My body breathes a sigh today.
Yesterday, Saturday, the bright sun was too much for me. Grey clouds parted in the afternoon and instead of feeling the joyful charge of spring, I stood in the middle of the sidewalk blinking, unable to take it. The bright, warm afternoon just felt like too much pressure.
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been struggling. What is that tiny shift that happens when things go from workable to hopeless? The truth is that there is nothing wrong – at least not compared to what people around me are coping with. I know better than to try to talk myself out of feeling bad, but still there I was. Miserable and shaming myself on top of it.
I did yoga in the living room in the morning. It helped to move, but a few times I noticed myself stopping. Not like taking a break, not even like holding my breath, really. More like just blanking out in the middle of a chaturanga with my face to the floor. And thinking vaguely of some ancient reason I should beat myself up until I gave a little shake and restarted the breath and movement.
My thirteen year old son, Simon, was feeling down, too, and I was happy that he decided to join a friend’s family for dinner and a sleepover.
Almost simultaneously, I learned that Amber Ryan was offering a 360 Emergence class at Paul Taylor studio on the Lower East Side; and I bought a ticket immediately. Amber is a former 5Rhythms teacher; and the 360 Emergence is a new practice with deep roots in the 5Rhythms.
I barely had time to gather my things, bring Simon to his friend’s house, and find parking. On the way, I learned that a powerful storm was in the forecast, and that there was a tornado watch.
Me and a crowd of afflictive emotions walked up the stairs, and they all entered the studio with me. I paused to move through an energetic ritual as I crossed the threshold, then walked across the wide floor.
One friend’s gaze seemed to skitter over me, not registering when I tried to catch his eye to silently say hello.
I moved around the edge of the room to orient myself to the space and the group, bringing attention to my feet, and occasionally glancing my fingertips or inner arm along the wall to wake up sensation in different parts of the body.
And soon delight arrived.
It’s not always like that. You never know what will happen when you step into practice. Sometimes you even feel worse at the end than when you started. But on this evening, I made the barely perceptible shift from feeling like things were hopeless back into believing they are workable.
Within ten minutes, I was ranging softly through different levels, stretching intuitively, and tasting the air in the different parts of the room.
Amber guided us through a practice to connect with different energy centers in the body. As encouraged us to engage the ribcage in moving energy around the solar plexus, a wide groan escaped me along with unleashing some painful teen and early adult memories.
Since Simon has become a teen recently I’m finding that I have new strata of unresolved trauma – trauma that I thought had been long dispensed with. I recognize the need to move with it quickly, so I can be clear and direct in parenting this extraordinary human, and not mire him in the tangles of my own psychology and the fears that arise for me.
A friend from my long-ago days in the underground dance world found me this week, too. She wants to hold a reunion – a rave, actually – for those of us who are still alive. I was happy to hear from her, and plan to participate, but it knocked on the door of some pesky demons.
My whole face was wet with tears as I threaded throughout the space, slipping through gaps between bodies, sliding in and out of partnerships, and collaborating with the circling room.
Amber kept inviting us to pause and return to “zero” throughout the class.
Many years ago, Amber led a workshop in this very same space called “Zero Zone,” which was the first time I heard her talk about zero.
I wondered briefly if “zero” was influenced by Dzogchen, an energetic Tibetan practice of dropping into raw awareness on the spot. And I wondered how it relates to Stillness in the 5Rhythms. And a chain of other associations. Then, the thoughts receded again into the background as my own body and its experiments emerged in the foreground.
At one point, Amber invited us to very intentionally move with the breath, then opened up the music again to allow us time to integrate these new seeds that had been planted.
When the intensity peaked again and again, I found myself right in the middle a lot of the time, moving with all the energy I could need, sinking to the ground, then spiraling back up, casting upward, diagonaling myself back down and across, sometimes finding myself face to face with a partner, and sometimes on my own.
I was so engaged that I didn’t notice darkness shining through the many windows until there was a flash of lightning outside.
In an experiment that involved taking turns with one person in the middle while three others supported them and held space, I felt heat rising to my face and crown when it was my turn to be in the middle. And I felt just as engaged when it was my turn to hold space. I remembered my nature as a healer, as an energy worker, and that we are all healers and energy workers.
In the final stretch of dancing, some stayed with their small group, while others moved through the space. Amber put on an electronic dance song with an engaging beat that pulled us deeper into motion. Then, to my surprise and delight, the beat dropped fast in a low, heavy bassline and the room exploded.
I found many new ways to move, sometimes quirky, jerking, skimming, bursting. I found a new loop around the back of my neck, a new way to rise up through my back from the hips, a new flutter in the heels, a new triple count step to stop short without jamming.
All that is to say that I found new ways to be alive.
Before stepping in, I wondered if I would have the energy to move given how disheartened I had been feeling.
By the end I felt grateful again. Grateful to be alive, grateful for the dancing path, grateful to have the chance to do my best as a parent, grateful that my body has accumulated decades of athletic experience yet still hasn’t broken down, grateful for the spirits and ancestors who I believe dance with me. Grateful for all of it. For everything.
My body remembered why I set foot on this dancing path to begin with. I also remembered what my body never forgets – that the mysterious tiny shift I was contemplating is really just a matter of being embodied. Of being alive to this moment, to this precious life.
Thank you, Amber. Thank you, Gabrielle. Thank you, my son. Thank you, this body. Thank you, this life. I am blessed in every sense. My path is strewn with flowers, and I can again see the gentle rain of blessings.
Meghan LeBorious is a certified teacher of the 5Rhythms dance and movement meditation practice. This writing is not sanctioned or commissioned by the 5Rhythms organization and is solely the writer’s personal experience.
After bowing to the space, to all of my teachers, and to practice itself, I took a slow lap around the perimeter, absorbing information with all of my senses, excited to join such a large gathering of dancers. I paused to put my fingertips on the speaker, to directly feel the vibrations of the music. I also traced my forearm along the soft black fabric lining the window-opposite-wall and moved my feet slowly, noticing slight shifts in the temperature of the floor.
Aside from one brief online session, this was my first experience with The 360 Emergence, an embodiment modality created by Amber Ryan and Kate Shela.
I had been groggy before the session, but brightened with curiosity as soon as I started moving inside the space.
In Saturday’s session, after my lap around the room, I wandered to the middle, spiraled for a short time, then lowered myself to the ground to stretch, undulate, and prepare. Before long, I soared throughout the space, delighting in the seemingly infinite exchanges given such a large number of dancers. I was happy to find elation, and cascaded through multiple patterns and gestures and vignettes, sometimes catching someone’s eye and sharing a gesture or an embodied conversation, then moving back into the collective field or dancing with my own internal impulses.
Amber kept inviting people who were embodying “spider energy” to weave through the space, and I felt supported in continuing to move and thread throughout. At the same time, I was careful to monitor when there was a flavor of grasping and reminded myself to slow down if I found myself roaming and searching, rather than simply present to whatever I found or found me.
The second half of the session on Saturday was a marked contrast to the soaring, effusive first half.
A conjunction of factors flattened me out.
The rest of the dancers seemed to be having the opposite experience. It seemed like they were slow to light up, but now they were exploding with life, veritable fountains of creativity.
I was grounded. Dull. Disconnected. Disengaged.
Whereas in the first half, I moved with grace and power, glancing by, slipping through moving gaps between bodies, finding expression and connection with partners and with the whole room, now my feet were flat. Before I was a moving matrix, easily making my way to the ground, the sky, and back around. Now my knees hurt, I was afraid of damaging them, and I couldn’t remember what it was like to range with ease through many different levels.
During the second half, one good friend bore me up in a joyful, bluegrass-sounding jig, but other than that, I stayed flat, though continued to move at least some part of me.
Whereas in the first half I moved easily even through very crowded parts of the room, now I was afraid of getting hit or crashing into someone, energetically opaque, and knew that if I stayed in the middle where the energy was most intense I risked getting hurt or hurting someone.
At the end, I packed my things and darted out, feeling isolated. Then I remembered that there were many close friends inside, who I had missed during the long pandemic years. I talked myself into going back in to visit with them. I remained flat, however, and now also added on socially awkward and anxious.
I finally headed home, deciding not to take too much stock in this unpleasant and uncomfortable mood. My twelve-year-old son, Simon, was away for the weekend, and I was alone in the apartment. I ate a simple dinner, made a clutter-mess, and decided to get to bed, wondering if a good night would improve my aching knees and my feeling of isolation.
I slept deeply, for more than eight hours. Sunlight was peeking through my sleep mask when I finally woke up, and I was happy to see that I had slept until 8 AM, three hours later than my weekday rising time.
The morning flowed easily; and I arrived at Mark Morris Dance, the home of the workshop, in good time.
Without negotiation or incident, the awkwardness dissolved, and I greeted friends and acquaintances in the foyer of the giant James and Martha Duffy studio happily, excited to have the whole session in front of me, and wondering what would happen.
Kate and Amber appeared to be well-aligned, and moved back and forth seamlessly, using the pronoun “we” often. In their teaching, they emphasized presence, consent, permission, and energetic alignment.
They also invited participants to attend not only to the visible, but also to the invisible, and even mentioned ancestors. The room seemed alive with spirit. I found one ancestor lingering at the margin of the room and took them by the hand, escorting them into the middle of the dance.
There was a pause for some teaching in the middle of the session, and Amber and Kate invited people to verbally share what was coming through for them. Many expressed relief, gratitude, and delight to have the opportunity to move inside such a uniquely inclusive and affirming container.
I shared something myself, and noticed a burst of chemical activation immediately after. It settled quickly as I passed the mic (humorously renamed the “michelle” by Kate!) to another participant.
For nearly the entire four hours, I stayed bright and engaged.
At one point, I was dancing enthusiastically near Kate and Amber’s table when Kate said something like, We really have to take our medicine in measure, and we have to take care of our bodies. We can’t go throwing our bodies around like we’re 14-year-olds when we’re actually 50!
I had to smile. I teach 14-year-olds in a public high school, will be 50 in less than six months, and frequently jump in to dance with them, even doing dramatic drops on the spot with no warmup whatsoever.
Just the day before I had gimped down a steep flight of stairs, feeling tender in the fronts of both kneecaps. At the time, I had given myself a stern talking-to about taking it down a notch and acknowledging my age and limitations before I cause irreversible damage.
Kate’s offhanded comment hit home in a way that somehow managed to delight me, even though she was, perhaps unknowingly, calling me to acknowledge my vulnerability and give up the hope of being a hero and/or the impossible (though compelling!) dream of impressing the 14-year-olds I teach.
I continued to weave, delighting in infinite exchanges throughout the journey, once in a lifetime intersections. Some I will forget, some will live in my memory forever.
At the middle of this glorious day, when we paused and sat together to speak, taking turns with the “michelle,” Amber brought up Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhythms dance and movement meditation tradition. Both Amber and Kate were trained in the 5Rhythms, and were 5Rhythms teachers for many years. Amber acknowledged Gabrielle as the root teacher, and told the story of her path to the 360 Emergence with a fully engaged heart.
Then, she paid homage to the 5Rhythms tradition, and invited all of the 5Rhythms teachers in the room to stand up. That includes me now, and I was self-conscious as I stood, along with five or six others, and my heart swelled up with gratitude, joy, and a crashing tide of other strong emotions, bearing along years of experiences, thoughts, and emotions.
Finally, Amber invited a handful of interns, the first generation-in-training of 360 Emergence teachers; and I cheered along with the others, happy for this new vision, happy to be alive, and happy for this blessed new emergence.
This blog is not sanctioned or produced by the 5Rhythms organization. Meghan LeBorious is a 5Rhythms teacher, meditator, artist, mother, and writer. She has been on the 5Rhythms dancing path since 2008.
We walked up to the meadow in silence, without flashlights, through the nighttime woods. I inhaled the dark shapes of moving bodies, and exhaled the passing trees. Arriving, the diamond-fierce sky opened up. Our guide and the retreat’s coordinator pointed out constellations, beginning with those above the dragon-like ridge before us. We were captivated by his stories of ancient intrigue as we craned our necks further and further back, trying to follow his explanations of where to look. A barn owl called in the woods nearby and our group fell silent, listening. Another, slightly-farther-off owl called back, mournful and inquisitive; and they continued their conversation—drawing a line between themselves. Our hearing drew another line from each of them to us, creating a brief triangle that would dissolve again when we turned our attention back to the stars.
Before this week-long meditation retreat, I had participated in Zero Zone, a five-week class for experienced 5Rhythms practitioners that was created by Amber Ryan. Although I wasn’t totally clear on the focus initially, I gathered that there would be an emphasis on the rhythm of Stillness. I leaned heavily into it, noticing Stillness both in my dance and in my life in the weeks leading up to Zero Zone.
I imagined that on the first day, I would tumble in through the door of the big, black-floored studio at Paul Taylor Dance on the Lower East Side and fall to the floor sobbing, in luminous gratitude for this fortuitous chance to practice. I had been craving opportunities to work deeper, as the few advanced 5Rhythms workshops are infrequent, are spread out all over the world, and are usually five days long—meaning I would have to take several days off of work. Last year, I did one long workshop, but I had to move mountains for it and lost a great deal of work-social-capital as a result. I knew that unless I quit my job, workshops like these would not be possible very often. That is why I was so happy for this chance to practice. Amber’s stated intention was to “go deep,” and it seemed like Zero Zone would be more like a workshop spread out over several weeks than just an ongoing class, especially since the same participants would do the entire series, and the group wouldn’t change each week as it does in most weekly classes.
As it happens, I arrived a bit late to the first meeting of Zero Zone. I had to wait for my son’s father to arrive before I could leave the house; and the earliest he could make it to us was 7pm. The class began at 7.15, so if I ran out the door the second he arrived, encountered no traffic, had no problems with directions, did not have to get gas, and found parking immediately, I could expect to arrive right on time for 7.15. Since such alignments are rare, I ran 10-15 minutes late on most nights.
I felt porous, engaged and curious as I entered into the construct of the workshop. On this first night I felt free, finding the floor right away, then rising and stringing together several series of anomalous, quirky gestures. Amber drew us into an “opening circle” and went to lengths to establish agreements for the group. I left feeling like we had barely begun, eager to dive in during the coming weeks.
For our first homework assignment, Amber asked that we tune in to the thoughts that persist in our minds, the “voice that talks to you”, or the stories-we-tell ourselves, as I interpreted the task. She also asked that we think about what our intentions would be for the five weeks. My mind immediately offered, “freedom,” and “letting go of self-hate.” I also wrote, “luxurious vibrancy, alive.”
The week passed quickly and I found myself again en route to Zero Zone for the second class, again running late. I totally missed the flowing part of the first wave, but took to the floor on entry, my spine moving happily in Staccato. I felt a bit interior, though, and unmotivated to connect with other dancers.
During the second Zero Zone class, we did partner work that offered me a few key insights. Instructed to respectfully touch the part of our partner that was not moving or that was held in some way, I was gentle as my partner touched my mid-back, my lower back, my hips. I was careful to be soft as I touched my partner in turn; and we both beamed, enjoying the investigation.
The Stillness part of this first wave irritated me, however. I have never, or at least have rarely, gotten to Stillness through the practice of creating selected shapes with my body. This is a common 5Rhythms construct, though, and I tried my best to be receptive. “Take the shape of that voice in your head,” seemed an impossible request given the complexity of the territory, but I tried my best.
The Stillness practice of distilling movement into shapes has always eluded me, in fact. It just doesn’t seem to be productive for me. I wrote about it to Amber, “Perhaps it is my inexperience,” I began, and explained that, for me, “I get to the rhythm of Stillness when I get to a place where I can perceive and experience the flow of energy in my own body, in others’ bodies and in the space around me.” I continue to struggle with wondering if, perhaps, I should accept that the work with shapes is just not for me, or if I should continue to try to find a way to access it.
Our group discussion this second week went on and on. It seems many people had taken the “voices” assignment very seriously and had experienced a range of emotions in response. I felt anxious. In many years of practicing Buddhist meditation, even in some very sharp and precise approaches, I had only ever been instructed to address this kind of material obliquely—I had never been instructed to approach it directly. I wondered if this direct engagement might not be too much for me, for some of us, and might not actually backfire.
Amber had designed a ritual that we could enact one-by-one; and she invited us to participate if we felt moved to. I joined the line to have a go, but in the end decided against it and remained with those who were only witnessing. As it was, the night was drawing on, I was last, and I very much wanted to get back to dancing. Also, my idea seemed trite compared to the many raw offerings that preceded; and, given that I was last, it didn’t seem worth insisting on.
I recalled when I first received meditation instruction within a Buddhist tradition (though I had already been meditating). I was at a month-long artists’ retreat where they had a beautiful little building at the center of the campus that was devoted exclusively to meditation. The director of the retreat center offered meditation instructions to those who were interested and I took to it instantly. I quit my smoking habit, and spent hours and hours in the little meditation building during the first two weeks of the retreat. I was ecstatic, drenched in spirit. One day, on the way in to the dining hall, there was a rainbow in the sky over the trees and I wept for joy.
After two weeks of bliss, things shifted radically. There was a party and an epic bonfire. I attended, along with nearly everyone at the retreat center, and got completely wasted. Hammered. I talked trash, and was arrogant and ill-informed about art and artistic practice. Even worse, I nearly united with a man I was attracted to at the retreat center, despite the fact that I was in a monogamous relationship. Ashamed and dark, I took to bed for two days. The rest of the retreat was characterized by tears, and I carried the depression home with me.
The ego has a way of asserting itself, especially in the face of extreme affronts. I have learned this the hard way. During the artists’ retreat wasn’t the only time I have gone all the way past my edge–finding total connection, total love, total porousness. Sometimes the glow of it has lingered, sometimes my ego has painfully lashed back. I remain committed to eroding my ego in the service of freedom, but I try my best to partner with her, or at least to reassure her. Even when we disagree, I really don’t want her to get the impression that I am her adversary.
I left the second class of Zero Zone feeling irritated. Downright pissed off, actually. Perhaps my ego was uncomfortably rubbed. Thankfully, I was able to hold it all in a big space and was willing to see how the process evolved over the remaining three weeks of the five-week Zero Zone series.
Another week passed. Early spring began to deepen and move toward lush. My six-year-old son, Simon, developed a strep infection. I barely slept, then spent the day home from work, caring for him, only stepping out to take him to the doctor. It was hard to leave him that night; and I wondered how I would hold up for this 3rd Zero Zone class meeting.
Entering, I was surprised to feel delighted. (You never know what you will find when you step in, truly!) I missed most of Flowing, but found it somehow all by myself. I began on the floor, energetic—almost breakdancing. The music Amber selected for Staccato was loaded with resistance and tension; and I reveled in it. Chaos was just a short bridge and I went right into a vibrant, soaring Lyrical.
The second wave was ruled by a long Chaos; and I remembered that, early in my dance career, I would initiate trances only during the rhythm of Chaos. Dancing with a friend who I love to move with, we drew close together, then stretched back apart—smiling, rising and falling with long, arcing motions—pushing energy around us with our hands. She rolled her open shoulders dramatically, looking into my eyes and casting her arm up. Gradually, we each moved into our individual dances. Alone again, I let my eyelids slide down so just a sliver of the outside peeked in on me.
Satisfied and inspired, I began to turn in to my own energy field, but instead another memorable dance of partnership opened up. I was quietly noticing the energy of the different parts of my body when a good friend passed directly into my field, entering first with her hands as she stepped into me. I had no thought of whether or not I should join her, but leaned in. My heart was glowing white both in the front and in the back, extending far beyond the confines of my body. My friend’s hands blocked her chest, but she couldn’t manage it—her heart was bursting forth, uncontainable. I noticed how energy in the different parts of my body connected and intersected with others’ energy fields. The biggest muscles like the butt, the upper legs, seemed to connect most easily—where there was more muscle and blood—whereas the bones were less inclined to mingle. Rainbows danced from our palms and spiraled around the interior of the dance studio—shaped like fluctuating ribbons of salt water taffy. Light expanded and expanded, far beyond our small bodies, in concentric circles and overlapping spheres with everyone within fifteen feet of us. Beaming, we very softly touched each other’s hands in fascination, then separated at the very end of the wave. Our dance had a bigness to it, and also had a tender, vast porousness—unfolding completely within the realm of spirit, perhaps Amber might say, within the Zero Zone.
The last two weeks of the class unfolded. I had the vague sense that inspiration had evaporated, and I mourned its disappearance. In the past, whenever I have not felt inspired I have felt grief and fear—afraid it will never return. The fact is that I am getting older. The wild, uncontained exuberance that has often characterized my dance may not always be available. Perhaps I can still be inspired, but there is something of youthful energy that I am afraid to lose—that I connect with inspiration, somehow.
It is remarkable, the difference between feeling inspired and not feeling inspired. Inspired, I fly. Movement is totally unconscious, nothing hurts, partners manifest exactly when they should, I have all the energy I need, and new and fascinating ways of moving arise spontaneously. Un-inspired, I sink. The light of spirit dims. At the extreme, I move to the floor and gestures become minute. I try to partner but can’t really connect. I feel tired, distracted, flightless.
Amber designed some beautiful rituals for us, including an elaborate closing ritual, but the highlight for me was really this one beautiful dance with my dear friend in the realm of spirit.
The day after the fifth and final meeting of the Zero Zone series, I headed north to a Tibetan meditation retreat center—the same place that I opened this text with, where I stood with a group, listening to owls and star-gazing.
I had immersed myself in this tradition, beginning just a few months before I began 5Rhythms, undergoing hundreds if not thousands of hours of training, practice and study. Being immersed in both amplified the effect of each—allowing me to use each arena as a laboratory for the other. It also allowed me insight into what was common to the traditions, and what was completely unique to each. In 2012, I had a break with an important teacher at exactly the same time that I stepped into a grueling career stream. I tried to sustain my contact with the tradition, but it faded. At the same time, my faith in 5Rhythms deepened and deepened.
The retreat gave me a chance to honor the exquisite teachings I had received, and to re-consider my relationship to the tradition.
I arrived on Friday morning, though the 26 others (including teachers and coordinators) had arrived the day before. Before entering, I sat in the car, on the phone, crying with someone who could relate, about the death of Prince the day before and what he and his work meant to me. Walking up the road toward the farmhouse, I passed the annexed main shrine room. I slowed down, drawn in by my senses—by the songs of birds, the wind on small areas of exposed skin, the warm sun, the tiny, crashing waterfall cutting the far side of the grassy clearing behind the farmhouse. A staff member had left the key to my room in an envelope; and I quickly put my things away and repaired to the main shrine room.
Entering, the shrine room struck me as astonishingly bright. In fact, there was an incandescent light bulb in a ceiling fixture about every two square feet. All of the corners and the two central columns were embellished with gold scrollwork; and the big windows also let in light from the sweeping pine landscape. The polished wood floors reflected the gold, orange and earthy turquoise colors of the room. Elaborate Tibetan-style paintings adorned the space; and an elevated altar including glass bowls filled with water, crystal, and gold objects, was the front centerpiece. Photos of the founder of the tradition, and his son, the current holder of the tradition, also graced the front altar.
In the back right of the room was an altar devoted to Protectors—fierce-looking deities with scowling, snarling faces and curling fire—who steward the lineage, its devotees, and the retreat center itself. I recalled how important this concept had been to me. I never encountered any fierce protectors in my early Catholic training; and the idea that even what looks to me like anger might be skillful and might have its unique place, has been an important teaching for me.
I took my place in the circle of meditation cushions, and tears poured down my face. The man to my left turned and said softly, smiling, “Welcome.” The group had just completed a meditation period focusing on attention to the senses, exactly the space I passed through when I walked by the main shrine room from outside on arrival, just a short time earlier. I said as much, emotion shaking me as I spoke into the microphone that was being passed around. I felt a powerful sense that I was aligned with my destiny, somehow, and experienced boundless gratitude.
During the mid-day break, I walked in the barely-green woods. Almost back to the retreat center, I stepped up onto a wooden platform that is used for tent accommodations during the warmer months—taking in and letting out my experiences so far by dancing a wave. I picked up a stick that was about the height of me and planted it in the center of the platform, taking it as my partner as I moved in the first rhythm of a 5Rhythms wave—Flowing. I looped around it, keeping this axis, this earth center—changing it from hand to hand, passing under it, turning around, dipping and rising—moving in edgeless circles. My favorites of Prince’s songs were my internal soundtrack as the rest of the wave unfolded; and I passed quickly through Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness before returning to the retreat center for the afternoon’s program.
I was sleepy for much of the first and second days. Although I suspected that it would pass, I asked myself, “Why did I do this? Why did I come here? What was I thinking?” I had a lot of pain in my body, especially the hips, knees and a long-afflicted right shoulder blade. Despite the pain, I noticed that on the first day, a beautiful silver sky slipped into the room in the afternoon, as we passed the rest of the day alternating between sitting and walking meditation.
We ate our meals in the silence in the shrine room, too. We learned an elaborate ritual to move our cushions from the six organized rows facing the front altar into small eating groups of four or five; and each of us played our role in gathering the small oryoki tables, printed chant sheets and wet cloths to wipe our little wooden tables before and after the meal. The Meal Elder would indicate when it was time for each group to rise and approach the buffet table, where we gathered food using one bowl only. Walking back to our cushions and our little meal groups we held the full bowl aloft in front of us in a gesture of gratitude and acknowledgement. Eating this way was at times awkward. Sometimes the cooks gave us food that was really difficult to eat without a table, a knife and an extra plate, but I figured out how to make it work—for example declining to eat both salad and soup in one bowl.
I wasn’t always sure what to do with my gaze. I didn’t want to shift and move around too much, but sometimes I had a hard time staying still. Although it was tiring and awkward to eat this way, I appreciated the continuity of practice, and enjoyed the patient attention to the flavors, textures, temperatures and energies of the food—sometimes I was even delighted, my face opening, eyebrows rising, and spine straightening with happy attention.
We were also instructed to take only what we knew we would eat, and to leave nothing in the bowl. I found that it was tricky to take exactly the right amount, and that I took way too much for the first two meals. Since sitting was physically grueling, I felt like I should make sure to eat enough. I had to remind myself intellectually that sitting isn’t the kind of physically grueling that actually requires extra calories!
As I settled into the retreat, I enjoyed the quiet conversation with my body, including my stomach. I noticed the first pangs of hunger; I noticed the workings of digestion; and I once noticed my early morning tea gurgle as I lay down on the floor to release my back, then turned onto my side.
On the morning of the second day, the teacher dismissed us for a thirty-minute period of morning exercise. She explained that we could either silently join the slow outdoor walk, the vigorous outdoor walk, or undertake a personal practice in the shrine room. I would have joined the vigorous walk, but I was in a full skirt—not suitable gear for the tick-infested woods. Instead, I stayed in the shrine room and danced a 5Rhythms wave. There were three or four others in the shrine room, too, all engaged in still, quiet movements—perhaps yoga or chi gong or tai chi. I didn’t want to be too obtrusive so I tried to take it easy. I sought a section of the polished wood floor that had no creaks—a quality I had already investigated at length during walking meditation.
On the floor, entering into Flowing, I found energetic movement right away—curling and twisting, one part of me always attached firmly down, much like the stick I had danced with on the wooden platform the day before, moving in great circles, stepping far behind and around myself, turning under my arms and shoulders, casting back up beginning with the momentum of rising from hands and knees as it stretched up into my heels. In Staccato, I presented, oriented toward the front altar, exhaling sharply, landing deep in the knees and hips, sharply engaged in the arms, shoulders and elbows—movement coming more and more quickly until it opened into Chaos. In Chaos, I felt slightly self-conscious, but let go nonetheless, to the extent that I could, letting my head and neck be free, letting every part of me loosen, with few edges at this time, staying in Chaos only briefly (as I self-consciously wondered when the walkers would be re-entering the shrine room). Despite the brief period of Chaos, Lyrical broke through completely, and I used every bit of my imaginary square of shrine room floor in leaping and bounding, delighting in extension and lift, cadence and breath. Stillness came easily—the most natural rhythm in this beautifully quiet room, and I gently pushed the currents of air and let the currents of air push me, expressed through the arms and hands and in long, low, tracked gestures.
The teacher offered clean, simple, straightforward meditation instructions—in keeping with the tradition of datün, which are long meditation retreats characterized by intensive practice. We were told to settle into a comfortable posture, to place our softened gaze 5-8 feet in front of us, and to keep our attention on the physical feeling of the body breathing. The thematic teaching—and what we are likely to notice when we do this kind of practice—was about Basic Goodness, the idea that we are fundamentally correct, good, and wholesome, despite the obscurations we distract ourselves with. I welcomed this beloved teaching, the foundation of everything in this tradition, though I continued to feel exhausted.
In the afternoon on the second day, still draggingly tired, I had to leave the land for an unavoidable errand. I asked the retreat coordinator where I might find a pharmacy nearby, and he offered only vague directions. I wished for more specifics, but figured I would just put “pharmacy” into the phone’s GPS and hope for the best. Unfortunately, I had not charged the phone. I climbed into the car and attached the car charger, which makes spotty contact with the terminal at best, and realized that I would have to wing it. I became angry and irritated, yelling loudly at the phone once I was alone inside the car. Within moments, I remembered that I had navigated countries where I don’t speak the language and know nothing of the geography before GPS was ever an option. I settled down immediately, found a pharmacy without incident, got what I needed, and returned as quickly as possible. Still impossibly tired, I went on a short hike on a trail that originated near the graveled lower parking lot. Coming around a bend, I was surprised by two gigantic turkeys who seemed like little dinosaurs in the early spring woods.
To my surprise and despite the fact that I did not have a nap, my energy soared that afternoon. The world became bright and precise. Instead of holding my gaze just five to eight feet in front of me and returning my attention repeatedly to the feeling of my body breathing (in accordance with the instructions for this retreat), I lifted my gaze, softly and laterally expanded, taking in the space of the room and sensing the vast sky above.
The teacher gave a two-word phrase to use as a contemplation, a practice of repeating a word or phrase internally until the phrase falls away and the underlying meaning is revealed. After the contemplation practice, one woman shared that although she had been exposed to contemplation practices for many years, she really didn’t “get it”. It didn’t seem to work for her. I nodded, connecting her comments to how I feel about working with body shapes in the rhythm of Stillness in 5Rhythms. The teacher wondered if it might in part be that the phrase she chose wasn’t sitting right, and invited the woman to come up with a different phrase related to Basic Goodness for the group to contemplate in a future session.
I snuck out to the parking lot before the final session of the day to call my parents and my six-year-old son, Simon. I nervously explained to my mother that I had very bad phone reception and that if there was any emergency, she would have to call the pager of the on-duty staff member. My mother handed the phone to Simon. “Hi, Simon! How are you, little one?” “Hi, Mommy. I’m good. How’s it going at the meditation place?” He is as tall as my collarbone now and growing fast, but as he spoke he sounded like a tiny little kid, his voice adorable and expressive.
I was blessed to have a little room all to myself, owing to an occasionally noisy style of nighttime breathing. I moved fully into it on the first day, discovering that it had exactly the right number of hangers for my garments. The room also had a comfortable double bed, a night table, an open closet, one straight chair, a small bureau and one low window. I had created a personal altar on the bureau, mostly with items I brought from home; and I lit it a small beeswax candle to invigorate it. Then, I settled deep into the soft, billowing pillow and fell asleep immediately, deeply.
In retrospect, the third day of the seven-day retreat was the high point for me. Again, I danced a wave in the shrine room during the morning exercise period. This time, I realized that I didn’t have to be reticent, that I could fully express my dance, then offer it to the space, to the protectors, to my fellow practitioners. In this tradition (as in many Buddhist traditions), there is an often-employed practice called the Dedication of Merit, when we formally offer up whatever benefit we have accumulated through practice; and I ended each session in the shrine room with the silent recitation of the Dedication of Merit chant, my hands facing out, radiating, as Stillness concluded and the wave dissolved.
That morning, I sat while the world lightened and energetic form got vivid. I cried and cried, having visions of both Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhythms practice, and of the founder of the lineage I was now immersed in. I felt very called to the dancing path, and also called to the Vajrayana Buddhist path. Gabrielle gathered me inside her raven’s feathers—somehow I both faced her and looked out—regarding the retreat center from above and soon, too, regarding the big view of the wider world. Again, tears poured out of me. Every time I got up when the bell rang for walking meditation I noted the puddle of tears on my cushion.
I met with the teacher that morning. During our meeting, I was emotional, telling her that I felt called to the Vajrayana path, but had no idea how to make space in my life for it, how to find a teacher, how to begin. I also shared that I was afraid of being struck down. Vajrayana practice is considered very dangerous. As big as its payoff, too is its risk. With a small child at home, how could I justify it? Going to the edge of crazy might not work for me right now, though I crave it.
In response to her questions, I explained, too, the particulars of my practice during the retreat so far. In terms of paying attention to the body breathing, I shared that I had been very internal—not keying in to a specific place of feeling the breath, but, rather, feeling it globally, behind the sternum, behind the lungs, in front of the spine, in the upper back, even feeling the rush of oxygen in the blood in all parts of my body, for example in the feet.
As I got more attentive, minute observations presented. When the shrine room grew cold, I noticed the planes of my body that got cold first, and noticed the process of my core temperature falling until I reached the point of feeling cold and needing to adjust my clothing. In walking meditation, I noticed the brief sunny patches on the floor and how my bare feet craved them and hesitated to move back into the dominant dark and cold sections of floor. After holding my hands in the mudra prescribed for walking meditation, I unclasped them to let them release. The little bit of sweat that had gathered in my palms turned my hands slowly cold as the chilly air touched the sweat. Walking in a patient clockwise circle around the shrine room with my fellow practitioners, I lingered in the patches of sun, noting the orange blood I could see through my closed eyelids.
There have been many times that I have craved what I might call “shamanic” experience, and that I have craved opportunities to discuss shamanic aspects of practice with others. The Zero Zone series seemed set up to encourage this kind of space, but ironically, it was an emphasis on this very humble, direct contact with the tangible world and with the physical senses, as I found in the first few days of retreat, that felt like just what I needed.
After lunch, I had the absolute best nap of my entire life. I fell asleep instantly, drooled on the pillow, and woke up bright.
In the afternoon, the teacher brought up the subject of fears. She asked us to share what we are afraid of. The responses were very affecting. One woman shared that although so many people seemed to crave open-heartedness, to her, open-heartedness didn’t feel good. She hadn’t realized she actually had a heart until a short time before. In fact, it hurt to let her heart open. Another woman said something about how she had to find a way to consider opening up and loving again after trauma. I connected with what she said and raised my hand to share, too. In a way, I wanted to push myself, to be brave, to go to my edge. I did share a deep fear with the group, but immediately after was plagued with my unskillfulness. I wondered with horror if the woman who spoke before me was really saying that she had lost her child—a comment that should never, ever be followed by someone else’s lament. I felt like a total asshole.
I thought about this at length. I thought about saying something by way of apology when the whole group was convened. Since it was really about not being an asshole and not seeming like an asshole wasn’t as important, the next day I wrote the woman a private note that I paraphrase here:
“I am very sorry that I spoke after you in our discussion yesterday. Reflecting later, I wondered if you were trying to say that you actually lost a child. That is a remark that should never be followed. I was so eager to “be brave” and share one of my fears that I neglected to see what was happening in the moment.”
We were observing functional silence, when you only exchange perfunctory words, but I handed my note to her with a little bow.
Later that day, she handed me a note in response. Sadly, this note was in my washing-machine-bound pants, but I do remember that its substance was very kind. I also felt relieved to learn that she hadn’t lost her own child. She did, however, lose a child she worked very closely with and loved like her own.
On the fourth day I was charged with serving food for the group—a task that rotated amongst all participants. This sucked. The head server, who had done the job before, seemed very rushed and anxious to quickly complete the job well. Since we were observing functional silence, I couldn’t speak much with her, otherwise I would have asked if it would be ok if we slowed down. If it really mattered if we served lunch 5 or 10 minutes later. I really didn’t like being bossed around, either. And I felt mad at the tradition that set it up so somebody could boss and somebody else had to be bossed around. Precedents in my life came to mind.
I knew I would fuck up dinner and I did. It was almost like I had to get triggered. It was a garlic bread fiasco. I can’t! You just have to trust me. Enough said, right? It made me angry, but there was no one to blame but me. Once I fucked everything up, I was finally able to relax a little. Even to enjoy being one of the people who had the honor of offering the food.
During this final meal I helped to serve, one participant requested gluten free bread (instead of the problematic garlic bread). I had considered bringing it along when we were gathering food in the main dining area of the retreat center, but the head server had tried to make things easier for me, saying, “Forget it. I don’t think anyone is eating gluten free.” After it was requested during the serving of the meal, I decided to go back and get the gluten free bread. By then, I was really feeling bad. I had to hurry to fill my own bowl so I wouldn’t keep the entire room waiting to eat. The head server said, “Just so you know, now they don’t have any gluten free bread in the main dining hall.” I was exasperated and replied, “Ok, thanks.” Feeling defensive and ashamed, I still made sure to gather two pieces of gluten free bread on my way to my dining group.
I intended to give the bread to the person who had asked for it, but as I stood up in the small group, I slipped on the mat for the meditation cushion, nearly spilling the soup from my one-bowl-meal bowl—which would have been an embarrassing disaster. I sat back down, petulant, irritated. “Great. Now I have to eat this yucky, gluten free bread,” I thought. Once the meal got underway, I took a chance and stood up again in the quiet and still room, and walked to an adjacent meal group, trying to ignore the fact that the whole room was conscious of my movement. I smiled with my head lowered and offered the gluten free bread to the person who had asked for it. She whispered, “Oh, you are so sweet!” I returned to my group and finished my food, thankful that I didn’t have to eat the gluten free bread myself, and very grateful when the meal was finally completed.
After the meal was cleared away, I apologized to the head server for the garlic bread oversight. “What, you’re not perfect?” she said, smiling. Her tolerance and kindness at this point helped loosen me up; and I was grateful for it.
Very early the next morning, at the invitation of the retreat coordinator, I joined a birding walk. Again, as a group, we had agreed to observe functional silence—so I was bound to speak only if necessary and to avoid chit-chat or small talk. The coordinator told us about the red-winged blackbirds that had put down stakes near the center’s tiny pond; and he set up a spotting scope so we could observe one (particularly vocal) bird. Peeking through the scope, delight overtook me. I kept my silence but looked up to meet the others’ eyes, lit up. The little bird was in the middle of a sentence when I looked in on him, his beak open in an emphatic expression of his personal truth. Not only was he minutely amplified, but the powerful lens refracted light into the image, and the background circular frame around him seemed to glow white. As the walk progressed, I learned that as much as “birding” was about bird watching, it was also about bird listening; and the space of the forest became stereoscopic as we keyed in to the calls of birds, located at different angles and heights all around us.
After our adventure, we gathered, as always, in two lines outside the shrine room while an assistant teacher went through an elaborate gong-ringing procedure, in part to call us to task. We flowed through the routines we had established, beginning with a period of morning chants, then sitting and walking meditation, then a morning exercise period (during which I would dance a 5Rhythms wave), silent breakfast, a brief break, sitting and walking meditation until afternoon, silent lunch, a break (during which I usually took a brief nap and then a had a brisk walk/run/climb in the woods), sitting and walking meditation, perhaps a brief teacher’s talk, a brief period of stretching and exercise, more sitting and walking meditation, afternoon chants, silent dinner, a brief break, more sitting and walking meditation, evening chants, and finally, bed.
The next day, the teacher stopped me in the hall near the dining room. “I have a question for you,” she said, smiling warmly. I thought she had an inspiring story, perhaps a request uttered in confidence. As it was, she pulled me into the dining hall and said, “I have been wanting to talk with you. I’m wondering if you would want to have a session with the teacher who practices Alexander Technique.” I said, “And this is because…you think I have a problem with posture?” “Yes,” she replied, “I’ve thought so from the first day, since I first sat behind you.” I thought I had been sitting beautifully, and it took me by surprise. It made me feel slightly defensive, but I tried to talk myself out of it, and said, “Well, I’m open. In the past when someone tried to tinker with my posture it really didn’t go well. It really messed me up, actually. But I’m open. Sure. Thanks for thinking of me.” She told me to meet the teacher after dinner in one of the smaller meditation rooms. She ended with, “She’s our best shot!”
I took this with me into the afternoon’s practice. After so much discussion of Natural Confidence and Basic Goodness—and emphasizing the fact that however we feel, however we are, is fine, nothing needs to change—I had a hard time with feeling like something did need to be changed about me, even something so clearly impersonal. Coincidentally, before the discussion with my teacher, I had been thinking of something 5Rhythms teacher Tammy Burstein has said many times at the beginning of a workshop. “We are not broken; and we don’t need to be fixed.”
I know it wasn’t anyone else’s intention, but in sitting that afternoon I let the emotion that got rubbed get full-blown triggered. Suddenly, I did feel like there was something that needed to be fixed. Something that was not ok about me—even though it was just this small question of posture. I have been wondering for years why this one hateful voice that occasionally plagues my inner dialogue—a voice of self-hatred that becomes extreme at times—has never really presented during practice. For years, I thought it was because practice took me to a place that was more spacious and where the small hateful voice seemed less important.
In the past several months, since I made a shift into the energetic field of Lyrical, I have realized that it is time to let go of the stories that hold me back. This includes not only the negative or painful stories, but also the seemingly “positive” counterstories. I sort of assumed this would mean that I would just shed these outworn skins and step fully into the big arena of the absolute. Not so. Instead what has happened is that experimenting with letting go of even my counterstories has unleashed some of the painful stories that I have spent years trying to manage. And there it was! This voice of self-hate reared its head. I had been waiting for it. I welcomed it—even coaxed it. What it feels like to think I am completely NOT ok. Ill-ease, constraint, despair. It all rose up. I heard the voice of one person in particular that I have internalized as my own voice of self-hate, again and again.
In the quiet, still, bright room I found myself sobbing. It started off slowly at first, then grew and grew. For a long period of sitting, tears poured out and my chest heaved with ragged sobs. When the bell rang to switch from sitting to walking meditation, the woman who had been the head server the day before walked over to me, whispering softly, “Are you ok?” I held onto her neck and cried and cried. Another woman brought me several tissues and bowed graciously as she handed them to me. The tears dissolved before long and I flowed around the room in the circle of practitioners in walking meditation.
At the end of the afternoon session, the teacher who practices Alexander Technique asked if I wanted to meet before dinner. I said, “I need to talk with you, please.” I watched while the others exited, hoping to speak with her privately. “I am so grateful for your willingness. No doubt the offer of a session with you is very valuable! But I am just not receptive at this time.” “Oh, I thought…OK, that’s no problem.” She started to move away, but I needed to say a little more. “The thing is that in this environment of Basic Goodness and Natural Confidence I have really let myself go there. Then, when the teacher said she thought there was something wrong with my posture, well, I got really triggered, like there really was something fundamentally wrong with me. Of course, it has nothing to do with what was intended, this is me, something coming from me. I am grateful I was able to be so triggered. I sobbed at length today, letting it arise. But I’m just not in a place to be receptive to being adjusted right now.”
I had a meeting with the head teacher the next day. At that point, she did share that I seemed to settle down after the first couple of days and to sit much more comfortably. I said, “Yes. I think I just needed a chance to work with my body. This (I put my hands on my cross-legged body, on my legs, my torso, my arms) this is all that I really know for sure. The only thing I am really an expert on. The only thing I am really an expert on.” One dignified sob rode a big exhale out and filled the space between us for a moment.
After a brief, glorious nap on the last day, I decided to hike the longest trail on the property. I entered the woods through the lower parking lot, again encountering the giant turkeys. I passed a fellow practitioner in the woods who was walking the trail in the other direction. “How long did this walk take you?” I asked. “About an hour and a half.” I had just an hour and a quarter before the afternoon session, but I pressed on. “I will just have to run part of it!” I said. However, the trail kept going up and up, and running seemed impossible. My phone (and therefore my means of timekeeping) had run out of battery, and I had no idea what time it was. The trail seemed to go on and on, but I thought it was too late to turn back. Though I moved at a strong pace, I decided that I might as well enjoy myself. Emerging on a sharp ridge, I took a seat on a rock perched at the edge of a cliff that was higher than the pine trees beneath it. A gliding raven passed just beneath me. Hills covered with pines and still-leafless trees stretched for miles. Continuing the hike, I ascended and descended again and again, moving in and out of dark stands of trees and sweeping vistas.
Returning, I was late. I didn’t even change out of my outdoor clothes before going to the shrine room. I waited outside the door until the gatekeeper thought it would be a good time to enter. Walking in, the teacher surprised me by addressing me directly, saying she had put a sweater of mine on a railing, just in case I was looking for it. I was taken aback, suddenly the formal and still shrine room felt very informal. I thanked her and apologized for arriving late, explaining that I hadn’t fully realized how long the trail would take. Many nodded and said they had experienced the same thing. They finished the discussion they had been engaged in. They had done a contemplation practice, using a phrase selected by the woman who didn’t “get” contemplations. I only caught the tail end, but I loved her willingness. I never had a chance to ask her if she was any better able to connect with contemplations afterward.
As happens, the end seemed to taper on for ages, then to come suddenly. I left feeling like I had a lot to sift through, and both disheartened and inspired at once. Since I was slightly sore after so many hours of sitting, I was able to organize a massage with a local provider. She was kind and patient, and seemed to be working as much on an energetic level as on a physical one. At the end, she remarked, “I really enjoyed this. You seemed like you could really receive my work. I felt like I was working with clay, in a way. I think it will affect my approach moving forward.” This was a beautiful compliment, and I happily received it.
Very much at ease physically after the massage, I took the drive back to my parents’ house slowly, crying loudly off and on. I was blessed by many insights and made many connections amongst different strands of my experiences.
That evening, gathering together with family to leave for a big, loud meal at a popular seafood restaurant, Simon said, “Mommy, look at me!” He sat on the top step at my parents’ house, cross-legged, and squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m meditating!” “Wow! Simon! You sure are! What do you do when you meditate?” I asked. He smiled with abundant charm, blinked, looked me in the eye, and said, “I notice things!” then rushed off to play something else before it was time to go.
May 18, 2016, 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.
When Jilsarah Moscowitz taught the first Sweat Your Prayers class of the spring season two years ago, for the first time ever I considered the possibility that I might secretly have a lyrical nature.* This came as a great surprise since from the very beginning of my 5Rhythms path, Lyrical had always seemed incomprehensible and inaccessible, except in tiny, occasional glimpses. Today, the first day of spring, Jilsarah again taught the Sunday Sweat Your Prayers class; and I was again granted wings, though my lyrical side is, by now, no longer a deeply buried secret.
Every day walking in to work, I take a few moments to gaze at the living sky before stepping inside the dark building. This week, a tidal wave of afflictive material has arisen there, but I have been able to act skillfully inside of it—noting and feeling strong emotions, but somehow (this time) being able to hold them inside of a much larger experience of space.
The event’s producer had written a quote by Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhythms practice, on a small dry erase board posted on the check-in table. It said, “Ride the energy of your own unique spirit.” This, at first, struck me as a quote in the spirit of the rhythm of Lyrical, but as I looked more closely, I realized she had written the whole quote in blue, except the one word “spirit,” which was written in green. “Ride the energy of your own unique spirit.” This, for me, moved it over the threshold of Lyrical into lyrical Stillness. These nuances and interstices have fascinated me lately; and I was grateful for this first contemplation of the morning.
Before entering the studio, I chatted with a friend who has been practicing for many years. One thing that came up is that 5Rhythms has the ability to hold absolutely everything. He shared that a 5Rhythms teacher from out of town had once used the hands as the means to enter into Flowing—an unusual choice, as Flowing is usually associated with the feet. I shared that lately I have been noting an emphasis on simplicity, as though it were preferential to complexity. I also shared that in my opinion, the practice holds both equally. Complexity, along with simplicity, seems to exist equally in the vast, dynamic emptiness that gives rise to everything.
One of the first to step into the light-filled room, I made a motion to place my water bottle on the window ledge. As I turned, its weight carried me in a gently extended curve. Instead of putting it down, I took it as my partner, passing it from hand to hand, looping it down, up, around me, in big circles and tiny arcs. I closed my eyes since there were few people on the floor yet; and I didn’t want to know if anyone was watching me in this elaborate web of weighted circles. My spine circled, too, along with every part of me, casting down, raising up, turning and twisting at once. During this dance, the water in the water bottle never sloshed, but instead moved in harmony with the momentum of these layered gestures.
The music changed and I found the floor, stretching and moving in arcing circles with one part of me firmly attached, always, to the floor. The music changed again and I moved with circles and pauses in still Flowing.
Before long, the room started to come to life, and I danced through the studio, looking for empty spaces and allowing myself to be pulled briefly into gestures and energies until I was beckoned by a new open space or a new focal point or a new exchange. During this part of the class, I made a conscious choice to see everyone in the room, sometimes looking at a fellow dancer and repeating the adapted Thich Nhat Hahn phrase, “I see you there; and I am grateful for it.”
Jilsarah moved us gently into Staccato with a classic reggae song; and I immediately stepped into partnership with a woman I have never shared a dance with before. Before long, we settled into the jaunty, uprising rhythm, carried along on it and adding our own cheerful flourishes. A man I like to dance with came and invited me to partnership, but I continued to gaze, smiling, into the eyes of my partner, making space for him, too, but staying with her right through the end of the song. I was grateful for the opportunity to experience this scenario, as I have occasionally felt irritated when I have been sharing a dance with a woman and she has abandoned me the moment an attractive man has come into her field.
Someone who has triggered wildly afflictive emotions in me for many years stepped into the room. I noted the emotions that arose and held it all in the vast, tender space of love, silently welcoming this person and physically moving to embrace her.
A Sweat Your Prayers class is, by definition, minimally instructed, and Jilsarah had the lightest of light touches. The only thing I really remember her saying was something like, “As an individual, in partnership, and with the whole community.” Quoting Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhthyms practice, she said, “There is only one of us here.”
Jilsarah did not offer any instructions about whether or not to partner, but I rolled and spun from one partnership to the next, equally receptive to nearly every person. In Lyrical in the first wave, I danced in delighted partnership with a good friend. Another, equally delighted, partnership cropped up beside us. I circled them and we became four. Beaming, bounding, spinning with this small group, I attended to everyone around me also, weaving others into the small group.
I love being in a small, tight-knit group of three or four or five when we are weaving in and out of each other like a matrix; but I am also sensitive to including people. I don’t want anyone to feel left out; and though it is not fully in my control, I try to keep the boundary porous. Even when I am in partnership with just one person, I often connect in a tiny series of gestures with a nearby dancer, then return to the partner I am primarily engaged with.
At several points I looked around the room, taking in an infinite range of beautiful dances and partnerships. Seeing, tears welled up and poured out gently, for just a few gestures, then shifted again.
In the second wave, I found a surprising undercurrent of Stillness in the Staccato part of the wave. Something similar happened to me recently in Chaos, when everything seemed to go into slow motion and get kind of goo-ey. A few moments after I noticed this novel (for me) kind of energy, a friend who I love to dance with stepped into me, remarkably in a very similar field. We moved together in what (for me) was a kind of still Staccato, then into a more full expression of Staccato—a place I love to meet him. Later, he shared that he had noticed from across the room that he and I were in the same kind of energetic space and had come immediately toward me. He must have realized before I did, because it had just entered my consciousness when he appeared—sweeping toward me almost magically.
I was given a teaching that I call “Passing Through Practice” many years ago. When in a very porous and receptive state, it is possible to move gently through everyone who is open to it around me, and to let them move through me. Today, this very tender practice within the practice was available during much of the class.
I found myself rocking at the end of the second wave, and recalled my earliest experiences of perfect love. My father would hold me while he rocked me in a wooden rocking chair and would sing lullabyes in the tenderest voice imaginable. Tears again rolled down my cheeks.
As the music ended, Jilsarah very softly invited us to find a formation that would allow us to acknowledge ourselves as a community. We moved toward a circle, all at different paces. Jilsarah added, “Let’s allow those who are not in the circle to stay in their authentic place.” We held the circle for just a moment, then followed Jilsarah’s gesture when she raised her hands to the sky, shaking them in a happy pulse and smiling, then letting it all go.
March 20, 2016, 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.
*Although most posts to this blog are written for a general audience, this post assumes significant prior knowledge of 5Rhythms practice and language. The five rhythms of 5Rhythms practice are Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness. To talk about a “lyrical nature” is to talk about a nature that has similar qualities to the rhythm of Lyrical—perhaps joyful, light, heartful, participatory and knowing.
The days leading up to the 2016 Word Dance workshop were exceptionally delightful. I went on something of a walkabout with my now-six-year-old son, Simon. He is in a lovely phase at the moment—cooperative, funny, insightful and affectionate—and I thoroughly enjoyed our time together, making a big loop to visit friends from Brooklyn to Tarrytown to Newburgh to Kingston, north to Burlington, Vermont, and then to my parents’ in Northern Connecticut. My parents had agreed to look after Simon Friday afternoon and Saturday while I was at the Word Dance workshop, then bring him back to Brooklyn Saturday night. While I was waiting for my mother to arrive to care for Simon so I could leave, I looked online to see if I had any outstanding parking tickets. I found several, including a “Bus Lane Violation”—something I had never heard of—for 115 dollars. My humor darkened. Simon said lightly, “Well, that’s how it is, Mommy. If you break the rules you have to take the consequences.” I had to admit that he was right, though I continued to feel disempowered and irresponsible.
Because I did not plan properly, there was a mix up about times. I did not set out until 4pm for a journey that typically takes over three hours. In this case, it took four hours. As it was, I did not arrive until 8pm at Paul Taylor Studio on Grand Street in Lower Manhattan, though Friday’s initial session of the Word Dance workshop had begun at 6pm.
In the car, I turned on myself, becoming extreme in my thinking. It started because I was angry with myself for not taking my own needs seriously and for not planning properly; and the trajectory continued to gather steam. Recalling it now, I can’t understand what all that suffering was all about. At the time, though, it just felt like misery.
February 19-21, the dates of the recent NYC Word Dance workshop, had been marked on my calendar for many months. The Word Dance workshop that was held in Brooklyn in 2014 by Jewel Mathieson—poet celebrated and beloved by Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhythms practice—was very moving for me. This time, she was joined by Amber Ryan, another teacher who I hold in high regard.
(Note: To read what I wrote about the 2104 Word Dance workshop, visit http://wp.me/p4cEKe-N)
I stepped into the spacious studio long after dark. The room was lit by ropes of white lights tucked into the edges between the walls and floor, and by dimmed, ambient floods. Despite my late arrival, I paused to bow patiently as I stepped into the charged space of the room. The music indicated the rhythm of Stillness, but I found energetic movement, letting myself out of the gate, perhaps, after such a long press toward arrival. I continued to explore a dance that first arose at Paul Taylor studio during a previous workshop—on the floor, radial, turning in all directions with some part of me pinned down, often as my limbs marked a big circle around me. In addition, on my hands and spinning on one knee, I stepped my free foot as far as possible across behind me, taking me into yet another stretching and spinning circle.
The formal moving ended shortly, and we assembled in a semi circle. Arriving late, I still hadn’t entered fully into the construct of the workshop. Jewel performed her signature poem “We Have Come To Be Danced,” a primal, visceral rallying cry to the ragged depths of spirit. Then, a dancer named Nilaya came to the center of the floor to perform while Jewel read a selected poem. Nilaya moved with great energy. Even her facial expressions responded to Jewel’s words; and I admired her abandon. Nilaya was beautiful, undoubtedly, but I couldn’t understand why her dancing was a performance, and the rest of us dancing was just…well…dancing. Is she a “better” dancer than me? Than the others in attendance? Is she some kind of professional? If 5Rhythms isn’t about being a “good” dancer, then how could I make sense of this?
Soon, we were also invited to select one of Jewel’s poems from a bowl, then to move to it as Jewel read. For the last piece, having to do with Jewel’s experience of motherhood, Jewel invited all of the mothers in attendance to join Amber, who had selected the poem. I hesitated, perhaps wanting to remain in doubt, but let go of my questions and stepped forward, along with several others, moving quickly into Chaos. At the end, Jewel explained that she had had a dream of Nilaya “flying” to her words; and I let my questions dissolve. Sometimes I just have to respect the logic of dreams.
The session ended. Over the course of the weekend, I found myself wishing, again and again, that we had much more time. For example, in this case, I would have loved to dance a short wave to take in all I had witnessed and to let it out again.
I greeted Jewel and apologized profusely for arriving late. She generously complimented my work on this very blog. She couldn’t realize how much her kind words meant to me, as I have felt called recently to evaluate what, exactly, my intentions have been with this writing, and what, to the extent that I can know, this writing has meant in the world.
Because Simon was with my parents, I had plenty of time to linger. I offered to drive Jewel and Amber home since both were nearly on the way. Both teachers have given me considerable food for thought in the few years that I have known them—through public teachings, writings and conversation; and I felt blessed to have a few moments with them apart from the larger group.
In a conversation I had that night, I spoke of how much I love opportunities to express what comes up in 5Rhythms work as form—such as poetry, in this case. 5Rythms is so very ephemeral—necessarily so—as it leaves the ego little material to build with. But at the same time, there is so much form available! The person I was speaking with said, “Maybe sometimes it is OK to attach, if briefly, to let it find a form, to say, this is exactly who I am, right in this minute! This is me!” The world of pure energy, of total non-attachment beckons us, but the fact is that most of us are not pure energy. We are not Buddhas. We live mostly in the relative world, of red tape and emotional messes and mundane joys and pyrrhic victories and debt and defensiveness and tiny steps toward love.
As an artist, something I think about a lot is that when we make something external—when we give it a form—we can then respond to it. This now-externalized relationship to something previously only interior can be very fruitful. Creating form, especially in such close proximity to formal practice, runs the risk of ego-aggrandizement, but I wonder if we could see the forms we find as simply part of the spectacular arisings that comprise our humanity—the light show that is our life, the beautiful, dynamic display, arising from the primal everything.
I stayed up late reading and writing, and slept until the decadent hour of 9.30 AM—a rare treat. With plenty of time, I stepped out to get something to prepare for breakfast. Thinking I would light a candle and have a nice, long sit before I left the apartment, I suddenly realized it was 11AM; and that I was in danger of being late again! I collected myself quickly and headed to Paul Taylor Studio, arriving just five minutes before the noon start time.
I was one of the first to arrive on the dance floor, and took full advantage of all the space. First, I explored the perimeter. With my hands behind my head, I experimented with how I had to twist when I moved close to the wall to make space for my elbow. Further along the perimeter, I rubbed against the towering black velvet stage curtains, grounding myself in the pure sensation of the soft fabric on my skin—my exposed cheek and arm.
As others joined the dance floor, the wave carried me on top of it. First, I found the energetic, radial dance of the ground again. Before long, I was sailing around the room, enraptured, with the perfect amount of energy, no physical pain, and no self-abusive thoughts that persisted. I moved into empty space, making a conscious choice to see and feel everyone around me. I said internally, again and again, “I see you there, and I am grateful for it,” an adaptation from a practice taught by the Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh that I frequently employ.
People did not seem inclined to meet my eye as I moved around. I remembered that in the last Word Dance, too, it had seemed that people were less inclined to partner than usual. I wondered if this might be, in part, because we were more focused on the words taking shape in our minds than on our interactions. People seemed to keep getting seized by inspiration, then sitting down to write, then returning to dance. We were told to keep our books near the dance floor and that we could write at any time. Jewel also advised us to keep some part of our body in the dance, even when we were writing. At times, I wished for more partnership, but in this construct, dance was more like the warm-up—the deepest intimacy actually came later, in sharing our spoken words with each other.
I noted, as in the past workshop, that I was disinclined to leave the dance to write. You would think I would be thrilled about moving in and out of dance and writing, especially since they are so closely linked for me, but that wasn’t the case. In the Buddhist tradition I am trained in, we are taught to never pause meditation to write. If the words that come up during formal practice are important enough, they will always come back again after. During classes and workshops, I don’t write during the sessions. Often I make skeletal notes about what happened and what associations I had that evening or the next day, but the writing usually takes place 2-9 days after the events I describe.
Jewel and Amber gathered us for verbal teachings. Jewel requested that we offer something lasting “two seconds to two minutes.” She told us how Gabrielle used to have practitioners pick a word, then talk about it in front of the class—relating it to their personal experience—for two minutes. Noting the tenor of anxiety, Amber offered several preliminary practices to get us ready for this kind of sharing. Remarkably, I was nearly un-frightened, and instead felt eager and confident.
Although Jewel created the Word Dance construct and many people attended because they wanted to do the Word Dance work, it seemed that some of the participants had come because they had worked with Amber in the past and wanted to work with her again. Throughout the weekend, Amber endeavored quietly and diligently to support the work taking place in the room, both as the DJ and through selected exercises.
I hadn’t attended to writing at all during the opening wave on Saturday, but it was clear that some had already developed elaborate poems. I think I sort of misunderstood Jewel’s direction. It seemed like she was asking us to share a poem, but didn’t want to put too much pressure on us. Or to pick a word and talk about it? Like in the practice she had talked about with Gabrielle? I decided to work with two words I had randomly opened to in the dictionary, “radical” and “summons”. I was the fourth or fifth person to get up, and said, “My word is summons.” I paused, then said with quavering power, “At what point does the mandate of patience give way to the calling of destiny?”
The notes in my book that I had distilled this phrase from included, “patience balanced with wanting, drenched, moving toward.”
Remarkably, the phrase I offered planted the seed for what I would produce and share over the course of the weekend. This delights me, in retrospect, for some reason. I also notice that in some cases, conversations I’d shared with other practitioners came up in their writings; and I reflected on how very woven together we all are—bound in the fabric of our shared destiny—especially visible to us inside the beautiful construct of this workshop.
Tears swelled in me many times during the morning’s share. They are not mine to offer here and I must be discreet, but know that the stories, words and poems that came up were without exception compelling.
Jewel taught us many practices and writing tips over the course of the weekend. This barely scratches the surface of what she shared, but here is my own attempt to summarize her teachings and create a list of “Jewel’s Rules for Writing:”
- Always have your book available.
- Speak the words you are writing.
- Write from your heart.
- Dance before you write; and keep something moving even when you are writing.
- Find a gesture you can write from.
- Give your breath to whatever emotional field you are in.
(“The more emotion you give it, the more amplitude to carry it out!”)
- Don’t be satisfied with your first draft.
- Leave space on your page to add lines and edit.
- Don’t be afraid to be melodramatic.
- When you think you are lost, you are there.
After Saturday morning’s period of sharing words and receiving teachings, we took a break for lunch. I stayed in the studio, eating the lunch I had with me, then settling into a comfortable corner of the dance floor to write and reflect. A poem began to emerge, but I left it as soon as Amber started the music again, eagerly stepping into joyful movement, once again one of the first people to begin the wave.
Knowing that we would have another opportunity to share work, I complied when the wave concluded and everyone repaired to their chosen spot to write. This time, I wrote feverishly, pressing to get the words out even after we had been called on to begin the share.
Nearly every person stepped up to offer something; and the offerings were even more powerful this time, as themes and context for each person’s writing had by then begun to emerge. The practice of mindful listening is as important, if not more important, than what we offer when we stand up; and I worked hard to meet my responsibility of listening and seeing each person when it was their turn.
The energy and attention of the group grew and grew over the course of the weekend; and I felt a great surge when I stood up to offer my own poem—a notably dark exploration of my psyche and personal history.
(Note: you can read the poem at the end of this text.)
During a brief bathroom break, one practitioner took a moment to tell me that it was a shock to hear me speak. She said we had shared four or five workshops now; and this was the first time she had heard my voice. (That right there was interesting feedback! I can be such a know-it-all! I love to hear myself talk. I love the sound of my voice. Is it possible that something has shifted slightly?) She felt like there was a big difference between my speaking voice and how I seem on the dance floor. I said, “That is fascinating! I will have to contemplate that. Maybe there is some sort of a disjunction? What do you mean? Can you say more about that?” She said, “I don’t know how to say it. I guess I have to think about it a little!”
On Saturday evening I hadn’t lingered, as my parents were arriving with Simon. Because I left so quickly, I did not receive any feedback at all. That night I was unsure about what I had offered. Was it really skillful to take myself into such afflictive territory? Did I really want people who had never met me before to see me this way? Did I want to share this part of me with people who already knew and liked me? On Sunday, though, one woman went out of her way to acknowledge me during the first wave. She held tight to my hand, gazed into my eyes, and said “Goddess.” She thumped her hand over her heart and nodded. I was very moved by her gesture and by her insistence on communicating it. Others were kind enough to express their support over the course of the day. Though part of me understands that others’ approval must not be central to my need for expression, the support felt crucial to my process. Above all, I truly appreciated the non-rejection, even in the face of this ugly aspect of myself.
I danced Sunday morning’s wave with wild abandon. Still wishing for more partnership, I joined whoever might be receptive. I had given some thought to what I would share that afternoon, and had printed poems written during January and February of this year, along with one related poem from nearly twenty years ago. During the wave, I didn’t visit my writing book even once. Jewel explained that we would have one more chance to share something—from two seconds to two minutes of content—and that in this case we would be grouped with four other people, and would take turns enacting ritual theater gestures for each other’s pieces. Because I had attended the previous NYC Word Dance workshop, I was put forward as someone who could help explain the ritual theater work for our group, and I all-too-eagerly stepped into leadership.
I was not ready! I had no idea what to offer. I needed time! We were given the option to meet as a group and plan our skits before lunch, or to have lunch first, then gather with our groups to plan and rehearse. I argued for lunch first, and most of the group agreed and drifted off. One member of our group disagreed strongly. She very much wanted to meet first, then have lunch. I and one other group member offered to re-gather the group and rehearse her piece before breaking for lunch. Reluctantly, the offer was declined.
The woman who told me my voice surprised her paused me in the foyer and elaborated on her previous remark. “It is just like, in dance, you are so ready to hold your space.” She made a strong, closed fist gesture. “But in speaking, you are…well. You are, like, quiet. And thoughtful. It is like a totally different experience.”
On Sunday I had come prepared for long periods of sitting on the floor with a meditation cushion from home; and I posted myself up to review and prepare. I had several different options in mind, but finally settled on two poems—one from the distant past, and a related, new poem. I re-cast both several times, and timed and practiced my delivery for a few moments before internally declaring myself ready.
Our group had planned to work together from 3.00-3.30 in preparation for the presentations, which were to start at 3.30, but we didn’t succeed in gathering until 3.10. It was my idea to meet after lunch (mostly because I wasn’t ready), but I felt nervous when we were so slow to convene. I became staccato, urging us through the first two people’s rehearsals while watching the clock, fearing that I would be the one whose piece was neglected; and, too, fearing that we would all lose this chance to stand in our power and instead be fumbling on the “stage”. The member who wanted to meet before lunch pushed back hard, saying that she didn’t like to be rushed. I backed up but continued to watch the clock. When it was my turn to direct the other four, I recited, explaining the gestures I wanted them to take during key moments in my poems. Then, we moved quickly on to the next person. We were given an extra ten minutes of preparation time, and were able to prepare for each person’s piece. The group encouraged the slightly disgruntled person who had wanted to eat lunch after our rehearsal to set the presentation order, and we declared ourselves ready.
Amber and Jewel asked a few questions about the best way to set up for this final ritual, adjusting lights, music and audience placement. One member of our group who had been in the bathroom asked me where she was in our five-person lineup, and I quietly explained. The group member who had wanted to rehearse before lunch shushed me with an angry expression on her face, “Can you please be quiet so I can hear what she is saying?” I daggered her with my eyes, and allowed my mind to be briefly dragged into anger. Fortunately, the power of the room drew me back quickly, and though the sensation of anger lingered for a few moments, it did not hijack me.
At last, the first group rose and moved in front of the room’s biggest white wall while the rest of us sat at attention facing them. Again, each person’s offering was very moving. The room boomed with powerful words, raw presence, honesty, theatricality and intensity. The first group had practiced extensively and the transitions between each person’s piece were so seamless that it was almost like one integrated performance. I was moved to tears and even to jagged sobs again and again, my heart swelling up. I felt so close to everyone, and so deeply invested in each person’s process.
When it was our group’s turn, I did my best to support my group members and to stand in my own power. When it was my turn to step forward, I again felt the surge of power that comes from pushing myself past my comfort zone, and from stepping up in a room so saturated with presence and creative energy. My voice quivered a little, but I felt very comfortable with the spotlight, moving close to the audience. I said, “These are two poems in the key of Stillness. One written almost twenty years ago, another a recent fragment, with an image that has persisted again and again.”
My group members did not remember some of the gestures I had requested, but—at least from my perspective—it didn’t seem to matter that much. Though I was grateful to them, I was focused on the audience and nervous, so I barely noticed their part of the performance. As I finished and stepped back to support the last two pieces, my heart throbbed in my chest and adrenaline rushed into my legs. Within a minute or less, it passed, and I supported to the best of my ability, trying to remember the indicated gestures and intending to hold space with integrity.
Usually when each person in a big group shares an individual piece, the time begins to drag toward the end; but in this case, when we finished and everyone had presented, I looked around, wondering which group would go next, not realizing that we were already done. I was that captivated by the process and by the products people shared.
We moved very briefly, breaking the biggest rule of 5Rhythms by dancing and speaking at once, elated by the wave of creative work we had lived. Soon, we gathered into a final, seated closing circle. Jewel invited us to offer anything else that lingered. This final share featured few planned products, but many life stories, and many testimonials to the power of the 5Rhythms. Although wonderful friends sat on both sides of me, I didn’t even take in that they were there, as I was feeling totally part of the group, of the field of participation. I had sat down with some crumpled poems in hand, eager to speak my own words again, but realized that what was called for in the moment was a different way of witnessing, of knowing, of speaking. Thanks to the space created by Jewel and Amber, and to the teachings of Gabrielle Roth—who is my Buddha, the woman who opened the doors to everything—I was able to notice and to respond appropriately, gratefully.
“You listen me into speaking.” –Unknown Spectacular Human
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.
The un’s page of the dictionary surprised me.
It seems you can add “un” to just about anything
And come up with a legitimate word:
The mayor’s daughter,
I wanted so much to be bad, abject
(somehow I had tricked myself
into believing that was freedom,
affront to convention)
I piled on trauma
And added more trauma in trying to undo it
Fucking everyone around me
Secretly I craved love
But everything I did moved me
Further and further from it
More and more alcohol
More and more of everything
And soon, I moved in worlds more abject than I’d ever dreamed
Pierced, sharp, fierce,
I enjoyed a short reign as the queen of a small-city drug-addled rave scene,
Dancing more than I slept.
Flawed, damaged, broken
Afraid if I was gigantic it would cause harm.
I contained myself,
To the extent that I could
Patience has been an antidote to my defensiveness,
My flagrant temper, my hot ego, my edges.
Yes, patience has served me.
The beauty of quiet moments seeps in through all the cracks.
My now-dead teacher sought to turn us inside out,
Always asking us to dig deeper.
I have held myself back,
Afraid of me
Afraid that ego’s craving
Would cast me on treacherous rocks
At what point can I just unravel it back to clean
At what point, despite my many flaws,
Does the mandate of patience
Make way for the calling of destiny?
When do I cry out
I want it
I want it
I want it-
I want to be turned inside out
I want to stand in the full light of love
I want to be free
“100 Black Birds” (written sometime between 1997-2001, edited 2016)
Let me not flatten you out
For my own comfort, my love.
If you call yourself a morning person,
Then dance all night
I’ll not consider it defection.
An old pattern twitches in my mind,
Like birds pointed south.
I watch an airplane
As it threads through different layers of opacity
Moving from invisible to ghostly to clearly seen,
Then flickering again.
A hundred black birds
Swoop and arc as one
Their gesture, a huge trick kite.
I once saw their conductor,
A man with a huge swath of fabric
Dancing on the rooftop
A hungry ghost, an aching spector,
Directing the birds’ gestures.
I realize now that I dreamt him.
“Birds on a Foggy Morning” (2016-work in progress)
Leafless trees create a seamless arch over Eastern Parkway.
White fog weights heavily on top of them.
A flock of black birds circles in unison—
They are a group of little black shapes
When their bodies are flat to me,
And when they turn to complete the circle
Become thin black lines
And disappear into the flog,
Then re-appear as shapes,
Again and again.