The following notes present a general vision and some practical guidelines for highlighting the potential of embodied conscious movement as a transformative practice, and how to implement it. They are based on my own (in-progress) experience of ecstatic dance, contact beyond contact, 5 Rhythms, dance awake, Buddhist meditation, and philosophy. Take whatever you find helpful and forgive me for the rest.
The word ‘ecstasis’ means ‘to abide outside’. It is an arrow, a pointer, indicating a direction of movement. We inevitably start where we are. But we should ask ourselves: where are we, actually? Most of the time, the default space we occupy is that of mental representations, stories, dramas, self-consciousness, and all the struggles that go with this. The ‘ecstatic’ movement invites us to move outside of that default ordinary state. This does not necessarily mean that we forget and obliterate the ordinary state, nor that we deny its possible validity and even beauty. But we learn how to contemplate and even hold it from the outside. We can be fully with it, and yet not being caged or imprisoned by it, because we learn and know how to be also elsewhere—outside. Ecstatic movement is a movement of freedom, and this freedom is born from the possibility of doing also otherwise, being also something else, and staying also elsewhere. It includes more options and removes none.
How do we cultivate and explore this ecstatic freedom? One of the most effective methods consists in taking full stock of our relational nature. The ‘outside’ is not a place of isolation and segregation, but rather of unity, togetherness, contact. Staying outside does not mean to be on our own, but quite the contrary, to finally learn how to be oneself while being together with others. To operationalize this intuition, we bring to the foreground of our attention the element of ‘contact’ in all its broad and various dimensions.
We are already always in contact with one another and with everything around us. There are many ways of being in contact, ranging from physical touch to emotional or even metaphysical connection. In ordinary default settings we are in contact too. Yet, the problem is that our ordinary contact is heavily mediated by language, social scripts, mental representations, which all select, filter, shape what can happen, how it can happen, and when, constraining more or less drastically the space of possibilities. Paradoxically enough, this can lead to an experience of separation, loneliness, dejection (because we fail to follow the rule, because we don’t meet the standard, because we don’t find the right peers or partners, and so many other reasons).
Ecstatic freedom seeks to access a deeper level of contact, more intuitive, immediate, embodied. At this deeper level, our identity is reduced to its most fundamental core: we are sentient beings in space (what Heidegger would call Da-sein, ‘being-there’). The fact that we are ‘sentient’ means that we are open to experience, feelings, and we can respond to both our own states and those of others around. We are intelligent and vulnerable at the same time. Sentiency calls for an oath of mutual respect, allowing each other the space and opportunity to just be, without putting further conditions. The fact that we are ‘beings’ means that we fundamentally identify as just points of presence, as signposts of awareness: ‘someone’s here’. We don’t put forward names, further qualifications, roles, duties. We start from the bare, alive presence of someone being there. And all of this happens ‘in space’, in a particular location, among these other presences, these other beings. It does not happen in an idea, in a story, in a world beyond. It happens here, now. It’s a unique, irreplicable experience.
To facilitate this experience of ourselves as just sentient beings in space, we explore the non-verbal (possibly also the non-mentalized) ways we have of being in contact. They are very simple, very basic: sharing presence, witnessing each other, being in touch more or less remotely, sharing weight and movement. Being in contact is being in a conversation, in which we both listen and answer, follow and lead. We invent a polyphony without words, which springs from a place that is deeper than the ordinary anxious and talkative mind. It originates from a place of simplicity: our body, and its ability to move and respond. As we being to learn how to stay in this conversation, the possibilities become endless.
In order to explore some of them, we follow the guidance of music. Music is a relational phenomenon, an architecture of vibrations, suggestive of the whole spectrum of experiences. But music is never prescriptive, it never commands or forbids. It only suggests, points to, inspires. How music flows through each being is bound to be different. Everyone is a different resonance board for the same music. This simple fact adds an incredible depth and complexity to the conversation, expanding its potential. We invoke a special kind of music that is in fact a collective construction, made by many, but belonging to nobody. A music of intersection and integration, diversity and overlap. A music welcoming everything that aspires to goodness, and courageous enough to fear no aspect of our natures. This music is the guide and the space for the conversation to unfold. A conversation in which we try to forget all the ‘ought to’ and ‘must’ and ‘should’ and simply learn how to be surprised by the sheer variety of ways in which unity can express itself in manifoldness, and how manifoldness can be truly unified.
We listen to the music as something we didn’t plan in advance. We allow ourselves to be surprised and challenged by the music on the spot. We allow the music to take us on its wave and move us through different landscapes. We know that some of them we will like, and some of them we won’t like. We promise to remain true and authentic regardless, and to keep moving along, no matter what happens, in any way that will seem most appropriate and sincere. We can’t predict what will happen, but we remain open to this not-knowing. We remain trustful. Knowing how to navigate this adventure is the wisdom we gain and love—this is our philosophy.
Ecstatic movement arises from this combination of being able to get in touch at a deeper level with others (based on a point of contact that is below the ordinary default schemes of interaction) while also embarking together on the same journey (sharing a space of exploration that unites us within our differences). Ecstatic movement is both the practice and its goal. It is a practice insofar as we can always learn more and go deeper in our exploration. We’ll be faced with unforeseen obstacles, and we’ll have to find ingenious ways of overcoming them. It won’t necessarily be a smooth or linear process, but there will be transformation, change, and growth taking place all along. Yet, this is also the goal of the practice. We’re not aiming at anything different from what we’re already doing, we don’t struggle to become something else from what we already are. We just allow ourselves to mature fully into what we always be: free sentient beings in space, together.
1. Be present
Being present means being fully aware of what is happening both inside and outside of us. This can be very challenging. The opposite of being present is being distracted, scattered, all over the place, absorbed in rumination and daydreaming. As we are present, we can be with whatever is there, without having to judge it as good or bad, and without having necessarily to react in a way or another. Presence allows us a degree of freedom, a space for simply being with what is, allowing it to be, to manifest, and to fade away.
To be present, listen to how you feel, listen to how the body feels, listen to what is awake and alive in you in this moment. Feel your feet on the floor, do not use any substances to manipulate your mental state.
It’s worth emphasizing here that sometimes people think that in order to be fully present, they need to first connect to ‘themselves’ and this requires taking some space and time to be on their own. This is partly true, until it becomes self-delusional. It is true that sometimes we need space to process events, emotions, problems. But space and time, by themselves, do not do the processing. The processing happens as we become capable of reconnecting anything that happens, good or bad, to our own center of awareness, and experience it from there. Just being left alone is not enough, it will never be. Just taking space for oneself on the corner of a room to ruminate on this or that won’t help much. What’s needed are simple tools to connect back to our true center, to find the place of integration and intuition from which all experience arises, manifests, and fades away. Call it the ‘heart’, call it ‘the central channel’, call it the ‘soul’, call it ‘the knowing’. It doesn’t matter, it has no name anyway. But you’ll recognize it, because when you are there, it won’t feel like you are alone: you’ll be both intimate with yourself and with everything else.
2. Listen to the music
The music is our guide and source of inspiration for embarking on a shared journey. Music does not prescribe anything; it merely points out possibilities. Each one will embody these possibilities differently. We can learn and be inspired by each other, we can play, but nobody got it right, there are no role models. Allow yourself to be moved by the music, even if and when you feel resistance against it. The music wave will raise and fall; so, manage your energies and see what you can discover by following along.
Listen to the music with your body. Feel how the beat and rhythm affects your bodily parts. How does the music steer your attention? Which sorts of movements does it suggest? Does it invite you to look more introvertly into yourself, or does it encourage you to bind with others?
3. Keep moving
Ultimately, everything embodies itself in a form of movement. We commit to allow anything that happens and unfolds, both within and outside of us, to translate itself into some sort of movement. This movement does not have to look like anything else. It will be unique, improvised, sometimes very subtle, sometimes gross, sometimes beautiful, sometimes awkward, sometimes active, sometimes passive. We do not plan the movement ahead; we do not force or constrain it. We allow ourselves to be moved.
As a rule of thumb, whatever gets you stuck or freezes you is problematic. Observe it, inquiry into it, and move through it, eventually leaving it behind. Usually, cravings, fear, and avoidance are common reasons that block movement from flowing. Acknowledge their presence when they are around, then invite them to move with you, until they fade away. By contrast, whatever makes you move (inspiration, intuition, thrill, excitement, release, peace, joy, wisdom, equanimity, freedom, surrender, the list can go on) is promising, just follow it, trust it.
To keep moving listen to your body. What wants to move there? Which parts want to lead? But also pay attention to what is frozen, stiff, rigid, and how it could be activated or healed. Allow others to suggest to you possible ways of moving. Allow yourself to be inspired.
4. Converse without words
Being in touch is being part of a conversation. We exchange, we ask and respond, we guide and follow. Sometimes we take turns, sometimes it all happens at the same time. Sometimes it will be a well-structured dialogue, sometimes it will be chaotic, sometimes awkward, sometimes funny. But this conversation never employs words. Words are great, but also general, ambiguous, impersonal, borrowed, overused. For the time being, we drop all words, all ordinary language. We confine ourselves only to the language of bodily movement in order to uncover its infinite potential.
To converse without words, simply resist any need to talk—to others, but also to yourself. Allow instead anything that urges you to say something to be translated into a movement. It can be an abstract movement, or an expressive movement, a gesture, or even a vocal sound. Don’t limit yourself, except by shunning words.
5. Respect others
Honor and respect yourself, others, and both yourself and others, whatever they are, however they will manifest it. We are together in this space and we are holding this space together for each other. This is a mutual oath of reciprocal trust. Everybody has the right and opportunity to show up for how they feel most appropriate at that time. Sometimes it is good to become a bit more introverted, to stay more with oneself, to allow oneself space as needed, to tune down one’s interactions and look at the rest from a distance. Sometimes it is good to be a bit more extroverted, to seek connections with others, to explore what’s possible as a group, to jump into the jam. We try to develop an intuitive ability to recognize what others are doing and what we can do to serve them best. We’ll learn this by making mistakes, by apologizing for them from time to time, and by giving each other feedback by using clear signals of ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘thank you’.
If you want to be alone, you can keep your eyes closed as a sign that you prefer not to be approached. If you want to interact with others, keep your eyes open and establish an eye contact first. If you want to say ‘no’ to an invitation, or you want to thank someone in bringing an interaction to a close, you can bring your hands to your chest, palms touching. Namaste.
6. Be you
You can’t get this wrong. There is no pregiven model or standard you have to embody. You simply start where you are and end also where you are, regardless of how much or how little might change in between. No need to pretend of being this, no reason for faking being that. You do not need any special mask, you do not need any particular uniform, nor any script to follow. You might not really know what you are without relying on all these things. That’s great, then start from not-knowing. That’s also where you might end anyway.
*Note: these guidelines are slightly adapted from those articulated by Brian Bergman in his DanceAwake format. Thanks to Brian for articulating and sharing them in the first place.