For me, the closing retreat for the Mindful Schools training program for teaching mindfulness to youth started before I even arrived at Garrison Institute. One year before, I had attended the opening retreat for the same program. Last year, it was all new. This time, after a year of hard work and community building, it felt like re-connecting. I attended several dance and movement meditation classes in my core practice tradition during the days right before the retreat. On Sunday morning, my all-time favorite dance partner was at class; and we shared four or more dances over the course of the two hours.
From the dance studio in the West Village, I drove two hours to Garrison, New York, did another dance and movement meditation class just a few miles from the retreat center, then went to an Italian restaurant in Fishkill to meet friends from the Mindful Schools training. We greeted each other like old friends. At one point, each person told a story about a turning point when we realized the power of mindfulness in our life. Even with six of us at the table, each story was met with full attention.
The next day I spent several hours at a cafe in Beacon, then decided to visit the Dia:Beacon–a converted factory that is now a museum for modern and contemporary art specializing in famous, minimal, large-scale artworks.
I spent all of my teens, twenties, and thirties devoted to artmaking, and even taught art at the college level. For the past few years, I haven’t been active as an artist, and I forget how much knowledge and skill I’ve amassed, how hard I’ve worked, and what an important part of my identity being an artist has been. I also recollected long diatribes against the macho-ness of minimal art I had delivered over the years, and wondered if any of it still had weight for me.
At a very sensitive time, when it was already becoming difficult to make new work given the circumstances of my life, I had a painful exchange about artmaking with someone I trusted, and my artmaking practice dissolved, perhaps finally.
I had to admit that the artworks were impressive, perfectly sited in this cleaned up, 160,000-square-foot industrial space. I was grateful to find the work of a female artist, Charlotte Posenenske, in the central gallery. I learned that her sculptural work was exhibited alongside prominent male minimal artists in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I also learned that her strong interest in labor rights had lead her to defect from artmaking and pursue a PhD in sociology. She became a labor activist and went on to specialize in employment and working practices.
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I moved through, remembering infinite conversations and experiences that touched on many of the artists and artworks included in the permanent collection, remembering a former self that I hadn’t noticed I was grieving for.
Stepping out of the museum, I found a roiling white sky, with shifting opacities and incredible depth, and quickly changing forms and layers. My eyes wide with light, I filmed a series of one-minute videos of the sky, with no up or down orientation, no reference point. At one point I lay on my back on the ground to record, a bit hesitant about seeming weird, but alight with the fever of artmaking, remembering what I loved about it, remembering a forgotten part of myself.
I wanted to arrive early to Garrison so I could try to get a room with a window facing the river, but as I drove the few miles from the Dia, the sky exploded with rain. I couldn’t see at all and had to pull over to wait it out.
I recalled the year before, at the opening retreat, when there had been a thunderstorm during a period of community silence and relentless heat. We were told there was a severe weather alert and that if we felt nervous we could take shelter on the lower level of the building. The storm tore the sky apart, and it was like the outside came resoundingly inside the soaring, once-Franciscan-cathedral main hall. Still in silence, several of us made our way to the front steps where we had a view of the sweeping lawn and river. The pavement and plants gave off steam. Mist exhaled into the entryway and landed coolly on my exposed arms, legs, and face. A white cliff-waterfall on the other side of the river tripled its size. A woman seated next to me on the marble steps ate a crunching apple, savoring each bite.
Back in the meditation hall, the storm continued as mindfulness became increasingly concentrated. At one point, I realized it was too intense for me, and stepped into the foyer, intentionally interrupting practice. After a few minutes, I went back in and sat down on the cushion again. Then, I had a sharp, sudden sensation on the left side of my head, and was seized by the fear that I might be having a stroke.
I remembered something the vipassana teacher, Dipa Ma, once told a practitioner who was freaking out during a sitting period. She sat next to him and said, “If you can stay with this sensation, you will accumulate great merit.” I settled down and the flash of pain and fear soon faded.
The teachers reminded us of basic meditation instructions, including choosing some kind of anchor for the attention, such as breath, sound, or body sensations. The next day, the teachers each offered thoughts on the topic of befriending, focusing on befriending even difficult emotions.
That first evening, following dinner and an evening program, we entered into almost three days of silence, which enfolded me like soft fabric.
I could see the river and waterfall from the window of my small room. The Hudson line trains charged by, whistling loudly at regular intervals. I slept unclothed with a light sheet, loving the sensation of my bare legs touching each other, and of my feet, one cradled inside the arch of the other. I woke to the sound of a roving bell not long after dawn and made my way to the shower before the 7.30 AM morning sit.
In silence, I didn’t feel like I was closing others out. Even in avoiding eye contact, it felt like we were energetically very much in community. It was like we were all in on a precious secret, witness to a deeper layer of reality than the one we spend most of our days navigating. We were still seeing each other, but on a deeper level, taking a break from all the noise of projecting ourselves. For just a few days, I was not colluding in anyone’s ego stories, nor asking them to collude in mine.
The day was passed in alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation, interspersed with brief commentary by the teachers, Alan Brown, Argos Gonzalez, and Erin Woo. Sarah Ludell Beach, who was the retreat coordinator, also stood in the role of teacher at times.
That night, I bounded to the wide front lawn during a final walking period, hoping I would be able to dance with the fireflies, as I had the previous year. This time, we were two weeks later in the season, and the fireflies were not as abundant. Though I still got to dance with the tiny, intermittently glowing creatures, it couldn’t compare to the previous year, when I had been doing walking meditation on the lawn, and wound up dancing at length and through several different energies with the fireflies in a spontaneous expression of pure joy.
On this retreat, walking meditation delighted me. My feet delighted me. The natural world delighted me, including the sky and its endless parades; and the gravel, sand, stone, and pavement surfaces that provided so many engaging textures for the soles of my feet.
During a dance and movement meditation retreat in the same soaring main hall just a month before, I had imagined myself as though in a different lifetime. I was a young nun in threadbare orange robes, vulnerable and bare underneath, bald headed and slight, with no holding whatsoever in my body.
My whole architecture was entirely different. My shoulders and upper body were drawn more forward, with none of the “push your shoulders back, pull your chest forward, have good posture” that my culture demands. It almost felt like I was leaning forward and curving myself, but actually I think I was just gracefully upright, belly fully released, diaphragm fully released, with no ego demands on my carriage. As this young woman, I walked through the hall with tender humility, my hands gently cupped together at the height of my navel.
The most extraordinary part of this vision was my feet. In the past year, I had severe heel spurs, and struggled with debilitating pain that I feared might persist. The young nun’s feet were these soft, aware, exquisite creatures who felt and sensed the earth as she patiently walked, practically caressing the road beneath her.
Sitting in silence on a bench during a break, my feet dangled, too high to reach the floor, and muscles in the arch of my right foot spasmed repeatedly. During the week, tiny muscles in my feet released again and again, surrendering many micro-grippings–ego armorings I had designed to hold out experience, to keep me safe from the sometimes-unbearable reality of being fully alive.
Walking outside, now on my third retreat at Garrison Institute, I finally discovered that it’s possible to walk all the way around the main part of the property on a circular road. I was grateful, as walking on grass without shoes in a place with high incidence of Lime’s Disease seemed ill-advised. I walked with uncharacteristic patience and engagement, feeling every point of contact. At one point, I paused to touch a small, fuzzy, white caterpillar with my pointer finger, then put my foot into her path. Without pausing, she climbed right up onto the offered foot, and I sobbed, whispering “I remember, I remember, I remember,” grateful that the caterpillar did not perceive me as separate from the ground, and continuing to marvel at the sensitivity and intelligence of my feet.
Alan offered the instruction that if it felt right, we could let go of our mindfulness anchors at this point, and experiment with open awareness, but I had already made this shift. As mindfulness was well-founded, I knew I could let in more of the world’s vibrant and dynamic displays without losing my ground. At this time, I also noticed how sensitive my sacrum had become–almost like a tuning fork, vibrating with subtle energies.
During a sitting period, scanning my inner body, I became aware of the dark, mysterious recesses of the pelvis. My attention shifted to the cathedral ceiling, then outward to the blue sky above it, then continued to rise into dark, boundless outer space, dotted everywhere with points of light. The inner darkness and the endless mystery of the cosmos seemed to blend seamlessly together.
I thought about an idea gathered from the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray, that being fully embodied involves not only individual embodiment, but also interpersonal embodiment, and embodiment on a cosmic level.
At least once every day I danced with the river. My river dances from the previous year had stayed with me and remained alive in my dance since the opening retreat last year. Sometimes, remembering these dances, I move in the slow, liquid currents of a dancing room, my hands softly conducting and receiving, feeling ribbons pass directly through my porous body as they curve and express themselves, sometimes even cascading in from the corners of the room.
There is this one spot that pulls me powerfully. To get there I walked down a wooded path, across a bridge over train tracks, and up onto a glacial rock lodged into the river’s bank. On top of the rock, I could see the surface of the river from slightly above. The complex play of currents was hinted at by the dancing lines and patterns and erratic flat, smooth places. Moving, the river pulled me deep into it, and I would rise to the surface again with darkness streaming down my back and shoulders. Sometimes my excursion was just a sight-seeing trip to the river, but more often than I expected, I found the moving stillness that underlies all surfaces–a resonant silence that is active and alive.
I’ve been carving a groove so I know the way there, and I found myself chanting again, “I remember, I remember, I remember.”
On the afternoon of the third day, we transitioned back into speaking. At first, it seemed ok, but I felt tired and slept poorly. The fourth day was marked by intensive social and professional exchange. The main activity of the day was to self organize into groups of four, then each present a demo lesson to the group. I learned a lot from this activity and gained valuable knowledge, but I again felt exhausted and slept poorly.
On the fifth day, some participants lead breakout sessions on specific topics. Though it was a huge amount of information to take in, all of the sessions I attended left me feeling inspired and added to my knowledge of the many different aspects of mindfulness work in the world. In the evening, we had a show-and-tell period, and people presented activities they had used successfully with their students, songs with themes of mindfulness, and dances.
I had been invited to lead a class in my dance and movement meditation practice for the group, but, although I am in the teacher training process, I am not yet authorized to teach. Instead, I offered to lead one of the twenty-minute breakout sessions on the fifth day, where I would present some basic information about the practice, and talk about the importance of some kind of embodiment practice in conjunction with sitting meditation.
Breakfast was in silence most days, and I sat at length after finishing my meal, visualizing how I would present this information.
After attending three excellent breakout sessions led by colleagues, I went to the main hall, where the session would take place. Twenty or so people appeared, and I gathered them to the most inner part of the room and asked them to sit in a circle. The first thing I said is that I’m not authorized to teach the practice yet, but I would present a brief overview and invite questions. I also emphasized the importance of including some kind of embodiment practice along with sitting meditation, whether that be yoga, tai chi, 5Rhythms, or any other modality. I also shared that the dance and movement meditation practice I do can be seen as a way to embody the creative process; and that it would look different for everyone.
My firefly dances of the previous year had become part of the group’s lore, so I decided to embody the different stages of my dance with the fireflies to show something true about what my practice is for me. I also hoped to inspire people to have faith and integrity on their own path to fully-realized embodiment.
Later that day, arriving at the river, I somewhat half-heartedly started to dance on the gravelly sand of a little inlet next to the big rock. I told myself it was ok if I wasn’t that into it, I would just move through the formal practice and see what happened. I started by making circles in the sand with my feet. I kept finding straight lines and angles, then falling back into circling. I softly let my head go, let my body go, let my stories go. Still moving, I ascended the rock where I could see the river from above. After only a few light gestures in my fingertips, the river’s stillness opened its gateway.
During my dances, I had imagined that I could perceive an ancient force, a Naga, a kind of serpent deity that lives in large bodies of water, in this complex and powerful stretch of the river. On this final day, I thanked the Naga and asked it to help and guide me on my path.
The wind grew stronger and seemed to pass directly through my body, curving around my heart and rushing right into the plants of the river bank behind me. A low sound emitted from my belly and throat, and I moved unselfconsciously, whispering “I remember, I remember, I remember” as tears coursed down my face and over my chin.
I had no idea how long I was at the river, but it seemed likely I was late for the afternoon session in the main hall. I started back up the path to the retreat center, feeling my soft feet and noticing the layered textures of green around me. As I emerged from the woods, I encountered three friends, walking with their arms around each other. They asked me something about the closing party we would have that night. I blinked, took a breath, and answered, leaving the world of the Naga and of the many forces by the river, and stepping back into the light of day.
An alumni of the program acted as DJ for the closing party, which took place in the dining hall. Without any alcohol, many danced with cheerful abandon. The people I had been grouped with for study meetings over the course of the year had decided to dress as fireflies. One of our members bought yellow tutus and installed a light in the layers of tulle so our tails would glow. Another had purchased wings. The eight of us trailed through the crowd in a glowing line to join our teacher on the dance floor during the Whitney Houston song “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”
For the final session, we assembled in a giant circle of over 100 people on the front lawn for a closing ritual. As the ritual ended and the retreat formally dissolved, we were invited to say goodbye to people silently. I lingered in patient embraces as the room gradually transitioned into chatter.
On the drive home, I chanted, “I remember, I remember, I remember,” as the cloud sky shifted, the Hudson river curved and twisted, and tears streamed down the valleys of my cheeks.
This blog consists of reflections on my own experiences, and is not sanctioned by any organization or teacher.
Garrison Institute building exterior from: https://www.garrisoninstitute.org/retreats-events/facility-grounds/
Garrison main hall photo from: https://non-duality.rupertspira.com
“Mommy I hear a glow on you,” my eight-year-old son, Simon, told me when I spoke with him for the first time after three days of silence. I had been in the woods, wondering at the complex root systems of the trees underneath the forest path I walked on, sitting at length in a meditation hall, eating in silence, and noting the intensity of a thick heat wave.
When I spoke with him, I was in the middle of a week-long retreat with 90 other educators who are entering an intensive, yearlong program for teaching Mindfulness to youth. The retreat center, Garrison Institute, was formerly a Franciscan monastery, but has been repurposed for use by groups of any and all spiritual traditions.
The meditation hall was once a cathedral, and still has inlaid wood floors, soaring, curved heights with a circular narrative of symbols in stained glass, and an overlooking balcony that may have once housed the pipes of a resonant organ. Half of the space was populated with meditation cushions and chairs, arranged in a semicircle facing the four teachers.
During the first morning of practice, the teachers provided considerable physical instructions and we did sitting and walking meditation throughout the morning. In stages, they described three fundamental “anchors,” or places to hold the attention, including breath, body sensations, and sound, suggesting finally that we pick one anchor to work with. I chose breath, and so returned my attention again and again to the physical feeling of breathing.
Before lunch, one of the teachers, Kaira Jewel Lingo, gave instructions for mindful eating. “Eating is a celebration,” she said in her remarkably gentle voice. I heard, We can consider all of the many people and conditions that had to come together in order for this meal to come to us. We can really take the time to notice all of the flavors and textures of each bite. We can chew until the food is really liquid before we swallow it.
Despite my increasing mindfulness, lunch seemed kind of bland. To remedy this, I shook a bottle of tobasco sauce vigorously over my plain brown rice. Within a few bites, my eyebrows raised in shock and my tongue and lips burned. I had also spooned on a considerable amount of chunky salt, and after the first wave of heat started to normalize, a salt crystal landed on the tip of my tongue. I raised my eyebrows still further, continuing a roller coaster of culinary sensation. I got up to investigate the label on the tobasco sauce, my lips still on fire. Surely this must be a special edition, habanero, extra spicy tobasco sauce? It couldn’t possibly be the same tobasco that I regularly douse my food with? I was surprised to learn that it was in fact regular, standard tobasco sauce, the exact same.
Setting out for a walk in the woods after lunch, I chose the only path that seemed available. After a short time, I chose to veer left from the path and crossed a bridge over railroad tracks. To my delight, this path emptied onto a big rock formation at the edge of the Hudson River. I felt slightly tired, but hoped I could dance a wave, moving through each of the 5Rhythms – Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness – in sequence, the fundamental ritual of my core practice. Instead, after moving with noise in my ears for a few moments, I clicked into a groove and entered directly into Stillness, moving gently with breath, expressing the different currents of the river and ribbons of energy as they reached me. It was as though someone had turned the sound off on the world. I moved closer to the edge of the water, descending to where waves created by passing boats touch the rock. A gentle Staccato found me, the rhythm that has had the most to teach me lately – the rhythm of form, expression, direction, and of making things in the world. I moved with my arms and hips to the flips and curves and edges and advances and retractions of the relationship between water and rock.
Back in the meditation hall in the afternoon, I felt slightly sick, constricted through the diaphragm, and hot at the level of the face. Lately I have recognized the need to be able to release energy when I am overfull, like a pressure valve. How to do this hasn’t been exactly clear, however. It seems that the energy of mindfulness has its own strong momentum. Once I’m in the stream of mindfulness, I can’t just say, “OK, I’m not going to be mindful anymore.” Then, I just start being mindful of trying not to be mindful. In this case, I stepped briefly out of the meditation hall, letting go of the attitude of concentration, and that seemed to regulate me.
Reflecting later, I considered this progress in my practice. I’ve been reluctant to back off of my edges in the past, occasionally resulting in depression and ill ease. After these few short moments of casual attitude in the foyer, I re-entered the hall and took my seat among my peers in a more relaxed state.
Another of the four teachers, Erin Woo, presented a talk that evening on the topic of authenticity, and the many limiting stories we tell ourselves that diminish authenticity. She included personal examples of a story that has impacted her own experience, the story of “not good enough.”
During the final walking period of the evening, the early July sky lit with sunset. I stood on an overlook, facing the Hudson river and a wide field. I gasped as the field and bordering woods shimmered, alive with fireflies. I was concerned about seeming like a show-off, and of hogging the space of the overlook, but I slipped into motion, tracking the fast appearing and disappearing lanterns of the little bugs, again in Still Staccato, spine released, and long, ranging gestures with sudden stops and dips, and with occasional twitters in the hands and fingers, expressing the tiny dots and pauses of light that danced in the field below.
Silence wrapped luxuriously around me. Part of the instructions for silence were to avoid even eye contact. I felt too meek with my eyes cast down, so I held my head up instead, occasionally meeting people’s gazes and lighting up slightly. In the past, I have inhabited silence with a hard line, entering so deeply into my own small space that I might even feel the need to defend it if someone spoke with me or made beseeching eye contact. In this case, although I was in silence and very much turning in to the experience of my own inner body, I was still part of the collective field, and remained energetically porous and connected to the people around me.
A moving bell at 6.45AM mingled with my dream state and woke me on the third day of the retreat, which happened to be the 4th of July. After a morning stretch, meditation period, and breakfast, I walked in the woods again. I felt enveloped by the tunnel of trees, and imagined the deep and complex root systems which allow the trees to communicate, even crossing under the very path on which I walked. This time, I cried at length, thinking about the current state of the country. I reflected especially on the fact that its current prosperity is due in large part to the labor and subjugation of enslaved peoples, and to the land taken without remorse from its original inhabitants. An extra painful history to consider at this time, especially as racism and xenophobia have increased exponentially.
The teachers offered a taste of many different practices, and during the afternoon session, another teacher, Robert Thomas, offered a practice that involves open awareness, letting go of a reference point or anchor and hanging out in open space. As we prepared to move out of the meditation hall to practice walking meditation, he suggested that we consider gazing upward toward sky.
I made my way to a hallway of tucked away classrooms, but finding them already occupied continued on to a covered walkway between two second-floor sections of the main building. Three people were already there, arms resting on the balustrade, gazing upward. After some moments, a low growling began to emerge from the darkening sky.
At the end of the walking period, I made my way back to the main hall and took my seat again as the sky continued to rumble. After longer than I expected, rain began to pelt the high ceiling, creating a loud hush. After some moments of meditation, the retreat manager announced that there was an emergency weather advisory, suggesting that some might wish to leave the big cathedral and move to the basement level. No one seemed inclined, but the teachers suggested a five-minute break in case people wanted to close windows or decline to practice in the main hall during the storm.
Along with several others, I made my way to the front steps, where the sweeping vista of the Hudson River was blurred by heavy rain. The heavy wooden doors were each held by one retreatant. Without hesitation, I stepped out into the rain, tipping my head back and letting rain pour over me, grateful after several days of grueling heat. Acknowledging the frequent lightning, I returned to the stone steps under cover, and sat in silence. A woman next to me ate an apple with decisive crunching bites. Two enthusiastic birds continued to sing in the bushes to the right of the doorway. Mist from the rain landed on my forearms and cheeks. Across the wide river, a cliff waterfall I hadn’t noticed before swelled to three times its size, crashing with white water.
A bell summoned us back to the meditation hall, but some of us lingered on the steps, breathing the storm in.
Returning to our seats, the storm continued to activate the big room. I found myself rapt, counting the spaces between the thunder and lightning, aware of the dynamic, dimensional space of the sky around the building and of its intersection with the inside. At one point, I felt terror approach from the left, from the direction of a simultaneous flash of lightning and crack of thunder. My vision got weird and I felt terrified: heat, sick, rising. For a moment I was afraid I might be having a stroke. The words of an Indian master to one of her students came to mind, “Don’t worry, if you can just stay with it, you will accumulate great merit.” The experience rushed through me, arising, peaking and concluding in less than a minute.
In the evening, after a patient, slowly-chewed, silent dinner and evening sit, Kaira Jewel gave a talk on how to cultivate mindstates that lead to happiness, and discourage mindstates that lead to suffering. She called these processes “The Art of Happiness” and “The Art of Suffering.”
Kaira Jewel began her talk with a reflection on “Interdependence Day” and the fact that there is no thing that is only America or American, but there are many phenomena that make up what we know as America. Some include the enslavement of human beings and the experience of being enslaved, and the genocide of the people who originally inhabited the land. Walking in the woods earlier, I felt strongly that July 4th needed to be formally addressed, and I was grateful for Kaira Jewel’s words.
After Kaira Jewel’s talk, we headed out of the meditation hall again for the final walking meditation period of the day.
Instead of staying on the overlook, this time I headed down the stone path straight into the heart of the firefly field. I hesitated briefly, afraid some part of me might want to show off.
Within moments, however, I was immersed, moving through a full 5Rhythms wave, the fundamental ritual of my core spiritual practice. I moved in Flowing, feeling and honoring my feet on the forgiving grass, then began to move in the direction of every firefly I perceived in the expansive field, exhaling forcefully, sinking low into the knees, using the pinky sides of my forearms like swords, rising and falling, building heat in the body, watching the edges of my vision for a new flicker, responding to three nearly simultaneous lanterns, then waiting with full lungs during a brief pause in flashing. The precision of Staccato attention built to the fever of Chaos, and I let my head go, the pricks of light in the air around me blurring as I spun, dipping and coiling inward and away from my own axis, and in and out of my own field. Breathing erratically and sweating heavily, I began to notice the individual fireflies around me, lifting up onto the toes and reaching toward a rising light with the fingertips, leaping and falling, beaming unreservedly, in an expression of pure delight.
Finally, sound fell away again, as I moved with one tiny bug at a time. Lightning bugs tend to hover and linger, so they make excellent dance partners. Still dusk, I could see and track an individual even when it was not lit, and I cupped my palm, letting it lead me, rising and opening my hands in a slowly turning gesture, delighting in its slow transition into illumination, bowing my head to its tiny expression of majesty, part of the unified whole and spectacularly unique at once.
Still pulsing with life, I sat with my peers for the final meditation period of the evening. Every time I half-lowered my eyes, I saw shimmering lights both inside and outside of me.
The next day passed in a river of sensations, challenges and joys. We moved out of silence and began to consciously build community through a variety of exercises and shifting constellations. Kaira Jewel led us in an optional movement session, introducing us to the practice of Interplay.
Another of our teachers, Alan Brown, offered a talk, making a compelling case for the importance of self-regulation, especially for teachers. “Attention is a form of love. Embodiment is a form of safety,” he said as he described how young people can regulate themselves and can learn to self-regulate through the adults they are in contact with. “Just being a self-regulated adult in the classroom, before we’ve even taught anything about Mindfulness, is already a powerful intervention.”
He opened his talk with an astonishing story about his own path, which includes a diagnosis with Tourette’s syndrome. “Mindfulness was literally a medical miracle for me,” he shared, as he summarized the insights of many years of practice. In his case, deep investigation and inquiry into the body, along with some strategic questions posed by his teachers at opportune moments, lead to a radical decrease in the symptoms of Tourette’s and enduring faith in the power of Mindfulness practices.
Following an afternoon of community building which included tears and howling laughter, Alan was also very, very funny, and the room roared with good humor. The teachers also shared several games we could use with students in our classrooms, including a competitive game that physically modeled the paths of neurotransmitters through a line of bodies, and a game that involved passing a full cup of water around a circle.
At one point, Kaira Jewel led us in a structured Lovingkindness practice within a smaller group we will work closely with throughout the entire year of the course. At its conclusion, we offered Lovingkindness to all beings everywhere, without exception. I saw a pulsing dome of energy high above us, into the sky and beyond, twisting light ribbons edging moving planes of energy: powerful, building, resonating. The woman to my right perfectly described my own vision, saying she could see it through me somehow. “We should consider teaming up in card games,” I joked.
The retreat formally ended with writing prompts and shared reflections in our small cohort groups, inspiring words from each of the four teachers, and a ritual of passing a string around the gigantic circle. At its conclusion, the teachers cut a tiny section for each of us, and we tied it around our wrists, a way to remember our experience and to recall our purpose as we re-enter the streams of our lives outside the container of the retreat.
During the days after we let go of silence and engaged in speaking, at least ten people commented on my dance with the fireflies. “Are you a Tai Chi master?” one generous woman asked. “Was that Brazilian fight dancing you were doing in the field?” asked another. I smiled and said with some effusion, “I was just dancing with the fireflies.” If pressed, I would describe the dance in more detail, and if pressed further, shared information about the 5Rhythms dance and movement meditation practice. Many said they thought it was great that I wasn’t afraid to let go, something that never crossed my mind, though I did hesitate because I feared that part of my intention was to show off.
What most said was something along the lines of “That was so beautiful! I just stood there watching you. Your joy was enormous! I love your energy. It made me feel so happy.” Some even said it inspired their own joy. I inevitably choked up, touched that the people in this new community were so unreservedly happy for my happiness. Had I given in to self doubt and kept myself contained, I would have missed an opportunity to experience joy, and in the process of suppression would also have missed a chance to share joy.
I’m not surprised that you “hear a glow” on me, my dear son. This week has lit me from the inside. The path, at least for the moment, rises to meet me, showing itself a little at a time, tiny increments of light, moving in a collective field.
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.
“Yeeaaah, definitely heel spurs. Both feet. See?” The doctor points at a section in the middle of my right foot on the x-ray that really should be shadowy black, but instead shows white, almost as dense as nearby bones.
As early as February, when I participated in the five-day heartbeat workshop “Anatomy of Emotions,” pain in my feet has been excruciating. They kept getting worse and worse, but I told myself I would only have to tolerate it until I finally manage to become enlightened, at which point pain would have much less influence on me. Just keep practicing, I told myself. If I practice with devotion, if I am relentless in interrogating the stories that limit me, and if I stay connected to raw, unfiltered presence, things will shift radically and this foot pain won’t be such a big deal. Some days, I winced through every step, but still managed to find freedom and inspiration. I even saw the pain as helpful, in that it brought me right into my feet and into the body.
After the “Elemental” workshop in April, my feet got still worse. It would have been difficult to spot, as I still swooped and soared, but I knew I had to seek help, not just hope that enlightenment would eventually free me. A friend suggested I visit an orthopedic doctor who specializes in working with extreme athletes.
After months of trying to get an appointment and waiting for it to arrive, I finally found myself in his office. He explained the x-ray, “When the muscles and fasciae of the foot are very tight, they pull on the heel bone, inside the arch. In response, the heel creates a little spur of bone for them to hang onto. It is essentially made up of calcium deposits.” He connected me with a physical therapist to would could teach me the MELT routine for working with painful feet, and proposed that if I could get the fasciae to relax, the pain from the heel spurs might decrease.
The doctor also noted that my feet, indeed my muscles generally, are very tight. “I know. Massage therapists always say that. I do stretch, though; and I do a lot of work to release tension from the body…” “Oh, yeah, that’s just how some people are. It’s genetic, to a large extent.” “Really? That’s super helpful. I’ve always secretly thought it was some sort of character flaw.” “No, that’s just how some people are built,” he re-iterated.
On the way into class about 10 days after starting the MELT routine, I saw Tammy Burstein, the teacher. “Tammy, I have heel spurs! I just wanted to let you know. That’s why I’ve been leaving early the last couple of weeks. I’m trying to get them to calm down a little.” She spoke as she moved across the threshold, “Work with the ground. There is a lot to learn there.” “Yeah, I know that’s right,” I said, still wondering if it might not be better to leave a little early.
After my appointment with the orthopedic doctor, I decided it would be wise to wear dance shoes to cushion my heels, at least for a little while. I love being barefoot; and this pained me. I also felt old. And I feared that the injury would be permanent, that for the rest of my career as a dancer I would be gimped with pain.
I arrived to Tammy Burstein’s Friday Night Waves class on time. My neck ached fiercely, perhaps from a few straight days of writing feverishly, working on several projects. Some seeds that I planted in years previous have come up and it is with great delight that I set about watering and tending the young plants.
I reflected that people who dance 5Rhythms regularly seem almost inevitably to find their path–their unique, fully realized contribution. It is remarkable, really. I thought I was on one path, of being an artist, pushing the boundaries of artmaking, sacrificing, expanding, challenging and risking. But life has revealed something entirely different. And, to my great surprise, this one is perfect, too!
A couple of weeks after the doctor’s appointment, I finally met with the MELT practitioner to learn the routine. She explained that MELT is a kind of massage you do for yourself, and that once I learned the foot routine and got a set of MELT balls I would be on my own. Alternating between four balls of varying hardness and size, I pressed, rolled and wiggled strategic parts of my feet. “This is really going to help me get to know my feet better,” I said as I rolled the largest, hard ball down each knuckle line of my right foot. “There is something about the feet, the ground. There is a humility to it,” I pontificated to my captive audience. “I haven’t always been so good at humility. To be honest, I’ve always preferred to soar.”
I thought about the experience of doing walking meditation, particularly when I am on a meditation retreat. Sometimes to keep my mind engaged, I shift my attention from toe to toe in sequence and then to different parts of the foot. Never had I so thoroughly articulated the different parts of the foot as I did on this day, however. “How do you feel?” She asked. “Do your feet seem a little flatter?”
After the MELT routine, she showed me some physical therapy exercises to help with general foot strength, including separating the toes and moving each one separately. It was like trying to bend a spoon with the power of my mind. As I bent over toward them and squinted my eyes in focus, the toes quivered with effort, then moved in unison. Only the big toe could really move independently. She assured me that I could develop the ability over time.
I spoke with my Dad by phone, and he reported that for the first time ever in his small, semi rural Connecticut town, a budget referendum had passed on the first try. In an aging, politically red town, it was for several education reforms and improvements. He explained, with an exclamation point in his previously discouraged voice, that a group of parents had banded together to demand change and it had worked. He and his allies on the Democratic Town Committee, a group that grooms and promotes socially conscious political candidates, wasted no time in meeting with the group, encouraging them to consider working together, and maybe to consider public office in the future.
Tammy’s Friday Night Waves class has been my Friday night appointment every week for the last ten years. On this night, nearly a quarter of participants were dancing the 5Rhythms for the first time. Tammy instructed us to partner, then said “change” again and again, re-configuring partnerships, perhaps in part to move some chatty newcomers away from their BFF’s and deeper into the dance.
Because of the heel pain, I felt sorry for myself for a good 5, maybe 10 minutes and even sobbed briefly, dejected by the side of the room, moving only slightly. Then it wasn’t so bad. I could still move. I still got a good groove and had all the energy I needed. I let go of the story I was telling myself about the pain and it didn’t bother me as much.
Curiously, I was reminded of a period when I had lower back pain. I loved to grind into the deepest edges of my back, to flip and coil, to roll and twist with vehemence. Eventually, I realized that I had to back away from the edges in my back, to deeply soften. In following years, I’ve learned to find precision and work with the same edges in a different way, and rarely experience pain. Similarly, I realized that I have to back out of the edges in my feet. A tiny, shrewd little pivot in the foot that catalyzes an epic, syncopated gesture throughout my entire body causes pain at the moment unless the heel is already fully released back and down.
Throughout the class I danced on my own and in partnership, with abundant energy and engagement. The fierce neck pain totally disappeared; and I made it all the way through class, even surprised to learn that time went slightly over. I moved with joy and ease, working with the ground periodically even during energetic experiments, jiggling and vibrating my hips with one partner, moving in blocked parts with a smiling, heavily muscled man, and moving in joyful, collective Chaos, creating my dance from the feet up, from the grass roots, from the foundation.
June 23, 2018, 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.
Though the day was chilly, things are finally starting to bloom after the long, grueling winter, and magnolia, dogwood, and flowering pear trees are heavy with blossoms all over the city. Yesterday my eight-year-old son, Simon, and I took a leisurely bike ride, wandering aimlessly around our neighborhood and noticing the explosion of life all around us. Eager to express the season, I was exactly on time to the Sweat Your Prayers session at the Joffrey in the West Village this morning, led today by Jilsarah Moscowitz.
I started in a squat, deep in the hips, stretching the inner thighs, feet and calves, rotating and staying low. I soon found my way to the ground, where I continued to stretch and coil, rolling over the fronts of my shoulders, the back of my head, and through the hips, moving from my stomach to my back over and over in a wide circle. Staccato arrived more quickly than I expected, and I burst upward with a knee-lifted back step and half-bent spin.
At the waves workshop “Elemental” that Tammy led last weekend, she offered a prompt that helped me to connect with Staccato. Staccato was my first love, my first “home rhythm” when I started 5Rhythms practice over ten years ago. Its sharp, expressive, fiery tendencies felt intuitive, well aligned to how I saw myself.
Then, after nearly two years of regular practice, I stepped into true Chaos for the first time. For most of the first two years of practice, I don’t think I was ever actually in Chaos, though I certainly thought I was. In retrospect, what I thought was Chaos was more of an agitated, super-fast Staccato. When I finally found myself in Chaos, I was shattered. Completely dissolved. Tear-strewn, windswept and erased. Clearly, Chaos was my home; and I embraced it with all my heart.
For the years that I considered Chaos my home rhythm, I did not have a strong connection to Lyrical. I just didn’t have much access to it. In fact, when I started to enter into Lyrical in a waves class, I would often be struck by some terrible, irrational fear. When I practiced independently, I would pretty much skip Lyrical and Stillness, with maybe just a few passing gestures. On the first day of Spring four or five years ago, on another occasion when Jilsarah led the Sweat Your Prayers session, she created the conditions for me to consider that I might actually have a lyrical nature. And over the next few months, to my immense delight, Lyrical arrived in my experience; and I now consider Lyrical to be my home rhythm.
I never forgot my first love, but my relationship with Staccato has not been dominant for many years. At the workshop, Tammy’s prompt created the conditions for me to draw fire into my body. The beautiful, growling ferocity, the sheer relentless force of Staccato captivated me for long stretches. It seems a worthwhile project: deepening, refining, clarifying and possibly even repairing my relationship to Staccato, and perhaps my ability to be ferociously kind, and kindly ferocious in the world.
Today in the Sweat Your Prayers, I continued to explore my relationship to Staccato. My hips seemed to have learned a whole new list of vocabulary words, and were forming entire new sentences and paragraphs. At one point, I planted my left foot firmly, setting up a physical problem to respond to. I swung the right foot forward, walked it out, cast it back, sunk low and angular, rocked my pelvis, and played with isolating my back hip on just the right side, experimenting with levels and angles. Then, I switched and planted my right foot, letting my left foot range as far afield as it cared to, moving far ahead and far behind, even making low steps to the side, again deep in the hips, and isolating the back hip to explore different levels and angles. When I let go of this constraint, I had built up tremendous force, and continued to move with vigor and specificity.
I kept playing with edges as the room transitioned into Chaos, enjoying the problem of resistance. I joined with one of my favorite dance partners as Chaos began to lighten into Lyrical. Though we have shared hundreds of dances, we continue to find new forms and patterns, and today our wild spins were peppered with shakes and coiled landings. I continued to be led by my back hips, occasionally rising up from low with a big, diagonal back step and a dramatic raised arm, and sometimes bounding up high, fast and light, effortless, drawing on the kinetic energy of the inner thighs and hips.
Jilsarah referenced Connections, the third and final book written by Gabrielle Roth, the founder of the 5Rhythms practice, and invited us to consider the image of “threads.” She spoke of following the threads of our lives, the thread of our breath, and the threads that connect us to each other.
A tone of reverence entered the room. I moved softly, pulsing, twittering, surrendered to breath, still attentive to the hips, sometimes low, with my knees pressed together, coccyx pulling toward the ground, sometimes softly turning around the planes of my feet, moving through the room and noticing the overlap in energy fields, the blend of vibrant colors–bright pink, viridian, violet–as I turned gently, led by dragon trails and the room’s subtle currents.
I noted a minor story that played in my mind. At times I felt left out. There seemed to be groups forming in the room that I was not part of. There was one person in particular who kind of–how can I say this? Kind of–energetically ignored me. This was far from agonizing, but was both uncomfortable and interesting.
Was my perception accurate that the person energetically shut me out? Do I do that to people, too? This is something for me to contemplate.
I noted the story as thinking, the single most powerful strategy for annihilating all that blocks me from total presence. Soon, I returned to expansive, delighted connection.
For the most part, the room seemed to be very flexible, with many different groups forming relationships, then dissolving back into the collective. Even in engaged partnership, I danced slightly with the people on all sides of me at once.
Circling around to Staccato again in another wave, I joined with a different friend, moving to a reggae track in a patient groove, finding yet more ways to move the hips, this time from the hip creases, rocking the pelvis in loping, swooping gestures.
“Alive! Alive! Alive!” Jilsarah chanted.
In Chaos, someone tromped on my foot. I was not seriously injured, just annoyed. I’ve had significant foot pain recently, so I extra disliked being stepped on. Jilsarah noticed right away and left the teacher’s table to check in on me. After a minute or less, I jumped back into the collective, in a particularly creative version of Chaos, with delightful unpredictability, micro-movements within larger gestures, and all sorts of plays on balance and levels.
In the final phase of Stillness, I went deep inside, moving subtle energies, muscles and bones whispering. When I noticed the outside, more than half of the room had formed a hand-joined circle. I continued to whisper-move, backing up to the edge of the circle and taking the two hands beside me.
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.
Image Credit: Collage/Spring Poem by Simon Pizarro, age 8
I wasn’t sure if would attend today’s Sweat Your Prayers class or if I would practice yoga closer to home instead. When I learned that the class would be held at Martha Graham studio in the West Village, rather than at its usual home at the Joffrey, and that 5Rhythms teacher Ray Diaz would be leading, I decided to make the trek. At the last Sunday Sweat Your Prayers class that Ray taught, I was thoroughly transported, windswept to different dimensions, and I was eager to see where class might lead me today.
Parking on Bethune Street right in front of the Westbeth Arts Building, where the Martha Graham studio is located, I briefly considered bringing in the laundry detergent that I would need later in the day, wondering if the strident cold might cause the detergent to freeze as it had the last time I attempted to use it.
There was a short delay with letting people enter the 11th floor dance studio, and it had the effect of pooling water behind a damn before a high water release. One friend embraced me, picking me up off my feet and cracking my back enthusiastically as she shook me from side to side, her own pony tail bouncing animatedly. Many ebullient conversations intersected and wove together in the foyer space while we waited for the door to open, inviting us into the studio.
When the door opened, we streamed inside, lodging our bags and backpacks on the wooden bench by the west wall. I paused for a moment on the low floor before taking a breath and stepping up onto the much-beloved, forgiving, sprung dance floor. Then I moved through an energetic ritual to help me arrive, closing it with a low bow and moving into the wide room. I began to lightly drag my feet over the soft grey linoleum. The dance floor at Martha Graham is a shaped like a large square, with no columns or impediments of any kind in the middle. There are big industrial windows on the east and west sides, opening to a spacious vistas of New York City.
The big room was at maximum capacity; and I found a spot on the floor to luxuriate in circles, beginning to stretch and wind up. A cherished friend who I had spent meaningful time with the previous day appeared upside down in the frame of my vision as I stretched, and as I shifted to one leg and began to right myself, she knelt down and curved herself around my back, embracing me and laughing delightedly. I rubbed her forearm and her ankle, and made a sound like a contented baby, touching my cheek to her lower leg. Before long, my attenuated circles, sometimes expressing the maximum plane of my prone body, led me to move through the room.
A friend who I had greeted excitedly in the foyer with a twittering, shimmy-stepping “I’m-so-happy you’re-here-and-I-will-get-to-dance-with-you” dance crossed my path and we began to move together in Flowing. For some time I continued to engage from the floor, though he was upright, curling and rising up onto the back of my head, or up into my raised heel, curving and arcing. I have been exploring the limits of possibility with this friend for ten years now. For the first many years, we joined most often in Chaos, following each other in the most erratic and creative of patterns, then bursting into an entirely new expression, wordlessly supporting and encouraging one another to be wholehearted, free and wild. Today, for the first time ever, as I got to my feet, we joined in a soft version of Flowing, tiptoeing and placing our feet down with the utmost mindfulness as we crept in circles around each other. Before long, we began to trust that we had paid significant homage to the ground, and let ourselves lift off, in a booming and articulate Staccato, with leaping, marching, lateral gestures, and expressive elbows and upper arms. When the song shifted, he made a gesture like tipping a cup up to drink, and took his leave.
Noticing how much heat I had raised with the breath, I began to move throughout the space, joining with anyone who seemed open to it, testing out many different people’s movements for myself. I joined two friends and, observing the character of their dance, began to roll forward from the shoulders, moving my upper body in an angular plane, then moved to bouncing and coiling from the knees, dipping them sideways like a skier working moguls on challenging terrain.
In Chaos I let loose, occasionally slowing to Still Chaos as I passed through different pockets in the room, often ferocious, delighting in many brief partnerships. I let myself find edges, sometimes even awkward, clipped resistance; sometimes expansive and swirling. Occasionally, I would raise my rolling and released head to observe the room, breathing it in, this big energy, this surrender, this gorgeous, sweat-drenched ugliness that feeds me, that feeds the world.
In Lyrical I grazed my hands on the ground, sinking low, then glided and soared, sometimes slipping between the tiniest of openings between bodies, between knees, in the triangular spaces of curved elbows, above heads.
In Stillness I joined with three others, soft and porous. I saw sky and clouds beyond the ceiling, then the four of us grew large, rising to the level of the clouds. I let the bottoms of my feet go and soon we moved among the clouds. Cloud forms coalesced as castles, as dragons, as pathways, my second grade teacher, my son’s second grade teacher, an image from a film–the ever-shifting display, form and its opposite, dispersing again as mist, returning to formless space, my body boundless, extending far beyond its tiny edges, overlapping with everything.
Ray called us together, and I softly thanked this little group before moving away, nuzzling them and kissing fingertips, touching our foreheads together. On this day before the holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Ray rattled off his impressive bio. “I came to this country in 1974,” he began. “I’ve been earning six figures since I was 25 years old; and I’m in the 48% tax bracket…and yet I still come from a ‘shithole country.” This phrase, as most are well aware by now, is a direct quote from the current president of the United States, who, in the context of an immigration policy meeting this week, described Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries.”
Two days before, I had been taken apart in a conversation about code switching by a person of color. He challenged me to both act to end racism, and to be sure to act with precision and sensitivity. He also challenged me to get past my own ego so I would be able to see more clearly.
On the note of letting go of my ego constructions—even the positive and productive constructions I have created for myself—I thought about an incident that took place during a meditation retreat I was staffing several years ago. We were sitting on meditation cushions in a small group of perhaps ten people, engaged in a formal discussion. We were talking about aversion—the Buddhist concept of pushing away what is unpleasant or uncomfortable. In response to one of the comments about the aversive energetic shell humans create to keep ourselves safe, I said, “Well, you know. It would be one thing if shutting down or pushing away actually worked to make us happier or keep us safe. The thing is that it really doesn’t work. If it did I would be all for it, but it doesn’t.” I’m not exactly sure how it was framed, but I said something about, “It’s not like it’s the subway in the South Bronx at 2AM in the late 1980’s, when you might actually need a shell around you.” A flash of raw anger shot around the circle; and every single person felt it before even a word was said. One woman spoke up, expressing that she felt that what I said was racist. Man, that hurt. Shame of the most intense possible quality flooded me. My heart started beating like crazy. My partner of many years at the time was a black and latino man. We had shared hundreds of hours in discussion about racism, ranging through many different levels. Secretly, I had always been terrified that on some deep level I was actually a racist. Though I was afraid, I approached the woman during the next break and asked her to talk with me about her feelings. She was very receptive; and after, I understood how she could see my comment as racist. She also thanked me, saying that she was always calling people out for racist comments; and that I was the first person who had ever come and asked her to talk about it.
This terribly painful experience gave me great insight; and a rush of relief flooded me with another set of powerful chemicals. I realized I had been afraid that there was some essential part of me that was racist. Every other *essentialist part of my psyche had been rigorously interrogated, but this part remained hidden, obscured by shame and fear. I realized that just as there is no essential self; too, there is no essential racism. As I currently understand it, racism is a process—one that affects every single person who lives in this culture. Fundamentally, it is our flawed human tendency to separate the world into “us” and “them” that lays the foundation for racism, not an intrinsic hidden evil; though there is no denying the intensity and complexity of racism as it now functions.
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of this insight for my personal path. Even my firmly-held idea that I was a not-racist was limiting my perception of phenomena, and, as such, needed to be interrogated, as much as any other part of me, in the interest of uncovering the deepest truth.
Since Donald Trump was elected, I have been forced to reckon with my naïve underestimation of the power of white privilege.
I looked around the room as Ray spoke, and although I can’t necessarily know how people identify just by looking, it was apparent that a very small percentage of the class participants were people of color.
Before last November, on some level I believed in the fundamental vision of this country, that eventually, incrementally, everything would shake out fairly. I no longer hold that view. In the past two weeks, I have heard a white male conservative pundit and a white male country music singer speak on white privilege, phenomena I found heartening, though still small steps on the national reckoning we must undertake.
Ray shared that he had done a workshop with a movement teacher during which the participants had examined many documents from the Civil Rights Era. I thought of a historic photo of the lunch counter protests, of two activists seated at a lunch counter, totally surrounded by jeering white men, who were pouring food and drinks onto the heads of the protestors. These images are not symbolic. People were hurt and abused. Some went to prison. Some gave their lives.
In one of the photos Ray had examined with his teacher, there was a bearded white-seeming man who Ray had taken the time to research. It turns out that the man was Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a devoted Jewish Civil Rights activist. According to Ray, at one point, the Prime Minister of Israel asked Rabbi Heschel what he was doing, given the danger he was placing himself in. “I’m praying with my feet,” was his response, and he continued to walk resolutely forward.
Ray used this an example to demonstrate that racism is a human problem, not just a matter for people of color. Emotion rose through my throat, gasping upward in pockets of air.
The ebullience of the first wave gave way to subtle reverence, as Ray put on one of Dr. King’s famous speeches mixed with a dance track. Erratic gasps arose now and I made no effort to hide my tears. One woman who danced deep in her hips looked into my eyes, and it was not easy to return her gaze, as I felt raw and vulnerable. I continued to move through the room, but felt more private, energetically overlapping but psychologically contained, coping with the grief, fear, profound sadness, anxiety and anger that coursed up through me from the ground, a boiling geyser.
Ray also played a song with lyrics about how the measure of a country is how its women and girls are treated, then a closing song with a plaintive call to action.
Gabrielle Roth, the mother of 5Rhythms, believed that movement could heal us both individually and collectively. I think she would have approved of Rabbi Heschel’s explanation to the Israeli Prime Minister, “I’m praying with my feet.” As we enter this new year, there can be no question about the need for all of us to step up for justice and fairness, beginning first with what’s inside, but not stopping there. Let us all take a lesson from Ray and from Rabbi Heschel. Let us all pray with our feet!
*As you probably know, from the perspective of some Buddhist philosophy “essentialism” is the belief that there is a separate and definable “self” and too, implies that reality has some logical kind of coherence or definability.
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.
“Community is the next Buddha.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
I threw up in the car on the way to class while crossing the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn into Manhattan for Tammy Burstein’s Friday Night Waves 5Rhythms class last week. I think the extreme cold tightened all of my muscles, including the muscles of my stomach. Despite this, I arrived with time to spare. Huddling with a small group of heavily bundled dancers, I waited for the elevator at the Joffrey in the West Village, all of us blowing into our cupped hands, hunching our shoulders, and discussing the weather.
Stepping through the door into the spacious dance studio, I was annoyed to discover someone blocking my way into the room, apparently a member of the crew there to greet participants as they entered. I tried to step past him discreetly, but he moved toward me. I waved him away, moved to the side, and spent several extra moments allowing myself to arrive. The greeter approached me again, leaning toward me to speak, and I surmised that he probably wanted me to place my bag in the large mountain of bags and coats. Again, I waved him away, intending to place my things in the appropriate pile momentarily.
I don’t like to be greeted on entering, in general. Stepping in to a 5Rhythms room is a big deal for me. I undergo an energetic ritual to help me to leave the baggage of a sometimes-very-stressful-life at the other side of the threshold. I don’t want to have to encounter another person’s gaze at this moment, as my intention is to sidestep my own ego and enter naked, unadorned. I love to connect with people, but at this crucial moment having to respond, to project, to make a boundary, or in any way to consider someone else’s experience of me diminishes my ability to let go into my own depths.
After adding my bag to the high pile of coats, I fell easily into motion, sometimes on the floor, sometimes on my feet. I noticed that I was slightly edgy, tightening when a dancer near me seemed to totally ignore my existence and sprawl into “my” space. I reflected that although the holidays were filled with joy and blessings, they also held a fair share of afflictive emotion, including a painful dose of self-hatred, a fact that I kept trying to talk myself out of.
My Aunt Mae, who will turn 98 this year, hosted her annual Christmas Eve party, which has been going on at the same site, in pretty much exactly the same form for nearly 80 years. The big, brick house boarded teachers before my great-grandparents purchased it, and much of the décor remains consistent, including an exquisite red pincushion with assorted pins and thread sitting on a wooden bureau, images of the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother, crucifixes, painted religious statues, a coarse embroidery of the three wise men en route, pictures of my grandfather and his brothers on a tractor in the fields, a still-functional cuckoo clock from one of my great aunt’s ski trips to Switzerland, and a hand-colored photo of my great great grandparents.
It was still the first wave of class when the mishaps started. The first event was a falling glass vase, shaken off a little table by the bounding floor boards as the room moved into the rhythm of Chaos. I was halfway across the room, and, like many, paused to see what had happened. Four or five people who were in close proximity moved to clear the shattered glass, and the dancing continued.
“Yes, but regardless of what a test says, anything could happen at any time, Meghan. You never know,” my spiritually advanced atheist father once told me, as I explained about developments in genetic testing for pregnancy. This insight raced through my mind a few days after Christmas. My parents had taken my seven-year-old son, Simon, to a movie, while I met up with some friends from childhood. Coming home, there was a police roadblock. “Which way should I go?” I asked the officer, “I just need to get to Church Street, where my parents live.” “There’s a big accident on Church Street. You can’t go that way. You have to go around,” he said, indicating a detour. I pulled over to call my parents. This was just about the time they should be arriving. It was arctic cold. And Church Street is a small side street in a nearly rural town. There would be very few cars. What if it was them? “Don’t freak out,” I told myself. I called my mom’s phone. No answer. My Dad’s phone. No answer. The home phone. No answer. I started on the detour, a seven-mile loop, calling them again and again, still no answer. And by then I was starting to freak out. And starting to picture a gory accident. My son. My parents. Please Gods, let them be OK, I pleaded. I was driving too fast, but held myself back from maximum. Finally, I arrived at the intersection of Church and Main Streets, where a fire truck blocked the road in both directions. “Please, please let them be ok,” I prayed again and again, “And if it isn’t them, please let whoever it is be ok. Let them be ok.” I parked and ran to the site, my overactive mind full of horrific images.
The crushed cars were not theirs. I relaxed a little. I squeezed past the fire truck, parked at my parents, then ran back to the accident, sucking in huge breathfuls of frigid air. “Were there only two cars?” I asked a fire fighter. “Yes, just two.” It took me another hour to calm down and begin to release my muscles. I also kept thinking about how for someone somewhere this accident, when one of their family members was hurt, wasn’t just a projected nightmare, but was reality. I watched as a Life Star helicopter landed in a nearby field, praying silently.
The next mishap at Tammy’s class was more serious than the previous. A fellow dancer and friend slipped backward and hit her head on the corner of the heavy folding table where Tammy stages the music. There was a very loud clonking sound. Tammy had just instructed us to partner, but everyone paused in horror, realizing what had happened, forgetting about our partners. Seeing that the fallen dancer was in good hands, I realized that to rush over would not help the situation, would help only me, so I held back, my forehead constrained and furrowed. I caught my partner’s eye, trying to let go of constraint. We made an effort to move in tandem for a few moments.
Tammy shifted the group into a Tribal exercise, gathering everyone to one side of the room. She asked one experienced dancer to step forward and create a clear, simple gesture that everyone could follow. This had the effect of keeping us moving, and of taking the focus off of the dancer who had been injured, who was still sitting on the floor, holding her head. Though I historically have a hard time leading tribal movements, I stepped up to take a turn to lead. It was during a part of the song with no obvious beat and I was spastic. “With the beat,” Tammy said into the microphone, and I settled onto the most obvious beat as the song’s percussion returned, trying to keep it simple, relieved when the leader changed and someone else stepped up.
Soon, we switched back into moving throughout the entire room.
Just as the energy of the room was rising again, another mishap arose. This time, the table that the dancer had hit her head on, and that held Tammy’s computer and mixer, crashed to the ground, its legs crumpling on one side, dumping the equipment. Again, several people in close proximity moved to help and the situation was righted quickly. “What is happening? Are we cursed or something? Is there some prankster spirit messing with us?” I asked internally.
“Does anyone feel like stopping?” Tammy asked the room. “Yes,” I nodded softly. But instead of stopping, Tammy gathered us in another collective exercise, and kept instructing us to partner.
I wasn’t sure which rhythm we were in at a given time, but I moved in deep connection with Chaos when it came. Bounding, leaping, touching ground and soaring, “Softer, softer, softer,” I kept telling myself, letting any edges express, but not specifically intending to engage or explore them. Not having danced for two weeks because of the holidays, some of my ongoing experiments seemed to have evaporated, a gestural re-set button. I tried to find my recent big, pelvis-rocking, momentum-coiled back step but instead found new expressions, spinning in a matrix.
When the first wave finally concluded, I had another rush of Chaos and followed its impulse, with energetic arms and released head, moving to the edge of the group as Tammy gathered the class for an interim talk between the first and second waves. She addressed the multiple mishaps, and said that she knew the dancer who was injured was in good hands. She also expressed that each episode had been subject to causes and effects, and that individual members of the community responded appropriately in every instance. She went on to evoke the founder of the 5Rhythms practice, Gabrielle Roth, who emphasized again and again the importance of both individuality and community, especially in the final years of her life.
Just before Tammy’s Friday Night Waves class the following week, on January 5th, I was under a warm comforter with my son, Simon, watching the 1939 version of the Wizard of Oz, wincing occasionally at the 1939 representations of identity, yet singing along, even drowsing off at intervals. “Mommy, why do they have to sing a song for everything?” Simon complained. Instead of going to his after-school program, I had left work early and picked him up at school myself, so he wouldn’t have to walk the mile with his afterschool group in sub-zero windchill. We had dinner at a steamy café with dripping glass windows and wet floors in our Brooklyn neighborhood, then repaired to movie time. I couldn’t imagine how I would possibly have the energy to unfurl and move, but figured I could just go to class and lay down on the floor, perhaps moving a finger or an arm or an eyelid or something. I would probably keep my heavy coat on the whole time, too, I projected.
Dressing, I pawed through my big bin of crumpled dance clothes, looking for something that would enliven my cold mood. I pulled out an orange tank top, and a tiered orange skirt with sequins on the horizontal seams, much like the kind of skirt worn by the faded figurines topping display wedding cakes at low end bakeries. I nearly changed into black leggings and a black tank instead, but talked myself out of it in favor of the orange outfit, though I packed the discreet black articles in my dance bag in case I wanted to change once I got to class.
There were very few cars on the icy, grey-slushed roads in Manhattan, and I arrived at the Joffrey in the West Village within 20 minutes. On the way, I listened to an alarming interview with author Michael Wolff, who had published the book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” earlier that day, yet another presidential event that has caused anxiety and distress in recent months.
Joining as usual with a small group to wait for the elevator, we hunched our shoulders and remarked about the weather, noting the shared experience.
Stepping out at the fifth floor, one of the first people I encountered was my friend who had fallen and hurt the back of her head during the previous Friday class. “How is your head?” I asked. “It’s fine,” she answered, smiling. “I’m so glad,” I said, leaning forward and kissing her forehead.
Stepping into the studio, I noted with slight irritation that there was another crew member greeting people on entry, and was relieved that a distraction arose and I didn’t have to worry about how to manage our interaction.
Settling my bag, coat, hat, gloves and scarf by the already jacket-laden ballet bar in the corner, I began to move, still wearing three shirts, and was sucked immediately into a rhapsodic flowing track, the loud orange skirt twirling heavily around my ankles. Spinning low, I repeatedly brushed my fingertips onto the floor in an arc. Tammy left the teacher’s table and danced throughout the room. I felt her energetic self brush mine as we moved briefly in proximity, experiencing myself as a rotating matrix, undulating luxuriously into and across and out from the center line of my body, rising and falling in hoops, gracing the space above, touching the earth below, my shoulders open and generous.
I peeled off one shirt and then another, leaving them by an open window that was pouring in cold air, and revealing my entire bright-orange outfit. I noted a ferocious pain in my right heel. Flowing low and effortlessly again, I intersected painfully with another dancer, whose toenails dug into the top of my foot as he moved his own foot in a low circle. My face contorted, and I rushed to one side of the room and massaged it, hoping my pleasant flow had not been chased away. Soon, the pain passed and I regained a similar momentum, moving through the room.
I exhaled gratitude and lowed softly, the magic of being in a 5Rhythms room coiling around me and moving me, despite myself, once again.
During the week, I had heard two interviews, one a country music singer and the other a conservative pundit, both talking about white privilege. Both men expressed that before the election of President Trump, they had been blind to the kind of white privilege they enjoyed, and that they hadn’t realized the depths of racism in America. I could relate completely, and reflected on what a painful and important journey it has been, to begin to reckon with my own experience of white privilege. The conservative pundit expressed that he is no longer a member of the Republican party, as it is now characterized by “white nationalist populism,” and for the time being is politically “homeless.”
Tammy invited us to partner again and again, but challenged us to pair lightly, with the reminder that “it’s about being with everyone.” I stepped into several successive dances, many with people I hadn’t encountered before, moving in decisive lines between partnerships, embodying Staccato. Entering into Chaos, still in partnership, I stepped in to a man with glasses, and we moved in a low, carved Staccato Chaos, approaching and retreating, spinning, and presenting our inner knees, moving from the back of the pelvis, the heavy tailbone. “Give your partner your full attention,” said Tammy, and we met each other’s gazes, beaming. Meeting two friends of many years, I attempted a curved orbit, my head leading me, and hit a stopping point a few times before momentum flung me around it, in weightless, inspired circles.
In Lyrical, I moved with the same two friends, never out of breath, finding surprising twists and leaping from released inner legs. Tammy put on the tender, uplifted track “Follow the Sun” by Xavier Rudd and I soared without effort throughout the space, joining briefly with anyone who was open to me. Finding another new partner and settling in, I mirrored him, rolling my shoulders enthusiastically, and opening my throat and palms to the sky, unbridled, as he grinned with his mouth open, the arches of his feet smiling, and lifted off, too.
In Stillness, I traveled. I imagined that I walked up the stairs at my Aunt Mae’s house – the same site of the Christmas Eve party a short time before – turned left briefly, then right, then opened a door into a cold, disused hallway, and another door into a room that I have visited in dreams throughout my life. Inside the room, I passed through another door, and stood at the end of a diving board, gazing out at the cosmos, wondering if I had the courage to step off the board and into limitless space. A shadow-like male ancestor spirit who is familiar to me came to offer support, overlapping with me, encouraging me to move forward, though part of me wondered if I could actually die, could actually cease to be if I did. When I did take a step, my body seemed gigantic. Clouds swirled below eye level. A large flock of birds passed through my chest, calling out. I flickered back and forth between wondering about “my” experience and being subsumed by it.
Tammy gathered us around a lovely class centerpiece that one of the members of the crew had created, next to the room’s quietest wall. It featured transparent fabric with coils of light underneath it as though underground, a little elf-scaled tree that seemed above ground, and crevices of dried flowers tucked into the rolling curves of this tiny representation of earth. She couldn’t but speak about the strident cold, even remarking that the space heater in her office had broken down alarmingly that afternoon. She shared the insight that the state of being frozen significantly slows down the ground, and that some seeds need to freeze in order to be able to sprout at a later time, hinting that this moment of weather intensity is part of a natural cycle, and perhaps that dormancy does not imply the death of movement.
This was a welcome perspective, as news reports I had absorbed that day seemed more dire. For example, CNN reported that the cold is “causing frozen iguanas to fall from trees in Florida.” I also read a news story about thresher sharks getting trapped in the waters off of Cape Cod and washing up dead onto ice-crusted beaches.
By the end of Tammy’s talk I was cold again and didn’t feel like moving more. I stepped out to use the bathroom, and when I came back the room was already transitioning from the first rhythm of Flowing into Staccato. I was disengaged, a little hesitant, and afraid that I might crash someone or that someone might crash me, noticing how different I feel when I am not grounded.
I wandered distractedly for a few moments, then a man I hadn’t danced with before engaged me in partnership. He was very enthusiastic, and I found a little bit of movement with him, visiting some of the gestures I learned while dancing at house music events in the 1990’s. From there, I gathered momentum, and was able to come back into myself and into the room. I joined with a friend in a quirky Staccato dance, tucking my thumbs into my hip creases, jigging my hips, with fully available energy. A community Chaos erupted and I continued to change partnerships, still occasionally letting loose on my own. In Lyrical, I again found a cherished friend, and was overtaken by delight, smiling to my edges. Later, she told me, “I was so happy when you came over in the last wave. It was like, ‘OK, the light can come out and play now!”
In Stillness, I again passed through the door beyond the door beyond the door at my Aunt Mae’s house, merging with limitless space.
Tammy invited us to set an intention. I closed my eyes and thought of my seven-year-old son, Simon, wishing that he would live long, be happy, and know his own goodness. Without contriving it, I also wished that every mother’s seven-year-old would thrive, just as I hoped for my own child – a new default I am noticing recently, as with the car accident scare at my parents’ house, that even in the throes of strong emotions, awareness can automatically consider the collective experience.
In both of these classes, Chaos presented itself again and again, a beautiful marble to inspect every aspect of, not simply catharsis, but too, patient, deep and luminous, demonstrating perhaps that with the help of community we can endure and thrive even in this decidedly tumultuous era.
“It is probable that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the earth.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
January 6, 2016, Brooklyn, NYC
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.