I’m listening to a livestream piano concert now given by a teen named Donny, who is the nephew of a friend. She shared that he has blastoma and autism, and just lost his mother. As I join the stream, Donny opens with three of my lounge-singer-grandmother’s favorite songs: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Misty, and Unforgettable.
I’ve been crying intermittently all day.
After 14 days of strict quarantine, my ten-year-old son, Simon, and I were able to join the household of my parents, in their house in Northern Connecticut yesterday.
Now Donny is playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. He’s not reading any sheet music, and he’s really good and really into it. He mentions playing something “just like mom used to play it” and a male voice off the screen says, “You played that song at her service.”
Yesterday, Simon was very excited, got up super early, and raced to my parents’ room to climb into their bed and hug them. We had planned a whole coming out party, with dance and singing.
But this morning, Simon and I struggled. He seemed resistant to everything and uncooperative. He didn’t want to sing, dance, or help his Nana make a giant chalk drawing in the street to express thanks to health care workers.
Simon’s father, who was officially my partner for eight years, and has been my not-husband and close friend for another ten, decided to stay in Brooklyn, rather than come to stay at an apartment nearby we were able to arrange for him.
Every time Donny finishes a song, the off-camera person (his father?) claps enthusiastically.
I took a break from parent-child volatility to dance the Sunday Sweat Your Prayers 5Rhythms dance class at 11AM, happy to connect with community. Before joining, I took an emotional call from a family member I’ve been worried about.
I started late because of the call and caught only the tail end of the rhythm of Flowing. Today I cried hard as soon as I started to move, especially during a song with lyrics about loss. Lately, I’ve been recording myself when dancing for my own interest; and on the video my feet seemed a little hesitant in this beginning part. In Staccato, I had no trouble finding expression and inspiration, but with so much yoga and dance lately, my knees are a little tender, and it’s like I was trying to avoid stomping, a tiny bit aversive. In Chaos, I moved quickly, coiling and shaking. In Lyrical, my hands seemed to take over, but my arms didn’t seem to be fully extending. Overall, I was kind of flat today, compared to my usual athleticism.
Near the end of the Sweat Your Prayers class, Simon’s came in and said, “Mom! Get. Me. Socks!” Another period of challenging exchanges was set off.
While I was dancing, my Mom created a giant chalk drawing across the street that says, “Thank you, helpers!” She tried to engage Simon, but he was resistant. Challenging because the reason she designed the project was specifically to engage Simon. A motorcyclist went out of his way to avoid damaging her cheerful drawing. Another passing driver beeped and waved, smiling.
Everyone in the house seemed to be having a hard time.
Now? When we’re faced with so much danger, so much uncertainty? How can we be anything but overjoyed to be together? Unceasingly loving and kind? I know connecting with the people we love is the top priority now, and felt dismayed that it wasn’t going well.
Eventually this wave of unrest managed to work its way through, and we agreed to sing a few karaoke songs together.
Singing is very emotional for me. My Dad loves to sing, and we’ve been singing together like this for my entire adult life. It’s easier for me to sing with him because I can follow him. On my own, it’s much harder to carry the tune. When we sing, I feel the mixed happiness of being together in joy, and pain of knowing how much this will hurt if there is a time I don’t have him any more. Also, my Dad is the most tender-hearted person I know, and it comes through in his singing voice.
All four of us were smiling and dancing. Simon, though still young, is a trained musician with a strong, clear voice, and belts out a few of his favorite songs. I put on a hot pink tutu that I found near the karaoke studio in the basement. I was having a little trouble because sadness kept bubbling up; and it’s hard to control your voice when your heart wells up into your throat, but still sang with feeling. My Mom alternated between singing and dancing–at one point waltzing with Simon–and she took a video of Simon, my Dad, and me singing a melodramatic 80’s song.
My Dad had a heart attack two years ago, and was recently diagnosed with diabetes. My Mom and my Dad will both turn 70 this year. As we sing, I think again and again of how precious these moments are, and how grateful I am to have them.
Now my mom is sitting with me, watching and listening as Donny plays Ave Maria.
In Stillness of the 5Rhythms wave in the Sweat Your prayers class, I sink deeper inside myself, imaging that I’m channeling light, and sending it out one hand, around the entire world where it pours out white fire, then back into the other hand after a trip around the world. Soon, I imagine the entire world engulfed in purifying flame, flickering with spirit fire.
Donny ends with Danny Boy, a song my both my grandmother and my great grandmother loved, and we are in tears, sobbing along to the lyrics.
At the end of the concert, Donny walks toward the camera and takes a formal bow, then signs off.
I didn’t want surprises tomorrow morning right before I have to work, so I checked my work email right before posting this. I learned that another student I’m close with has lost a family member.
My heart breaks. So many people are suffering now, most especially those who are vulnerable because of poverty.
For now, there is nothing to do but practice, and pray, and try our best to love the people who are close to us as skillfully as we are able.
April 5, 2020, Broad Brook, CT
Things I wrote even two or three days ago seem so dated now. The pandemic is intensifying in this region.
I’m in the eleventh day of a 14-day quarantine in an apartment attached to my parents’ house, along with my ten-year-old son, Simon. We are in quarantine because we just came from Brooklyn, NYC, the epicenter of the United States coronavirus plague, and I’m afraid to expose my parents.
Fear, sadness, and anxiety come in waves.
My work is to teach meditation to teens in a Brooklyn High School, and in a matter of days, like many other teachers, I had to make the pivot to online teaching. I’ve been working tirelessly to engage my students, but at this point less than half are actively participating in the online class. So I sent an email to their parents to let them know their students’ status. One parent responded that she is working 12 hour shifts and it is hard to keep up with her child’s assignments.
I realized how insensitive my email was, given the circumstances.
Some of the parents of my students are low wage health care workers. Many are working long shifts caring for people infected with coronavirus, seeing up close how horrific the disease can be. They are risking their lives, day after day after day. Some are doing it because of altruism and a deep calling to serve. Some are doing it because they absolutely have to work, and do not have the resources to take any time off. Many are single parents.
This is a slap in the face about the real impact of bias in our society, and one of the infinite ways coronavirus is disproportionately impacting communities of color. I thought about the privilege of being able to withdraw from NYC, and the fact that there are many people who don’t have the same option.
And I’m seriously bugging parents about their kids doing their classwork. Really?
Some of my students have a parent or grandparent who already has the virus.
There is now an emergency tent hospital in the middle of central park. A US Navy hospital ship arrived Monday to help exhausted health care workers as they toil, often lacking even basic protective supplies.
In answer to a writing prompt, “What is one thing you wonder?” One student wrote, “I wonder if it’s even safe to go outside and get a breath of fresh air.”
Every day, I start with a period of meditation, before the sun is even up. I transported my entire altar box and all of its contents to our new location, and re-created the exact altar that I had in Brooklyn right before we left. I also brought many of my cherished books, and arranged them beautifully near the altar.
Lately, my morning meditation feels more like prayer than meditation, as I focus energy and attention on wishing health and safety for everyone I love and for all beings, mixed with other meditation practices and contemplations.
I have to clock in to work at 8:15 but most days I start long before, after taking a shower, trying my best to get Simon oriented to his schoolwork, and having breakfast.
I make sure we get outside at lunchtime, and again after my workday ends at 2:50. We play on the swing in the yard and laugh. Sometimes I can even convince Simon to play soccer or take a bike ride with me.
Yesterday, I heard my mom crying through the wall, and learned that the son of one of her friends is in hospice.
Today, she told me that my cherished great aunt is not doing well, either. Her 100th birthday is this spring, but since she has been isolated and has no visitors, and therefore nothing to anchor her to this world, she has been dissolving into spirit. She lives next door to my parents’ house, in the same house that she and my paternal grandfather grew up in with their parents, my great grandparents.
I wanted to run next door to support her in her transition. I rushed out in the direction of the house, without even a coat, and just stood there, crossing my arms to hold my sides, knowing that I couldn’t go in. That I wouldn’t have a chance even to say good-bye.
I was crying, of course. And Simon wanted to know why I was crying. I told him and he started crying, too. We went for a walk, talking about what happens after you die and sharing jokes. I brought up Gabrielle Roth, the mother of the 5Rhythms practice, and told him I didn’t think dying was so bad for her. He said, “Yeah, but she was this crazy witch dancer…” I didn’t respond but had to smile, at least for a moment.
I don’t know what I would do if it weren’t for practice. Most days I do yoga, which helps me to feel grounded and flexible.
I also dance the 5Rhythms for at least one wave a day. And I’ve been recording myself, which is a new habit. I can’t even keep the videos because they take up too much space, but it is interesting to watch myself when I play it back in the evening.
Today, Flowing did not come easily. It was hard to settle down, and I noticed that I wanted to move into Staccato quickly. Maybe there was just too much to let in today.
I can hear Simon talking with his friends on video chat throughout the video as I play it back…One source of private guilt is that pretty much all of the time that I’m in formal practice, he’s on a screen chatting with friends or playing Roblox with them. He blows through his schoolwork in under two hours most days.
At the start of the video, I squat in front of the altar and dedicate my practice to my ailing great aunt, Mae Grigely, and acknowledge the power of practicing for someone else.
Staccato never fully ignites today, either.
In Chaos I come alive though, with speed, resistance, release, and wild surrender, spinning and letting momentum fling me to all kinds of edges. The gap when the beat drops out seems to be when I get the most creative.
The Chaos Lyrical song I chose is 165 beats per minute, and I twitter wildly, racing to express the layered, exploding sounds. I pause briefly and leave the room to address one of Simon’s questions, then resume this ultra fast dance, responding more and more to the melody and less to the wild rhythm and rising upward as the track evolves.
In the second Lyrical track I am transported, moving with soaring undulations, the afternoon sun in one vertical rectangle catching different parts of my body as I move.
In Lyrical Stillness I cry throughout the track, singing part of the lyric in jagged gasps. I cry again watching myself. I look so alive and so sad. My heart was broken in this part, is broken.
“Ewwwwww!” Simon screams from the other room, for some unknown reason.
I whisper-sob through the last song, sensing my grandfather, who once lived in the very room that I am dancing in. He loved the ocean, and would make the Christian sign of the cross as he waded into the sea. He would fold his hands behind his head, cross his ankles, and float on the bobbing waves for long periods with his face to the clouds. He was a man of few words, but I always thought this was a kind of prayer for him.
I end in a squat in front of the altar, as I had started, dedicating the merit of my practice to my aunt and to all beings everywhere.
Today, this period seems more like a time of survival than of possibility. One of my meditation teachers led an online practice and talk tonight, and he reminded us to do what we can to stay connected to our humanity. My practices encourage me to open to the reality I’m immersed in, knowing that every moment is a chance to deepen in my ability to be present, even when it is uncomfortable, stressful, painful, or sheer agony.
In the words of Pema Chӧdrӧn in Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, “If you can stay present in even the most challenging circumstances, the intensity of the situation will transform you. When you can see even the worst of hells as a place where you can awaken, your world will change dramatically.”
May it be so. Blessed be.
March 31, 2020, Broad Brook, CT
(Photo1: military.com, photo2: News7)
“Mommy, why do you cry so much?”
That’s the quote I remember most from this week.
I was trying so hard to step up for my students. I kept spending hours creating materials and assignments, then realizing I had done everything wrong and having to start over. I spent almost an entire day trying to figure out how to use google hangouts. I also created usernames and passwords for countless websites, trying to learn everything at once.
I felt an enormous amount of work pressure, and have been asking myself hard questions about if it’s being put on me, or if it’s pressure I’m actually putting on myself.
At the same time, I’m managing Simon’s learning, cringing with the fear that he will lose half a year of learning, and cringing more at all the video games he has been logging hours on, as a way to connect with his friends. And feeling the pain and sadness and grief of so much societal loss, and fearing personal loss, too.
Today is day 8 of 14 days of quarantine. It’s Saturday, and I slept until 9, instead of waking up at 6:15, as on weekdays. After breakfast, I did yoga practice for nearly two hours while Simon chatted online and played video games with friends.
Simon and I tried to do the online zoom version of the NYC Sweat Your Prayers 5Rhythms class, but by the time we logged on the class was already wrapping up. Instead, I put on a wave I’d played a few days before. Simon was half-hearted at first, feeling pulled by his video games and friend chats, but we started a dancing game of throwing a shirt at each other and trying to dodge it, and he managed to stay engaged throughout the wave.
Living 24-7 in quarantine in the apartment attached to my parents’ house that was created for my grandparents has been tender. I have always had hesitant excursions to this place, sitting to talk at length with my grandmother when she was frail and with limited mobility, crossing through to retrieve something from the refrigerator when the main house was full and we were cooking for a holiday. Most of life seemed to happen next door, at my parents’ though.
Now, as we are in quarantine, I have a whole new perspective. It is a beautifully designed four-room apartment that is easy to keep clean, and I am grateful for how it has held us. I feel close to my grandmother, my grandfather, and also to my brother, who lived here for a period. And though it hasn’t always been easy, I’ve been grateful for the time with my son, who will enter the teen years soon.
In terms of dream analysis, previously unused rooms now put to use represent finding new layers of consciousness, and new layers of potential.
The world is shifting.
We are in a parenthesis.
It is a period of chaos, fear, and reckoning. As painful as it is, especially for those grieving personal losses, it is also a time of great possibility. A time when we can remember what really matters, when we can collaborate on a new vision, one in which the earth is revered as sacred, where presence is valued above achievement, and where we can prioritize love and community as our greatest wealth.
March 28, Broad Brook, Connecticut
(Photo: dataisbeautiful on reddit)
The stress is making me feel blurry. It is exhausting.
I’m in the third day of 14-day quarantine in an apartment attached to my parents’ house, along with my ten-year-old son, Simon. We are in quarantine because we just came from Brooklyn, NYC, the epicenter of the United States coronavirus plague, and I’m afraid to expose my parents.
I know we are blessed and privileged to have somewhere we can withdraw while the virus seizes every corner of the world. Even here, in a small apartment in Northern Connecticut, I am afraid. For myself, for my son, for my near-elderly parents, for my family, for my friends, for the world. And feeling the weight of worldwide grief.
Simon and I walked on a beautiful path in the woods this morning, and resolved to watch the woods wake up in the coming weeks.
On the way, we found that a neighbor had put out several young adult books that appealed to him. We left the city quickly, and are out of new books. Thinking of the video games I wished to limit, I was tempted to gather some for him, but he insisted it was too much of a risk.
Later, I developed severe allergy symptoms, with a faucet-ing nose and powerful sneezing. I had a video appointment with my (exhausted) doctor who told me it was unlikely to be coronavirus. He prescribed antihistamines, which are so far not helping at all.
During the day, I struggled to do my high school teaching job, nurse my illness, and monitor and support Simon’s learning. I cried more times than I can count.
Tonight, my parents sat near the other side of the wall dividing us from the main house to listen to Simon play songs on the piano. We could hear them applauding each time he paused. We asked if they could throw any dessert food onto the deck, and though they were out of treats, they made chocolate chip cookies and put out a warm plateful.
Overall, though, despite these blessings, I felt sick, tired, down, discouraged. Impatient. Flat. Depleted.
After the work day and after taking care of multiple responsibilities, I found some time to dance a wave in my new makeshift dance studio–once my grandfather’s bedroom–while Simon played video games with his friends.
I decided to video this personal wave. I danced so vigorously that the camera kept migrating, and once fell onto the floor. I have not often recorded myself dancing, and I found it fascinating. To my surprise, I loved watching myself move. From this perspective, I seemed committed and creative. In the wave I danced before making the difficult decision to leave NYC, Staccato seemed blurry, hesitant. In this wave, it was ferocious. I couldn’t believe how much energy and force was released in Chaos. In Lyrical, I bounded, using every level, flinging up from the ground nearly to the ceiling, flexing my back, extending my arms. And I remember how it felt inside myself as I watched the Stillness section. I was spinning disks at all of my chakras, each a color of the spectrum, and then the room was crowded with spirits, helpers, and guides.
I ended with a prayer for health and safety for those I love and for all beings.
March 22, 2020, Broad Brook, Connecticut
(Photo 1: from grizly.com, Photo 2: by Meghan LeBorious)
Pandemic. Coronavirus. Social Distance. Self-isolate.
In this time of worldwide fear and pain, practice is more important than ever. But what we usually do to practice the 5Rhythms is not safe at this time. So we are called on to be flexible, creative, and to test our ingenuity.
I admit that I miss dancing in big groups. I miss patient, belly-to-belly hugs on greeting. I miss the collective shifts of the crowd, like when a spontaneous chaos circle breaks out. I miss darting around into the empty spaces; I miss falling unexpectedly into partnership in perfect alignment; and I really, really miss dancing with my friends.
All of that said, I don’t think that practicing individually should only be considered as an austerity measure. In my experience, individual practice can also be a powerful teacher.
The first time I formally engaged in individual 5Rhythms practice was during a winter retreat at a Tibetan meditation center. I was seven months pregnant with my son, Simon, at the time. It was an eight-day retreat; and several powerful energetic teachings that are usually taught separately were taught consecutively.
It totally overloaded my circuits; and I took to the miles of rocky trails to process and integrate so much new energetic information at once. Flat wooden platforms used for tent camping during the warm seasons were interspersed throughout the woods; and I started using them as dance floors instead, throwing down my heavy coat as heat rose in my body and letting loose.
In Flowing one day, I danced on one of the platforms with one hand on a tall stick. I moved around it like it was an axis, dipping and spinning low, switching hands, curving my head, and threading my hips and spine around it.
Though I didn’t plan on it, before long, I decided to make practice formal, and I moved through all five rhythms in the woods at least once a day, often returning to the center windblown and red-cheeked, feeling like I had a glowing secret. One day, late afternoon sun blazed through the trees and through my body, dazzling in its intensity. On another day, I imagined that a pair of small dragons raced out of the woods to dance with me, both with a playful ardency, and with sinewy, powerful movements.
Like many, I’ve been practicing on my own a lot lately, as coronavirus locks down cities and countries. At this time, I’m very thankful for practice. It’s helped me to emotionally regulate, to integrate experiences, and to be connected to my communities.
There’s nothing like practicing in a room full of 5Rhythms dancers, where there are endless opportunities to explore relationship, and to see yourself as you are reflected in the people around you.
However, as rich as group practice is, there is also territory that can only be explored in individual practice.
Individual practice is also totally portable, free, and empowers you by allowing direct access to what we might call source–direct access to the depths of human experience–without the need for a teacher to act as a facilitator.
Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhythms practice, conceived of the 5Rhythms as a way to relate to the creative process. She believed that rather than discovering or inventing something, she was creating a map for what was already inherent in human experience.
Working with a certified 5Rhythms teacher makes it easier to access deeper layers of reality, when we participate with full awareness in the dynamic, changing display of phenomena, but we actually have all the tools we need to connect with that same source even on our own, especially after we have already spent some time practicing in community.
Once, at my parents’ house when Simon was still an infant, nearly ten years ago, I was dancing a 5Rhythms wave with him in the living room. Within moments, I was filled with emotion. Though I had spent countless hours in the same room, dancing the rhythms there brought me to a layer underneath the mundane. It was like I was watching videos of infinite family moments inside the same room, where my own mother had been a child, and where I had been a child. I could sense and see my place in it, and see my son’s place in it, part of an unbroken line of human beings, the expression of countless acts of love and courage, and, too, of regret, grief, and unexpressed potential.
Creating some kind of an opening and closing ritual can support our practice, and provide cues to the unconscious that it is time to switch out of mundane gear. It can also be helpful to create some kind of visual or altar. One long-time dancer says, “My practice includes setting up at alter, which is usually a recent drawing. In the start of a practice, I think about all the giving beings I’ve ever danced with. I think about all the beautiful places I’ve danced. I try to do this at the start and end of every practice.”
Another dancer expressed that she finds it helpful to set an intention at the beginning of practice, and to return to that intention frequently, then to end with it.
During the summer of 2015, Simon and I traveled to Costa Rica. There, he went to camp during the days and I spent the time writing and dancing with the sea.
At first it was kind of boring.
I tried to seek out or set up informal dances with others, but it didn’t work out.
So there was no music blazing from high tech speakers, no interpersonal intrigue, no one to partner with and vibe off of, no one to take care of, no one to take care of me, and no external prompts from a teacher to pull me along.
That is to say, it was all up to me.
For the first few days, my dances were uninspired. I remained committed, though, and continued to spend the days dancing and writing. I began to go to a beach called Playa Pelada every day. It was remote enough that few people walked all the way there, but not so remote that getting there was impossible.
I sent some writing to one of the leaders of 5Rhythms, with the disclaimer,
“I know it’s not 5Rhythms practice if it isn’t led by a 5Rhythms teacher, but…”
She wrote back, “Actually, it can still be practice. It’s just that it’s individual practice.”
This validation helped me to believe in what was already unfolding, and I committed myself even more resolutely to practice–at minimum, to move through each of the 5Rhythms in sequence daily.
That brings up another benefit to individual practice–that it allows us to practice daily, even when schedule, geographic location, or, a worldwide health emergency make it impossible to get to a 5Rhythms class.
During low tide at Playa Pelada, warm tidal pools formed and I explored every crevice of the land, often moving in Flowing for long periods, and moving back into Flowing again and again, even as the other rhythms presented.
The first time that I danced the transition from low tide to high tide, I was cured of the problem of boredom.
Playa Pelada gave me so much to work with. There was a small island directly in front of the beach, and at high tide, the wild sea would rush around it on both sides, then meet in the center in a crashing tangle of waves. Shifting sand, rocks and debris would crash at my ankles and radically shift the very ground under me. I never tired of responding, arching, casting, turning over, flapping up fast, letting my hips recede as the waves pulled me, and coasting in circle after circle after circle.
Sopilote vultures arced and soared above the high cliff walls. Clouds shifted and raced. Rainbows appeared and dissolved. Iguanas, hermit crabs, and alligator-like caymen flashed in glimpses. Huge driftwood trees disappeared overnight. The sea rushed in and receded. And I witnessed this rich display and moved with all of it, leaving nothing out.
During our last week in Costa Rica, I danced from one low tide until the next–nearly twelve hours of moving–beginning before dawn. As the sun rose over the island and lit the sky, I immersed myself in a spontaneous ritual, using salt dyed with rainbow colors to create a giant spiral on the sand. I danced from its edge, where I felt I was in the relative, everyday world, along the path to its center, where I imagined I was in absolute reality, a place where different dimensions intersect. I moved back and forth through this spiral throughout the early morning hours as the ocean began to gather into a crescendo and eventually erased the spiral, gathering it back into herself.
Practicing individually in beautiful, powerful places has expanded the possibilities in my own dance. I carry these experiences in my body, even when I enter back into dancing indoors in community. For example, dancing with a powerful river, I visited its deep, cold, dense, black river bed. Now, in Stillness, I can still connect with this experience and remind myself of my own depths, the dark, cool currents that run deep inside me.
The year after Simon and I were in Costa Rica, we spent summer on the southeastern coast of Ireland. There again, Simon attended camp and I spent the days dancing with the sea, writing and making artwork.
The sea was indescribable. Gigantic. The tide goes out nearly a mile, then rushes back in at high tide to pummel everything in sight. Slowly, as I danced with integrity over many sessions, this powerful place revealed itself to me, initiating me to its secrets.
In general, I have often felt that I needed to keep myself in Flowing longer than felt intuitive. This was so I could be responsible and find the ground beneath me before taking on any other investigation, especially when dancing with other people.
In Ireland, I learned that another benefit of practicing independently is that I can work with the mercurial shifts of energy as they arise. Instead of holding myself in Flowing at the beginning, I noticed that even once I did move into Staccato, I moved back into Flowing many times. It wasn’t an all-or-nothing thing. Even in Chaos, I still found myself going back to Flowing.
Here, the stakes were different. Attending to the many small subtle shifts of energy as I fluctuated between different rhythms allowed me to follow intuition in a new way, and to observe nuances that weren’t always apparent during a wild collective dance. One day a wave followed this pattern: Flowing, Staccato, Flowing, Staccato/Chaos, Staccato, Flowing, Flowing Chaos, Chaos, Flowing, Lyrical, Chaos, Lyrical, Chaos, Flowing, Flowing Lyrical, Stillness.
This week, as coronavirus rolls in crushing waves over the world, like many, I’ve been practicing independently in my own home. I would prefer for Simon and I to be fully quarantined, both to keep us safe and to not proliferate germs, but we have roommates who are still going in and out, so my obsessive cleaning and containment procedures might be for naught.
Yesterday, I danced a five-song wave, one song for each rhythm. It all seemed very mundane at first, with afternoon sun coming in the window and falling in angled squares on my worn living room rug and the cat sitting next to me on a rumpled couch blanket. But soon, it tore itself from my throat and broke open. I spun and angled and dipped in Flowing, letting in fear. In Staccato, I was fierce, expressive, decisive. In Chaos, I was gigantic, kinetic, powerful. In Lyrical, I expanded beyond my small conception of who I am. In Stillness, I offered the merit of my practice to my family and my friends all over the world, and the afternoon living room seemed crowded with spirit guides, ancestors, and deities.
This territory is totally uncharted and the stakes are high.
For 5Rhythms practitioners and to everyone who has a committed practice, now is the time to lean into it.
Early in New York’s wave, I noticed I was trying to bear down hard until the crisis passed. But soon realized that coronavirus might last for an extended period, and that bearing down and wishing time away will only cause me to wish away moments of this precious life, and to close ourselves down emotionally and energetically. Somehow I have to come to terms with it. Better to open to what is, even when it is uncertain, even when we are met with grave hardship, and even when we are forced to stand face-to-face with our deepest, most terrifying fears.
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