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Authenticity

It’s unclear if he actually said it. But it’s possible that Woody Allen said something to the effect that 90% (or 80%? or 99%?) of success (or maybe life) is just showing up. Or he might have been quoting someone else.

Whoever said it, I think the sentiment is genius.

Except for one thing: I would never say “just” showing up. Sometimes showing up is incredibly, dreadfully, dauntingly difficult. Sometimes it is more than I can manage. Sometimes getting there is really, truly all I can do.

Showing up is stepping in and saying, “I’m going to be in relationship with this. I’m going to be part of this. I’m going to bring myself to this in some way.”

The choice to show up, to really show up, is a big one. I know that there are many times when I literally or energetically choose to stay home and hide. Once I do decide to show up, though, then the question is how? Bravely? Kindly? Tentatively? Defensively? With curiosity? With judgement? What will I choose to bring to the relationship?

The three “showing ups” that I’m curious about are how you show up for yourself, how you show up for each other, and how you show up for the world.

What would you say if I told you it was all the same? What if I said that how you show up for yourself is how you show up for everyone and everything else?

In his seminal book, Be Here Now, Ram Dass said, “I can do nothing for you but work on myself…you can do nothing for me but work on yourself!”

What if the only way you can heal the world is to heal yourself? What if the only way you can make an positive impact on the people in your life is to do your work, do your practice? What if working on yourself is all you can do?

Coming Soon! Buddha Cat: my first book!

I’ve finalized the pages and the designer is doing a cover mechanical (doesn’t that sound official and cool? I have no real idea what it means). Please join me in the adventure of the publication of my first book. Go to http://www.susanmcculley.com and sign up to be a Buddha Cat Backer! You’ll get updates, insights, goodies and discounts! Can’t wait to do this together.

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Speak it 092515When I moved to Charlottesville in 1996, I took a job with a little software company on the downtown mall. My first day, the founder of the company gave me an office tour – programmers’ office, conference room, marketing department. Down there, he said, pointing down the hall, are other people’s offices. A travel agent, a massage therapist. And right here, he said, pointing to the door just to the right of where we stood, is some woman who teaches some kind of exercise classes. I don’t know what it is but they are yelling Yes and No and making noise all the time.

He rolled his eyes and half laughed. Clearly, he thought she was crazy and annoying. Being the new-comer, go-alonger that I was, I laughed nervously and agreed that she sounded perfectly wackadoodle.

Three years later, that woman teaching those crazy classes was Chris Friedman, my first Nia teacher.

When a friend brought me to Chris’ classes in 1999, I was skeptical and reluctant – even more so when I realized that this was the lady telling people to shout and make sound. But something in the classes captured my imagination and I found myself jealously guarding my Wednesday nights so I wouldn’t miss her class.

I loved Nia but for the first year or more, I completely rejected the whole sound-making thing. Making sound in an exercise class seemed silly and embarrassing and I very much wanted to avoid being those two things.

So I never made a peep.


Spiritual traditions, martial arts, and yoga, all use sound to support them in their practices. Native American tribes used war cries and Confederate soldiers had the rebel yell. Whether the goal is connecting with a higher power, delivering an elbow strike, or sustaining Warrior II pose, some kind of sound-making, chanting, audible breath, or all-out whooping is part of the endeavor. And with good reason.

Making sound supports the physical body. The expulsion of air contracts the muscles around the spine, strengthening the core and protecting the low back from the inside out.

Making sound focuses attention, energy and power. Whether using a percussive “Huh!” when performing a martial arts punch, or sustaining a long sound when singing or an audible breath when doing yoga, sound narrows our attention to this very moment.

Making sound moves emotional energy of all kinds. Like an emotional jackhammer, sound unblocks feelings and gives them space to move. I can almost always keep it together during a funeral, but when I open my mouth to sing a hymn, the sadness lets go.

Making sound connects us with each other and all that is. When we sing, chant, breathe, or whoop as a group, we know we are in this together. And on a basic human level something about allowing an internal vibration out into space connects us with the bigness of the world, the Universe, Nature, and God.


Satya 092515

The Sanskrit word satya means truth…but more than that. Satya means sincerity, honesty, integrity and power of the word. Making sound, showing up, and speaking truth reflects this power and integrity. There is both tender vulnerability and the fire of truth in satya.


A beautiful and reserved student has practiced Nia for nearly a decade. For most of that time she barely made any noise, both literally and figuratively. She silently took Nia, laughed quietly, never rocked the boat. About a year ago, she joined her church choir and something opened up in her. She started making more sound in Nia and breathing audibly in Pilates. She started speaking up – sharing her vision, her observations, herself. She started telling the truth in her relationships when she used to stay silent. She said No to things that weren’t right, and also Wow, and Help, and I love you. As her teacher and friend, I feel her presence, her realness more than I had before. Her whole life shifted from the inside out by opening her mouth and letting out satya.


For me, the shift happened in martial arts movements. I loved the powerful feeling of kicks and blocks and punches. When I finally opened my mouth and connected sound with the movement, I felt a deep satisfaction, groundedness, and presence. And it felt good: the vibration, the strength, the connection to myself and others. For other people, sound begins with audible breath or singing or simply opening up and saying I want that.

Whatever it is for you, say it. Speak it. Live your satya.

The Unofficial Guide
to the 13 Nia Principles
~ Practical, Nia-or-Not Applications for EveryBody

(Wondering what the dickens the Unofficial Guide is and why I’m writing this series of posts? Click here!)

P4 Freedance long

Principle 4 – FreeDance

Excerpt from the Official Nia Headquarters Description:

FreeDance is one of the underlying foundations for exploring the body and self through Nia. It ignites your desire to learn more about who you are – and who you can be – by encouraging you to move differently, listen to music more intimately and deeply connect to your emotions. The eight stages of FreeDance provide a safe environment where you are encouraged to be yourself, feeding your mind and body’s appetite for discovery, expression, spontaneity and improvisation.

Adaptability is one of the best indicators of physical, mental and emotional fitness. To limit yourself to specific patterns and repetitive habits is to limit the conditioning your body, mind, emotions and spirit can receive from every choice and action you make. FreeDance stimulates creativity and movement variety, which is key to conditioning your body and nervous system to handle the stresses you encounter throughout life (adaptability). This is why FreeDance is such a powerful technique of conditioning the whole self.

8 Stages of FreeDance

FreeDance is an eight-stage process designed to stimulate movement creativity. Each stage provides a unique form of stimulation.

Stage 1: Freedance ~ Anything Goes Movement-Wise
Stage 2: Being Seduced by the Music ~ The Art of Listening
Stage 3: Feelings and Emotions ~ Pretend, Fake It, Act As If
Stage 4: The Creative Source ~ The Real You
Stage 5: Authentic Movement ~ Change!!
Stage 6: Witness ~ Interfere…Judge…NOT! Observe.
Stage 7: Choreography ~ The Accidental Click
Stage 8: Nia Class ~ Levels 1, 2, 3

Unofficial Practical Nia-or-Not Application for EveryBody:

Of all the principles, Principle 4: FreeDance might seem to have the least application to everyday life of any of the thirteen. Even though it is explicitly a principle about dance and implicitly one about creating body-centered choreography, it is actually one of the principles I use the most day-to-day.

All eight stages of FreeDance have practical application, but for the Unofficial Guide, we’ll focus on Stage 1: Freedance, Stage 5: Authentic Movement and Stage 6: Witness.
Here’s my unofficial take on these: Lose yourself. Redefine Your Self. Find Your Self.

Stage 1: Freedance ~ Anything Goes Movement-Wise

Stage 1 of the eight-stage freedance process is simply Freedance! Simply body-centered, sensation-driven movement. The key to Stage 1 is to move more and think less. Allow yourself to expand beyond your habits and to focus on how the movement feels rather than on how it looks. If you find yourself thinking, “Am I doing this right?” or “I look silly doing this,” just take a breath and move in a way that feels good.

Unofficial Practical Application of Stage 1 (Lose yourself):

Stage 1 helps us reconnect with the basic wisdom and intelligence of the body and lose the images of how we think we’re supposed to be. Let go of thinking and allow the body to move in ways that feel good. Stage 1 is an opportunity to break habit and expand how we do what we do. Your body loves variety and loves you to trust that it knows what it is doing without censoring or curtailing its impulses. How often do you sleep less (or more) than you need, eat more (or less) than you need, ignore physical pain or discomfort, wear/say/act/be what we think we’re supposed to? Stage 1 invites us to lose “supposed to” and do what feels right. Lose your small self so you are ready for…

Stage 5: Authentic Movement ~ Change!

Stage 5 of FreeDance in some ways is an extension of Stage 1, except in Stage 5, we consciously change our movement and “go shopping” for new and radically different ways of moving. Find a movement and repeat it for two bars then change. Every two bars, see what your body (rather than your mind or imagination) comes up with. Pretend you are shopping for new clothes and you find some that you think “Yikes! No way I could wear that!”…THAT’S what Stage 5 is about. Really stretching where we can go.

Unofficial Practical Application of Stage 5 (Redefine Your Self):

There’s an old riddle: What the most powerful force on Earth? The force of habit.
Funny as that may be, it’s frighteningly true. It is amazing how strong my patterns of movement, thought and emotion are – and how limiting those habits can be. Stage 5 is designed to help us break habit and expand our potential. Redefine Your Self. On a practical level, Stage 5 reminds me to change things up and do things differently. If I tend to drive a certain way to the gym, make certain things for dinner, or respond a certain way to criticism, Stage 5 invites me to shake things up and redefine my Self. The problem with habits is that after a while, the way I do things is the ONLY way I can do things. Habit becomes compulsion. Stage 5 says, take the back way, make farro salad with tahini sauce, and laugh next time someone tells you look terrible in that dress (even if that someone is you).

Stage 6: Witness ~ Interfere…Judge…NOT!! Observe

Again, Stage 6 is a natural extension of Stage 5. Stage 6 helps us build the awareness skill to observe how we do what we do. Stage 6 is about witnessing ourselves. And this is the first and most powerful step in changing habit. It’s not about getting cross with myself for shutting down when I am criticised, it’s about noticing that I do. Stage 6 is less “Oh crud. I did THAT again” and more “Wow, would you look at that?”

Unofficial Practical Application of Stage 6 (Find Your Self):

I can’t change what I do and how I do it if I don’t know what I do and how I do it. I also am unlikely to change, if I criticize or judge what I’m doing and how I do it. The point here is to increase your intimacy with your own habits and patterns rather than to have opinions about them. To find Your Self. Stage 6 helps me notice the effects of certain food and drink on my skin, digestion and sleep. Stage 6 shows me how attached I am to control in some circumstances and relationships, and how painful that attachment is. Stage 6 shows me that when I am irritated or annoyed, that I am low on resources and need care and compassion. Stage 6 helps me find my Self.

Principle 4 and Stages 1, 5 and 6 in particular have helped me make the biggest most positive changes in my life. So, FreeDance both in and out of the studio: Lose yourself, Redefine Your Self, and Find Your Self.

whole hearted brene brownWhat’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done? It may be something physical like jumping out of a plane or running a marathon or speaking in front of a crowd. It might be something more intimate like telling the truth in a tender situation or telling the doctor that’s not the treatment you want or saying gently but firmly that enough is enough.

Whatever it is, think of the bravest thing you’ve ever done and recall the sensation. What did it feel like in your body? What emotions did you feel? What thoughts ran through your head?

Brave feels both scary and exciting. There is often push/pull sensation of “Yes, I really want to do this” and “Holy Crap, what if I do?” Making the brave choice by its very nature means that you are allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

Brené Brown’s ground-breaking TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability (2010) explains that connection is essential to the human experience. Connection is why we’re here and it is what gives our lives purpose and meaning. Her research demonstrates that in order to truly connect with others, we be vulnerable. Vulnerability is absolutely not weakness (a common misconception) but means that we allow ourselves to be seen, to love without guarantee, to risk failure, and to believe we are enough.

For most of my life, vulnerability scared the bejeezus out of me. Sometimes it still does.

In her talk, Dr. Brown also identifies shame – an epidemic in our culture – as the fear of disconnection. Shame is the fear that if someone sees this about me or knows this about me, I will not be worthy of connection, love, and belonging. Shame is the belief that something is intrinsically wrong with me. Shame is different than guilt. Guilt is “I’ve made a mistake.” Shame is “I am a mistake.”

Shame, I get. Since adolescence, I have been ashamed of my body. I thought it wasn’t thin or beautiful enough for me to be worthy of love and connection. My body felt like a character flaw and I was sure something was seriously wrong with me.

I’ve done a number of brave things in my life: marrying a man with two young children, teaching Nia, taking a sabbatical from teaching Nia, sharing my writing, walking all the way to the top of a fire tower. But when it comes to my relationship with my body, the bravest thing I’ve done is to relax.

At the height of my disordered body relationship, I was doing whatever I could to tighten up. Aerobic exercise, weight lifting, obsessive food monitoring — all of my energy was poured into having nothing soft or flabby or pooching out or sagging. I was always, ALWAYS walking around sucking in my stomach. I believed that if I was thin enough and lean enough and tight enough that I would be confident, safe from criticism, that I would be loved, that I would be happy and whole.

I thought that if I looked just right, no one (including me) would judge me. I would be invulnerable.

I wanted to be thin so I wouldn’t be vulnerable … so I wouldn’t have to be brave.

Of course, this totally didn’t work. Having my internal experience (feeling love and belonging) be dependent on an external circumstance (my physical appearance) will never work. I kept thinking that the reason I didn’t feel confident and relaxed in myself was because I wasn’t perfect enough and that if I just worked a little harder, I would be. On a good day, this circular logic makes me laugh; on a bad day, it can have me twisted up and tripping over myself.

Even when I lost weight, got leaner, and sucked in my tummy all the time, I didn’t feel any more worthy or connected or loved. I thought perfection was the way to those feelings but it’s actually the path away from them. Real love and connection requires that we be seen with all our imperfect softness showing.

Brené Brown calls it whole-heartedness. I am living whole-heartedly when I am willing to be vulnerable and when I believe I am worthy of love and belonging. Whole-heartedness means taking emotional risks, telling the truth with no guarantees. It means not sucking in my stomach and relaxing into being my brilliant, messy, beautiful, spazzy self.

What’s the bravest thing you’ve done today? How about making the courageous choice to be imperfect? Be kind to yourself first, then to others. Let go of who you think you should be so you can be who you are.

Take a breath, relax your belly. Brave feels both exciting and scary. When you feel it, you’re on the right track.

Nauman-Duchamp-460x575“If every poet on earth stopped writing
right now, forever, what would be lost?

already
we have more cherubs, urinals,
colored lights than anyone can look at
in a hyperextended well-educated
middle-class no-guns-in-the-home
American lifetime.”
From Poem As Fountain by Lesley Wheeler ~ Image: Nauman – Duchamp by Carolyn Capps

(See all the images/poems by Carolyn Capps and Lesley Wheeler in the current edition of Midway Journal)

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to draw cartoons or sing on stage or invent underwater cities. I sketched and colored. I wore costumes and sang into my brush. I daydreamed about living with the fish at the bottom of the sea.

Did you? Did you wonder and explore and want to make things that no one had made? Do you still? Or do those things feel childish or like something someone else does?

This curious, expressive part of me began to wither during my school years. While I got praise for my artistic work sometimes, I got far more reinforcement for politely paying attention, following directions, and for not wiggling around and putting my feet on the furniture. What’s more, as I got older I got afraid that whatever I made wouldn’t be good enough, interesting enough, original enough. Who could do better than Snoopy and Fantasia? I didn’t get a part in the sixth grade musical, and there was already Shirley Jones and Julie Andrews. And my underwater city? It would just get covered in algae and barnacles, right? After a while, my visions of cartooning or performing or living with the fishes – like Luca Brasi in The Godfather — slept with the fishes. (For those too young to know the reference, that means died, or more precisely, was killed.)

Did this happen to you, too? Maybe not. I admire those whose artistic lives persisted past grade school. They had more confidence and courage than I ever did. And yet even creative lives that persevere into adulthood are often eroded by the pull of family or finances or the unfolding fear-fest of life. (To be clear, I believe there can be tremendous artistry in raising a family, making money, and hanging out with fear, but not everybody approaches them that way. I certainly didn’t.)

I’m not judging here. I get it. I understand and feel the pull of a politely-pay-attention-follow-directions-sit-still life. It’s easy and safe. I don’t twist anybody’s undies and it’s unlikely I’ll be criticized. Making art, by definition, means emphasizing your differences instead of how you fit in. That’s a vulnerable and sometimes scary place to be.

But I think it’s worth the risk. There is something missing from a life without art — something rich and complicated and human. As the saying goes, “Earth Without Art Is Just ‘Eh’.” I would add that a livelihood without creativity isn’t all that lively a ‘hood.

Like a starfish that loses a limb, though, creativity can be regenerated. We can invite that child-like wonder back in. It’s been slow for me and my Polite Part is quick to resist the risk of art, but it’s happening more and more. Mindful movement helps. Every time I do Standing Bow Pulling pose or I take a Nia class or I go trail biking with my husband, I am creating, embodying something new. My brain and nervous system fire differently when I bring my body and mind into alignment. It doesn’t matter if I fall out of Standing Bow, if I feel awkward in Nia, or if my chain comes off on the trail. Moving my body mindfully starts more in motion than just my physical self. It reminds me that creating is what human beings do.

Gradually, after years of sneaking peeks at living with playful, artistic authenticity, I feel a part of myself perking up, puppy-like. When I am creating something as simple as a cross front cha-cha-cha or as complex as a book of essays, I feel fulfilled, complete somehow – even if I stumble or I’m not ready to publish it. I can almost feel a whole bank of neurons light up when I’m selecting songs for a playlist or ingredients for a salad. When I’m posting a blog post or launching a new routine, it matters less how it turns out and more that I’m taking the risk to do it.

In Lesley Wheeler’s Poem as Fountain (part of her collaborative project with the images of Carolyn Capps that you can see in its entirety in the current edition of Midway Journal), she suggests,
I say it’s the making,
not the architectural sketch but the feel
of a pencil in the hand, that saves us.

It is the act of creating itself that makes all the difference.

OF NOTE: Rebecca George and I are living life as artists in the months leading up to our Life As An Artist retreat March 28-30, 2014. Our Web site – https://sites.google.com/site/6monthsofcreativeplay/ – has tales of our experiences, inspirations and ideas for your own, and of course, all the goods on the retreat. Please check it out, and while you’re there, sign up to receive the weekly “Inspirational Breeze” to support you on your artist journey.

Maya-Angelou quote 1Hokey Dinah, I love to sub for Anne on Saturday mornings! I’ve been looking forward to it all week. We focused on remembering that the body is our oldest friend, our most steadfast companion, and our wisest ally. Inherently, the body is always doing its best for us, always doing its best to heal and be well — no matter what we feed it, how we move it, or how we talk to and about it. Even so, it is easy to feel frustrated, angry, or even betrayed by its illness, injury, or appearance. In this morning’s practice we spent our time listening to sensation and responding as we would to an old, beloved friend.

Do I have to say it? Okay, I will. It rocked. It was sweaty, dancing, wiggling, singing, serious fun. Thanks to all, and particularly to my old friend Victoria who drove a long way to reconnect after a long time (you are a gem) and to Anne for giving me the chance to come and play today (you are a gem, too!).

Do join us at the retreat that Rebecca George and I are leading March 28-30, 2014 – Life As An Artist. Whoever you are, whatever your relationship is to making art, this will be a fun, restorative, and possibly transformational weekend. Now’s a great time to register. Or any time before October 10, actually. Which is soon. So check it out here.

Below is the playlist from class. Go buy some music today. Or dig up some old 70s tunes and put them on your iPod. Then dance in your kitchen. Hello, old friend.

Have fun. Dance on.
Love,
Susan

P.S. I understand from a reader of this blog that there are sometimes ads that appear at the bottom of my postings. Sometimes ads that are not, how shall I say, in complete alignment with my message. As the writer of the blog, interestingly, they never show me said ads. So tell me, dear readers, are they a bother? Should I look into strategies for ridding Focus Pocus of them? Do tell.

Hello Old Friend ~ Saturday, September 28, 2013, 9am

Big Sky – 4:04 – Annie Lennox
Down To Earth – 5:59 – Peter Gabriel
The Fire From Within – 4:12 – Tryptamoon
Freedom – 2:50 – Tyrone Wells
Walk Into The Sun – 5:21 – Dirty Vegas
I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like) – 3:52 – Michael Franti
Exit Through You – 5:52 – Big Blue Ball featuring Joseph Arthur, Peter Gabriel, Karl Wallinger
Long Train Running (Groovy Dooby Mix) – 5:07 – DJ’s Brothers
One Billion Hands – 4:05 – Lourds Lane
The River – 5:31 – Suzanne Sterling
Hello Old Friend – 3:43 – Kim Richey
Phenomenal Woman – 4:24 – Ruthie Foster
Plegaria Para el Alma de Layla – 3:20 – Pedro Aznar

opposite of good PoserThe opposite of good is bad. Duh. As a people-pleasing, first-born child, I’ve known for absolute sure that bad is — not to get too fancy or anything – really, really bad. Doing it right and fulfilling others’ expectations has always been high on my list. I’ve always been sure that the best way to get love is to be good. But recently, all my certainty about good and bad has been turned on its head.

A friend recently loaned me Claire Dederer’s, Poser: My Life in 26 Yoga Poses. I opened it with some caution as some yoga books wander in radiant wonder for so long that they annoy me. Deeply.  All that transcendence and inner peace…pulease.

I approached warily. Any regular practice – be it yoga, or parenting, or simply getting up every morning – are day-in-day-out affairs that encompass a whole lot of everything. Any descriptions of these practices that include constant angel choirs and perpetual, patient peacefulness leave me with eyebrows up and arms crossed.

Turns out, Dederer’s book doesn’t have any angel choirs. She writes with humor, honesty, and self-deprecation that resonate with me as a practitioner, a teacher, and a writer (she actually gave me my first full-blown case of writer-envy). Overall, reading was a pleasure of recognition and affirmation. But a couple of times, her words took my breath away with revelation.

One example is when she tells of learning about ancient yogic teachings that warn against effort in one’s practice. This confounds her since effort, she thinks, is the whole point of yoga. She writes:

It would be a long time before I could entertain the notion that maybe my yoga would improve if I didn’t try so hard, and a longer time still before I began to question why my yoga needed to improve at all.

As a lifelong over-achieving, direction-following self-improver, this hit me where I live. Truly, isn’t all practice about getting better? Isn’t improvement an inherent part of practicing? But after I gave Dederer a little chuckle/quizzical-face, I wondered, what would it be to practice without the goal of getting better?

With that tantalizing yet unimaginable seed planted, she tells of taking classes at Naropa University in Colorado:

The red-haired yoga teacher with the Indian accent … said: “Those of you who are really bad at yoga, you’re in the right place. I hope everyone will allow themselves to be really crappy today, to walk away from being perfect. The real yoga isn’t in the perfect pose; it’s in the crappy pose that you are really feeling. You want to feel it from the inside out, rather than make it perfect from the outside in.”

Okay, this, I get. As a teacher of mindful movement, this is what I want for my students: for them to feel it in their own skin and move/choose/respond from there. Parroting my movements and following what I do is entirely and precisely not the point.

But what Dederer writes next stopped me cold and has utterly changed my thinking about practice and life. She says, “I had a sudden thought: What if the opposite of good isn’t bad? What if the opposite of good was real?”

What if the opposite of good was real?

The truth of this stopped me. I thought of how much energy I put into improving my practice, my teaching, myself. I not only see but feel the tension and anxiety my students can put into doing things right. The notion of constant improvement carries the paradoxical enticement that someday, if I work hard enough, I’ll be good enough while simultaneously knowing I never will.

And when I’m not focusing on getting better and when I let go of doing it right? What’s left but real? Real and true and authentic.

The opposite of good is real. This so shakes the perspective of constant improvement that I’ve held as my main tool for getting love and acceptance, that I’m still processing it. When I find myself breathing shallow and calculating how to get it right and stay in the lines, I ask myself what would real look like right now?

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