“Moving with the spirit has taught me all I know.” -Gabrielle Roth
I didn’t have much time to contemplate what I might experience when I signed up for “Journey into Trance,” a two-day workshop with Jonathon Horan, who is both an experienced 5Rhythms teacher and the current holder of the entire 5Rhythms lineage. Stepping out of the elevator onto the 5th floor at the Joffrey in the West Village, I happily greeted many friends and prepared to step in to the studio, bringing many ongoing narratives into the room with me. Right before I entered, I ran across Jonathan and embraced him in greeting. Immediately after, I wished I had been more discreet, thinking that he probably has people coming at him from all sides, and may not have actually wanted to be hugged. I let that go and moved across the threshold of the studio, feeling a knot of emotion in my throat, along with a rush of gratitude.
A few days before I’d had a conversation with my seven-year-old son Simon about the difference between brain and mind. The brain, I shared, is a thing in your head with complex electrical wiring to the rest of your body. The mind is your brain, but also stretches past just your own head. Because all that you think and perceive and experience is influenced by things outside of your body, you could say that your mind also includes everything that ever is or ever was. After that, he asked several profound questions about the nature of existence and consciousness. Then he said, “Mommy, can we still get that book to hold all my Pokemon cards?”
Another thing I carried into the studio was the experience of teaching Mindfulness to teens. I have been dabbling for several years now, but this is the first year it has become a significant part of my schedule. The technique I taught students this week was “First Thought,” when you watch for a thought, then when one appears, simply label it “thinking” and return to the object of meditation. My experiences with the students (and also some with the adults) crowded my mind, and I kept reviewing my inspirational speeches, past and future. Then, I would catch myself and say, “thinking” and return to the experience of feet, breath, body, rhythm. Truly, I gave myself few escapes this weekend. A fortunate thing, because it doesn’t seem like Jonathan would have accepted less.
I started most sessions with laps around the perimeter of the room. I felt like it helped me to arrive in the space. I also imagined I was helping to establish an energetic container. On my first lap, as I walked past the beautiful black-feather-themed visual presentation created by Martha Peabody Walker and Peter Fodera, I discreetly dipped my hand into a metal washtub of salt that was part of the installation, scooped up a small amount, and rubbed it onto the soles of my feet. Initially, I moved gently around the space, saying internally, “I see you there; and I am grateful for it,” as I encountered each person.
As the wave progressed, drenched with sweat and thirsty, I paused to drink water, facing out the 5th floor window onto Sixth Avenue. For the first time ever, I saw people high up on an outdoor walkway by the clocktower of the historic church across the street. Smiling, I raised my hand in greeting. One woman waved back, and nudged a man next to her, who did the same. Delighted, I continued to be strongly connected to everyone in the room, and also to the world outside the studio throughout the weekend, often picturing the sky on the other side of the ceiling, and occasionally, the curving, vast earth. Once in Stillness I sent energy from one hand to another, but it took a long route, traveling not just across my hands, but around the entire sphere of the earth to arrive in my other hand, creating a long, circular arc that I completed into a circle with my own body.
In this opening wave, I danced a ferocious Chaos. At times, I wasn’t sure which rhythm we were in. Lately, I have had work to do in Staccato, and have been deliberately holding myself in Staccato rather than charging on directly into Chaos. During “Journey into Trance” there were times that I suddenly realized we were already moving into Lyrical without ever having really let loose in Chaos. As a result, my neck was very sore the first day.
Continuing to reflect on my own students, who are mostly people of color, I thought also of the courage of people of color who are part of the 5Rhythms community. That week, I had led circle discussions about the events in Charlottesville. During the same week, a student in a different class spoke out hotly during a reading, “This is making me feel a certain type of way!” he said. “How are you feeling exactly?” I asked. He started to explain that a character’s remark seemed racist. A teacher, who identifies as white, like me, and who I share the class with, tried to talk him out of it. “Well, I have a neighbor who…” I let her talk for a few moments, then said, “You could definitely read that statement as racist.” “Thank you!” gasped another student. I thought about how many times I’ve been in full 5Rhythms rooms where there has been just one apparent person of color. I thought about how incredibly important diversity of all kinds is for the integrity and vitality of the 5Rhythms community. I thought, too, of the incredible courage of my fellow dancers. How despite the daily ravages of racism, how somehow many people of color have managed to step up to be courageous, surrendered and vulnerable, fully in the dance. And how remarkable and valuable that is. And how inspiring. A point of hope in this ugly world that seems to grow uglier daily.
We took a break in the late afternoon. I didn’t feel like socializing, and ate in the nearly empty studio. I made a few notes about the morning in my journal, then followed the suit of another dancer and sat in meditation with my back to a column. Then, I lay myself down and entered a chthonic, deep relaxation, falling into the floor, the earth and darkness. As people returned from the lunch break, they thundered by me with their pounding footsteps, but I continued to rest until the music started again.
Instead of leading us into a wave right away, Jonathan gathered us together and began to speak. He talked about Gabrielle Roth, the founder of the 5Rhythms, first. He said that witnessing her dance, she was so transparent and embodied, you could just cry looking at her. Gabrielle Roth was also Jonathan’s mother, and he spoke of growing up with her at spiritually radical Esalen Institute in California, then moving to New Jersey at the age of 7, where he felt out of place.
At this point, he switched from his own experience to ontology. He argued that we have all pretty much entered into a fool’s agreement, “That I won’t see you, and you won’t see me.” Why be half-hearted? He posited. Gabrielle, herself, was not a rule follower. Instead, she relentlessly sought what was real and true and beautiful. What I heard was, Wake up! Wake up! Your very life is at stake. I’m making it all sound funny because it is, but we don’t have time to languish in generalities. Let go of the many limiting ego stories that are stifling you. Life is passing so quickly. Before we know it, we will die. Jonathan said later, “After all, we may only live once.”
Next Jonathan invited us to consider the frame of “Journey into Trance” and reflected that trance might look differently for different people. He also suggested that we approach the weekend with curiosity and an attitude of spaciousness, accepting that some might need to roll around on the floor screaming, make odd noises, or act in other socially unacceptable ways.
After Jonathans’ talk, we began with simply walking around the space. We experimented with allowing ourselves to be led with our bellies, and then with allowing ourselves to be led by our heads. I noticed that I had a much lower center of gravity when the belly was leading, and that I felt like part of the collective field, as opposed to when the head was leading. Despite a sore neck, I danced a very athletic wave. Every time a thought arose, I said, “thinking” internally and returned to the physical experience of my body, finding endless new ways to move: big back steps, a new complication of low-weighted spinning with open shoulders moving my hands up and over me like coiling carnival rides, deep front and back movement in the pelvis and sacrum, sunken with my heels touching the backs of my knees and then stepping forward, my heart bursting open, then coiling my entire abdomen back inside, then bursting my heart forward again, sometimes continuing this arcing in the space in front of my spine, and through the hips and pelvis.
“Are you in or out?” Jonathan asked. “And if you’re out, can you come back in?”
At a moment when my energy dipped, I encountered a friend at the outer edge of the moving room. She, too, seemed tired, and somehow we fell into each other, quivering, shimmying, small, precise. We rolled inside discreet shoulders, cascading forward and back. Making oblique eye contact, we both smiled. Moving from our bellies, I recalled images of Fela Kuti’s many wives who accompanied him onstage, dancing with vibrancy, the rhythm of the body pouring out at the heart, with arcing, arching intensity.
At day’s end, I was thoroughly exhausted, and my neck was very painful. I recalled that not only had I perhaps not given myself fully over to Chaos, but also that Simon had woken up very early and put on a movie, which I half-watched along with him, my neck propped awkwardly onto pillows and twisted for the duration of the three-hour film. I darted out, making my way to the subway, where I made the happy discovery that I had a little bag of snack food in my bag, then spent several minutes trying to open it. Struggling, I finally resorted to attempting to pierce the bag with one of the sharper keys on my keyring, when I finally looked around. Just across from me on the same platform stood Jonathan, two blazing sapphires staring out of his face, his arms crossed over the railing, one forearm over the other, grinning and giving off sharp little glints of light.
My parents were in town to care for Simon, and I met up with all of them. I was too tired for intelligible conversation. I went to bed as soon as I got Simon organized, tucking a sheet onto the couch in the living room since my parents would sleep in my bed, and settling in as quickly as possible.
Saturday night I slept very deeply, and, miraculously, woke Sunday with no pain in my neck. I went to brunch with my family, then made my way back to the Joffrey for the second day of “Journey into Trance.” As I pushed open the glass door from Sixth Avenue into the Joffrey, Jonathan was entering too.
As the music started, I did a few laps of the perimeter, then found Flowing easily. I was gentle, small, with my arms close to my torso, totally fluid, slotted in among the many prone dancers, almost crying, connected to the entire field, not separate. Moving around the space, I did what I call “Passing Through Practice” where I sort of energetically whoosh through everyone and everything–even the columns–and let them all whoosh through me.
Jonathan spoke of a “deep inquiry into the interior self.” Listening carefully to the teacher’s talk is a practice itself, and every time my mind drifted, I directed it quickly back. “Are you in or out?” he asked again, “and can you know when you’re out? Can you stay in?” I rebelled internally, thinking it would be better not to grasp and push, and instead to just notice. But maybe this is a different level of practice, I thought, maybe it is possible to stay in the entire time. Maybe even all the time, on and off the dance floor. Jonathan also suggested that we experiment with “soft eyes” rather than direct gaze, to support the experiment of working with trance.
eHe also said to the group, “If I were you, I might have come in with resistance today after dancing like you danced yesterday.” I reflected that I have, in a way, encountered very little resistance to 5Rhythms over the years. Even when I am aware of how vulnerable I am, how torn to bits, how connected, how surrendered, how energetically porous, even when I have felt judged or left out–even at these times I am not late on purpose, I don’t lie to myself and blame others when I don’t feel good (even when I do), and I always step into each rhythm with the sincere willingness to fully bring it to bear. It is a curious thing. In other practices, such as yoga, I have encountered much more resistance. Sometimes the edge is razor sharp, though, and when I go very deep I may spend ensuing days feeling irritable or otherwise “off,” perhaps my ego’s desperate attempts to re-assert itself.
At one point, Jonathan said something about how ridiculous it is to pay attention to how you look in the mirror. Here, too, I rebelled, realizing I had been so intent on not looking in the mirror, that it had acquired the flavor of aversion. So I spent a little time right next to the mirror, turning to the side so I could fully examine the complicated sways and arcings of my stomach, lower back and pelvis.
After the talk, I glued my belly to the floor and moved with weight, pulling myself around with my arms and coiling spine. I pulled up onto my knees and set about finding as much movement in my spine as possible, my head forward and simply following and completing the many ratcheting, twisting and undulating gestures of the spine. I stayed deeply connected to myself as new forms arose in Staccato. At one point as we moved from Staccato into Chaos, I played with balance, staying on one foot, and swinging, bounding and descending with the other, looking for the farthest edges of balance.
I recalled that when I first started dancing, I pretty much always kept “soft eyes” as it seemed rude or intrusive to look straight at anyone. Back then, almost a decade ago now, I often stayed inside a heavy trance for the duration. For me, it became most intense during Chaos. I was kind of a trance junkie–craving that depth, that intensity, the shamanic glimpses, the sense that life is deeply meaningful, that “this” layer of reality is just a tiny piece of the picture. Then, I started to open my eyes more, literally. I found the ground, I met people’s gazes more directly, more often. I felt like instead of privileging transcendence, I was connecting with greater awareness to the world. Trance would still come in pockets, spirits would visit, ancestors would soothe me, visions would present, energy would move tangibly and visibly. But I never experienced the sustained trances that I did in the first two years of dancing again. To my surprise, “Journey into Trance” was, for me, an opportunity to re-integrate those early experiences, and to enter into other dimensions with the full support and protection of my spiritual community and teachers.
Call on your guides, your ancestors, your spirit animals, your lineages, Jonathan invited at one point. I spread my arms as wide as the room and grew very tall, regal, a great trailing cape rushing from my arms as I moved in sweeping ribbons through the space, my spirit entourage in a phalanx beside and behind me–my emotional support system, my protectors.
During this wave, I was very released in Chaos, unleashing a massive proliferation of forms, including everything, somehow, leaving nothing out. In Lyrical, I again moved through the room, passing through people and objects, feeling the whoosh of merging. In Stillness I had a vision of eyes on the palms of my hands. Even with my eyes shut, I could see everyone in the room, could see the sky through the ceiling, and could see inside of my own body and the interior bodies of people in the room.
Before Sunday’s break, Jonathan lead us in a guided meditation. Laying with my full back on the floor, my arms and legs extended, he spoke into the microphone, suggesting an image for the cessation of ego defenses. At its conclusion, I had to remind myself where I was.
I floated down the elevator, avoiding eye contact, not wanting to dissipate, not wanting to disperse. I went to a local health food store, and chose food as efficiently as possible, thinking that I would write after eating. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my journal on the bench in the locker room at the Joffrey, so I didn’t have any way to write. Instead, I listened to the most curious, avant-garde recording of two older women in a fascinating conversation about movie stars from the 1980’s that was playing on speakers in the dining area. Slowly, I realized there was also music playing. Then, I realized that only music was playing, and the conversation I was listening to was actually taking place in real time, between two women just a table away from me.
I thought of a story about a conversation between Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, and His Holiness Dilgo Kyentse Rinpoche, who was the head of the Tibetan Nyingma lineage. As the story goes, the two friends were sitting in contented silence on a bench in a garden, enjoying a pleasant afternoon. After some time, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche pointed and said to the other, “They call that a tree!” at which point they both broke into peals of laughter, which went on for some time.
After lunch, Jonathan started us off with intentional self-care, guiding us as we massaged our necks. Most stood up for this, but I remained on the ground, sticking various parts of me to the floor emphatically. At this point, I moved around the room in Flowing, my eyes soft, saying, “I feel you there, and I am grateful for it,” rather than what I often say internally in Flowing, “I see you there, and I am grateful for it.” During this wave, I partnered less, turning more and more inside, “cruising the emptiness” as Jonathan said, quoting Gabrielle.
“What’s real, what’s true, what’s deep, what serves the big dance of love,” Jonathan chanted, ever suspicious of sanctimonious bullshit, calling out our egos stories, our feeble escapes, our neurotic self-making again and again. In Chaos, I moved with total engagement and energy, released, erased. I hung my skin onto a nail while I danced around in my skeleton, near a friend who always inspires me, both of us totally plugged in, but on different journeys. Moving into Lyrical, my bones glowed with ancient writing, light on every bone’s surface, the plane of my shoulder blade, the big femur bone of my leg, on every separate link of my spine. Then, a spirit visited me (or so I imagined). I remembered him from many years ago, when he came to dance and overlapped with me, weaving in and out of me as I swooned and tears poured down my cheeks, teaching me the Passing Through practice. This time we danced again, becoming one body and then separating, ending with swaying, my hands pressed to his hands.
Jonathan selected a soaring, tender song with the lyric, “There is a place I know. Only I can go there,” that I associate with the passing of his mother, the beloved Gabrielle Roth. A low, grazing groan of grief dragged out of me, a deep-bass lowing. I moved in a gesture that finds me nearly every time I am in Stillness, looking down, moving my hands slowly to the left, turning my body around, and felt I could see the origin of this gesture, many lifetimes ago, in a scene of trauma and destruction. I was a gigantic, swooping, flapping vulture, and the air displaced as I beat my wings. Still groaning, crying, breath totally moving me, not separate. Even as I gasped, every muscle echoed it.
Though I was totally lost in this place, I gently settled back in, like a feather landing.
At the end, my breath was rich and resonant. Like some ancient grief had cleared. In the coming days, I would experience the irritability and emotional volatility of an ego that feels seriously endangered after it has managed to step into the sky, into the vastness of experience, where its tiny stories are drowned out by the deafening hum of existence.
At the end of the day, I made to leave, still feeling private. I changed my mind and lingered for a little while, talking with several friends with whom I had shared gestures or insights. I made my way to Jonathan, remembering that my earlier hug might have been overkill, and stood with my hands in prayer, touching them to my forehead as I made a tiny bow, my eyes smiling. “Thank you. This has been so beautiful.” He gave me a generous hug and a kiss on the cheek.
The five-year anniversary of the death of Gabrielle Roth was just a few days after the “Journey into Trance” workshop. I hope we honored her memory this weekend. I hope we served her vision. I hope trance continues to unfold for all of us, in Jonathan’s words, inside this “cathedral of bones” this “wilderness of the heart.”
October 16, 2017, Brooklyn, NY
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher. Images are copyright Meghan LeBorious.