Dancing A New Dance

First published in Fellowship, Vol. 58, No. 7, July/August 1992

The world is changing rapidly, with uncertain outcomes. From the structure of family and community life, to international relationships, to the destruction of the Earth, change demands that we think and live in new ways. It is clear that we must change, and it may even seem clear in what way we must change, but often it is not at all clear how such change will come about. For example, I think it is clear that we who live in the United States must reduce our energy and resource consumption dramatically to bring our appetite in line with our population size. But how can we change as much as seems necessary in as little as a decade, the time given us by some scientists if we are to avert ecological collapse?

Essentially, we must live in a new way, without knowing how. We must live according to what is appropriate right now. Instead, we live in the past; we try to make the future conform to a vision that is based on our past experiences and conclusions. Even the most visionary among us cannot imagine beyond what they already understand. When we encounter something totally new, the only way we can make sense of it is to relate it to what we already know. And so it is not the true present that we know, it is only the present filtered through our particular experiences and knowledge; it is only our past that we know. The present faces us with problems completely outside our experience. Therefore, we are challenged to live ahead of our knowledge; to dance into the future with grace, without knowing the steps.

Can it be done? I am a reasonably intelligent and aware person, yet I live my days not so much by what is appropriate for the moment, but by the hidden agendas of the past: to get attention, to be in control, to feel loved and valued, to avoid pain. Can I break out of this prison? And more than that, can all humanity break away from the past in time to prevent disaster?

I think so.

We can start immediately to practice this art of living in the unknown. Have you heard Paul Halley and Eugene Friesen, of the Paul Winter Consort, perform one of their improvisations? Out of silence, without knowing what will come, they produce beautiful music together. It is one thing to improvise alone, but another to improvise together. How can they be so harmonious if they have no knowledge of where they are going? We must start living like that. The music is beautiful, but to live that way! The world has not seen such beauty yet.

Start anywhere. Start with marriage. Watch how you are constantly trying to force your spouse and yourself into patterns dictated by forces irrelevant to the present: old hurts, expectations, assumptions about your respective roles in the family, all of that. Watch, and see how destructively the past manipulates the present to secure the future. And seeing that, begin to change. Break out of the lock step and begin to improvise with your partner.

Or start elsewhere. I have begun by observing my meditation practice. I have begun to see how I imprison myself.

I was introduced to meditation and yoga, although I didn't know they were called that, by an Indian man in 1975. I was 14. The movements and repeating "one" in my head were a game then. In 1980 I was introduced to TM, and soon after that I was taught Christian forms of meditation, closer to my own religious upbringing. But repetition of a mantra never really did anything for me, aside from making me dull. For me it was like watching TV. I was looking for a more engaged spirituality.

With that in mind, I went to work with homeless people at the Open Door Community in Atlanta. From there I went to live and work among homeless people in my home state, Vermont. And in 1986, having heard stories of spiritual vitality, I joined twelve other Vermonters to visit Nicaragua under the auspices of the Vermont Conference, United Church of Christ and, in Nicaragua, CEPAD (The Evangelical Committee for Aid to Development). Like so many other North Americans, I returned from Nicaragua with my world turned upside down and a strong desire to do whatever was necessary to end the insanity of war.

For me, changing my government's policy was necessary, but not sufficient. I knew I would have to change, fundamentally. I had discovered that the sources of war, the greed and fear and selfishness and blinding assumptions, are part of me. They operate in every day of my life, although they have never taken the form of overt violence. And I knew how hard it would be to change, because the culture in this country encourages my greed and fear, for financial gain.

Therefore I came to see my life as a challenge to live fully despite the forces, internal and external, that would rather I not. This I saw quickly on my return to the United States, but I did not then, in 1986, understand the consequences. I did not know what it means to live fully. I did not know how much dross I was carrying, and how thoroughly it binds me. I soon realized that even my desire for a better way of living was getting in the way of achieving it.

In unexpected ways, I returned to meditation. After almost ten years of meditating, I began to wonder "why do I meditate?" And I immediately discovered my desire for spiritual perfection, my intense desire to escape from pain. I saw how focussing on a mantra, or on my breath, was allowing me to imagine that some day I would be enlightened and free of all the mess. Something clicked, and I began to admit into consciousness the thoughts and desires and fears that I had screened out precisely because they contradicted the image of myself as enlightened, spiritual, non-violent. I discovered what I had previously only suspected: while war raged in the world, war raged inside me between competing desires and contradictory self-images.

This is what meditation is like for me now. Fear inhabits my mind and body. Greed comes bubbling up. I see how wretchedly I feel even toward the people I love. I admit all the thoughts and feelings that are at odds with my self-image. I do not own all these thoughts and feelings, but neither do I disown them.

I keep getting caught in the old desire to rise above it all. I want to get it over with, to bask in the warmth of perfect love. I want to escape into someone's embrace, or go find a TV to numb me. But those tricks are old familiar friends by now, so I don't walk quite so far down those roads as I used to. Embraces and mindless relaxation have their places. There are times when the most sensible action is leaving meditation and finding a friend, but as a movement based on a view of reality, not as an automatic impulse that preempts any view.

Through the simple act of facing myself, I am discovering all the tricks I use to shape my world for my supposed benefit. And I am entering territory that is new and unimaginable.

You cannot imagine what it is like to end inner conflict. When you acknowledge some feeling that contradicts your self-image, you no longer know who you are. You are doing something new, something you have no experience in. You are making it up as you go along. And sometimes, when you face a fear you have never faced before, you are astonished by the beauty and grace of your movements. It seems that you are never more beautiful than when you are moving through an unprecedented situation, when all your tricks and habits and preconceptions are inadequate, when you are not even sure who you are any more, because you have stepped over a line you had previously drawn to define your self.

I am not a fast learner. I keep making the same mistakes over and over again. But, when the search for perfection ends in acknowledging conflict, when the contradictory voices have had their turns at the podium, when the awful truth has been seen and heard, then silence reigns. All I have ever known, all that I have ever called "me," is the tension of those contradictory, warring voices. Once they have had their chance to speak, there is nothing left of "me," only silence. Out of the silence come questions, without urgency for answers. Who am I, if not what I have always thought? What happens next?

From that place, improvisation begins. Out of that silent uncertainty, we take a few first steps, and discover that the self is not the origin of our existence, that stepping into the unknown is not oblivion. We discover that it is possible to improvise a life that is sane, healthy, graceful and resonant.

We live in a time of immense pain and possibility. The possibilities become real as we take our first, uncertain steps.

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