A few weeks ago, TaraMarie posted a Monday Mantra piece that, based on the level of response in the comment section, seemed to really strike a chord in our community. (You can access the post, which might redefine your notion of laziness, here). In thinking about trying to insert some “gaps” into my life, I was reminded of the meditation training Mind Body Dancer® teacher trainees receive from Ethan Nichtern. Since first practicing sitting meditation last winter during my training, I’ve been intrigued by the practice and craving more. So this week I set off on Monday feeling that TaraMarie’s wake-up call was a sign to do more to curb my overactive, gap-less mind, and I sought out some inspiration from the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York’s website. Lo and behold, I learned that the Shambhala center hosts a meditation group for people under 30, open to all levels of experience, every Monday night at 7pm. Ready for an adventure, I went.
As I sat down to begin my practice in a room full of people I had just met in the hallway, regulars and newcomers alike, I was at once struck by the irony of what I had just done. I essentially had to seek out a social situation before I could actually sit down and practice being “alone” with nothing but my thoughts and my breath. For many of us lifelong dancers, and certainly for all of us yoga practitioners, I think we all can identify and compare this situation to the act of going to class. Taking class is something that, for the most part, we do for ourselves and not for others. In class we have the opportunity to shed the external demands of our lives and work solely on our bodies, our minds, our breath. However, without the other people in the room, there would be no class for us to take!
Eventually, as I dug in into my sitting practice and allowed the gaps between my racing thoughts to grow larger and larger, I was able to stop thinking about the other people in the room, but I could sense that their presence was still essential to what I was experiencing. I’m not knowledgeable enough about meditation at this point to know if this is or even should be part of the practice, but it was there for me that night.
After the sitting meditation concluded, the evening took a very interesting turn in the form of a mindful, meditative discussion about culture. What I found truly fascinating is that we were instructed to maintain our posture of the legs crossed with hands on the thighs, the same as if we were meditating alone. In doing so, the leader explained, we remain open and receptive to whoever is talking without allowing our physical movement habits to interfere with the tone of the conversation. With a sitting practice, the object of meditation is the breath. In a social practice, the object of meditation becomes whoever is speaking.
At first I thought, “Great idea. This is simple. Just don’t move and listen,” but once people began to speak, I quickly realized how hard my mind had to work to stay focused on whoever was speaking. Even if I found whatever they were saying to be completely fascinating, my mind would latch on to something and run away from the room, and when my thoughts began to pull away from the speaker, so would my body. My head would turn, or I would look down, or I’d brush the hair behind my ear. Just as our thoughts can prevent us from connecting with our breath in sitting meditation, our thoughts can also prevent us from connecting with others socially, and what we do with our physical body can play a big role in that.
And if I wanted to speak? Every time I spoke the urge to adjust my legs or cross my arms was so incredibly strong. A now publically declared introvert, I love to cross my legs and bring my arms in front of me to gesture with my hands when I speak. Eagle Pose is my jam. To a certain extent, this is normal. Body language has meaning and conveys just as much, if not more, than the words we speak. But in situations where connection with other human beings is key, I think inviting our yogi/dancer/writer/actor/artist bodies to practice openness physically can help us to become more mentally and emotionally present with those around us. Our bodies don’t always have to be moving.
Appropriately, the group discussion that night became about communication, or lack thereof, despite the technology that is supposed to help us become more connected to each other. Everywhere we go we find that when we are alone in a group of strangers, we look at our phones to escape. Even in groups of people we DO know, we look at our phones. Sometimes we think we’re multi-tasking by texting and talking at once even though we’re actually ignoring the person in front of our face. Sometimes we are so afraid of a tiny, miniscule gap in conversation that we run away from the present moment and instantly feel the urge to check in with email, Facebook, texts, etc. The group on Monday night suggested: What would happen if no one spoke for a minute? Maybe even five? What if we sat still and were just open to each other? Is verbal silence always indicative of emotional distance? Not necessarily.
For those of us who are busy, overcommitted, and overwhelmed, of course we need to take time to rest and pull away from the world to restore, but what could also be beneficial is to ask ourselves how we can insert gaps into our day, every day, all day long, especially when we don’t have the freedom to be truly alone and rest.
The next time you have coffee with a friend, perhaps challenge yourself to really be present when he or she is talking to you. Allow there to be time, a gap, between your reactions to whatever it is they are saying. Are you truly present with them, or are you mentally preparing for what you’re going to say next? Have your thoughts moved away from them and on to you? Allow a space to occur between your thoughts while you listen, just like meditation. Invite the possibility of momentary silence. Notice your body position and practice openness.
Most of us are ahead of the phone addiction curve by regularly attending yoga class where we have to turn off our phones, but is that really enough phone downtime for you? My roommate was just invited to a party where you have to check your phone at the door. Maybe try something similar with your friends. Obviously, the demands of work require us to be connected via email on a regular basis, but maybe you could spend some time away from Facebook for a weekend or a week or more. And that overflowing inbox? The average email sent at 11:47pm can wait to be answered until 8:00 AM.
And when you do have the chance to be alone in your apartment, ask yourself, “Are you really alone?” Or are you writing on your computer while simultaneously signed in to Gmail and Facebook and g-chatting with a friend from home, while looking at your phone next to your seat… like I am doing right now?
Find gaps, find stillness, find silence. No matter how small.
- Katherine Moore