Web Camel Transport 41

Dancing Happiness

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

We say “Jump for joy,” because joyous bodies move. Babies inherently know how to move to music. Youtube has an abundance of cute-baby videos, including of babies dancing upon waking up to music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Mruxjn__Oc)s).

Our cells respond at the most intimate and microscopic level to the vibrations of music—the lullaby voice, the choral voices of our community, the calling and responding voices that connect us.  All dancers dance for joy, those without any formal training and those who have mastered the utmost technical challenges. Music itself expresses emotional tenor; or we invest our listening of music with a panoply of emotions.  But our emotional life, our joys and excitements thrive even without the addition of music, and inspire our bodies to move in concert with our moods, the weather, and the needs of our physical persons (have you ever watched a cat or a dog wake up in the morning and stretch luxuriously?).

Dancing–wholeheartedly dancing–turns on the artspirit.  Our artspirit consciousness requires no additional discipline to quiet the ‘monkey chatter’ of our minds.  In mindfulness meditation we quiet our bodies and learn to gently bring our focus back to the breath, to the next-to-nothingness between each interruption by these sweet or ferocious monkeys that chatter, chatter, chatter all ‘mind’ long.  But when we dance—on stage or at the disco, or in the country line or in a trance dance or in the fitness studio or even while listening to the radio—we interrupt the monkey chatter and let our bodies take over. What a beautiful conspiracy the elbows, knees, hips and shoulders achieve in heightening our experience of living while shutting down the opposition—the naysaying, judgmental, catastrophizing, list-making nags that occupy our own minds and plot our every hour. How euphoric and exotic a transport on two little feet, our muscle memories bringing back a choreography or allowing us improvisational freedom.

Dancing increases our perviousness to the energy around us, just as our pores open.  Our edges expand.  We reach beyond our reach.  We see beyond our seeing.  We feel beyond our smallness. Dance can embrace us in an all-encompassing experience, as completely in-the-moment.  On some level dancing is tribal, and those who move to the same music become our extended families, become part of the history of our laughter and singing.

The arts of dance may require hours upon hours of dedicated discipline and practice, honing and fine tuning every joint in the body, every muscle, every rhythmically beating cell.  But on stage great dancers let their bodies think for themselves, and their bodies become conduits for the artspirit.

At a nightclub or a wedding, we dance for joy; moved, almost as would be a puppet, by the pump and sway of the music, and by the surrounding waves of exuberance.  Like runner’s high, we can dance like there’s no tomorrow, or, as the saying goes, “like no one’s watching,” yet not feel the exertion of it–the hard breathing, the pressure and madness of the blood, the sweat making slippery our arms and legs and shining our faces with shear, unadulterated glory.

Much of our lives we pursue the stated, the mandated, the mundane and necessary.  We forget to play.  The ludic escapes us in its full bodied manifestations.  More and more today, we get our dopamine squirts from watching television and playing video games, or from endlessly posting our selfies on Facebook and Instagram.  We get our fill from these two dimensional or three dimensional look-alike adventures.  But there is little texture to it.  It does not feel like grass or a gust of cold air, or the warm press of a cheek, or smell like damp leaves in the thawing of winter, or tax our calves with the ache of accomplishment after a long walk or a challenging hike.

I feel wowed, awed and impressed by the brilliance and continuing technological innovations of our age, but like everything we can imagine coming into being, we cannot anticipate all of the potential ramifications, or how aggressively the downsides will vie with the upsides for ascendancy.

Martha Graham, a queen of modern dance in the twentieth century made many quotable remarks about dance, but I love this one:  “Every dance is a kind of fever chart, a graph of the heart.”  Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the preeminent ballet dancers of the twentieth century, who came to the United States from Russia, said, “I found that dance, music, and literature is how I made sense of the world.”  And many have written about how the arts, and here I speak about dance, give shape and voice to our most human experiences in this world.  Football players dance after scoring a touchdown.  Dance has been used to celebrate weddings, births, to bring rain, to enter a trance, to celebrate deities. To flirt.  To prepare for war.  To honor peace.  To captivate and entertain.

I spent much of my life involved in dance—recreationally and then professionally—and as I segued into a chapter of life after dance, the transition felt profoundly difficult, even grievous.  I could barely watch a dance concert without crying.  But over the years I realized that dance had become part of me in some integral, hard-to-articulate way, but surely as a filter through which I honed my observations of body language and rhythmicity, of gait and gesture, of posture and expressivity.  And of the subtleties of resonance or awkwardness in how people connect interpersonally.  Grace is, after all, not something fancy or complicated, but the efficiency of movement for its outcome’s sake, whether utilitarian or aesthetic.

At three years old I asked my mother for dance lessons, interrupting her as she napped.  I didn’t know anything about dance as an art form.  The top of her bed and my face met.  I remember that, and my paternal grandmother playing “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite, prompting a three year old’s rabid dance to such profoundly driving music.

My mother made good on my request. From a converted barn in Lexington where Isadora Duncan style “free” movement was encouraged to the Cambridge Ballet School in Harvard Square, to a long succession of dance schools and styles and graduate education and teaching contemporary dance and choreographing in a University to writing dance reviews, my love of dance evolved.  For many years I lived, breathed, slept and thought about dance. And went as far in the field as I could, given the anatomical limitations of my feet and back that made a professional performer’s life just out of reach. Yet dancing was always good therapy and I was able to bring that to patients in an acute hospital setting. Moving their bodies animated them and moving together with others brought them into community in a powerful way, where isolation had prevailed.

In spite of that, I had had enough experiences rehearsing and performing to know the sensation of heightened euphoria, when the music and the muscle memory take over your body, and you attach to an energy beyond that of yourself.  You move, in the moment, electrified, and perhaps a bit electrifying to watch. Perhaps, like the adrenalin rush of a sky or cliff diver, the physics that govern our bodies seem somehow suspended, and in this magical landscape of the stage, or the nightclub, we leap, balance, accelerate, float, and fly as if defined by a different kind of magic.

Last night my three sisters and I attended a dance concert at the Portsmouth Music Hall. The Momix company’s ‘Cactus.’ The tensile strength of the dancers, utilized playfully in the slithering, darting, staccato and sensual movements of the animated desert creatures—lizard, snake, fan tailed birds—as well as the suggested tribal dances of courting, fighting, or rain-making for an indigenous culture—captivated us.  At times two dancers, intertwined, cantilevered, or extended from each others’ bodies in silhouette, created the image of a creature, plant or animal, with jutting or wheeling appendages.

In some dances long poles, like vaults, suspended the dancers a bit longer and higher than gravity would allow without these extensions.  And so we found ourselves lifted into the arena of brilliance and light that imagination occupies:  the extraordinary.  Accomplished by ordinary humans doing ordinary grunt work.  Over and over again.  Try happiness as a form of dance.

Camel Saddle:  What are your best experiences dancing?  What were the messages you received about dancing while growing up?  Did you feel inhibited about moving your body or encouraged to express yourself in movement?  Have you ever “lost yourself” while dancing, and become one with the music and the movement?  Are there other experiences that have captivated you in that same way?





Web Camel Transport 40

Purposing Happiness in the Old Grist Mill

Saturday, February 4, 2017


Existential questions—what is the meaning of life?  What is my purpose?  What makes me happy?—have generated thousands of exploratory books and papers that sit on the real and cyber shelves of bookstores and academic journals under categories such as Philosophy, Psychology, and Self-help.

A recent conversation with a client, Leandra, got both of us thinking more deeply about ‘purpose.’ How do we find it?  Is it even something to be found?  How do we understand the meaning of purpose in our individual lives?  Is our narrative about what constitutes purposeful pursuits limiting or expanding for us, and is this narrative subject to editing?

Leandra, a highly intelligent, professionally employed woman, found her job rather stultifying.  It paid the bills, allowed her to live in a nice house in a nice community.  It made use of her advanced degree. She could do it well, but without any moments of pizazz. It required a lot of discipline on her part to harness herself to the tasks involved.  Although other activities, outside of work, held interest for her, she complained of an inability to stick with anything.  She tried guitar lessons, dance, pottery, rock climbing.  Initially all seemed to kick start some real enjoyment and engagement, but inevitably she would discontinue.  Without any continuity, she fell into a numbing process of searching for the activity that would finally capture both her imagination as well as her commitment, and compensate for her boredom at work.

For a while I scratched my head.  Why did Leandra short circuit her involvement in any of these avocations which she supposedly liked?  Did she lack discipline or commitment to anything besides work and her family?  Did she simply get bored easily?  Would she continue to peruse the smorgasbord table of life’s offerings until she found something of greater attraction still?

Finally, she pondered what made her lose interest, and came up with the notion that, at some point she would ask herself what use this activity had. If she decided it lacked utility or purpose, other than self-indulgence, then she would lose steam or completely drop the activity.  In our continuing conversations, we considered whether purpose might be less about our evaluation of the status of an activity—as useful or important–and more about how we engage ourselves in whatever we do.

If one’s purpose isn’t found in the smorgasbord of life’s offerings, but in how fully we offer ourselves to the work we choose, then purpose involves a personal process of developing our investment, our dedication, and our increasing mastery to something.  That kind of attention illuminates, hones, and connects us more and more meaningfully to that with which we place our hands, minds, and hearts.

The activity itself—its vitality or offering of purposes—exactly mirrors our evaluation of it.  When we are “in the flow,” and fully engaged, then we are investing that action with purpose and meaning.  We become full of the activity and the activity becomes full of us.

The purposing of life expresses us at our most creative.  As Victor Frankl said, “we are meaning making creatures.”  And happiness thrives on such investment; not only our sense of pleasure, but our satisfaction in self-expression, as well as in making a contribution beyond ourselves to others.

Happiness is more of a how than a what; how we live life, as well as love, appreciate and invest ourselves in what we do and those with whom we share our sorrows and our joys. The purposing of happiness happens on the wings of commitment, engagement, exquisite mindset, willingness, openness to experience, and so forth.

In contrast, a bottle cap opener has no inherent purpose—though perhaps the steel’s active electrons “purposefully” move heat and electricity through their dance.  We invest bottle cap openers with utility.  We manufacture them to amplify the hand’s strength (Oh gosh, and the teeth for some brave souls) and better calibrate the angle of leverage.  A bottle cap opener, like any inanimate object, requires human intention and action to make a positive difference in our functioning.

My mother died in September of 2016, just a few months ago, leaving her legacy of optimism with me and my sisters.  Legacy comments, though casual, often sounded like this:  “It may be hard for you right now, but you’ll figure it out,” or “But you’ll keep trying, I know you.” Or, “Can’t you adjust your perspective?”  And often, “Well, make sure to take care of yourself.”

This latter comment has finally sunk in.  The fundamental embodiment of our developing capabilities and intentions requires us to take care of ourselves.  Whether we are purveyors, conduits, channels, transmitters, embracing arms, or fonts of love, knowledge and rides to soccer games, our constitutions require nourishment, sleep, exercise, breathing room, inspiration, and renewal.  This is not just ‘a thing.’ This is the real thing.  We are animate and live on borrowed time.  Our lives are on short loan from the universe so we must spend down our energy and time wisely.

The moment after my mother received her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, as gently as possible from the young oncologist she would meet only once, she could not remember the term, ‘pancreatic.’  She kept asking us to repeat the name and knew her denial process kept it from her.  Even as she lay bedbound during those last few days of her life she perked up.  “Sometime I want to write an essay on denial.  It’s amazing how I can’t remember the name of this cancer.”  An infinite regression of denials? Or is this purposing happiness, to see her ‘denial’ from an alternate perspective.

When all else failed—to conquer a problem, rectify an injustice, get the guy, get the job, win the award—she’d say, “It’s all grist for the mill.” The ultimate in recycling, upcycling, in turning lemons into lemonade.  The ultimate in purposing happiness. At the last moment, there are still things to ponder, to write, to contribute. Even if we will not be around to finish them.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941) wrote, “We live in the world when we love it.”  We are most alive in our world when we love it.  Love is that purposeful energy that renders the grass its greenest green, and makes us call the sounds of a bird ‘music,’ and the laughter of our babies inspirational.  One of my clients, Glyndi, says, “If I know you I love you.”  Love, and purpose, are connectors.  We connect ourselves to our world with love, and invest our devoted attention to the ever-evolving harmony-and-chaos of our lives with purpose.

When we love, we feel open, excited, willing, ready, available, forgiving, insightful, understanding, capable, curious, motivated, courageous, revelatory, cooperative, generous, and connected.

Another voice supporting the notion that purpose is in the “doing” of something rather than the “what” we are doing, Mark Manson (Sept 18 2014 https://markmanson.net/life-purpose), writes movingly about parenting.  Any parent has impact, is an “influencer.”  Here is a quote from his online article:

“Parenting ineluctably demands that one address the greatest, founding philosophical question: What is a good life? As we go about answering it live in our words and actions over long years, we will at least know that we have been spared the one great fear that otherwise haunts us and usually manifests itself around work: that of not being able to make a difference. There will not be the remotest danger of lacking impact, only of unwittingly exerting the wrong kind. We will be the biographers, coaches, teachers, chefs, photographers, masters and slaves of our new charges. Our work will lend us the opportunity to show our worst, but also our best selves in action: it is the particular words we will find, the touch of our hands, the encouraging look only we will be able to give, the swerve towards lenience or the brave defense of principles that will make a decisive difference to the sorrows and joys of another human being. Who we are every day, the specific individuals we will have matured into, will have an unparalleled power to exert a beneficial influence on somebody else’s life. We will – in our role as parents – be terrified, exhausted, resentful, enchanted and forever spared any lingering doubt as to our significance or role on the earth.”

Just like a simple bottle cap opener requires application to activate its purpose, so too do we generate purpose, and the satisfactions of feeling purposeful, from the application of ourselves to whatever we are doing.

Perhaps, those of us who have jobs we love, and do things we love, have an enormous privilege—to feel contributory, even if in a small way, even beyond our own families; to feel engaged fully; to feel lifted and inspired and masterfully in development with what we do. Not everyone has the luxury of pursuing what calls to them, or the opportunities for education and mentorship or encouragement. But when we invest ourselves fully in whatever we are doing we meet ourselves at the places where our strengths, intelligence, and inclinations manifest themselves.  This is where we find direction.  All experiences are grist for the mill, and that purposes happiness.


Camel Saddle:  To what activities do you fully apply yourself?  In what do you get so lost that you are found in your most creative and activated expression, fully alive in the moment?  To what might you pay more attention, in order to generate more purposeful direction?  What thoughts do you spin that hold you back from your loving, attentive and purposeful connections?