“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urge that motivates you. Keep the channel open.”
Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille
in Dance to the Piper
I’ve been reading a book about addiction, called In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate, and reflecting on all the ways that human beings cope with what life has dealt us by substituting short-term pleasures for the real needs and intelligence of our bodies. Many of these pleasures are destructive to our physical well-being, and yet our bodies soldier on, support us as best they can, refuse to give up. The will of the body to survive overrides our efforts to numb life force.
As difficult as it is to completely destroy life force, it can be equally difficult to embrace its vast potential: the streaming aliveness, intentionality, sensuality, and simple “is-ness” of being in this form. Life force, whether expressed through the Essential qualities of the Body Center or the Instinctual Drives, is extraordinarily powerful. Building your organism’s capacity to receive and channel this power is one of the most important things that you can do for your personal and spiritual development.
The Importance of Body-Based Practice
“How can you know God if you don’t know your big toe?”
No matter where you are or where you’ve come from in your spiritual journey, I’m guessing that you have some familiarity with the idea of body-based practice. Maybe you’ve tried different types of meditation, breathing, yoga, dance, or martial arts. These types of practices help you to develop the capacity to more fully experience the sensations of your body. Making contact with sensation is essential for relaxing the habitual tensions that the personality maintains to shelter you from emotions and sensations that feel like too much to consciously experience. Depending on your personality type, this can include emotions that we usually think of as “positive” — like joy or gratitude — as well as those that we might label “negative” — like fear or anger.
Physical practices that generate sweat are also important for regulating and maintaining the health of the body, and can be an excellent way to interrupt the mechanical trance of personality.
Given what you know about your personality structure, your instinctual drives, and where you are in your development at this moment, what practices support your ability to be present? Take a few moments to either reaffirm how you already practice or to consider adding or substituting other kinds of practice.
Choosing to Practice
One of my favorite stories about regular practice comes from choreographer Twyla Tharp. In her prime as a dancer, she got up at 5:30 every morning to spend two hours at the gym working on the strength and flexibility that she knew supported her ability to perform. Did she want to get up every single morning to do this? Absolutely not. What did she do to make it possible? Three things:
- She was clear about why her practice mattered to her (she saw it as the heat-generating source that powered her creativity and readiness as a dancer, and as a way to avoid getting stuck in the inevitable distractions and fears that accompany any important endeavor)
- She defined her practice as a “ritual,” giving it a special meaning that created an emotional pull that was stronger than inertia.
- In a clever bit of reframing, she defined the actual ritual as “getting into the taxi to go to the gym.” This made it seems simple and doable, and she knew that once she was in the taxi, the practice would follow.
- What drives your commitment to practice? Can you identify what’s at stake for you? How can you create a ritual that is doable and pulls you toward practicing, even in the face of distraction and fear?
Maybe you set up a beautiful space and light a candle before sitting for meditation. Maybe you practice outside to be fed by sounds and smells of nature. Maybe you dance or play a piece of music that makes you feel alive and fills you with gratitude about the experience of being in your body. Maybe some of your practices are with friends, and the pull of being with them inspires you to keep showing up.
Coming Back to Your Practice
We all have times when we stay committed to our practices, and times when we fall off the wagon — unconsciously succumbing to the wave of societal inertia, or avoiding practice when it feels like we’re getting too close to something that seems too big to handle.
Here’s what I’ve noticed: The longer that I neglect my practice, the more my personality structures solidify and harden. It can be imperceptible sometimes, the incremental closing of what has been opened, the lure of believing that I’m “present enough,” until I recognize that I’m in a place that is far from presence, and it’s going to take some time and patience to soften.
It does take effort and attention to be able to observe and remember yourself when your structures are in full force. When you feel bad, disconnected, hopeless, angry, shameful, or fearful, your structures will point you in the direction of trying harder and doing more, or conversely, lying down and forgetting about doing anything. Because your personality structures are old scaffolding over your Essential self, they experience life as fixed in place, and the “strategies” of the personality are always the same — different flavors of coping mechanisms that keep you addicted to dropping down the same rabbit hole again and again, with a sense that there is no real way out. From the personality point of view, that’s absolutely true. Nothing new happens in the rabbit hole of the personality.
The main thing to remember, when you observe yourself drowning in the contracted energy of your personality structures, is that it’s time to practice. Start by sincerely and compassionately sensing the suffering that comes with your structures. You’ve lived with them for so long that although you may have ideas about what you think the suffering is like, you don’t necessarily have deep impressions of how it affects your being. When you’re ready to consciously experience this suffering, it can have a powerful impact on your ability to remember to practice in ways that can transform the energy that is bound inside your personality patterns.
Over time, the experience of this suffering helps to develop the will to choose between continuing to pour your life force into your structures, or redirecting yourself toward the possibility of building something that you know is more real, even if you can’t make contact with it at the moment. Each time that you consciously stay with yourself — your suffering, your joy, your moment-to-moment sensation — you further your capacity to receive the unique vitality that has been gifted to you, and to express more and more of how life force desires to move as you.
photograph by Doug Silsbee