This piece is dedicated to Judith, my longtime mentor, a phenomenal woman and a true spiritual warrior.
In 2002 I went on a seven day Buddhist meditation retreat in the Colorado Rockies. During this retreat, I spent quite a bit of time in silence, observing my thoughts and then letting them go, observing my thoughts and then letting them go (which is exactly what meditation is, by the way). I meditated in a group, and occasionally the leader of the group would read out loud to us from various books written by people like Pema Chodron and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche - Tibetan Buddhists who have a particular knack for making the Dharma not just comprehensible to the average Joe but relevant to the Western lifestyle.
The first lesson I remember really taking in and loving was this: Generally speaking, we regard any form of discomfort or pain as bad news. And our instinct – the instinct of every living thing in fact – in the face of perceived pain and bad news, is to shut down or run like hell in the other direction. But, says Pema Chodron, for spiritual warriors – people who have a certain urge to know what is true – feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we are holding back. They show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we are stuck. For me, this piece of advice was a true lesson in fearlessness. A person must be brave to be willing to get close to all of their yucky parts, to explore all the parts of themselves that they usually try to hide from, or feel ashamed of, or run away from. I loved it.
With that said, I have to confess that I in no way, even today, practice leaning into my yucky spots anywhere near perfectly. Au contraire, mes cheres. I still, with what might seem like alarming regularity to some people, overlook the fact that I am shutting down or running away. Luckily for me, Buddhism tells me that this is also okay, because the point is to cultivate awareness and then a gentle sense of compassion towards myself in these moments of imperfection.
All right, so I had better start connecting this to pole dancing before everyone wonders if I’ve gone off the deep end. Recently, in my dance classes, I hit what my teachers commonly refer to as “a plateau”. That is to say, nothing new was happening in my dancing. I wasn’t getting better. In fact, things were feeling a bit stagnant and uninspired and repetitive. And I was feeling frustrated, irritated and resentful. Maybe it was time for me to quit dancing. Maybe this was as good as I was going to get. Maybe I was really bad at this after all. You get the picture. It felt like a big load of bad news had been dropped on my front door step and yes, it was uncomfortable and even a little painful. And I wanted out. But my teachers’ reaction to this place (and to every other student who hit this place) was this: “Good. Stay right where you are. You are right where you need to be. Dance.”
I cannot tell you how irritated this made me. I didn’t want to dance. For weeks. I went to different teachers, hoping to get out of my stuck place. Didn’t work. I tried wearing different shoes, but ended up kicking them off. I played with the clothes I was wearing and just got annoyed. As Pema likes to say, there was no way for me to manipulate the situation so that I could come out looking good. There was no way for me to feel on top of things. And so there I was, nailed to an uncomfortable spot.
And my teachers’ responses continued to be: “Good”, “Stay There”, “Dance”. Nobody told me what I could do differently, or how I could escape the situation – no, on the contrary. I was forced to stay in that uncomfortable place, to get to know it really well, until I found a way through. In fact, staying in that uncomfortable place was the way through. And the teachers, through all of it, fed neither my hopes about getting out of this place, nor my fears about being in it. They simply encouraged me to dive into that unknown, uncontrollable territory and move through it. Who would have thought that Pole Dancing could be a vehicle for a Dharma teaching? But there it is.
Pema Chodron (I love her, in case you couldn’t tell) says that the most important aspect of being on the spiritual path may be to just keep moving. Usually, when we reach our limit, we freeze in terror. Out bodies freeze and so do our minds. But a way of working with our minds in these places is to neither indulge nor reject our experience, but rather to let the energy of the emotion, the quality of what we are feeling, pierce us to the heart. And, as she reminds us, that this is much easier said than done. But it is the path of compassion – the path of cultivating human bravery and kindheartedness.
When we are encouraged to dance through our emotions, whether they are the frustrations of a plateau, or the grief of a loss, or the pain of a rejection, when our teachers say to us (no matter what shows up), “Good. This is good. Feel that in your body. Keep moving.” we are being given a rather tremendous gift. We are being taught, not just on an intellectual level, but also in our bodies, how to be kind to ourselves. We are cultivating a certain kind of fearlessness when it comes to being intimate with our dark, uncomfortable parts. And as we begin to touch in and feel whatever it is that we are feeling with some kind of compassion and kindness, our protective shells begin to soften. Things that were previously thought to be unworkable and impossible suddenly seem possible. And as we move through these difficult spots and our capacity for kindness towards ourselves expands, so too does our capacity for kindness to others.
I finally got out of my plateau, right before Christmas. I had gone to a very advanced Pole Tricks class at a different studio (I normally dance at S Factor) and I was pushed so far beyond my comfort zone that I literally almost burst into tears. The class was too advanced for me, but I hung in there, determined to finish it and determined to stay with my discomfort. When I came back to S Factor for my regularly scheduled classes, I felt a certain amount of relief at being back in a more predictable environment. I might be uninspired, but at least I knew what to expect. And then the unexpected happened. I had decided to dance in a heavy, faux-fur lined sweatshirt, which I would peel off early on so that I could both grip the pole and not overheat. As I went to unzip the sweatshirt during my dance, the zipper got tangled in gauze top. I could not move it up or down. It was stuck. And I was stuck, inside my increasingly warmer and warmer, bulky awkward sweatshirt. Shit. All of the frustration, all of the tension and irritation came back with fierce intensity. Only this time I didn’t fight it. I had to dance with the damn sweatshirt on. I wouldn’t be able to throw tricks the way I normally did. I was dripping in sweat. Go. It was one of my best dances. I rode the emotions, I let them take over my body and I let myself really give in to what I was feeling in the moment. I let it pierce me to the heart. And I found my way through.