We have curious ideas of ourselves. We think of ourselves as a body with a spirit in it, or a body with a soul in it, or a body with a mind in it. Mens sana in corpore sano (A healthy mind in a healthy body). The years drink up the wine, and at last throw the bottle away, the body, of course, being the bottle. It is a funny sort of superstition. Why should I look at my hand, as it so cleverly writes these words, and decide that it is a mere nothing compared to the mind that directs it? Is there really any huge difference between my hand and my brain? Or my mind? My hand is alive, it flickers with a life of its own. It meets all the strange universe in touch, and learns a vast number of things, and knows a vast number of things. My hand, as it writes these words, slips gaily along, jumps like a grasshopper to dot an i, feels the table rather cold, gets a little bored if I write too long, has its own rudiments of thought, and is just as much me as is my brain, my mind, or my soul. Why should I imagine that there is a me which is more me than my hand is? Since my hand is absolutely alive, me alive.
(Why the Novel Matters, D.H. Lawrence, 1936)
I move slowly, a little doubtfully at first, arranging my body whatever way I wish. The dance instructor at this, my first, contact improvisation class assures me that there’s no wrong way. She tells us to move into poses that bring us closer to another body in the room. There is no rush. I try to clear my mind of anticipation as myself and another woman slowly move towards each other. Rather than using the mind to direct the body, I try to focus awareness on my body’s natural response as our bodies meet. Our limbs entwine in different configurations. My torso carefully rolls over her legs, then her waist. We sit up with our arms pressing together, my arms following the arcs hers make. As I press harder, she’s forced to move differently. We then fall apart, curling up on the floor, bodies separate again until the process starts anew.
After reading D.H. Lawrence’s words earlier this year, I began searching for ways to understand my surroundings through the body—admittedly, a rather neglected part of my personal experience. My search led me to contact improv, a unique form of dance that facilitates much spontaneity in movement. Contact offers me an experience to connect with others in a freestyle fashion, unrestrained by a prescribed set of dance steps. Most importantly, it presents an opportunity to experience the body as mind, rather than using the mind to direct the body.
The instructor tells us to lie down on the wooden floor in any position that feels comfortable. “Allow your body to sink into the ground. Feel this happening first to your feet, then your legs, your buttocks, your waist, your shoulders, your neck, your head. . . Forget about what has happened earlier this day. There is no need to think about what you will do after this class either.” After hearing these meditation instructions I immediately feel a calm washing over my body.
When we meditate, we not only want to be free of the chatter of our own thoughts, we can also try to increase our awareness of our sensory environment. We can use sounds, touch, our own breath or images as a point of focus. In North American culture, there’s a tendency to experience our perception of reality as a hierarchy—the mind takes precedence, beating the body into submission. Trusting only thought, we lose touch with our other senses and possibly much of what should be valued in daily life. Could it be that consciousness is not merely a cognitive experience, but a state that engages all our gifts of perception?
Paying less attention to my cerebral processes and giving way to my other senses prepares me for the blissfully mindful experience I have dancing with one of the instructors. We press our backs together and rock softly from side to side. I gain a sense of her height, her width, her strength before beginning to dance. We move without music, without a plan, without any knowledge of what would come out of our movements. She pushes slowly, using her upper body, I give in, nearly running across the floor to keep up with her until I gently resist. We pause. My middle rolls over her back and I kneel on the ground, letting her body flip over my hips. We move together for some time, using only the point of contact between our two bodies as a guide, until she tells everyone to find an end to the dance, bringing the class to a close.
I leave the studio calm, with a mind unfettered by memories or anticipation. I feel the wind on my skin and the hardness of the concrete as I walk. The class had made me more aware of my physical experience and, consequently, more aware of my thoughts. I could choose to resist or submit to my mental rhythms. I feel an awareness of my body’s reaction to each idea, memory, or projection. My existence feels more balanced. As I bike home feeling the resistance of the pedals against my feet, I think of Lawrence’s belief that attention to all aspects of life leads to a more fruitful mode of being: “For out of the full play of all things emerges the only thing that is anything, the wholeness of a man, the wholeness of a woman, man live, and live woman.”