The last performance I gave as a solo dancer/choreographer was in 2008. Leading up to it, I didn’t know it would be my last though there was a growing sense that I was just about there. It was a shared evening and I had 20 minutes to present the work I co-created with Mollie O’Brien (excerpt here). I remember being in the balcony of Judson Church waiting to go on. Through my career the growing anxiety of that pre-performance moment had reached a level that was just about unbearable. That same night, a fellow artist and friend was working on a project where he would photograph the performer’s face just before he/she went onstage and immediately afterward. It would be shown as an exhibit at a later date. This was the night he would take my picture. While I did love performing the piece that night, the love of it no longer balanced out the pre-performance stress I felt. It was then that I said to myself, “this just isn’t worth it anymore.” The before and after photograph was hard to look at later. All I could see was stress in my eyes on either end. Rather it was all I could feel, followed by a deep shame and sadness about having the feeling. Others probably couldn’t see it at all that night. Regrettably, there was so much more dancing/choreographing that could have been done. Yes, I had two babies at home at the time and life was more complicated, but I was just reaching a greater level of maturity in my dancing. I cut my career short because of the pressure I felt. To top off this night, there was a performance artist in the audience who I did not know. After the performance was over she went onto the dance floor and pressed a button on a recording device she had strapped onto her chest. The device had recorded bits of sound from everyone’s piece and she re-enacted her interpretation of each person’s work. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling at the time, but it clearly had a negative vibration. I didn’t know if she was commenting on the pieces, criticizing, or what her intention was. People were just milling about as she did her uninvited, improvisational rendition. Artistically, it was an interesting “happening,” but now I can say it felt disrespectful to have someone mimicking the work I just so vulnerably put out there.
I thought this experience was behind me, the experience of being overtaken by pressure (internal and/or external) and the need to live up to my or other’s expectations. But of course, the things that challenge us stay with us (or return) until we have learned what is needed to be learned. I am still learning (thankfully).
What do we do with this pressure we feel in life? We don’t need to be performers to feel it. Why is it so hard to relax or be at ease with who we are, what we do, what we give? The pervasive sense that I am not enough, should be doing something more, or something other than what I am, lingers like cheap perfume. This pressure seems to be part our current human condition. The speed at which we live in modern day society most likely exacerbates it. It creates a nagging, incessant fear that we are missing something, forgetting something, should be “more,” whatever “more” may be. I am guessing this is what was felt at the time of the Industrial Revolution.
I keep taking the plunge to intimately be with the fear that underlies these feelings of anxiety, pressure, a sense of unworthiness, or the inability to relax. It comes in different forms depending on the day. What arises in my investigation is fear of being judged, criticized, evaluated. The feelings I had in my dancing days returned again recently when one of my meditations was published on a popular meditation app and suddenly it was getting reviewed with comments and stars. Opinions given in the form of criticism, ratings, reviews dominate, suffocate, snuff the life out of creativity. Of course they do. Must we have thick skin to survive? Must we harden ourselves to not feel the impact of other’s approval and disapproval? And, if we do, how does this armor impact our creativity, our spirit? We are of the nature to look for approval. We do it as children and we do it as adults. We want to feel loved and appreciated. We want to be wanted. We want to feel permission from another to be who we are. It’s as if we can’t get away from it from childhood to old age.
Maybe we aren’t meant to get away from it. Maybe instead we are meant to embrace this need and let it soften us. Maybe we can feel it so painfully that finally we understand why we would want to move away from judging ourselves and others. We can be humbled by it. Maybe the change actually happens then. We can choose to feel the fear behind our needs, our criticisms, and judgement and tend to it as a friend. We can learn what it truly means to love. These experiences have been my teachers. My opinions and judgements have nothing to do with your work, your art, your beauty, your worth, or mine. Of course they don’t! They are shaped by countless things I can’t even name. Things I don’t even know because they were passed on from generations before me, from my society and culture, from my experiences. They are simply perceptions that are ever changing, shifting, being shaped like clay. They are not the truth. They are not love. Wouldn’t I rather spend my energy bringing more of my authentic self out, inspiring others, caring for others, and enjoying all of it, rather than evaluating, comparing, judging? Wouldn’t I rather be free?
When I try on this imagined, free self, what I feel is relief, spaciousness, a letting go of what holds me down. I feel joyful and open. This is where the work lies. The place to start is simple. When we recognize that our judging and comparing mind is present and get enough distance to name it, we are on the path to freedom. By stepping back and seeing the perception for what it is and not believe the voice inside that thinks she “knows” what is true, we are not ruled by it. To notice our attachment to our perceptions and to let go is to have Right View (and therefore move towards Right Speech, Right Action, Right Mindfulness, etc.). For me, all I need to do is imagine myself getting rated with stars, getting comments from strangers who don’t even know me, having assumptions made of me or what I do...if I remember what this feels like...that’s all I need to stop myself in the act and to choose to be kind, generous, and curious instead. What a different person that is...the curious vs the critical.
I don’t want to be armored or have thick skin. Do you? How about we hold a staff meeting? You can do this with me. It is time to say thank you. Thank you to my custom built, self-tailored armor for your years of generous service. I gratefully bow to you for protecting me when I needed it. You have been a bodyguard like no other. And now, you have my blessing to retire. You can rest your well-worn metal and take an extended vacation. I assure you that I will be just fine. I know you need to hear some kind of action plan before you go. My plan is... “right here.” I have the present moment now. The present moment is my protection and she is always there. Whenever I am fearful, I can return to her. I trust in that. In the present moment, more often than not, everything is okay. I can return to my breath and to being right here and know that all things change. This is enough now. I promise I will be fine. You can go...thank you.