Master Improvisation, Master Impermanence

“Sometimes, it’s like life is really one big improvisation.” 

It has been several months since a guest on the Death Dhamma podcast made that comparison between life and improv. I am not an actor or a comedian, nor have I ever taken an improvisation course, yet something about his comment hit home. With my limited understanding of improv and my life lessons on impermanence, I began to see a correlation. 

Watching a well-played improv is to witness skillful acceptance of unanticipated, often improbable, and increasingly absurd scenarios and making it all seem that it was part of some master plan. Oh, and with lots of laughs along the way. Like life, only we need to throw in some tears because some of our real-world scenarios are not absurdly funny. They are complicated and sad. BOTH consist of a healthy dose of change and uncertainty. BOTH consist of predictable moments that are interspersed with plot twists. 

“The improv, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does, it’s like open-field running.” – Robin Williams.

Here are some of the rules that help to create a successful improv:

  1. Do not deny.

 “Denial is the number one reason most scenes go bad.” 

Other sources state this as you must agree. Not, you must like it but agree. In a good improv sketch, the players work with what they are given. This helps the sketch proceed smoothly and causes them and their audience less agony.

In the Four Noble Truths, we learn that in life, there is suffering. And that suffering comes from clinging and aversion. You don’t want ever separation from the people, places, and things you love. You don’t want to be sick or in pain. When you become separated from your loved ones and experience pain, ignoring reality and choosing denial only makes things more difficult. You do not have to like what is happening, but it is in your best interest to acknowledge it. That is a form of agreement. 

When you couple do not deny with you must agree, you come up with a way to ease your suffering. Work with what you are given. 

2. Say yes and…

           A good improv keeps flowing. In addition to working with you are given, you do your best not to miss a beat. Some actors and comedians are so quick that their improvisations seem scripted. Others use strategic transitions to string things together. “Yes and…” is a flawless transition. Whether said out loud or not, “Yes and…” is extremely powerful.  In Season 3, Episode 24 (“The One With The Ultimate Fighting Champion”) of the television series Friends,  there is an entire scene in Central Perk where Billy Crystal and Robin Williams show up as Tim and Tomas. Their appearances were unplanned. And it required the cast to take on the attitude of “Yes and….”

           In life, you will have surprises. When you can access your equanimity, you will see them simply as surprises, neither good nor bad. Some surprises can be harder to receive without being thrown off balance. A job loss. A diagnosis of cancer for yourself or a loved one. A phone call notifying you that a good friend has died. You don’t have to be as quick as a skilled actor, but you can draw on some “Yes and…” thinking to help you catch your breath and accept what you have handed and decided how to keep going. All of these are acceptable responses:

           “Yes, and I liked that job. I am not excited about looking for a new one, but I will do it.”


           “Yes, and I am freaked out about having cancer, but I will come to terms with it,”


           “Yes, and I am truly devasted by the death of my friend; I need to slow down and process this.”

3. Make statements. Statements drive good improv. Sometimes a sketch might begin with a very straightforward idea, such as:

“I am so sorry, but your credit card has been declined. I’ll need another form of payment.”


“Oh, I am so sorry, but pumpkin spice latte season ended yesterday! What other drink can I get you?”


“Sir, your suitcase will not fit in the overhead bin.”

           (Improv opening lines courtesy of ThoughtCo.


Be careful about the statements you make about yourself, or others, or your life. These statements are driving the flow. Pay attention to messages that encourage denial or make it more difficult to think “yes and…” or do not acknowledge impermanence. 

4. Play in the present and use the moment. The players in a good improv have a sense of the emotions of the scene and good timing. Sometimes that brings the drama, sometimes it gets the laughter, and sometimes it falls flat. They recognize that what they have to make the scene is right in front of them. And that is what we have too. Life is lived in the present moment. Of course, make choices that will support a happy and healthy future. Don’t be so busy thinking about your coming attractions that you forget what is right in front of you.

5. Change, change, change. Good improv is good because it is dynamic. It is interesting because you do not know what is coming, but you know that one of the players will change the scene, and soon. 

Impermanence, impermanence, impermanence. Life is dynamic. You can seek to keep an attitude of interest, of curiosity. You know that things will change. That is what you know. 

6. Commit and make choices. Even with the dynamic flow of improv, or perhaps especially with improvisation, the players choose a character, attitude, and outlook and move it forward. Meaning, based on what is currently occurring, they make choices that they think will best move the sketch forward. When that no longer serves, they commit to new decisions.

           Have you read the simile of the raft? In more than one sutta in the Pãli Canon, the Buddha describes how a man might construct a raft to cross a river. And once that man uses the raft to make it to the other side of the river, he would be foolish to continue his journey with the raft on his back. Once finished with the raft, he should set it aside.

           Make skillful choices to support yourself as you navigate life, death, and impermanence. Don’t cling to people, thoughts, or situations that no longer help your progress on the path. Remember, improv is all about impermanence, and impermanence calls upon you to improvise.

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