I’m Praying with My Feet (& The Pernicious Scourge of Racism)

I wasn’t sure if would attend today’s Sweat Your Prayers class or if I would practice yoga closer to home instead.  When I learned that the class would be held at Martha Graham studio in the West Village, rather than at its usual home at the Joffrey, and that 5Rhythms teacher Ray Diaz would be leading, I decided to make the trek.  At the last Sunday Sweat Your Prayers class that Ray taught, I was thoroughly transported, windswept to different dimensions, and I was eager to see where class might lead me today.

Parking on Bethune Street right in front of the Westbeth Arts Building, where the Martha Graham studio is located, I briefly considered bringing in the laundry detergent that I would need later in the day, wondering if the strident cold might cause the detergent to freeze as it had the last time I attempted to use it.

There was a short delay with letting people enter the 11th floor dance studio, and it had the effect of pooling water behind a damn before a high water release.  One friend embraced me, picking me up off my feet and cracking my back enthusiastically as she shook me from side to side, her own pony tail bouncing animatedly.  Many ebullient conversations intersected and wove together in the foyer space while we waited for the door to open, inviting us into the studio.

When the door opened, we streamed inside, lodging our bags and backpacks on the wooden bench by the west wall.  I paused for a moment on the low floor before taking a breath and stepping up onto the much-beloved, forgiving, sprung dance floor.  Then I moved through an energetic ritual to help me arrive, closing it with a low bow and moving into the wide room.  I began to lightly drag my feet over the soft grey linoleum.  The dance floor at Martha Graham is a shaped like a large square, with no columns or impediments of any kind in the middle.  There are big industrial windows on the east and west sides, opening to a spacious vistas of New York City.

The big room was at maximum capacity; and I found a spot on the floor to luxuriate in circles, beginning to stretch and wind up.  A cherished friend who I had spent meaningful time with the previous day appeared upside down in the frame of my vision as I stretched, and as I shifted to one leg and began to right myself, she knelt down and curved herself around my back, embracing me and laughing delightedly.  I rubbed her forearm and her ankle, and made a sound like a contented baby, touching my cheek to her lower leg.  Before long, my attenuated circles, sometimes expressing the maximum plane of my prone body, led me to move through the room.

A friend who I had greeted excitedly in the foyer with a twittering, shimmy-stepping “I’m-so-happy you’re-here-and-I-will-get-to-dance-with-you” dance crossed my path and we began to move together in Flowing. For some time I continued to engage from the floor, though he was upright, curling and rising up onto the back of my head, or up into my raised heel, curving and arcing.  I have been exploring the limits of possibility with this friend for ten years now.  For the first many years, we joined most often in Chaos, following each other in the most erratic and creative of patterns, then bursting into an entirely new expression, wordlessly supporting and encouraging one another to be wholehearted, free and wild.  Today, for the first time ever, as I got to my feet, we joined in a soft version of Flowing, tiptoeing and placing our feet down with the utmost mindfulness as we crept in circles around each other.  Before long, we began to trust that we had paid significant homage to the ground, and let ourselves lift off, in a booming and articulate Staccato, with leaping, marching, lateral gestures, and expressive elbows and upper arms.  When the song shifted, he made a gesture like tipping a cup up to drink, and took his leave.

Noticing how much heat I had raised with the breath, I began to move throughout the space, joining with anyone who seemed open to it, testing out many different people’s movements for myself.  I joined two friends and, observing the character of their dance, began to roll forward from the shoulders, moving my upper body in an angular plane, then moved to bouncing and coiling from the knees, dipping them sideways like a skier working moguls on challenging terrain.

In Chaos I let loose, occasionally slowing to Still Chaos as I passed through different pockets in the room, often ferocious, delighting in many brief partnerships. I let myself find edges, sometimes even awkward, clipped resistance; sometimes expansive and swirling.  Occasionally, I would raise my rolling and released head to observe the room, breathing it in, this big energy, this surrender, this gorgeous, sweat-drenched ugliness that feeds me, that feeds the world.

In Lyrical I grazed my hands on the ground, sinking low, then glided and soared, sometimes slipping between the tiniest of openings between bodies, between knees, in the triangular spaces of curved elbows, above heads.

In Stillness I joined with three others, soft and porous.  I saw sky and clouds beyond the ceiling, then the four of us grew large, rising to the level of the clouds.  I let the bottoms of my feet go and soon we moved among the clouds.  Cloud forms coalesced as castles, as dragons, as pathways, my second grade teacher, my son’s second grade teacher, an image from a film–the ever-shifting display, form and its opposite, dispersing again as mist, returning to formless space, my body boundless, extending far beyond its tiny edges, overlapping with everything.

Ray called us together, and I softly thanked this little group before moving away, nuzzling them and kissing fingertips, touching our foreheads together.  On this day before the holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Ray rattled off his impressive bio.  “I came to this country in 1974,” he began.  “I’ve been earning six figures since I was 25 years old; and I’m in the 48% tax bracket…and yet I still come from a ‘shithole country.”  This phrase, as most are well aware by now, is a direct quote from the current president of the United States, who, in the context of an immigration policy meeting this week, described Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries.”

Two days before, I had been taken apart in a conversation about code switching by a person of color.  He challenged me to both act to end racism, and to be sure to act with precision and sensitivity.  He also challenged me to get past my own ego so I would be able to see more clearly.

On the note of letting go of my ego constructions—even the positive and productive constructions I have created for myself—I thought about an incident that took place during a meditation retreat I was staffing several years ago.  We were sitting on meditation cushions in a small group of perhaps ten people, engaged in a formal discussion.  We were talking about aversion—the Buddhist concept of pushing away what is unpleasant or uncomfortable.  In response to one of the comments about the aversive energetic shell humans create to keep ourselves safe, I said, “Well, you know.  It would be one thing if shutting down or pushing away actually worked to make us happier or keep us safe.  The thing is that it really doesn’t work.  If it did I would be all for it, but it doesn’t.”  I’m not exactly sure how it was framed, but I said something about, “It’s not like it’s the subway in the South Bronx at 2AM in the late 1980’s, when you might actually need a shell around you.”  A flash of raw anger shot around the circle; and every single person felt it before even a word was said.  One woman spoke up, expressing that she felt that what I said was racist.  Man, that hurt.  Shame of the most intense possible quality flooded me.  My heart started beating like crazy.  My partner of many years at the time was a black and latino man.  We had shared hundreds of hours in discussion about racism, ranging through many different levels.  Secretly, I had always been terrified that on some deep level I was actually a racist. Though I was afraid, I approached the woman during the next break and asked her to talk with me about her feelings.  She was very receptive; and after, I understood how she could see my comment as racist.  She also thanked me, saying that she was always calling people out for racist comments; and that I was the first person who had ever come and asked her to talk about it.

This terribly painful experience gave me great insight; and a rush of relief flooded me with another set of powerful chemicals.  I realized I had been afraid that there was some essential part of me that was racist.  Every other *essentialist part of my psyche had been rigorously interrogated, but this part remained hidden, obscured by shame and fear. I realized that just as there is no essential self; too, there is no essential racism.  As I currently understand it, racism is a process—one that affects every single person who lives in this culture.  Fundamentally, it is our flawed human tendency to separate the world into “us” and “them” that lays the foundation for racism, not an intrinsic hidden evil; though there is no denying the intensity and complexity of racism as it now functions.

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of this insight for my personal path.  Even my firmly-held idea that I was a not-racist was limiting my perception of phenomena, and, as such, needed to be interrogated, as much as any other part of me, in the interest of uncovering the deepest truth.

Since Donald Trump was elected, I have been forced to reckon with my naïve underestimation of the power of white privilege.

I looked around the room as Ray spoke, and although I can’t necessarily know how people identify just by looking, it was apparent that a very small percentage of the class participants were people of color.

Before last November, on some level I believed in the fundamental vision of this country, that eventually, incrementally, everything would shake out fairly.  I no longer hold that view.  In the past two weeks, I have heard a white male conservative pundit and a white male country music singer speak on white privilege, phenomena I found heartening, though still small steps on the national reckoning we must undertake.

Ray shared that he had done a workshop with a movement teacher during which the participants had examined many documents from the Civil Rights Era.  I thought of a historic photo of the lunch counter protests, of two activists seated at a lunch counter, totally surrounded by jeering white men, who were pouring food and drinks onto the heads of the protestors.  These images are not symbolic.  People were hurt and abused.  Some went to prison.  Some gave their lives.

In one of the photos Ray had examined with his teacher, there was a bearded white-seeming man who Ray had taken the time to research.  It turns out that the man was Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a devoted Jewish Civil Rights activist.  According to Ray, at one point, the Prime Minister of Israel asked Rabbi Heschel what he was doing, given the danger he was placing himself in.  “I’m praying with my feet,” was his response, and he continued to walk resolutely forward.

Ray used this an example to demonstrate that racism is a human problem, not just a matter for people of color.  Emotion rose through my throat, gasping upward in pockets of air.

The ebullience of the first wave gave way to subtle reverence, as Ray put on one of Dr. King’s famous speeches mixed with a dance track.  Erratic gasps arose now and I made no effort to hide my tears.  One woman who danced deep in her hips looked into my eyes, and it was not easy to return her gaze, as I felt raw and vulnerable.  I continued to move through the room, but felt more private, energetically overlapping but psychologically contained, coping with the grief, fear, profound sadness, anxiety and anger that coursed up through me from the ground, a boiling geyser.

Ray also played a song with lyrics about how the measure of a country is how its women and girls are treated, then a closing song with a plaintive call to action.

Gabrielle Roth, the mother of 5Rhythms, believed that movement could heal us both individually and collectively.  I think she would have approved of Rabbi Heschel’s explanation to the Israeli Prime Minister, “I’m praying with my feet.”  As we enter this new year, there can be no question about the need for all of us to step up for justice and fairness, beginning first with what’s inside, but not stopping there. Let us all take a lesson from Ray and from Rabbi Heschel.  Let us all pray with our feet!

*As you probably know, from the perspective of some Buddhist philosophy “essentialism” is the belief that there is a separate and definable “self” and too, implies that reality has some logical kind of coherence or definability. 

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