Taking in the empty space I felt good, thoughtful and ready. There comes a point in time where you know what you know, and you know that that knowledge must be shared. It is bubbling up inside you, it bangs at your chest to be let out. I finally let it out like a breath held for too long…
For the past year I have been studying the conjunction and interplay between Zen meditation and movement. As someone who is both an anthropologist and a dancer, I was attracted to the idea of conducting a study looking at how dance is meditative for dancers, performers, dance teachers and choreographers. The results of my fieldwork, conducted both in India and the U.S., have most recently culminated in a Movement Meditation Workshop held One Big Roof in downtown Saratoga Springs.
During this exercise, I spoke about the concept of Beginner’s Mind – an idea quite crucial to my studies of movement meditation. I articulated the importance of keeping an open mind, discouraging ideas of judgment or comparison. Beginner’s Mind is also known as Big Mind or Buddha Nature, which is something we all have within us, but because we have been conditioned to constantly compare ourselves in order to know ourselves, it is harder to discover. I expressed to them the importance of cultivating their inner child – each person moves, dances and creates wonderfully just simply as they are. Humans are constantly growing and changing, so we must be open minded towards all experiences. You don’t have to be “good” or “skilled” at something in order to take part in it . . . “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few” (Suzuki, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind).
Just as much as I was teaching them, they too were teaching me. We next sat in a circle and meditated for five minutes. I explained the fieldwork I had done in South India with Bharatanatyam dancers, and then got into a more philosophical and theoretical discussion of Zen teachings, which led seamlessly into a discussion of sitting Zazen and a five-minute meditation/exploration of Zen meditation. After each different exercise I would check in with the group – I wanted to hear how it felt to improvise movement, and what was different between meditation with no instruction versus meditation with the specific knowledge of how to sit Zazen and the philosophies behind it. This seemed to foster an open, comfortable, and exploratory space in which people felt moved to describe their own personal experiences, while also listening to others.
But once we got into the walking meditation part of the workshop – plain walking and then with added movement – that is when both the discussions and the movers themselves began to flourish. Through repetition, and teaching the arm and leg movements separately, I successfully taught and conducted my first bit of movement meditation, and my students were quite receptive to it! Many felt that the added movement helped them focus on the breath, and the repetition of the movement put them in something like a focused trance. Some of my students expressed getting too caught up in trying to remember the movement, which took away from the walking being meditative.
The next exercise seemed to bridge this gap. I had everyone come up with their own repetitive sequence of movement to add to their walking meditation. Because each person came up with the movement on their own, once they repeated it a couple times, many found it quite easy to be in a focused and aware state. Their own inherent movement was not something they had to worry about memorizing because they had created it, therefore the addition of the movement to the walking helped their focus and enabled unrestricted breath. The most beautiful thing about this exercise was that the movement that each person came up with was so gorgeous and interesting – I wanted to combine them all into a short piece of choreography!
As the final exercise of the workshop, I had choreographed a short combination influenced by both Modern dance and Classical Indian dance. I performed it for my participants and then broke it down, short section by short section in order to teach it to them. Although I would not immediately identify myself as a patient person in general, when it comes to teaching movement, I am extremely patient because I am fascinated by the exchange between the brain and the body of each individual mover. Because I have been in many traditional dance classes, I know how hard it can be to learn a combination on the spot. One is expected to see the movement, intellectualize it, commit it to memory and then dance it perfectly and with added emotion and style. Often dance teachers give their students very little time to learn the movement, which in turn adds this sense of urgency that can be very off putting and debilitating. And on top of this there is always an expectation that you will look exactly like the dancer teacher, and that that is what makes you a “good dancer”.
Some of my participants found it helpful for me to create a narrative that I said out loud as each movement led to the next, for others that was slightly more distracting, but in the end something truly incredible occurred. “Dancers” and “non-dancers” a like learned the choreography and wanted to repeat it over and over again because it made them feel good. There was no judgment in the room at that moment especially, and everyone was moving so beautifully and uniquely – the greatest part was not a single person looked like me. Each and every person seemed to have uncovered their Beginner’s Mind, even if just for two hours.