School of Movement Medicine - Mindfulness in Motion

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Issue: October 2011
Simple gifts

By Mark Boylan

I was driving to teach a movement class and switched the radio on. A song was playing with a tune I was familiar with but with different words. The lyrics of the song – Simple Gifts - seemed to sum up some of the fundamental principles that underlie Movement Medicine

The programme I was listening to was part of series called Soul Songs. In this series a song that is significant or inspirational is chosen, the background to the song is explored and people are interviewed who have a strong soulful connection with it. The familiar tune was that to a modern Christian hymn called ‘Lord of the Dance’.

This was a song that I loved as a child with its image of Christ or god as a dancer continually in motion. Perhaps it planted a seed that grew into a passion for dance that led me to becoming a dance teacher. As much as I had fond memories of this song the repeated reference to the male language of a ‘Lord’ and ‘he’ was something that I felt uncomfortable about. So I was please when recently, Susannah passed on to me a ‘Celtic’ version in which the lord of the dance is a ‘she’ and the celebration of the earth, the sun, moon and stars sits more easily with my current spirituality.

But here I was listening to a different set of lyrics entirely and ones that spoke in a beautiful and poetic way of an inspirational vision for life. On the radio programme they explained that the tune of the Lord of the Dance was actually from an old Shaker spiritual called ‘Simple Gifts’. The Shakers were a radical Christian community that emerged in eighteenth century England a time like today when society was rapidly changing. They challenged the idea that God was exclusively male, women and men jointly led their communities as equals and they pioneered collective ownership and the type of mutuality that is found in workers co-operatives today. Music, song and dance were central to their spiritual practices. They shared with other radical spiritual groups the revolutionary belief that people did not need to have priests or others to be in relationship with God but could directly communicate with spirit.

Here are the lyrics:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free

'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain'd,

To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come 'round right

One of the things I love about dance and movement is that it brings us back to simplicity of who we are and through the dance we can find ‘our place’ in which relationship to others and the world is easy. On the radio they interviewed a present day Shaker elder about the song ‘Simple Gifts’ and its origins The reference to turning around described how the song was to be danced to. But turning around in both the song and associated dance symbolised a profound Shaker belief. We all come into the world, so the Shakers said, with simple gifts, our own unique contribution to make to the world. But sometimes these gifts would get ‘turned around’ the wrong way. Part of the spiritual journey is to turn these gifts the right way round so they and ourselves can come out right.

Anyone who has taken the Phoenix journey with Susannah and Ya’Acov will see the connection with Movement Medicine. We can give ourselves a hard time about the traps we fall into or the loop tapes we play to defend ourselves, what in Movement Medicine are called ‘understudies’. Alternatively we can practice a radical acceptance towards ourselves and by doing so turn our understudies into players who can bring their gifts to the world in wholesome way.

The Shakers reference to bowing and bending does not mean to bow and bend to God or to other people. After all many of them risked their lives when they left England because they did not want submit to unjust political or religious authority. Rather their invitation is to bow and bend to the simplicity of putting our gifts to work, to making our contribution and to labouring for our communities. And the Shakers advise us that the process of coming out right and making our contribution can be delightful.

The Shakers arose at a time when the industrial growth society was first developing. Perhaps, they offer us a clue as to how we can look to turn around the gifts of modern society so they can come out right and to rediscover a simpler life that values work as a soulful expression rather than a commodity to be traded.

When contemplating the Shaker legacy I have wondered about what other wisdom and teachings of our ancestors we are ignorant of or have been turned around or twisted in some way. Each October around Samhain/Halloween for the last seven years I have offered a space to connect with Ancestors in movement. This year I am taking the theme ‘Ancestral Gifts’ and offering an invitation to dance with both those gifts that we recognise and welcome and also those we do not know about or have come to us turned around. Some of these gifts may be part of our personal lineage others may be present in our social and cultural heritage. Perhaps, like the gifts of the Shakers some are hidden, waiting to be rediscovered to offer us wisdom and guidance in these changing times.

Mark Boylan

Mark Boylan is one of three Pathfinders who have been teaching Movement Medicine over the last 18 months and is assisting Susannah and Ya’Acov on the first Movement Medicine teacher training. Ancestral Gifts takes place on 9th October 2011 in West Yorkshire, England. You can contact Mark via

The Soul Songs programme on Simple Gifts can be found at

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The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the School of Movement Medicine. Roland Wilkinson, Nappers Crossing, Staverton, Devon TQ9 6PD, UK Tel & Fax +44 (0)1803 762255 http://www.