A Small Shift in Practice

This is where indigenous Podunk people once lived during cold months, where my grandfather loved to fish, and where I’ve brought my ten-year-old son, Simon, to experience the changing seasons more closely. For months, since Simon and I have been staying with my parents in northern Connecticut, I’ve run nearly every day in the woods by the Scantic River, then found a place to do the 5Rhythms dance meditation practice. I’ve loved the flowing river, the soft ground, and the shaded seclusion.

Like many practices, it started with following my intuition, then as it felt right, turned into a daily (or nearly daily) practice. But as the river got summer-low and stagnant, I started to feel less inspired. Still I ran and danced there almost every day, and still I was grateful for this beautiful place. 

For a week or more, dance didn’t feel good. Most of the time, dance feels good. Even when I’m coping with a lot of anxiety, I can often let it go and let go in movement. Sometimes it’s even cathartic. But at times, I don’t feel any better after dancing than I did before I started, and I stay mostly flat. 

I was on such a streak. 

Thankfully, after over a decade of practice, I know what to do when it doesn’t feel good: keep practicing regularly, embrace whatever arises (even if it sucks), and remind myself that the magic always comes back eventually.

Yesterday, instead of turning right to head down the big hill to the woods and river, I turned left instead. This time, I ran one house down, then turned into the athletic grounds behind the town’s middle school. Here, rather than running in the dense, enclosed woods, I ran on a half-mile gravel track surrounding a wide open field. I relaxed, pausing frequently to gaze up and take in the open sky. After the first loop, I changed direction, so more of the time I would be facing the widest open space. 

Practice is always a mix of discipline and flexibility. The teachings of Staccato teach us to apply intention and energy to our work, including holding our own feet to the fire in daily practice. The teachings of Flowing support us in following our intuition, and in being flexible and attentive to our own needs. As the Buddha taught, if practice is too loose, we could say with only flowing energy, it will not be effective. If practice is too rigid, we could say with only staccato energy, it will not be effective. It takes a balance of both of these energies to avoid stagnating or developing unskillful habits.

After four loops around, I decided to dance a 5Rhythms wave – which is to move in sequence through each of the 5Rhythms of Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness. 

I found a tucked away inlet of cut grass, off to the side of the field where there was a small platform for outdoor exercise like sit-ups. I stepped up onto it, immediately liking the low friction feel of the wood-like material, and sinking into the circling movements of Flowing. I sank low and swung my hips over the edge, moving in a big arc, curving up onto one heel and back in the other direction, with a gesture like an athlete coiling a heavy discus. 

I felt no rush to move into the second rhythm of Staccato, instead feeling like I could keep doing this gentle circling all day. Eventually, the rhythm of Staccato did break through just as the humidity shifted to a thick, slow rain that rattled the leaves like a percussion instrument. The sky remained light and blue on the other side of the field as I moved with sharp edges and exhalation, sinking low in the hips, emphatic with my elbows and the outside ridges of my hands. Next I moved in Chaos, briefly, gently, my gaze flopping around and rushing through clouds, grass, trees, my own feet, my own hands, the blue edge of sun, a bit of a house across the field.

Then, for the first time in over a week, the rhythm of Lyrical visited. Lyrical is like a bird on your shoulder. If you make a loud noise or look directly at it, it flies away. If you stay porous and move gently, it might stay there and coo, maybe even dancing along with you. I fell upward into extensions, turning my smiling face to the sky again as I raised my hands up.

For a short time I moved with everything – the spirits of the woods, the rain, the changeable sky, the breathing trees.

There was something in me that needed to let in space this time. Maybe I will return to the woods. Or maybe dancing in the field will become a new practice. I don’t take ending the woods practice lightly. At the same time, I don’t need to cling to it if it is no longer serving.

Then a jogger joined me on the other side of the field and I knew it was a matter of time before she was right beside me on the gravel track. Not wanting to shift into being verbal just yet, I climbed down from the platform and walked back home in the attitude of walking meditation, loving the sensation of each foot touching down, feeling alive and reverent.

Walking, I barely thought about the difficult question of whether or not I will send Simon back to school in September. I barely thought about my own teaching job, and what the school’s hybrid teaching plan might look like. About the new science that’s showing that COVID may have significant long-lasting impacts and that people who die of it are riddled with blood clots. About how children may be vulnerable. About how having the disease once may not provide immunity. Notably, I barely thought about our foul, inept, self-serving president and all the blood he has on his hands. And I even took a break from thinking about the intricacies of racism in our country, and what would need to happen to eradicate racism, patriarchy, and all oppression, including what I could personally do to have an impact.

I just walked slowly along, stopping once to eat a wild blackberry, then making my way back home.

Individual practice is keeping me alive. Truly. But at the same time I recognize the need for collective work that goes beyond just working on ourselves. Inner work is absolutely critical, but if practice is just there to make us feel good, then it’s not practice. It is actually a sedative, a conditioned habit. 

Practice is a tool to pierce through layers of illusion to the radical, shining truth, even if it is politically inconvenient, uncomfortable, challenges our personal views, or challenges existing power structures. I’m extremely grateful when practice feels good, but hope I can push myself toward the truest truths, even if it doesn’t feel good sometimes.

Later in the day, I brought speakers outside and danced in the yard. To my surprise, I again moved with engagement. In Flowing, I moved with a circular swing in the yard. I dipped low, rolling it around my hips and moving in a big circle around it, at times moving toward it and falling, then rising and arcing away. At first, my arms followed my body like sea kelp, but soon, I started holding the swing and pulling it to its curving edge, then falling back into circling. In Staccato, I stayed in the shade of a big maple tree, feeling creative and vibrant, finding new ways to rise and fall, advance and recede, and work with the kinetic energy of the moving hips. Chaos challenged me to explode and release, and I let my head go and moved in a fast matrix, going all out. I was surprised that I had two long Chaos songs in a row in the playlist, but decided to go with it, telling myself to release and release and release further.

A chaos-lyrical song started and I bounded over to the computer to change it, putting on one of my all-time favorite tracks instead of the one I had planned. Lyrical overtook me; and I found a whole new category of movement. This time, pointing a leg and rushing into one direction while leaning back from it, and somehow a wild skittering with the other leg covering 10 or 15 feet in a gushing, joyful gesture, then bounding, leaping and twisting, all with my face tilting upward, smiling.

I have no idea what’s coming, but I suspect that for some of us, this might be a blessed interlude, a raging storm’s quiet eye. I hope I can settle into it, be available for joy if it visits me, step up to help dismantle injustice in ways that are skillful and collaborative, and love the people around me to the best of my ability.

That’s the best I can do for now. 

June 16, 2020, Broad Brook, Connecticut

This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.

Notes on Practice

I really didn’t feel like practicing. It had already been a long day; and I had another big day coming. I was on a meditation retreat at Garrison Institute, and part of my personal practice was to dance a 5Rhythms wave, o sea, in other words, to move through each of the five rhythms in sequence. At least once a day, I tucked my socks into my pants, sprayed myself with deet, and made my way down a wooded path to the Hudson River. Because it’s my practice, even though I didn’t feel like it, I still stepped in. 

I began in a tiny inlet, on a beach enclosed by tree cover. In Flowing I was lackluster. I moved in circles on the little beach, cutting up the sand’s surface. In the second rhythm of Staccato I was still not really into it, determined to see the wave through, but also eager to get it over with. Then, a spark caught, somewhere in the transition from Staccato to the third rhythm of Chaos. I moved from the little inlet to an open, glacial rock that rose up over a powerful expanse of the river and moved with abandon. In Lyrical and Stillness, the world opened itself. I imagined that I sunk to the depths of the ancient river, where it was black and dense, then rose up again with its density streaming down the rock channels of me. 

Sometimes practice is mundane. Sometimes it is life-changing. You never know what will happen until you step in. In 5Rhythms, there is a tradition, a benediction, sometimes expressed at the beginning of a wave: “See you on the other side.” 

All of our dances, all of our practice experiences are necessary. After about two years of dancing the 5Rhythms, I went through a period of agonizingly painful dances. It lasted almost two months. Every time I stepped in, I felt terrible. I felt isolated, disengaged, disincluded, and unable to connect. It was extra painful because I’d become accustomed to the wild, frenzied release that left me whimpering and grateful, alive, full, knowing. And for this long period, it just wasn’t available.

Thankfully, by then, I had already developed a strong practice. I had already verified for myself that 5Rhythms was beneficial for me, and was worth the dedication of precious resources. If I didn’t already have a strong practice–a regular, intentional practice that was not rocked by external factors–I’m sure I would have stopped attending 5Rhythms classes. As it was, I just kept attending, noticing how I was feeling, and knowing that it would pass. Later, when I hit patches of agonizing discomfort, I would draw on this experience, reminding myself that practice would not always be pleasant, but that the periods of discomfort would pass, and would leave me with deeper faith in my own ability to stay present in the face of whatever arises. 

In the simplest terms practice is something we do regularly and intentionally without being attached to a certain outcome in a given session. We show up again and again. Usually, something only becomes a practice if we have been raised with it, or we have field tested it and found it worthy of our dedication.

To me, having a 5Rhythms practice means regularly, intentionally dancing the 5Rhythms, regardless of how I feel before, during, or after. It means I don’t ask the dance to fix me in the moment, but, over time and with slow erosion, to free me from my personal prisons and to reveal the nature of reality.

When my son, Simon, was first born, I developed a practice of writing a poem a day. As is true of many practices, it started accidentally. My sister invited me to swap haiku poems for fun, and somehow I caught a little groove of poem writing. I let go of using the haiku form, and instead wrote about my daily experiences, capturing the exquisite beauty of Simon’s first months of life, including the blizzard snows that buried New York City that year, the sublimely quiet room where I sat breastfeeding him in the quietest hours of night, the silver J train sliding across the bridge in view outside the window, and how it felt to look at my tiny son’s face as he slept. And I also captured the pain of that time period, as my relationship with Simon’s father was falling apart. 

After a week or two of catching an accidental groove, I started to realize it might be worth making this into a practice. So I did. Some days I wrote more than one poem, but almost every day I wrote at least one, sometimes staying up just a little bit later to accomplish this task. Sometimes the poems were mundane, sometimes they were life changing. Once I wrote. “I’m too tired to write now. Maybe if I can just hold this pen upright, the world will flow through it.”

One of the benefits of this practice was that it sensitized me to the poetic level of experience, and had me looking for it all the time. To me, “poetic” is a level of experience that is concerned with the beauty of exquisite reality, of sometimes painful and imperfect aliveness. 

I kept it up for nearly three years, writing over a thousand poems. At that point, I discontinued the practice. I had started a new job, and it started to feel like I was forcing it in a way that was no longer benefitting me. I had already started to slack off, but made a conscious choice to let it go, recognizing that practice is worth discipline, but once it becomes rigid, it might be time to let it shift or end.

Knowing when to embody Flowing and when to embody Staccato is an important skill for working with the practices that create meaning in our lives and help us to realize our potential.

In 5Rhythms, practice falls into two categories. “In the dance” when we are intentionally practicing, and not in the dance, in other words, at all other times. All of it can be viewed as practice. 

Whatever we repeat becomes a practice, in a way. For example, road rage, insecurity, gratitude, or frequent hand-washing. Through repetition, we carve a groove in our mind to arrive at a particular state or to exhibit a certain skill. For our purposes, though, we need to distinguish between intentional practice and practicing/re-enforcing conditioned responses.

Practice and conditioned responses can look similar, but are fundamentally very different.

The key difference is in how we are in relationship to the given practice. If a practice serves to open our experience and bring us into (sometimes painful) confrontation with our misconceptions, then it is probably a practice. If a “practice” causes us to shore up our view of ourselves as separate or better than or less than or omnipotent or limited, and to disconnect from physical and energetic reality, then it is probably a conditioned response, not a practice. This is true even if it looks like a practice. 

Distinguishing between these two requires skill and insight, and often input from a clear-seeing teacher, especially in early to intermediate stages of the path. And there are often multiple layers of intention. As such, a practice might need to be examined complexly for information about how it is functioning for a given practitioner.

Identity stories are a kind of practice, and can support practice in the larger view. For example, my teen students need to develop healthy identity stories (“I’m a good student, I’m lovable, I’m someone who has a healthy relationship to emotions”) to support them on their path. If they cannot construct through practice these healthy identity stories, they will struggle to move into a later stage of development. At another level, those same identity stories may become conditioned habits, and obstacles to opening into the naked truth of bare awareness. But they are developmentally essential practices at a certain stage.

Some 5Rhythms teachers believe that the core of 5Rhythms practice is continuous, sustained, profound mindfulness of body, and of the feet in particular.

Our main practice is to move. 

And there are infinite sub-practices within the main practice of 5Rhythms. 

In Flowing, we practice bringing attention to the soles of the feet and dropping the weight down. We acknowledge the importance of ground and grounding. We also practice allowing our bodies to move in unending circular motion. And we practice having an attitude of receptivity, and paying attention to the inbreath. In Flowing, I also practice paying attention to the perimeter of the dance floor, and sometimes physically circling the space. Sometimes I also use a practice adapted from Thich Nhat Hahn, in which I acknowledge each person without direct eye contact, patiently noticing each person and saying internally, “I see you there; and I’m grateful for it.” 

In Staccato, we practice bringing attention to the outbreath, and with using sharp, percussive movements. We invite specificity and direction. We also find nuanced ways to work with the beat, and to relate to partnership. One sub-practice that I use in Staccato is noticing if I think partnering with someone is negative, positive, or neutral. Then, I either decide to move away from them if I don’t want to dance with them, or decide to stay and see what happens. And the same for someone I feel positive about partnering with.

In Chaos, we let go of our heads, and alternate between shifting weight between our feet, and moving with whatever wild demon possesses us. We invite and celebrate unpredictability. We go all out, to whatever extent we can at that time. One practice I personally use in Chaos is to experiment with going to the farthest edges of balance. I also experiment with inviting resistance to Chaos, then releasing fully into it, sometimes toggling between the two.

In Lyrical, we rise up and allow ourselves to become weightless if it’s available, trusting that we’ve already established our ground, and often engaging with the element of space. Lyrical shifts so much, but I often experiment with practicing extension and balance in Lyrical.

In Stillness, we allow ourselves to be moved by breath, and in some cases to merge with a larger view than conventional reality can accommodate. 

In practice, nothing is always true. There is always nuance. For example, in general it is helpful to open the eyes during 5Rhythms practice, for practical, psychological, and spiritual reasons. However, a given person might have a conditioned habit of always keeping the eyes open because they are afraid to sink deeply into their inner darkness. In this case, it would be appropriate to engage in a practice of closing the eyes periodically, to investigate and explore the teachings available through breaking the habit of always having the eyes open. Also, intuition might insist on closing the eyes at a certain time. This might be conditioning, or could be an important directive from inner wisdom or spirit guides. Insisting on always keeping the eyes open, without any willingness to acknowledge nuance, might suppress important insights or revelations.

Practice is a balance between structure and creativity. Committing to a practice or a sub-practice requires discipline. Sometimes we do it even if it isn’t fun or we aren’t in the mood. At the same time, responding to the shifts in one’s needs requires creativity; and it is a vibrant, dynamic process.

Doing something as a practice yields benefits that are not available in haphazard or incidental actions. Practice requires grit and discipline. It forces us to push through resistance, inertia, and neurosis. It also requires us to gently reassure the tender ego, that although we are walking the path of absolute freedom, we are no threat to him. Practice requires gentleness and self care, and asks us to notice and relent if pushing through has actually become an act of aggression against ourselves. 

Now, as we face a worldwide pandemic, practice is here to hold and sustain us.

Practice is the path.

Practice is a way to make the most of this life, and to offer the fruits of our devoted work to the benefit of all beings. Practice is a blessing. That we are alive in this time, in this moment, in this body, in this way, is nothing less than a miracle. 

April 19, 2020, Broad Brook, Connecticut

(Photo from aleanjourney.com)

This blog consists of my own subjective experiences and ideas on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.