Second Circle: A Practice in Presence

Like me, you might have heard coaches and teachers say things like “be present”, “stay in the moment” and “don’t think”.  While I know what they mean in concept, presence is something that must be experienced, rather than taught. Returning to the moment might be a different journey each time depending on where I am. Unfortunately, I don’t think these well-meant words are helpful for people who haven’t had much experience with practices in presence.

That’s why whenever I learn a new practice that helps me cultivate presence, I love to share it. Today, practicing with my improv ensemble (check out our shows!), our coach shared First, Second and Third Circle energy and how they affect our ability to presence.

We walked around the room as a group noticing the doorways between each other and walking through them. In First Circle we looked down, briefly looking up to see others and then looking away. Our shoulders were forward and down. Our energy inward and thinking thoughts like “am I doing this right?”, “why are we doing this?” and “this is dumb”. An inward monologue ran while our bodies went through the movement of walking. We then jumped to Third Circle. Our chests puffed outward and our eyes searched beyond. Our stances got wider, too, but it was energy forced out, intended to take up space. Thoughts like, “hey, I’m looking good”, “look at me!” and “Oh yeah, I got this” rolled through. We looked at each other and our environment, but didn’t see or hear anyone or anything.

The our coach invited us into Second Circle. We relaxed our muscles. Our arms rested lightly at our sides, and hips and legs directly under our frames. She invited us to open our jaws slightly because she said that science is discovering that is the best position for listening. We imagined ourselves with antennae all over, receptive to the people and things around us. We began noticing details in the room. We saw our teammates, heard the sound of their shoes on the carpet and could smell the scents in the room. One thing we didn’t discuss, but I would include, is that we must include ourselves in our noticing. Noticing our breath, and the sounds and movements we make. We are part of the Second Circle. Here’s a video of Patsy Rodenburg, the creator of the Second Circle method.

What I love about this practice is that we had permission to experience First and Third Circle before Second Circle. First and Third Circle aren’t “bad” or “wrong” and can be something we choose. I know that I will be in First or Third Circle many, many times. This practice invites me to know what they feel like in my body and to notice the subtle shifts when I go from one to the other.

This reminds me of another practice in presence called Loop of Awareness by Kathlyn Hendricks. Loop of Awareness is the simple shift of attention from out to in and in to out. It’s noticing a tree blowing in the wind, then noticing your heartbeat. Noticing the breathing of your puppy and then noticing your own breathing. For me, Second Circle is like Loop of Awareness. It’s practicing circulating attention. Ultimately, when I’m present, I am aware of myself and my surroundings at the same time. In Third Circle, I’m stuck with all of my attention pushed out. In First Circle, I’m stuck with all of my attention sucked in. There is no circulation. Second Circle and Loop of Awareness are two practices that are tangible things we can do to cultivate presence.

I practiced Second Circle during a Nia (workout) class where we were free style dancing around the room. At first I didn’t even notice that I was in First Circle, focused inwardly, afraid of looking awkward and hoping no one paid me much attention. Then I was dancing my best moves, thinking how cool I must look and hoping that others noticed me. When I “woke up” I realized I had been alternating between First and Third Circle. I relaxed my body and my gaze. I began taking in all of the people in the room and appreciating them for being there. Once I was in a space of seeing others in appreciation, I let my body move however it wanted and connected with the other dancers. As Viola Spolin, the mother of modern improv, advised, I allowed myself to “see and be seen.”

Improvisation of any kind requires us to be in the moment and that means we must become masters of how we direct our attention. If you’re curious to experience Second Circle and other practices in presence through improv, join me in my next improv 6-week class series beginning Monday, January 21st, 2019. I’m hosting a free sample class in West Seattle on Monday, January 14th. It’s at the Fauntleroy Schoolhouse in West Seattle from 7-9pm. Drop in and let’s play!

Improv and Anxiety

A while ago I began surrounding myself with people who love improv and how it relates to their everyday lives. I have the pleasure of speaking with those people about the benefits of improv frequently. One of the things that came up recently was how improv helps relieve symptoms of anxiety.

One of my friends in LA leads an improv group specifically designed to help people with anxiety. Anxiety is fear continued over a long period of time – fear habituated. So why would putting someone in another fearful situation help them ease that fear? Here are my theories, and they have nothing to do with pushing through our fears.

First, we set a new context in improv where it’s okay to mess up. In fact, screw ups often lead to the most creative and funny situations. Improv teaches that there’s no way to “do it wrong” because everything in improv is accepted and played with as is. Most of us live in a head space where we are always looking for what’s right and what wrong, striving for the former, while trying to avoid that latter. We would rather hide instead of risk being ‘wrong’. Because the duality of right and wrong is so entrenched in our brains, I like to play with doing it wrong instead of just telling people that there’s no way to do it wrong (because no matter how many time I say that your brain will still want to find the right way to do it). We can actually have fun practicing ‘doing it wrong’ and interrupting our old programming.

My second theory for how improv eases anxiety is that we practice being in the moment. Most anxiety arises from something that happened in the past or something that might happen in the future. Practicing presence releases us from the past and future. I teach that all the inspiration you need for your scene is right there, in you, in your partner, in the space. There is never a need to try remember something from your past (though that might come up intuitively), or predict the future.

From these two new ways of being, we allow ourselves to express freely (without the right/wrong filter) in the moment. We STOP hiding. And wow, is that ever a relief. When I think I need to hide something about myself I immediately feel scared. Even though improv is about making stuff up, it’s not about hiding anything. It’s about letting through whatever comes up in that moment.

It was through my personal transformative play that I discovered the complete solace of knowing that everything I need is right here, always. I go back to improv because it is a practice that reminds me over and over again how true that is.

I’m offering three upcoming opportunities to experience improv and get to know each other: Mondays, Nov 19th (in 1 week)Dec 3rd and Dec 17th at the Fauntleroy Schoolhouse in West Seattle. I don’t do a la carte classes very often, so this is your chance to come to one class and sample my style. Next year, beginning in January, I’ll offer another class series for those of you ready to jump into an extended exploration of improv.

Dhira Brown
Improviser, Facilitator, Coach
Celebrate what is. Play out what’s possible!

Beyond Right and Wrong

What takes you out of a scene?

I asked myself this question the other day. I wondered, what causes me to lose presence where some part of me is no longer aware of what’s happening in the moment. One of my improv teachers called it “leaving the room”.

I’m doing it wrong. That was the first thing that came to me. Whenever I think I’m doing something wrong, I scare myself and retreat in some way.

They’re doing it wrong. When I judge by scene partner missed some rule or made some improv faux pas I again get scared and lose a moment, or many moments of presence.

I need to do it right. Ah, yes. If only I could do it exactly right then I’ll never do it wrong and the above scenarios won’t happen. Intellectually, I can giggle at the absurdity of this and yet, unconsciously, I do it frequently!

I don’t know about you, but this right/wrong story has been running my life for as far back as I can remember and not just in improv scenes. The beauty of improv is that we set a new context beyond the story of right and wrong. We say, “there’s no way to do this wrong”. Of course our brains laugh and we secretly try to do it right anyway. Which is why I enjoy purposely playing it out “wrong” first, just so our brains see that even if we do it “wrong”, it’s okay.

So the next question isn’t, “How do I always stay present in my scene?” Ha! No way, forget it. I drift off trying to think of a clever thing to say, or remember what just happened so I can make a neat connection. Or I wish I hadn’t just said that thing I just said. The real question is,

How do I reliably get back into the scene? When I noticed I’ve “left the room”, what can I do to reenter with ease?

Notice my body, a sensation or feeling. This is the number one way I get back to NOW. My body is always experiencing in the present moment so I join it by noticing something happening in my body. Often I’ll simply feel my feet on the floor.

Look at my partner, make eye contact. When I take in something about what my scene partner is doing or how they are standing or their facial expression, I bring myself back to the present and connect with them.

Interact with space. In improv we call this “object work”: Interacting with some imaginary object in space. It’s funny because the object isn’t actually “here” and yet all of your focus must be on that space at that time in order to truly interact with it. This one took me some time, but has become a reliable way for me to ground myself in my scene.

When I do these things, something magical happens… I find my inspiration, because inspiration is in the moment.

Improv is not about being clever, knowledgeable or quick-witted, it’s about being HERE.

And it’s a damn fun way to practice being here if you ask me. Let’s practice together.

I would love for you to join me this October 8, 15, 22, and 29th for an improv course in West Seattle. We will meet from 7-9pm at the Fauntleroy Schoolhouse near the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal. RSVP today!

Play on!


“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”   -Rumi