Memory Loss  –  Learning the lines or improvisation, or neither?

by Joan Calder, retired/volunteer work, Frome, UK 

It is a known fact among actors that there are moments on stage when you cannot remember how you arrived at the point you have reached, but more terrifyingly, you just cannot remember your lines. The mind goes blank and panic sets in. This can happen more frequently as they age until some have to give up their profession entirely. It is not only actors who suffer this in older life, all those who develop some form of dementia follow the same pattern.

Often in life we hear people confessing they find themselves somewhere and have no idea how they arrived there, or they can’t remember names, or what they were going to do next. Perhaps not so surprising, if as per Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage” and we are all transient actors entering and leaving.

Recently there was a research project with a group of older actors which came out with some surprising results. The research team followed a group of older actors as they took part in a course of improvisation classes at the National Theatre. Many actors who have been used to learning their lines and having to remember them find it difficult to improvise, the same with musicians, especially those older actors who were trained in the old way of learning lines by rote or memory and did not experience the newer style theatre training with lots of free form improvisation.

This group of actors were monitored whilst receiving a course of classes in improvisation. It was discovered that their memories improved, their confidence increased, they became more alive and active in the classes and also in their lives. With improvisation there was no possibility of the embarrassment, criticism, judgment or sense of failure they experienced with forgetting their lines mid performance.

They went on to form a company called “Lost without Words,” and they toured around the UK. No two shows were ever the same. They had no script, but on meeting a new audience each night they dialogued with them and took a theme and improvised on it. Their memories continued to improve, and their confidence continued to grow.

I believed in the past, and it is probably what I had been told when I was young, that learning reels of poetry was a very good way to keep your memory active and would prevent dementia in old age. Now I can see it may be the opposite.

What happens when we learn lines? They become ingrained in us so they seem to flow effortlessly, but it has been a lot of effort to put them into the system, and if we forget them we panic and make a big effort to remember. In this effort to remember, the brain squeezes and contracts itself in the search.

What happens when we contract in the body? We hold our breath, we reduce our blood flow, we limit space within us, reduce ourselves, withdraw from life. Vibrancy disappears, and dullness takes its place. It encourages a roller coaster of continual very subtle remembering/forgetting all the time, highs and lows, and the seeming flow is broken by minute moments of interruptions.

And making the effort to remember takes us from the present, we are going into the past, away from this lived moment where all can be fresh and new and expansive as we express ourselves here and now.

There is also learning the lines of life – the rules we have been taught to live by, the knowledge we have had to learn and abide by, the beliefs which were handed down to us and become ingrained in our consciousness and way of perceiving the world. They lock us in the past rather than living a continual unfolding of feeling what is appropriate, respectful, or necessary, discerned from our sense of what is going on in that moment.

The universe is ever expanding, and if we live an expanding life within this expansion then we grow and change and live vital and open lives, embracing all. This is what we begin to experience when we become students of The Way of The Livingness. There are no rules, only values; there are no beliefs, only felt truth; there is no nostalgic longing for the past or dwelling on it but learning from it, and an encouragement to be present, and to feel the future unfolding towards us, to even live it now – for we are shown how past, future and present are all one in the present moment, everything we have lived and that we return to is NOW. We can claim ourselves in every moment for who we truly are, and there is no need to remember, especially any lines. Everything is spontaneously felt and expressed.

Of course, we have to learn about life and the world, facts and figures, and how to do things, but there is this other way, which is not about cramming in information and recalling it, but living, sensing and feeling in the moment what is needed from the innate wisdom we all have within.

Serge Benhayon gives us the tools to live this way and demonstrates it in his own life. All he says is lived and expressed from within him. He never has a script or even notes prepared to refer to during any of his presentations, courses or even five day retreats. Even when he repeats a message or a truth, which he does often, it is never expressed the same way twice, and will vary according to the context, and what is being discussed or presented at the time.

In the Expression and Presentation Workshops, Serge gives us a subject to talk about, with no time to think, just speak. It seems like an improvisation class but not for playing a part on stage. This is for living all of life, being present with ourselves and speaking what is true and real from our hearts and our innermost being.

We are not there to play a part, we are there, in that moment, to express ourselves.

Living in this way frees us from holding on to an old belief that if we repeat lines we’ve said before we will feel safe, and encourages us to be open to whatever comes without expectation of any particular outcome. This gives us confidence (contrary to that old belief system that says we will be more confident if we know our lines) and an amazing feeling of expansion, of freedom to express from our own firm foundation, and it turns out it’s nothing to do with improvisation at all but is a sense of knowing oneself well and speaking and moving from that place in continual flow as we unfold.

It is only doubting ourselves that blocks this passage and throws us back on the old false ways of trying to stay in control and live within the lines. Many hold onto this to try and avoid dementia, but could it be the opposite is true?

The more we let go of control, memorising and recall, and live from the truth that lives in our hearts, being present in every moment with all that is occurring, where there is no need to escape or check-out, perhaps then we can live to a ripe old age with true confidence and a healthy responsive body and mind.

Read more:

  1. The forgotten side of dementia
  2. The Merchant of Venice and the ancient grudge

614 thoughts on “Memory Loss  –  Learning the lines or improvisation, or neither?

  1. It makes so much sense that if we are living from memory then we are living from the past. We are making choices around past events, rather then making choices around what is happening now.

  2. Reading this has me pondering more on the effects of reminiscing or living in the past and not embracing the present. We often encourage our elderly to look to the past and use it as a way to cheer them up but in actual fact, it could be more harmful than helpful.

  3. Letting go of what we hold onto in the mind frees up so much space and releases tension that would otherswise hold us back from following our true impulses.

  4. I would say I have adopted that belief that knowing how to repeat things = safety. Not just words but behaviours equally so. To break these behaviours takes time as the beliefs that it’s actually scary to move into the unknown needs peeling back.

  5. A real and liberating sharing on the importance of living in presence in connection to our bodies and the flow expansion and true wisdom that comes from this.

  6. We are already repeating many lines, behaviour and cycles of old expecting some new outcome and yet if we are open to connecting to our innermost and expressing from there it can be a whole new ballgame.

  7. As an actor – putting that pressure on yourself to remember all those lines, and to become another person puts a huge tension on the body. But we glamourize this job – we make actors more important than other roles. We admire people’s ability to regurgitate and play a role. It is something we have not really stood back and looked at from the truth of what it is.

  8. “The more we let go of control, memorising and recall, and live from the truth that lives in our hearts, being present in every moment with all that is occurring, where there is no need to escape or check-out, perhaps then we can live to a ripe old age with true confidence and a healthy responsive body and mind.” So true and an amazing realisation for us all to bring to our lives the living truth from within in every moment and a totally different way of living to how we have been taught and brought up in the world . This brings and aliveness and true depth of wisdom to our lives and that of others gracefully.

  9. The moments that we are in and with the present are the ones we do not need to relive or even remember as we in truth always constantly evolving.

  10. ‘The more we let go of control, memorising and recall, and live from the truth that lives in our hearts, being present in every moment with all that is occurring, where there is no need to escape or check-out, perhaps then we can live to a ripe old age with true confidence and a healthy responsive body and mind.’ – A powerful statement Joan – every choice and every move we make impacts on the quality of our life, right until the very end and beyond.

  11. What we have been taught life is, is so far from the truth. It’s a concerted long term process to let go and renounce every last lie so we no longer subscribe. You can’t keep the ones that you like.

  12. The way of living that you describe here, Joan, living, sensing and feeling in the moment what is needed from the innate wisdom we all have within feels very different from how we learn to study in school or learn anything by rote, repeating many times to try and remember lines. It is very interesting to feel the difference of the two ways in the body.

  13. The script of human life seems laid out for us. From work to marriage to death to taxes and cancer too. But we do have the option to put it down, step aside and improvise afresh – and just express what we feel is true.

  14. Memorizing and recall are so unnatural to the body that for me there is no other choice but to feel, observe and respond towards life. I have tried to ignore the effects of memorizing or cramping info into my system and the effects were disastrous. The depressed state of having to endure this while not knowing I could choose differently was apparent. But we do have a choice, and that is to connect with ourselves and be guided by this steady foundation in life.

  15. It is indeed a sad thing to realise how much dementia there is in our society and to realise how it is beginning to happen at earlier and earlier stages. Lifestyle has much to do with this but also our current society with its tendency to ‘check out’ on a screen with games and other activities that draw you into an alternate reality is very much at play and an invitation to not be aware of yourself (the first steps towards conditions such as dementia). But at any point, we can call this out and begin to change how we live and how we are with ourselves and another and gradually deepen this back to our natural way of being. This blog is an amazing example on how to allow a person to re-open and release their natural expression after years of being conditioned to do things differently.

  16. I used to have a reoccurring nightmare where I sat down in a maths exam at school and could not answer even one question!… because I was trying to ‘remember’ what I needed to remember. We have been so trained to operate from recall and memory and regurgitation of information rather than trusting our own inner wisdom and intuition. I have trusted in this wisdom more and more and so my exam nightmares stopped some time ago and I no longer fear not knowing the answer that the world demands from me for I know, I know everything I need to know inside..ah such settlement comes with this knowing.

    1. I have felt the same when presenting at work with groups of people. Working in high academic field this is usually the point of call but is this truly needed in that moment. Learning to trust the wisdom and offer what is offered for the all is the difference between feeding the knowledge and fuelling the fire!

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