148 – The Dance of Life

I love thinking about life as a great song, with high notes and low notes and quiet pauses in between each note. I like to think of my relationship to this song as the dance of life. In this episode, I will share my thoughts about going through life as if it were a dance instead of a fight.

Transcript:

Welcome to another episode of The Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 148. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today, I’m going to talk about the dance of life. Like always, keep in mind, you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learned to be a better whatever you already are. If you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism, check out my book, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners on Amazon, or start with the first five episodes of this podcast. You can get to those first five episodes easily by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the start here link. If you’re looking for a community to practice with or to interact with, consider becoming a patron and visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking the link to join our community.

I’ll start out this podcast episode with a quote from Maya Angelou. She says, “Everything in the universe has rhythm. Everything dances.” I’ve been thinking a lot about dance this week, perhaps first and foremost, because dance is a very integral part of my life. My wife owns a dance studio. My kids all dance in dance classes. This week we’re preparing for dance competitions. Perhaps, some of you may know this, some of you may not, but dance was a very important part of my life in college. I was a ballroom dancer, a competitive ballroom dancer, and I competed with a team and we competed worldwide competitions in the UK. I’ve traveled all throughout Europe and all throughout Australia doing tours with ballroom dance. So that’s a very fun stage and part of my life and I want to tie this into a couple of Buddhist concepts with this podcast episode.

Now, you need to know, I know some of you may be listening to this thinking, “I am terrified to go out and dance. I have two left feet,” or, “I would never want to be out on the dance floor.” That’s exactly how I was growing up. I was always afraid to go out and dance. In high school, specifically, I was definitely afraid to go out onto the dance floor. But I think more accurately, it’s that I was afraid to look like a fool who doesn’t know what he’s doing. I think I was afraid to look like a fool because that went against the story that I had of myself, which is the story is that I am someone who does know what they’re doing. Ballroom changed all that. Later in life, in college, when I first moved to Utah, the very first night actually that I arrived in Utah, I went to an elementary school ballroom presentation.

The family that I had moved in with, their daughter was doing a dance in ballroom. I saw a doing a dance and I was mesmerized. First and foremost, it’s really cool looking. But second I remember thinking, “Where can I meet the kind of girls that do this kind of dance?” I was just entering college. I wanted to meet people and I was mesmerized by this, and at the same time, quite intimidated because, again, I’ve always been afraid to dance. So I signed up for ballroom classes in college and that’s pretty much it. That was the start of a new phase. All throughout college, I danced and I ended up eventually being on scholarship for dancing and being able to tour the world thanks to ballroom dance.

So ballroom is a fun part of my past, a fun part of my memory. Here’s the secret. I’m going to let you in on the secret with ballroom. In ballroom dance, you memorize the steps. So for me to memorize the steps, once I had a pretty wide or pretty vast catalog of steps that I could do, then you just choreograph a dance routine based on the steps that you know. So pretty quickly I was able to work my way up to the point where I was dancing competitively, but I was never out there having to rely on my creativity to come up with dance moves. These were choreographed routines, whether it was just with my partner competing or as a team doing synchronized choreographed dance steps.

So I think that’s why I enjoyed it so much because I didn’t have to look like I didn’t know what I was doing. All I had to do is memorize all these routines and all these dance steps, and then I would look like I really knew what I was doing. So that’s my experience with dance in college. That’s actually how I met my wife was through our circles of friends throughout the ballroom dance stage of my life. Okay. So enough of that. When I think about life, I think about dance and music, because it seems that many of us go through life thinking that happiness, or contentment perhaps is a better word, is something that we’re always going to achieve tomorrow, not today. It’s always the possibility that it’s something I will experience tomorrow or at some future date.

But as we all know, tomorrow never comes. We spend our whole lives waiting for life to start. Unfortunately, we’ve been conditioned to search for happiness or for contentment as if it was something that’s out there somewhere else. It’s not here and it’s certainly not now. It’s something that we’ve been conditioned in a way that we no longer recognize the relationship that contentment has to the here and now. The contentment and joy that we seek, it’s quite frankly, hidden in plain sight often right in front of our noses. This is why the core teachings of Buddhism and mindfulness practice focus so heavily on getting us to experience this present moment, to observe things just as they are right here and right now.

What did it take for this moment to arise? It’s the question that I bring up often, and when I fully ponder that question, gratitude generally followed by contentment is what arises naturally. It’s not a fake pretend to be grateful type feeling. For me often, that question, what did it take for this moment to arise, with introspection almost generates one of those holy cow moments where you realize everything that it took for this moment to arise, those feelings for me are pretty genuine and pretty real. Contentment is something that’s been with us all along, hiding under the conditioning that it exists somewhere else or at a different time, when in reality, it’s here and it’s now.

There’s a powerful snippet of audio that I want to share with you that comes from Alan Watts. Many of you may be familiar with his work. He’s one of my favorites. It’s about life and it’s about music. In a nutshell, it’s about understanding that we don’t simply listen to music just to hear that last note. We don’t sit and eat a meal just so we can enjoy the very last bite. We don’t read a book just so that we can finally read the last page. Certainly, we don’t watch movies just because of the closing scene. It’s always been about the whole process.

It’s about the ups and the downs, the challenges and the triumphs, the pleasant and the unpleasant, because it’s the whole song that matters, the high notes, the low notes, and even those silent pauses in between each note and our relationship to that song is what I like to think of as our dance or the dance of life. So let me share this little audio snippet with you. This is from Alan Watts. It’s only a couple of minutes long.

In music, though, one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest. And there would be composers who only wrote finales. People would go to a concert just to hear one crackling chord, because that’s the end. Same way with dancing. You don’t aim at a particular spot in the room, that’s where you should arrive. The whole point of the dancing is the dance.

Now, but we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our conduct. We’ve got a system of schooling which gives a completely different impression. It’s all graded and what we do is put the child into the corridor of this grade system with a kind of, “Come on kitty, kitty, kitty.” You go to kindergarten and that’s a great thing because when you finish that you get into first grade. Then, come on, first grade leads to second grade and so on and then you get out of grade school and you go to high school. It’s revving up, the thing is coming, then you’re going to go to college.

By [inaudible 00:09:29], you get into graduate school. And when you’re through with graduate school, you go out to join the world. Then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance and they’ve got that quota to make and you’re going to make that. All the time, that thing is coming, it’s coming, it’s coming, that great thing, the success you’re working for.

Then you wake up one day about 40 years old and you say, “My God, I’ve arrived. I’m there,” and you don’t feel very different from what you’ve always felt. It’s a slight letdown because you feel you’ve been hoaxed, and there was a hoax, a dreadful hoax. They made you miss everything. We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which has a serious purpose at the end, and the thing was to get to that end, success or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.

So I hope that audio clip inspires you the way that it inspires me when I listen to it. I feel like a lot of times we are raised with the mentality of fighting. It’s almost like here you are, you’re alive and you’re just struggling, wrestling with life. There’s almost a tone of aggression that comes with it. I see this come out from time to time in anything that we do, whether it’s the aggression I feel towards overcoming the ego or the aggression I feel towards being successful in life. There’s almost an aggression, a fight as you will. I think a lot of this is conditioned. It’s a societal thing.

I see this all the time, the mindset of a struggle or a fight when I’m teaching people new skills, specifically with paragliding. The very first step you take when you’re going to learn to fly is how to control the wing. The wing is a giant piece of fabric that you can imagine a kite. If you were to take a kite in the park, if you let the wind take that kite and the string holds the kite up in the air, it just flies on its own. Well, a paraglider is a very intricate kite. It’s attached to all these strings that are attached to you, and when the wind inflates that wing over your head, you learn to control it, how to keep it directly over your head, rather than flailing off to the left or to the right.

But when people are first learning to handle one of these paraglider wings, you watch and what you see is a struggle, you see the fight. I have to talk to my students quite regularly as they’re learning this process, to remind them to stop fighting. You’re not fighting this thing. The reason is because a fight against the wing and the wind is a fight you’ll never win. You can’t. The wind is infinitely stronger than we are, and you just can’t win that fight. So I always tell them, “You’re not learning to wrestle with the wing or to fight the wing. What you’re learning to do is dance with the wing.”

The wing wants to fly in the wind and when you develop the little intricacies of lead and follow. The wing does this so I do that, and because I do that, now the wing does this, and because the wing does this, now I do that. That’s the name of the game. It’s just like a lead and follow dance. Now, if you have any dance experience, the concept of lead and follow makes sense where you are dancing with a partner. Because of the way that you move your hand or the slight a way that you twist your wrist or your thumb, your partner knows what move comes next so they follow and that’s the idea of lead and follow.

I think this concept is brought up, I’ve mentioned it before, with the idea of the do happening that Alan Watts also talks about in another lecture where life is like that. It’s a do happening. You do something so something happens, and because something happens, then you do something and then that’s the name of the game, the do happening. I think the lead follow dance is very similar. At least that’s how life makes sense to me. I think there are some very powerful implications that arise when we think about this switch of the mindset from a struggle to a dance.

Think about the notion of struggling with your ego. What if it’s not a struggle? What if it’s I’m dancing with my ego? Or even more powerful, I’m struggling with my emotions. What if it’s not a struggle? I’m learning to dance with my emotions, the dance of sadness, the dance of happiness, the dance of joy, the dance of gratitude. These are all emotions that we’re going to experience because life is like that song and there are the high notes and there are the low notes. When you lose a loved one, or you’re preparing to lose a loved one, you’ll be experiencing low notes, and there’s a dance that can be done with the… I like to think of it as the relationship I have with the song during the low notes.

Then there’s a relationship I have with a song during the high notes. There’s a relationship I have with the song during the pauses, and those moments of silent, of nothingness. For me, that’s the relationship of the dance of life. Now, I want to bring to mind another visual here, another concept. This comes from Hinduism. In Hinduism, you learn about Shiva. Shiva is the cosmic dancer. There’s a quote from a book that I want to share with you. The book is called The Tell-Tale Brain by VS Ramachadran. It’s a very fascinating book about neuroscience and psychology. There’s this part in the book that talks about Shiva, the cosmic dancer and this idea of the dance of life and I want to share it with you.

If you have the book, you can find this on page 239 and 240 of the book. But the quote, it’s kind of a long one. I’m going to share several paragraphs with you, but it goes like this. “In Chennai, Madras, there is a bronze gallery in the state museum that houses a magnificent collection of Southern Indian bronzes. One of its prized works is the 12th century Nataraja. One day, around the turn of the 20th century, an elderly foreigner, a gentlemen was observing, gazing at the Nataraja in awe. To the amazement of the museum guards and patrons, he went into a sort of trance and proceeded to mimic the dance postures. A crowd gathered around, but the gentleman seemed oblivious until the curator finally showed up to see what was going on.

He almost had the poor man arrested until he realized the European was none other than the world famous sculptor, Auguste Rodin. Rodin was moved to tears by the dancing Shiva. In his writing, he referred to it as one of the greatest works of art ever created by human mind. You don’t have to be religious or Indian or even Rodin to appreciate the grandeur of this bronze. At the very literal level, it depicts the cosmic dance of Shiva who creates, sustains and destroys the universe. But the sculpture is much more than that. It’s a metaphor of the dance of the universe itself, of the movement and energy of the cosmos. The artist depicts the sensation through the skillful use of many devices.

For example, the centrifuge motion of Shiva’s arms and legs flailing in different directions, and the way tresses flying off his head symbolize the agitation of frenzy of the cosmos. Yet, right in the middle of this turbulence, this fitful fever of life is the calm spirit of Shiva himself. He gazes at his own creation with the supreme tranquility and poise. How skillfully the artist has combined these seemingly antithetical elements of movement and energy on the one hand, an eternal peace and stable god, if you like, is conveyed partly by Shiva’s slightly bent left leg, which gives him balance and poise, even in the midst of this frenzy, and partly by his serene tranquil expression, which conveys a sense of timelessness.

In some Nataraja sculptures, this peaceful expression is replaced by an enigmatic half smile as though the great god were laughing at life and death alike. This sculpture has many layers of meaning, and Indologists like Heinrich Zimmer and Ananda Coomaraswamy wax lyrically about them. While most Western sculptures try to capture a moment or a snapshot in time, the Indian artists tries to convey cyclic nature of creation and destruction of the universe, a common theme in Eastern philosophy, which is also occasionally hit upon by thinkers in the West.

I’m reminded in particularly a Fred Hoyle’s theory of the oscillating universe. One of Shiva’s right hands holds a tambour, which beats the universe into creation and also represents perhaps the pulse beat of animate matter. But one of his left hands holds the fire and not only eats up and energizes the universe, but also consumes it, allowing destruction to perfectly balance out creation and the eternal cycle. So it is that they perfectly balance out creation in the eternal cycle and so it is that the Nataraja conveys the abstract paradoxical nature of time, all-devouring yet ever-creative.

Below Shiva’s right foot is the hideous demonic creature called Apasmara or the illusion of ignorance, which Shiva is crushing. What is this illusion? It’s the illusion that all of us scientific types suffer from, that there is nothing more to the universe than the mindless gyrations of atoms and molecules and there is no deeper reality behind appearances. It is also the delusion in some religions that each of us has a private soul who is watching the phenomena of life from his or her own special vantage point. It is the logical delusion that after death, there is nothing but a timeless void.

Shiva is telling us that if you destroy this illusion and seek solace under his raised left foot, which he points to with one of his left hands, you will realize that behind external appearances, there is a deeper truth. Once you realize this, you see that far from being an aloof spectator here to briefly watch the show until you die, you are in fact part of the ebb and flow of the cosmos, part of the cosmic dance of Shiva himself. With this realization comes immortality or Moksha, liberation from the spell of illusion and union with the supreme truth of Shiva himself. There is in my mind no greater instantiation of the abstract idea of god as opposed to a personal god than the Shiva Nataraja. As the art critic, Coomaraswamy, says, ‘This is poetry, but it is science nonetheless’.” Again, that’s a thought and expression that’s shared in VS Ramachadran’ book, The Tell-Tale Brain, pages 239 and 240.

What I tried to convey in this podcast episode is the subtle mental shift from thinking life is a struggle, that it’s some kind of a test or some kind of a thing that you need to fight against. What if we viewed it as the music of being alive and the dance that we experience to that music? For me, this is a really fun visual. I love Alan Watts talking about music and life, right? Being alive as like the music, the high notes, the low notes, the pauses of silence in between the notes. It’s all part of the song and we’re not here just to experience the high notes. We’re not here just to avoid those low notes. We’re not here just waiting for that final note. We’re here for the whole song, the ups and the downs, the pause and everything in between.

The relationship we have to the music of being alive, for me, is the dance. That’s the dance of life. Just like I tell my students when they’re learning to fly a paraglider, “Stop fighting, you’re not fighting this thing. You’ll never win that. Learn to dance with it.” I hope that as we go through life, I hope that as I go through life, this is a concept that I’ll never forget. As I am learning to be a parent of young kids, I’m dancing with that. As I’m learning to be the parent of teenagers, that’s a new style of dance. As I learn to navigate the ups and downs of daily life at work or dealing with the inconveniences of a flat tire or whatever it is that I’m dealing with, it’s a dance. I don’t need to fight it.

I don’t need to fight the emotions that I feel, the thoughts that arise in my mind, the feelings that I’m experiencing based on the Tetris pieces that life’s throwing at me. It’s not a fight. It’s not a struggle. It’s a dance and that’s what I hope you take away from this specific podcast episode today is that you are a part of the dance of the entire cosmos. The music that’s playing, which I like to think of as the music of life, we’re all experiencing that right now. We’re all alive. We’re all here. The dance that we experience is the trick, right? To see this as a dance.

Just like I see with my students, when they learn to master the art of ground handling their wing, and they’re not fighting it anymore, they essentially learned to dance with it, what happens next is a beautiful thing. They learn to fly. They learn to find comfort, stepping away from that firm foundation that is the earth and they find a new playground where there is nothing to stand on and they’re floating, riding the wind, so to speak. I think that that, to me, that’s what we can learn to do through this, through mindfulness practice, all these ideas, it’s about the dance of being alive and finding comfort and having no firm foundation to stand on. That’s where the plane starts. That’s where it gets to be really fun.

All right. Well, I hope that these concepts and ideas make sense to you. In a nutshell, what I’m saying is stop thinking about this as a fight and start thinking about this as a dance, the dance of life. Try that for the week and see what it does for you, for the relationship you have with your thoughts and feelings and emotions, and the circumstances that you experience as you go through life, receiving all those Tetris pieces that just come your way. Think of it as a dance and see what that does for you. All right. Well, that’s all I have for this specific podcast episode. Thanks as always for listening and until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Playa del Carmen, Mexico with his wife and three kids.