Cultivating Receptivity To Increase Connection

Nov 14 2018

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: "Clowns Do Funny Things" by Lucy Heard

What I learned from Clowning in the Museum – Day 3

Hello dear reader! This is the third of three blogs, charting my learning through three days of improvised clowning at the Bristol Museum, as their Clown In Residence. You might want to wander your way through day one and day two, to get some context before you read this, or you can just jump into day three, it's up to you. 

In this blog you'll find a section about embodying the state of receptivity, including a meditation for you to try, then there's a description of my performance with illustrations, a short film of me singing in my hotdog outfit, then there's my final analysis of my learning.

Exploring Receptivity As A Tool For Clowning

After my first two days of clowning in the museum, I had a day off, to rest, write and wrangle with the themes that had been coming up through the week, including:

  • fear as a spanner in the works to creative flow

  • fear as a generator of procrastination

  • fear as an inducer of tension

  • tension as an inducer of crap choices and behaviour

  • fear and the out-of-body experience

  • fear as an inhibitor of access to authentic feelings

  • authentic feelings as a basis for connection 

  • vulnerability around having authentic feelings witnessed

  • embracing vulnerability

  • embracing failure

  • dropping into curiosity

  • are words necessary? When do they help / hinder connection?

  • Meeting past selves with presence and compassion

  • Shame and the inner critic

  • starting with nothing - how to get into 'no-mind' or the 'wide open space'

  • audience as playmates / co-creators of games

  • being witnessed, just being

  • audience as experts – low status character asking the audience what to do

  • surrendering to what is – letting go of expectations and assumptions and accepting life as it is

I started the day with listening to recorded talk and guided meditation on (a great support for meditation practice). With my themes of the week, floating about, I was drawn to a talk called Receptivity As An Antidote To Reactivity and Violence by Deborah Eden Tull.

Deborah speaks about our society's bias towards the masculine and how this shows up in relating. We tend to prioritise expression and voicing our opinions above the feminine; deep, receptive listening. Deborah explains that receptivity is often seen as weakness and because of this, we are conditioned to abandon our receptivity in relation to ourselves and others, in order to appear strong and in control.

Deborah goes onto explain the function of the ego in all this. In the Cambridge dictionary, 'ego' is described as: “your idea or opinion of yourself, especially your feeling of your own importance and ability.” Deborah explains that the ego is constantly trying to protect its own identity; to stay safe, and to do this, ego builds a narrative around good and bad, right and wrong, inviting in what ego perceives as supportive for maintaining it's own identity and pushing away that which goes against. This filtering of reality creates the “illusion of separation,” a sense of us and them. In buddhist thought, there's no such thing as us and them; we're all intricately connected in the great mesh of life.

I think the 'ego' that Deborah refers to is in her talk more like when the ego, or sense of self, gets hijacked by the inner critic. This ego has a limited view of your abilities and potential. As I found on my first day at the museum, when my ego is in cahoots with my inner critic, there is not much space for risk, play or connection. My inner critic pollutes my ego, making my sense of self whither into a tiny, dried up husk. The louder my inner critic shouts, the more frightened I become and life closes down around me.

There was a huge difference on day two, when I purposely sat in meditation in order to ground myself before my performance, my inner critic took a step back and allowed my ego a bit more space. I felt more confident and playful and able to meet the audience with curiosity and wonder, the qualities of receptivity. As Deborah says; “Through receptivity, we learn to welcome life as it is, from a much more open place, because we are not imposing story from the mind of separation.”

When the inner critic gets too close to the ego, we see the world through the eyes of judgement. How this plays out in improvised performance is either 1.) the audience becomes your judge, 2.) you cast other players as the judge or 3.) you become your own judge. Either which way, judgement creates fear and fear creates tension and tension leads to separation or disconnect. I wrote about the consequences of letting the voice of judgement guide our choices in improvisation, on day 2 in the section about self-blaming and blaming others.

So how do we get the inner critic to take a step back and create more space for receptivity? Deborah Eden Tull recommends starting by consciously cultivating more receptivity in our lives.

Receptivity is a crucial skill in impro, it allows us to open to what's happening, within ourselves, within the audience, within the environment, so that we can play with what's there. This way our improvisation takes on a wonderfully connected quality, our material feels in harmony with the audience and the environment it's taking place in.

As receptivity is not our normal mode of conduct, it's something we need to practice. That's where meditation (or 'practice') comes in, back to you Deborah: “Practice invites us to reside in curiosity, in openness, learning to be with our naked experience as it unfolds.”

Deborah led a meditation, with invitations to drop into your present experience of being alive, before turning your attention to the quality of your thoughts and noticing whether your thoughts fall into three categories of separation (listed below). Here's my version for you to try, if you so wish.

Meditation: Observing The Mind's Tendency Towards Separation

I'd advise starting with a short grounding meditation before launching into the exploration of mind, so that the exploration is rooted and grounded. Here's my version:

  • Sitting comfortably, connected with the ground beneath you

  • increasing your out-breath to allow your body to fully surrender it's weight into the ground

  • Rising up through the top of your head, so that your body is supporting it's own weight, if that's comfortable for you

  • Rolling back your shoulders and dropping them down

  • Relaxing the hands

  • Softening the face, softening the jaw

  • Turning your attention in to your body, noticing sensations and emotions as they come and go, allowing your curiosity to guide you deeper into each sensation, one at a time.

  • As you continue to put your focus into your body, allow yourself to notice where your mind naturally drags you off to. 

  • Explore whether the thoughts fall into any of the following three categories:

  1. There is something wrong

  2. There's not enough

  3. There's something I've got to do

The idea in meditation practice, is to notice what your mind is up to, acknowledge it with curiosity and compassion and then bring yourself “back home to openness, wonder, permeability and wisdom.” Which all can be accessed through receptivity. So when you've tasted the flavour of the thought, see if you can bring your attention back to your body, back to your breath, back to the present, just as it is.

At the end of the meditation

  • come back to the ground and your breath in your belly

  • feel the whole of your body as it breathes in and out

  • notice the temperature of your skin

  • tune into the sounds that surround you

  • softly open your eyes to the space around you, take in a few details – shapes and colours, light and shade.

  • Gently move into the next part of your day

Deborah's three categories of thoughts that create separation; there is something wrong, there's not enough, there's something I've got to do, keep us outside the present moment. They launch us into the past or the future – frantically searching for reasons or solutions. This is how humans have survived for so long – our minds help us learn from our past and organise our future. But while we're fixating on there being something wrong, there being a deficiency of something or there being something we have to do, we've lost the quality of receptivity, which is the key to deeper connection with self, others and the planet.

Meditation provides the practice ground for noticing what your thoughts are tied up with, dropping the attachment to the thoughts and easing back into receptivity. Practiced often enough, these skills also become available in improvisation and in “real life”. I have been practicing for years and I still get caught (see day one) that's why it's called a practice! 

Deborah explains why it can feel so tough to stay open and receptive: Dropping into stillness, presence and receptivity = ego death. Ego is terrified of losing control. It's terrified of vulnerability, intimacy, peace and the mystery, because when these states are fully embodied, ego dissolves. The notion of a fixed, limited self does not stand up when faced with these limitless states. Basically ego freaks out and either shuts everything down or tries to remove the threat by any means possible.

Through this week's experiment, it has felt like the key to improvised clowning is cultivating the quality of receptivity, listening to myself, to the audience, to the environment and allowing everything I'm taking in to influence my choices, moment to moment. It's also felt crucial to inhabit the wide open space (as Pema Chodron described it - quoted on day 2), or no-mind (as Eckarte Tolle described it – quoted on day 1), or receptivity (As Deborah Eden Tolle described it for day 3) before the performances, in preparation for maintaining this state during the performances.

9 Top Tips For Cultivating Receptivity

(From the end of  Deborah Eden Tull's talk)

1.) Intention– set a clear intention to show up with presence and to heal separation.

2.) The Sacred Pause– invite yourself to drop into receptivity, by pausing and turning your attention inwards and noticing what's happening.

3.) Deep Listening– remember that we all have a need to be listened to. We can offer it to ourselves and to others.

4.) Mindful Inquiry and Clear Seeing– notice what you're giving your attention to, what stories you're creating, then drop into curiosity, allowing it to dislodge the habitual attachment to the stories and bring you to a wider view.

5.) Transparency– continually expand your circle of acceptance, speak from honesty, be willing to be vulnerable.

6.) Turn towards, rather than away– learn to be with what is, just as it is

7.) Don't take it personallywhen we are willing to not take it personally, we are creating more space to let life live through us.

8.) Taking Joyful Responsibility- the more we understand our own ego structure, the more we learn to take responsibility for how we affect the wider field. We can't take responsibly for everything that happens, but we can take responsibility for our responses to whatever life throws at us.

9.) Compassionate action– when we slow down, listen deeply and open to receptivity, the clarity that leads to compassionate action naturally arises.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly in her dragon suit, by Lucy Heard

Choosing a Costume for Day Three

At the end of day two, skimming through the suggestions made by people who'd filled out my survey, I had the desire to try a high-status male clown character, someone belonging to the museum, someone who hates clowns. I imagined him barging into the exhibition, in a tweedy suit, bellowing; “There'll be no clowning here!” I imagined him angrily handling the clown props, explaining / demonstrating to the audience why he hated clowns so much: “I hate clowns, because they do this sort of thing.... and this sort of thing.... and this sort of thing....”

I imagined him starting angry and gradually softening, becoming more and more of a clown, through enjoying the audience's laughter, perhaps ending with a totally costume transformation.

I brought in a tweedy suit and braces, but after sitting in meditation, I felt a strong sense of “NO.” Although a high status character would be interesting and different to what I'd been playing with so far, I worried the concept would prevent me from entering into the wide-open, no-mind, receptive space. I also worried that the concept was perhaps too complicated and maybe a bit scary for the very young audience likely to turn up. Most importantly I was worried about how I would access receptivity in my relationship with the audience through an angry character.

The talk and the guided practice had brought me back to the fundamentals of connection, which is and always has been at the the heart of clowning for me. I long to connect from a spacious, vulnerable, curious place. I long to offer softness, gentleness, wonder and delight and watch the impact it has on others. So to help me embody this, I decided to go for another low-status accidental clown character, as being a cleaner had served me well on day two. I chose a fleecy dragon onesie and my red nose. The idea was to be a museum exhibit come to life, not knowing where they are, stumbling into the Clown Eggs–hibition and discovering from the children what clowns are

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly in her dragon suit, balancing a unicorn on her finger, sketch by Joe Dorso

Show time

I'd never worn the dragon costume before, so I spent some time in the dressing room finding out what games it gave me to play and how it made me move. It has a very low crotch, so I thought it might be fun to fill it up with fabric. I put on my multi-layered petticoat and a red swing dress underneath – which would also allow me to do a transformation at some point if I wanted to. The dragon suit is fleece and the museum is hot. I was boiling before I even started.

I felt a bit shy, so twiddling my tail, I crept out of the dressing room and moved cautiously through the museum, playing the game of trying not to be seen – turning into a statue anytime someone caught my eye. I found the other dragon statues in the front hall and placed myself amongst them.

In the cafe, I met a lot of families and alternated between playing scared and trying to be scary. Two babies at opposite ends of the cafe cried and I found myself ping-ponging between them, trying to get away from one and finding myself near the other, all the time appealing to the wider audience for empathy / help.

In the spirit of discovery, I found a table with an abandoned tea pot- I picked it up and smelled it and drank tea straight out of the spout – yuck!. Next I picked up the flower, which I tried to nibble - yuck. Then there was the salt, which I ground straight into my mouth- yuck and the pepper – which made me sneeze. All of this, I played to a family who were sitting close by.

Inside the Eggs - hibition, my audience awaited. As this was the third day, I knew what to expect, so I felt less pressured and less panicky than I had on the other days. After playing at being shy for a bit, I sat down with the kids and asked them:

Me: What's going to happen here?

Them: There's going to be a clown.

Me: [looking over at the door] When are they coming?

Them: No, you'rethe clown!

Me: Oh no I'm not, I'm a dragon, look at my tail!

Them: No, you are a clown, look at your red nose.

Me: My nose is just like that, and anyway, what is a clown?

Them: A clown is a funny person.

Me: Well I'm not funny, I'm very serious.

Them: No! You're a clown!

Me: I'd like to be, but I don't even know what they do!

Them: Clowns do silly things.

Me: Like what? Show me!

I asked three children to come up and show me silly things and I copied them. The first stood absolutely still, the second fell over, the third fell over with a huge run up.

Musing on the funny things we'd just done, I asked the audience if they'd like to try the first one, being really really still. We all had a go at that.

Me: wouldn't it be funny if we all pretended to be clown statues, so when someone came in, we were all just totally still?

Them: Yes!

I organised the space, so that those who wanted to be statues had enough space and the others could watch and asked one of my helpers to go out and come back in again, as if he was just coming in for the first time. We took up our positions and in he came. He walked around, commenting on each statue, we all stood still.

Me: [whispering loudly] Let's trick him by coming back to life!

We did and he was so “frightened”, he ran away to the other end of the exhibition.

Me: What else do clowns do?

Them: They tell jokes!

I asked three children to come up and tell their jokes – each got massive over-reactions from us all.

Me: What else do clowns do?

They suggested that I fall off a unicycle, balance something and walk on the wire. I tried all three, searching for problems to play with along the way.

Them: Clowns fart!

Me: Do they? Well, I can do that.

I asked the audience to make farting noises when I lifted up my leg and began a little dance, which was punctuated by farts. The farts got quicker and quicker until I was running on the spot and they were struggling to keep up.

Them: Clowns get custard pies and sit on them.

Me: Oh yeah? Who wants to be the chair?

A little girl eagerly ran onto the stage and got on her hands and knees to be the chair. I got out an invisible plate and an invisible can of custard pie foam. I made a huge pie- asking the audience if I should make it bigger – each time they said yes! I put the pie on the chair and “instantly forgot” I'd done that.

Me: Oh my legs are tired, I could do with a sit-down. I'd just going to sit right here. Urgggghhhh! What's that?

I turned around to show everyone my custardy bum. Took a “finger full” and “ate” it.

Me: Yum yum, anyone want some bum custard?

Them: Errrrgggghhhhh!

As a finale, I sang “I love to Laugh”, asking the audience to join in with the chorus, “Ha-ha, ha-ha.”

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly "sitting" on a "custard pie", on top of a child pretending to be a chair, by Joe Dorso
Holly Stoppit
Image credit: "You want to taste my bum custard?" sketch by Lucy Heard
Holly Stoppit
Image credit: "I love to laugh a lot" sketch by Joe Dorso

The Surreal Second Show

After dispersing the crowd, I installed myself inside my museum ropes as I had done the previous two days. To help me drop into “being and being seen” mode (as opposed to full-on performance mode) I played the ukulele and sang some little songs.

After a while, a little boy took an interest in me and came right up to me, asking what I was doing. I told him I didn't know and asked him what he thought I should do. Looking at the costume rail behind me, he suggested putting on some of the costumes, so I did.

He chose the hot dog suit, which, unlike the previous day, because I was feeling more grounded and less rushed, I managed to find some games and “problems” to play with, whilst trying to put the hot dog costume on. First I led a hot dog ceremony, where the hot dog costume was sombrely passed around the Eggs-hibition, from person to person, accompanied by a solemn song. This drew in other audience members. When it came back to me, I was standing on a chair and dramatically donned the costume, but it “somehow ended up” back to front. I then had to get down off the chair without being able to see. Once I made it down onto the ground, I responded to the audience's observations; “It's the wrong way around.” I tried turning around and upside down, ending up spinning round and round, eventually the audience helped me to turn the costume around.

Me: What next?

Him: Put on that dressing gown!

Me: What, on top of the hot dog suit, which is on top of the dragon suit?

Him: Yes

Me: OK then! [I did what he asked] What next?

Him: Put on the doctors coat.

Me: What, on top of the dressing gown, which is on top of the hot dog suit, which is on top of the dragon suit?

Him: Yes

Me: OK then.

[By this point I was sweltering, sweat was pouring down my body, but I wanted to go with the audience's ideas, so I made being hot the game that ran along side all the other games. Lot's of huffing and puffing and exclamations of “hot!”]

Me: Hello I'm doctor sausage, what seems to be the problem?

[I asked various audience members, coming up with ridiculous solutions, using the props. In amongst my props, I found the stethoscope. I listened to someone's heart beat.]

Me: bu-dum bu-dum bu-dum

[I asked the audience to join in and started dancing and started jamming and dancing to the beat.]

Me: Anyone want me to take a listen to what's inside your head?

[I used the stethoscope to “listen” to people's thoughts.]

First audience member's thoughts [voiced by me]: chips chips chips chips.

Second audience member's thoughts [voiced by me]:: Nooooooooothiiiiiiiiiiing.

[I invited the second audience member to listen to another audience member's thoughts.]

Second audience member's thoughts [voiced by the second audience member]: Shoes shoes shoes shoes, lovely red leather shoes.

[I invited the third audience member to listen to my thoughts [voiced by the third audience member]: Hot, hot, hot, I'm so hot!

I finished with one more rendition of the song.

Audience Feedback 

“I loved being a statue” 

“I liked doing my joke” 

“I liked the tricks”

“I liked everything” 

“I liked everything” 

“I liked everything” 

“I liked the funny faces” 

“She's funny” 

“I liked when she was putting on the clothes” 

“We liked the dragon, clowns are scary”

“Practice makes perfect!”


This performance felt the most relaxed and organic of the three. I'll use Deborah Eden Tull's 9 ways of cultivating receptivity to explore how I accessed receptivity during this performance.

1.) Intention– I set a clear intention to show up with presence and to come into closer connection with the audience, thereby potentially healing separation. Choosing a low status character, out of their natural environment allowed me to connect more authentically.

2.) The Sacred Pause– Starting the day with a lengthy meditation allowed me to access the sacred pause in my performance. Trusting my abilities to find a game with anything the audience chucked at me allowed me to stay calm in the eye of the storm. Coming back to “being and being seen” at the end of the first show allowed me to reconnect with myself, giving me grater access to my authentic feelings to play with in the second show.

3.) Deep Listening– Choosing a character who didn't know anything about clowns or clowning allowed me to cast the audience as expert. They got to tell / show me what they wanted to see and through deep listening to their suggestions and my own impulses, I managed to find a laugh with most of the material. 

4.) Mindful Inquiry and Clear Seeing– starting the day with a meditation was useful as I got to see what stories / fears I was carting around and soothe my poor old inner critic. Knowing precisely what he's scared of gives me leverage in our relationship. When I know what he's specifically terrified of happening, I can dialogue with him to explain what I'm doing and why, reminding him of the support I have in place. That tends to calm him down. He has a very short memory span though, so this conversation has to happen often. Taking time to do this gives me more space to play.

5.) Transparency– Slowing down allows me to access my authentic feelings, which I can then use in performance. Calming down my inner critic allows me to be vulnerable and use my vulnerability to connect with audiences.

6.) Turn towards, rather than away– Slowing down allowed me to notice the games that were waiting to be played. When the audience asked me to do something that I didn't know how to do, I trusted myself to either find a game of trying and failing or to reveal my real feelings and find a game from that.

7.) Don't take it personallyCalming down my inner critic allows me to meet the world as it is. When audience members drifted off, I am able to let them go with grace, knowing they have had what they needed, instead of taking it to mean I'm shit – which is what happens when I let my inner critic convince me to take it personally.

8.) Taking Joyful Responsibility- Spending time exploring what's driving my thoughts and actions gives me the power of choice. I can keep doing what I've always done, or I can choose to try something different, this is taking joyful responsibility. 

9.) Compassionate action– Slowing down, listening deeply and opening to receptivity, gave me the clarity that led to compassionate action. The actions I took were mostly towards fostering connection with the audience.

My original research criteria included an exploration of the use of language as a conduit to connection. This performance followed a similar language pattern to the previous day. I was almost totally non-verbal on my approach to the performance space – connecting through my actions and using a few sounds. I felt like the costume and my attitude of being an alien being in a strange new world, made the character self-explanatory, so I didn't need words. I used a few words to set up the premise of the performance, but other than asking them questions, I mostly used sounds during the games. I do wonder whether it would be possible to get the premise across without words, as I'm interested in being able to perform anywhere and being able to connect with audiences everywhere, but for the context of clowning in the museum, the minimal language I used felt about right.

Summing Up

What a lot of learning that's come out of these three days! Thanks for sticking with me. I hope there was some treasure for you here too.

I've still got two more days of my residency to go! I'll be clowning in the museum again on the 24th and 25th November. I'll do something along these lines from 11-12 both days, and in the afternoon, I'll be leading walking tours of the Eggs-hibition for adults and young people aged 12+. Maybe see you there?

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