Dance Lessons Learned from Pema Chödrön
Tired of feeling tight and stressed? One of the world’s most down to earth Buddhist teachers shows us how to soften, relax, create space, and find meaning in our dance lives and daily lives.
When I saw that Pema Chödrön (pronounced Peh-mah Choh-drun) was coming to Omega just outside of New York City in 2020, I was thrilled. Pema always puts things into perspective for me. She is undisputedly one of the great experts on kindness in our time.
And Pema is a realist. A nun with children and grandkids who followed a controversial Tibetan spiritual teacher in the 1960s named Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, she knows how to meet us where we are. She transmits teachings that have been passed down her lineage of Buddhist teachers for thousands of years in a way that we can understand in our modern Western minds. So clear. So full of warmth.
Many of Pema’s teachings relate to our dance lives too. Not as directly as the fabulous interviews I do with dancers, but what I will share in the next 30 minutes could drastically change your experience of dancing.
At the time of writing this, Pema is 84. Tim Olmsted joined Pema to teach us all. He is a superb meditation instructor, often bringing in stories from his 12 years living in Nepal.
It is an honor for me to just share what I have learned from Pema and Tim here. Especially because I know you will be touched in a way that will make the world a better place for all of us. I apologize if my own words and interpretation misrepresent Pema or Tim. I do not have the vast training or experience that they have, but I am not going to let that stop me from sharing the path to kindness.
Pema has written a wealth of amazing books, including “Getting Unstuck”, “Don’t Bite the Hook”, “How to Meditate”, and “Comfortable with Uncertainty”. Her words are precious, and she has so many audio recordings on her website and on youtube and podcasts you can listen to any time as well. If you like what I present here, please go straight to the source and hear it directly from Pema.
Due to Covid-19, the retreat was moved online. And the theme was shifted to “Welcoming the Unwelcome” in honor of the pandemic. In addition to Corona Virus bringing utter uncertainty in our schools and work life, the fires raging on the west coast of the US, racial injustice and police brutality finally on the national agenda in America, and our chaotic minds were all part of the event as well.
Even though I had reservations about having this experience online, attending the Pema retreat was incredibly powerful. Even physical isolation cannot stop the sharing of love and wisdom.
1. Collaborate with the world
When belly dancers have a costume malfunction or veil stuck in our face or other difficulties with a prop, we can either resist it, or collaborate with it gracefully and make it part of the entertainment. It’s up to us.
Healing comes from relaxing. Stress comes from resistance.
But wait a minute. Does collaborating with the world mean that we accept injustice and stop resisting? Great points were brought up about the Black Lives Matter movement and expressing anger. There are so many different ways to create the changes needed in the world.
But isn’t fighting important? For example, isn’t it important for our bodies to fight off disease? Pema pointed out that even in our bodies, we might not actually be fighting disease. Our cells may be dancing with disease in order to be free of it. Giving it warm attention.
We can pray for wisdom on how to to bring power to the powerless. That wisdom is inside of us. We just need to get out of our own way and relax with awareness. It will come.
There is no right or wrong here, and there are so many approaches. But I think we all can agree that stress comes from resistance.
We all have biases and prejudices. If we try to get rid of them, they will stick around. I don’t know who said it, but “What we resist persists”. If we give our prejudices warm attention, they will become unstuck and melt away.
And we all get triggered. Even Pema. Even the Dalai Lama. I know I get angry. And when I can notice that and get curious about it, I don’t need to fight it. I can collaborate with it and ventilate it. It may seem even bigger when I have trained myself to be aware of it, but that is part of the path. And this process will help me cultivate compassion for others when they get triggered too. Wouldn’t that be nice?
When my 3 year old refuses to put on pants before leaving the house, I have often thought it was funny to use my robot voice to say “resistance is futile”. But it always felt a little wrong. Now I will say “Let’s collaborate with the world and see how that goes”.
2. Enjoy what I have
Everyone has something to delight in nearby. The sky, a flower, their hands, a memory. It does not have to be a material possession.
One woman at the event raised her hand (via Zoom 🙂 and asked Pema if she would like to see the blue sky. Pema said yes, and we all looked at the blue sky together for a moment. Then the woman shared that she was what you would call “mentally ill”.
Her difficulty with life was very clear. But she found comfort in animals. She had a bunny living with her in the house. Pema encouraged her to send warmth to herself. Hold her bunny. And the woman asked if she can send warmth to others in the world who are in a similar situation. Pema said yes. Even with a chaotic mind, the woman could find enjoyment and see that she has the ability to share warmth.
And a school teacher asked a question. She felt guilty about taking the time to do things like read Harry Potter when there is so much injustice in the world.
As dancers, there may be times when we feel like dancing is selfish. But what if dancing improves your mood? What if it helps you generate compassion, warmth, kindness and gratitude? What if connects us to the world?
What I got was that guilt is not an emotion that helps. If I feel guilty about enjoying something because of the sorrow and pain of others, I am adding to the negativity. And gratitude is absent. If I want to help others, I will focus on generating compassion, kindness and warmth.
3. Learn how to hold difficult feelings and not panic
One woman talked about the grief of losing her husband, and Pema said that grief is always there. That’s ok. Allow the grief to be there. What will change is that grief will lose its power to stop you.
Tenderness allows things to move. Harshness keeps things stuck.
Healing comes from relaxing. Stress comes from resistance.
Become comfortable with discomfort. It will stick around until it teaches you something.
Even burnout itself is not problematic. We can acknowledge “Ok, this is what is happening. I’m burnout.” Then we can get curious. What are the causes and conditions that got me here? How does this matter in terms of the future? If we keep the quality of warmth towards ourselves and others as we get curious, we can learn a lot.
As dancers, we experience jealously of other dancers, self-doubt about our own abilities and value, and anxiety about performing. That’s ok. Allow those feelings to be there. If we do that, these feelings will lose their power to stop us from dancing.
The funniest part is that we are innately confident. Watch a child choose a crazy outfit to wear or strut in public with ice cream smeared all over their face. What can we learn from that?
4. Soften to what I cannot control
This is a great one when you are dancing to live music. If you resist what the band decided to do, you will tighten up and it will not be fun. If there is a problem with the recorded music you are performing to, try softening to that. Have you ever seen a dancer terrified on stage? It is not fun to watch. Soften. Let us see your dance and your heart.
Ego can mean reflexive but unnecessary holding. Holding on to something or someone as if it unchanging.
In the spaciousness and warmth, all good things happen.
When our minds are tight, even small things can be very disturbing. Tim used the example of a Siberian tiger. If you saw one a football field away, you would be curious. If you saw that same Siberian tiger in your small office, you would panic. The tightness.
An agitated mind sees and agitated world.
Pema used the example of hail coming down, and we tighten our faces but it doesn’t change anything. We are just in resistance. Or we are in the dentist chair, clutching the armrests. It does nothing.
So how can I soften to what I cannot control? It is helpful to notice when I am not softening, and to be aware of what is actually out of my control. Meditation and mindfulness deliver both of those. We can create spaciousness inside of ourselves when we meditate.
5. I can only help if I feel authentic compassion
As a dance teacher, students will keep coming back if they feel that you are compassionate. That you want to understand their difficulties and really help them. I have been in classes with teachers that I felt were just hammering information into me, and I don’t remember anything that they taught me. I just remember how I felt, and that I never took a class with them again.
Never assume that a person wants to be the way they are.
How deeply can I commit to my own happiness? If I can commit deeply to my own happiness, I will be connected to everyone else’s happiness.
How interested can I get in my own suffering? If I can get deeply interested in my own suffering, I will be interested in everyone else’s suffering too.
When I feel authentic compassion, I will see people in the world and I will know them.
6. Before figuring out what to say to others, figure out what I can say that will open my own heart
Have you ever had a disagreement or irritation with a person that you dance with? Try working on what you say to yourself that will open your own heart before you say something to them.
Go inward. Confusion is a mind turned outward. I spend a lot of time working on the outside of my body. Washing my hair, choosing my outfit, doing pilates, putting on jewelry, etc. Imagine if I spent the same amount of time conditioning my mind. My experience of life would be quite different.
If we have something to prove, there will always be disappointment. Stay with the pain, and stay with our heart.
There is more sameness in all of us than there is difference. We are much more the same than we are different. We can look at anyone we see and say “Just like me, they want to be happy and fulfilled.” Our polarized politics and American culture right now are misleading. What questions can we ask that bring us back to our sameness?
When we dance and train our bodies, we can also train our minds. We can bring relaxed awareness into our dance. That is actually one of the keys to dancing with a live band and becoming the music!
We can be relaxed and have peak energy at the same time. Think of a time when you were dancing 100% from your soul. When you did not have to think. Your body moved as if a graceful muse had taken over. Being relaxed does not have to mean low energy.
7. Here are 3 kinds of meditation we can practice: Analytic, imaginative, and relaxation
Just like dance drills, choreographing, and improvising help us in different ways, here are 3 kinds of meditation that can help us too.
This distinction was deeply helpful for me. Here is an example of each.
Analytic meditation can be as simple as a body scan. Just going from head to toe checking in. What is going on? Pain, tension, pleasure, nothing? Whatever it is, it is not a problem. But it sure is helpful to notice where you are holding tension, experiencing pain and feeling pleasure!
Imaginative meditation can involve sending love and warmth to others. For example, Tonglen. This is definitely a practice to learn from a master, so I’ll just give an overview and you can go deeper with Pema. With Tonglen, you take in the suffering, give it space, and then release it as light, giving it relief.
First you lift the burden up. That difficulty or pain you want to focus on. Breathe in, and take it inside of you. Sounds a bit intense right? It is. Breathe out and give it space. A vast space internally. Breathe in again. What is called for? What will it take to relieve this suffering? Breathe out, giving that pain whatever is called for.
Some say you take the suffering in like you are hit by lightening and release it as a flash of light. The suffering can be a pattern, or situation or fear.
This is a very powerful meditation not to be played with. Tim suggested we only do it for a few minutes. Tonglen is the first meditation practice I have ever encountered that showed me the clear path to compassion. I am describing it here in case you are also looking for a path to compassion as well.
Relaxation meditation makes it possible for everything to be a friend to you waking up. Everything you hear, taste, and see. Shamatha meditation. Calm abiding. Like an an old man or old woman sitting on a park bench watching children play. Open awareness.
This is the first meditation practice where it was recommended to leave your eyes and mouth open. Your mouth is just slightly open. Tim’s mouth looked like there was a tiny pinhole right in the center of his lips. Your back is vertical, and you are breathing regularly. That’s it.
Become a container for whatever arises, relaxing deeply into your own mind. Nothing to do but relax. When you get distracted, just come back to your mind. No judgement. Nothing to focus on. Just relax deeply, contact awareness, and remain uncontrived. Acknowledge and release whatever thoughts come up, and return to the relaxed mind.
There are also supports we can use throughout the day to come back to the present moment. The feeling of our body against the chair we are sitting in. The color of the paint on the wall. The sound of electricity or the birds or another noise near us or far away. No need for an opinion about any of it. When craving or aversion comes up, just notice it and come back.
This method of meditation was new for me, and I was able to relax more deeply than I have in a long time. I really like the idea of intentional relaxation. Because I am an extrovert, intentional relaxation often involves alcohol and live music. This was a new tool for me, and it created so much space in my mind. A true gift.
8. I will continue to make time for whatever I decide is meaningful
If dancing is a meaningful part of our lives, we will find ways to keep doing it. It’s not a struggle. It is deeply important to us, so we make time for it. Even when we are not that disciplined or pushing ourselves to improve, we still benefit from dancing.
Meditation is like that. Just sitting on a meditation cushion each day regardless of the quality of your meditation practice, is a step along the path. If we aspire to tame our minds for the benefit of ourselves and others and sit on that meditation cushion, it makes life meaningful.
When I started my meditation practice back up about 150 days ago, I was very forgiving. I meditated in bed next to my son if he woke up in the middle of the night. I was not sitting straight up, but I was awake and I was creating a habit. Now when I wake up, I meditate. Sometimes my 3 and a half year old son meditates with me if he is also awake then. It has become automatic and joyful. Part of my morning ritual that I look forward to, no matter what comes up. It helps me work with the patterns that distract me from my basic goodness. I want to see patterns. That is a skill I value very much in my husband, and I am hungry to see more patterns in myself and life.
Meditation will not always feel good. When it doesn’t, it shows that your mind is transforming. Meditation practice goes up and down. It is smooth and rough.
Meditation cleans the lens through which our mind sees. When we work with the monkey mind over time, it can become a tame elephant.
9. Choose to Spend More Time in the Challenge Zone Rather Than the Comfort Zone
The Comfort Zone is important. The time spent just sitting and holding my 3 year old is invaluable to both of us. The snuggles are delightful. But we are not learning here.
User-friendly technology, instant food and cozy transportation are great. But they don’t teach me much. I learn when I figure out how to do something complicated in my business, or make whole food from scratch, or take a 20 hour bumpy bus ride through rural Laos.
Consider the thrill of mastering a new dance move or dance style. That is not the result of staying comfortable! That comes from moving and thinking differently. It comes from spending time in the Challenge Zone.
When we take a dance class, we are asking the teacher to move our body in a new way. When we say yes to a performance that will challenge us, we grow.
Being comfortable is not my goal. Being challenged and learning definitely is! Beyond the Challenge/Learning Zone is a Danger Zone, and Trauma Zone. I don’t want to push someone there with my lack of awareness. So landing in the Challenge Zone often is a great way to spend meaningful life.
10. Build a Culture of Fearless Listening
There are many dancers online now that we can pay to give us feedback. This is so valuable if we can listen fearlessly to feedback. Never defending or feeling attacked. Just listening.
This was huge for me. The filter I created is thick. If I think someone is complaining or being a victim or being stuck in a story they created, I often stop listening. When I do that, I am not giving them the experience of being heard.
I do not need to collude, but instead of trying to recommend a book or trying to fix my family and friends, I can just listen and be compassionate.
If I am having trouble connecting with someone, I can listen without an agenda and they will feel it.
I can be open to another person’s anger without feeling attacked by it. And anger can be expressed from the heart. Even if there is poison there, I do not need to eat it in order to get it.
This is part of focusing on spending time in the challenge zone.
11. Become Friends with Myself as I Actually Am, Not Who I Strive to Be
Sometimes when I see photos or a video of me dancing, I wish I looked different. I wish that my smile was different, my movements were cleaner. I wish that there weren’t wrinkles on my stomach, and that my skin liked to be shaved. I wish that I could remember choreography easier and learn faster. But I’m missing out on the truly enjoying the gifts I already have. Shit, if I can dance at all, I have been given an immense gift. Just having the confidence and freedom to dance is an incredible experience many people want, but never find. I can love the dancer I am now and still grow, wasting no energy on resistance.
I have pondered the terms self-love. I have tried to become better friends with myself by doing workshops and seminars and retreats to improve myself. But until now, I never really got the value of allowing myself to be just as I am. Monkey mind, messy hair, helpful soul, angry mom, grateful guest, critical wife, calm meditator, drunk dancer. These are all me, just like the weather changes. Beating myself up is abuse. When I catch myself in an old habit that I don’t like, I don’t need to work to be someone else. I can lighten up. I can soften to what is, and the changes I am seeking will come. Or they won’t. It’s all fine!
Everything we do is some attempt to have less suffering and more happiness. And we can screw it up spectacularly, or we can stop resisting and just upgrade to get what we want.