School of Movement Medicine - Mindfulness in Motion

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Issue: May 2009
Dance with your backpack on if you have to

leaving, homecoming, initiation and what do you put in your medicine bundle?

By Ellen Head

Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving

It doesn’t matter.

Ours is not a caravan of despair.

Come, even if you have broken your vow a thousand times

Come, come again, come again, come!

Jalal Uddin Rumi

I was enchanted by this lyric when I saw it on a poster on the London Underground in 1990. The image was of a team of white-clad dervishes from Southern Sudan whirling against a dark background. I didn’t make it to the performance but I copied the lyric into my diary, and said it to myself whenever I had to leave something, which was often. Nineteen years later I’ve no idea where that diary is but the poem is in my blood and the meaning has changed as I have got older. Now it says something to me about the strength of a community of practice into which the practitioner can drop back with joy.

I started dancing the rhythms in 1995 with Angela. So many learnings, visceral memories which I think of as a medicine bundle I can open and revisit on days of rainy dark and at a distance of 5000 miles, 14 years. As I’m writing this I’m on a train trundling through urban Japan, views of tower blocks, corrugated tin roofs, broad grey rivers, punctuated by cherry trees, the occasional shrine. My pack is safely stowed in the rack above me.  If I were to chronicle the changes that dancing 5 rhythms catalyzed, I would need a bit more space, but maybe it’s enough to say that I came to Japan a few months after doing the “Cycles” initiation workshop in 1999. If you are reading this, it’s likely that you have your own story to tell of 5 rhythms and catalytic change. I want to ask you a question, what is in your medicine bundle? By this I mean practices, experiences you actively revisit, songs or words as well as actual things such as pictures, books, CDs, aromatherapy oil or whatever. Having lived abroad for almost a quarter of my adult life, I notice this kind of rhythm developing: furious work/ monastic quiet (staccato/chaos/stillness) followed by chaotic travel /deep reflection/celebration/harvest. In the periods when I return to the UK I am conscious of stocking up not just on products that I can’t get in Japan (Bengal spice tea, savlon to put on mosquito bites) but on laughter, love, times of talking very fast, quiet intimacy, and the occasional dance workshop. A few years ago I started this affirmation for my holidays “I stock up on seed corn for my future/ these experiences are seed corn for my future to help me bloom my unique flower”. My image was of an aproned Mexican woman (probably Clarissa Pinkola Estes or her grandmother) wrapping precious seeds in a big white handkerchief, folding it and putting them in her bundle. They hold vitality which needs earth, sun and water and time in order to sprout something nutritious. But actually the kingdom of heaven can sprout very quickly from a mustard seed, and the catalysts can work fast and unpredictably at times. Right now I am celebrating two wonderful catalysts that sent shoots into my life last winter.

One is the presence of a five rhythms teacher, Sahaja, in Japan. Practising with Sahaja by the sea in December was like homecoming to a place I had never been before, reconnecting me with the practice of 5 rhythms and with a new fledgling 5 R community in Japan. Many of the participants were new to this particular way of doing things but they had danced before and I have never been with a tribe more grounded and at home in our bodies. That was partly thanks to Sahaja’s gentle reminder, which became a mantra for me through the weekend:

Who is the teacher?

Your body is the teacher.

Think about your breath.

Sahaja has been based in Amsterdam but is now back in Japan, although she will continue to teach in other venues too. This is wonderful as she is a teacher of exceptional lightness and precision, humour and humility. It is exciting to see a 5 R community developing in Japan against a background of the different movement disciplines that are current here – martial arts, vigorous folk dances that everyone does in the summer, and slow “butoh” classical dance.

The second joyful discovery of my winter was a book called “A Branch from the Lightning Tree” .  Martin Shaw, the writer, is a teacher of wilderness initiation and a well-known storyteller. Reading Shaw’s work, I started to understand myself better, in the sense of “what am I doing living between two countries?” The second, more important (and not yet finished) learning for me is about the nature of initiation. At the time I did “Cycles”, I left the workshop right before the overnight vigil “meeting death as a teacher”. I was too near the edge in my life at that time and I just didn’t need another trial. And what was this kind of no-sleep thing anyway – we’d all get spaced out and I’d probably freak out, and then if I survived I’d feel euphoric. Big deal. I could do sleepless nights on my own, I often did. Martin Shaw’s book has given me a new perspective of initiation as, not meretricious and spacey, but grounded, grounding and life-affirming. He talks about how three days of fasting alert the body to the possibility of death, three days in nature and nature starts to enter our dreams. It comes to mind how after three or four days of dancing for 5 hours a day, my body feels warmer, dream images become vivid, my voice gets deeper and what I say actually seems to come from somewhere else, less chatter, more of the wise crone I aspire to be. There is wildness inside as well as outside.

“It is in silence, reflection, that we get access to a much wider perspective, the little I of I require this to feel valued become the big I of I am connected, I can help.” (Branch from the Lightning tree chapter 5)

Shaw talks about the “bespoke” life: we have to create our own custom-made lives rather than accepting what society has decreed, and we also have a responsibility to articulate wild experience in language and feed messages back to “society”. Wilderness initiation is designed to help us see that the planet vitally needs our help, and also give us the strength to move forward:

“It is in the quieter moments that we locate vision, if we are only used to our own impatient tempo then we can ride roughshod over many messages coming to us from the brush…clearly, accessing dramatically different parts of our consciousness than that which many of us are used to…often a focused gaze on small things that reveal what could emerge as a great force in our life.” (Chapter 5)

Shaw emphasizes the time needed and sometimes difficulty of integrating what has changed. Sometimes we might need the formality of a ritual and the authority of a guide, which could be in the form of a person or  a practice, and which will ultimately become part of ourselves.

“All over the world, the physicality of initiation requires change in dress, ritualized steps back to the centre ground, external language that illustrate inner change. If all you get these days is being dropped straight back into an uncomprehending sea of greyness than you are…without the vessel of ritual as container.” (Chapter 3)

I completed Cycles in my own way by walking from Totnes to Buckfastleigh alone, and not so long after I left England, alone. I had learned and processed so much during that time.  It was of great benefit, but it was a hard landing, and I now see that I had to make it hard. Later I danced again with Susannah and she greeted me by name, “You could have joined us again”. Now nearly 10 years later, I have a bit more stability which might allow me to use my experience of edginess as a strength. Having ventured so far from “home” I might be able to venture out a bit further into the wild as well. At least now I see why I might want to. Whether I’ll keep my backpack on is an open question.


With thanks to my teachers, Susannah, Jakov, Angela, Alain, Adam, Sahaja.

Ellen Head

Sahaja's website
And Martin Shaw's

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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.