Meditate for the first time and your brain might well go something like this:

“OK, just do nothing. This should be easy. Try a harder one, Mr. meditation teacher! I’m always wanting to do nothing. Here we go: nothing! I’m doing so well at doing nothing! Look how great i am at just not thinking. So glad to not be working. Oh go, I need to finish that thing. You know, that thing I forgot. No! Do nothing. There we are. Back to a lovely nothing. I’m great at this. I’m better than everyone else in this…. Ah, caught you, brain, you were thinking! Thinking about a lack of thinking is still thinking. Obviously. I must mention that in the debrief. Oh man, I’m already thinking about that. I am the worst at this! We’re only a minute in. My brain must be fundamentally broken. No, that’s the point. You learn to do it. Hang on, maybe this whole thing is just a con that the teacher is pulling. Yes, he’s just trying to sell me another class. Lifelong practice my ass, it’s a pyramid scheme!”

And round and round it goes. 

Because a common misconception about meditation is that it means doing nothing. Or trying to. But it is very hard to do nothing. In fact, it’s impossible. Being-itself is doing something. To meditate means that accepting itself is all you can do. It takes years of training to sit, notice and accept, and even then, what you are doing is noticing the things that are happening. Your heart keeps beating, your blood circulating, your stomach digesting and your liver filtering, all guided by the parts of your brain you don’t have access to. And that part of your brain will belch out things that you need to think about: an unfinished book, that thing you’re watching, something you are worried or excited about, a stray sensation in your buttcheek: all the flotsam and jetsam of the mind that we try to ignore or (worse) run away from. It’s there, happening, we just choose not to engage. 

‘Doing nothing’ is a think-of-a-pink-elephant task. It almost guarantees its opposite: a frantic spiralling worry about what doing nothing means, and how you get there, and why you are such a failure as to find it impossible, and whether that maths teacher was right all along about you falling short of your potential. 

And just as thinking of nothing is impossible, so doing nothing onstage is impossible. You are always somewhere on the stage, sitting or standing, facing or not facing the other improviser(s), and the audience. Give a brain a half a chance, and all this will start to mean something. As humans, we see story (and its engine, character) as easily and quickly as we see colour and shape. Show me two people doing as little as they can and I’ll tell you a story. Not cos they are failing, but because that’s what brains do to survive: they interpret the world, especially people. It is my interpretation that gives it meaning, not what is happening. Or not happening. 

So I prefer the invitation to be boring. There’s no terrifying absolutism (I saw your eyebrow move!), just the relaxation of not having to make interesting art, or even art at all. Just talk about your shoes, or what you did this morning. Say the same thing as many times as you want. Do it boringly. We’ll fill in the gaps ourselves.  

Being boring is almost subversive, iconoclastic. We are surrounded by cultural messaging telling us to be exciting, different, extraordinarily, and uniquely Ourselves. It’s embedded in every story, advert, and podcast. And it’s exhausting. Being boring and normal is a subtle resistance to this, a permission to just not bother. 

In being boring you are only doing one thing, letting your mind settle on what it happens to settle on, without worrying if that’s the right thing, or good, or interesting. It is just the thing that’s here right now. 

Because the aim and the task are very different. One is what I tell myself, and the other is the result. I might tell myself to be boring, but that’s a trick I am playing on myself. The end goal of being boring is to allow the scene to happen, not force it. To notice that in the honest interaction of two people on a stage representing other people, we already have plenty to be getting on with. 

So be boring. You will fail.