Zen and Improv: Fingers Pointing at the Moon

[Thoughts from Ryan Hill, zen practitioner and current Level Two student]

“All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty.”
— Zen Saying

Earlier this year I became obsessed with improv. I went from knowing of improv only through “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and a couple of ComedySportz shows to watching ten hours of the 2011 Hideout Improv marathon including a caffeine-fueled midnight Saturday to six on Sunday morning stint. I was hooked. It was hilarious, charming, and amazing. I’ve done a little acting (including some pieces that encouraged improvisation), some voiceover work, and been part of a comedy podcast that was primarily improvised. So I also had the feeling that, with practice, I might be able to do some improv myself, which both brought me both joy and fear.

The thing that most intrigued me about improv was, “How do they do that?!” It was amazing, but clearly it could be done. I think it was the qualities of the improvisers when they were at their best that hooked me. They were generally not self-conscious, and when they were, they made a joke about it or used it in some way. They seemed calm, yet energetic. They were willing to take risks. They seemed to have an open channel to the creative part of their minds. They could laugh at themselves and had no problem playing ridiculous characters. They were open, shared control, and took care of each other. And perhaps most importantly, they were having a lot of fun. I was totally impressed. Now don’t get me wrong, I know that improvisers are like most humans with all the standard foibles and faults and a few that are particular to the breed as well. They were sometimes the opposite of all these positive qualities as well. However, they had a lot more access to those positive qualities than most people I know, including me. There was something here I wanted in addition to making comedy. I was totally intimidated, but I signed up for classes and got started.

As I started learning improv it began to remind me of something else. Many of these qualities I saw were similar to the qualities I had seen in meditation practitioners. Many of the lessons I heard in class, or read in improv books reminded me of things I had heard in dharma talks. I’ve been a pretty consistent meditation practitioner for a few years. I dabbled for many years before that. I practice in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Master and peace activist.

Here’s the thing though, I’ve learned a lot from Zen practice, and I’ve grown as I’ve practiced. I know about the eight worldly dharmas—that sometimes things will go my way and sometimes they won’t, and that it’s best to accept both, but of course I often don’t. I know that how I look to others is not anything to be terribly concerned about, but of course I still am. I haven’t completely accepted that sometimes I will fail, and that failure is not only OK, but actually good if you learn from it. One of the things that most attracted me to improv was that improvisers at their best seemed to not just understand these lessons, but put them into practice. I watched them do it. Just like with Buddhist meditators, I wanted what they had.

I’ve come to see that the qualities that meditation and other mindfulness practices develop are some of the same qualities that improv develops. That is to say, improv can be a form of mindfulness practice. Please understand I’m not going to quit meditating now that I’m learning improv. In fact, improv is just extra motivation to meditate. However, I think improv is helping develop some mindful qualities more quickly than meditation does, at least in my case. After all, most of our life is not spent sitting quietly. Most of our life is interacting with people and doing things. (At least in my case.) Improv is like an active form of meditation.

In meditation we can achieve moments of perfect mindfulness, moments when we are completely present. Other, more active mindfulness practices seek to move that mindfulness into our daily lives. Walking meditation is one step (groan) beyond sitting meditation. It adds in a very common, simple activity, walking. We are now challenged to find and maintain mindfulness while conducting a simple activity. Another common mindfulness practice is mindful eating. We usually eat every day. This practice challenges us to bring mindfulness into this common and important activity. You can bring mindfulness into any activity. Improv can be a very active form of mindfulness.

As it turns out, I’m not at all the first person to notice the similarities between Zen and improv. In fact, some folks have been working on combining the two for a few years now. If you’re not familiar with the Zenprov podcast by Chicago Improv Associates, check it out.

I wish I had a grand unification theory of Zen and Improv, but alas, I am a beginning improviser and only a slightly more accomplished Zen practitioner. The Buddha loved lists as mnemonic devices, so I have a list.

Six Things Improv Can Teach You About Zen, or Vice-Versa

1) Be in the Present Moment
“Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

It could be said with some accuracy that the ultimate goal of all Buddhist practice is to live fully in the present moment. The future isn’t here yet, and the past is gone. All we have is the present moment. If you’re missing the present moment, you’re missing everything.

I believe it was the third week of class when my improv teacher brought this up for the first time. Be in the present moment. Don’t be off thinking of what to do to be funny. Don’t be worrying about the scene you just did. Be right here, where it’s happening. An engaging and interesting scene doesn’t happen back there, or in a minute, it happens now.

2) Embrace Whatever Comes
The Buddha taught that clinging to a desire for things to be different than what they are causes suffering. Embracing whatever comes your way is a key to happiness and enlightenment. You won’t necessarily enjoy every minute of it, but the less you fight what can’t be changed, the less you’ll suffer.

In improv, we embrace what comes our way. This is the “yes” of “yes, and.” If our scene partner offers that we are a humpbacked leper, we lean over crookedly and pick at our sores. You are likely to be a very frustrated and ineffective improviser if you fight what comes your way.

3) Don’t Talk About It, Do It (It’s a Practice)
“You are not an observer, you are a participant.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddha taught a practice. It’s often an odd shift for those raised in western religions to get that Buddhism doesn’t involve belief. There’s no revealed truth. There’s a suggested practice. You practice so that you may discover truths for yourself. If you’re not practicing, you’re not following the teachings. Yes, there is a lot of spoken teaching, and written teaching, but most of that teaching centers around practice. Doing it is where it’s at.

I have yet to see an improv teacher lecture for more than 30 seconds or so. Admittedly, my experience is limited in this area, but I don’t hear about improv lectures. I hear about improv workshops. To learn improv, you do it. It starts with simpler practices (easy games) and moves on slowly, step-by-step, to more difficult practices (long form narrative, I assume, I’m not there yet.) And just as in Zen practice, you return to the simple things regularly. Warm ups are important. Both are (at least potentially) lifelong practices. You can always get better. Practice can always lead you to a new and interesting place.

4) Failure Happens (The Eight Wordly Dharmas)
The Buddha taught that life will give us both good and bad. In every life you will experience pleasure and pain; praise and blame; fame and disgrace; gain and loss. Happiness lies not in trying to only get the first part of each pair, but in recognizing that both will come.

In improv we accept that sometimes we will fail. (*BOW* “I failed!”) It’s just a normal part of the process. In fact, “failures” can be a great way to learn.

5) Mistakes are the Way to Getting Better/Suffering Leads to Enlightenment
“We made a mistake. That’s good. We just learned something.”—Keith Johnstone

“Make more mistakes faster to get better faster!” I don’t know where it comes from originally, but it’s something I hear improvisers say. I can’t tell you how many times when someone failed or was uncomfortable my improv teacher would say, “That’s what we’re looking for!” Our failures actually lead the way to our successes.

The dharma teaches that awareness of our sufferings can lead to their cessation. The sufferings themselves can serve as a roadmap. They let us know where to look and what to let go. I have experienced this at times myself. There can even be an attitude of joy at difficulties because they are an opportunity.

6) Have Fun
“I promise myself that I will enjoy every minute of the day that is given me to live.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

When we let go of our clinging we can realize that we already have everything we need to be happy.

Day one, level one, lesson one is, “Have fun.” As I hear at improv shows all the time, “If this looks like fun, it is…”

Fingers Pointing at the Moon

“Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

All teachings are fingers. Zen is a finger. Improv is a finger. They all point at the same moon. The moon is truth. I would describe the moon for our purposes as a place where your self is set aside so you can be present in the moment and allow your natural joy and intelligence to arise and come out to play, but this sentence is just another finger. To see the moon you have to look beyond the finger.

The thing is, the truth is out there, in life. There are an infinite number of ways to discover it. We are surrounded by bodhisattvas, by people who have discovered bits of the truth and are giving it to others. Some are MBAs, some are homeless people, some are Zen practitioners, some are improvisers.


  1. A wise woman said that commenting on the blog itself showed true support, ergo, here I am.
    Good piece, though I think there’s plenty of truth in “conceptual knowledge” as well as

  2. I’d recommend giving it a try to anyone. It can only benefit.

    Yes, I am far from the first person to notice these connections. Apparently, they’re really there. 🙂

  3. Nicely observed and written. I’ve noticed parallels between yoga, martial arts and improv, as all seem to involve moving mindfulness meditation (say that ten times fast!).

    Great Truths appear in many forms.

  4. Ryan

    I posted this on the London Improv site but thought it might be worthwhile adding here too!

    Hi Ryan

    That’s good stuff. As a practitioner of meditation and improv myself you should imagine me nodding along furiously to all of what you’ve written. I’ve also workshopped with Marshall Stern of Zenprov and there was a couple of powerful perspectives that came from it.

    You might also enjoy Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up”. The author recounts what her life gained from a combination of Keith Johnstone-esque improv practice and David K Reynolds’ “Constructive Living” – an import and reskinning of Eastern psychotherapeutic techniques. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of zen in there.

    Weirdly enough, at the time I discovered that book I had fully fallen in love with improv, and had just that month read the Constructive Living handbook. To find that book, then, struck me as quite a coincidence. The funny thing was, that coincidence didn’t surprise me, as it was one of a run of them that continue to this day. So if I were to add another principle to your excellent list, it would be

    Synchronicity – when you are alive to possibility and in the moment then allow reality to present you with things that resonate and seem totally in place, sometimes to an extent that can seem amazing.

    I’d love to know whether this is a principle you recognise yourself.


  5. Nice article, Ryan! I also feel like the things I have learned in improv have been applicable to many of the same things that Yeshua taught on this earth…. Don’t worry about the future for the future has enough worries of it’s own… Treat others with respect and love, because as we learned in improv, we have to support each other or the scene won’t work! We cannot all be the center of attention! Don’t focus on your insecurities, because it’s not all about me, it’s about the bigger picture! I feel like improv (and the friendships i am making through it) is teaching me to not be so self conscious and self depricating. It’s great for everyone! So if you’re reading this and haven’t taken a class at the hideout yet, do it now! Get here as fast as you can! Jesus wants you to! 😉 just kidding. Sort of.

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  1. “Yes. And…” : :: Mary Jo Pehl ::

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