Metaphor 5: the mirrors that move us

Practice becomes perception.

Brian Massumi,  in Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (2002)

Feeling the flow 

~ Excerpt from journal notes post boxing session with Jackie (October 14th, 2016)

Jackie is holding the pads at eye level. We settle into a drill: feather light quick successive jab/crosses until her random signal to block a hit. I contract my right side to block, follow through with a hook and then resume the flow of the pattern. It’s difficult, the cueing is subtle and the pace is fast. I’m focused, trying to pay attention, stay grounded, stay relaxed.

“Now close your eyes,” Jackie says. “If you can’t see it, you just feel it” she tells me, adding “our eyes lie.”

I close my eyes and immediately my awareness shifts; I’m receiving information at a rapid pace independent of seeing. Slowly the awkwardness begins to fade and I start to attune to the changes in resistance when my gloves hit the pads. When Jackie signals to block, I feel her change in weight in my arms, it travels through my torso, my legs. My body is more awake, alert to subtleties I missed with my eyes open. I’m feeling and sensing more.

Perspectives of Seeing and Feeling

This month I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference of perspective between the sensory acts of seeing and feeling, both in choreography and in my readings at school­. Seeing implies a sense of distance, while feeling involves an inner kind of looking–what Brian Massumi refers to as two different self-referential systems of orientation. Simply stated, ‘I see you’ and ‘I feel you’ express two different perspectives of orientation. And so from this month’s musing, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump/jeté into questioning the funhouse experience that is our relationship with the mirror.

Perhaps the price of admission to this funhouse is that our individual relationships with the mirror are often clouded with socially imposed standards of worth. And dance training–depending on which genre you study–brings with it a myriad of subtle threads that tether you to the puppeting effects of what we see. At least it did for me. The mirror can be a tool for learning in the studio, but it can also be a site of silent dialogue, a measuring stick, a battle ground, a reward and a punishment between the charged spaces of self and reflection. If our eyes do indeed lie, shouldn’t we seek truth elsewhere? Shouldn’t we be selective about the practices that hone our perceptions?

Just as the word ‘moon’ is not the moon itself, how we perceive our reflection mirrors back to us our notions of identity. Dance has been a wonderful mirror to me, and I’ve noticed how choreography has played a significant role in helping me negotiate new versions of ‘i.’ The following three excerpts trace how dance has helped me discover that the ‘moon’ is far more dynamic that I ever perceived it to be, and mirrors offer opportunities to break beyond the bounds of the limits they frame.

‘Moon’ 1: mirror as battleground

Helix Dance Project’s first show, Integration (2003), was a danced meditation on the habits I wanted to let go of at the time, and those I wanted to draw near. ‘Girl Fight,’ a duet between two women, was my attempt at an uncensored expression of my relationship with the mirror. Set to a soundscape of internal thought in which the words “look at you” looped mercilessly on and on, the dancers each fought to overcome the other. ‘Girl Fight’ marked a particular signalling of orientation towards identity. We created a piece that danced the urge to fight the limits of what is seen, tackle it to the ground in a choreographed fight for survival and freedom.  Through a danced collaboration, I wrestled with my too small perception of self, literally. I’m ever grateful to you, the fearless dancers who danced ‘Girl Fight,’ and I hope its echoes have long since left your bodies. We don’t need to practice that limiting perception any longer.

‘Moon’ 2: metaphor as mirror

Further along HDP’s creative explorations were the projects titled Rain (2009), Unearth (2012), and The Waiting Room (2015) – all looking at various relational expressions of ‘i’ through the lens of metaphor. Rain engaged with self in relation to archetypes, Unearth in relation to the elements, and The Waiting Room in relation to transience. The choreographed mirrors of these works had us standing in the rain, digging in the dirt, climbing mountains, dancing a tango with change, watching clouds drift by, and sitting by the water’s edge. Those were the mirrors we danced for ourselves, practicing new perceptions of seeing and feeling, together. Again I thank each dancer, what a privilege to unearth these subtleties with you all.

‘Moon’ 3: movement as mirror

Far from familiar shores, in Iceland in 2015, I experienced such a simple moment of reflection that has stayed with me still. I went for a stroll to the western most tip of Reykjavík, at the shore of the Grótta lighthouse, and became entranced by how the vegetation in the water was moving; just a simple swaying to and fro in the currents of the tide. I recall how at first I saw only a plant in water, then I began observing the subtleties of its movement. After some time, the feeling arose in me that this scene might be the only curriculum I needed in life, and a subtle awareness began to bloom. I stood there for a while, sensing a familiarity with the movements of the plant and the water, how they were seamlessly interconnected, and how this was the most apt mirror I could imagine for myself. Before I left, I took a short video. And now, whenever I suspect my eyes are lying to me, or when I grow numb to the subtleties of how very interconnected we all are, I feel into the movements of this video and once again practice how to perceive anew.

Grotta, Iceland video

I share these anecdotes in the hopes that if someone happens to be doing battle with the mirror, you might press play, go for a walk in nature, or better yet, close your eyes. And feel.

With love,

Linda

 

 

 

 

Metaphor 4: tapping into the flow

Today marked my first day back at school after a wonderful, and very necessary, summer break. And as I find myself once again slipping into the student perspective (curiosity, anxiety, insights, doubts…), I find myself reflecting on all the wonderful workshop opportunities and dancing the summer months afforded me. I’ve seen dancers push their boundaries, take risks and try hard at the many challenges presented to them. I’ve often observed how students seem to progressively try harder and harder, all in the effort to get it right. And today, from my reinvigorated student perspective, I question how strategies for learning are explicitly and implicitly taught. What has become clear to me however is how metaphorical language primes the student’s approach: ‘trying hard to get it right’ is a loaded metaphor that links hardness with trying and getting with accomplishment. ‘Trying hard to get it right’ implies a sense of solidity and acquisition; both limited understandings of how to navigate the flow of learning. So in honour of this month’s back to school theme, I’d like to offer an alternative perspective for learning: try less to integrate more.

Flow 1: flap ball change

Trying less is something I discovered in tap class as a teenager: the faster and more intricate the material, the more relaxed I needed to be. ‘Trying hard’ became trying less, or rather, I became aware of efficient effort. Born in the spaces of trying less was a sense of letting go; letting go into an interstitial intelligence, into a sense of context and flow. This is something my bodily-self understood well before my mind–a familiar theme for dancers everywhere I suspect. And now, when I ask students to downgrade their effort to 60% or 70%, something new emerges that wasn’t there the moment before. A shift occurs. Navigating difficulty becomes less ‘hard,’ and navigating the flow of experience becomes about equilibrium, not about anxious acquisition. What may at first glance look and sound like tap dancing–dynamic footwork and rhythms–from an insider’s perspective becomes the confluence of multiple rivers of efficient effort; trying less to integrate more.

Flow 2: tapping into flow

“Relax” was Jackie’s refrain to me during our boxing sessions a few years back. The irony was never lost on me. In my effort to bob, weave and jab/cross/hook, I was indeed trying hard. So much so that my shoulders were up around my ears and my muscles tense with anticipation of action. So much so that my reflexes were already clenched in trying hard, no longer available to the subtle impulses around me. “Relax” was the mantra. Ah yes, down go the shoulders, my weight settles back into the ground, my breath deepens, my awareness widens, my reflexes quicken. This is like tap! My sensing self makes the experiential link before my mind does. Boxing is like tap! It seems I’m constantly learning to tap in/into new contexts.

I recognize how sensory familiarity arises between tap and boxing, how familiarity arises while choreographing, and how familiarity arises in my relationships. As my shoulders rise in moments of disagreement, and my thoughts tense with clenched anticipation of defense, I try to remember to relax: down go the shoulders, my weight (physical, emotional, psychological) settles into the ground, my breath deepens, awareness widens, and my reflexes are ready to respond anew. Discoveries happen in the letting go. As a student of boxing I re-member and renew my teenage insights while tapping: try less, unclench, let go of your grip on getting ‘it,’ because ‘it’ IS flow.

Flow 3: birthday lessons on letting go

What I continue to spiral back to is the flow of learning, and how fundamental to learning is a willingness to let go. It’s that way with dance, with love, with life. I wrote the following excerpt on my birthday this year, while sitting on the footbridge at the south end of Spadina Street overlooking the water. I brought my journal along not knowing what would surface when pencil met paper. And now, reading it again, I’m struck with the scope of how fluid learning is: it stretches across time, weaves stories in its wake, reminds me to be available and open handed in the flow of the moment. I should mention that my grandfather loved ducks and his birthday was also in May.

May 23rd, 2017. Toronto, On.

Ducks swim by and I think of my grandpère

Memories surface ~ of beaches, of woodworking, of

Anthems sung in French, of hospital dances to “My Girl,”

Of shared birthday parties and shared smiles.

Shall we share another birthday grandpère? A toast

To ducks and how they will always tether me to you, to

Great loves and losses, to softening our defenses, to

Letting go and the love that rushes in.  Je t’aime.

I reread these words and my shoulders soften, my breath deepens, my weight settles. In addition to love, what also rushes in is a sense of appreciation; how simple acts of availability lead to lessons I will never find seated behind a desk. Watching the ducks swim that day was an education in easeful integration. Trying less to integrate more doesn’t mean to give up effort, rather, simply to allow effort to be responsive, not defensive. Easier said than done I realize. But if I remember 60% of the time, I’m cool with that.

To any student reading this, be critical of what kind of ‘trying’ will serve you best and choose your own adverb–what a wonderfully agentive course that would be!

With the broadest interpretation of the phrase, happy back to school! If you feel your shoulders begin to tense, or your jaw begin to clench, try a little soft shoe tap dance and remember to let go a little…something useful is waiting to rush in.

Have a moving week,

Linda xo

Metaphor 3: tango is like pottery is like a rose…

Spiral; adj, coiling or developing around an axis in a constantly changing series of planes; helical. www.definition.com

I’m drawn to the phenomenon of spiraling, and whether it be evidenced by smoke, water, plants, or minerals, there’s something hypnotic about its particular action. Rather than the equilibrium of spinning, there’s something a little more dynamic about things that spiral: though they similarly move around a central axis, the action of spiraling also shifts planes and levels. That’s where things get interesting.

             …is like tango

                                           is like pottery

                                                                            is like a rose…

So here’s my try at playing with an open metaphor that spirals along different planes of understanding. By holding fast to a central axis, the following three reflections spiral around a central truth: when you feel lost, connect more. These are my spiraling attempts at fluency across as many planes as awareness will allow. I hope you enjoy the ride, and as always, feel moved in some way.

Reflection 1: …is like tango…

I started taking tango lessons in the winter of 2011. I wanted to learn more about intimacy and was moved to study tango. From an outsider’s perspective, this particular style of dance seemed wisest to me in its understanding of intimacy. Very slowly, lesson after lesson, I began to understand the subtleties of the frame: how two people connect and communicate through movement. It was about listening, not showing. About waiting, not anticipating. About elasticity, not steps.

What I remember most from these lessons is a simple directive my teacher often repeated, something told to him by his teacher: “When you feel lost, connect more.” If I read that line in a book I would have conceptually agreed and moved on, without a bodily sense of its wisdom. But I now know what this phrase means in my body. “Connect more” means leaning in to feeling lost; listening, waiting, and responding with your whole sensory self. Dancing. “Connect more” means respecting the frame. And as my teacher remarked once after months of practice, “that felt so free!” He was referring to how easy the movement felt when I remembered to connect to our frame. It seems the notions of freedom and connection are interrelated in the dance of intimacy, an insight that would have eluded me were it not for a shift in perspective from observer to student. Bring on the lessons!

“When you feel lost, connect more.”

Reflection 2: …is like tango is like pottery…

If you are right handed, the wheel spins counter-clockwise. If you are left handed, the wheel spins clockwise. This was the second lesson I learned while taking a six week pottery course early this summer. With a flick of the switch on the side panel of the potter’s wheel, my instructor changed the direction of spin, helping me adapt and feel a little less awkward. The first lesson however, “be sure to centre your clay on the wheel” proved to be a much harder task. What my teacher demonstrated with ease the rest of us struggled to reproduce for the remainder of our first class. Many unsuccessful attempts were made to learn how to shape a ‘left-handed’ bowl or cup, many resulting in a muddy mess. Armed with a sense of humour and a little tenacity, I soon developed a keen appreciation for the importance of centering the clay. My teacher reminded us to anchor one of our arms to our body as we worked with the clay, otherwise, the subtle wobbling of the clay would make any attempt at making a cup a precarious undertaking, resulting in uneven walls that would eventually collapse under the momentum of the spin. It’s all a spiralling, sensitive balancing act. It’s all about connection.

“Be sure to centre your clay.” My left-handed loot.

Over the weeks I developed a particular reverence for the process of centering the clay: begin by choosing the appropriate direction of spin (clockwise, counter-clockwise), add a little water to the clay and gently press on the wheel’s pedal, anchor your arm into your side and create a frame for the clay. Spiral the clay up and down until the wobbling is but a whisper and the clay is centered. Now begin crafting your bowl. I began to think about how similar the student perspectives of learning pottery and tango were, both crafts attend to the subtleties of moving form; listening, waiting, responding, centering. Both wise metaphors on many planes of experience.

Reflection 3: …is like tango is like pottery is like a rose…

Observations and Musings on the direction of spin – May 19th, 2017

I and this rose are similar ~ we process light

Blooming in layers of concentric colour and

Shadow, unravelling our fragrance. We both happen.

This is our sacred kinship ~ we bloom as we bloom.

Unfurling gently, without effort, rooted in earth and sky, conversing with the in-betweenness of it all.

She is my sister. Only yesterday did we share the same likeness

potentiality in the soil ….. rain loving us both into being.

My sister and I bloom as we bloom…

Opening in fragrant happenings.

 

Spiralling perspectives ~ Round and Round we go

My experiences of learning to tango are resonant with my experiences of learning how to make a bowl, and my experiences at the potter’s wheel are resonant with my kinship with a rose. It’s all dancing, blooming, connecting, unfurling, happening. I take comfort in the central axis of this coiling metaphor: when you feel lost, connect more. Be it to each other, to a piece of clay, or to nature. A sense of freedom may bloom ~

I’m grateful to my many teachers for reminding me where center is.

Have a great week and thank you for taking the time to read.

Linda xo

 

 

Metaphor 2: the currents that dance us

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Shunruy Suzuki, in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal talks on Zen meditation and practice (1970)

Hello, and thank you for visiting. By continuing this blog/hiking trip, I hope you might resonate with some of my musings, and better yet, I hope they elicit musings of your own; new paths to venture along, or perhaps, revisiting old ones with new eyes. Because curiosity is the fuel of discovery.

Braiding experience and dancing with insights

In my quest for stillness, I’ve since discovered it doesn’t exist. I’ve also discovered that everything oscillates, and integration enlivens experience. I’ve discovered these insights through the convergence and braiding of three personal practices: spiritual, dance, and hiking. Retiré spiral and circle exercise–two particular dance exercises I practice–continue to be places of inquiry, places of becoming, places of home. Not the stable kind of home one might associate with an enclosure of permanence, rather, retiré spiral and circle exercise function as dynamic places of return: generative places of discovering and attending to the minute oscillations of a body in motion. A body as motion. From an insider’s perspective, I’ve observed how tiny sensory oscillations signal an awareness that fixity is illusory, that everything wiggles with relationality, and that everything is interconnected. Stillness doesn’t exist.

The following reflections, when seen together, trace a trajectory of how particular experiences and insights have become emplaced in dance practice. Whether it be hiking trips, sitting practice, or sweaty rehearsals, it’s all the same thing. Everything converges.

 Reflection 1: “a calm lake is never only a calm lake”

September 2nd, 2013. Lake of Two Rivers, Algonquin Park, Ontario.

Took a short ride to the island. Sat in practice, did some retiré spirals, went to take shelter under the trees when it rained, then explored a little further before getting back in the canoe for a long ride round the lake.

September 3rd, 2013. Lake of Two Rivers, Algonquin Park, Ontario.

(Written on the eastern shore of Lake of Two Rivers, awaiting help after unsuccessfully trying to canoe back to the Western shore.)

Five things I learned getting stranded on the eastern shore:

  1. Going against the current takes a lot of hard work. The gains will be small and hard won (swearing to the wind doesn’t help). Only simple directives are useful: one stroke at a time, keep an eye on the tree-line, disregard your aching muscles.
  2. Surrendering to the will of the current is just that, a surrender of your will.
  3. Born of necessity, a new path reveals itself, and with humility I follow it.
  4. With some creativity and a letting go of pride, help manifests.
  5. Waiting for help opens the heart.

September 4th, 2013. Lake of Two Rivers, Algonquin Park, Ontario.

(Written after a second difficult canoe ride, narrowly averting being stranded once again)

Again with the fucking current and the wind! Whatever path I intended to take today was rerouted by the will of the wind…Twice I attempted to turn and row facing forward, to no avail. Finally, when I got close enough to the island, the current let up for me to come ashore.

So here I sit, distilling my second struggle with the wind, all giving way to a feeling of defeat. Keep rowing, keep paddling, try a new tactic, or know when to abandon one. I think that’s it, knowing when to let go and when to push through. Be vigilant, a calm lake is never only a calm lake. From where I sit the glassy surface of the water looks calm, but at its centre, currents play.

 Reflection 2: ‘I’ as generator

November 13th, 2016. Toronto, Ontario. Excerpt from a school paper.

 A couple of years ago I stopped using the word ‘hold’ when referencing the action of stability. What became clear to me was the ineptitude of the word in relation to moments of apparent stillness. I thought of my meditation teacher’s comment to me years back; “we are all generators” she said. I began to discover just how resonant this comment was as I practiced retiré spiral. Trying to ‘hold’ positions felt unskillful now. Instead, what if I was always in a state of letting go? Continuously so. What if ‘balance’ was the action of recreation? Letting go of the physical impulse to ‘hold’ was liberating, and with it came a sense of agency; an awareness of self as generator. “Keep generating the shape” became my verbalized cue to students. “Keep expressing the shape.” What I wasn’t conscious of at the time was the inherent shift in identity that such a change in perspective entailed: the ‘I’ as generator supplanted the ‘I’ that wills fixity, the ‘I’ that controls.

Braiding experience

Through the practices of teaching, hiking, and retiré spiral, I’ve come to deepen my understanding of another saying my teacher often repeated, “Balance is motion.” Dancing was the laboratory through which I came to integrate what I’ve read in books countless times before: a fixed self is illusory. As Shunryu Suzuki states, “What I call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.” Identity is in a constant state of flux, and ‘holding’ postures is like trying to paddle against the current. Balance is motion. It’s conversant. The mind let’s go of its will to ‘hold’ and allows the body to respond, to connect with the flow of the currents that dance us.

Thank you again for your curiosity and for reading.

Have a moving week,

Linda xo