Dancing the Unknown

Last week I was introducing meditation in a slightly different context. I was on retreat as usual, in the beautiful snowy realm of the Trossachs in Scotland, with Loch Voil frozen one day under a clear, blue sky. What was different to most of the retreats I teach on, was that I was supporting Jayachitta on the ‘Dancing the Unknown’ retreat.

It’s the third year running I’ve done this retreat at Dhanakosa retreat centre. Jayachitta is trained in movement improvisation, and unlike a lot, maybe most improv teachers, she doesn’t take the exercises in the direction of performance art or drama (though we touched on both of those) but towards meditation. Movement is a fabulous way of noticing what is happening in the mind. What the mind and emotional habits get up to when you move in a directed way, is so clearly visible.

What was stressed a lot was authentic movement; if nothing came, then nothing happened, be prepared to wait and to be present rather than move in a half-hearted or artificial way you didn’t really feel connected with. (The suggestion once we progressed to making sounds and then words was a little different; if you were stuck, reel off a bunch of numbers and see if that loosened up the mind – that was a lot of fun!)

Jayachitta would very skilfully draw out the links through the exercises we did individually and in pairs or threes, sometimes with music and quite a lot without it. And then in the afternoon sessions, I would make my own connections with the material with sitting meditation, and a fair amount of standing and walking meditation.

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I’ll give you a couple of examples of how this worked. One day we worked in the movement session with ‘shape’. The shapes that we take up, the shapes we make. After working alone we progressed to making shapes in and around another and then adding a sound when we took up a new shape. We’re always taking up a ‘shape’ in relation to the world, and to each other, and we’re always being shaped and formed by our world. We’ve been formed in this way since we were babies interacting with parents and siblings, with our environment, whether nurturing or not. Our physical shape is formed and re-formed through our lives, and in each moment through our relationship with our body and mind.

Later in meditation, we looked explicitly at the mental and emotional shaping that’s happening all the time through the interactions between thoughts, feelings and our sense experiences. We all have an emotional ‘shape’ formed like a rock smoothed by the ocean, and with awareness, we see that we take up many different shapes rather than a single, internal, monolithic self-view. Our minds, as well as our bodies, are shaped and formed over and over again.

Another day we had fun with small soft balls. Standing in a circle more balls were gradually introduced until there were about 6. The only instruction was to throw the ball (underarm) to another person in the circle. It was interesting to notice all the ‘extras’ that went along with that simple request; lots of laughter, lots of “whoop’s” (when the ball went short or wide) and “sorry’s” when it hit someone. Some admitted to trying to be ‘fair’ so that everyone got the ball, and many of us tried to catch someone’s eye before they threw the ball.

“Why?” said Jayachitta. “The instruction wasn’t to catch the ball. Just to throw it!”

A couple of the more devilish folk admitted they deliberately threw the ball to someone who wasn’t looking!

In this simple exercise so much internal mind stuff went on. We worried about getting it wrong. We told ourselves stories about how we could never catch at school. Or that we were great at ball games. There was embarrassment, and self-congratulations and lots in-between. The mind kept up its non-stop commentary but eventually calmed down, as did the external commentary of noises and words. The task became just noticing what was happening through the game in body and mind.

Having dwelt in ‘space’ in the movement, in the afternoon meditation session, we looked at our stories and narratives around ‘time’, and the extras we add on to what is actually happening in the mind. Borrowing questions from Tejananda, we looked at where in our experience could we find the past or the future. And then, could we find the present moment?

There were no right or wrong answers but it was a deeply intriguing exercise that encouraged a real interest in experience, rather than the concepts around them. We used the concepts themselves as ways into direct experience.

There were many more exercises and correlations through the week, watching the mind, noticing reactions, and becoming freer from limiting habits.

If you get the chance – come to the Dancing the Unknown retreat next spring at Dhanakosa (watch this space for dates). If you can’t wait until then Jayachitta is leading a weekend in Sheffield Buddhist Centre this weekend 31/1st April,
and another one in Shrewsbury Buddhist Centre on June 9th/10th.

Check out more details and other events on Jayachitta’s website
http://dancingtheunknown.wixsite.com/improvisation

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Imagining the Buddha

My thoughts have returned to the time recently spent in India, after a Sangha evening a few days ago where 6 of us talked briefly about our experiences there on pilgrimage, retreat and convention.

I’ve been thinking about my practice which rests a lot on direct experience, knowing the mind and what it’s getting up to. And I’ve been wondering about the place of the imagination in this type of practice. When my mind imagines, it creates or constructs various emotions; anxiety or paranoia potentially if I’ve been reading a thriller, or awe and reverence if I’m meditating where the Buddha gained Enlightenment.

While in India, I had the opportunity to go to the location where the Buddha is thought to have taught the Satipatthana Sutta for the first time. For the past 20+ years this Sutta has been key to my practice of the Dharma, so on the one day we had in Delhi, my partner and I headed off with the somewhat sketchy description given by a friend, and trusty google on our phones.

After a couple of metro journeys, a long walk through a park and then a rickshaw ride, we arrived at sunset at a small dusty park on the main road. It was populated by groups of men and boys, some with bottles of alcohol. As we walked past some parched looking Bodhi trees and climbed up onto the rocky outcrop in the centre of the park we were warned by a young Indian man in western dress that it wasn’t safe to stay after dark.

So, we couldn’t stay long, looking at the very old rock marked with a faded inscription, from Ashokan times, contained inside a concrete and barred tank. It was unprepossessing, unlike the gorgeous modern Lotus Temple we’d popped into en route. There were no other pilgrims present but previous ones had – as is traditional in parts of Asia – pressed gold leaf squares as offerings onto the concrete walls. It was the closest they could get to the heart of the site.

We took photos of each other on top of the outcrop and watched the sun setting through the smoky, polluted air over the city. I felt edgy after the warning we’d been given and keen to leave. It was only later it sunk in that I’d stood in the spot where the Buddha and his disciples had stood. I could imagine them there, apparently a mixed group of men and women as well as monastics. I imagined them sitting listening to the Buddha speak, his words being drunk in. I was so happy to have been there.

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I was aware that the reality of the place didn’t justify the significance and happiness my mind was attributing to it. Did that matter? I don’t think so. I was aware I was using my mind in this way; imagining a scene that connected me more strongly with the Buddha. The emotions produced were positive ones of devotion and confidence, increasing my desire to practice. The use of concepts was a skilful one allowing for more receptivity to the qualities of awakening.

We’re using concepts all the time and one of the natural faculties of mind is imagining. Thoughts and conceptualising are not all we can know. My practice focus’ on direct experience to reveal what is immediate and fresh in experience away from the shadow of the world of concepts. Perhaps imagination is another tool that can help us do that.

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Perhaps too, the modes of experiencing and imagining are not so different. In ancient India, whether you saw, imagined or visualised it was all taken as ‘seeing’, it was all ‘real’. The Buddha himself, sitting under the Bodhi tree ‘saw’ all the Buddhas of the past who had previously taken their seat on the great Diamond Throne, the Vajrasana. Sitting there himself he felt tremendous confidence that it was his rightful place.