“The heart is an organ of fire.” ~Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
The limbic brain, the seat of our emotions and learning as human beings, can be destroyed by unhealed trauma. Ancient Christian mystics, often called the desert fathers and desert mothers, referred to this brain as the heart brain. Our emotional world, governed by the limbic brain, can feel like a fire that is raging out of control. Some trauma survivors are affected oppositely—they become shut off to feeling altogether. Often we shut ourselves off from emotion by choice, afraid of what feeling them might do to us.
Our emotional world and other matters of the heart are much like a fireplace that keeps a cabin warm. If the fire rages, it can burn the cabin down. If the fire dies, the cabin goes cold. Recovery teaches us how to keep the fire in balance—properly tended to create for us a beautiful warmth.
Invitation: Interlace your hands together and place them over your heart. If directly touching your body feels too activating, you may hover this cross-fingered gesture a few inches away from your heart. Spend 3-5 minutes in this position and listen to what messages your heart—and the emotional world it represents—may be giving you today.
Prayer or Intention: May the emotional fire of my heart create warmth—not destruction—today and on the path ahead.
Excerpt from the forthcoming, Trauma and the 12 Steps Daily Meditation Reader, releasing on September 30, 2020 from Creative Mindfulness Media
Photograph & Meme by Dr. Jamie Marich
I am here.
I am now.
I am present.
As an individual in recovery, many of my day-to-day problems are caused by not living in my here and now. I obsess over things I think I should have done or should have said in the past. I regret decisions not made, chances not taken. I dwell in resentment. I project too far into the future. I catastrophize, often letting my mind wander to every possible what if scenario that may play out in my life time. I fear the future, the unknown.
For survivors of trauma, feeling stuck in past can become the norm. Fretting the future seems essential, a frantic attempt to protect ourselves from past hurts playing out again. Although addressing the root causes of these problems may require extensive outside help, as a day-to-day survival strategy, reminding myself that the only moment I really have is the present can work wonders in your recovery journey. Saying the three affirmations that open this meditation to yourself may help guide you there. They can be especially powerful when you intentionally connect your feet to the ground or sit against a wall (or some other supportive structure). If it doesn’t work for you right away or you worry about whether you’re doing it right, stick with it. The beauty of simple statements is that you can repeat them over and over again until they flow like a song. If these three statements don’t seem to be a good fit, what are three statements you can use to anchor you back to the present moment?
Photograph by David Reiter
People who know me well can tell you that Master Yoda is my favorite character in the Star Wars universe. I've long looked to Master Yoda as a sage guide, a sponsor, in my own recovery journey where the force has long resonated as a form of Higher Power for me. In my development as a professional counselor, I also turned to Yoda as a role model. As a sponsor, a therapist, a teacher, a yogi, and a practitioner of mindfulness, his wisdom never fails to speak truth to my soul. While all of his "one liners" are excellent candidates as recovery slogans, I was prompted to choose one that most resonated with the Dancing Mindfulness element of mind to lead off Chapter 4 of the new book dedicated to that element. As my Christmas/Holiday gift to you, it is my pleasure to share with you the quote of Master Yoda's that I chose to lead off the chapter, and to give you a glimpse into the chapter itself. Enjoy!
This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away ... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing.
—Master Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back
The mind is not our enemy. By engaging in consistent practice we can learn to understand the intricacies of how our mind operates in our individual experiences. This consistent practice teaches us how to let our mind work for us, not against us. As a result, we can always come home to the present moment. Too often we see the mind only as an instrument for thinking—an instrument that can run amok with worry and negative ruminating if left unchecked. However, our mind is so much more than our thoughts. Consider that both the breath and the body—elements of dancing mindfulness that we’ve already covered—are guided by mental processes. As we will explore in this chapter, we have a “thinking” or more rational mind, an emotional mind, and a mind that regulates physicality. Some spiritual traditions offer the concepts of a wisdom mind and a spirit or bliss mind, the mental conduit that allows us to connect with spirit. While we can dance with the element of mind in a variety of ways in dancing mindfulness practice, I typically regard the mind as the vehicle that allows for integration of our human experience. As in Native American spirituality, the body, the mind, and the spirit cannot be separated.
Mindfulness practice is the process of teaching our mind to work for us, not against us. I get sad when I hear people say things like this: “I can’t meditate. There’s no way I can turn my mind off.” Unfortunately, this stereotype about meditation has taken hold because of popular portrayals of meditation practice as an instantaneously quiet experience. Mindfulness practice is not about turning the mind off. If anything, it’s about turning it on—developing a greater sense of awareness of your experiences and what they can teach you about yourself. Consistent engagement in mindfulness practices that involve activity—exercise, breathwork, journaling, drawing, prayer, dreaming, and, of course, dancing—can help us break through the survival blockage to help us address our emotional wounds. In essence, they allow us to tune and then fine-tune the instrument of our mind. In dancing mindfulness, for example, we remind ourselves to come back to awareness, to honor the present, and to consider the possibilities of creativity and healing.
For more on the book project, go to www.dancingmindfulness.com/book
Dancing Mindfulness: A Creative Path to Healing and Transformation (SkylightPaths Publishing, 2015)
When one year comes to an end and another begins, I am called to take an inventory of my blessings. The time of transition is perfect for this task. As 2014 becomes 2015, one major blessing warms my heart more beautifully than any other: Dancing Mindfulness. Although I am credited as the founder of the formal class-based practice, my gratitude is not that I developed it… quite the opposite. My heart brims with gratitude for those in my life who have taught me how to dance mindfully this year. When I developed the class-based practice in 2012, my original vision was for little separation between facilitators and dancers. I wanted to cultivate a true community where we are inspired to learn from each other. This vision truly came to fruition in 2014, and for that, I thank you!
In 2014, even though my team and I worked hard to offer seven live facilitator trainings across the U.S. and launch a distance-based program to those interested internationally in the practice, my most precious gratitude came when people shared with me how they are cultivating personal dance practices in their lives. To me, having a personal dancing mindfulness practice, just like we might have a personal yoga or sitting meditation practice, is a critical component of facilitator success. Of course, personal practices are open to everyone! My heart radiated as I heard people share with me stories of going to beaches and public places with their iPod docks, blasting music, and letting the dance of now cultivate mindfulness and its attitudes. My heart sang as I heard tales of people carving out personal spaces in their house to take a mindful journey, and sharing the attitudes and elements of dancing mindfulness with their children during play. My heart wept with tears of such pure joy when we were in Puerto Rico a month ago. My team’s mission for this trip was to train a group of 10 local women in Puerto Rico as facilitators. Yet during the practice class, as these trainees moved so effortlessly and mindfully to the music of artists from their homeland and helped me to do the same, something became very clear to me. These women didn’t need me to teach them Dancing Mindfulness, these women are dancing mindfulness… in their hearts, in their souls, and in the beauty of their heritage that they so generously shared. In one beautiful moment at Centro Buen Pastor in Guaynabo (the location of our training/retreat), as we moved in the group practice and I listened to the women singing along around me, it struck me: Dancing Mindfulness belongs to all of us. It is a practice we can all access, even if we haven’t realized it yet. Dancing Mindfulness is not only a practice, but a way of life that makes sense to so many of us. For many of us Dancing Mindfulness offers a template for exploring, for moving past our zones of comfort. For others, to dance mindfully offers a path of liberation from the inside-the-box ways of practicing spirituality and meditation that so many of us feel pressured to accept. Whatever Dancing Mindfulness may mean to you, know that it belongs to you.
I had the privilege of visiting with my dear friend and collaborator Mandy Hinkle a few days ago. Mandy went through the facilitator training program, although the birth of her beautiful daughter Sofia earlier this year became the major focus of her life. There is no doubt in my mind that Mandy is going to continue to do amazing things as both a yoga teacher and a Dancing Mindfulness facilitator in the coming years. Mandy shared with me that she sometimes gets down on herself because she doesn’t craft time to formally go into her yoga space at her house to practice Dancing Mindfulness, and getting to classes has been nearly impossible. Yet when we discussed this idea of dancing mindfulness as a way of life, something resonated. She shared that she does dance around the house, in her kitchen, moving from place-to-place; she dances with the radiant Sofia. The dancing offers her an anchor in joy, and that is perhaps the most vital part of what in means to practice dancing mindfulness…no matter how specifically you are practicing it.
Some of the greatest moments I’ve experienced this year have also come in what people have shared with me online. People, either in my professional or circles of acquaintances or people who have stumbled onto our pages online, are becoming inspired to move. I had another one of those tear-filled, spiritual goose bump moments the other night when Andy, a professional psychologist friend of mine shared that even though he is an introvert who doesn’t dance, he is inspired to follow our leads and give organic movement a try, to simply respond to music that resonates with him. Andy wrote, “Dancing is always a good idea.”
Dancing is always a good idea… for those of you who can embrace that and use it as a path to present-centered living, wonderful! Keep it up into 2015. For those of you who are scared of organic movement, like Andy identified… know that you can always start with your breath. That is the foundation of dancing mindfulness practice. Consider that your breath is part of a larger dance, and by connecting with that breath, you are connecting with the dance. Cultivate curiosity and see where it takes you in the new year. Maybe you’ll catch yourself moving along to a certain sound or piece of music that comes on…that’s your start. Just be in the moment with it and release judgment. The exhale is always available to you to release judgment. If you’ve had a horrible experience in the past with dance or if it’s a trigger to you in any way, feel free to reach out to us on the main Dancing Mindfulness facebook page…the community is here to offer you ideas for support.
As 2015 unfolds, I look forward to connecting with all of you who dance mindfully. Whether you are formally part of one of our groups, or if , like Andy, you are inspired to experiment with your own personal explorations and wish to connect with us online…I honor your journey with dancing mindfully. Let’s make “dancing is always a good idea” our mantra for the new year!
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