One of the ways I break through difficult or painful experiences is by literally moving and dancing from the deepest impulses within. Since I was a little girl, I’ve mitigated trauma in my life by moving my body. Dance as a practice has also deeply informed the somatic work I've facilitated for the past 30 years.
How else do I mitigate challenges in life? Well, one of the ways is to stop ruminating about things I do not and can not control. Relaxing with the present moment even in the face of suffering—mine and others—allows my creative process to flow, especially with the mentorship of a few specific humans in my life. For instance, I have a Lacanian Psychoanalyst in Brazil, Raul, with whom I’ve been in therapy on and off for over 30 years. He is one of my touchstones for sure. And Miguel Rivera, with whom I’m co-creating this podcast, has mentored me over decades through frameworks of earth-based practices and deep connection to nature.
I also mitigate challenges by sharing them instead of trying to deny or hide them. My mentors over the years have taught me how to gently move toward pain in order to metabolize it into something generative. When I feel stuck and allow that feeling of frustration, fear or pain to inform my personal dance practice, inevitably, even after five minutes, the emergent expression helps me to embrace the present moment and to keep going in the face of headwinds.
THE PRACTICE OF GRATITUDE
My Buddhist meditation practice helps ground me as well; also practicing gratitude. Instead of always noticing the things that are lacking, I try to also observe the simple beauty in things and people around me… the “quiet miracles that seek no attention”.
This practice of gratitude allows me to grow deep empathy; to realize that my self-doubt and confusion are no different than yours. My challenges are not “unique” to me, but also shared by a myriad other humans. This insight alone brings things into a wider perspective of compassionate belonging rather than just focusing on "me me me” and my own individual journey.
Obstacles or life challenges can be a "call to adventure”… a life-changing provocation… a heroine or hero's journey toward discernment, clarity and love. There is a beautiful saying to describe such a human journey by a Buddhist author, Lewis Richmond, written while he was suffering from a devastating case of encephalitis:
Everything is Connected.
You are not Alone.
IT IS NOT YOUR BUSINESS
This all reminds me of one of my favorite literary interactions. Modern Dance pioneer, Martha Graham, once wrote a letter to Agnes de Mille, another influential choreographer and dancer who, at the time, was experiencing crippling self-doubt about the relevance of her own work. Martha wrote to her,
“….If you block [your art], it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
So our creative work is so often learning how to get out of the way, and to be a good channel for the art that comes through us. As my dear friend and founder of the Guild of Future Architects Sharon Chang says, the work is to learn to “be a good unit.”
ALLOWING MYSELF TO BE SEEN
My deepest current challenge is still caring too much about what people will think about anything I put into the world, whether it's a poem, a film, or a meditation. Mind you, I do care about my impact; I'm not talking about that. But I still fear that whatever I put into the world may be rejected; and I’d love to care a bit less about that and not feel so defined by what other people may think.
I yearn to create freely without worrying about how my art may be judged. I've certainly had more difficult challenges in my life, but I feel those are no longer relevant today. As I get older, I feel an undeniable call to adventure to make the art that quivers with to tell my story and risk being truly being seen. It feels necessary and that is what I’m now committed to.
For decades my somatic work has supported the creative process of some of our culture’s most powerful and prolific creators. And don’t get me wrong, I love that work and will continue to do it. But I’m living into the years of my life where I yearn to invest in my own emergent art. It’s an exciting and vulnerable process and I’m here for it.
A BOX FULL OF DARKNESS
Lacanian psychoanalysis, for sure, has been one of my most profound teachers. Many mentors have guided, supported and inspired me over the years, including Miguel Rivera, with whom I am so thrilled to be collaborating on this podcast. Nature perhaps is my root teacher as well… I learn so much by observing the cycles and fractal diversity of our animate planet. Poetry is also my teacher, for poetry is at once dharma, art and therapy.
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”
Mary Oliver’s few words here thunder with resonance in me each time I read them. We can never be reminded enough that human suffering and trauma can be digested, metabolized and eventually become a life-giving gift. (And yes, it can take decades). Working with my own childhood trauma has taught me that; and about empathy, resilience, and the power of transforming our pain into love, forgiveness and service to others.
FEAST ON YOUR LIFE
I must have repeated Derek Walcott’s seminal provocation “Love After Love “ to myself thousands of times. It is my mantra.
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
My favorite word is liminality… I’m fascinated with the liminal phase of rites of passage, a nod to Victor Turner required! I feel like that one word encompasses so much of our lived experience. We're always “in between” the leap and the next landing. We're always suspended in the fluid creative potential of liminality.
A PLURALITY OF EXPERIENCES
I am very clear about this. What I would like to see embodied, especially by humans, is empathy. We need to nurture our superpower of empathy and pay attention to how it wires our own brain’s neurons. Life is lived by a plurality of experiences. The more we can empathize with an experience that isn't necessarily our own, the more we can create more inclusive and equitable systems for those who are different from us. If we can empathize with an experience that is not ours, we will build stronger interdependent units.
Everything is connected, whether we realize it or not. We are an interdependent organism on this blue ball floating around space.
RELAX, THESE STONES ARE YOUR RELATIVES
I was river rafting in the warm waters of an Atlantic rainforest river in Bahia, Brazil. The river was exceedingly high because it had rained heavily the night before. I was going down the river with experienced rafters. As we were approaching a long rapid called “the funnel”, the river was so strong that instead of us going down the rapid, we got pulled into the adjacent waterfall. I was in the front right of the raft. And as we're going over the waterfall, I see that below, there’s a boulder rock jutting out. I realize I'm the one that's going to hit the rock below and that I’m probably going to die. As I'm cresting over the waterfall, time slowed down. I felt like I was in The Matrix.
My first thought was, "Oh, so THIS is how people die rafting.”
My second thought was, "Wow, what a blessing that I'm going to die on this land that I so love.” (I love, love, love Bahia. It’s one of my soul homes.)
The third thing I heard was “Relax.” Literally just that word— “relax, relax”.
And the last thing I heard was Miguel’s voice “These stones are your relatives.” (I've participated in sweatlodges led by Miguel dozens of times since 1994)
All of this in a matter of a few seconds.
With helmet on, I had just enough time to turn my face sideways so I wouldn’t hit the boulder face first.
And then I hit. Hard. So hard in fact that I felt my teeth move in my gums. And then, somehow my body became a wedge between the jutting boulder and the raft, such that it caused the boat not to flip.
I was thrown from the front all the way to the back of the raft, where the guide was frantically trying to right the raft. By now, we had actually entered the Funnel rapid that we had intended to enter from the left of the waterfall.
When we got to the very end of the rapid, everyone pulled over to the river bank. I asked my friend next to me in Portuguese—because I had a group of American students with me and I didn't want them to freak out — "Do I still have my teeth?" When he said, “Yes” I told him, that I had thought I was going to die, so I just relaxed.
I learned some things about myself that dayy…things I didn't know until then.
One, I wasn't afraid to die.
Two, all the things we practice help us to die.
When we arrived back at base camp, the owner of the rafting company (who trains Olympic rafting medics) asked to see the video of the descent. We all watched it to see what had happened. The guide of my raft walked away crying after seeing it and I asked them to destroy the video afterwards. I pulled the owner aside and said, "The first thing I want to tell you is that I'm not going to sue you. The second thing I want to tell you is that I knew I was going to die, so I relaxed.”
He just looked back at me, and said nothing. About 15 seconds of silence passed between us looking straight into each other’s eyes. And then he said tearing up, "The only reason you're still here is because you relaxed. Something else should have happened today but it didn’t.” This too became a gift.
The next year when visiting Bahia, I insisted on returning to the same river with the same river guide so that we could work out our trauma of that day. When I arrived they took us to their new raft… They named it “Micheline”.
That's one of the experiences around death that showed me IRL why we practice, why we meditate, why we dance, why we make music, why we honor the elements, why we gather together in collective renewal.
DEATH…A PORTAL TO UNDERSTANDING LIFE
Another transcendental experience was my mother dying in my arms after a years-long battle with breast cancer. You're right there at the portal in such moments… so close to that liminal space between life and death. So, again, there's something about death that can teach us about living life.
Before my yoga and somatic dance career, I used to be a filmmaker (making films is actually something I’m returning to… more on that later.) I’ve long been fascinated about the topic of death, I even once made a short film about how a little girl deals with the death of her older sister. It was eventually licensed to the U.S. Department of Education for distribution to public school systems for use as a curriculum tool to help young folks deal with bereavement.
When it's our time to meet that transition—now I'm speaking anecdotally from my experience now and I'm not sure if this happens to everyone—but I was amazed by how what we practice can show up at that portal of transition from life to death.
A STORY OF HOME
My story with Brazil is a story of home. I'm of mixed race. I knew my father was also mixed, but I had no connection with the black side of my family until 2015 (again another story for another time). I was raised in white spaces and growing up, I sometimes felt awkward and out of place with my dark features, full nose and “frizzy” hair. In 1989 when I stepped off a plane in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the first time I was stunned… Everyone looked like me! I had never experienced that feeling of walking into a space and not being the person who didn't look like everybody else growing up.
I was born in New York City where I lived until I was 8 years old when my mother and I moved to Los Angeles. I was raised by a liberal mother with a certain diversity of influence around me.
But at 12 years of age, I was sent to a small suburb outside of Kalamazoo Michigan to live on my grandmother’s 100 acre farm. It was when I experienced my first encounter with racism. It was shocking to me because I did not understand yet what racism even was. I did not understand why kids were hitting me, spitting on me and calling me “half-breed” and the n-word. And while I implored my mother to let me return to Los Angeles, I couldn’t because she had been so severely injured in a car accident and could not care for me at the time.
It was from that moment on that I realized that I was “other”. That was my box… not Black… not White… “Other”.
Fast forward to me at 27 descending from that plane into Rio… I was no longer “other”. Rather, I looked like everyone else and for the first time, I knew what home “culturally” felt like.
My then-boyfriend was a Brazilian anthropologist who took me to Bahia where he was conducting fieldwork. I was introduced to Afro-Brazilian culture, which opened up for me another level of enduring connection and belonging. Today my embodied leadership and yoga teacher training program, Liquid Asana, is based in São Paulo and serves a diversity of communities, including providing 100% scholarships to under-representedand marginalized black and lgbtq+ communities so that they can take the tools of embodiment, self/co-regulation and leadership back to their communities.
THE VALUE OF YOUR ART
The only way to get to the other side is to go through… to just keep going. Because yes, the alternative is to die with our music left inside. If it's the last thing I do, I will tell my story… through dance, through poetry, through music, through film, through connection and through the weave lived experience.
If I am to leave you with one message about your art, it is this. The value of your art is in its own existence, full stop. Independent of how that art is consumed. My provocation to you and to myself is to tell your story, resist the temptation to try to fit into a "market" and stop comparing your art with other other expressions. We're so conditioned by commodification that it can really fuck up our creativity.
So just let your art exist. Just let it fucking exist.