The Improvisational Disciple
A particular kind of stand-up comedy, in which comedians perform jokes and skits in front of an audience, is called “improvisational,” or “improv” for short. This type of performance demands spontaneity on the part of the actors. Responding to incoming suggestions and comments from the audience, the unrehearsed, spur-of-the-moment skits require flexibility, openness, and comfort with the unexpected. One might dismiss this comedy as merely a form of entertainment and distraction. But this difficult theatrical craft has some spiritual lessons to teach us.
Some of the central techniques of improvisation offer insight into how to spend a lifetime in pursuit of God-realization. Four of the instructions given to aspiring comedians are:
- Say “yes” whenever possible (within moral and reasonable boundaries).
- If you are standing on stage with three other actors, you will have, at most, only one quarter control of the outcome.
- Work with the material given to you.
- Forget yourself and listen to your fellow actors with intensity and focus.
How are these comedic principles applicable to spiritual seekers? The first rule is to say “yes.” What does it mean for an initiate always to be saying yes? We acknowledge that whatever the Master asks us to do, whatever challenges are put before us, whatever opportunities for service present themselves to us, we will answer in the affirmative. We will enter every relationship and encounter with a positive attitude. When we say “yes,” we are not saying that we will always meet with success or happiness. We are saying that we will do our best, knowing that our Master only gives us what is for our spiritual benefit. Practically speaking, that means we would say yes when stuck in a traffic jam. We would say yes to the weather. It also can mean saying yes to our limited capacity to be the disciple we aspire to be, and yes to however long it takes to get to the eye centre.
The second teaching of improv is that while interacting with our fellow actors on the stage, and with the audience attending each performance, we have very little control over the situation. It is the same way in the cosmic dance of every individual. Each of us has a definite role to play, but our part is infinitesimally small. We are not in control of how any particular drama in our lives is going to play out. There are too many variables. In improv, who knows what the audience will suggest or what our fellow actors will say? In a disciple’s life, who knows how the people at work will respond to us? Who knows what our family will do on any given day? Seeing all the complex layers of interplay we have with so many souls, it is good to be reminded of the need to let go of any fantasies that we control our children, our spouse, our friends, or our fellow citizens. Each of us has a part to play in the drama of our karmic story.
Third, we all need to work with the raw material of our lives – all of it. We might wish we had a better script, more rehearsal time, more talented cast members, or a grander theatre. But in improv comedy, one’s capacity to take the given material and weave it into a compelling story is the secret to being effective and funny. Similarly, in life, being willing to work with what has been given to us (and what we must have karmically earned in other lives) is the beginning of surrender. The Masters teach us that our desire for more, different, better is endless and ultimately futile. In contrast, accepting the limitations and opportunities of our unique circumstances helps us to experience more appreciation, satisfaction, and contentment.
The fourth instruction is to forget ourself and listen intently, with focus. Listening is at the very heart of Surat Shabd Yoga. We have been instructed to forget about the self and to pay attention to something far greater. We are told to listen for the miraculous Sound Current that dwells within us. This Shabd surrounds us, sustains us, and permeates our life. Listening means paying attention to that love and mysterious energy that brought the sun and stars into being. When we listen during the bhajan portion of our meditation, we are trying to hear the power and the beauty that we sense in the Masters. We are trying to attune ourselves to what ultimately matters, to what is eternally true, and to the music that will take us to a place of infinite joy. We are told that even paying attention to the silence, even to the faintest echo of the Sound Current, prepares us to eventually listen to the majestic and ecstatic music that will pull us to God.
Very few of us aspire to be improvisational comedians. But surely we can learn from the discipline of this strange and surprising craft. If comedians can practise being positive, open, flexible, humble, and intensely focused on listening, why can’t we practise this approach in our spiritual lives? It helps to remember that we have already been given everything we need to accomplish this as we travel the path to God. Maharaj Charan Singh explains in Spiritual Discourses, Vol. II: “Does the Lord not know what you need? He who can fulfil all your needs can also decide what it is you need. Surrender yourself to him. Hand yourself over to him. And whatever he sees fit, he will give to you.”
Knowing that we have already been equipped with everything we need makes it much easier to say yes. Whatever is the script of our lives, it is sufficient. And we have been given the most important role a soul can have: to forget our small, petty selves and to listen with all the focus we can muster to the Divine music that calls us home.