Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.
On Thursday, I get on a train for Boston to teach a workshop and visit long lost friends. I’ve got piles of work and projects and books for the long train rides and then clothes, of course, dancing and otherwise, and hair products and green tea and all that. I expect I’ll be laiden down when I climb on the train and I can already feel the relief of stowing my gear and settling in for the ride.
There is something that shifts profoundly when we choose to put down whatever we are carrying. The first order of business is paying attention, noticing what we are carrying with us. Particularly if we’ve been carrying it for a long time, it can feel “normal” to worry about your children, for example, or obsess about your weight.
Here are 10 things to investigate: what am I carrying and what does it feel like to put it down?
The body is always a good place to begin. Investigate with a body scan (here’s a body scan for beginners) first large body parts and then narrowing down to smaller and smaller spaces. Where are you holding, can you let it go, even for a little while, and how does that feel? After exercise or just before bed are great times to experiment with this.
2. Stories & Voices
In the dance.sit.create. retreats, we talk a good deal about The Voices: the noise in our heads that we first picked up from other people and the culture at large and then sustained in our own noggins. Pay attention to the stories that bounce around in your head, perhaps unnoticed, and play with gently letting them go. You don’t have to scream at them to go away, just see what it feels like without them for even a few seconds.
Beliefs are similar to stories and voices but they can be even sneakier in that we can hold them as unassailably true. A belief along the lines of “I’m too old to do that” might be stopping you in one way and a belief like “I am strong and can do anything” might trip you up in another way. More institutional or cultural beliefs like “it’s not patriotic to do that” or “we don’t do it like that here” might be preventing you from seeing other possibilities or points of view. This isn’t to suggest that you need to abandon your beliefs, just see what it feels like to put them down for a little while.
Assumptions live in the future. When I see something and my mind quickly unspools a whole story about what has or will happen, I’m making an assumption. Assumptions are slippery devils to catch since we all make them all the time. The practice is to notice when it happens (it helps when my assumptions are disproved) and put it down. Let the next moment unfold brand new, with nothing attached.
Similarly to assumptions, expectations are what we create around the future in an attempt to control what will happen. But as Anne Lamott points out, “expectations are resentments under construction.” My expectations for myself, other people, institutions are a set-up. See what happens if you simply put them down and come into direct contact with the present moment.
Another resident of the future, anticipation is what we carry when we step toward the unknown. It can be a mix of excitement, anxiety and fantasy (I had an anticipation dream last night, for example, in which I showed up to the workshop and I couldn’t find the stereo, and then couldn’t find my music and as usual in these situations, I couldn’t find my pants). It’s helps me to notice when I’m weaving a sticky web of wondering what will happen that keeps me out of what is actually happening right now.
One of my favorite uses of the word worry is to tear at, gnaw on, or drag around with the teeth. As in, “I sat in the waiting room, worrying a hangnail.” This definition gets at the feeling of continually returning to something over and over again even if doing so is unproductive or even painful. I can worry about something that happened in the past – replaying it on a loop. Or if I’m worrying about something in the future, Bhagavan Das reminds me that “worrying is praying for something you don’t want.” Either way, past or future, worry is an excellent thing to just put down.
Fears are just big worries that similarly live in a future which does not exist. Only the present moment exists. So putting down our fears makes space for responding to the present and making skillful choices. If I’m tied up in fear, I don’t have the same resources or vision of possibilities that I do when I set fear down and be present.
It seems like a positive thing, excitement, but really it’s like worry, only it’s a positive illusion instead of negative. When I get that fluttery feeling in my chest, I know it’s taking me out of the present and actually living. So I play with putting down even excitement.
As excitement is the other side of worry, hope is the other side of fear. Thich Nhat Hahn says, “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear.” But hope does not reside in the present moment. If just for a little while, to feel the relief of not constructing a better tomorrow, put down even hope. Allow yourself to carry nothing even briefly to create space for what is possible.
It has been said that the strongest force in the universe is the force of habit. We all carry habits in our bodies, minds, emotions, relationships, schedules — everything! Habits are so strong that putting them down unleashes a wave of energy (that often feels awkward and uncomfortable). Playing with breaking habit, even for short amounts of time is a practice that can offer big benefits.
The practice of putting it down doesn’t mean that we will never carry any of these things again. It only gives ourselves the opportunity to feel the relief of not holding on. Instead of habitually toting these things around, putting them down creates the space to make choices about what we really want to carry.