Finding Gaps, Together and Alone

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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

Comments
6 Responses to “Finding Gaps, Together and Alone”
  1. Brianna says:

    This is great! I love your challenge to allows gaps of silence in conversation with friends. I definitely find myself inserting the “so yeahs” into moments when no one has anything to say, so I will consciously try to eliminate these verbal space-fillers this week. Utilizing our phones as an escape is another relevant notion for me… Lately I’ve noticed how bizarre it is that I pull out my phone as soon as I sit down on the subway. I don’t have service, so I’m not getting any calls. I don’t have any games on my phone, so it’s not like I am using it as entertainment. I’m really just flipping through the various screens, occasionally reading emails that were downloaded before I went underground, simply so that I seem and feel occupied. But a 20 or 30 minute train ride is the perfect time to take a break from technology, sit back, and give my mind a little bit of a rest. That’s another challenge I’ll be taking on this week.

  2. Jessica McCarthy says:

    Wow, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experience! Before I came to NYU, I would go to new moon and full moon meditations back in my hometown with my mom. When I moved up here, I yearned to find a community atmosphere where I could go practice meditation. I tried a few places out, but none of them seemed to be the right fit for me. I stumbled across Shambhala Meditation Center of New York’s website one day last year when searching for a place to de-stress when things were getting hectic in my school life and personal life.

    Due to the “laziness” Tara Marie wrote about a few weeks ago, A year later, I have yet to go to the Shambhala Meditation Center. I’m taking this post as a sign that I should find a “gap” in my life to go visit the center.

    In the mean time, I’m going to bring back one of my favorite ways to practice daily meditation: a walking meditation. Genuinely being present during your commute from point A to point B can be a great way to clear your mind while on the go. I love doing this in the city because it’s a real challenge to just take in everything around you and then let it go, not becoming attached to any thought or image that comes up in your physical, mental or emotional world. But, when you succeed at doing this, it’s a beautiful and fulfilling experience. You’ll be surprised at how many new, subtle sights you notice on your daily commute.

  3. Molly McSherry says:

    Similar to Jessica and Brianna, I’ve been experimenting with a commuter’s mediation! How easy it is to plug into my iPod, re-read emails, etc. while on the subway. Seizing the opportunity to use this time in a different way has manifested a few interesting realizations. The jostle from the tourist, the pushy commuter, or a lack of empty seats are usually unwelcome, abrupt interruptions to my commuting activities. I’ve found, though, that when I’m present in my body and in the space that I’m occupying, these “cruel” disruptions transform into simple happenings…they may change my course, but they do not upset me. I’ve been open and aware, so I noticed that the man who just bumped into me had rushed to get on the train with a bit of a limp in her gait, and the woman who jumped in front of me to take the only empty seat looks thoroughly exhausted.
    Sure, this doesn’t always “work,” and a clouded, tired mind can affect how open I can be, but at least I can give myself the opportunity to learn and grow.

  4. Gwen Gussman says:

    Thank you for the post- its very thought provoking and actually made me think a lot about a piece in which Molly, Tara and I are currently dancing. The piece consists of four duets, and when we ourselves are not dancing, we stand on stage watching the other duets.The piece is about different types of conversations between groups of friends, lovers, basically people who all know each other and are in relationships. There is nothing verbal in the piece- the conversations are told entirely physically, and not necessarily by the choreography or the steps themselves… more so, the stories of each duet and each relationship are slowly revealed through our body language relating to one another. Rather than the movement of a battement telling the story, its the power of the subtle glances, or the intense eye-locking moments when we watch one another on stage. The choreographer continually says to us, “Be still. Really watch and look at one another”. It sounds so easy, so simple. But onstage, when we expect to constantly be moving and performing, it is no easy feat to stand as yourself, no affectations, and connect in an honest and momentary way with everyone around you.
    Throughout the process i’ve found it to be a wonderful challenge to honestly connect with my fellow dancers through things such as standing or looking at someone else who is onstage. Instead of looking between their eyebrows, or at their collarbone, I have challenged myself to look directly into my partners eyes, without wavering. Just by looking into one another’s eyes, there is an instant story created between us, and no matter the kind of story, the act itself of looking into someone else’s eyes feels intense. It’s intimate. It takes courage to look someone in the eye, to stay fully engaged non-verbally in any given moment.
    Perhaps this is why we often look to our phone for distractions on during our daily lives. Generally, we all yearn to connect with one another- yet, instead of taking the opportunity to connect with someone around us, it can feel safer, easier at times, to retract and look to our devices such as phones, for virtual connection. What would it be like if you spent an entire day staying fully engaged in what is going on around you? Allowing yourself to openly take in your surrounding including those around you. Now i’m not saying that we should all smile or try and lock eyes with every single person we walk past on the street. But I ask you, and I ask myself, to think about how the eye connections we make with those around us (be it close friends or strangers) relates to the and level of openness we feel with those people. Openness and receptivity allows for deeper relationships, for levels of intimacy to be formed. It’s said that the eyes are the way to look into someone’s soul, and in some ways I believe this to be true. To connect with someone on levels which include much more than verbal connections, is to be able to look into their eyes and quite possibly, have a moment of intimacy and shared understanding… no words necessary.

    • I too am attempting to more fully notice and relax into gaps that are available…I am often humbled to see how often I reflexively fill these gaps up. It has become a conditioned response but thank goodness these living habits are so malleable – we can shift them if we choose to again and again until a new pattern emerges. Gwen, I like your eye connection practice- Like katherine, introversion makes direct connection a little overwhelming for me sometimes. I often look “beyond” the person when speaking to someone – I do that when I am thinking and to bring myself a little space so that I can be present without retracting. I have found it helps me be more honest and open if I take in the space around the person rather than just the person. (My now-husband used to call me faraway eyes because of that) But I too have been trying to make the connection, even if it isn’t sustained. Just a nonverbal commitment to the person and the moment, be it my mum or a cashier or a yoga student. I have found it is actually really comforting.
      Katherine, I also really relate to the “going to class” or going together to be alone. It is one of the many things I miss about ballet, one of the many things I love about group yoga practice, and one of the few things I miss about my childhood memories of church. Sometimes we need the energy of others to help hold our experience of dropping in.

  5. Jonathan Matthews says:

    Ooh wowie I needed to read this NOW. I have several websites whose articles I just drool over, and once finals week hit, so did my tab quota, and I’ve spent much of this winter trying to go through them and and come back to a clean slate..however, what should be pleasure quickly became consuming as i regimented how I went about it…the purpose switched from my own personal intellectual enrichment to HOW MANY TABS CAN I CLOSE TODAY…causing me to feel the need to fill every gap of the HUGE gap of my winter break with stimulation after stimulation, which, I feel, were not fully perceived because of it.

    Your experience at the meditation center reminds me of an improvisation exercise I had the honor to partake in when studying in Salzburg this past summer. The class divided into pairs, and one partner had to close his/her eyes while the other partner led him/her through the city. On the way back to the school, the roles would reverse. I’m familiar with this technique as it applied simply to generating movement, however this particular teacher added an extra element which was that before either of us danced, we would have a discussion about our pratyahara experience WITH NO BODY LANGUAGE. IT DROVE ME BONKERS as I was so filled with rapture from my neglected senses moving to the forefront and having a field day. The dancing, then, too, had to be done with eyes closed…and this specific sequence of activity led to such a deep investigation…In my soloing I somehow felt inextricably attached to my partner.

    I’ve really come to value stillness and silence in my art making…I find that space of nothing sheds SO much “something” on surrounding spaces overloaded with material….but nothing, too, can have so much meaning and potential in itself independently of what happens before and after it….I suppose the next step is trusting this aesthetic appreciation enough to let it exist in my daily real world life…good challenge for the new year.

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