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From the Beginning
Our need to pray is as ancient and central to life as our breath. Because we are created in the image of the Divine, what we do with our bodies can be a sacred action resulting in direct communion with Spirit. Prayers are channels of communication and take many forms. Humans have long been fascinated by the struggle to balance the matter of manifest reality with the energy of spirit, and to find forms which celebrate the fruits of this union. Our moving bodies provide a structure whereby spiritual expression is shaped. Moved in relationship to transcendent power, the body is the sacred vessel through which we experience this power directly. The creativity of our bodies mirrors divine creativity. By using this creativity to pray, we collaborate more deeply with that in ourselves which is divine while we direct our energy into the world, revealing our true selves.
Our ancestors knew that life is movement, uniting all beings with the possibility of interactive transformation. (Stewart 2000, 8) Peoples of ancient traditions worldwide were attuned to and influenced by their surroundings. They replicated the rhythmic movements of the earth, moon, sun and stars, as well as the cycles of plant and animal life, to commune with the blessings of their environment through dance, an organic way to tune in to the essence of the cosmos. The gods dance the cosmos alive in many cultures’ creation stories. (Wosien 1974,8.) Movement, dance, voice, and breathing techniques were integral components of early ritual, along with theatre, music and the visual arts. There are images of humans dancing from the first mists of human culture. A 29,000 year old Tanzanian cliff painting, 12,000-year-old Paleolithic European cave paintings and 8000-year-old Algerian rock paintings are some examples of what is accepted to be ritual dance. (Tedlock 2006, 38, Stewart, 6, Stewart, 22)
The human body inscribes a sacred geometry in space. Our bodies teach us of the circle, the star, the cross, the sphere, and the intersecting planes of the cube. They allow us to perceive our world from multiple perspectives. Our moving bodies are hieroglyphs shaping a language far more complex than words. Bodies do not lie, words can.
Unfortunately the body became discounted, even maligned in European and North American culture. Though we have been cut off from our ancestral legacy, today there is a growing hunger to explore our relationship to our bodies. This is expressed through the popularity of the body oriented and movement healing arts, as well as the sacred movement disciplines of many cultures including yoga, and Chi Qung. Along with the resurgence of sacred movement and dance traditions, there is an increasing interest in finding uniquely western forms, and new movement explorations are rising in contemporary spiritual contexts. In 2005, 600 people came to Vancouver’s Christ Church Anglican Cathedral for a Cosmic Mass, an event that uses music and dance to celebrate the divine. Community movement rituals, walking the labyrinth, forms of ecstatic dance such as Gabrielle Roth’s 5 Rhythms, and inwardly focused practices such as Authentic Movement, draw people of all ages who express gratitude for the opportunity to pray with the blessing of their bodies. Recently several articles have appeared in this journal describing the value of embodied forms of meditation and prayer.
From the core of our being, prayer is a call to be brought into harmony with the divine. Driven by the pressures of modern living, many have lost connection with their sense of self, their community and the earth. Embodied prayer assists us to listen to the prayers moving in and through our bodies. We consciously unify body, mind and spirit by using guided visualization, structured movement improvisation, breath and sound in sacred space. By dancing our prayers, we directly experience the dynamic relationship between density of matter, and spaciousness of energy, between darkness and light.
A dance-movement and drama therapist before becoming a spiritual director, I deeply trust the healing power of the body’s creative wisdom. While working in a psychiatric hospital in Berkeley, California, I had the opportunity to expand my responsibilities beyond therapy into spirituality when invited to collaborate with a chaplain. Betsy Hand and I developed a group called “Movement, Meditation and Prayer” for the acute psychiatric adult unit. This group, meeting once a week, quickly became the focus of the week for many patients. Each session we chose a theme, set up a simple altar in the center of a circle of chairs, offered readings and structured movement practices to sacred music. We closed with sharing and a time of silence. The effects of this group were amazing. Patients who were delusional, agitated, hyperactive, internally pre-occupied or passively immobile would engage in this group with markedly decreased symptoms. Often we would sit together after the group’s close, held in gentle embrace by a palpable presence.
Inspired by that work, I began to offer such groups on my own to the wider community, first in Berkeley, then in Vancouver. Whether in Christ Church’s hall, an inner city meditation space or a dance studio, these groups all invoked a felt sense of loving embrace. I call this work “Moving Prayer” and it has been my privilege to witness my students and clients savor the joy, peace, and inter-relatedness that arise.
Last April I had the great honor of leading a workshop in Moving Prayer called “Weaving Webs of Light” at the 2007 Spiritual Directors International Conference, “Coming Home to the Cosmos” held near Vancouver, BC. While planning the workshop, I recognized that its title was misleading as it places emphasis on the word ‘light’, overlooking the presence of the body’s substance. Our bodies, like all material reality, are a complex inter-weaving of light and dark, both symbolically and physically. Our entire identities, including our thoughts, feelings, memories and imaginations are embedded in our tissues. Darkness results physically from the absence of light, which cannot penetrate that which is solid. A “Web of Light” is only revealed to our vision by the contrast of light with darkness, both states on a continuum of planes of existence. I had caught myself in my own disconnection from true incarnation, which affirms the sacredness of both.
Our culture and many spiritual traditions perpetuate this duality, seen as light opposing dark. Suffering and evil are often equated with darkness, the shadow and the body. Light equals what is good, healing and holy. Consciousness, considered to be beneficial, is also thought to carry the light. The unconscious is often feared as uncontrollably hidden in the unreachable depths of our being. This split is a part of the core schism that underlies human cruelty. We cannot be truly at peace as long as we deny and abuse our bodies, and reject the beauty of the dark. Alexandra Kovats, the 2007 conference’s spiritual director, also counseled us to be aware of projecting negativity onto the dark.
Understanding our home in the cosmos as a dynamic relationship of matter and light was at the heart of Brian Swimme’s brilliant keynote lectures at the conference. Both are necessities to the creative evolution and transformation of being. Deep engagement with our bodies allows us to move past a dualistic view of reality. Our bodies are the living ecosystems we have the opportunity to know most intimately. Yet, many of us relate to these vessels with the same inattention and abuse we inflict on the rest of the natural world. By ignoring our bodies, we forget who we are, where we are, and why we are. In this time, integrating our consciousness with our bodies is a matter of survival. So many of us are traumatized and trauma accentuates the separation between body and spirit. Healing the trauma, mending this rift, is fundamental to the healing of the earth.
My workshop should more properly have been titled “Weaving Webs of Darkness and Light”. Our physical existence is abundant with metaphors referring to this dance. We are embodied Spirit, matter infused with light. I began to understand that every event which involves sacred movement allows participants to explore how this infusion activates and interacts with the unique structures of our bodies by stimulating the creativity of matter, as Brain Swimme’s taught, to activate healing, balance, harmony and transformation.
Our breath begins
Our hearts respond
Our bodies ignite
To dance the cosmos alive.
My workshop took place after a long day filled with Brian Swimme’s talk, Betsy Beckman’s body prayer, Alexandra Kovat’s spiritual direction and an afternoon of workshops.
We gathered in a circle. I welcomed the group, introduced myself, the workshop’s theme, and gave safety guidelines. I then encouraged each participant to reflect a moment on the quality of light, dark, color, or shade of grey they were bringing to the circle. They introduced themselves, sharing their reflections.
After lighting a central candle, I gave honor to the land and invited everyone to silently invoke the deity or spirit they wished to join the circle. Encouraging each to focus on the central flame, I led a breath-oriented meditation to locate the flame within and breathe this energy through the entire body. Breath is a source of connection with spirit. We inspire, consciously or unconsciously, bringing the heavens into our bodies. Physiologically this gifts us with the oxygen necessary for life, and eliminates unnecessary wastes. The process unites our entire body in rhythmic pulsing deep into the cellular and molecular level, and joins us with the wave like pulsing of all being. The quality of our breathing also has a fundamental relationship with and expression through our emotional states.
The opening led to a series of directions to help participants ground, connecting their bodies to the earth, by bringing attention to their feet and legs. Then, accompanied by rhythmic drumming music, they were encouraged to follow my suggestions to stretch and shake in order to loosen their bodies, allowing their bodies to move as they wished. “Do what you need to. Do what feels good,” was my primary direction. We all travelled around the room, each person listening to their bodies and letting arms, legs, necks, backs, feet and hands dance with increasing freedom. Arms reached, heads bounced as necks turned, legs swayed, and feet guided us through the space. Sounds of voice and breath became audible as laughter began to bubble forth.
I invited the group to explore polarities of physical and emotional experience. This process was improvisational, with less external direction, supporting each person to find and trust his or her inner impulses. Accompanied by lively music, I encouraged them to explore a range of physical opposites from large to small, wide to narrow, stiff to floppy, light to heavy, and fast to slow. Trying on different body shapes helps to learn that all parts of our bodies are not functions of static dualities but a continuum of shifting polarities in a constantly moving balance.
The body is the vessel of the imagination, the medium of our creativity, and source of fun. When we dissociate from our bodies, our imagination becomes fantasy at best, obsession at worst. Given this structure, group members improvised their own discoveries of what these physical states might be. I introduced metaphors such as: ‘tall as Mount Everest’, or ‘floppy as over – cooked spaghetti’, inviting them to offer images to match their discoveries. As they began to experience themselves in new ways they connected with the newness of the other bodies. This process allows us to play with the dynamic inter-relationship of our structure. The group members began to interact, sharing themselves unselfconsciously. Inherent in all existence these physical opposites have their co-relates on the psycho-emotional and spiritual levels. We entered another level of ourselves and began to share the complexity of our natures. Simple physical actions have huge ramifications as they resonate through our psyches, and flow into the world. We had moved into a process of sacred improvisation, letting ourselves be spontaneously inspired by our bodies’ irrepressible vitality.
Imaginations were now fully engaged. I knew we were ready to draw in the light from heaven and earth, to illuminate our bodies like stained glass sculptures. We began in place, focusing on our breath, feeling the flow of sensations and movements. Accompanied by lyrical melodies, participants began to move their arms and spines in curving shapes. While moving individually, exploring images of light and color, I suggested they notice what needed opening, cleansing, enlivening and balancing in their beings. They chose a partner and mirrored each other’s dance. Inspired by the images of light and matter, density and transparency, they gained a felt sense of how these qualities affected their relationship to themselves as well as their partners.
As the group’s members gained awareness and trust of their bodies, their connection to each other became strong enough to introduce a witnessing practice. Though this practice is a central part of enriching personal and spiritual growth, it is a process that must be introduced with great care. Many have a longing to be seen, matched often by a fear of being seen. The witnessing we received as we grew shaped us. To be truly witnessed is to be held with compassionate positive regard. All too often, deprived of such nurturance by our early human caregivers, we learned ways to hide and protect ourselves to survive. The resultant wounds manifest in our bodies, our personalities and our actions. They also affect our relationship to the divine, the ultimate loving witness.
To witness another as they express their souls through the movement of their bodies is transformative. The one who is witnessed can begin to hold themselves with a compassionate presence, strengthening their felt sense of the divine within. The two are forever changed.
I invited participants to change partners and to choose who would first witness. Encouraged to focus again on the light within, this dance was to explore what they wished to illuminate and transform in themselves and their lives. The music began and each mover expressed their desire through their bodies. Movers and witnesses switched and repeated the practice. No words were required. The bodies’ movements were sufficient as speaking can often decrease felt embodied presence. The dyads were then encouraged to dance with other groups, and weave the gifts of their bodies’ creativity into a larger web. Eventually, the group came into one circle, sharing the gestures, sounds, movements and rhythms emerging from the hearts of each, magnified by the loving energy of the whole.
Together we created a ritual vessel and wove an imaginal prayer web from the group’s energy. Our images, movements and words created a multi-colored, intricately patterned, multi-dimensional fabric, shaped by the unique gifts of this community of people. Now we were ready to share this blessing with the rest of the world. Participants named people and places in need. We danced with passionate commitment, empowered by spirit, knowing we were not alone. Finally we gathered to collectively lift the web of prayer from the earth to the heavens and release it from our home on earth to the whole cosmos. Once released, we bathed our bodies in the numinous energy that now filled the room. Grounded in our bodies, we crossed the threshold to the imaginal realms, feeling the presence of other dimensions dancing with us.
After a few moments of quiet, each participant was invited to share a word, sound, image or gesture that expressed their experience of themselves. We closed by clasping our hands to our hearts, gazing around the circle, savoring the felt sense of our place within the web of being.
I blew out the candle, bringing this ritual celebration to a close.
In awe of the mystery of incarnation, we prayed with our full bodies. Dancing every atom, we activated the energy flow through our entire physical, psychological and spiritual structures. We collaborated to co-create, participating in the allurement of the great One, the source of all being, by moving together with compassion, empathy and trust.
It is through our bodies that we know the heights of ecstasy and the anguish of abject despair. It is through our bodies that we manifest Spirit, learning that the wisdom of Spirit embedded in matter is love. The love is expressed through each sound, gesture, touch, turn, and embrace. Body to body, we are shaped. Body in body we are nourished, guided, directed. Sharing our bodies inspires full communion with the divine, honoring the brilliance of our most exalted nature together with our deepest shadows.
We dance our prayers and come into union with all bodies, in our home, on this earth. Without this connection, part of us will always feel isolated, cut off, cast out. Part of us will never feel whole.
Our lives are embedded within the web of existence and the rhythms of the universe. We are challenged to center ourselves around the love which flows through the sacred vessels of our bodies, bringing compassion and hope to rest of our community. In spite of the atmosphere of urgency and crisis that increasingly affects our lives, dancing our prayers transforms the challenges into possibilities of healing, harmony, balance and peace.
There is a wealth of poetry and written descriptions describing the blessing of the body and dance from religions worldwide.
* Judaic psalmists urge their peoples to dance in honor of God.
Let them praise his name with dancing, (Ps. 149: 3)
Praise him with tambourine and dance (Ps. 150: 4)
- An extraordinary example of dance and prayer is found in “The Hymn of Jesus” from the apocryphal Acts of John, a second century collection of narratives, which are thought to preserve early oral traditions. The hymn is meant to relate the words and actions of Jesus the night before his death. The structure described is one of a circle dance and there are many references to dancing, two of which I excerpt.
He bade us therefore make as it were a ring,
holding one another’s hands,
and himself standing in the midst he said:
Answer Amen unto me.
He began, then, to sing an hymn and to say:
Glory be to thee, Father.
And we, going about in a ring, answered him:
Now answer thou unto my dancing.
Behold thyself in me who speak,
and seeing what I do,
keep silence about my mysteries.
Thou that dancest, perceive what I do,
for thine is this passion of the manhood, which I am
about to suffer.
(http://www.gnosis.org/library/grsmead/grsm_hymnofjesus.htm#hymn, XCIV, XCVI)
* 13th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart speaks eloquently about immanence.
Apprehend God in all things,
for God is in all things.
Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God.
Every creature is a word of God.
If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature –
Even a caterpillar –
I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God
is every creature.
(Fox 1983, 14)
*Lalla, a 14th century north Indian Hindu mystic speaks:
Everything is new now for me.
My mind is new, the moon, the sun.
The whole world looks rinsed with water,
washed in the rain of I am That.
Lalla leaps and dances inside the energy
that creates and sustains the universe.
(Lalla 1992, 54)
* In the 16th century, Saint John of the Cross celebrates the body’s union with spirit.
To Those Songs
Your body is a divine stream,
as is your spirit.
When your two great rivers merge, one voice is found
and the earth applauds
Shrines are erected to those songs
the hand and heart have sung
as they served
With a love, a love
Fox, Matthew. Meditations with Meister Eckhart. Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Company, 1983.
Ladinsky, Daniel. Love Poems from God. New York: Penguin Compass, 2002.
Lalla. Naked Song. Translated by Coleman Barks. Athens, Georgia: Maypop Books, 1992.
Stewart, Iris. Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2000.
Tedlock, Barbara. The Woman in the Shaman’s Body. New York: Bantam Books, 2006.
Wosien, Maria-Gabrielle. Sacred Dance. New York: Avon, 1974.
For Further Reading:
Adler, Janet. Arching Backward. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1995.
Friedman, Lenore and Moon, Susan, (Eds.). Being Bodies. Boston: Shambala, 1997.
Patrizia Pallaro, Patrizia, (Ed.). Authentic Movement: Moving the Body, Moving the Self, Being Move. London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007.
Schroeder, Celeste Snowber. Embodied Prayer. Liguori, Missouri: Triumph Books, 1994.
Winton-Henry and Porter, Phil. What the Body Wants. Kelowna, British Columbia: Northstone Publishing, 2004.