Category Archives: bodily movement

The Pain of Being a Bodily Self

When everything hurts, how do you find new moves to make?

I wake up feeling really depressed. My lower right leg is outright aching, as if sirens are sounding in every cell. My hips hurt. My heart hurts. I feel defeated by the silence around the release of my latest project, unloved, unlovable, trying so hard to give a gift, and failing. Why bother? The pain of the world flattens me. I don’t want to do anything except slip back into sleepy oblivion. But I am awake. The rest of my family is still asleep.

I go downstairs, make a fire in the woodstove, have some breakfast, and go outside to feed the chickens and our small calf Cypress. I see the setting moon, the winter blue sky, the grass greenly peeking through crusty snow, and none of it moves me. I want to run. I desperately need to run. But I am afraid – afraid that the pain in my legs and hips will stop me.

Back inside, I settle my right hip on top of a lacrosse ball and roll around so that the ball presses into the surrounding tissue. I gasp with pain. I breathe into it. The ache in my lower leg eases. Maybe there is some hope. I get dressed to run and go outside again. I start to move, slowly at first, pushing through one leg and then the other, hoping and praying that I won’t feel too much pain. I feel OK. It seems like a miracle.

The wind bites my cheeks but the sun beckons me on. I can feel its warmth through my jacket. I pick up the pace a tiny bit. Tension in my chest, that I didn’t know I had, releases. Space to breathe that I had lost returns. In response to these sensations, I take a deep breath and then a deeper breath, and suck in clear, clear air that cuts through the murk in my soul. I let the world exhale me, softly. My shoulders drop an inch. Heat gathers in my belly, rising up my spine. Layers of anxiety, hardened overnight, soften.

I exhale as fully and forcefully as I had drawn the air in, emptying myself out into the trees, brambles, bushes, and bulrushes around me. I let the cleansing cold stream in, pure. Holy. It cools my distress. Churning thighs motor on, pressing me against the wind, as I lean into it. With every footfall, gravity lurches me forward and the earth catches me. Lurch and catch. I throw my bodily self into space and the ground steadies me, guiding me onward. Again. And Again. I think of the dancer Martha Graham: I choose not to fall.

One mile. Two miles. Three. Four. I start sweating. It feels good. Shades fall from my eyes, and I begin to see in such a way that I am touched by what appears to me. By the time I arrive home, I can see that the blue in the sky reaches from the heavens to wrap me in goodness. I can see that the green blades are resilient and upright, adorned and not burdened by ice crystals glowing white. I can see the eyes of our small Cypress, peering out from her fluffy fuzzball face, all ready for winter. Adorable.  I can see a perfect round egg, warm in my palm, laid by one of our hens, as a gift left for me. And I thank them all.

I stretch my calves on the steps leading to the door of the house, letting my weight sink my heels down and feeling the delicious release that happens in muscles when the work is done. I put my right leg up on the railing, allowing one hamstring to remember its length. Then the other. My sensory awareness plays along muscle planes that gesture to infinity. Words of Nietzsche come to mind: So what if you have failed? How much is still possible? How much is still possible?

Inside, water from the tap tastes so good. I drink deeply. I cook my one egg. A sweet hunger opens to receive it. I don’t want more, only enough to stay open to this sweetness. More words of Graham come to mind: Stay hungry, and keep eating. And I know. Without the pain in my leg, I wouldn’t have rolled my hips on the ball, and found that release. Without the pain in my heart, I wouldn’t have needed to run so badly. Without a tumultuous, unpredictable, unruly desire to live, where would I be?

I recommit to living my life as a bodily self.

***

Living life as a bodily self is not easy. To commit to it is to practice paying attention to what you feel – all of it – the pain, the depression, the distress, the longing, the dissatisfaction, the disappointment. The despair. And the fear that these pains of all kinds will prevent you from doing and being and becoming who you are. From giving what you have to give. From achieving all you want to achieve.

But time and again, I have found the reverse is true. The pain that looms as an obstacle and threat is so often the very condition that enables a breakthrough. It’s the wisdom of our vulnerable, relational, empathic bodily selves expressing itself in a way our wayward minds will listen — a wisdom that we can open to receive when we commit to feeling and moving. We can squirm, wiggle, and shake; or dance, play or run, so long as we loosen and expand our mental grip enough to receive what our responsive selves remember. That giving is good. That movements matter. That earth and multitudes of earth’s communities live through us.

We can numb our pain, covering it up with sensory distractions; we can find a pleasant pleasure that fades as soon as we start to wake up. Or we can get ourselves moving, and open up to be healed by the earth of which we are one active, enabling part. We can move into a sensory space where the earth sparks us to respond, coaxing forth a will to create and participate. When the sizzle of sensory awareness crackles, we feel the blast of being alive, grateful for calf eyes and resilient greens; for the planet who pulls us close and presses us up, the forces that move us along, and the currents that breathe us to life. How much is still possible?

Now I feel better.

What Your Movement Signature Reveals About You

Check it out on Psychology Today:

American modern dancer Martha Graham claimed that she could tell everything about a dancer by the way he walked across the floor of the studio. Walking – head lifted, chest opened, legs long – revealed a person’s attitude towards life, and whether he greeted life with avidity, stepped tentatively into the unknown, or charged with false bravado against unseen resistance. As Graham intoned, “Movement never lies.”

Recently, in an effort to identify movement patterns in individual humans that are “distinct, detectable, and durable,” a group of French and Australian researchers developed a way to measure the “movement signatures” of eighty healthy men and women. As Gretchen Reynolds reports in this week’s New York Times, the researchers attached electrodes to eight muscles in each participant’s leg, and asked the participants to pedal on a stationary bike, then walk on a treadmill in ninety second intervals of varying intensity, and come back for a second session to repeat the two exercises.

After researchers compiled each participant’s “muscular activation” data, they fed data from the first session into a pattern-learning AI software program. When they gave the computer unspecified muscular activation data, the machine was able to identify the participant to whom the movement patterns belonged 99 percent of the time for data from the first session, and 91 percent for data from the second – data it had never seen.

The researchers interpreted their findings as proof that every human individual has a movement signature – “subtle, interior movement patterns” – that are as singular as a fingerprint and are easily detectable by a machine, even when that machine is given muscular activation data from only eight (out of over six hundred) muscles, recorded in the performance of only two common activities.

As responses to the article confirm, this insight is “old news” to many dancers, athletes, martial artists, and those involved in somatic and alternative movement practices. As Graham observed, even when asked to do the same simple movement, no two humans do it alike. Yet she went further, and claimed that those differences are revelatory. What does a movement signature reveal?

For one, the nature of our bodily selves. The fact that we have a movement signature suggests that our bodies are not biological entities that take shape and then learn to move in idiosyncratic ways. Even Reynolds and the researchers seem to presume as much when they identify the implications of this study: improving sports training; refining robotics, prosthetics, physical therapy and personalized exercise programs; or serving as “coal-mine canaries for disease or injury risk.”

These stated implications presume that a body is a self-enclosed set of genetic instructions that learns to move, even if it does so uniquely. They assume that if we can identify “its” durable print, then “we” can manipulate “it” more effectively.

Yet the implication of having a movement signature is that a body is not a thing that moves, but itself made by movement. Movement is the “stuff” out of which a body is made.

If we have a movement signature at any point in our lives, then we have one from the very beginning – from the moment of conception. That signature goes all the way down. And if it does, then “we,” as clusters of cells, are moving in unique patterns before the shape of our bodily self emerges. As a result, the movement patterns that our cells are making as brain and limbs emerge inevitably influence the development of our material form itself.

In fact, there is new evidence that our brains develop in response to this fetal movement as a way to record it. The movements I make pull my body – my senses, systems, organs, and abilities – into form as memories of what has moved me (e.g., light, sound, touch, rhythm, oxygen, nutrients, water, mother), and as trajectories along which future movements shuttle to new degrees. The twitching of the fetus in the womb, the constant gyrations of infants when awake, and the wiggle and wriggles of toddlers, represent the active matrix of relational movement possibilities that comes into being as the bones and muscles and tactile-kinetic coordination of a specific adult human.

The fact that I have an identifiable movement signature, then, implies that my body itself is a dynamic field of movement potentials. It is (and I am) a bodily self. The bodily self that I am is a record of every movement I have made in relation to every other movement that has made me. It is a record of what happened when I made that movement, and what might happen if I make it again. It is the ever-evolving collection of kinetic templates through which I am always becoming conscious of the world around me and within me; it is the font of possible responses I create.

I see what I see because of the way bouncing light has taught my eyes to move. I grasp what I grasp because of the way objects in gravity have taught my hands to move. I think what I think because I’ve made the bodily movements of reading, studying, rearranging, sorting, comparing. Even movements that might seem inward or hidden, like my thoughts and feelings, stand revealed – for those who know how to discern them – in the way I move.

What this study implies, then, goes beyond the need for individualized physical interventions: Every human person, in order to know and honor herself, would do well to engage in some kind of practice that helps her learn to be a responsible movement-maker. Doing so is a fundamental, enabling condition not only of personal health and well-being, but of the health and well being of social relationships, larger communities, and the earth itself. We need to dance.

Really?

If a body is movement all the way down, then the process of learning what it is – who I am, what I can do for others, what hurts and what heals – can not be a process of simply paying mindful attention to “it.” The process of learning who I am is inseparable from the process of my bodily self becoming what it is as “it” moves in ways that evolve me beyond who I was. In other words, I know my bodily self as I exert and release beyond myself, and follow and flow in response.

Dance, for one, is a practice that not only requires such learning, it makes it the focus of the activity. By “dance” here, I am referring to a movement practice that invites us to learn new patterns of bodily movement as a means for expressing ourselves. These patterns may be codified or free form. The bodily movements may be dictated by abstract shapes or inner impulses. What gets expressed in this sense is not an idea or feeling that needs to get out; what gets expressed is a potential for movement-making – a potential for using movement to sense and respond to and thus create and reveal the relationships that make us and the world real.

In dance, the task of learning new patterns of movement is a rhythm the draws on whatever sensory awareness a person has become up to that point. In learning a new movement, a dancer acts and receives. She exerts the energy and effort to mobilize her bodily self, and receives the sensory information that doing so generates in her. With that new sensory awareness, she acts to move again. In this process, a bodily self becomes what it is — capable (or not) of making a set of life-enabling movements in relation to whatever forces, energies, people, environments, or goals move her.

For example, as I move through a leg bend or plie, I receive the sensory information of where in that movement where I am stuck, sore, or held. As I repeat the movement, I allow the sensory awareness of that pain to guide me to make adjustments that release the tension and do not reproduce the pain. As I welcome another round of sensory responses, I adjust again, until I can release fully into a clear arc of movement that strengthens my capacity to move some more. Practicing dance in this way, I can learn to access and align with the healing wisdom of my bodily self.

In this rhythm, a dancer is both agent and recipient; he practices moving intentionally and being moved by his own bodily knowledge. He learns to give himself to the movements of his bodily self, only to have the movement give him back to himself, changed. And the sensory awareness he cultivates gives him a precious resource for moving more consciously in all moments of his life – whether he is eating food, interacting with a furious child, or choosing his life’s work.

A final implication of this study, then, is that dance traditions are rivers of knowledge about how to cultivate effective ways of moving in relation to sources of life-enabling power. Every dance tradition that endures does so in so far as the patterns of movement it guides people to make have served to help at least some people access the power and pleasure of their own movement-making.

Of course, not every dance tradition or technique works for every bodily self. Every style of dancing has its own history, contexts, and aesthetic. Dance itself, like any primary pleasure (such as food, sex, spiritual attainment), can become an object of addiction – an outlet for thwarted desires. Even professional dancers, and especially professional dancers, need to remember to keep cultivating the sensory awareness of their own movement making as a guide, and not get caught up in the pursuit of abstract forms.

However, in so far as we humans exist in the medium of movement making, practices of dancing also offer us one of the best resources we have for cultivating a sense of the value and wisdom of our bodily selves. Through dance, we can learn to discern which styles of dance remain faithful to this wisdom. The challenge is to find an approach that meets your bodily self where you currently are — as the patterns of movement you have created and become — and helps you express your own signature in accord with what heals.

If you can’t find one, invent one.

Graham was a particularly astute observer of kinetic shapes. Rest assured that not everyone has the ability to see a self in a walk. Still, if anyone learns to read your ever-evolving signature, let it be you!

 

References

François Hug, Clément Vogel, Kylie Tucker, Sylvain Dorel, Thibault Deschamps, Éric Le Carpentier, and Lilian Lacourpaille. Individuals have unique muscle activation signatures as revealed during gait and pedaling. 14 Oct 2019https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.01101.2018

Reynolds, Gretchen. “Something in the Way We Move: We may each have a movement ‘signature’ that, like our face or fingerprints, is unique to us.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/23/well/move/something-in-the-way-we-move.html?te=1&nl=well&emc=edit_hh_20191024?campaign_id=18&instance_id=13319&segment_id=18180&user_id=0f6fd25a998ff59f1880a7e150a81e21&regi_id=47270092. Accessed October 30, 2019.

 

 

Remembering Slavery: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The central theme in The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new novel about slavery in 19th century Virginia, is easy to grasp: memory is life. In the words of Harriet Tubman, a character in the book: “To forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die… memory is a bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom” [sic]. The corollary of this theme is less accessible:  the act of remembering, Harriet insists, is “just like dancing.”

The Water Dancer has a lot to say about how the memory that liberates works. For Harriet, as well as for the novel’s narrator, Hiram (Hi) Walker – a slave, or one of the “Tasked” – the act of remembering feelings and experiences provides a way to access a magical power called Conduction that they can use to move themselves and others from “the coffin” of the South to freedom in the North. It is when Harriet is teaching Hi how to go on this memory trip that she says: “It’s just like dancing.” But how?

The Water Dancer begins a year earlier in the middle of Hi’s second experience of Conduction. He is nineteen, and drowning in a river at night, when he sees a vision of a woman wreathed in blue light, dancing with an earthen jug filled with water on her head. “No matter her high knees, no matter her dips and bends, her splaying arms, the jar stayed fixed on her head like a crown.” He recognizes the water dancer: she is his mother. Her dancing guides him towards the light. He is found on land, two miles away from the river, not knowing how he got there.

Other than this tantalizing vision, Hi cannot remember his mother. When he was nine, his father, the white plantation owner Howell Walker, or the “Quality,” sold his mother Rose, a Tasked, to another of the Quality. When Hi was eleven, his father, appreciating Hi’s otherwise phenomenal memory, invited Hi to work in the big house. Hi learned to read and write, and served as a slave for Hi’s older brother by a different mother. When thinking about his mother, all Hi sees is fog.

Hi cannot remember his mother, and he also doesn’t dance. When his friend Sophie asks if he can, he replies: “Not even a little.” The excuse he gives is that, in this respect, he “favors” his father. Like the Quality, he doesn’t dance. Sophie chides him: “Ain’t about favor, Hi, it’s about doing.”

Later, as the Tasked celebrate the Holidays together and dancing begins, Hi just watches. He notices that the dance begins and blooms “seemingly of its own accord.” A circle forms, and in the middle he sees Sophie, dancing a water dance, “a flurry of limbs, but all under control,” just like his mother in his blue-lit vision. Sophie sees Hi, slides the jug off her head, and gives him a sip. He drinks the whole jug, but still doesn’t dance.

Hi then spends the bulk of the novel gathering the experiences that will enable him to access his memories of his mother and his power to Conduct. He tries to run to freedom and is jailed, chained, molested, tossed in a pit, hunted by night, and finally freed into the care of the Underground. He learns to spy and hide; to forge documents and find friends; to trust and be trusted. He learns that freedom is its own kind of master, requiring his service. He trains as an agent for the Underground. His love for Sophie carries him through, and he vows to save her from slavery, as she has saved him.

As Hi matures through these experiences, he also learns the significance of dance. Dancing is not only what his mother and Aunt Emma did fabulously well when the Tasked would gather together in the woods at the end of the week, far from the eyes of the Quality. Nor is it only what his African grandmother, Santi Bess, did when she led forty-eight Tasked into the River Goose, and disappeared.

As his first contact with the Underground, Corinne Quinn, explains to him: “the most degraded field-hand, on the most miserable plot in Mississippi, [knows] more of the world than any overstuffed, forth-holding American philosophe… And the lords and ladies of our country know this. This is why they are so in thrall of the dance and song of your people. It is an unwritten library stuffed with a knowledge of this tragic world, such that it defies language itself.”

Corrine is Quality. She is also Underground, fighting for freedom. From her vantage point between worlds, Tasked dancing affords insight and wisdom that escapes language. As such, dancing not only appears on par with a written library as equally illuminating, it also reveals the hypocrisy of those who claim exclusive knowledge over others. As Corinne claims: “Power makes slaves of masters, for it cuts them away from the world they claim to comprehend.”

As dance scholar Katrina Hazzard-Gordon explains, in the Yoruban traditions from which many of the Virginian Tasked came, dance is the medium in which  people learn about, commune with, and are moved by the spirits or Orisha. Of particular importance to  enslaved Africans was Yemaya, the water goddess, Mother of All, Mother of the Ocean where all life begins, and the fierce protector of mothers and children. Dances performed for Yemaya consist of swirling, spiraling movements, like waves snatched by the wind. Water dances.

Yet, Africans relocated to the United States didn’t just bring knowledge of how to do particular steps. They brought knowledge of how to use dancing as a medium for creating relationships with the powerful forces in their lives. Their ability to dance was the primary means left to them for exercising their autonomy and creating a way of life for themselves distinct from that of the slave owners. They not only used familiar patterns as material for communicating in new ways with one another across ethnic and linguistic differences, they evolved new dances. Through dancing, the enslaved had a method for moving with joy in the world they were given. For feeling free. For remaking the world.

Still, Hi can’t dance. Now free, attending a large gathering of people fighting to end the slavery of women, children, Africans and more, he hears the drums and songs of a dance beginning. “I felt them tugging at me, I felt myself swaying in the August heat. It was all too much. I left and went to roam.” The next day he meets Harriet who teaches him that memory is the key to Conduction.

In the end, Sophie is the person who helps Hi understand the significance of the water dance, and thus opens a path to remembering his mother. She tells Hi a story of an African king who took control of the slave ship that was carrying him and his people across the ocean. When the army of Quality approaches, the king tells his people to dance on the water, “to sing and dance as they walked” because “the water-goddess brought ‘em here, and the water goddess would take ‘em back home.” Yemaya. Sophie continued, “And when we dance as we do, with the water balanced on our head, we are giving praise to them who danced on the waves. We have flipped it, you see? As we must do all things, make a way out of what is given… ‘It’s like dancing.’” To flip it. To find a way out. To feel the joy amidst the losses, the freedom in the midst of slavery. To remember it all, and keep dancing.

Hi finally realizes what is keeping him from remembering his mother. “I was too young to survive with the memory.” The memory was too powerful. It would have wrenched him apart and destroyed him. So he had to forget it until he had learned how to “flip it,” how to “stay with the sound” and the story, how to hold open sensory space in his bodily being for accepting both his losses and his loves, his Quality father and his Tasked mother. As he insists, “there is no pure.”

Hi is finally able to embrace “the warmth of the muck… The facing of facts”: he vows to love as his own the child that his father’s brother forced upon Sophie. Only then can he access the memory of his mother, of himself, that enables him to Conduct his first slave to freedom. As he does, he sees people dancing – his mother, his aunt, and many others — and then in chains. “I do believe my mother, my aunt Emma, danced as they did because they knew what good there was could not last.” Hi vows to keep remembering… so that the dance may continue.

The Water Dancer renders vivid the task of remembering slavery for everyone involved, regardless of race. It is not just about recalling life-denying experiences of oppression; it is about staying with the sound of the story; feeling the tug of the drum and moving with it. It is about cultivating the sensory strength to feel the pain as a reason to choose love over anger, vengeance, and pride again and again, in the midst of the muck. It is creative and bodily; it involves discipline and skill. It’s just like dancing.

The Perils of People Pleasing

It is a sentiment familiar to most humans: a desire to please the people around us. We want people to be happy. We want people to be happy with us. We want to be the good friend, partner, mother, daughter, colleague, or relation. So we act in ways that we think will make another person happy… with us.

Often, when rooted in a genuine concern for the other person, a desire to please pleasing works beautifully. It impels a person to pay attention to the feelings and well being of other people. It inspires thoughtful and considerate actions. People pleasers are nice.

When a people pleaser’s words and actions land well, those pleased often respond with corresponding acts of appreciation and consideration. This exchange creates abundant good will, as well as feelings of closeness and understanding. The two feel that they can trust each other to look out for them, and take care of them in times of need.

However, the desire to please does not always work. Sometimes a word or deed intended to please can rub the wrong way, trigger an angry response, or hurt in ways that baffle the person who wants to please.

In such moments, the perils of people pleasing surface. A people pleaser may attack the very person he is trying to please. I have witnessed this dynamic in many relationships – in families, workplaces, communities, and among friends.

For example, one people pleaser, Amy, says something that Bob finds hurtful. When Bob shows signs of being hurt, Amy protests: “It’s not my fault,” “I was just doing what you do,” “You’re too sensitive,” “It’s just who I am – how I talk,” or “I didn’t mean it.”

In such a moment, Amy is invested in pleasing Bob: she doesn’t want Bob to be hurt; she doesn’t want to have caused the hurt; she doesn’t want to be blamed for the hurt; and she doesn’t want to be wrong. So she ends up arguing why she has every right to do what she did in hurting him.

Bob, further upset by her response to his pain, responds: “Yes, you did mean it!” “It is your fault!” “It really hurts!” Bob defends the fact that he is hurt; he feels compelled to explain why he hurts, so that Amy gets it. He dramatizes it. He blames Amy. In doing so, Bob pushes Amy to harden her stance. She is indignant to be criticized so harshly for something she did not want or mean or intend to do. Each response escalates the encounter, fueling feelings of resentment and distrust, without going anywhere or solving anything!

The great irony of such moments is that a deep desire to please ends up fomenting the very opposite of what it wants.

Rather than dig in and defend her actions, Amy needs to move with Bob. She needs to apologize and let it land – to say sorry – not necessarily for what she did, but at least for the fact that Bob feels hurt. Amy needs to move with Bob long enough to defuse his hurt and open space in which they can see one another.

Why is it so hard – in those moments when our people pleasing fails to please – to find the energy and the courage to move with the other?

A desire to please can sometimes lose its moorings and float free of genuine concern for another human person. When a people pleaser succeeds in pleasing, that feeling can be addictive. The people pleaser can start to rely on those feelings of succeeding in order to feel good about herself. She relies on those feelings in order to feel like she is doing a good job as a teacher, mother, sibling, or friend, etc. In such cases, a desire to please can easily slide into a need to control other people so as to avoid conflict, or a strategy for protecting oneself from other people’s disappointment or distress.

If a desire to please is unmoored in these ways, a people pleaser is vulnerable. He may be terrified by the feeling that he is not succeeding in pleasing another. He feels threatened. He may panic, afraid that the relationship is in danger, or that he is not “good enough.” He gets stuck. He cannot move with the other, and instead attacks.

So what can people pleasers do to stay flexible and responsive?

I found myself in a such a situation this week. I was with my kids at a local pond, and we were all doing back flips off a floating dock. As each child took a turn, I offered comments and suggestions meant to be helpful. One child was having difficulty starting – because he wanted to do it perfectly – and when this child finally launched, I said “Good job!” without giving specific feedback. I didn’t want to block his progress.

By the time we got home, this child was furious with me. Why? He said that I was treating him differently. Not giving him the same constructive criticism as I gave the others. I was thereby admitting, in his mind, that he was not as good.

I felt my own need-to-please rise within me. I wanted to say: “You were so upset I didn’t want to make it worse.” Or “I was just trying to help!” Or “I didn’t want to say the wrong thing! That wasn’t my intention.” In other words, my first impulse was to defend myself and prove to my child that I was being a “good mom.” What would he hear? That I was blaming him for being unreasonable and difficult. That is not what I wanted.

I swallowed hard and moved with him. Inside his anger, I could see what he wanted – affirmation from me – which is exactly what I wanted to give. I spoke: “I’m sorry. Thanks for telling me. I understand better what I can do next time.” His anger shifted. It released just enough that we could find our way back to a sense of connection and move on.

The moment reminded me of how people pleasers help ourselves move with the people we fail to please.

First, know that the fact that you feel like you have failed means that you wanted to succeed. It means that you know what it feels like to succeed. Affirm this desire to connect as good. Know that whether or not a gift is received as you hoped, the giving is good. Let yourself give!

Second, know that every time you fail, that failure is not a judgment. It is an opportunity. Don’t take it personally. Use it to learn more about how to communicate in ways that will be received as love. Know that failure is an illuminating step on a journey towards mutual understanding.

Later that day I found myself on the other side of a similar people-pleasing situation: someone else in my life was trying to please me. She was holding back from being honest with me because she was afraid I would get upset. When she told me this, I felt angry. Judged. Even attacked. I wanted to fire back: “I don’t get upset!” “What do you mean?” “Why would you say that?”  But I took a breath. What good would that do?

I took another breath. “Thank you for not wanting me to be upset. I will be more upset if you don’t tell me what you think.” Then I stopped and tried again. “The point is – don’t be afraid! Honesty is so much more important than fear! When you are honest with me, I know I can trust you. I know that you trust me. That is what I want.”

The moment reminded me of what we can do when people pleasers in our lives attack us when we are not pleased by what they do?

Take a deep breath and stand. Don’t fire back. Hear their anger – not as a desire to hurt you – but as a desire to please you. Honor it. Respond to that desire, and ask clearly for what you need. Give the other person the information that she needs to order to succeed in connecting with you.

In the end, whether you are the one trying to please or the one who isn’t pleased, the challenge is the same: to root your responses in genuine concern for the other and in a deep affirmation of your own impulse to connect.

Be vulnerable enough to notice how people around you are thinking and feeling, while strong enough to give them space to feel what they are feeling; clear enough to know that you cannot control their feelings or take them personally, and flexible enough to learn from every moment how better to communicate.

In the end, you can’t control whether or not what you do pleases someone else. You can’t make another feel what you want them to feel. You can trust your impulse to connect, and know that you are OK, regardless of how the gift lands.

Upset about climate change? Plant a garden

 

Check out my new post on Psychology Today!

The movements we make matter…

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-body-knows/201906/devastated-climate-change-plant-garden

When the ravages of climate change seem heart-breaking; when the parade of plants and animals suffering from the effects of human activity seems endless, what are we to do? How do we resist the paralyzing forces of “ecogrief,” as author Colby Devitt calls it? How do we sustain hope? Better yet, how do we do something concrete and immediate that will make a difference?

One answer: plant a garden. Wherever you live, however much space you have, inside or out, in a backyard, side yard or front yard, get a handful of seeds, put them in dirt in a place where they receive at least some sun. Water. Watch. Wait. Wonder. And eventually, eat.

Why? The obvious answer is that we save fossil fuel pollution when we consume foods that do not require refrigerated transportation, plastic packaging, or processing other than our own cleaning, cooking, and storing. These moves matter.

Yet, I’m a philosopher who looks at how the bodily movements we make open new possibilities of thinking, feeling, and acting. From this perspective, creating a garden, taking care of it, and eating from it can cultivate in us an experience-based mindset that is hopeful, resilient and effective in the face of devastating odds.

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Our vegetable garden this year is about 30 feet by 40 feet. So far, we have planted: green beans, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, Swiss chard, basil, parsley, oregano, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, summer squash, radishes, mustard greens, bok choy and two kinds of lettuce, as well as strawberries, and in another location, blueberries and raspberries.

Our garden didn’t start out this large. Ten years ago, it was tiny — a few potato plants, tomato plants, and some kale. Yet every year, we have tried to grow more, store more, and shorten the distance between the time we run out of a favorite food, and the time we harvest the next crop.

During the growing season, we spend a bit of time in the garden at the day’s end, and more on the weekends. We weed and water and watch with amazement as tiny bits of matter buried in the earth burst forth into bountiful providers of our health and happiness.

In taking care of this garden, what do we do for the earth?

1. Participate actively.

When we plant a garden, we invest our energy in the very power we want to honor and save from human harm — the earth’s generativity.

Every seed is a movement potential – a part of the earth that wants to keep moving, growing, becoming. By planting a seed, we let that movement happen. We release it. We do what this moment of the earth wants us to do: plant it, so that it can grow and give us more of what we need, so that we in turn want to plant its seeds, and then again.

There is nothing we can do to tell a seed to germinate. We can’t make it grow. All we can do is to entice it to move with sunshine, water and healthy dirt. All we can do is create the conditions in which its movement potential can unfold.

The question emerges, crystal clear: Which seeds do we want to plant? Which will be most effective in relieving the burden of our patterns of consumption? Which will grow in the place that we are, in the soil that we have, with the resources we have to support it?

2. Thin boldly.

Thinning is the process of deciding which plants will grow and which will not. To me, thinning feels like sinning (hence the allusion to Martin Luther’s “Sin boldly”). I have to nip perfectly good plants in the bud — before they have a chance to mature and flower!

I have several strategies for avoiding the pain of this action. First, I start seeds in the green house, in close quarters, and then transplant them all into the garden with the proper spacing. No thinning required. Second, I commit to eating what I thin – or give them, along with the weeds, to the chickens, who turn them into eggs.

This year, three different crops have taught me how to thin boldly. In packed rows of arugula, lettuce, and mustard greens, I thinned some plants — enough needed to eat for a particular meal.  In each case, I returned the next day to find that the remaining plants had grown more than the amount I had taken the day before. It was like a miracle. I had been forgiven. I kept taking and the plants kept giving. I learned to take just enough to always find more.

3. Heed life-enabling rhythms.

Because I have a garden, I am happy when it rains. Short of drowning floods, the garden is getting what it needs to grow. So too when the sun beats down, short of desicating the plants, I am happy for them. They are getting what they need to grow.

More important than the sun or rain, however, is the rhythm between them – the intensity and frequency of their oscillation. The garden trains me to pay attention to how long the sun beats down and how heavily the rain pounds, and to sense and respond in ways that support the earth that is taking shape in my plants.  When the rain is scarce, I water.

Because of the garden, I notice these rhythms; I rejoice in them whichever end is up, and I organize my actions in relationship to them, all the while experiencing the surge and excitement of the growth that is bubbling up around my feet.

It takes the rain and the sun to make a rainbow… and a strawberry.

4. Feel the feeling of abundance.

Abundance is a feeling, not a quantity.

When walking through a garden that you have created, when the plants are springing forth from the earth and offering themselves to you, it is difficult not to feel this feeling of abundance. The earth keeps giving, in many cases despite the extent to which we have otherwise polluted, depleted, and destroyed our natural resources. The earth does not judge. It keeps coming, responding, taking shape in new fruits. And this experience of the earth’s deep generosity breeds hope. It fosters a sense of bounty that overflows in feelings of gratitude, and in the desire to act in ways that will keep that bounty coming.

5. Do our part.

Work in a garden teaches us that humans cannot solve the problems of climate change alone. We need the help of the earth. We need to call upon and harness the earth’s ability to regenerate both itself and the sources of human well being.

When we plant a garden, we learn this fact viscerally. We let the earth help us. We realize that if we do our part, if we take small steps, then the earth will respond – the earth will meet us.  Buoyed by this hope, our steps can grow larger.

The work in the garden is itself a call — a call for the earth to recreate itself through us in line with what it needs to keep sustaining human life. In our gardens, not every plant will flourish. Not every plant will bear fruit. Disease and weeds and bugs and snails all want their share. But some plants will grow and bear fruit, and the cycles continue.

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Some experts lament the end of nature and proclaim the dawn of the Anthropocene, arguing that no part of the natural world remains untouched by human action. While this way of thinking aims to wake humans up to the extent of our responsibility, it also runs the risk of perpetuating an ideological dichotomy between nature and culture that functions to justify violence against nature as an element that is “below” culture in value and importance, and within our control.

The truth of a garden belies this distinction between nature and culture. Any act of human culture is an expression of the earth – a moment in which the earth harnesses and directs its own generative energies through the bodily actions of human beings. There never has been a human culture that did not participate in the development and exploitation of the natural forces that make bodies and minds.

The question, then, is not how to protect nature from human action, but how to be the people through whom the earth can heal itself. Which seeds do you want to plant?

Addressing climate change is not (just) about inventing technological solutions to problems we have created. Nor is it (just) about learning to love the earth in order to act differently. It is also about engaging in small acts that alert us to our own ongoing participation in the earth’s generativity; and that free the earth to rebuild itself through the movements we are making.

For additional posts on gardening, see:

Ten Reasons Why Planting a Tree is an Act of Faith

Want It All? Grow a Garden

The Mind Body Problem That Wasn’t

Posted today in Psychology Today!
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I am going to make a brief comment about a big problem.

The big problem is the “mind-body” problem.

My brief comment is that this “problem” provides ideological cover for violence perpetuated against “the body” – violence that comes to seem inevitable.

How did I get here?

The Big Problem
This mind-body “problem” assumed its modern shape in the seventeenth century in the work of philosophers and theologians who posited a distinction and even opposition between “the mind” and “the body” as difference between consciousness and a material object. Once separated, and ever since, scientists and scholars across fields have wrestled to articulate the nature of this relationship, and address the intellectual, social, personal problems caused by “fact” of this separation.

Such issues include: How does consciousness emerge from matter? What happens when we die? When does life begin or end? How do we heal our bodies? Our minds? How do we make good decisions for ourselves in the realm of health and well being, or love and relationships? How are mind and body related? How should they be related? And how do “we” make it happen?

The Brief Comment
My brief comment is inspired by an article I read about Ibram Kendi’s National Award winning book on racism, Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi argues that racism emerged in the U.S. as an ideology that justified the practice of enslaving black Africans. The economic benefits of slavery came first; the ideological rationale followed. Kendi’s conclusion: no amount of love and education is going to change the ongoing legacy of racism. What is needed are specific policies that eradicate ongoing practices of racial discrimination.

Kendi reminded me of what I know from my study of Marx: an ideology can serve as a cover – not an account of what is true, but a sugarcoating that masks the reality of what is happening and makes the pain of it palatable. Marx, for example, described religious beliefs as an “opium” that deceives laborers into thinking that God is responsible for their sense of alienation, and thus renders them unable to pinpoint the source of their suffering in capitalist relations of production.

It struck me: the mind-body problem itself is an ideology in this sense. It works to convince us that particular kinds of personal and social pain are inevitable; and then diverts our attention away from the sources of our suffering, such we are unable to address them. In this case, at least one source in question is… reading and writing.

My brief comment, then, is this: The mind-body problem provides ideological cover for the violence that practices of reading and writing require – especially in relation to “the body.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing. I love reading. I love words. But I also know that reading and writing alone are not all that humans need in order to make sure that what they do with their words aligns with their ongoing health and well being.

Explanation
The modern manifestation of the mind-body problem owes much to changes in literacy, education, and book use brought about by the invention of the printing press. Ordinary people – not just monks and rulers – began to practice sitting for lengths of time previously unimagined in order to learn to read and write. They learned to think and feel and act as if they were minds living in bodies.

In the past I have written about how the increasing time spent reading and writing created opportunities for (some) people to learn to perceive themselves as agile, mental agents living within still and sitting bodies. The mind-body dichotomy, I have argued, is a concept made possible by the sensory education of reading and writing. In this reading, the negative effects of mind-body separation are simply unintended consequences.

Now I want to take the argument a step further. The idea of mind and body as two separate and separable entities serves to justify discrimination against “the body.” In this view, the mind is the seat of the human soul/self/spirit; the body exists to serve the mind. Thus, whatever must be done to “the body” in order fully to lift and liberate the mind is worthwhile, even desirable – including learning to ignore and override one’s own sensory and kinetic awareness. We come to believe that we have to control our bodies so that they conform to our expectations; we lose touch with what our bodies know. We believe that pain involved is inevitable, and that the results are worth it. The shift from books to screens amplifies the problem, in so far as our range of motion shrinks, even as the possibility for mental stimulation via moving image and sound as well as word increases.

This shift in argument makes a difference. Why?

For one, it makes it clear, as Kendi says of racism, that love and education are not enough to heal the wound between mind and body. It is not enough to “love” our bodies. It is not enough to engage in mind-driven practices that aim to unify “mind” with “body.”  Nor is it enough to study how the evolution of modern culture requires and perpetuates an ongoing repression of bodily agency.

Our ignored and neglected bodies are a mess. They are craving, addicted, overstimulated and undernourished, over-worked and under-exercised. Our minds are anxious, addicted, and depressed. Our actions and activities have made them that way. And our solutions, so much of the time, perpetuate the problem by focusing either on mind or body to the exclusion of the other, and in particular, by ignoring the self-creating agency of a bodily self.

The practices  we need, then, are ones that gradually restore a sense of agency to our bodily selves. “We” need to recover the wisdom that resides in our capacity to move.

We don’t need to stop reading and writing all together, only sometimes – enough to engage in actions that educate our sensory awareness in complementary directions.

Seeing the mind-body problem as an oppression-enabling ideology also illuminates why dancing, as a practice and as a source of ideas is so important to us in this historical moment. To dance is a radical act. It is radical, as I describe in my book Why We Dance, because it exposes the mind-body problem as ideology. The mind-body paradigm cannot explain the persistence and prevalence of dancing. This dancing cannot be explained as a matter of a mind’s choosing to act, or a body’s submitting to communal example. The world presence of dancing can only be explained as a sign of what the mind-body problem exists to ignore: that the source of human life lies in its own relational bodily movement. 

From such practices, then, ideas will emerge that do not discriminate between mind and body when discussing knowledge, truth, wisdom, justice, goodness, health, and beauty – or gender and race.

There is no mind-body problem. There are only bodily selves, creating themselves, creating their minds, with every bodily movement that they make.

Love Your Body? The Dance of Martha Graham

Describing her “way of doing things,” American modern dancer Martha Graham (1894-1991) wrote: “It is a freedom of the body and a love of the body.” “Love” may not be the first word that comes to mind to describe the work of an artist whose early dances were so angular and austere that a critic professed she’d give birth to a cube. Yet Graham’s love of the body was fierce and full-throttle – radical for what it loves and how it loves, and for what it reveals love—and a body—to be.

In the 1920s and 30s, when Graham was developing her “way of doing things,” she rejected the word “technique.” Her approach to dance had nothing to do, she insisted, with imposing arbitrary forms onto a body and demanding its obedience to them. Instead, the “freedom” and “love” to which she aspired involved a different approach: a dancer must learn to pay attention to her bodily self; train her bodily self to move in line with its own elemental rhythms, and in time, trust her bodily self as a source of guidance and inspiration. This “way of doing things” is love.

Paying attention. Graham wanted to discover movement that was strong and significant—“fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.” She did not want her movement to “leak out” (Lloyd 1949). So day after day in the studio, Graham urged the young women of her fledgling dance company to pay attention to the fundamental, life-enabling bodily movements they were making in their ordinary lives: walking and running, laughing and crying, breathing, falling and rising again.

For Graham, paying attention to one’s movement is, like listening, “a complete focus upon a given instant.” Like listening it involves tuning in to waves—not of sound but of feeling—sensory swells arising and passing in every moment, across every surface and segment of bodily being. Dancers strive to cultivate a sensory awareness so intense it “animates” their “whole being” (1941), and can mobilize that whole being—mind, heart, and body—in space. No part is left out or forgotten. This attention is love.

Training. For Graham, paying attention yielded a pair of movement patterns—contraction and release—that would become the core of her every exercise, every gesture, and every choreography. She discovered these patterns by noticing how the alternating vectors of breathing—inhaling and exhaling—rearrange a body into complementary shapes.

Graham distilled these movements into kinetic images: an exhale became the “contraction” and an inhale became the “release.” As “images” of breathing, a dancer can feel, study, and recreate the contraction and release independent of actual breathing. As “kinetic,” the contraction and release exist only in movement, as movement. When repeated, they function as an energy pump, developing within a dancer a source of movement motivation – a muscular force field in the lower abdomen – that she can use to direct and deliver her sensorily animated, whole bodily self into a wide range of desired movements with power and precision. By basing her approach to dance on an elemental rhythm without which humans cannot live for more than four minutes, Graham sought to discover movements that would “do no violence, anatomically or emotionally” (1941).

In the early years of her career, as her dancers recount, Graham did not care what a movement looked like. She cared where in a body it began, how it passed through, and where it went. What mattered was whether a movement strengthened a bodily self along paths of potent action opened up by honoring and practicing its own elemental rhythms. This practice is love.

Trusting. For Graham, in dance as in life, the movements that we make us: from “the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual…comes a shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit” (1991). Human actions not only give rise to an understanding of who we are and what we can do, they do so by organizing our nervous system, influencing what we perceive and how we respond. The movements we make don’t just make us, they become us (LaMothe 2015).

And when a person’s movements train and tune his sensory awareness to the rhythms of breathing – as in Graham’s way of doing things – his experience of his own body changes. “It” is no longer a thing or material object. It is him. He becomes someone who trusts his bodily self to discern how to make a movement in ways that do no violence. He becomes a dancer whose every movement can express the care and attention that he has practiced in order to be able to make that move. This trust is love.

Performing. Love of the body is why Graham danced; it is what she nurtured in her dancers, and it was also what she wanted audiences to receive when watching her dance performances. Graham choreographed nearly 200 dances over a period of 70 years. From the most abstract to those peopled with named characters, Graham intention was the same: “to communicate participation to the nerves, the skin, the structure of the spectator” (Armitage 1978).

Graham was not concerned with whether audience members understood what she was doing; she wanted them to feel it. She wanted her dances to wake people up viscerally – to give them an experience of themselves as moved, as moving, and so stir to life in them a sensory awareness of their own movement-making, of their own capacity for freedom and love of the body.

Even when Graham danced a murderer as in Clytemnestra or in Cave of the Heart (as Medea), or when she danced a victim, unjustly accused, as in Seraphic Dialogue (about Joan of Arc) or Rite of Spring, Graham wanted her audience members to identify viscerally with the force of creativity thrumming through every movement that she or her dancers were making – to feel that pulse even in the most extreme moments of human experience – and so emerge affirmed in their own search for movements that do no violence, anatomically or emotionally. This affirmation is love.

To dance, for Graham, is to love the body, where what “love” and “the body” mean are defined by her dancing. Love is not a feeling of abstract or unconditional affection directed towards some thing; it is a way of being a bodily self, open to and oriented by what a trained, trusted sensory awareness helps you perceive. It is a radical love that plumbs to the roots of human experience, willing to welcome all bodily experiences – comedies, tragedies, and everything in between – as occasions to dance. As Graham was fond of saying, “you stand or fall on the vulnerability of yourself to life” (1952). This dance is love.

This post is a continuation and elaboration of reflections begun in an earlier post on Friedrich Nietzsche and Martha Graham: “Radical Love: A Message for Our Time.” For more, see “Winter’s Life-Affirming Extremes—and Martha Graham.”

References

Armitage, Merle, ed. 1978 (1937). Martha Graham: The Early Years. NY: de Capo Press.

Graham, Martha. 1991. Blood Memory. NY: Doubleday.

———-. 1952. “The Medium of Dance.” Lecture. Audiotape, Dance Collection, New York Public Library.

———-. 1941. “A Modern Dancer’s Primer for Action,” in Rogers (1941), pp. 178-187.

LaMothe, Kimerer. 2015. Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming. NY: Columbia University Press.

———-. 2006. Nietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the Revaluation of Christian Values. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lloyd, Margaret. 1949. The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. New York.

Rogers, Frederick R., ed. Dance: A Basic Educational Technique. NY: MacMillan, 1941.