A Teaching from my Mother (1995)

My Christmas present to my mother (and myself) was a week long retreat at Plum Village, Thich Nath Hanh's spiritual community in France. One of my Dharma friends had suggested that I go there as I was relating to her my hesitation between visiting my folks back home, going on a meditation retreat or taking a beach vacation to Baja.

The idea sounded great. I wondered, however, how my mother would react to such an invitation, since she is not a meditator, has never gone on retreat and does not like to be around too many people. To my great surprise and delight, she accepted and said it would certainly help her relax if nothing else!

Last year she had a mastectomy, underwent chemotherapy, is on anti-depressant and sleeping pills, and has attempted suicide at several occasions. She tends to constantly be on the go and seriously prone to depression.

Suffice to say that after her accepting my invitation, I began to wonder if I had made a good decision. Could I stand being with my mother for a week, and in a retreat environment? I had made reservations, the dices were rolled.

We arrived before dinner on a Saturday and were quickly shown our rooms. A permanent resident briefed us on the daily routine, rules and code of conduct - a familiar world to me since I have been a Buddhist practitioner for several years.

Meals are an integral part of mindfulness practice. The first half of every meal is taken in silence. Since food is a major part of my mother's life, she quickly forgot the meal rules and started eating before the first Mindfulness bell indicating the beginning of the meal, and started talking to retreatants seating next to her. Her attention span is very short and she already had forgotten the rules.

I immediately tensed-up, like a parents watching a child doing something forbidden. Anger arose in me and I quickly reminded her of the rules and the reasons behind these rules. A new world for her. That night, as we were going to bed, she confided to me that the place felt a bit like a jail! I was able to lovingly say to her that such a place is called a monastery!

For the first couple of days, there were several other tense moments, such as when, during the walking meditation led by Thigh Nath Hanh, my mother began walking twice faster than the group's pace, passing everyone until she found herself right behind the leader, and got right into his foot steps. It was both hilarious and unnerving but there was really nothing I could do. I had to let go, begin releasing my judgments and trust that the community would take care of her. I began to relax.

Other events triggered feelings of embarrassment, anger, impatience and shame. Each one became an opportunity to watch all of the invisible ties that link me to my mother. Each time I saw that it was time to give her and I our freedom.

People in the village quickly embraced my mother, admiring her for the fact that she came to {Plum Village with no prior meditation experience. The village soon became a mother to my mother, and I could be free of the responsibilities that I dreaded. I began to breath and enjoy my retreat, and so did my mother!

I watched her doing her walking mediation early in the morning. She joined a Christmas choir rehearsal. She attended all the Dharma talks and even asked questions. She befriended a Tibetan nun, and a Belgian woman who regularly comes on retreat.

People were touched by my mother's realness, curiosity and innocence. They could also feel her tremendous pain. They responded compassionately to her, enjoying her company, sharing laughter's and always demonstrating patience, kindness and joy.

Another striking memory was during a tea ceremony. Cookies and tea were being passed around. Everyone was waiting for everyone to be served and for the bell to be rang. I heard crunchy noises behind me, and as I turned around, realized that it was my mother eating her chocolate cookie, oblivious to the outside world. I looked at her with disapproval in my eyes. As I turned back, a seven-year-old girl across the room was also absorbed in eating her treat. Noticing her, I smiled and quickly had a powerful insight. My mother and the child were doing the same thing. Why was I smiling at the child and frowning at my Mum? My mother is like the seven-year-old girl, totally pure and innocent. She is not doing this to piss me off. As I contemplated these thoughts, a wave of love rushed through my heart.

From that moment on, my time with my mother took a different color. I had so much more space for her. She received a lot of attention from many of the nuns and long term retreatants. She got more love than she probably ever got in her life.

As with most older folks, the fear of the "sect" thing was probably in her mind before she went to Plum Village. To her great surprise, she found people extremely tolerant, compassionate and kind. As we left a week later, the whole Village sang her a beautiful song. She cried, and everyone came to hug her.

I can't say enough about how it's probably touched her life and gave her hope about humanity's ability to love. She now talks about healing with great enthusiasm. That short stay helped her see things in a different light and she made new friends.

Without my friend's suggestion, I would have probably never dared sharing such an experience with my mother. I would have been afraid of being judged for my spiritual views, or not wanting to be burdened by her presence during a retreat.

We now have a new topic of conversation and a much stronger and loving connection. I will certainly go back with her. She was a great teacher for me.

Children of the Revolution (1999)

I kind of believe in angels but I never thought I would meet so many in just a few days.
And everyone had a face of his and her own.
There was one woman with white hair and white cotton clothes. Her eye had been punched and she was smiling.
There was a 8 year-old black kid who had been gassed on Capitol Hill, along with his parents. He was sitting in a cardboard box and people were signing their name on it.
There was a suburban woman who drove from Issaquah with a minivan load of food for the protesters at the King County jail.
There were young punks helping the soup kitchen at the jail rally.
There was an older activist and poet who was rapping with some kids.
There was a woman physicist from India telling about farmer in her country committing suicide.
There were the naked student women from Santa Cruz dancing with the Steel Union workers.
There was the police officer who asked me if he could buy my afro wig.
There was the baker in Pioneer Square who gave me cinnamon rolls for the police officers.
There were the five young women in black dancing at 6th and Pike, surrounded by police in riot gear.
There was an older homeless native American woman dancing and chanting “freedom”.
There were Teamsters serving coffee for the protesters in front of the Hilton.
There were girls with pierced lips and noses
Guys with tattoos and funny hairdos
Organic people, lawyers and city councilmen and women.
Church leaders, 60’s activists and Vietnam vets.

They all came down from heaven for a big party in Seattle.
Everybody was dressed in funny costumes, even the police!
They threw fire crackers and funny gases.
They made a lot of noise and got their pictures in the paper.

They came from all over the world and distant planets.

They are the children of the revolution and they changed me forever.

(1999 after the WTO events, Seattle)

Dance as Spiritual Practice (2004)

For many years, I sat at the foot of spiritual teachers, listening to ancient esoteric teachings. I was drawn to finding a spiritual practice that would further my development and help me alleviate the suffering inherent to my human condition.

I studied with Tibetan, Native American, Sufi and Zen teachers, as well as with various indigenous shamans from Africa and South America. All the teachings seemed to point to the same thing-life is a sort of a dream and there are ways to approach death with joy.

My sitting was often in the back of the room, as I struggle to assimilate the prayers, songs and sequences of the rituals. I knew my aspirations were genuine yet I felt little progress on the path. I reassured myself that the teachings and blessings of the teachers would be lodged deep within my consciousness to reemerge later in a future existence.

My mind was often very distracted as some of the practices, like in Buddhist Tantra, are done in group. My passion and desire often engulfed my whole mind as I attempted to hold the deity’s visualizations. I resisted doing all of the purification practices such as prostrations or recitations.

Many other newer students would excel and receive advance teachings while I kept a low profile in the back of the room. My Tibetan teachers often intimidated me even though they always displayed amazing patience and kindness with me. I felt so inadequate that I could not even ask any specific questions on the basic mediation practices.

I found solace in taking charge of the logistics of large rituals that literally required turning buildings into temples. Without my feeling useful in that capacity, I probably would have left the teachings much earlier.

That resistance went on for the better part of eight years while I studied with the late Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, a renowned Tibetan meditation master and physician, and Lama Padma Gyatso, one of his main students, translator and ritual master.

In the meantime, I always danced. I attended every possible Pagan parade, Middle Eastern or African festival, and weekly community dances, as I always felt amazingly vibrant and happy while dancing amongst large crowds on the beat of live drums. I made it my “job” to always show up in wild garbs and delight the old and young alike with my antics.

Now that I have left the mediation hall and entered the dance hall, I realize that my quest for spirit never left me. I had to leave the teacher to encounter the teachings.

As I began to organize the Gypsie Nation dances and was traveling daily around the Big island of Hawai’i where I was facilitating six dances a week, the notions of spiritual practice and devotion came back to reveal their true meaning.

Before each dance, I was reminded, as if my teacher was inside, to reflect on my intentions for my dance-or practice. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche always gave a dissertation on motivation before each and every of his teachings and empowerments.

At the beginning of my Gypsie Nation adventure, I was grief stricken by a separation from my partner and the sudden death of my Mother. I was dancing to pray for my Mother’s auspicious rebirth, as well as to heal myself.

Everything from sweeping the floor, building the altar, picking flowers, buying food for an offering, or putting special clothes on for the dance took on a new meaning. I had entered spiritual practice through the intensity of my emotions. My life, and the liberation of my Mother, seemed to depend on my concentration and quality of intentions, as if I was approaching death (as taught in many, if not all ancient traditions).

Every dance became an opportunity to bring all of my “stuff” to the practice, and stuff I had! My anger, grief, sadness, disappointment, bitterness, resentment, abandonment and lust gave my dance the octane that fueled my practice.

Day after day, I re-entered the dance hall with humility and devotion-to myself, my Mother, the Earth and the community where the dance was taking place.

In that new spiritual practice, the dance became a radiant mirror to observe my mind, transform my emotions and generate bliss that I could dedicate for my Mother’s liberation.

That new practice had no teacher in human form to intimidate me. There was no right way to do it. I could not possibly mess-up. I could bring everything to the heart of the ritual and dissolve myself over and over again. In each of these mini deaths, I would tap into the abundance of energy and love that seem to permeate the whole Universe and dedicate these treasures to my Mother.

In these times of abundance in spiritual teachings and teachers, I believe that new hybrid environments need to be explored and tended to, so as to offer a joyous entry level for those seeking a connection with their soul. Places that again we can call temples, where the village and travelers come to celebrate the glory of life, and practice in devotion to the spirit of community.

March 2004
Trance-A journey into the Unknown (1991)

I was recently asked at a dance what it was like to be truly with the trance effect of the African drums. I have been exploring intuitively this phenomenon for some time now but never had to explain what I felt to anyone. After a while I told her that it was like " leaning against a heavy door that all of a sudden gives way." The momentum of the resistance to surrendering to the magic of the music, once unleashed, can propel you into unbelievable seconds of freedom and ecstasy.

I have absolutely no training in dance, be it classical, modern or ethnic. Over the years I have always enjoyed dancing, with several periods of two or three years where my emotional states blocked me from enjoying music and free movement. I have gone to many African celebrations where I observed and marveled at the agility of dancers: young, old, fat and skinny alike. Not only did they obviously have a ball, but they seemed to be effortlessly flying through the air, as if carried by invisible threads obviously linked to the music. The master drummers appear to be puppeteers that could entice and hold the dancers in a magical and invisible (to me) web of rhythm. "Wow, if only I could do that! Well, they've been dancing since they were kids! It's in their genes!" My western conditioning would not give me license to enjoy my body the same way or to share the same communal unity that they did. No way!

Imagine my surprise when one day, quite unexpectedly, I found myself, for a fraction of a second, in apparently the same space of absolute surrender and sheer ecstasy! What was I willing to let go of, in order to shift, even for that brief a moment, into perfect harmony with the music? What in the music induced that state? It is obviously well known to indigenous cultures all around the world, and it is somewhat explained by scientists as a trance rhythm.

Our bodies, however minutely described by medical science, are still very mysterious. In my exploration of movement and life in general, more and more I tend to consider my purpose to be the process of remembering my true self, removing the obscurations of my mind and hopefully unveiling the magnificence of a divine being. So with that approach, I already know. I know that I have just forgotten what I already know, despite being told that I need more technique or knowledge!

My experience, often to my great surprise, has shown me time and time again, that everything is in our bones and cells. With enough trust and patience, I think we can have a great time remembering a lot of things that we think we do not know, that no one can teach us, or that we do not feel capable of learning.

How does all this relate to body movement? Well, from that premise, one's desire to discover and surrender to the magic of music can yield great results. We need to learn how to skillfully navigate around and heal our self-judgments and conditioning. From this point on I will refer to these obstacles as "the wall", to avoid redundancies!

My heart often feels for those stuck behind the wall, like watching some homeless people window shopping at Christmas time, with no hope of ever being able to afford such splendid clothes or gadgets. I also often feel that the wall that we communally create hinders my journey into trance. It would explain why indigenous tribal rituals are so effective in propelling participants into altered states, when people's intentions are geared towards creating windows through that wall that seems inherent to our human condition.

So from our western "state", how can we gradually recognize and familiarize ourselves with what makes up the wall and support each other in voyaging to the other side and bringing back to our people the gifts that the journey seems to contain: gifts of joy, timelessness and many other un-namable mysteries. How do we re-teach ourselves what we already know but have just temporarily forgotten, amidst the distractions and glitter of the industrial era? How do we empower ourselves to release the fears and negative thoughts that deprive us from playing, making fools out of ourselves and truly experiencing a more alive and vibrant self?

I would dare to answer these ambitious questions by inviting you to release all expectations that this society breeds, with its fixation on perfection. There is no "right way" to do it. Forget about style and techniques to begin with. Just venture to meet the music with your body -- all of it! Dare to go where spirited music is played, preferably live. Let your spirit do the driving. Let your intuition take you to where spirit is. Go with friends, with a commitment to explore, support each other lovingly, share your fears and apprehensions. Be patient and kind with yourself. Just like in meditation, watch the dance of your mind with all its convulsions and reasons. Amuse yourself by observing your judgments of yourself and others. See their effects on your movements and those of others. Always reaffirm your commitment to cut loose and truly experience bliss in your body-- it's your birthright! Your intent will slowly help you get closer to the wall; feel the gooeyness of its content, and soon it will give way.

Approaching the exploration of movement in that way will surely be very revealing with respect to your emotional baggage. It will be great therapy. You may agonize over the thickness of your wall. You may find yourself dancing an angry dance or a very sensual one. Let yourself be surprised and amazed by the expression of your inner world. Let it all be, it's all part of the journey, just as healing often reveals our many demons. Same job! Befriend them all, one after another. Feel their insubstantiality and ridicule. Invite them onto the dance floor. Because when you truly let go, they come with you, but instead of holding you back, they cheer you-up!

By being willing, committed and curious, I become more and more familiar with the texture of my wall. It also changes, revealing new layers in unpredictable ways. I try to be ready to accept what ever comes up and look it square in the eyes. I often monitor how my commitment to "looking good" hinders the freedom of my movements. At the same time I dare to show-off, stepping out of line and breaking from the unspoken collective agreement. I dance in that paradox. I avoid repetitions and patterns. Spirit does not await me behind an orderly arrangement of "Saturday Night Fever" moves. It lurks in the mist of the most disjointed, ridiculous and unexpected steps. It nips my butt when I truly say "yes" to going for it, with no holding back, even if it is just for a fraction of a second. I know then. The quality of sensations is beyond my normal range. My sense of connectedness and balance surprise me. It delights and scares me at the same time. Again, I am in that paradox.

Once inside that space of trance, or ecstasy or whatever you call it, I find it very difficult to stay for more than a second or two. When the (master) drummers are truly knowledgeable and aware of my connectedness with their magic rhythms, I may manage to sustain myself (or non-self) in that space for ten or twenty seconds at a time. It becomes an in-and-out thing, a play between the known and the unknown, a dissolving and reassembling of my perception. One remarkable thing is that it is invigorating rather than tiring. The efforts are only necessary to overcome the resistance to letting go. In the space of trance, something takes over and dances me. I feel weightless and my range of movement is extraordinarily amplified, along with my space perception and balance. There is no effort on the other side of the wall, just sheer fire, joy and life!

The fear that I experience pulls me back into the known, my conditioned assemblage, my zone of comfort. It's like a rubber band effect. I have noticed that in certain environments, such as night rituals, out in nature, with many people dancing freely and few people watching, my ability to sustain the trance increases. So choose your environments properly: hide in dark corners where no one sees you, disguise yourself so no one recognizes you, go out of town, be a fool away from home! Trick and stalk yourself to penetrate that wall. Be imaginative beyond reason. Give yourself permission to be outrageous and ridiculous. Believe me, you'll get used to it.

So I just went through that wall: the "writer's wall", similar to the one I have been describing all along. I do not know how to write or what to write. I am terrified to expose my words and thoughts to others for fear of being judged. I bear the scars of my school years. It took me a long time to come to the table and paper. I had all kinds of reasons and excuses and rationale to avoid writing. Once I finally surrendered to it, there too, something bigger than me took over. It was effortless and nourishing. In many ways I do not care if anyone will want to publish it or whether it will be shredded or praised. I surrendered to the impulse, the spirit, and I let it do its task. So, I'm happy, I did my job. I'm fulfilled.

Oh, I almost forgot. Take your shoes off as often as possible; I think it's one of the secrets!

With love,