The Art and Science of Dancing into Nirvana
We humans have been “dancing with our gods” as long as we have had a conception of the divine. Our moving prayers manifest as lyrical expressions of the Gospels, the Vedas, and the Mahabharata, and they take the form of whirling, shaking, and walking on fire. We dance to summon aid in our plights, to give thanks for our blessings, and some of us—like the Hindus of Kerala, India—dance to actually become gods ourselves. Even as Western society is becoming increasingly secular, and attendance at traditional services has fallen off, a spiritual dance movement known as “ecstatic dance” is gaining momentum on the world stage.
The primary ecstatic dance service for the week is typically about 90 minutes on Sunday mornings (my favorite is “Sweat Your Prayers” in Marin County, California), but in many communities tribal members practice almost every night. Most often, the practice is a solo experience—a moving expression of what one is feeling in the moment—but some tribes involve contact improvisation, a dance form in which the connection between two or more individuals guides the exploration. Contact dance can evolve into an organized multi-person expression of sensing and touching instantaneously—where nothing is planned and yet the dance happens as if the participants have been rehearsing their entire lives. Or it can dissolve into a “puppy pile.”
While ecstatic dance practices vary from tribe to tribe, most participants share the belief that dance has the power to transport us from earthly planes into ethereal realms, and every tribe has its own tale to tell about why that’s so. Most are some variation on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s theme—“We’re not human beings having a spiritual experience but rather spiritual beings having a human experience”—with the coda, “dance just reminds us.” But beyond this colorful-if-vague philosophical quip is a perhaps more radical—and profound—message about dance and reality from the late Gabrielle Roth, the grandmother of the contemporary ecstatic dance movement.
As a teenager, Roth found that that she could easily dance into a timeless trance, experiencing “a tidal wave that knocked the ‘I’ out of me.” The experience was addictive, and she put herself through college teaching movement to teens and elders and people in rehab centers. Then a ski accident prevented her own dancing, and Gestalt psychiatrist Fritz Perls invited her to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, to teach dance to his groups. As it turned out, Esalen became a research laboratory for Roth’s dance. The goal was to find a structure or scaffolding to achieve a transformative state through dance in much the same way that a satisfying play or movie typically has three acts. The result was Roth’s now-famous “Wave” of five rhythms, a transformation in five acts. The Wave began to spread because it works.
Roth’s official tribe, the 5Rhythms community, is now an international group centered in New York that describes itself as “a twenty-first century tribe unbound by history, culture, race, religion, gender, or politics.” Instead, this tribe is “bound by the beat, following our feet on a dancing path to freedom.”
Roth said her dance sequence is a “moving meditation” that “forms a map to your innermost being.” She wrote: “There is a billion miles of unexplored wilderness between the head and feet of any given person . . . and when you go into that wilderness, when you put the psyche in motion, it heals itself.” She taught: “Energy moves in waves. Waves move in patterns. Patterns move in rhythms. A human being is just that: energy, waves, patterns, and rhythms. Nothing more. Nothing less. A dance.” From the perspective of an evolutionary neuroscientist (as well as an avid dancer), my views are surprisingly similar to Roth’s. We are materialized energy beings—and dance is perhaps the best way to radically shift our energy states and even to transform our experience of self. Put another way, if you are depressed or feel stuck in a rut, ecstatic dance can provide an immediate and sometimes profound experience of renewal. Let me briefly explain the neuroscience—from the very beginning.
A Living Wave of Energy
In a cascade of creative energetic manifestation that began some 13.7 billion years ago, the Big Bang birthed atoms; atoms energetically bonded, forming molecules; and molecules energetically merged, creating life. This universal energetic impulse is still manifesting today, in the far reaches of space and deep within each of us.
In every moment, currents of energetic information are coursing through our intelligence systems, resulting in the creation of neural networks that represent our experiences in the world. The most basic of neural representations is a network that, when activated, gives us a specific psychological experience, like the perception of “green” or the feeling of “love.” These coded sensations, perceptions, motivations, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors constantly are being created and then neurally “knitted together” into complex representations of meaningful experiences.
Our “experiential representations” are a pinnacle of evolution. Each one represents a moment in time when our behavior, or the impact of someone or something upon us, shifted our energetic state in some way that contributed to our lives or detracted from it. When we are conscious of these shifts in energetic states, we call them memories. For example, the joy that we felt when our love smiled at us and the pride we felt when we did something well—in the language of our intelligence system—are the emotional signals of an actual or a predicted gain in energy. Likewise, the anger we felt when we were mistreated, and the envy we felt when someone else acquired what we desired, are the emotional readouts of an energetic loss.
Experiential representations are the launching pad between the physical realm of the brain and body and the metaphysical realm of the mind. They are links of the mind/body connection, the fundamental units of our intelligence, the building blocks of our perception of reality, and the scaffolding that creates our sense of self. At our most fundamental, a self can be described as the archives and accounts of our energetic interactions in the world. Why? Because living requires energy—lots of it—and so capturing and using energy well is our intelligence system’s highest priority.
How We Get Stuck
We behave in order to acquire and manage energetic resources, but behavior itself is energetically expensive. In other words, we have to use energy to get more of it. Nature’s solution to this power paradox is a behavioral intelligence system that acts as an energetic cost/benefit analysis and prediction system—a system that “remembers” previous situations and uses these memories to make good guesses about what to do in a novel set of circumstances.
One of the most important functions of experience networks is that they enable our intelligence system to answer the question “Was my behavior worth it?” In other words, did the precious energy I expended actually get me the goods—the food or shelter, the friend or lover—I was seeking? We feel the answer in terms of our emotional state: if the answer is yes, we feel good; if it’s no—or worse, if we incur harm in the process—we feel bad, and this option gets downgraded or eliminated from our repertoire.
While this behavioral-blocking feature keeps us safe, it also energetically constricts us and restricts our future behavioral options, because in addition to blocking the behavior that hurt us, it blocks everything similar to it. For example, as we become more sedentary, we not only become more afraid of movement, but we also cut ourselves off from the memories that hold all the related joys of movement.
The extreme of this behavioral blocking is what we call depression, a state in which positive, motivating feelings are nonexistent. Depression is not a disease; it is an -adaptation, designed to keep us alive when resources are scarce. Here’s what happens: when the energetic tally across the networks representing our recent experiences is low and remains low for too long, a built-in “thrive-o-meter,” located in the basal ganglia of the midbrain, starts shutting us down. This prevents us from squandering more energy on a dead-end path of life.
Depression is life devoid of the motivating principle: pleasure. The antidote is to reconnect with pleasure, and the fastest way to do that is through movement. For a quick example, skip across the room. Better still, grab a friend and go for a wild, leg-swinging walk, like Dorothy did with her friends in The Wizard of Oz. You’ll probably feel things you haven’t experienced in years. For a regular practice, just dance, especially ecstatic dance with the tribe of your choice. And if you’re new to ecstatic dance, find a 5Rhythms class—it’s the ideal inroad to dance as a spiritual practice.
Dancing to Nirvana
Nudging ourselves to consciously dance is one the wisest moves we can make, even if we can move only a small part of our being. When we dance, our movement activates its related network territories, lighting up all of our associated memories, readying them to be changed, to be updated to this new time and place. Of course, any dance is good. The beauty of the Wave of 5Rhythms is that it’s created to take us through a series of different and distinct rhythms that elicit very different kinds of movement and different associations, all on a path to an experience of selflessness. Roth said that her rhythms incorporate cycles of birth, death, and rebirth and that she knew that was true because she experienced the rhythms during the birth of her child. From the standpoint of neuroscience, the experience of rebirth is more than a metaphor.
As we begin to brush up against our edges and feel the restrictions etched into us by old, painful experiences, these neural networks begin to change in response to the present moment, their meaning rewritten in the energy of music, our tribal family’s love, and our internal intent to blossom and flourish. One by one, as we bend and extend, leap and bound, networks representing all of our old injuries—psychic, physical, emotional, spiritual—are reformed in the exquisite wealth of the present moment, freeing up living territory that had been lost to us and claiming new, uncharted territory for exploration. In a matter of moments, our midbrain thrive-o-meter gets the signal that life has suddenly exploded with possibilities, and we feel the rush of released energy—bliss! Larger, freer, joyful, and exploratory, we’re now prepared to enter the ethereal realms in which self is no longer relevant.
My own best-loved inroad to the trance realm is whirling, but other venerated shortcuts to nirvana are shaking and head-turning in time with music. These ancient practices radically alter our intelligence system’s internal processing—our thoughts and feelings and images—which were sustaining our inner reality, and they alter or obliterate our ability to process sensory signals coming into our system from the outside world. Unable to interpret our external or internal network reality (and, as a result, unable to locate an associated self-representation), our intelligence system moves toward a state of nirvana, and we begin moving into anatta, or “no self.” Achieving that experience opens a window for creative change.
Maybe we’re human beings having a spiritual experience, or maybe we’re spiritual beings having a human experience. What I know is that we are energetic beings having an energetic experience in an energetic universe. Let’s dance!
The Rhythms of the Wave
“God is the dance for me,” said Gabrielle Roth. “When I surrender to the dance, I feel myself at my most vulnerable—and most powerful.” Roth’s path to God is expressed in the 5Rhythms created at the Esalen Institute. The language has evolved over the years, but the essential structure remains as follows:
Flowing: fluid, continuous motion
Staccato: short, sharp, percussive stops and starts
Chaos: wild, abandoned, and free—totally surrendered
Lyrical: airy and light
Stillness: the still point of your moving center
To experience the Wave, the most reliable source is to find a group led by a certified teacher of 5Rhythms (see gabrielleroth.com). There are also children and grandchildren of the original 5Rhythms community who provide transformative dance experiences. There are many tribes from which to choose. The key is to find the one that feels right for you.
10 Rules for an Ecstatic Dance/Dinner
These guidelines are adapted from a weekly potluck dance invitation sent to members of the Ashland, Oregon, dance community.
- Come on time. If you must come late, please enter the space quietly and respectfully.
- Know the duration. We will be playing music and dancing for at least two hours before dinner. (Have a snack before arriving.)
- Stay nonverbal. If verbal communication has to take place, please do it outside or wait until dinner. If someone else is talking, please give him or her a friendly, loving, nonverbal reminder to be quiet.
- Check-in. We will have a brief (20 second per person) check-in at the beginning for anyone who desires to express a positive intention/affirmation. Stories may be shared at dinner.
- Listen. Remember to be aware of (and thus play with and explore) the ranges of space, tone, volume, and rhythm in harmony with the collective consciousness of the group.
- By invitation only. If you would like us to include someone else, please contact the hosts.
- “Real” food. It is important that we all bring healthy, good food to share.
- Instruments. Bring instruments to share. Be responsible and respectful of any instruments that you play and the environment as a whole.
- Help with setup/cleanup. Just do it.
- Co-creation. We ask that everyone do his or her part in supporting and remembering these guidelines.
Peggy La Cerra is an evolutionary neuro-scientist and co-author of The Origin of Minds.