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.