A Tiny Dance in Stillness

I’ve been feeling tired, tender and irritable for the last several weeks, which has made it hard for me to write. I wake up every morning with the pressure of intention: Today, I will write in this journal. This and a scripted list of other actions that follow the narrative of  “Good Cheryl” – meditation, physical exercise, outdoor walks and breathing in fresh air, being transformatively present in my meetings, cooking healthy meals, creating meaningful art.

The pressure is important, because it signals that my commitments continue to be a priority for me (especially in the context of a “self-directed masters” where it can feel like I’m accountable to no one but myself ). I feel bloated with so much stuff that I want to make sense of and metabolize. I am, however, very conscious of the tell-tale signs of when this pressure becomes punishing. 

The other context – which is perhaps more “woo”, but I’ll let the Great Conjunction guide me into exile –  is that I haven’t felt very energetic in my “soul’s calling”. The “soul’s calling” has been the container-term I’ve been borrowing to signify my relationship with channeling the creative source — or as I become more comfortable with my spiritual inclinations: the Tao,  Great Mystery, Cosmic Order, the Divine. As someone who is investigating the energetics of trying to source rather than force, writing and creating has felt like moving through molasses this month. So light moves across the floor and I’m lying on the couch at the end of the day, quietly pinching myself about all the ways that I’ve failed to live up to the aspirational vision of myself. The accumulation of these pinches bruise my flesh black and blue. 

For much of my life, the desire to avoid the growing pains of my self-flagellation will show up in addiction – self-anesthetization in the form of watching pleasurably empty tv shows on Netflix, or scrolling aimlessly on social media. These may come across as relatively benign addictions to others, but it really does decay my sense of self. The reinforcing root of this addiction is to numb myself from a noxious spiral of self-contempt, from failing to live up to “Good Cheryl”. If I start a day where I feel like I’ve not lived up to a particular ideal of myself, I sink into the thought: “so why even bother?” I pre-destine the day as a “failure”, and I stop bothering. I give up on myself. I give up on being aware and present. I give up on living well.  I justify watching tv to pass time until I can hit “restart” for the next new day, where maybe I will wake up as “Good Cheryl” again. If another day passes, and I fail at “Good Cheryl”, the dots mutate into a pattern of fear and shame, where “I failed to be Good today” becomes “I am not a Good person.” 

Struggling with this downward spiral of being increasingly disconnected from myself has gripped me through my philosophical inquiry and development practices. It’s made it hard for me to stay committed to art when I’m so sensitive to and avoid failure. I wrote my Masters thesis four years ago on Unconsciousness by Design: Addictive Technologies and the Escape from Freedom, to investigate the nuances of how this disempowering, disconnecting relationship with addictive technology manifests. My explorations with Buddhism, Daoism and spirituality have also been a critical part of this work – by meditating and being-with the growing pains of becoming, I’ve been trying to cultivate a more loving relationship with suffering. 

Now, I recognize the early signals of disconnection from the self. A good friend Rachel describes her visual field closing in when she senses that disconnection from self, noticing that she literally has less peripheral vision. For me, it shows up with a desperate avoidance of boredom or emptiness – I fill up all interstitial times between work calls or errands with pleasant numbing content on youtube or instagram –   so that I don’t have to sit with myself and whatever is annoying inside of me. 

Cultivating presence around the fluctuating rhythms of my natural cycles means that I have to trust my need and desire to rest. It’s easy to frame my slow down as a blockage, as a stuckness or a disconnect that I need to push through and resolve. But I’m realizing that need to see Rest as an important teacher in my self-directed masters, as much as my writing, my endless zoom meetings, courses and talks. I used to resent periods of inaction. “Move, move!” I say to myself in futile frustration, digging my heels hard into the elephant. But several years ago, I learned about how fields need to lie fallow every few years, where the soil can be left unplanted for a period of time to rest and replenish its nutrients. These fallow periods are so important to the regeneration of fertility in the soil so that new crops will grow again much healthier and in greater abundance.  There is wisdom to be received in these ecological cycles of energy and rest, movement and stillness, yin and yang. 

So I take these moments of stillness, or rest, to sink down to the roots of how to know, hold and listen to myself. Outside, the skies are swollen with gray clouds and the air is bitter with cold and coronavirus – pathetic fallacy reminds me to stay inside. So I create a nest out of pillows and blankets on the floor, lie down and breathe deeply. I start to notice that in my quiet and stillness, there is motion in me. I am digesting.

My We Will Dance With Mountains kin, Zachary, shared this with our group: 

“If you were to tell your body to stand still, a somatic nervous system command, and then put attention to the body, you would notice that there is no stillness despite there being no conscious command of muscles. The body is constantly in motion. A tiny dance. Both from internal momentum of organ, blood, lymph, ect., but also from postural muscles firing off to find balance. And to keep tone. Because even when we are fully “relaxed”, our muscles always have a set tone, tension, and a sense of readiness.” 

The tiny dance sways me, the rise and fall of its current moves in rhythm with my in and out breath. There are many players in the dance: wispy strands of mycelium folding through the soil of my cells and particles, my atoms vibrating in erratic jazzy movement, the current of warm blood coursing through the rivers and tributaries of my body. I am not the conductor of the tiny dance, the Rider does not guide the elephant. 

I’m learning that I can be still and be connected to my soul’s calling, to follow the direction of the tiny dance. The paradox of movement in stillness is the non-dual wholeness of Taiji (太極), the “undifferentiated absolute and infinite potential, the oneness before duality.” Movement and tranquility, in alteration, become the source of each other. So in stillness, I follow the Tao, a tiny dance with the flow of the universe. 

In the quietude of this place, the small ripples are beginning to grow. I didn’t anticipate how much the focus of my self-directed masters would be on building self-awareness and presence, in learning how to be in right relationship with myself. But as I’m starting to find balance in groundless ground, I sense that I’m moving into a different phase, and I feel ready to ripple outwards.