A bit of background
In a couple of other posts (this and this) I have described the general idea behind free conscious movement (or the group of somatic practices more popularly known as ‘ecstatic dance’, ‘conscious dance’, ‘dance awake’ and related modalities). From a philosophical and pedagogical point of view, however, the main problem posed by conscious movement is how to learn it. In a sense, conscious movement is our birthright. Nevertheless, like all rights, it needs to be conquered, cultivated, nurtured and developed.
I have three related intuitions. First, it’s very important to set ‘freedom’ as your ultimate goal. It doesn’t matter if you don’t (yet) know what that means. Just asking the question ('what is freedom, actually?') and pursuing it is an excellent starting point.
Second, you don’t get out of your mind by using your mind. Normally ‘the mind’ is a system of intentions and representations aimed at constructing experience, setting and achieving goals, and manipulating experience (what Spinoza would call ‘imagination’). As Heraclitus said (I paraphrase): “No matter what method you follow, you’ll never reach the borders of the mind, so deep is its nature [logos]” (Fragment B45). The mind is magic, seductive, sometimes helpful, but hardly willing to let you out. Most meditation techniques are designed to create specific mental states. That’s fine, and it can be helpful, but it doesn’t let you escape from the mental wonderland.
Hang on. Why would you want to get out at all? Because if you want to be free, you cannot be content to remain stuck in the world of mental representations. It is one thing to know how to enter the wonderland when necessary and leave it when no longer necessary (that is freedom). It is quite another not to know that there is an outside (and this is usually the case). So, you want to be able to get out if you want to be free. Hence the question: how do you get out? Only the body can help you.
The third intuition is that the body is not what you think it is. The body is not the object of some representation, nor the target of your attitude of manipulating it to achieve some goal (practical, aesthetic, social, whatever). As a working definition, I propose that the body is the intuitive experience of connection with the ground. It is not a representation, nor something aimed at achieving a goal. It is not an object of perception or feeling, but something that underlies all other perceptions and feelings. The body is being-in-a-field of gravity and experiencing this being in the field directly, immediately, intuitively. It’s as simple as experiencing the presence of a mass leaning somewhere, like feeling your weight leaning down, striving for the ground. This is only a minimal reference point, the basis upon which much more and much else can be constructed or discovered. But we need an easy reference point to get started.
Putting these three intuitions together, we can imagine a somatic (rather than mental) method of meditation aimed precisely at fostering embodied freedom. This is the dynamic meditation I’ll be facilitating in the upcoming workshop. It is partly adapted from the Buddhist approach I developed in the Introduction to Friendliness, but in the context of a free conscious movement practice. The idea of applying Buddhist meditation tools to all aspects of life (and postures) is encouraged by the discourses themselves. The main inspiration I take from them is that one need not worry about reaching a state of freedom or liberation. The only concern should be to overcome the hindrances that prevent that state from arising of its own accord (remind this?). In a dynamic meditation class we look for those hindrances, we face them and we do our best to move past them. Sometimes we’ll miss them, sometimes we’ll fail, sometimes we’ll succeed. And try again. We’ll see.
If the goal is free conscious movement, then all hindrances to this should be understood as factors that somehow block the movement. Moreover, since all movement is always inherently relational (not only because we move in space in relation to different points, but also because we always move with others, even if only to escape them), hindrances are such because they interfere with our way of establishing, cultivating and experiencing relationships. A common (Western) misconception about meditative practice is that it is something you do on your own, a kind of private or individualistic practice that takes place away from others, behind closed doors and closed eyes. This is a misconception because it ignores that all meditative practice is always established in a social context and through specific ways of relating to others (and the Buddha’s discourses are very good evidence of this socially embedded dimension of meditation). In dynamic meditation, then, we take this relationality up front and work with it throughout, from the very beginning.
Here below is a template for a session of dynamic meditation. The first few times we go through it, there will be more guidance and each step will be introduced and illustrated separately. This will make the session a little less fluid, but will hopefully help to explain the basics. As we progress, and depending on how the group responds, we’ll aim to make the practice more fluid, with less guidance and more opportunities to flow and surf on the wave of experience. Music is used to facilitate play and interaction at each step.
When we arrive, we try to just arrive. We come into a circle and take a few deep breaths, letting out all that is unnecessary. We connect with what is alive in us at that moment, what demands attention, what wants to move, what is frozen, everything that is there. We try to share it with a few words, to acknowledge it. Then we walk around, trying to follow the path left empty by others (the so-called ‘negative space’), to get to know the space and the other people in the group.
We find a suitable place and spend some time grounding our awareness. We do this by familiarizing ourselves with a relatively simple but potentially very powerful and deep distinction. The experience of our bodily ‘base’ (the point where we feel most of our weight, which would naturally fall to the ground, e.g. the lower part of your torso when you’re standing), what is its ‘support’ (any bodily structure that prevents the base from falling, e.g. your legs when you’re standing), and what else in the body is left free to move in other ways that have no specific support function and can therefore be ‘decoration’ (e.g. your arms and hands when you’re standing).*
As we’re going to work together, it’s very important to develop the ability to listen to each other and to communicate non-verbally and intuitively. A basic form of communication is signaling invitations and boundaries, ‘yes’ and ‘no’. We’ll work in duos, taking turns to invite the other to ‘decorate’. The invitation can be expressed with a gesture or a light touch that indicates a possible direction of movement. We can say ‘yes’ to the invitation and follow it up with an actual movement, or we can say ‘no’ by resisting the movement and maintaining the current form.**
The main part of our meditation can be likened to a wave, taking us through different places where we can encounter, meet and redefine our boundaries. If you’re interested in the theory behind this, you could associate each of these places with the qualities of a different element (see this post), but this is not necessary for the practice itself. With less facilitation and verbal guidance this can also become a wave in the sense that the interaction can become very fluid and establish a flow of its own.
1. Overcoming inertia
The first hindrance we face is inertia. Inertia manifests itself as the actual difficulty of making any movement. It’s the grossest way in which we can be ‘stuck’. From the point of view of our grounding, inertia can be understood as the fact that most of our body is absorbed in ‘support’ or ‘base’ and little is left for ‘decoration’.
To overcome this hindrance, we work in duos and try to support each other so that we can free up more parts of the body for decoration.
The result of this first phase is twofold: to cultivate one’s own intuitive way of ‘reading’ and connecting with another, and also to find external support for expressing one’s own inclinations to move. We rock.
2. Overcoming constraints
The second hindrance is all the various constraints that define from the outside what our movement should or should not look like. Constraints can manifest themselves in different ways, but some of the most typical constraints have to do with social interactions, such as the need to ‘mirror’ another, and the attitude of self-consciousness that internalises an external judgmental point of view (based on externally imposed standards and images).
To overcome this hindrance, we work in trios. We start by mirroring each other to get a sense of what it means to have to conform to external constraints. Then we play with the idea of gradually undermining this mirroring until we can stay ‘in touch’ with the other members of the trio without necessarily having to follow a predictable pattern or shape. We learn how to follow our own inner striving (our conatus) while at the same time being open, receptive to and in contact with others. We learn to say ‘yes, but’ (‘yes, I’m with you, but I’m also with myself, we don’t have to do, to be or to look the same to be together’).
The movement begins to flow more and more freely, like water. The result of this second phase is the ability to step outside of the interiorised sense of self-consciousness by realising that our movement does not have to conform to any pre-determined standard or constraint. We flow.
3. Overcoming grooving
The third hindrance is something that can be best observed when we are already in motion. We are moving, but we are actually stuck in repeating the same movement over and over again. We’re in a groove. This can be comforting, but it takes little reflection to see how it limits freedom. We become comfortable with what we know, we want to support it, it starts to take all our energy, we burn for it, and eventually we forget that it is possible to do something else. We're consumed.
To overcome grooving, we cultivate the sense of decisiveness that allows us to establish an interaction with others, but also to end it and start a new one on the spot. Here we work in trios. We establish a kind of grooving interaction within the trio. But then, suddenly someone will decide to leave and join another trio. Whenever someone else comes in, then another member of the trio has to quickly decide to leave and join another trio. As the members of the trio change, they have to start a new groove until something changes again.
The result of this third phase is the ability to experience contacts and interactions, but without getting stuck in them. We invent new forms and destroy them in a constant cycle. We cultivate the twofold power of creating and changing, and we use it to enter and exit interactions freely. We burn.
4. Overcoming scatteredness
The fourth hindrance is scatteredness, the fact of being scattered, ‘all over the place’, but neither grounded anywhere nor really in touch with anything in particular. It is a state that is easier to observe after the previous step, when things are moving relatively quickly and chaotically.
To overcome this hindrance, we jam. We start with quartets in which we try to make a connection within the quartet, while at the same time each person tries to reach out to another person in another quartet. We cultivate the ability to focus attention both inwardly, in a close sphere of interaction, and outwardly. We spread our awareness equally in all directions, but we stay consciously and fully with everything we can reach at the same time.
The result of this fourth stage is an expansion of awareness and the development of composure, based not on a single narrowing of the focus of attention, but on its complete expansion. We become ubiquitous and pervasive. We blow.
5. Overcoming attachment
The fifth hindrance is attachment, the gesture of grasping, appropriating, taking and not wanting to let go. Letting go is a giving back, because what we let go of is something that we simply allow to return to the space from which it came. We can’t ‘do’ letting go, much less ‘force’ it, but it happens naturally. It happens when we learn to be fully nourished by our experience. We have to grasp and ask for more because we’re so worried, anxious, fearful that we can’t really savour and enjoy our experience, we’re always thinking ahead. But as soon as we allow ourselves to fully taste and enjoy what’s happening, as soon as we really take it all in and give ourselves full permission to be who we are in this moment, to be in whatever way feels right and true, to be alone or with others as it seems best, to really take in all the unspeakable beauty of this moment of experience – then we are eventually nourished, replenished, and so thirst and hunger cease, the cramp of grasping is released, we open our hands and we can let go, give it back, without regret, full of contentment.
To practise this, we simply try to really be fully with whatever is meaningful to us in this moment, and let it express itself, enjoying that expression at the same time, savouring it fully and deeply. Either alone or with another (or others), in the whatever way that arises naturally, unexpectedly, in the moment. We cherish this experience, we drink all of it until we are no longer thirsty and we can let go. We open.
X. We just take a few minutes of rest, stillness and silence to let whatever happened (or didn’t happen) sink in.
Y. We come back to the opening circle to share and articulate whatever needs or wants to be shared and articulated.
Z. We close by deeply breathing in all that was good, and breathing out all that has happened and making space for new experiences to come.
*I borrow and adapt this terminology from Tom Goldhand, who uses it to explain some basic principles of contact improvisation.