpose of this blog post is to share with you the moment of “meta-awareness” that I experienced 20 years ago in law school and how I’ve tried to apply that memorable and momentous original epiphany to every other aspect of personal and professional growth in my life.  The knowledge is all around you.  Sometimes it’s overwhelming; but sometimes you are truly blessed and fortunate enough to have it served up on a platter.  What are the triggers?  How can we know? How can we awaken from our trance-like state to accept when a model or a step by step guide or “how to” is being delivered to us?  How can we get out of our own way, get out of our own thought patterns that prevent us from seeing?  Why was I able to see more quickly 20 years ago what others couldn’t see or hadn’t yet seen?

How does the student become ready?

To a Zen practitioner, the answer comes as a parable.  And I will paraphrase horribly whatever original form the story took:

Once there was a man who came to a Buddhist monk to seek a path to enlightenment.  The monk offered the man some tea. Of course the man accepted and the monk began filling his cup with tea.  As the cup became full to the brim the tea began to spill over but the monk continued pouring.  This went on for some time and the man clearly was becoming perplexed, frustrated and then angry.  Finally he couldn’t contain his anger any longer and he exclaimed “STOP! What are you doing foolish monk.  Can’t you see that the cup is already full.”  To which the monk replied, “ Ah, and so it is with the mind.  How can you expect to find wisdom and a path to enlightenment when your mind is already full of preconceptions and false ideas.  To become enlightened you must first empty your mind.”

And so I leave you with a quote from Lao Tzu from the Tao Te Ching:

In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added.

In the pursuit of wisdom, every day something is dropped.

What can you let go of that will help you see the gifts that are lying before you?


R. Kali Woodward (@YouthLit21E) is the Founder and Executive Director of the American Youth Literacy Foundation, a 501 (c) (3) charitable non-profit dedicated to creating a literate America and a literate world in the 21st century.  www.YouthLit.orgwww.Facebook.com/YouthLit.org. He is the author of Meta: The New Intelligence for All Human Potential (A book for teens and young adults), and Happy Plaid Cats Stack Black Hats.  (Both available on Amazon.com.) Photo by permission: Elyssa F., http://whollyart.com, with special thanks to Elayna Fernandez, the Positive Mom Foundation, and Abby Clemence (@sponsorgoddess), infinitysponsorship.com.au.Image

The 5 C’s that will absolutely change how you look at everything!


If you fall from really high up and hit water . . . everyone knows the rest of the story. It’s like hitting concrete. Why? Because of physics. Water takes time to move and if you hit it too fast the molecules don’t have time to separate and the result is . . . it’s very hard.

Conversely, if you push on water very slowly it’s as soft as air. So I’m going to tell you the 5 C’s that absolutely will change how you look at everything from now until the end of your life and that absolutely will change how you progress through your life.

If you are ready to completely alter your perspective on reality, then continue reading. . .

The 5 C’s are Clarity, Certainty, Cost, Contribution and Change.

It’s been said that everything ever created by human beings began as an idea. From things as simple as a pot made out of clay to a rocket to the moon, vision has led the way. First we imagine and then we create. Even things that seem like accidents such as a broken stone that became a knife, are in fact inspiration and ideas before they become reality. The broken stone must be perceived as a knife before it can be used as a tool. Falling into a hole gives someone the idea of a trap and then they build a trap. Inspiration happens all the time, so where ideas come from is not the subject of this blog post. Rather, we are simply acknowledging that ideas lead to action.

Take a look at the 5 C’s and you will see that Clarity is an adjective that describes ideas. Ideas are either clear or not clear. Especially when it comes to complex, multi-step ideas, what may seem like a good idea at first can quickly become blurry and obfuscated by unknowns and questions. Such is the case with virtually all of the great endeavors in human history. You don’t have to look very far to find a good example. Columbus had an idea to sail west. After about 15 minutes of questioning it became clear that he didn’t know exactly what he would find. Hence, it took him a decade of his life to convince someone to fund his voyage. What seems like a good idea in business and in life can quickly lead to a complex jungle of what if’s and unknowns.

When we are beset by too many what if’s and unknowns we lose certainty. And without certainty, nothing happens. This may be the most important concept that you will ever come across in the world of self help or human achievement or motivational speaking or “how to,” or related areas of study, so I’ll say it again. Without Certainty, NOTHING HAPPENS!

Now, is that an exaggeration? If you want to nit pick you could say that that’s not literally true. The world goes on even if you’re not certain. But the point is this: humans don’t take action or do anything in their personal or professional lives without some level of certainty that the choice they are making is the best option at the time. You can always choose to do nothing, but as the saying goes, even this is a choice.

People don’t build bridges unless they are certain that they want to and that it will be successful. People don’t start companies unless they have some degree of certainty that there is an opportunity to make money. People don’t follow a leader unless they are certain that the leader has a plan and is steering them in the right direction. People don’t choose a box of cereal unless they are certain that they, or someone they’re buying it for, might like it.

Nothing happens without certainty. Without certainty we hesitate and we wait for more information and we don’t take action. We wait for more urgency. We wait to see what others do. We wait for someone to tell us what to do. We wait and see because we don’t want to make a mistake and we don’t want to fail and we don’t want to waste resources. We would rather wait.

And how do we get to Certainty? Through Clarity. Clarity leads to Certainty. Clarity is the wind machine that blows away the fog of uncertainty and illuminates the path into the future for as far as we can possibly see. Clarity shows us the way and the steps and the end result and gives us the certainty we need to take action. Clarity shows us the “what if we do’s” and “what if we don’t’s,” and helps us decide.

So the path to all action and achievement starts with Clarity which leads to Certainty. The path then can be quantified and this quantification is Cost. Cost is the price that each step along the way will exact upon our resources be they monetary resources, time, energy, emotional reserves or whatever. If we follow this path, this is what we can expect. It will be easy. It will be hard. It will cost a lot. It will be cheap. It will quickly lead into the unknown so we have to be prepared and bring extra supplies and capabilities. It will be over in 5 minutes and uneventful so I’ll just run out in my slippers and make it happen. We naturally assess costs but the process of assessing costs is critical and becomes more critical when we attempt more and more complex endeavors that entail more risk and more unknowns and take longer and have built in uncertainties along the way. The more clearly we can predict costs, the more this will reinforce our certainty and allow us to commence the next phase which is Contribution.

Contribution is what we do after we determine costs. We make a contribution. In other words we take action and begin expending energy and resources. We may have to solicit contributions. We may have to find money and in kind donations or sponsors who add value in non-monetary ways. We may have to hire people to get more human energy focused on the goal or we may be able to find volunteers, depending on the nature of our project and our organization and our vision and goal. But without contribution, nothing gets done. We can have Clarity and Certainty and know our Costs, but our vision will remain undeveloped without Contribution.

Add all of these together and you can begin to see how they will beget Change. When humans take action and make a contribution, things get done. When they know the costs and prepare for them and acquire the necessary resources, things get done. When we have certainty, that paves the way for determining costs and acquiring contribution, and so things get done. When we have Clarity, that leads to Certainty which set the other pieces in motion and things get done. When all of the first 4 C’s are in place then Change happens. Slowly the contribution of many pushes against the universal soup, the matter and energy that we live in, and we begin to transform resources into products and vision into organized productivity. We make Change.

The 5 C’s can be applied to any and ALL aspects of human achievement from the smallest pot, or the individual painting, or the new relationship, or the makeover of our physical selves or the organization of others into a company or volunteer group or non-profit, or the organization of a sporting league or the creation of a new television show or the production of a movie or the founding of a nation or a global movement for universal literacy for all children.

The 5 C’s are grounded in physics and neuroscience and Zen. They are grounded in the physics of transforming matter and energy. They are grounded in the neuropsychology of human decision making. And they are grounded in the fundamental Buddhist philosophy that all things change, nothing is permanent, that life and matter and Earth are also like water. Push on them slowly, steadily, with Clarity, Certainty. Know the Cost. Rally the Contribution . . . and you will affect Change.


Author, Kali Woodward (that’s me), is the founder and executive director of the American Youth Literacy Foundation. Every 6 years 18 million illiterate children drop out of America’s schools. “We are reversing the literacy crisis and CHANGING the education paradigm in America.”  Join us at http://www.YouthLit.org

Improv 3


Is Improv Really Therapy?  A look inside the brain of improv students and other secrets hidden in the interstitial spaces of the improvisational mind.

When I look around the room and when I listen to the words that come out of an improv participant’s mouth I can’t help but wonder if I’m participating in some kind of group therapy.

Spontaneity, by definition, somehow bypasses the filters that keep us on track in our social lives.  So if you say “rose” and I say “pink,” does that somehow open an inner chamber to my true character?  What if I had said “thorn,” or “black?”  What then?  Denying that we are human is impossible, so it must say something.

The one thing I like about improv class is freedom.  An improv class is a place of trust, a place where people don’t judge, they listen, where people don’t judge, because they don’t want to be judged.  A place where people want to laugh if you lead them to it and a place where they’re willing to think if you let them.  We are, at once, audience and actors, souls unclothed, disrobed, unarmed, naked . . . that is, if we allow ourselves to be.

There’s one thing I don’t like about improv class, and that’s the whole concept of forced spontaneity.  Sometimes I feel that I’m more “improvvy” in my own kitchen talking to my 4 year old. In fact, I know I am. Songs (ditties, really) come pouring out of me (usually before I’ve had my coffee).  He’s wacky, so that allows me to be wacky, not to mention the fact that you can say just about anything to a 4 year old and get away with it. They don’t judge you.  The world is spontaneous.  Anything is possible.  They’re just along for the ride.  If you create the model for what adults do (sing, dance, act weird) then that’s what they believe adults do.  They haven’t anything to compare you to . . . yet.  And so it must be hard for parents as the world creeps in to your child’s brain and you suddenly find yourself being judged.  I know I’ve experienced it before with my older son, and mostly I shake it off as “that world out there, what do they know? Polluting my child’s mind with rules and whatever someone else’s opinion is of socially acceptable.”

So, in a way, an improv class is a little bit like kindergarten . . . a place where the teacher can tell everyone to walk around and pretend to be an elephant and nobody really cares what you look like because they’e having too much fun being an elephant themselves.

But what happens to the brain when suddenly you’re asked to be an elephant all by yourself while everyone else sits and watches you be an elephant?  Well, you start to think.  That’s what happens.  And therein lies the problem.  You start to ask yourself things like, “Am I connecting with the audience?  Are they enjoying my elephant act? What else should I do besides lift up my trunk and make noise?”  You start to become . . . YOU!

We start to think and that’s not really connecting, is it?  No, that’s looking inward and listening to our little voice.  And little voices usually aren’t very spontaneous.  They’re sometimes downright authoritarian.

So then the challenge becomes this: whatever you do, don’t listen to the little voice.  And I think about talking to my son in the kitchen.  In the kitchen, there is no little voice.  When you are all walking around being elephants there is no little voice.  When nobody’s watching, there is no little voice.  Freud would probably call the little voice the “ego.”  The elephant acting kindergartner is the “id.”  And the superego, well, that’s the subject of another blog.

The little voice, the ego, is the developed adult sense of self concept.  Who am I (from a social standpoint, not an existential one)?  What do I do? How do I act? What do I wear? The little voice says, “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing right now? Acting the fool?”  When I’m in the kitchen with a 4 year old, life is a joke, everything is foolish.  When an entire room of adults is given “permission” to be elephants, we’re all foolish.  We suspend our judgements for a moment.  But when we’re asked to act alone, the suspension of judgement becomes a personal thing, a personal challenge, an act of will, an act of letting go.  We’re told it’s ok to be spontaneous, but we’re not sure we believe it.  And so we question ourselves . . . we think.

Balancing the mind, I think, is an artistic underpinning of improv.  Quieting the mind is an underpinning of Zen meditation, as is emptying the mind.  But as I’ve discussed in previous musings, improv remains in the frontal lobe, it remains in the Freudian social realm, it remains, even though it dances around, in the world of tangible thoughts, memories, personalities and nuances of the communicative mind.  Improv is a communication; and without a partner or an audience, it’s just a pontification . . . and pontifications can become lonely solitude and pensive aberrations of the human condition; and that’s not at all what improv longs to be.

Improv is stupidity.  It’s slapstick,  it’s a laugh.  Improv is a dance . . . and it’s a gas.  Improv is a punchline, where none existed . . . and it’s a joke, without resistance.  Improv is an opportunity (to be and to become) . . . to be told, and to succumb, to be free . . . and to rebel, to be silly . . . and to tell the world . . . to go to hell!

Improv is a 4 year old, a stream of consciousness.  A wistful thought, unfettered and unbound.  A race, to jump in muddy puddles, and to act like elephants, and stomp around.

Improv 2


Neuro: Neuroscience.  Study of the brain.


Zen: Zen Buddhist philosophy and practice.


Chaos: Nonlinear mathematics and complexity science derived originally from “chaos theory.”



Improv isn’t Zen.  If it was, it would lead to enlightenment and spiritual fulfillment. If it was (or should I say “if it were?” I’m never 100% sure about that rule), anyway, if it was/were, then it would have a long history of spiritual leadership and a large following of people who have flocked to improv for thousands of years to find peace and oneness with the universe.  So it’s not Zen.  Here’s a quick, down and dirty primer on Zen:


Zen is a practice of meditation wherein the meditator attempts to think about nothing.  The meditator sits, usually in a lotus position (but any position will do if you have sore knees or what have you), and tries not to think about anything.  The novice is instructed to count to ten and then start over.  A primary focus is on the breathing, focusing on the inhalation through the nostrils and the exhalation through the mouth.  The eyes are semi shut but not closed.  The intermediate meditator won’t usually count but may say a mantra to his/herself during the breaths.  The advanced meditator may or may not forgo the mantra.  Even very advanced meditators such as Zen monks will admit that it is not easy to think about nothing.  The brain is constantly sending thoughts up into consciousness.  The goal is to acknowledge the thought and let go of it.  When you meditate, sometimes you will catch yourself thinking about something for several minutes before you remember that you are supposed to let it go and think about nothing.  Over time, (for most students progress takes months and then years) you will get better and better at letting thoughts go as soon as they arrive in your consciousness. If you are truly “blessed,” you will be able to achieve “centering” almost immediately upon beginning to meditate and maintain that state for long periods of time (20 minutes to an hour or more).  A good friend of mine once told me that a true Zen master can center himself in a single breath.


What happens to the brain when one meditates is not 100% clear.  A few years ago the Dalai Lama did a series of interviews with neuroscientists from an American university and established a strong relationship that lead to a study of the brains of Tibetan monks using fMRI scanning while the monks were meditating.  Feel free to google all of this.  From my experience and based on my background I hypothesize that the act of meditating and trying to think about nothing has a profound influence on the role that the  frontal lobe and the prefrontal cortex play in our perception of reality and our approach to the environmental and social data we experience in our daily lives.


Zen Buddhism is a philosophy combined with a practice that actually alters the neural connections of the brain.  This concept should not be over inflated however, since everything alters the neural connections of the brain in one way or another; for example, studying or learning, taking drugs, eating, thinking, worrying, practicing a sport or hobby etc.  But Zen meditation alters the brain in a way that no other sport, hobby or academic inquiry will.  It literally breaks down the sense of permanence and absoluteness that our waking conscious mind has had on our self perception and our perception of the world since we were children.  If you believe in evolution, which I hope you do, Zen meditation brings us closer to a part of our selves that predates even the primitive brain of apes or early mammals, a part of ourselves that is much deeper, that predates four legged fish, that predates no-legged fish, that is found in every cell of our bodies because it was found in the original cell of life, the amoeba, or possibly the bacterium.  And this part of our selves has never left the original building block of ourselves, which is the cell.  Within every living cell is an essence of life.  We (meaning all life forms and all of our evolutionary forms that date back 2.5 billion years or more) have known that we were alive since we were first alive and despite the increasing complexity of our central nervous systems and the brain like clusters that our ancestors possessed and the reptile brains that our later ancestors possessed and the apelike brains that our primate ancestors possessed and the incredibly complex frontal lobes that we now possess, despite all of these layers of complexity that have been added to our currently evolved human selves, the essence of life and the awareness that we are alive has been in every cell of every evolving form of us since the first amoeba or bacterium split and became two amoebae or bacteria.  And Zen meditation detaches us from the relatively recent layers of complexity and redirects our awareness back to the source of our selves, the essence of life that exists within every cell of our bodies.  And this is the essence of Zen.


Once you have achieved a certain level of practice you begin to feel this connectedness.  You don’t “think” it, you feel it.  You can’t feel it by just reading about it, you have to “do” the meditation over and over in order to begin to experience it.  Once you begin to experience it, you begin to see the frontal lobe and all of the thoughts that you carry around with you and all of the perceptions and misperceptions and all of the biases and prejudices and all of the fears and all of the joys as strange baggage that is disconnected from the reality of the essence of life and beyond life, the essence of energy, which is the essence of all things in the universe.  You begin to see your own strange baggage and you begin to perceive the baggage of others as just baggage and you begin to see through the baggage to the essence of other people as if the baggage wasn’t there and you begin to know people instantly for what they truly are, what their core is, what their soul is, what their spiritual makeup is.  And even though we are all made of the same thing, the same essence, and even though our baggage isn’t real, just acquired random junk that might as well be totally different random junk had we been born at another time or in another place or in a different family or had something random not happened to us when we were young; and even though all of this baggage is just baggage, we still have an inner core composition, an inner structure, an inner energy that can be likened to a soul or a spirit; and this is what you begin to see when you have practiced meditation for quite a long time.


So improv isn’t Zen; but then what is it?  I’m beginning to think that improv is two things.   One, it’s a “complex adaptive system,” especially when it involves multiple players.  Two, it’s a rearranging of the baggage in the frontal lobe.  Let’s talk about the second one first.  You see, if you go back to old terminology from Freudian type psychology, we have an id, an ego and a superego.  Well, the ego is our sense of self.  Others have called it our self concept.  It’s really just the outward person that we display in our world on a daily basis.  It’s the accumulation of experiences and hopes and fears and attitudes and relationships that we have with other human beings.  It’s what we wear, what we say, what kind of car we drive and who we think we are.  It’s our past successes and failures and our reasonable perception of our ability to succeed or fail in the future at any particular endeavor.  And it’s an accumulation of neural connections including memories, accents, voices, and the ability to make new connections, jokes, the ability to fall into character or become a new character and assume the body language, behavioral attributes, accent etc. of that character and to act and to say what that character might say while creating all of this material on the fly using our imagination and our ability to discover connections in our brains that we didn’t know existed until we went looking for them.  


Improv is the ability to take on someone else’s baggage and temporarily discard or disregard our own.  And there’s the rub.  Doing improv, I would put down my own hat and pick up the hat say of Lady Gaga, pretend to be Lady Gaga, then take off Lady Gaga’s hat and put my own hat back on.  End of skit.  With Zen, I would think about nothing and in thinking about nothing I would come to realize that the hat I wear isn’t real, (nor is Lady Gaga’s for that matter) it’s just an illusion, and wearing it may serve some purpose as I walk among other hat wearers, but all hats are interchangeable and, in the end, are just baggage.


I hope this doesn’t sound too negative.  I’m only in search of truth, and it is relatively obvious to me now that improv is the act of exchanging baggage temporarily, usually in an effort to find comic relief.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Laughter is wonderful and amazing and one of my favorite things.  And that’s why I am certain at this time that I will continue to pursue this challenge of improv, for it does pose some interesting challenges, namely, the ability to drop one’s own hat and pick up another.  In fact the facility with which we can exchange hats is no doubt one of the measures of exceptionalism in the art.


Now, as for part 1 above, improv as a complex adaptive system.  Out of chaos theory arose in the 1970’s a variety of nonlinear mathematical disciplines including complexity theory, fractal geometry, catastrophe theory, dissipative structures far from equilibrium, and complex adaptive systems.  You can google all of these.  In particular, the area of systems theory has to do with input and output processes that may occur in nature or in a factory or in a human brain or in a series of complex relationships between humans in a benevolent social melee.  One of the particular features found in complex adaptive systems is the concept of homeostasis.  Homeostasis is the balance between actors in a given closed or semi-open system.  So a particular example is a salt water fish tank.  (For an excellent introduction into this stuff read Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control.) The fish and the seaweed and the snails and the plants all have to achieve a certain chemical balance with each other or else the entire system will fail and all of the creatures will die whether it be from ammonia levels that rise or oxygen levels that fall or what have you.  The chemical balance in a fish tank, like the chemical balance in the human body is very complex and very sensitive.  If outside forces throw it out of balance then bad things happen.  But if it is able to lock into homeostasis, then the balance becomes robust and is hard to destroy.  This accounts in part for the robustness of human life and human relationships.  They are elastic, they bend but don’t break as easily as one might think.  News flash: Rihanna has just broken up with Chris Brown . . . again. This time it’s REALLY over.


In the improv setting there may be two or more characters and a plot line.  The skit begins and the characters dance around the plot line looking for synchrony.  In a successful skit the synchrony is found either in a word or a theme or an idea or a concept that both actors can agree on and embellish. The closed loop system of the skit begins to amplify and perhaps to include audience laughter and participation.  The actors lock into their roles and their character and the characters refine and develop.  This all happens within seconds.  Good improv is like Seinfeld on steroids, the character development and script writing that took years to fine tune on Seinfeld can be fine tuned in improv within a minute or less; and the outcome can be uproarious, a spontaneous complex adaptive system that finds homeostasis and becomes robust as the neural connectivity of two or more complex human minds find each other’s funny bones. There are many more applications of nonlinear math that apply to improv that I’m sure I’ll write about in the weeks to come.  


For now, still learning and hopefully improving.  I see improv as a potential joy ride (if you can learn to become versatile with hats(and let go temporarily of your baggage)) with far reaching applications and very practical implications for manipulating that strange baggage through this daily life . . . even if it’s all only an illusion.

Improv 1




First of all, the brain is an improv machine.  Well, ok, it’s sort of passé to use the metaphor of machine for the brain now that we’re in the 21st century, so let’s just say, the brain is a very spontaneous thing, constantly registering and reacting to the environmental data that bombards our person from the moment we awaken in the morning to the moment we awaken the next morning.  

But if there’s one thing I know about improvisational comedy, it’s that I know nothing about improv.  Well, that’s not exactly true either.  A couple of days ago I decided to sign up for an improv Meetup near my home outside of Philadelphia.  So I did, and I went to my first ever Meetup to begin my new career as an improv comedian.  In describing myself to the group of 4 adults and one 8 year old, I suggested that I used to do improv when I was 8 but took about 40 years off.

I really wasn’t lying because I remember distinctly my early days of standup and improv in my third grade classroom.  My jokes were spur of the moment and based upon the dialogue (or monologue) going on at the time.  The funnier the jokes, the more the children laughed, the more chaos I created, the more trouble befell me.  Hey, it was worth it.  I was a masochistic class clown, willing to suffer the pain for the pleasure of the moment.  I prayed at the alter of hilarity.  I was a neuro-daredevil, seeking comic relief in the dungeons and canyons of authoritarian rigor, ever at odds with conformity enforcement, treading a razor thin edge between quiet tolerance, forgiveness and banishment to the principal’s office.  So you see, this is how my improv career began and ended in third grade (well, it didn’t really end in third grade but it slowly degraded over the years until there were no classrooms left to disrupt, no spontaneous gaps in thought in which to insert unexpected punchlines, no forgiving teachers, only unamused professors or intolerant bosses).  I was supposed to mature . . . and so I did, more or less; and the spontaneity of life abated.

So much can be said about improv, so much can be said before I’ve even taken my second class.  In fact, I was thinking about the act of writing a blog about improv and I was thinking that writing itself is really improv.  You see, no one sits down to write a blog or a story or a book and has the entire thing in his/her head just waiting to get out onto the paper.  Writing is the journey, the evolution, the discovery and the creation of the story, the book, the blog.  Tying the end to the beginning happens spontaneously but the end cannot be foreseen until it is stumbled upon.  Here I am in the middle of this first entry, there are many things that I will or could describe, the neuroscience of spontaneous thought, the Zen nature of the empty mind and how it relates to improvisational creativity, creativity itself and how it manifests in comedic theatre, etc., etc., etc., (someone once told me that writing etc. more than once is redundant, but I think redundancy is funny, especially when you do it over and over).

So where was I?  Oh yea, the possibilities for writing about improv are endless; so that’s why I’m writing this blog.  I want to record the journey of my discovery.  I want to try to explain what I think I know about improv and how it relates to the brain, Zen Buddhism, creativity, other art forms, social psychology, comedy, nonlinear mathematics and a bunch of other stuff.  Then I want to just do it and see what I discover, see what insight I have, see what it teaches me about myself and about others.

Before I opened the door to the apartment where the Meetup was held, I was anticipating what might occur.  There might be a sort of an “introduce yourself” period where people go around the room and talk about themselves and why they signed up for the Meetup.  I was thinking that I might be asked “Why did you sign up for the Improv Meetup?” or “What do you want to get out of the Meetup?”  So I put a little thought into this and I decided that my answer would be, “I signed up to learn.”  You see, after I had thought about all of the other possible reasons I might give, the one that made the most wholistic sense to me was the fact that I chose Improv in order to learn.  I want to learn about this art form and I want to learn about what it does to the mind when one practices this art form.  I want to learn how to do improv better and I want to experience the improvement that comes with practice.  You see, for some reason, I believe that improv is truly the essence of humanity.  Sure, sometimes it’s funny, but that’s a particular genre, I believe (and one that I’m certainly attracted to). But improv can also be dramatic, sad, angry, esoteric.  And improv can also be competitive.  And improv is also a generic term for what we all do every day of our lives: we “improvise.”  Whether we are working, cooking, playing, or engaging in mundane activities, there are infinite ways in which we improvise every day to solve problems, deal with situations, engage other human beings.  We guesstimate, we anticipate, we predict.  That’s what the brain does.  When we are children, we have fewer limitations, we act and we react and we are spontaneous.  We are creative and we talk and we listen and we respond and we engage and we dance in a cosmic dance with each other and with the universe.  As we age, we curb our thoughts and our tongue.  We parse our words, we watch our step, we learn from harsh lessons and painful feedback.  We become less spontaneous and less willing to take risk.  We know that certain actions will beget equal and opposite reactions.  So we are careful.  In some ways this is valuable; it allows us to function in a peaceful, modern society. In other ways it’s constraining and limits our growth and our potential.  We need to strike a balance and my balanceometer led me to improv as a way to break out of the box, so to speak, as a way to find a place to let go and to explore.  You see, for me, it’s about exploration.  I’m an explorer; and along this journey of life I seek to find treasure.  Many of the treasures I seek are what you might call “insights” or “aha moments.” I call them neural connections.  I seek neural connections that shed light on an area of unexplained relationships, neuro-psychological relationships, nonlinear mathematical relationships, socio-political relationships, Zen Buddhist philosophies as they relate to neuro-socio and neuro-psychological relationships, etc., etc., etc.

So that’s it for now, I guess. This is just a beginning.  Later we’ll continue to explore more about what we know about the brain, Zen Buddhism and nonlinear mathematics. And when we achieve new insights, we’ll try to relate them to what we know and suggest what they might reveal.  In the end, we’ll have an accounting of a journey of discovery that may lead a reader to make new discoveries of her own.  Constantly evolving we are, constantly learning, constantly growing, constantly adapting, constantly improvising.  I hope you join me on this journey into “Improv.”


Thank you : )