Zero Zone & Basic Goodness Retreat
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.