Through my experience as an improvisational dancer, I have become increasingly embodied, learning to feel within myself moment to moment and watch what is arising. I have learned to pay close attention to the interrelationship of feelings, impulses, and thoughts, as well as to track the interconnection of the bodily systems, an entire world of aliveness within me. I have learned to allow my awareness to move within me, and to some extent, choose which impulse to act upon, rather than purely react. I am learning a new language of improvisational movement, a communication of waves or movement, both within myself and interconnecting me with all species, all life, within the sea of essence. Overtime, I have come to see life itself as an intricate and ever-surprising improvisational dance and that I am that dance.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh beautifully describes this dance of aliveness in his poem Interbeing:
The sun has entered me.
The sun has entered me together with the cloud and the river.
I myself have entered the river, and I have entered the sun with the cloud and the river.
There has not been a moment when we do not interpenetrate.
But before the sun entered me, the sun was in me also the cloud and the river.
Before I entered the river, I was already in it.
There has not been a moment when we have not inter-been.
Therefore you know that as long as you continue to breathe, I continue to be in you.
Here Thich Nhat Hanh poetically describes what he calls interbeing, everything co-existing within everything else. Each of us, and everything in the universe, is interpenetrated with everything else. In Peace is Every Step, he states, “To be’ is to inter-be. We cannot just be by ourselves alone. We have to inter-be with every other thing.” (p. 96)
Tribal peoples always knew this truth, and communicated with all that surrounded them. Through their dance they communicated with the soil, the sun, the water. They were embedded in the land, immersed in interbeing. In the epilogue of The Universe Story, Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry describe how our ancestors were connected with their surroundings: “The Native American peoples were especially distinguished for their sense of participating in a single community with the entire range of beings in the natural world around them. The drumbeat was experienced as striking out the rhythms of the Earth itself. Their dancing was associated with the various animal peoples inhabiting the area. It was all caught up in the sacred realm of the Manitou, Orenda , or Wakan Tanka. This we find especially in the ecstatic experience of Black Elk where at the song of the visionary stallion, ‘The virgins danced, and all the circled horses,the leaves on the trees, the grasses and the hills and in the valleys, the water in the creeks and in the rivers and the lakes, the four-legged and the two-legged and the wings of the air – all danced together to the music of the stallion’s song.”
When dance is a lived, moment-to-moment interaction with one’s world, the individual enters into a profound level of inter-communication. Through dance I have learned to be embodied and to communicate with my world at many levels. To be embodied is to feel within the body, experiencing the tactile dance of life within us and at the same time being embedded in the living world around us. Throughout Thich Nhat Hanh’s poems and short stories, we find beautiful descriptions of the ever-changing present and the interpenetration of everything. He is a keen observer of the moment, seeing and expressing the innocence of creative arising. In his moving poem, Please Call Me by My True Names, Thich Nhat Hanh writes,
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
Here Thich Nhat Hanh’s words express the truth of arising, what Buddhists call Interdependent Co-Arising, as explained in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings. (p.221) In improvisational dance, each move is unique, arising out of the music, the sea of dancers, the body nearest me and the patterns of light on the floor. I am wave responding to wave, riding waves on the sea, joy arising in each moment, playing like the dolphin, tiger paws sinking into earth, endless shapeshifting, feeling and form, shaping and reshaping. This is the dance of interbeing.
Returning to the dance, I return to my true nature. I am creation arising out of the infinite sea, ever becoming. I move so deeply into the bones that if feel myself deep in the diamond heart of the earth, the heart of matter. I move as the ever-changing dance of existence, in the innocence of birth, creating. My dancing is shaped by everything around me, and all that I have ever experienced.
The image of dancing within water emerges, I am a child tossed by the sea. The ocean moves inside me, the ocean and I inter-are. As a child growing up in southern New Jersey, I was cradled by the sand and tossed and turned in the great Atlantic Ocean, on the very same beach where my parents had met. My father had grown up in Ocean City, and we returned there every summer weekend. In the winters and during the week, we lived an hour inland at the edge of the Pine Barrens, in a small log cabin community that had once been a summer resort, with lakes that had been carved out of cranberry bogs encircled by sandy beaches and pine forests. We would glide through the lily pads in our canoes, or tip them over and play under them – through the holy waters of my childhood my body learned to feel pure joy, and when I began to dance I again experienced the fluidity of those waters, this time within me.
I have never danced for an audience. I dance improvisationally as a spiritual practice, to move deeply into myself and interconnect in wordless spaces with others. I love allowing the movement to unfold, one moment after another, being continually surprised by what is arising. Not knowing or caring what it looks like, simply feeling and following the thread of movement. Thich Nhat Hanh’s words speak to me, as a form of dance on paper, conveying the wonder of interbeing and bringing us into the moment.
Nhat Hanh, Thich Call Me By My True Names, Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1999.
Nhat Hanh, Thich Peace is Every Step, New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
Nhat Hanh, Thich The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching , New York: Broadway Books, 1998.
Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, San Francisco: Harper Books, 1992.