Practice

The Quiet and the Dark, Part 2

continued from Part 1:

When the monkey mind chatter is revealed for what it is, there is suddenly the ability to tune it out. It doesn’t go away, it simply loses power, much like that dripping faucet that keeps you awake the first few nights in a new house eventually gets tuned out by your brain. It may even become a comforting presence (Oh, look, there’s that jealousy monkey again! Isn’t he cute? Such a lovely shade of green…) that helps you appreciate experiences better.

So it never really gets quiet. If you’re hoping for that, or worse, waiting for that (I don’t have a serene mind yet! I’ll try a different form of meditation/yoga/coffee/relationship because maybe that will work better…) then you’re going to have the perfect reason for not going into the Dark. While I wouldn’t presume to speak for the man, Steven Pressfield would probably ascribe that as a particularly sneaky and effective tool of the Resistance.

Me, I tend to use a different tool. I know that meditation, and exercise, and music, and conscious loving and long bike rides through beautiful parks in the fall work wonderfully for quieting the monkey mind. I know that is a great path towards the dark. So I keep myself too busy with work to actually do any of those on a terribly regular basis. It’s actually a form of cowardice, and certainly not something I’m proud of.

In fact, addressing that reluctance to go into the Dark inside of me is the number one priority on my tertiary to-do list for when I stop traveling and get those other tasks done for my client and write my blog and finish my novel and cut my toenails and…

See how easy it is?

Encounters of the Dark Kind

CP teaches "Extreme Moves"The first time I really remember encountering that dark and authentic place deep inside was during a dance class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, taught by Li Chiao-Ping. It was a technique class, two hours of pliés and tendus and leaping/contracting/extending combinations across the floor. This was pure form, nothing creative about it; it was a combination of changing our bodies and teaching them how to perform the various techniques that would later be used in choreographic expression. It was mind-numbing, it was exhausting, and it was wonderful, because Chiao-Ping knows her stuff; she kept a full warm-up, an intensive central lesson plan that built on the lessons of previous weeks.

To give some context, at the time I was working part-time as a preschool music teacher, raising my four kids as a single Dad, and struggling to make ends meet through my student loans and the money I could earn freelancing. It was not exactly the most relaxing period of my life.

At the end of a particularly tough class, we were all laying on the ground relaxing into stretches. I pulled my knee up to my chest and hugged it, breathing in and out, and then, when Chiao-Ping directed, stretched it out to the side, sort of looking like a Captain Morgan pose lying on my back.

For some reason, CP (as we affectionately called her) added an extra “Now, breathe in, deep, feel the floor supporting you…let yourself sink into that support…” Reflexively I obeyed, eyes closed…and suddenly I was sobbing. Quietly, mind you, and it wasn’t all that different a sound than the other heavy breaths and moans that tend to fill a room of stretching dancers. But I knew the difference, and I was mortified. A grown man, crying in public? Generations of Western masculine tradition shuddered at the thought. But there had been something about that sinking down inside myself, that letting go, that had suddenly loosened all the tension of Dad/Teacher/Student/Dancer and let something else out, something that had been buried there and that was chock-full of emotional stuff.

No way did I have time to deal with that. Class was over in fifteen, I had Sound Editing next and I still needed to call the school to figure out the picture fees and plan my lesson for the kids the next day at the Montessori school and…

And I kept my eyes open, counting the ceiling panels, whenever we stretched after that.

The Favor

The only time I’ve actually consciously tried to find that place was at the offering of a friend of mine, D, a fellow dancer who I respect immensely. D and I were both teaching at a conference and happened to find ourselves in the practice studio at the same time, while most of the rest of the conference attendees were off doing their own thing. D and I have had many conversations about the nature of the dance, of the arts, and how these things pervade our lives and our respective cultures (D is Canadian).

He was familiar with that first encounter that I’d had, and in fact often used that phenomenon in his classes to help his students achieve a better presence and authenticity within themselves. Over time he had developed a specific meditative series of exercises that first stimulated and then brought to rest all of the senses of his students, and then he would use his hypnotic baritone voice to lead them on a guided meditation. That’s what he offered me that day in Houston; my own personal guided trip deep inside myself.

It’s one of the few actual luxuries that a life as a presenter and teacher in the arts provides: you get offered master classes and access to teachers that normally would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Of course I said yes, mildly curious as to what I might find with an intentional visit into that Dark inside.

Out of professional courtesy I’m not going go into the details of the process, but suffice it to say that after about an hour I was in a deep state of internal reflection, the monkey mind cleverly distracted into insignificance, my body loose and relaxed, my breathing deep and regular and a general outer feeling of “safe space” provided by D. There was nothing to do, nothing to occupy my mind, nowhere to go but inwards.

Once again, I could feel that part of me beneath the writer, the dancer, the teacher, the lover, the father. That more essential part of me. For the first time, consciously, I let myself sink down into it.

The Unbearable Frightness of Being

I know this is the part where I’m supposed to say something like “and there I found myself, and gave myself the love I’d been denying myself.” I’m supposed to write about how warm and fuzzy and nice and accepting I was of myself, and how I became re-acquainted with blah blah blah.

In fact, they’re probably going to take away my self-help life hacking blogger club membership card for what I’m about to write.

William Blake. He knew the Dark.

It sucked.

It really, really sucked. It was awful. I finally went down into that deep dark authentic place and I felt like crap. I felt lonely, inadequate, hopeless. I felt tremendously uncomfortable with the emotions there. I wanted, desperately, to get out of there.

D sensed my distress, and fairly quickly went through the exercises that slowly, layer by layer, bring back the rest of the world to someone who has been deep inside themselves. I thanked him profusely – not for the experience, because, as I mentioned, it sucked, but for the immense supply of thoughtful processing he’d handed me.

Can’t Go Around It, Can’t Go Under It, Can’t Go Over It…

“…gotta go thru it,” goes the children’s rhyme. That’s the thing about the Dark. Shortly after that experience I visited another friend whose insight I trusted in matters psychological, describing the experience and asking her what she thought it meant. She looked at me with a strange combination of serious concern and merry laughter in her eyes – as if she was going to get to watch me be the butt of a friendly prank.

“Well, Gray, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad,” she said. “It’s the normal reaction when you meet a stranger in a strange place, after all. It’s not comfortable.” She leaned towards me and put a hand on my knee, emphasizing her next point. “I think, Gray, what you need to do is go back to that place inside of you and get to know it better, until you can be comfortable there.”

“Really…” I said. I thought about it for a bit. Then I thanked her, and went off to meet a wonderful young woman who I ended up dating for several years, developing classes together and traveling and generally having a marvelous time together.

Out in the light of day. Away from the Dark.

That Resistance, she is a sneaky lady. And sometimes, honestly, when the Resistance comes in the form of a wonderful relationship, you often don’t mind so much. In fact, the only thing that was powerful enough to end that relationship? It was when things started getting secure, relaxed, when all I had to worry about was the writing and the teaching and it was starting to get serious. When the deeper places inside of me started getting closer to the surface, because the insecurities and stresses were no longer factors.

That’s enough to throw any stress-addicted workaholic out of his comfort zone, and I’m no exception.

A Cautionary Tale

So instead of the happy ending (if you’ve read this blog for a while, you know better than to expect one) I simply leave you with a warning and a possible “happier” thought. The warning is: if you go down that path of practice to quiet the monkey brain, you are likely to come into contact with the Dark inside you. And in most of the guides that I’ve read for that path, that is portrayed as a warm fuzzy wonderful thing.

Sometimes it’s not. So be aware of what you’re risking. It can be terrifying, so that even your best intentions can’t overcome the fear of what that place might hold.

But also be aware: once you have been there, you have a map. You know how to get there, you know what practice will be the best vehicle for visiting that undiscovered country inside. You can start building up your supplies, becoming stronger, taking the steps to prepare for longer and longer visits.

Eventually, I do hope to be comfortable there. I’m not quite there yet – well, to be honest, I’m nowhere near “comfortable.”

But I’m no longer scared of the Dark.

1 thought on “The Quiet and the Dark, Part 2”

  1. I think this is really one of the most interesting posts I’ve seen by anyone in a long time. Thank you for taking us through your thought process in this challenging and difficult-to-describe territory.

    “The truth can’t hurt you,
    it’s just like the dark –
    it scares you witless,
    but in time you see things clear and stark.”
    -Elvis Costello

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