Be Obvious. Getting unstuck by writing down the facts.

I make a deliberate effort to post only things that I feel add positivity to the world, so you may mistake me for an-always-optimistic-person. That’s the benefit of having such a curated online existence! But as an unedited human, living the day-to-day off the screen sometimes I too hit every red light, burn the toast, snap at the sales rep, or feel down for no clear reason at all.

In the early days of my interest in mindfulness and deliberate living, I thought the goal was to eliminate the down days and maximize and multiply the up days. But now I realize that the down days make the up days up and that I can experience the down as part of the beauty of the human experience with the full knowledge that I’ll get out of it.

Getting out of it, though, is something that I’m mystified and intrigued by. It eludes me a little less with this practice inspired by improvisational theater (improv).

Gary Hirsch gave an improv workshop at WDS and wrangled all 3000 of us into what may have been the world’s largest improv scene. It was awesome and Gary’s energy and enthusiasm was inspiring. If I hadn’t already signed up for an improv class having caught wind of how amazing it was from a different conference, I would have ridden the wave of inspiration and done so immediately after his 3000 person improv session. Gary was walking around in a shirt that said, “Be obvious.”

It struck me in that moment as incredibly insightful. In improv being obvious relieves the mental pressure to come up with something funny. Watching some professional improvisers do their thing the other week, one gal (or, rather, her character) completely misunderstood when her scene partner called her a “working girl.” We all understood it to mean “prostitute,” but she took it at face value. The entire scene then developed around this character’s naïveté. They just went with what was given. That’s the beauty of improv. It’s all “and” and no “but.” There’s no “you misunderstood me”; it’s all an opportunity to build something hilarious.

I started to notice the value this principle had off the stage in my daily life.

For example, I’ve recently moved to Portland, Oregon. It’s quite a transition to be in a new part of the country, to live in a city after 5 years of rural living, to be working again after 9-months off. Mostly it feels great, but as with any moment of growth (or just life), there is some pain. Some loneliness. Sometimes I feel anxious or sad or worried or irritated. So I started this practice of just listing off, in the most matter of fact way possible, the things that are happening in my life or my day. Be obvious.

In being obvious I might say something like: There’s sunshine today. You are looking out a window onto four rows of food and flowers growing out of the ground, you are sitting in your yellow room that came fully furnished in a house that feels good to be in.You’ve just moved yourself to Portland, Oregon. (And then I often marvel for a second that I actually did that, got myself here, and that everything is fine. Better than fine, even! Miracles happened…then I’m off in the vivacious circle of goodness in no time! Well, at least some of the time that happens.)

I try to start out with facts that are simple with a tinge of positivity, but nothing over-the-top optimistic or enthusiastic. I do steer a bit away from facts that give momentum to pouting, irritation, etc. And it turns out that it doesn’t take that many slightly-positively-tinged facts to start to shift my mood and my outlook.

Be obvious. What do you see in your life right now?

Let go. Notice more. Use Everything.

“Let go.
Notice more.
Use everything.
…since each of these phrases is also an action, you could start practicing now without even getting into specifics. In the very next conversation you have, you could let go of trying to control the outcome, devote more attention to what other people say or make an effort to use anything that happens to feed the flow of the conversation—including interruptions, disagreements or misunderstandings that you might normally ignore. A small shift perhaps, but one that, if taken to heart, can create a big difference.
The advantage of this simple practice is that you have less to remember. It relieves the pressure of keeping up with the explosion of new ideas that abound in the management literature (or the self-help books). You can exchange the restless search or a quick fix for the quiet patience of a practice. Whatever happens, you can go back to the same simple, familiar ideas and apply them again. Over time you deepen and internalize your understanding, so that you can bring these ideas to bear quickly and easily, without even thinking about them consciously.”

A longtime believer in the power of practices (as opposed to changing behavior through sheer willpower or “step” systems) and a newcomer to the world of improvisational theater, I nearly cheered aloud when I read this passage from Robert Poynton’s Everything’s An Offer: How To Do More with Less , a book on using improvisational theater in everyday life.

I started to think of my big 3 practices for life in a new light. Less to remember! Bypass information glut! Yay!

My guiding practices are:

Nonviolent communication. (Practicing mostly informally for about 3 years.) It helps me with authentic participation and connection.
Improv. (Practicing for 3 weeks.) It further supports this by helping me practice non-judgment and acceptance (saying yes).
And Vipassana Meditation (practicing for 7 months) forms a solid foundation with perhaps the most general and seriously useful practice of equanimity (seeing things as they are and not blindly reacting).

Do you have practices that you find you keep coming back to?

Elimination is not the same as cultivation.

I began understanding the significance of this when I read what Martin Seligman (positive psychologist at UPenn) wrote about mental wellness and illness in his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being.

He relays a lesson he learned when he first began practicing psychotherapy. Working with folks who struggled with mental illness like depression, he found that when he succeeded in treating the depression, that didn’t automatically yield a happy, mentally well patient. It yielded something more like a blank canvas. The process of eliminating depression, he concluded, is different from the process of cultivating happiness and flourishing. Hmm.

As I carried this idea with me, I started to associate directions with each of these two processes. The process of elimination, or rooting out the unwanted is a backward facing process that draws on history and “what is and has been.” The process of cultivation, or creating the wanted thing, is a forward facing process that requires imagination of “what could be.”

I noticed, too, that individually and collectively one of these is getting a lot more attention and use than the other. So often we are only looking in the direction of the unwanted thing we’d like to eliminate. It’s so pervasive that it’s easy to take for granted. Consider the following:

  • The diet industry focuses on losing weight (eliminating fat) rather than on cultivating healthy bodies. Healthy bodies aren’t often part of the conversation at all, though attractive bodies might be. This is paralleled by our healthcare system, which aims to eliminate or treat illness without similar efforts to cultivate wellness, health or enhance wellbeing.
  • Many folks are endlessly looking for ways to deal with stress rather than working with cultivating more harmony and ease.
  • When something is broken—from cars to relationships— we try to fix it (eliminate the problem). But rarely do we spend time maintaining or cultivating improved versions of things that are basically in working order. This is evidenced by the phase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, strengthening and improving things that aren’t broken, decreases the chances of them breaking in the future. Just because something functions, doesn’t mean it’s highly functioning.

You might be thinking, “These are the same thing. If you’re trying to eliminate stress, you’re trying to cultivate harmony.” To be clear, one thing suggests the other, but they are quite different. Don’ts and do’s, elimination and cultivation are two sides of the same spectrum. But just because we know what we don’t want doesn’t mean we always know what we do want. We are so well practice in the former and so lacking in the latter. Since we haven’t exercised these muscles of imagination individually or culturally, they are weak. I, for one, am ready to start working them out.

Try it now. What is your vision of an ideal life? A perfect community or world? Is it as vivid as your image of the world as you see it everyday? As the world you don’t want to see (and fear might come to pass)? Which of these do you see most clearly and feel most deeply?

If you’re at all like me (and you are ‘cause you’re human 😉 ), thinking in this way will take some practice. And I’d encourage you to practice because the shift in focus itself is incredibly powerful. Having a vision of what you do want to see (the clearer and more detailed the better) forms the foundation of inspired action. Because acting from inspiration feels good, it provides a sustainable form of motivation. The further you align with your vision, the better you feel, the more inspired you are to act, the more you align, and so on. It’s what I like to call the vivacious circle.

Contrast this with working from a place of self-discipline and self-control in an effort to root out the unwanted. While I’m all for cultivating more of both of these, it ain’t nearly as easy or motivating for the lot of us as working from a place of inspired action. And when we fail or fall off the bandwagon (as we inevitably will) it feels bad. If we feel bad and then beat ourselves up then we feel worse and so on… the more familiar vicious circle.

Beyond this, having a vision of the wanted thing helps to bridge the gap between our existing (undesired) behavior or situation to the desired one. When you’re trying to change a habit, for example, saying, “I will not eat the cookie,” not only brings your attention to eating the cookie (which, let’s face it, is delicious and wanted on some level even while being unwanted at another), it also doesn’t suggest another activity to fill the void.

Imagine anew. Fill the void. Don’t eat the cookie. Create the life you want.