The Time of Your Life
With leaps, bounds, and stillness, dancers make peace with time.
Rolling on the floor, flying through the air, and leaning on your partner—an experimental dance form offers insights into living leisurely
The heart is a leisurely muscle. It differs from all other muscles. How many push-ups can you make before the muscles in your arms and stomach get so tired that you have to stop? But your heart muscle goes on working for as long as you live. It does not get tired, because there is a phase of rest built into every single heartbeat. Our physical heart works leisurely.
And when we speak of the heart in a wider sense, the idea that life-giving leisure lies at the very center is implied. Never to lose sight of that central place of leisure in our life would keep us youthful. Seen in this light, leisure is not a privilege but a virtue. Leisure is not the privilege of a few who can afford to take time, but the virtue of all who are willing to give time to what takes time–to give as much time as a task rightly takes.
—Brother David Steindl-Rast
I often start my classes by saying “There is no rush. There is nowhere to get to. Today, during this workshop, we have plenty of time.” Then I often hear sighs exhaled through the room and watch shoulders drop a centimeter or two. We tend to brace against time, trying to pack so much into it, that simply hearing that there is enough for right now lets us begin to relax.
I’ve always been interested in time. I spent six formative years in Mexico and returned there as an adult to live for a three-year spell. Time in Mexico is different. It’s slower, as if it moves in a big unhurried arc. In the United States it seems there is rarely enough time. People complain of too much to do, of being drawn thin and overwhelmed. As though in a high altitude, people gasp for time. In a land wealthy with paraphernalia and stimulation, we are time paupers.
I teach a dance form called Contact Improvisation. In this dance two or more people improvise together following a shifting point of physical contact. Sometimes the dance is slow and meditative and sometimes athletic and acrobatic to the point of getting airborne in leaps and lifts. Every person brings to the dance their particular history, limitations, and abilities. They bring their personal pieces of a movement puzzle. When one person fits their piece of the puzzle with someone else’s, they discover a map of how they can move together.
The dance form grew out of an experiment with athletes in 1972 that developed into a radical new dance aesthetic. Being completely improvisational by nature, the form couldn’t have a choreographer’s name on it; every person who came to the dance was creating it anew. Though the pure form is rarely seen on stage, much of modern choreography has been influenced by its discoveries of what bodies can do when interacting dynamically with one another. Because this dance has no steps and is about how we relate to others, Contact can also be a startling mirror that reflects all our relationships, including our relationship to the passage of time.
What seems like lifetimes ago, when I was in my 20s, I lived for several years at Zen centers and spent time in monasteries in the Far East. My life centered on a daily meditation practice and monthly retreats. I was attempting to quiet my chattering mind to inhabit the present moment more fully. But I found that my mind loves to move and is not fond of sitting still.
When I discovered Contact Improvisation I felt as if I had walked into a house and knew where the furniture was—I felt like I had come home. I resigned as director of the Empty Gate Zen Center in Berkeley, gave up my robes and bowls, and committed to a life of dance. I found it easier to become quiet while in motion than while trying to sit still.
Since then I have performed with many groups and companies and I teach on several continents each year. In my ongoing investigation of this improvisational form, I’ve dedicated classes to investigating our relationship to time. With games, sweat, and the unique physicality of the Contact form, I ask how we relate to having only a finite amount of time. What does it mean to have “enough” time? I want to see if we can feel time passing kinesthetically rather than conceptually. I want to see if time will seem to slow down when we dilate our attention to notice the details of each moment.
My research into what helps quiet a busy mind led me to simple meditations grounded in the body. I often begin workshops with a finger-holding meditation: Wrap one hand around the thumb of the other hand. Letting the hands rest in the lap, feel for the pulse in the thumb. When you find the pulse, count backwards from ten to one and then listen to a few more beats. Then change to the other thumb. Going back and forth, do every finger down to the pinkies. I have found that this awareness of an interior rhythm allows something at the core to settle and the mind begin to quiet.
Most people see time as moving in a direction. In front is the future; behind is the past. This view of time makes our movement linear and symmetrical. In class I suggest that time comes at us from every direction, from the entire sphere around us, and disappears into the past inside us. We are receptacles of time, we ingest time.
We use this image to meditate on the threshold where time crosses over from the future—from the outside, to the past on the inside. We ‘sit’ at the cusp of time. This change in our view of time from linear to spherical changes our perception of time from visual to kinesthetic. From this awareness—feeling time in motion—we begin to move our bodies. We let the velocity of time move us. We fill our sails with time, looking for the place where movement is effortless.
If you yell into a canyon, you’ll find that each gorge has its own pitch at which an echo comes back the clearest. In the same way, each person has a rhythm in which they can move with lucidity and clarity. They do not will the movement along, but allow the velocity to move them. Finding that rhythm lets us move easily for a long time.
Working with time in Contact has led me into a fascination with waiting. The people who seem to bring the broadest palette of colors to the Contact dance bring a quiet thread at their core, a stillness. There is a sense that amidst the velocity and action, amidst the hurricane of activity, there is a quiet eye. There is a place in these dancers that is waiting.
The dictionary says that to wait is: to be available or in readiness, to look forward eagerly, to stay or rest in expectation, to attend upon or escort, esp. as a sign of respect, to soar over ground until prey appears. Etymology: Old high German wachton: to be wide awake.
Awakening to choice
This ability to be ready, to soar, to be wide awake, is what I cultivate in dance. An exercise I learned from the Vipassana meditation teacher Jack Kornfield helps me and my students learn about waiting: Take a raisin and keep it in your hand. Feel the weight of it. With a finger, feel the texture and density of the skin and pulp. Put it to your nose and become aware of the topography of the raisin’s scent. Look into the valleys and peaks, the highlights and dark crevasses. Then put it in your mouth, close your eyes, and take a couple of minutes to get the full experience of eating a single raisin. Notice the trajectory of the flavor as it bursts forth, the flood of saliva, and how the body’s chemistry changes the flavor. Notice the aftertaste and the echo of the aftertaste.
I use this awareness exercise to open up the body and faculties for Contact. As the senses awaken and open, the joints lubricate, creating a willingness to stay engaged in sensation as we begin to move. The awareness that continues into the raisin’s aftertaste teaches us about waiting. When I dance with someone who is skilled at waiting, I notice that while in motion they tend to broadcast where they have just been. While involved in all the possibilities of where this moment might go, they are still tasting what was.
Imagine that you are dancing with a partner, and you are both on your feet and in physical contact. Your partner begins to fold to the floor, softly creasing at the ankles, knees, and pelvis. But as he folds down, he leaves a hand up at your chest level. At this point he might continue to the floor or, by centering in the hand he left behind, spiral back up to standing. As his partner, you have a choice of dropping toward the floor with him or staying up with the hand at your chest. By leaving something behind, his movement opens up your choices as well as his. Instead of stopping at the end of a gesture, we let each moment of the dance be the seed of the next moment. We calm our willfulness and allow each instant to follow through into the next.
If you watch someone dancing this way or simply moving through life like this, you see a compelling poise, a freedom of choice, and a range of dynamics. She seems to have all the time in the world.
And if you move like this yourself, you feel less constrained and more spontaneous. Because of the multiple possibilities that arise in each moment, there are fewer opportunities for self-criticism. You don’t think, “Oh, I missed that one” so often, because there are many more than one possibility to choose from.
In each moment you relax in a profusion of options. In that generosity of possibility, the cusp of the present gets wider. Each moment becomes the apex, the peak, and in each moment you can choose to go down or up any face of the mountain.