In the pause, between the in and the out of the breath, I can hardly feel a thing. I search and yet it is so hard to sense. As soon as the ripples of movement stir again, the universe of sensation floods me.
INTENT: Just as more and more studies are conducted about the cognitive effects of various, specific sitting meditation practices, I am curious, what can be learned about human experience from improvisational, mindful moving practice? It is to begin to get a very basic picture of similarities and differences between inhibited/prescribed movement meditation practices (such as Vipassana, Tai Chi, Yoga) and less-inhibited meditative movement practice. Too, what can be learned about social sense-making and understanding tacit information/intuition with greater nuance from these interviews?
Without exception, after moving in mindful improvisation, I feel a greater sense of overall vitality, cognitive acuity, agency, affective regulation, empathy; it differs from inhibited mindful practices and (similar but different) types of ‘mind-wandering’ dancing. How is this experience for others? What is going on here? Evan Thompson writes “A second function of mindfulness is to counteract knowing wrongly. Through attenuating affective bias, we can gradually replace emotionally distorted perceptions, thoughts, and views with undistorted cognitions.” Is mindfulness needed to move towards less distored cognitions? Or, are other similar practices – practices without mindfulness – equally effective? Is there an ultimate “undistored” point? Can this research process shed any light on how we might increase our capacity to discern with greater acuity where we are at any given moment, on the spectrum of “less” distorted to “more” distorted cognition?
I believe this research will also shed some amount of light on such questions as, what can be learned about human relating and sense-making? Francisco Varela notes, “affect or emotion is at the very foundation of what we do every day [in finding our way in] the world…Reason is what occurs at the very last stage of the moment-to-moment emergence… fundamentally something that arises out of the affective tonality…embedded in the body…It starts out from this soup.” This “primordial” or “pre-verbal” quality found in moving together can give us great clues in understanding how we make sense of our world and how it is we mis/understand one another.
It is my intent that this research function as a prototype; that further precision in methodology unfold from what is learned here. That it is towards the goal of being pragmatically useful when collaboratively set in motion with third person perspectives in such fields as Microbiome study, cognitive science, cardiology, neuroscience or more.
Combining these first person interviews with third person scientific study functions to “constrain and modify each other as in a dance…it requires us to leave behind a certain image of how science is done and to question a style of training in science which is part of the very fabric of our cultural identity.” (Varela)
BASIC METHOD: My current research practice consists of a phenomenologically based interview with regularly practicing meditators. The participant is asked to chose a moment from within their own meditation practice and this is what we explore together during the interview. In another session, I lead them in a mindfully based, improvisational movement practice. We conduct additional interviews based on their experiences during this movement practice.
INTERVIEW: Not only is the specificity of movement practice (more on this below) useful in research, but also is the particular style of interview practice. It is a style inspired by neurophenomenologist Francisco Varela, Pierre Vermersch and colleagues. “Experience is suffused with spontaneous pre-understanding…pre-understanding itself must be examined since it is unclear what kind of knowledge it represents….” (Varela)
Rather than asking participants to fill out forms or to tell a story of what they remember, these interviews seek to bring the interviewee back, to re-visit a specific moment, several times – in order to cull out traces of sensation, in order to find what implicit knowledge/intuition exists there. It’s an investigation to learn more about the ‘pre-understanding’ in experience.
MOVEMENT: In each movement session the participants are led in exercises created to awaken awareness of their own subtle sensation. One example of this might be: articulately noticing what it feels like to walk in that particular space, in that moment, and noticing any shifts that occur when in closer proximity to the other people in the room.
After a variety of such exercises the participants go into two separate rounds of improvised movement. Briefly, each round begins in relative stillness (standing, sitting or lying down.) Next, the participants are invited to shut their eyes and to perform a body scan, looking for one-two areas with a sense of dis-ease (if present) and one-two areas with a sense of ease/vitality or neutrality (if present.) They choose to place their hands on these areas or not. They are instructed to observe the ‘pure’ sensation in each of these areas. Should distractions arise, they are asked to let them go and to return to the sensations.
Maintaining this observational mind, they are invited to follow the sensations into larger movement. For, there is already movement occurring even in the relative stillness. It is the micro-movement that they are invited to follow, to simply allow – not force – this micro-movement to change. To understand the kind of allowance I speak of, consider reading this as you allow your hand to tend to an itch on your brow. One’s mental “directing” is softened to allow, while maintaining observation, of movement. After some time the participants are invited to open their eyes. However, at any point, if they are unable to maintain observation of their own sensation, they are asked to take one step back, until they are capable to move forward with the task; they are specifically tasked with not letting their mind wander.
The first round of movement ends while the participants are moving, more or less, in their own space. In the second round of movement, we begin in the same manner. Eventually, as long as their sensation-observation is stabilized, they are instructed to expand their awareness to include all in the space – moving, perhaps, in and out of contact (physical or otherwise) with the other people and/or objects in the space.
ADDITIONAL NOTES: As it is impossible for people to move completely ‘free’ of the cultural context they are in, including that of each of these workshops, I often use the term less-inhibited movement.
While similarities exist, I find this practice is different than movement improvisation possible in “trance dance” or even Authentic Movement, in its call to maintain an observational mind. A comparison might be made here of the difference between sitting with your eyes shut, letting your mind do as it will, versus sitting with eyes shut, while bringing your mind to observe the breath.
Contact Improvisation is interesting in that there is nary an agreed definition of what people are actually doing when they move together. Certainly instances do exist of a direct relation to the practice posed above. Also, many times the movers are engaging in completely different and varied capacities. Too, I do find that, within many CI spaces, very particular ways of moving/moving together permeate the movement vocabulary of the entire space. Primarily for this reason, I make some effort to separate these workshops from CI.
Indeed, there are a myriad of wonderful improvisatory movement practices and dance therapy practices which share great commonality in terms of attention to subtle sensation, creating space for improvised movement, creativity and/or group movement. This is also true of many prescribed mindful movement practices, such as Tai Chi, Qi Gong or Yoga – some of which I also practice regularly. My intent is not to be derisive of any. Rather, to be specific about my own research interests here.
Lastly, as an artist, I find the dance which arises from this practice to be captivating. When it seems that people are able to stabilize and follow their inner experience in movement and expand their awareness to include their environment, it’s at once full of agency and empathy – full of creativity, connection and capacity. The logic, the sense-making and relating-in-movement of this dance is quite something.
Fell length interviews (text)
L – interview 2