The Art of Improvisational Living

| By Richard Garzarelli |

To Improvise: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Proverb, unknown origin

LivingScene 1: The camper – After a grueling week, you pack the car and head for an exquisite off the path campsite. It’s getting dark, and the Western North Carolina sky is rapidly changing – time to pitch the tent. What, no tent stakes! Your mind stops and then starts the analysis. What happened? Where are the stakes? Who’s at fault? Wait, no time for that… find some branches, sticks, maybe rocks, anything… must pitch the tent. It’s time to improvise.

Scene 2: The host – Guests will arrive in 30 minutes. You’re putting the final round of appetizers together. Wait, no crackers, and no chips to go with that hummus you made? Again, the mind stops, and then, hmmm, get out that frozen flat bread and put in the broiler. “I’ll make my own chips.”

Everyone has had to improvise, probably countless times. But have you ever wondered what it would mean to live intentionally with an improvisational spirit? Might that make for a better world?

The Essence of Improvisation

What does it mean to improvise? The Oxford Dictionary states, “to create (or perform) spontaneously or without preparation. To produce or make something from whatever is available.” Wikipedia says, “the process of devising a solution to a requirement by making-do, despite absence of resources.” To improvise is to concoct, to invent, to extemporize, to wing it. When you think of the more traditional applications of improv, you probably think of music, dance, theater, or stand-up comedy. Many performing artists train on improvisation.

What are its fundamental elements? First and foremost, improvisation requires presence. In order to grab a stick for a makeshift tent stake, you have to be aware of the need for shelter, the resources on hand, and the pending storm. You have to be present with what ‘is.’ This ‘presence’ includes awareness of intention. You work with what you have, what’s available, using applied creativity. It’s akin to breaking the mold, thinking outside the box.

“The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door to all moments.” - Thich Naht Hanh

The third fundamental element of improv requires a ‘second round of presence’ – a sort of resting in the improv, and then relating from that new reality – a check and balance process, a reassessment. The underlying question is “how’s it working?”

“Good improvising is all about listening, reacting in the moment, creating, and supporting the ideas of others (i.e., responding to the new material).” - Tom Yorton, CEO of Second City

Our brains operate with such speed, these three elements often happen in milliseconds, especially in the performing arts. To improvise requires courage, and risk. Because improvising is often a departure from convention, it can fail. Therefore, it can lend itself to scrutiny, to criticism, and in some cases outrage. Often improvisation invokes facing fear, adversity or self-judgment.

Successful improvisation assumes a knowledge base about ‘what is,’ about the context or properties of what’s showing up. A musician who knows nothing about jazz would probably not improvise jazz very well. The camper who knows nothing about the properties of sticks and rocks would likely not think to use them to secure a tent. Improvising improves with a foundation of mastery, with experience and knowledge. To think outside the box, one must know the box.

“Only he who is well prepared has any opportunity to improvise.” - Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern

The Essence of Living

What’s all this have to do with living life improvisationally? Let’s explore some ideas of what it means to live, using a ‘wheel of life’ template often used by life-coaches, mentors and counselors to assist clients in understanding their lives. The ‘wheel’ depicted below has 5 basic aspects or domains. The core domain is Spirituality: the essence of one’s being and one’s relationship to ‘the All.’ It includes values and belief systems, the frame in which we consider the meaning and purpose of life itself. It is the home of the authentic self and the self-less self. The four domains surrounding the core are: 1) physical/material; 2) social/relational; 3) personal/psychological, and 4) livelihood/work.

The physical/material domain includes one’s body, nutrition, health, physical activity and sexuality. It also includes one’s home, environment and finances – the ‘stuff’ of all things physical.

The social/relational domain refers to friends, family, spouse, significant other, neighbors and community – the cast of characters in the play of one’s life. The consideration here is how the interaction with the cast goes. How has, and how does it influence us? How did, and how do we influence it?

The personal/psychological domain encompasses various aspects related to emotions, intellect, and personal development. This is one’s inner personal world, sense of humor, creativity, and/or playfulness.

The livelihood/work domain reflects work and service, career and business. It’s the place where the individual brings his/her gifts and talents to others, and/or uses those gifts and talents for sustaining one’s life.

The domains overlap in many ways. The map helps conceptualize the many aspects of this thing called life. Here are ways that improvisational living applies to how we live it.

Trending Signs of Improvisational Living

Spirituality: So many are learning about mindfulness, being present, how to just Be, and becoming vulnerable as in being open, not weak.

Physical/Material: The proliferation of alternative home building, tiny homes built of earthen materials, innovative means to produce electricity and process waste, recycling, art made from junk – all reflect improvised living. Asheville will host the 3rd annual tiny home conference in April.

Social/Relational: Conscious communication, alternative life-styles and living arrangements, relating with more authenticity – all beckons improv. Co-housing and communal gardens, while rooted in convention, are also improvisations.

Personal/Psychological: Freud’s free-association technique, Gestalt therapy, communication with sub-personalities or imagined others – most therapeutic intervention rearranges the relationship with ‘what-is’ to promote change. Neuroplasticity, an aspect of brain functioning, can be seen as neuro-improv. Neural networks are rewired when we develop presence-based awareness. Being fully with all that ‘is’ changes our mental patterns.

Career/Service: Improvisation in business is the stuff of think tanks, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A local Asheville performance artist in a TED talk demonstrated the use of improv in working with Alzheimer’s patients. She suggests the nine core characteristics of good caregivers are the same characteristics of good improvisation. They are: flexibility, courage, spontaneity, adaptability, selflessness, generosity, trust, acceptance, and good listening (See:

The Call to Improvisational Living

To live improvisationally requires presence and resourcefulness. It’s the oscillation between being and doing, between planning and letting go of the outcome. This can be viewed as the integration of the Divine Feminine and the Divine Masculine; the holy intersection of heaven and earth; the creative and the execution of the creation. Living improvisationally stewards individuation, the inner journey that reveals authenticity, the True Self. It’s the raw material of resilience, of the proverbial ‘plan B.’ It’s how we roll with the punches, the limitations, the disappointments.

All individuals, all societies, thrive when improvisation is engaged. In closing, I ask you to consider how you might activate improvisation in your own life? How could improv help you get freed-up from those stuck places? I ask you to think about how our community, with its various businesses, professional and volunteer services, might employ the principles of improvisation to make this fabulous place even more so.

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” - Charles Darwin

Richard Garzarelli is a Psychotherapist, Business Consultant and Life-Coach in practice for over 25 years. He is the founder of the Insight Counseling Services and the Center for Meaningful Work. (,, (828)242-8974. He is an avid practitioner of Improvisational Living.

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