Monthly Archives: December 2015

Showing Up

Woody Allen says, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

You know how to show up. You could not be in business if you didn’t. However, there are those times when we get lost in our thoughts. Our minds are busy thinking about everything but what is happening right now.

Showing up is more than having your butt in a chair. It’s about paying attention to what is going on in the moment. Your body is here but your mind is thinking about a meeting you went to yesterday or wondering what you should do on the weekend. Our intention is to always show up but sometime we get hijacked. Neuroscience tells us why:

On an average the human brain has about 77 thousand thoughts a day. We probably need only about 20 of those thoughts. The rest of the 57 thousand thoughts are thoughts we’ve had before or commentary on what we are experiencing. These thoughts serve no purpose.

This is the work of our default brain.

When we are present, like when we are focusing on a task or a problem, we can work for hours and time flies by. However, when we are not focused on what is happening in the moment our brain can go into its default state where thoughts wander, like when you are driving and you get to your location and wonder how you got there. You missed the trip because your mind was wandering all over the place.

Here is how our default brain operates:

It comments negatively on what we are experiencing.

It dwells in the past or the future.

It is self-referential. It makes everything that is happening seem like it is happening to us, so we take tend take things personally when it’s not personal, like the weather, traffic jams, and especially the actions of others.

Yes our default brain loves to spend time thinking about other people. Wondering what are they doing. Why they are acting that way. What they’re thinking.

The main point is that the default brain tends to be negative. And it does not ask our permission to start on its negative rant it just does this. Don’t take my word for it. Just think about where your mind goes when you let it wander…

The coffee is lousy.

I hate this weather!

Why do I have to stand in this line?

Who does that guy think he is?

Everyone is ruining my day!

You know what I’m talking about, yes? It happens to all of us. And scientists don’t know why our brain does this. But when we are not aware or focused we can get lost in thoughts that do not serve us. That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: awareness stops the default brain. One conscious breath helps stop the default brain.

Pause for a minute and simply feel the breath enter and leave your body. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. It’s that easy and you’re breathing anyway so pausing and taking a conscious breath is no sweat. Try it now.

When you take a conscious breath you may notice that you feel more grounded in your body and that your mind is quiet, even if it is just for this moment. You are allowing yourself to be here now. In the present moment you feel grounded and more alive. Plus, conscious breathing pauses your default brain and in that pause, you have a choice. You can decide what kind of thoughts if any you are going to have. Our default brain is not our authentic self; it’s just a mental construct. It’s not even our fault; it’s just something our brain does when it’s not focused!

Wild, right?

So when you catch yourself in your default brain you can breathe and that snaps you back into the present moment. There you can focus on what’s really happening.

In those moments when you need to show up, you can take a breath and regain control of your mind. Like when you need to be strategic, or have clarity about a decision, when you are leading others, and when you need to connect, at these times you want to show up and conscious breathing can help.

It is a habit that is worth developing and it begins by becoming aware of when you are lost in your default brain. Then, simply pause and breath, it can make all the difference.






Working with Robin Williams

35mm-005 - Version 2I’ll never forget the night that Robin Williams walked into our theater at Chicago City Limits and asked us if he could perform with us. It was in 1983 when he was in New York City shooting Moscow on the Hudson. As you might imagine, we were surprised and thrilled. We were just getting ready to begin our Saturday night show. We had recently gotten some good reviews and the house was packed.

Robin came backstage with us as we quickly changed the running order of the show to accommodate him and his amazing skills. He loved the idea of improvising a Shakespearean play so we did a Shakespearean “Caller’s Option.” A caller’s option is a scenic game where a cast member (the caller) stands on the side and every once in a while freezes the action and asks the audience how to continue. Unbilled and unannounced, Robin was going to make his initial entrance in a Shakespearean caller’s option.

The caller got the suggestion of a song title from the audience and a cast member entered and began a Shakespearean soliloquy using that title. The job of that first cast member is to set up a Shakespearean story: the king is in trouble and I must help him or I want the throne and I am out to destroy the king – that kind of thing. The caller then freezes that action and tells the audience that the king is going to enter with news and asks what is that news? The audience supplies the news. That is when Robin made his entrance as the king.

It took the audience a few seconds to realize just who the king was. You could hear a surprise gasp starting in the front of the audience and working its way to the back. Then came the applause.

Robin was a great improvisers and he did the whole show with us improvising in scenes, songs, and stories. He was a whiz at foreign language “gibberish” and he would improvise a poem in gibberish and one of the cast members would translate. He did a conducted story with us. He did a “first line/last line” scene. It was a magical night.

And it was just the first. Robin came back every weekend. He would come on a Friday night or a Saturday night and sometimes both nights. On stage he was on fire. Off stage he was soft-spoken, almost shy. I remember him as being kind and generous. We would sit backstage and talk about life and comedy.

When I heard the sad news about his death I was shocked. Even though it had been many years since I had seen Robin I felt in some way like he was a friend. I cared what happened to him and always wished him the best. I guess that was because he had given us such a gift with his talent and generous performances on our stage. I remember his manic stage presence and his shy offstage personality. I wondered if he was unable to ever comfortably merge the two. I have heard rumors that he was bipolar but I do not know if this is the case. I only know that all of us were unable to love him enough, that, in spite of fame and fortune, he must have felt very much alone, and that makes me sad. Still, he left us with a tremendous gift – his talent and his life! How he made us laugh and what that act of generosity cost him.


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