Dropping the brains (in 3469 words)

This text depicts my process as a second year student to improve my dancing quality. I decided to address frontally an ever recurring difficulty in my technique. Most of the feedback that I would receive on technical aspects or on my general attitude often dealt with breathing, “taking stress away from my body”, or releasing my “hard body”, to “not let happen the process of understanding only on an intellectual base”, “looking for more looseness in my upper back and breast bone”. And Natalie Gordon: “I feel that your movement is often led by your brain”.[1] For me, little by little it became obvious that this was all turning around one unique question: too much mind control!

The next step in front of me was to temper my mind control when I am dancing. I widened the task to a more accessible (but vaguer) question: How to think less as I am dancing? I entitled the research on that theme “Dropping the Brains” and this is how I referred to it on my diary. The challenge of that research was in fact to achieve to let go of my mind control wilfully. One day just before class Michel Yang made a parody of a situation where someone clenches his fists and groans “I want to let go!” Brick de Bois another day pointed at the implicit contradiction of deliberately wanting not to think: “Do NOT think about a white rabbit!” The challenge is not about changing by an intellectual decision the thoughts that I already have. Instead it is about engaging a process of deeper alteration of the thoughts that obstruct my mind as I am dancing. As it is an experimental process (as opposed to an intellectual process), Stefan Baier told me to consider me as a “laboratory rat” and to conduct various experiments. The intention of this paper is to put words on my personal experimental process through the year.

With the end of this introduction is also the limit of the possible stimuli from an outside source. No external summon to change is advised after this point, lest it might actually provoke opposite effects. (For that reason I appreciate very much the discretion of the teaching team in not reminding me all too often about the stakes). From this point on it is only a matter of my own dedication and perseverance. And my own will.

Intentional inputs

There are only so many ways to intentionally launch the process. The practice of endurance sports is for me a natural entrance door to it. Before I started my dance training in Paris in 2011 I used to run twice a week to train for long distance races. On such occasions I had recorded the memory of cases of extreme exhaustion parallel with extreme concentration that are the features of adept running practice. Unable to carry on this level of intensity due to the fatigue of dance training, I couldn’t really rely on this experiment for my investigation. However I took the opportunity last summer to make another experience of endurance. I went hiking for 15 days in the Pyrénées Moutains in the South of France. I followed a rather technical and demanding route.[2] Walking about 8 hours a day in extreme solitude, away from any outside stimuli, my consciousness was often drawn either on the technical difficulty of the path where sometimes each step had to be measured or on the assessment of where I was (that is: If I wasn’t lost yet). I also deliberately and consciously tried to simply observe my thoughts, noticing the moments of absorption in the walking, the moments of relative stillness and the moments of agitation. Of course the observance itself disrupted the absorption and the stillness and on the other hand nurtured the agitation. I noticed that the use of a motto could help me stay focused. It worked as a pendulum between moments of actual concentration on the walk and moments of distraction where the motto helped me get back in concentration. I used the phrase “L’attention sans tension” and would repeat it in my head whenever I observed my thoughts roaming away. Its simplicity and childish rime make it easy to get me back in focus of the track and the movement of my legs, feet, back, head etc… The main conclusions I could draw from this experience was that I could start becoming consciously observant of my own thoughts and that a tool (the motto) could help me maintain a sustained attention on a given object (the path).

Since I am in Antwerp I have managed to maintain a swimming practice. It was very irregular but some weeks offered me the possibility of going to Wezenberg Olympic pool twice. I am not a great swimmer but crawl is fine. Crawl is especially interesting to me because the breath is highly involved and can actually serve as gauge. If I try too hard to go fast or to adjust constantly my movement organization, I lose my breath. If I think too much about breathing, I lose my breath. If I start competing with the swimmers in the neighboring lines, I lose my breath. On the other hand, the rare times where the pool was less crowded and that the possibilities to compete were fewer, I could really enjoy my swim. At some occasions I could manage to maintain my attention on the sounds in the water or on the sensation of water on my skin. On such occasions my mind was very calm and my train of thoughts was just background noise. Swimming in naturally tempered water in the outside pool of Boekenberg (from 3°C to 18°C according to the season) is mesmerizing. The briskness of the water simply shuts down the train of thoughts. The consciousness goes to the sensation of being here in cold water, feeling the warmth from inside. Unfortunately it is not possible for me to sustain the pleasure for too long lest I really get too cold afterwards.

From the first day back to school on September 2014 I took on a meditation practice every evening right before turning my lights off. I took my first guidelines from a book by Mathieu Ricard L’Art de la Méditation. I followed some of the ways he suggests to start a meditation like the typical variations on the breath observation and counting. To focus on the alignment of the spine or to recite a Bouddhist mantra of compassion from his book were also very efficient ways to temper the train of thoughts. I also found a few other entry points for concentration that were as significant to me. My practice is on a daily basis. However I don’t want to make it a strain on me. Some nights I just don’t feel like it. After a couple of months I noticed that the multiplicity of entry points was confusing me as I would fly from one to the other instead of committing to one. I decided to use dice to decide each evening what would be my entry point. I later abandoned it as I sometimes now prefer to choose it according to my desire and sometimes I am also able to have a more global approach of my consciousness. During my meditation I sometimes suggest myself some images of body organization. They are mostly images of connection between limbs and center. I do not check the duration of my sessions; I just listen to the moment when the level of somnolence brings me to an end.

Being at school is also a nurturing field. My strengthening and technical build up help me find assurance which serves as stable ground to work with. Achieved through pure technique arises a natural ease for many more sorts of movement. At school we are also put in contact with various and complementary understandings of the body. I am very receptive to all information in the fields of my research. I found valuable inputs in Bartenieff classes, I&C and above all Alexander Technique. Our teacher Julie Vander Poorten provided us with reading material that helped me structure a new vision of my body. Reading mostly from Elizabeth Langford Mind and Muscle, I started to elaborate a different intellectual representation of my body. In fact her book helped me understand that “the only way we can consciously improve on the functioning of our automatic or quasi-automatic processes is by removing interference and giving them room and opportunity to function”.[3] The processes she is talking about concern movement and body organization. Once interference is removed “the right thing does itself”.[4] To make sure I grasped it on an intellectual basis helped me trust the direction of my investigation.

I sometimes resort to a writing practice that I call for myself “expense” (which in French can be seen as a neologism combining ex with pensées – thoughts). It is a useful practice to get rid of my preconceived ideas before an event in order that these don’t obstruct the actual experience of the event. To do so I ejaculate down on paper as much as possible without discriminating any thoughts. The mere fact of writing these down externalizes and tempers them. It tempers my desires, my wishes and my biases. I did so before events with high expectations, like before the Dance Marathon workshop for instance. I also launched my logbook for my Ba2 solo with a first entry entitled “getting rid of my solo”. By speaking out my desires for my solo, I could later decide on them reflectively and consciously and not be engulfed by my longing. It was funny though to notice in the end that I stuck to most of my initial ideas.

With the end of the first part any possibilities of will or personal intervention are ceasing as well. What comes after is a description of what “does itself”.

Below control

My attention on myself has heightened. I am better aware of my moods and desires hence I can handle them more peacefully. I have accepted the idea that my mood could change and that it was fine not to be in a perfectly optimistic mood every day. Langford says that “it is not fine when people become so fixed in one of these attitudes that they cannot adopt another”.[5] She explains further that a fixed attitude generates a fixed body. I now try to leave my attitude respondent to daily moods and merely observe them. I am also better aware of my desires and I can hence negotiate with them more easily. Ranging from sexual desires to more global aspirations, I look at them now “only” as desires and I get to also identify myself less and less with them.

My attention has heightened to a point where I can stay focused for a whole class without effort. I recorded on my diary one of Tony Vezich’s class on December the 12th: “WOW. I am focused for 2hrs nonstop. Without any struggle. Without even thinking about it. I feel free in his class.” My ability to perform a phrase with a mind free from obstructing thoughts relied mostly on an overall concentration during classes. It was pointless to try to ‘drop the brains’ only at the moment that I was executing the exercise or phrase. As I am standing on the side, either watching or listening, maintaining a full attention onto the class keeps me from feeding the train of divagating thoughts. Needless to say that it depends on the content of these two hours. I am not yet to the point where my attention can remain on any object for two hours.

I believe that my breathing has improved. I mean that it is now freer. I understood that I had kept a bad habit for too long of breathing in my abdomen which, I had heard long ago, was the most sound way to do. But Langford points that “abdominal breathing is physiologically impossible without restricting ribs freedom”.[6] So my first step was to allow myself to breathe within the full capacity of my ribcage instead of that of my abdomen. Although Langford forbids making breathing exercises because they can only alter the flow of a natural breathing, I took the liberty to purposefully interfere during meditation sessions. Calling it artificial exercises I never suggested myself to make them part of my normal breathing. It was a mere exploration of the possibilities. In her book The Thinking Body Mabel E. Todd asserts that “To develop your kinesthetic sense by placing your body in unusual and unconventional positions and noticing the changes [in the breathing mechanisms] … will lead to a better balancing of your own physical forces.”[7] Without going into poses, I deliberately disrupted the natural flow of my breath by artificially filling the top of lungs, the kidney area or the flanks etc… Sometimes I would alternatively obstruct one and the other nostril, and sometimes even attempt apnea.

My global experience of dancing has changed over the year. Hopefully as a result from my dedication, I can now better temper my mind control when I dance. So what happens really when I manage to “drop the brains” while I am dancing? Maxime Rigobert, one of my teachers in Paris once told me that when he dances he uses “two neurons”. I think I now understand better and that I am able to do so to a certain extent. In my words I would say that I let do. Stemming from “the right thing does itself” by Langford[8] I let myself think that this is also how movement can come to a dancer. It applies very well in Agostina D’Alessandro’s working conditions. Although she only uses the expression “to let go”, the context of her class is a personal experience of improvisation where we can let movement come to us and we can give in to it. As opposed to a formal class, we are not asked to repeat a learned exercise. For that reason her workshops are a highly suitable context for the experience of letting movement come and letting it do itself. It has a limitation though. As the movement we generate receives an aesthetical critique, some pressure arises to abide by the style of “letting go” and eventually dictates that we have to let go. It can be problematic. On the other hand, formal classes provide a structure of watch-copy-repeat that eliminates the task of movement production (and its critique). Tony Vezich’s class could be considered as exact opposite to D’Alessandro’s since he has us repeat the same set of exercises at each class. It eliminates furthermore the issue of memorizing which in other cases would naturally obstruct the mind. His classes are a pure exercise on how we execute. (Here the how matches perfectly with D’Alessandro’s practice). So: how do I execute a phrase when I am dropping the brains? The answer is: the how is unsolved. My wilful intervention consists merely in defining -and refining the what of an exercise. Of course the same vocabulary is used to describe what or how we execute a phrase: for instance you grab, you pull and you roll. It is just a different way to look at it. What I do is meant to help how I do. And I exert no power on how my body organizes itself through movement. Practically I proceed by visualizing the places that I have to pass through. The passage from one to the next is unspecified. If a passage requires more clarity I would add an image in between. The visualized images are themselves quite undefined. I can specify one or the other according to my personal feedback or the teacher’s. With time I need to activate fewer and fewer images. The room left open in my mind is for me to observe attentively what my body does between two images: dance.

About the process

It is necessary to insist on the fact that it is a process. Here is the design that helped me organize my ideas before starting to write this paper. It is both complex and clear. The multiplicity of arrows makes it impossible to describe linearly. Moreover paths are so intertwined that it is impossible to discuss them independently. The multiple bidirectional arrows and the redundancy outline the circular and self-feeding nature of the process. Still there happen to be actually two final ends, namely: “softness” and “to think less as I am dancing”. These two receive many arrows but emit barely any. They are the ends of the circuit. “Softness” came out as a surprise. It describes in fact a movement quality. It is also the entrance door for quality work in dance. So that under the bubble “softness” one could draw an arrow through the paper towards many other qualities: precision, dynamics, ground, lightness, time etc… Actually, “softness” surely is the physical pendant of “to think less as I am dancing”. But I wonder however how I would have proceeded if the process had been “looking for softness”.

It is interesting to notice also the nature of the relationships. The legend of arrows only indicates positive relationships. The process was not about “stopping” or “preventing” anything. It indicates also that it is process of influences based on the long term. Just for the analysis’ sake I attributed a weighting to each arrow in order to quantify term and efficiency: black arrows have coefficient 2, red coefficient 1 and green coefficient 0.5. It brought out that everything happening at intellectual level is linked mostly by slow/neutral influences (black arrows to and from “vision of my body” and “think differently”). There are many red arrows around “acceptance”, “letting GO/DO” and “free my breathing”. It highlights the deep changes that are stake here and that establish below consciousness. At last, the green arrows about immediacy and efficiency are converging towards “practice of states”. Indeed states are a very efficient tool to drop the brains. They pore our attention on one thing and by their bodily nature strongly relate me to my physicality and movement. In order to combine it with softness I like to resort to soft states. Where my mind is soft and my body is free.

Conclusion

There are no arrows emitted from either “softness” or “to think less as I am dancing”. So what comes after? What goes lower in the design? Is it the end of the process? What is the purpose of all this thorough exploration? I believe that the process in itself is never finished. This was only the first page. With time, it will definitely be reshaped and new items might add or others be removed from the overall diagram. I know for sure that I want to persevere in my practice because it has been beneficial to me at other levels: I sleep better, I am less tired, I am less injured etc... And during the year I have noticed that when I was facing a difficulty, I was unprecedentedly serene in absence of an immediate solution. Being lost are actually the most magical moments of a hike in the mountains. I want to point out that writing this paper notably disrupted my practice as it brought in a lot of mental interference and analysis. I guess some time will be necessary to let it sink down again and get back to clearer waters. I am also interested in the questions around how to share this experience. This paper serves as first basis to discuss it but by no means can connect the reader to any practice of “Dropping the brains”. I would like to investigate a transmittable practice of it in the frame of a dance class for instance. I wonder what can concretely be transmitted –if anything, and what strategy to use: states, tasks, words, sounds, movement, manipulation…

I have to conclude that I am very satisfied with the results of this process as part of my second year trajectory at school. I cannot guarantee that anything is a direct consequence of it but I observe some positive effects: my dance technique has improved, I am calmer when confronted to an audience, and I enjoy dancing more. Hoera!

Footnotes

[1] Comments from teachers collected from first year feed-backs.

[2] La Haute Route Pyrénéenne crosses the Pyrénées Mountains from West to East. It circulates through the most central and highest ranges of the chain.

[3] Langford 2008, 63.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 52.

[6] Langford 2008, 65.

[7] Todd 2012, 298. (My translation from French edition)

[8] Langford 2008, 6.

Sources

Ricard, Matthieu. L’Art de la Méditation. Paris : NiL éditions, 2008.

Todd, Mabel Elsworth. Le corps pensant. Bruxelles : Contredanse, 2012.

Langford, Elizabeth. Mind and Muscle. Antwerpen: Garant, 2008.