Tango as Mindfulness

(published in the Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, Winter 2015)

Unlike the stylized dance seen on TV or performed on stage, Argentine tango is an intimate, improvised dance that consists of a leader and a follower having a dialogue with their bodies in response to the music. Connected by a warm embrace of their upper bodies, the dancers move as one body with four legs. In simplified terms, the leader’s role is to initiate and navigate, and the follower’s role is to receive and respond.

Dancing Argentine tango requires the dancers to be in a highly attuned state to one another and to their environment, because the non-verbal dialogue that is exchanged is subtle and quick and highly variable from partner to partner and from moment to moment. For this reason, many people come to experience tango as a dancing meditation, and are able to cultivate total presence in the moment with another human being.

Studies are now looking to explore the effectiveness of Argentine tango as a form of stress reduction. An experiment by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, showed that Argentine tango is as effective as mindfulness meditation in reducing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.

A study at St. Mary’s College of California measured the brain activity of tango dancers using an Electroencephalograph (EEG) and found that many dancers, especially the more experienced dancers, were able to enter a deep state of relaxation. They were able to detect increased levels alpha-wave activity in the brains of  the highly skilled dancers, in the same way that advanced meditators are able to enter deep states of relaxation.

 

 

Dancing in the Dark

I don’t claim to know what the hell I’m doing. I’m just a human being trying to figure this shit out with as much heart and honesty as I can muster. I am starting 2015 filled with enormous uncertainty: many things are ending and there is no clear sign of what is beginning. I have no guarantee that any of the work I have put into building my dreams will amount to anything. In fact I could say that I don’t even have any idea exactly what I have been building at all.

I’m at a moment where I could easily lose my faith. I could scold myself like a stern adult and say that chasing my dreams has been nothing but chasing my tail. I could shame myself into thinking that my idealism has caused me more trouble than its worth. I could punish myself for being so stubbornly committed to freedom. And I have.

But as I dance in the darkness, I hear a still, expansive voice that speaks a different truth. The voice whispers to me:

No matter what I have love.

No matter what I have ease.

No matter what I have magic.

And so it is.

no matter what I have love
Love

We have two choices when we experience uncertainty and hardship: ferociously love and accept ourselves or abandon ourselves. Self-abandonment creates a barrier that no amount of love from the outside world can penetrate. Choosing to love ourselves is an internal choice that we make every day, every moment, with every thought we have and every action we take. Choosing to love ourselves is merely to acknowledge that we are an extension of Source— and source is and always will be pure unconditional love. The more we experience our own love the more the love of others starts to fill our worlds. In the midst of losing those few and specific people to whom you have selectively poured your love into, you will realize that is not all there is. As your understanding of love starts to expand, it starts to show up in many forms: in animals, in friends, in family, in lovers, in communities, in experiences, and even in places. When love gets taken away from you, you start to understand that it will merely show up again in a different form. All it starts with is a choice. Today I choose to tell myself: No matter what, I have love.

Ease

It is a given that in this lifetime we will all experience much struggle, all uniquely our own flavor of pain. However, amongst it all, feeling a state of ease is also a choice. If we start with the aforementioned step, we automatically dissipate one of our most fundamental struggles by staying in alignment with who we really are and all we really want: Love. Any resistance that is left over from that can be dealt with by choosing to accept reality as it is. If I struggle against what is, I have pain. If I surrender to it, I have grace. Today I choose to stop fighting with reality and decide to dance with it instead. I choose to stop insisting I know better than Source. Today I choose to tell myself: No matter what, I have ease.

Magic

Fear, judgment, and struggle shuts down our capacity to experience the miracle of being alive. When I have love and ease everything becomes magic. When there is love and ease, the senses expand and delight us indefinitely, our minds play with wonder and curiosity, and our hearts fill with awe. Otherwise we are completely blind to the magic around us. Every day we need to light ourselves up, to turn ourselves on, to understand deeper, to explore more, to fill ourselves with gratitude about the magnitude of the human experience. I choose to believe that everything is magic—that I am magic, and filled with grace—and so are you. I choose to tell myself: No matter what, I have magic.

So as I dance in the dark I refuse to let the goblins win. My power is a quiet power and my dance is a celebratory one. Amongst the confusion I always have choice. In the darkness I always have love. I always have ease. I always have magic.

From today onward
Until the attainment of enlightenment
May I be willing
To live with my chaos and confusion
And that of all other sentient beings.
May I be willing
To share our mutual confusion
And work incessantly and humbly
To help and elevate everyone without exception.

-Tibetan Prayer from Light the Flame by Andrew Harvey

The Dance Of Sabotage

There are some dreams that are so close to our heart, so delicate, so fragile, that to even whisper them out loud would have us trembling in our boots. There are those things that we care for so deeply, that we desire with so much of our being that we would rather keep them locked up in a back closet than to risk the chance of embracing them and failing.

And so, perhaps without even knowing, we begin the dance of sabotage. We know we love the thing but we lie to ourselves about exactly how much. When asked, what do you love more than anything else? The answer is clear. You feel it in your bones. But then, you shove it aside and choose something more practical. You probably don’t even realize you are doing it.

Because of this very sneaky internal defense tactic, it is much harder to admit what you deeply and truly love than it is to acknowledge what makes you feel deep pangs of jealousy. Therefore, I ask you to make good friends with your envy and jealousy, because they are the greatest communicators of your heart’s desires. Follow their lead, and ask them to teach you what you really truly desire but are too scared to admit.

It shouldn’t be too hard for you to guess what the thing is that I love the most. I’ve spent a lot of my life unconsciously making excuses for not committing to my passion. Here are a few:

I’m too fragile and I get sick too often

Dancers don’t make any money

I can’t tolerate the lifestyle

I don’t like competing

I’m not assertive enough

Dancers don’t make any money

I didn’t start when I was young enough

I don’t learn fast enough

There aren’t enough opportunities out there

I am not good enough

I don’t have the right body type

Dancers don’t make any money

I am not disciplined enough

Naturally with all of this negative programming hanging around in my subconscious, it was hard to truly love and embrace the thing. In my mid 20’s, with the help of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, the walls began to come down and I began to acknowledge the dancer that was an integral part of my being. Immersing myself in many forms of dance, and then eventually getting a masters in Dance/Movement Therapy, I was owning my calling to dance. But here is the thing: even as I acknowledged my love for dance, took responsibility for some of the programming I had fallen prey to, and even as I pursued a career involving the psychology of dance, peskier and even sneakier excuses continued to linger. Until very recently I was still finding excuses:

I don’t have a tango partner to perform with

Dancers don’t make money

I don’t have a tango leader to teach with

I can’t make a living as a dancer/teacher/performer

The people in my city don’t get what I do in Dance Energetics or Embodied Coaching

There are too many teachers already

Dancers don’t make money

It’s them not me

And whine, whine, whine, and so on…

Lies and excuses. All of them. Only thoughts keeping me from taking action on doing the thing that I love to do the most, the thing I was born to do, the thing that lights me up and lights up everyone around me when I’m doing it.

As soon as I uncovered these lies I was telling myself I was able to take action. I started to do performances even if the situation was not perfect and I started to teach even if the circumstances where not ideal. I was getting even further into owning my path as a dancer and taking the risk to pursue it.

Oh but these shadows, these fears, they still found a way. I had just started to perform with a local samba troupe and was feeling very excited to be able to perform on a very regular basis. I was offered an opportunity to teach weekly tango classes and was enthusiastically planning our curriculum and getting deeper into my skills as a tango leader. All of these things I’d been wishing for for so long—to perform regularly and to teach—were finally coming to fruition. I didn’t want to make a big fuss about it. You know, still trying to keep my heart tucked away in that closet, for fear that if I let it out it might get stepped on and disregarded.

Things were going great. I was at a tango marathon dancing my heart away all weekend, when things took a bit of a turn. I was walking leisurely to the coffee shop in my host’s neighborhood (in flat, sensible shoes, mind you) when all of a sudden a curb happened and I found myself flat on the ground with a banged up knee and what felt like a pretty twisted ankle. Amongst my pain, I laughed at the irony while looking up at the sky and asked “really? now?” I could almost feel God smirking. But I knew better than to blame it on the divine. This was either just an unfortunate, random twist of events (pun intended) or perhaps, upon further reflection, this was what Gay Hendricks calls an Upper Limit Problem.

So now, after a flash of potential success and fulfillment, my ability to teach is impeded, and I have to turn down multiple opportunities to perform samba and tango. Ain’t that a bitch? Wait, no. I know better than this. You can choose to believe in chaos or you can choose to believe in meaning. I believe in meaning, and I believe everything is a lesson.

The twist of my ankle was merely a step in the dance of sabotage. It was the universe’s way of handing back to me the limitations I still clung to about my ability to have what I truly desired. In The Big Leap, Hendricks calls this the Upper Limit problem and explains it in this way:

I have a limited tolerance for feeling good. When I hit my Upper Limit, I manufacture thoughts that make me feel bad. The problem is bigger than just my internal feelings, though: I seem to have a limited tolerance for my life going well in general. When I hit my Upper Limit, I do something that stops my positive forward trajectory.

Tolerance for feeling good? Why on earth would we have that? For one, we are creatures of comfort. It is often hard to change habits because the new habit or the new sensation feels unfamiliar. In the process of change we enter unknown territory and we often feel a little not like ourselves. It is no different with feeling good. If the positive feeling feels too unfamiliar, we might get a little jittery and want to return to our normal state of being, even if its ho hum or flat out crappy because well, it just feels like home.

Hendricks lays out some other reasons why we sabotage ourselves. In early childhood we often pick up some programming such as “I don’t deserve it because I’m fundamentally flawed” (usually for some unknown reason), “if I am successful I would end up all alone and leave people behind,” “If I am successful I will be an even bigger burden,” or “if I truly fulfill my potential I will outshine someone in my life.”

I can definitely dig in there and see that some of these thought patterns have jammed up my ability to really go for my dreams but I think there is an even bigger one at play. I have a tendency to put my eggs in many baskets and be a bit of a commitment-phobe in many aspects of my life. Because c’mon, if one fails, I’ve got back-up! So that is really the big one for me. If I really lay it on the line and go for it, and then I lose it, then what? And so the whole game becomes avoiding the thing you love because you are avoiding the pain of losing it. We all know how that story ends.

divineSo no more. My heart is open. It is worth the pain of losing. It is worth the pain of failing. Of falling. Of being laughed at. Of being ignored. Of being injured. Come with me on this journey. Find that pain you are avoiding and dance toward it with all of your heart.  
 
 

Your Divine Invitation

You’re invited to meet the Divine.
Nobody can resist an invitation like that!

Now, your choices narrow to two:
You can come to the Divine ready to dance.
Or
Be carried on a stretcher to the Divine Emergency Room.

–Hafiz

P.s. My ankle is healing beautifully.

 

 

Are you blocking your body’s natural ability to heal?

I feel tired these last few days. I want to clean my house and do some other physical activities, but my body is saying no. My mind is saying, “body, there is something wrong with you.” However my higher self knows that I have to yield and surrender to the cycle my body is in right now even if it doesn’t make sense to me, and even if I want it to be different. To push through it is not an option. This is not the way of the intuitive body. Ask the body instead what it needs during this time. Does it need extra water and lots of sleep, even if you don’t feel sick? Yes, that is what it needs. Your mind doesn’t need to know why.

I see so many people objectifying their bodies, fighting what the body is asking for and trying to squeeze, push, jam, and impose the demands of their minds onto their bodies. They have glorified mind over matter and become angry, disappointed, frustrated and ashamed when their bodies can not perform in the way they think it should. With this disregard of the body’s cycles and individual needs, the body breaks down. When people refuse to listen to the whispers of the body, energy turns into discomfort, discomfort turns into pain or injury, and pain turns into chronic illness.

rest

The body is a miraculous mechanism that is constantly working hard to return to homeostasis without you having to consciously think about it. The body has its cycles of high activity and low activity, of action and of regeneration. Somehow we, our egos, decide that certain levels of inactivity are inappropriate and so we deny our body the chance to repair and refresh itself.

What’s remarkable is that we actually spend a lot of time fighting our own bodies’ self-repair mechanisms purely because we don’t understand them (if we don’t understand it we don’t value it), because they are inconvenient to us (“I don’t have time to rest or eat well”), or because they compete with our identity (“men don’t cry” or “I can’t dance” ).

I see people in my counseling & coaching practice get in the way of their own healing process in the following ways (many of which are reinforced by society):

  • Stopping the flow of highly purifying tears because they feel ashamed of crying and being “weak”
  • Scolding their bodies for being tired and not doing enough (and turning to stimulants to improve their daily performance)
  • Developing chronic pain because they ignore an emotion that is wanting to be recognized and expressed
  • Not moving their bodies because they are afraid of being judged and looking silly
  • Not resting enough
  • Not trusting the intuitive voice of their bodies over the “shoulds” of their minds
Tune into this right now.

Close your eyes and notice the state of your body. How energetic do you feel in the moment? Notice if there is a disconnect between how you want to feel and how you actually feel. If there is, take a deep belly breath and fully accept the state you are in right now. Fully love yourself and your body in its present state. Feel a sense of trust that your body is functioning exactly the way it needs to in this moment, even if you don’t understand why. Next, ask the body what it needs. Stay quiet and still, and let the answer emerge in its own time. Your attention might be brought to a body part, to a word, or to an image. Trust that intuitive message and take the next step to help your body repair itself.