Why you should be dancing

My horses dance. You might say they’re just driven by instinct. But when you see them run into the field on a cool, winter morning, tossing their heads, twirling around, bucking, and lifting their feet in the air, you have to think they’re playing with movement in time to a rhythm in their own heads. For me, that’s dance.

I hear people saying, “I can’t dance” and I’d like to debunk that myth. You can breathe. You can move and you have rhythm within you. Just own it. You dance. It turns out dancing is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Not just for the pleasure it brings, but because it can help keep your brain intact.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the effects of different recreational activities on older adults and their impact on dementia. At the top of the list for protection against dementia was dancing!  Richard Powers, who writes a dance blog at Stanford University speculated on the reason for this: “Dancing integrates several brain functions at once — kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional — further increasing your neural connectivity.”

I get it! It keeps you moving, thinking, responding and inventing all at the same time. No wonder it’s good for the brain.

Still, it’s tempting to let the limitations of our bodies limit our desire to dance. I know because that happened to me. For years I danced for fun, but then my back started stiffening and my knees grew more cranky and creaky. I wanted to dance in my twenty-something body, not the sixty-year-old version, and maybe that meant not dancing at all.

Last year I was invited to a meditation and dance retreat over the New Year’s holiday with Karen Nelson, a master teacher well known for her work with a form of dance called Contact Improvisation. I told her, “Karen, it sounds great, but I don’t think my body is up to it. I can’t dance with the great group of younger dancers who will likely be coming.” She nodded empathically, then added, “It won’t be an issue. You can do whatever you can. One woman who always participates is your age and has only one leg. You can work with any limitation.”

I signed up. I looked forward to meeting that woman.

Dancing with a one-legged dancer

The woman, Karen Daly, inspired me throughout the workshop. She lost her leg to cancer in her childhood and with it lost part of her spirit. She learned to cope, work and manage her life using a prosthetic leg. Then, in mid-life she discovered improvisational dance. Dancing transformed her. It made her feel whole. Soon she was putting aside the prosthetic and navigating life more joyfully on one leg.

I watched her at the start of the workshop as we were sitting on the ground, stretching and breathing. She looked as graceful as anyone in the workshop. I asked her to be my partner in the first improvisational dance of the event, and together we explored the space between us, sitting, crawling, rolling on the floor, and occasionally, and carefully, standing. We weren’t jumping or running, but who cared? What mattered was how we tuned into each other’s energy and physical presence. As we danced, I no longer saw Karen as a one-legged dancer. She was a dancer, a beautiful one, and a very courageous woman.

In her new book, Joy Ride, Karen describes her journey from cancer into self-acceptance, and how her life was transformed by improvisational dance.

Even the philosopher Friederich Nietzche, usually portrayed as a dark, cranky, old nihilist, knew the merits of dancing. He said,

“And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”

He also believed dancing helped the quality of our thinking:

“Thinking wants to be learned as dancing wants to be learned, as a kind of dancing.”

Not bad for a guy in pain, who spent the last part of his life confined to an apartment, dying of syphilis. For Nietzsche, dance was not about performance or social dancing. There is no record of him dancing in public. He was caught, however, hopping about his apartment, dancing.

By the way, if you missed this stunning video of two Chinese dancers a couple of years ago, the man missing a leg, the woman an arm, it’s still worth watching.

 

I’ll balance out Nietzche with a little faith, after acknowledging that his famous announcement “God is dead” has been taken woefully out of context. Lee Ann Womack’s I Hope You Dance also inspires me.

I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance.
I hope you dance.

Don’t try to be good. Don’t try to get it right. Don’t worry about what you look like or whether you’re a dancer. Breathe. Move. Then move more. You’ll be dancing.

Be like those horses. Dance for the spirit of it. For the hope in it.

Dance!

How to find more light this season

How are you preparing for the holidays?

The December holiday season, at least in the United States, requires so much preparation: shopping, cleaning, writing cards (if anyone still does this), fixing food, partying… All the activity and stress can wipe away the time needed for what might be most important in this season: an inner preparation.

Advent means “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.” In the Christian calendar, it refers to the 24 days before Christmas, in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. Secular synonyms include appearance, emergence, approach, coming. Whether used in a religious or secular sense, advent suggests a time of waiting, expectancy, preparation and, hopefully, joy.

What do we do when someone wonderful is arriving? We prepare our homes.

But what if advent was also waiting for our highest and truest self to arrive, a part not burdened by the weight of the world (which feels so heavy right now), a part that can stand in peace yet still feel compassion?

How would we prepare for that arrival?

In this season of dark (if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere), you can use this month to find a depth within yourself that will carry you through the rest of the year, no matter what your belief or faith is.

Celebrating your inner advent is about building a capacity within.

December in the Pacific Northwest is not easy for me. The days are short. I need more sleep. I feel the specter of depression creeping towards me from the shadows, a depression that is fed by the barrage of difficult news I am hearing.

But in the darkness, all signs of light become much clearer. Hope glistens.

I can:

  • Spend more time in reflection, lighting a candle to comfort me when I sit in darkness.
  • Take pauses to enjoy little moments of awe and give thanks for small wonders like the pattern of rain on a leaf.
  • Review the past year, what I have learned, how I have grown, blessing it and preparing to let it go so I can begin again.
  • Seek evidence of goodness in the world despite what the news declares.
  • Take a break from the news, or allow it only in small doses.
  • Flush the psychic-toxins from my system by singing from my whole heart: carols or even the little ditties I offer to the horses.
  • Decorate the house as a way to create beauty, and let that beauty comfort me. Bask in the warm glow of the Christmas tree.
  • Find ways to give spontaneously just to enjoy giving.
  • Find commonality with those of different faiths or no faiths at all. Support the Syrian family who moved down the road.
  • Close the door, if only for a while, on the worries of the year. Shed them like a coat that stinks, too wet and heavy to bring into the house.
  • Feel gratitude that comes with no “because.”
  • Appreciate someone, or maybe a lot of someones.
  • Give to others what I need to receive: a deep, compassionate love.

There are a lot more ways to reflect during Advent. Lynn Jericho offers this program on Inner Advent if you want to take the idea deeper.

Yes, it’s dark out there. At times, it takes courage to cope. That’s why I need to look for light within me and within the world, a new light that will carry me through the year.

Take time out of time during the holidays

It’s officially holiday season in the United States and we’re off to the races! We watch the scorecard tick away telling us how many shopping days left until Christmas or the holiday we observe.

My mind swirls: How will I ever find enough time to…decorate? shop? work? write? party? observe? You fill in your own version.

It’s not hard to feel continually out of time during the holidays. That is, if we think of time as something we need to count. But there’s another way we can be with time that might preserve our balance, not just in the holidays but throughout the year.

The Greeks understood this. They spoke of two kinds of time, each represented by the gods Chronos and Kairos.

Chronos governed linear time. He’s usually seen as the guy with the white beard called “Father Time.” His time is measured quantitatively. This is the time we try to save, the time that marches ahead. We look to Chronos when we set our watches or look at our atomic clocks. Chronos time rules most of our work life.

Kairos governed a more qualitative aspect of time, concerned with the right moment, the opportune time, time that is not measured in units. As a god, Kairos is depicted as a graceful, beautiful youth, unscarred by the passage of chronological time. Theologians refer to Kairos time as time that belongs to God, as in the verse from Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

Kairos time doesn’t run out. It can’t be controlled, owned or stolen.

Kairos time does not belong to us. And, of course, there are no deadlines in Kairos time!

I found this lovely description of the difference between the two times by John Quek:

“The best way to differentiate between Chronos and Kairos is to see time as either a flowing river which carries us away (Chronos), or a quiet lake which we swim in (Kairos). We all experience time as both, all the time, in whatever we do. We experience Chronos when we are impatiently waiting for something to be over and done with. We experience Kairos when we are so deeply engrossed in an activity that time seems to stand still. In Chronos, we are stressed—in Kairos, we are refreshed.”

We have all had experiences of Kairos time. I feel it during those moments when time seems to stop, when life opens up with a grace-filled numinosity, or when I know, in my bones, that this particular moment is important.

You may have had experiences of Kairos time when:

  • You felt that you were called to speak – and you spoke.
  • You reached out to a friend at just the right moment.
  • You felt like you were dissolving into the art you were painting, the piece on the piano you were playing, the song you sang, or the dance you danced.
  • You stood in the woods when everything felt so still.
  • You watched the eclipse set the world into darkness.
  • You shared in worship, meditation, or a ritual that lifted you out of yourself and transported you into another space.
  • Your child was born.
  • You were present to someone dying.

Kairos time often occurs in liminal spaces, when we feel suspended at a threshold between two worlds. I have felt it in those precious moments before dawn or at dusk when the worlds of night and day blend together, and I walk with awe.

We can welcome Kairos by cultivating a sense of wonder and sensing the potent moments in ordinary life.

A little bit of Kairos time can transform our days.

Last weekend, I was strolling through Seattle’s downtown Pike Street Market and I walked by a somewhat tacky wait-in-line-to-see-Santa stand where dozens of parents were waiting in the dank cold to have their childrens’ pictures taken with Santa. As I passed the stand, I glanced over my shoulder and saw a family, apparently Asian, whose three-year-old son was standing proudly next to Santa, outfitted spiffily in a bright red vest. The parents, of course, were clicking photos. In that moment, the child’s delight seemed so true and his family’s pride so real that I was swept into a wave of memories. For an instant, I felt the magic of the holidays. For that instant, I lived in Kairos time.

I cherish such moments and wish them for you.

What events offer you an opportunity for sacred sparks of joy? Where are the pockets of wonder in your life? How can you fill the holidays with more magic, awe, surprise, or depth to counterweight the rush of time and the press of obligations?

We can’t hold on to Kairos time.

Yet by cultivating moments when we can step out of time, we gain our bearings and can return to our Chronos-filled holiday time, with eyes wide, moving, perhaps, a little more slowly.

 

After Me Too

 

The chorus of voices chanting “Me too” keeps getting louder. Hearing people finally speaking out against sexual harassment has been great, stressful, and long overdue. But hearing all of the allegations may also stir up deep feelings within those of us who have harbored traumatic memories for many years.

Public allegations of sexual harassment against celebrity figures like Harvey Weinstein have opened a floodgate of revelations, making it safer for people to finally speak up about the sexual harassment or misconduct they’ve experienced or witnessed.

We’ve been waiting for years to be safe to speak out. Twenty-six years ago, I witnessed what could happen to a woman who publicly spoke out against a man in power. Watching Anita Hill testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Testimony about her experience being sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was excruciatingly painful. A brave, educated, beautiful, competent African-American lawyer was being publicly slain by Congressional incompetents with mean, ill-intended questions, while millions of women nation-wide knew exactly what Anita was talking about.

ALL of my professional friends believed Anita, because all of us had experienced some form of sexual harassment, dramatic or small, or knew someone who had. Yet we were powerless to stop the process of what was later called a “high tech lynching” on camera. She paid too high a price for speaking out.

She wasn’t the only one to pay a price for speaking out to power.

Years ago, I began a project listening to the stories of female Iraq veterans who had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their time in the service. One vet called me, desperately needing someone who would hear and believe her story. She described being drugged and raped in Iraq. When she complained to her superiors, they covered for her assailant, one of the “good old boys,” and refused to believe her. Not being trusted by a superior officer is what some servicewomen describe being like a second rape. After her superiors dismissed her, she left the service, went to work in a fast food restaurant, and tried to kill herself. It was heartbreaking. All I could do was listen and encourage her to seek professional help.

What do you do when you are carrying a difficult story?

All of the me-too stories circulating over social media can potentially trigger difficult memories of trauma. Guts resonate in sympathy with the stories told, old wounds are revealed, and feelings of fury and frustration kept under wrap for years bubble to the surface. We deal with what we’ve tried to forget. We remember the toll it has taken to be confronted with so many micro as well as major aggressions over so many years.

In safe company, we may share our stories, although frankly mine aren’t suited to parties or dinner table conversations, and I usually prefer to keep them private. Our memories are often complex providing good fodder for self-judgments. (such as How did I ever think saving a few francs by hitchhiking by myself in France was a good idea?)

Here’s something we can all do: write.

One suggestion is to write about your memories, privately, in conversation with a page that can gracefully hold whatever you chose to write. Research, by Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin has shown that writing, in the wake of a traumatic incident, is even more effective than using on-the-scene crisis counseling in lessening the effects of trauma.

Write to the page as if it were your best friend, who expects nothing, does not judge, has empathy and loves you. Or just write for yourself. The page is willing to catch whatever you chose to share. It is for you, only you.

Then as you put events, emotions, interpretations on the page you can begin to examine your own narratives and edit them, as all good writers do. This is where the healing really begins. One caveat: the research suggests that this writing process works best after you’ve had a little time between you and the trauma. Like remembering the time you were harassed years ago that still sticks in your memory like a burr in your side.

I don’t know the mechanism that makes this writing healing, but I do know that being able to edit your own story is powerful.

At the same time, we can show compassion for others by listening to difficult stories without judgment. Our job, thankfully, is to be a friend, not to be a court of law sorting out the facts. Stories may be messy with complex emotions interwoven into what happened. Doesn’t matter. Our job is to be human, present, and empathic. Deep sharing requires safety and kind attention.

There are so many dimensions to the “me too” words. We need to acknowledge and say “me too” to where we also have used our power inappropriately to hurt, dismiss, or discriminate against another. And who, frankly, hasn’t done that?

We’re in this together.

Me, too.

 

When you’re fogged in, follow the markers

There are mornings, here in the Pacific Northwest, when the fog covers the fields in a sheet of gray, and I can only see a few feet ahead as I walk out to feed the horses,

Then there are mornings when a mental fog descends, and the path that seemed so clear the day before is nowhere to be found.

When I’m lost in the fog and can’t find the trail, I need markers placed a few feet ahead of me more than big goals or strategic objectives.

Traditional planning focuses on goals, objectives, and indicators–and these all have their place. But when I’m walking the trail of transformation in uncharted territory, I want signs that reassure me to, “Keep going.” I once meandered onto a goat path while hiking up a mountain and ended up completely lost as the sun was going down.Now, when I’m hiking, I keep my eyes peeled for little orange tapes wrapped around branches to reassure me that I’m on track.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because a mental fog can roll in without notice, I want to be prepared. One day, I’ll be on fire writing my book. The next, I’m ready to throw my hands up and cry, “Uncle.” When I can’t see more than ten feet ahead, I need a marker at nine feet. When I’m lost in a morning funk and finding writing a book too overwhelming, (yes, it is!), identifying one small step to take can be a lifesaver.

Maybe to find that step I’ll choose to sit quietly or have a brief chat with the muse, that compassionate voice I call upon in just these situations. She’s very good at coming up with three to five very specific, small, no-nonsense steps: “Read a little Elizabeth Gilbert to motivate you.” “Write 800 words even if you hate your words.” “Pick up your closet floor.” “Breathe.” When I follow her suggestions and take one or two steps, I will often find my groove and be on my way again.

I reserve long-range planning for clear, blue-sky days, with no fog interference. Then I can stand at my whiteboard and plot my best-guess trail map for my project over the next three to six months.

How markers can help

  • If you’re starting a business: What’s the one small, but necessary thing you could do right now to support your key direction for the week?
  • If you’re designing a course: What small portion of the design could you develop?
  • If you’re painting: What’s the smallest step or gesture you could take that would allow you to feel like you are advancing–as simple as selecting brushes or setting up your easel?
  • If you’re needing exercise: What’s the smallest thing you could do today to move forward on your program?

But when the fog comes in, I say that markers are what’s going to keep you on the trail.

 

 

Do you suffer from email apnea?

 

When you return from a vacation, does anticipating all those waiting e-mails make your stomach twist? (I’m just back from my staycation.) Or, after devoting a morning to sorting through your inbox, does your brain go in circles as you find yourself getting increasingly cranky and irritated?

You may have email apnea!

Linda Stone, technology consultant and former Microsoft and Apple executive, whose work was written up in Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book The Distraction Addiction uses the phrase “e-mail apnea” to refer to our tendency to hold our breath while doing email. As with sleep apnea, we’re usually unconscious that we’re holding our breath.

Watch out! As you’re confronted by a host of small, tech-related aggravations throughout the day, you may intermittently hold your breath without realizing it.

  • After numerous delays, you settle into your desk and discover that your computer has crashed and must be rebooted. Your mental clock starts ticking while you beam messages to your computer to “Hurry up already!”
  • You’re about to invoice a client when your QuickBooks accounting software starts performing a quirky dance that causes it to delete your invoice total. Now you have to spend forty of your precious minutes (with none to spare) diving into the user support boards on the Internet with your query: WHY DOES QUICKBOOKS DANCE QUIRKY???.
  • You discover that you need to upgrade some obscure piece of software you installed three years ago and it asks for your user name and password, which, fortunately, you saved in that handy software that allows you to save your passwords (phew) but now THAT software requires a master password before you can access it, and WHERE THE HECK DID YOU PUT IT, and now that you’ve found it and retrieved you password and FINALLY start to download your upgrade, your computer asks you for a password and WHICH OF THE BLOODY APPLE PASSWORDS IS THAT?

It’s the same feeling or lack of feeling I get when the telephone company puts me on hold for an interminable time…just because they can.

Ouch. I stopped breathing just writing about it.

Here’s a tip that’s simple, elegant, bold, and so obvious that we tend to forget it: Just breathe.

The first and most important step in de-stressing is to notice all the small moments when we stop breathing. All of these annoyances are perfect opportunities to practice tech-mindfulness, something we increasingly need, because, frankly, the tech-induced stress isn’t going to get any lighter.

Our aggravations provide us with time for mini-breathing meditations because truth be known, the software is going to take the time that it does to open, install or upgrade, customer service will return to speak with us someday, and QuickBooks is still, annoyingly, QuickBooks.

There are lots of breathing exercises out there. Mine is super simple:

Breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold for a count of four, then breathe out (preferably through your nose) for a count of eight. The longer exhale is super important for your relaxation.

Don’t worry or get too heady about it. Even a few medium breaths are better than the alternative.

If you have a better breathing exercise or stress buster that works for you, please pass it along. We all need to stick together on this!

OK. Post done. Now I can breathe.