Originally published on StartAgain Media
“Dance is the hidden language of the soul.” –Martha Graham
How could I not love an experience that is tagged as “Ditch the workout, join the party?” Zumba® fitness, which claims to offer just that, is wildly popular, packing classes at gyms and studios around the western world. When I first heard about Zumba® several years ago, I was naturally very intrigued. I danced throughout my childhood, although as an adult, I was seeking a dance form that would not require a partner, contained minimal risk of injury, and promoted no expectations of perfection or precision. I popped into my first class in 2008 and could barely tolerate it; in fact, I left early. It bothered me that I had such a visceral reaction to being in a Zumba® class. I loved to ballroom dance, and there are so many elements of a Latin dance within the Zumba® structure. After several attempts to get through a single Zumba® class over the years it finally dawned on me that the structure is what I resent, especially at this stage of my life.
There is something very unappealing to me about being lined up like soldiers falling in line, trying to keep up with a high-energy instructor. I have several good friends who teach Zumba® and emphasize that the point is not to keep up, but to “do your best” and “have fun.” Yet there always seems to be this implied goal of one day being able to keep up with the drill sergeant. As a trained dancer in several forms, including ice dancing, I’ve taken more than my share of dance classes where learning the foundational steps in order to create a beautiful work of art is the primary objective. Looking back on my younger days, it was the experience of dancing around the house with no particular aim, or going into my parents basement to dance out these magical stories flowing from my own creative self that most resonate with me. From my earliest days, freestyle was my calling! I appreciate this training as something that worked for me well in my youth. As an adult who has finally claimed my birthright to be myself, I’ve learned not to torture myself with precision in the pursuit of my personal art. So why would I subject myself to a dance class experience that drives me crazy?
On the other side of this coin, there is my friend Brandy, who is well aware of my disdain for Zumba® and similar fall-in-line-behind-the-leader dance forms. Brandy has come to several of my Dancing Mindfulness classes over the last few years, and they are not really for her. One day she shared with me, “Why you can’t stand Zumba® is the reason I like it; you are given something specific to do. With Dancing Mindfulness, I’m lost when you tell me to find my own movement.” Her comment made me realize how our respective personalities gravitated to the dance practices that best fit us. Brandy is the first to tell you that, in life, she needs specific guidance; I am one who tends to take it into account but ultimately I’m the free-spirit blowing in the wind who follows my intuition more than my intellect. I am not insinuating that Brandy or those like her are somehow inferior to me for needing more directive and regimented approaches to life. On the contrary, there are times in my life when it would be easier if I could just fall in line, keep my mouth shut, and listen to directives. The nature of my personality has made it very difficult, for instance, to work for someone else. In 2008 I began working as an independent contractor, a vocational state that allows me to flourish. It would be extremely difficult and spirit crushing for me to return to taking direct order from others in one 40-hour-a-week setting, yet there are times when I wish I just could just change who I am for the sake of having a more routine life. And having that wish granted would be an insult to a value I regard so highly: genuineness.
To quote the well-worn cliché, it takes all types to make the world go around. There are so many dance forms, variations of dance, other movement practices, and combinations to accommodate our diversity. It is not lost on me that some people shudder when they’re exposed to Dancing Mindfulness, a practice that is very free-form, go-with-the-flow, and somatically introspective the same way that I cringe during Zumba®. Your reaction to a certain dance form teaches you about yourself and it is a powerful lesson that you can tap into and use for your own growth at any time in your life. This reaction is an amazing gift, if you choose to see it that way. Even if you are blocking yourself off from dancing or moving altogether, therein lays an opportunity to compassionately, non-judgmentally ask yourself, “What is this really about?”
What I call “dance personality” does not have to be a black-or-white distinction; such polarities are rarely optimal in life. Even though I have settled into my free form conscious dance practices as most genuine for me at this time in my life, and Brandy is best described as someone who dances best when there is structure involved, there are people who fall in the middle. In fact, my most recent attempt at Zumba® came last week when I went out to support Kelsey Evans, a Dancing Mindfulness facilitator who is also a registered Zumba® instructor. Kelsey teaches both Dancing Mindfulness and Zumba® and I wanted to take a class with her. It’s beautiful to see how Kelsey can resonate with both forms, a trait that I believe is indicative of her beautifully flexible and multi-faceted nature. Taking steps outside of one’s comfort zone is a value that I routinely teach in Dancing Mindfulness. I find it very important to practice what I preach by attending some classes in both dance forms and yoga styles that aren’t optimally me, while not judging myself too harshly or labeling myself as a failure if I can’t keep up or tolerate a whole class (physically or emotionally). What was interesting about this most recent Zumba® experience is that while I could keep up physically, it felt a lot harder to do so because I was being guided in movements that did not feel genuine in my body at a certain time (I often feel the same way in Vinyasa yoga classes). As a result, the class felt like it took forever and it was an exercise in torture as opposed to a fun experience. For me, with Dancing Mindfulness, I can be practicing for three hours and it feels like 20 minutes, or practicing for 20 minutes and it feels like three hours.
Geneen Roth, one of my favorite writers on food and body image, routinely teaches that if you are engaging in movement just for the sake of working out, you are setting yourself up to fail. Rather, she advises that we find forms of exercise that we genuinely enjoy doing. For me, Dancing Mindfulness or other conscious dance forms fit the bill. Dancing Mindfulness is a practice that I can engage in where clock time stops. For people like Brandy it is Zumba®, for you it may be finding the dance in the flow of your Vinyasa practice, or challenging yourself to master steps on the ice or on a ballroom. Maybe for you, it’s a combination of these forms, and if so, that is beautiful! It is beautiful because it is you. Find the movement practice that is genuine for you and refrain from judging yourself if thoughts are creeping in about what you should be doing instead.
Originally published on StartAgain Media
“The pursuit of excellence is gratifying and healthy. The pursuit of perfection is frustrating, neurotic, and a terrible waste of time.” –Edwin Bliss
One of my high school teacher friends posted this inspirational quote on the wall of his classroom for many years. Had I read it when I was in high school, I would have scoffed, saying that the man who wrote it was a quitter and that if I wasn’t aiming for perfection, than who was I? As a seventeen year old, I walked across the stage of my high school graduation adorned in medals and honor chords, poised to give my speech as one of four valedictorians of my graduating class. I battled crippling depression and was well on my way to developing a drug and alcohol problem.
In the thick of high school graduation season, I find myself in an interesting debate on social media about this very concept of awarding degrees of excellence versus awarding perfection in the form of a top rank. This year, a wealthy, high-achieving suburban school district in my area eliminated the traditional valedictorian/salutatorian system of award, converting to the cum laude system used at most American and Canadian universities. Thus, there are still degrees of merit, with summa cum laude being the highest honor, but no vying for a top prize. Iboa participated in one comment war and then started one of my own after reposting the article on the change to get a temperature for this decision. As expected, opinions were mixed, with some, very predictably, arguing that this conversion represents a dumbing down, equaling of the playing field, or an awarding of mediocrity that seems to be pervading society.
I have to admit, as a valedictorian myself, my gut told me upon reading the article that this is the right way to go. I don’t see the awarding of a summa cum laude distinction representing mediocrity at all. When I look back at my own high school class, those of us who would have qualified for the summa cum laude distinction (generally viewed as a 3.75-3.8 or higher) were really all in the same boat in terms of intelligence and potential—it was trace differences that separated us. In fact, I would argue that the woman who ended up as salutatorian was the most intelligent of us all, and she certainly gave the most emotionally intelligent speech at commencement.
Looking back as an adult at the seventeen-year-old perfectionist who walked across the stage, I regret many of the things I did and didn’t do to earn that valedictory distinction. I remember, upon entering high school, when I learned there was such a thing as being a valedictorian, I told myself that I would graduate with that distinction; after all, it was something that would make me special. I wasn’t a very popular girl, struggled with the boys, was overweight, had an awkward personality, wasn’t very good at sports (although I tried my best), but I was on the reasonably intelligent side. Thus, I worked my butt off to get straight A’s in all of the honors classes, struggling and wasting so much time trying to grasp concepts that were not fundamentally natural for me to understand. I’ve always had a proclivity towards English and the humanities, but I made myself take all of the top-level honors courses in math and science because that’s what was expected of me. One night, during my senior year, I remember going cross-eyed as I looked down at my calculus book, crying from the visual strain and the idea that I would be a failure at life if I couldn’t master calculus. I often deprived myself of the fun things that high schoolers should be doing in order to meet my perfectionist demands. Although I went to some dances, I skipped my senior prom, something I regret to this day.
While I was in high school, a state Senate program in Ohio made it possible for high achieving high school students to take early college work, with the state footing the bill. Of course I was intrigued at the idea of taking some different classes, but a deterrent was that any B’s I got in college work would be counted against my high school GPA. Not wanting to lose the valedictorian race, and knowing that some of the other top contenders were not taking advantage of the opportunity, I actually convinced my mother to pay for these courses that I could have taken for free so I wouldn’t lose the race. As an economically conscious adult looking back at this decision, I roll my eyes and applaud my peers who took advantage of the free college work…they may have finished 12th or even 20th in terms of high school class rank, but clearly they were the more intelligent ones in terms of real-life decision making!
In my high school years, it wasn’t just the race for valedictorian that kept me obsessed. Perfection permeated other areas of my life. I involved myself in so many academic competitions like speech and debate, Science Fairs, History Days. If I ever finished less than first, I took it as a slam against my personhood. I purchased a No Fear brand t-shirt and wore it for much of my junior year: Second Place is the First Loser emblazed the back of the shirt. At the time, I told myself that it was an in-your-face attack at my competition, but reflecting now, I can see that this statement projected my personal shame—I was that loser if I couldn’t win the top prize. Looking back at it now, nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the greatest gains I’ve made in my life have come when I finished second or third in competitions, or out of the race altogether. Take speech and debate, for instance: I was routinely a second or third place finisher and competitions and believed my life to be over when I didn’t advance to the finals at state competition my senior year. Yet over the years I came back to coach other high school students in speech and debate as a part-time job and made many of the best friendships in by life by doing so. Public speaking is such a vital component of my present work, and being able to do it competently is a reward that has lasted longer than any trophy from competitions.
To be clear, I am not anti-competition; I get concerned when competition completely consumes an individual and actually blocks her success. In college and graduate school, when the pressure was off and I actually let myself get some B’s, I learned more. The first B that I earned in college was a very liberating experience for me, yet I’ve heard horror stories of other valedictorians and perfectionist types simply crumble upon the first sign of failure in college. Although I felt academically free after getting that first B, the message of “I have to be perfect” was already engrained in many other aspects of my life. The pressure may have been off academically, but that “No-Fear” message of “I am a loser” remained a core of my identity. Mix that with the free-flowing offering of alcohol and drugs made available to this previous sheltered over-achiever, and by time I graduated college, I did so summa cum laude and with an addiction.
In my first attempt at graduate school, I flunked out. It took me moving overseas (Bosnia) to work a job in humanitarian aid in order for me to gain some sense of perspective about just how petty so many of my previous obsessions really were. While in Bosnia, I met my first recovery sponsor, an American social worker who mentored me both in recovery and in what became my eventual career (counseling/human services). Interestingly, one of the biggest mental traps she worked with me on during early sobriety was letting go of the need to be right, the burning need I had to always win. There is a classic passage in the AA Big Book encouraging us to resign from the debating society, and when she shared that with me, I knew exactly what it meant. When I free myself of that all-encompassing desire to win or be perfect, I open up more possibilities for my life and wellness.
I am sure that many of you will read this and think I’ve just become a lovey-dovey liberal since competing and getting ahead is a part of American life. If you want to survive this shark tank of life, you must have a competitive edge. To that criticism I say this: Giving up perfectionism, fierce competitiveness, and the need to be right does not mean that I’ve given up my work ethic. In my recovery I’ve come to truly embrace the logic of the Edwin Bliss quote—pursuing excellence is gratifying and healthy. I still work hard and my most people’s standards I do very well in life. How refreshing that today I can live this excellence without hating myself. That reward is more precious to me than any medal, certificate, trophy or honor of ages past…
Originally published on StartAgain Media
“It’s better to be a first-rate version of yourself than a second-rate version of someone else.” -Judy Garland
Several of my friends and colleagues have active sitting meditation practices in either Buddhist traditions or the more secular spin-offs like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). When I hear them gush over the spiritual fruits of their chosen meditation practices and how such practices change their lives, I could get an inferiority complex or shame myself for resisting such discipline. Notice, I said could. Today, I chose not to. In recovery, I’ve learned that becoming something I’m not, even if there is the hope of some spiritual promise at the end, is not authentic (and incidentally enough, not very spiritual). Everything about me always longed for spiritual, not religious, connection, so being raised in two pretty rigidly religious churches came with its challenges (Dad was Evangelical, Mom was Protestant). In my rebellion after leaving their home, I sampled just about every spiritual/religious practice out there that resonated even slightly with my values. At one point I became a devout Catholic myself (engaging in many silent contemplative practices within Catholicism).
Vipassana meditation and mindfulness entered my life through several clinical channels, and as a result, I pursued studying some of these traditions in their own right. At one point, I briefly worked with a Buddhist teacher. For many years, I’ve taught my clinical clients how to meditate and how to use mindfulness-informed interventions for wellness. To say that my spiritual identify is an “amalgamation” is the understatement of the year. Through my spiritual evolution, I have learned that sitting for hours on a cushion, contemplating contemplations, going on silent retreats, chanting repetitively, and thoroughly scanning my body parts while laying down is not how I achieve the spiritual harmony that I seek. Although I will engage in these practices when it seems genuine for me to do so, and I have nothing but respect for people who engage in these practices authentically, I’ll be frank—they don’t get me to that state of balance that I seek. Dancing, however, does.
“But dancing isn’t meditation!”
If you hold such protestations, it’s okay. I’ve heard them before. I am used to people with more traditional practices turning their noses up at me, and I have fielded my share of snide comments. I’ve heard people say things like, “Dancing Mindfulness is great, but as a way of carrying mindfulness into the world.” Although Dancing Mindfulness is a way to carry mindfulness into the world, for me, Dancing Mindfulness is so much more than that. Dancing is the crux of my mindfulness practice, just as sitting on a cushion for hours coming back to the moment with your head may be your foundation. And guess what? I’ve found that engaging in vigorous dance meditation allows me to come back to seated meditation with much more meaning, just as some people may need to engage in a vigorous asana yoga practice before they can deeply relax and quiet the mind.
One of the criticisms that I’ve heard about Dancing Mindfulness, at least the incarnation of it that I’ve developed and teach is that the practice is too noisy, too lyrical. That we can dance mindfully to Madonna or Eminem as easily as we can to Kirtan or devotional chant offends many, yet it is genius to many. For me, it makes perfect sense to dance to high-energy music from a variety of genres in a meditative way where, if I catch my present-moment awareness wandering and judgment creeping in, I gently draw my attention back. Interestingly, I notice that the more I engage in this practice, the more comfortable I am with silence in my daily life. As a clinical counselor, silence is a skill that I have to use in my sessions with people. Allowing for silent spaces in the practice of therapy is when real change happens. I've found as an educator and lecturer that pacing and navigating the spaces between words and pauses is a skill vital to effectiveness. At a talk this past week, an attendee came up to me and said, “Thank you for your pacing. Thanks for not being afraid of silence.” I just about burst into tears when she shared this because of some criticisms I’ve faced about Dancing Mindfulness being “expressive” and not allowing for enough quiet. Yet it’s always made total sense to me that the more expressive and creative that I can be with my meditation practice, the more comfortable I become with quietness and stillness in my life and in my counseling/training vocation.
I’ve found it comforting to learn that I am not alone in my experiences. Dr. Christine Caldwell (2014), director of the somatic psychology program at Naropa University in Boulder, CO recently coined a term called bodyfulness. Bodyfulness is achieved in practices like yoga, somatic experiencing, Qi Gong, dance, and other practices that add another dimension to the practice of mindfulness by more fully encouraging awareness of the body. Caldwell identifies what she terms anti-somatic bias in more traditional mindfulness practices, and saw a need for this new term. Reading that she too had experienced such bias was incredibly validating. I achieve mindful awareness and its fruits by engaging my body and letting it creatively flow. This truth clicked for me over several stays at one of our country’s popular yoga and health centers several years ago when I first discovered the genre of conscious dance. The discovery of conscious dance was one of the great gifts of my life. From those powerful retreats, I formally crafted and named Dancing Mindfulness as a legitimate mindfulness practice. Some people feel that with Dancing Mindfulness, I am pushing the boundaries of what constitutes mindfulness. I disagree with this assessment. The way I practice mindfulness simply cannot be confined by the traditional boundaries that several ancient schools of thought and more systematized secular programs like MBSR establish.
For me, there are infinite combinations of ways to meditate and achieve mindfulness. Even Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of MBSR, writes: “Meditation is any activity that helps us systematically regulate our attention and energy, thereby influencing and possibly transforming the quality of experience in service of realizing the full range of our humanity and of our relationship to others in the world (2003; 2011).” He and many other modern-day mindfulness scholars routinely teach that any human activity can be engaged in mindfully, whether that be yoga, walking, jogging, chopping wood, carrying water, or doing the laundry. Dance is not so frequently mentioned in these comments of “everything can be practiced mindfully.” Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, considering that Western society, in the face of many liberal evolutions in value, still seems to be more emotionally, creatively, and sensually repressed than ever. I could go on and on with my feelings on this, but I don’t want to seem that I am forcing dance meditation on you, any more than I want you to force sitting meditation on me. There are so many paths home. Why limit ourselves to one? Why judge others if the path that resonates the best for them doesn’t meet your conceptualization of what mindfulness and meditation should be?
Holly Rivera, one of our Dancing Mindfulness facilitators, has engaged in many traditional Buddhist practices for the last decade and continues to be involved with Buddhist spiritual communities. She recently shared a beautiful reflection that helped me to answer my own questions:
I have definitely found that Dancing Mindfulness has helped my meditation practice. I can focus a lot better and find it easier to quiet my mind. I think that once you can learn to bring yourself back to the now regardless of surrounding, it makes it that much easier to focus when you don't have to work so hard to stay present.
Every person is different and benefits differently from mindfulness. I find it unfair to judge one form of mindfulness "better" than another. This just leads to categorizing people as "good" or "bad" based on the way they are able to be mindful. Sounds a lot like when we would teach only memorization in school and called kids who were auditory or visual learners "stupid."
In researching the experiences of Asian woman (both nuns and laywomen), Buddhist teacher Martine Batchelor (2013) concluded that the specific techniques of meditation used do not seem to matter as much as one’s sincerity in pursuing the Dharma. May we all move forward honoring each other’s sincerity in their chosen practice(s).
Batchelor, M. (2013). Meditation and mindfulness. In J. M. G. Williams & J. Kabat-Zinn (Eds.), Mindfulness: Diverse perspectives on its meaning, origins, and applications (pp. 157-164). New York: Routledge/Taylor Francis.
Bhikku, B. (2011). What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), 19-39.
Caldwell, C. (2014). Mindfulness and bodyfulness: A new paradigm. The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, 1(1), 77-96.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Mindfulness for beginners: Reclaiming the present moment-and your life. Boulder, CO: Sounds True Books.
Dr. Jamie Marich
Curator of the Dancing Mindfulness expressive arts blog: a celebration of mindfully-inspired, multi-modal creativity