May 30, 2015, Brooklyn, NYC
The Mirrors level workshop More Than This, which was lead by Alain Allard April 15-19 in New York City, was exquisite. Remarkably, the feeling of it—of boundless, loving connection—lingered for days. Immediately after, I wrote feverishly, wanting to bring parts of the experience to readers, and, also, wanting to live it again through writing. However, through the guidance of mentors, I realized that I had shared too much in the text. Since nearly every practitioner entered into the construct with immense courage and vulnerability, it was not correct to reveal details about my experiences as they overlapped with the experiences of others, so I set about revising the text.
I woke up the day after the five-day workshop realizing that I had a foot injury, so I was obliged to, in the words of my five-year-old son, “take it down a notch with the dancing for awhile.” I have attended a few waves classes since More Than This; and noticed that part of me was comparing these brief classes with my experience of Mirrors. The intensity didn’t seem to compare to what I experienced during the workshop; and I found myself wishing I could live my entire life dancing the 5Rhythms for hours every day in community with like-minded practitioners. Weekly Waves classes, which had seemed a wide open magnetic field where anything could happen, suddenly seemed ho-hum; and my commitment and engagement diminished while I pondered how I could get back to the amazing space I had experienced.
Wednesday this week, I was off from work, and stopped into the YMCA for my daily swim. I ran into Jane Selzer, who teaches a 5Rhythms class at the same YMCA. She reminded me of the class in the course of our conversaton and invited me to stop by. She said, “You will probably be the youngest person there!” She added, shrugging, “It is just an hour class.” I rushed my swim and shower, and stepped into the studio a few minutes late with dripping hair and the lingering smell of chlorine.
As far as I know, no one in the class has ever attended a 5Rhythms class outside of the YMCA. Though everyone in the room seemed to know each other, they greeted me open-heartedly, if with some curiosity. Within the first few minutes, I was sobbing. I tried to hold back, thinking that as the newest dancer there I should try to be discreet. What I found there, just as I found in the More Than This workshop, was nothing less than beautiful humanity.
We do this thing, and it is really so simple. Jane provided a lot of structure and used the music skillfully to keep everyone moving, but really it was just a room, a group of people, some music, some words. We danced our hearts out, delighted with ourselves and with each other, soaring around the little studio, each in our own way. It is so simple, and yet it is everything, absolutely everything. Nothing less than the perfect expression of our total humanity. Nothing less than bliss.
As I cried, a waterfall of insights alit. I reflected that the “depth” I so crave—that I long for—is not something that anyone else can give me. It is not external. Highly skilled teachers like Alain and his wife and Assistant Teacher Sarah Pitchford can help to create ideal conditions, and Gabrielle’s maps can guide me, but really it is my own intention, my own awareness, my own integrity, my own discipline, my own patience, my own humility…that draws back the veils to reveal the depths of reality. If I fall into the trap of looking for it somewhere other than where I am, I am sure to sabotage myself, and to waste precious alive moments looking aimlessly for something that I can find everywhere, in every moment, in every experience.
As I write, I sit in my Brooklyn backyard. The soft hush of highway traffic enters my soundscape. Pipes music drifts to me from a distant backyard. The air is the perfect temperature for an early summer night, and, though it is late, the slightest tinge of dusk lingers. It is perfect. I notice it this time, thankfully.
To carry you back in time, on April 15th, the first day of the More Than This workshop, I made my way from the 8th Avenue subway station through the unpredictably organized streets of Manhattan’s West Village to Bethune Street, entered the building that holds the Martha Graham studio, and took the elevator to the 11th floor. I arrived over a half hour before the 1pm start time, but the foyer was already filled with dancers.
I think I spent much of the first day of the 5Rhythms Mirrors-level More Than This workshop trying to impress people. I especially hoped to impress the teachers, Alain and Sarah. I am not exactly sure what I hoped to impress them with—perhaps that I am a good dancer, that I am a good person, or that I am sensitive to the people around me. Alain is an acclaimed 5Rhythms teacher; with a worldwide reputation for his skill and insight.
I did not know the majority of people, as dancers arrived from all over the world, including one woman who traveled all the way from South Africa. Carving out the space from work and other responsibilities to attend the workshop felt like a soaring leap of faith for me, but I was humbled when I learned from how far and wide some had come.
On the first day, I danced myself empty.
Though I am not young, I am less practiced than most of the people who were in the room, and I felt possessed by youthful exuberance. My movements during this first wave of the workshop were expansive and creative. I slipped around people, and enjoyed a mutual head-cuddling spin with a friend. Alain’s refrain during this first chapter was, “We have plenty of time. Take your time.” I appreciate the perspective that we actually do have enough time, despite constant cultural pressure to believe that we are incorrigibly rushed.
After the opening wave, Alain sat us in a big circle to establish the parameters for the class. In this meeting, he asked people to reveal any type of connection—such as marriage, close friendship, or any type of investment in the practice, or even the fact of being a 5Rhythms teacher—and he asked us to leave those associations outside the room for the duration of time that we shared in the practice space.
Sarah led us through an investigation of the rhythm of Flowing—the necessary ground of all the rhythms. She was tiny and compact as she luxuriated on the floor, instructing us to investigate the lowest level (rolling on the floor), middle (rolling and slightly rising), and eventually the highest level (up, with attention to the feet and the ground) of Flowing. We moved as a group to one side of the room and then to the other as we attended to our assignment.
I recalled one teacher who led a meditation retreat I attended—a woman named Gina Sharpe. After a few days of intensive, silent practice I could scarcely bear to look at her. I almost felt I had to shield my eyes. I couldn’t believe that she was walking around the world shining so brilliantly, as she was. By the end of the first day of More Than This, I started to feel the same way about many of my fellow practitioners.
Entering the Bethune Street building the second day, the security guard was playing the House music ballad “A Lovely Day.” I had pressed the elevator button, but let it rise without me, dancing in the lobby instead. The guard told me that he loved the song, too. He had run an afterschool program for kids, and once had the kids perform the song, leaping in happy circles during the chorus, “It’s a lovely day.” When I finally got upstairs, I tried to tell someone about it, but choked up in the telling.
On the second day, the first wave danced me empty.
I noted construction sounds from outside, but regarded them as neutral. One of my first meditation trainings had a street construction soundtrack; and it had given me an opportunity to examine irritation and the insight that it lead to. The same day, Alain suggested that we consider it ok to be awkward. This, I also connect with that same meditation training, when I was raw, open, ethereal, and the teacher suggested that we might feel odd or awkward, and that we might experiment with letting that be—a suggestion that I have returned to again and again over the years.
Toward the end of the wave, I was drawn to the one place in the room where I could see the sky, and danced holding onto an edge, looking out the window. The 11th floor view and the vast space of the sky above New York City entered into me. I found myself weeping—porous, boundless, tender. When I turned my attention back into the room—a space I had previously perceived as a utopia—the room felt desolately confined. Grungy, semi-opaque plastic—coming down in the corner of one window—covered the windows on one side of the room. Our belongings—coats, bags, water bottles and assorted garments littered the benches on the same side. Most of the windows on the other side were covered with a tall, black velvet theatrical curtain. Materials and furniture seemed shoved into various corners; and the ceiling was worst of all. Shabby, with an array of stage lights—some with defunct bulbs. Snarls of black electrical cable snaked along the antique tin panels, held with various metal hooks and fixtures. I was heartbroken—to realize there was so much space available and yet here we were constrained in this tiny little room. I turned my attention back to the practitioners inside the space, and swept throughout, weeping as I gazed into people’s eyes, overcome by something there is no way to name.
I attend every workshop that takes place in New York City that I possibly can. Sometimes I show up without even knowing the workshop level or content and just follow the teacher’s lead. This time, I had a special intention. I was particularly eager to explore the map that Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhythms practice, designed specifically for working with the machinations of ego—the Mirrors map.
The many different selves I have inhabited could stand some scrutiny. For example, there was a time when I feared I was evil, perhaps even a demon. I was deep in an underground culture at the time; and, though my conscience did struggle—I operated without basic integrity. It was a huge relief to me years ago to take on the belief of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and psychology that there is no essential self, that we are all in flux, and that we exist only in relation to everything around us. I finally let go of the deep fear that I might be evil, since if there is no essential self, I couldn’t possibly have an evil essential self; and I came to believe that “me” was an act in constant creation.
An important part of the workshop was a specific process of supported, individual ego investigation that Alain designed in consultation with Gabrielle Roth. Most of the people in attendance embarked upon this individual process at some point during the workshop. I, myself, stepped into it on this second workshop day; and had a disconcerting experience. The final wave of the day found me dissociative and anxious—polar opposite to myself earlier in that same day when I gazed out the window and wept, letting the tenderness of vast space overtake me.
I wondered if I would be able to move at all on the third day of the workshop, suffering as I was. That night, I wrote several letters to Alain and slept restlessly. Though I did suffer, I was able to hold it within a larger space. I continued to feel disenchanted with Alain on some level, but I gave Alain and Sarah each a tiny daffodil in one tiny glass vase. Remarkably for me, I didn’t complain, I didn’t protest, I didn’t ask for validation of any sort. Sarah greeted me gently, and asked how I was. I replied, “Tender. Reflective. I might want to debrief with you or Alain about how that experience was for me at some point, but for now, I am going to just trust the process for a few more days.”
That day, I found expansive movement, creative specificity, connection and tenderness. At one point, Alain instructed us to sit and look into the eyes of another practitioner. I happened to pair with a good friend. I fell into his eyes, sighing, unpreoccupied with being seen, but instead simply seeing. Alain asked us to experiment with various levels of distraction as we sat together. The best I could do with his instruction was to imagine white clouds passing in front of my friend’s face, then to return to presence.
The only thing I wrote down that night was, “I didn’t care about the story. I gave Alain and Sarah each a tiny flower. The day was exquisite. Very very deep.”
A song from The 100,000 Songs of Milarepa—a saint of the Tibetan Kagyu lineage—with a verse about clouds and sky echoed through my mind. I sang it to myself on the subway and as I walked along the streets of the West Village on the way to the Martha Graham Studio the next day. Since the workshop, I taught it to my little son, and he and I have been singing it as a bedtime lullaby each night—a fitting relic of the workshop’s experiences.
Overall, the Mirrors map seems to align well with Buddhist psychology. Perhaps this was one of the draws for me, especially the emphasis on investigating the stories of who-we-are that we perseverate on and are limited by. The preoccupation with understanding the limitations of “self” within Buddhism correlates to the preoccupation with understanding the limitations of “ego” as Alain presented it to us. There is a lot of talk of “no-self” in Buddhism, but my current understanding of “no-self” is that there is, in fact, no essential self—no self that exists inherently, separately, but rather that the construction of self is a dynamic process that is interdependent with infinite factors.
Gabrielle wrote, “Our ego holds us back from actualizing our soul in artful living…The ego is often committed to negating our capacity for being, loving, knowing and seeing. Rather than healing, it can dismember us into a set of minor roles. We tend to take the roles we necessarily play in day-to-day living as the sum and substance of who we are, rather than as disposable character parts that we as sacred actors choose to play as circumstances require” (Maps to Ecstasy, 146). Anything that obscures soul is ego, as Gabrielle understood it. Although Buddhist teachings do not use the term “soul,” Gabrielle’s explanation of soul appears to be similar to Buddhist ideas about unmediated, loving, vivid presence.
What was disconcerting about the ego process as it unfolded for me was that Alain’s interpretation didn’t seem to have much to do with my personal experience. However, in the decision to let it ride and not to insist on “my story” I gained tremendous insight. I spent many years wallowing in my stories of personal trauma. At some point, they became so codified that I began to suspect their accuracy. The decision to let it go for the time being showed me, too, how even centrally-important stories that I have been telling myself for an entire lifetime, are actually quite arbitrary—perhaps just as arbitrary as any other possible story.
Most participants stepped onto the big dance floor at some point during the five days and entered into their own ego investigation. Many ended with cathartic tears and deep insights. It was very moving to witness and see people in their process, and to work at really seeing or really holding space, or noticing when I couldn’t. It was exhausting, too. The universality of the stories was notable. Most lead to some kind of fear or deep sadness. I was very touched by the way the men in attendance held space for one another and showed up for themselves—no small thing in a culture that puts men into a tiny little box where they must be brave, productive and one-dimensional.
There was a series of hip hop songs during the first wave of the next day. I danced hard, edgy, low—bursting and lurking, displaying and folding ardently and dramatically back in to myself. The lyric of one of the songs had the voice of a student talking to a teacher, saying you don’t really see me. I realized that I was dancing one of the high school students I teach (my favorite, I confess). I danced both him and me at once. At times, this student seethes with held-in anger. He told me once, “Teachers think we are all the same!” Dancing for him and as him, for me and as me—I thought about all the trauma we collectively hold, all the rage, all the injustice, and all the beautiful humanity.
We gathered to listen to Alain, and I sat on a large ball not realizing that the one pregnant participant hoped to use it to elevate her feet. I got up immediately and another friend joined me, each of us elevating one of her feet and offering a smiling foot massage. We were her doting attendants. On the last day, at one point the pregnant friend was left without a seat entirely. I stood up right away, and the same friend joined me in attending her. In silence, we retrieved the ball for elevating her feet and various other accoutrements, scampering quickly, in sync. We each elevated one foot once again, then took our seats. It was lovely to feel like I knew exactly what should happen and to just do it, without equivocation; and I loved that my doting friend was in the same space. This feeling persisted during the last three days of the workshop.
Occasionally, I am self-conscious about how I interact with people, but most often it is light background noise (What do they think? What do I think? Do I want to be in this partnership? Do they want to be in this partnership? I have to be careful not to hit them with my arm. I hope they don’t step on my foot or crash into me. I hope this dance ends. I hope this dance never ends…). For long stretches during More Than This, that activity ceased completely; and I moved in and out of close partnerships with poise and confidence.
A friend sent me an email, obliquely mentioning the death of another friend—she thought I already knew. I couldn’t take it in, and waited for a chance to ask someone to confirm that he had passed. I approached a friend who was seated on the floor shortly before we started again after lunch. “I got an email mentioning….is it true?” “Yes,” he said, “and he took his own life.” I let out a sharp cry. He also shared the news that Pat, an elder in the 5Rhythms community, had died. The full force of grief shot through me—lightning—coming from above and ripping through. He looked patiently at me as I cried out again, gutterally, explaining that the friend who took his own life had been ill, and had decided that it was his time.
I thought, as I often do, of my tender-hearted father. I was there when he got a call that a close friend’s daughter had been killed in a car accident and grief overtook him instantly. And again, when my deeply loved great-aunt, who lived two houses from my parents, died at home of congestive heart failure. The totality of grief seemed to strike him right away. It was the exquisite environment of the workshop that allowed me to experience grief so totally, myself. At other times, I might experience grief as shock and in fits and starts, rather than with the raw force that is its hallmark.
That night, I had to be home before eight, since my son’s father—my former partner—had to leave promptly to get to a DJ gig. I told him that I should be home long before eight—our agreed upon time. I walked in smiling at a quarter before eight, thinking he would be pleased that I arrived early. He greeted me with contempt and anger. (In my journal I wrote that he “ripped me one.”) “I have somewhere important to be! How can you say you will be here long before eight, then you just come fifteen minutes before eight! That is just like you! That is not long before! Don’t ever ask me to help you again. I made it clear that I have somewhere I have to be.” He repeated this refrain with increasing intensity while my five-year-old son clung to my leg. I said, “Don’t worry, little one. Daddy can’t hurt my feelings.” I turned to him and said, “I am very sorry I couldn’t meet your need this time. Believe me, I would like to meet your needs. But you are out of line right now. What you needed was not clear. I could not possibly get from the West Village to Brooklyn in less time.” He left, slamming the door. I turned to my son to play with him, barely ruffled. Daddy returned two minutes later, apologizing profusely. I told him, “I accept your apology. The truth is that you can’t hurt me right now.” I said, “I love you” as I hugged him good-bye; and he said, “I love you, too.”
Before we began on the last day of the workshop, I sat next to a large, metal coffee pot that was heating water for tea. I leaned into it, smiling, thinking that the steam inside it sounded like wind. Sarah joined me briefly, and we shared a discussion about the 5Rhythms practice and how transformative it has been for both of us.
The first wave of the day began and I could not stop thinking of what a blessing, what a miracle it is, to move, to live. Alain played a song from the 90’s that I connect with my 2nd and 5th lovers—both problematic exchanges; and I thought about entering the story of it. But there just wasn’t much juice. Layers of trauma appeared, sparked, then fell away.
I found a dance that let many stories arise—some mine, some not—find instant form, then be subsumed again in the massive spinning matrices of Chaos. A new friend witnessed me in a spinning, twisting, leaping representation of wild mind. As the wave progressed, the room was filled with soft intersections. I didn’t need any approval. I didn’t need to prove anything. By the end of the day, I found myself, again, boundless, porous—my entire body one gigantic, beating heart.
In my journal, I wrote, “I see I see I see.”
Alain was masterful. Sarah, too, was masterful, in the way that she supported and lead in her own right. The final circle was un-cathartic. I felt nostalgic as Sarah and Alain turned to gather their things to hurry off to the airport. People lingered at great length and drifted only very slowly to the street.
The day after the workshop, I was irritable, though the open-hearted blissful awareness that had arisen persisted for many days. This was not a surprise. I have had the experience many times that after my ego has unwittingly rolled itself back to show a little bit of what it obscures, the ego reels and clamps down again, trying to re-assert itself.
In Tammy’s class on Friday, I found freedom after an unbelievably stressful week—when it looked very possible that I might lose my job and I was also struggling to finish requirements for a degree deadline. In the teaching during the interlude between the first and the second waves, Tammy taught the rhythms for the benefit of first time practitioners. I closed my eyes, moved, as always, by the litany of the rhythms—the refrain that has guided me to the depths of myself, again and again.
-May 30, 2015, Brooklyn, NYC