The Time of Your Life

by Martin Keogh 

Recently I returned to the Southeast to teach a two weekend Contact Improvisation workshop in Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia. I had taught in these communities many times before and didnt want to do my tried-and-true material. To challenge myself and the students, I created a theme I needed to grow into. The workshop was titled The Time of Your Life. This was the description:

In this 4-day workshop we will use the learning of Contact Improvisation to investigate our relationship to time. With games, some sweat, and the unique physicality of the Contact form, we will ask:

  • How do we relate to having only a finite amount of time?
  • What does it mean to have enough time?
  • How can we dilate time by putting our attention in the details?

These questions will arise as we master more of the skills and thrills of the Contact form. Special emphasis on surprising ourselves in flight and extended follow-through.

I was interested to see if we could have an experience of time passing that was kinesthetic rather than conceptual. My goal was to keep our explorations experiential and based in sensation. I wanted to see, when we dilated our attention to notice the details of each moment, if time would seem to slow down.

Ive always been interested in time. I spent six formative years growing up in Mexico and returned there in 1997 to live for a three-year spell. Time in Mexico is different; its slower, as if moving in a big unhurried arc. In the United States, especially in the North, it seems there is rarely enough time. There is a sense of people starving for time—in a rush, too much to do, drawn thin, overwhelmed, tense. Like being at a high altitude, people are gasping for time. In a land wealthy with paraphernalia and stimulation, we are paupers when it comes to time.

I often start my classes by saying, There is no rush, there is nowhere to get to, there is nothing that has to be done. Today, we have plenty of time. This is frequently followed by sighs and shoulders dropping a centimeter or two. We tend to brace against time, trying to pack so much into it that simply hearing that there is enough for the time being lets us begin to relax.

I used to complain in class that I wished I had more time. Then I realized that I was falling victim to wanting too much. Now my mantra is: do less. Whether I have an eight-hour workshop or a fifty-minute class, I have plenty of time. I often take down the clocks in the dance studio so that we can get out of clock time and enter body time.

In The Time of Your Life workshop, I began by asking everyone how they relate to the idea that we have seven hours together. Do you see this time span as a straight line or a curved line? How does it feel to you? Do you picture time? Or feel it kinesthetically? Does time have texture for you? Is it like velvet, a water slide, itchy weeds, or is it rough like sandpaper?

We then did an awareness exercise that is effective for quieting the mind and becoming present. We wrap one hand around the thumb of the other hand. Letting the hands rest in the lap, we feel for the pulse in the thumb. When we find the pulse, we count backwards from ten to one on the beats of the pulse, and then feel a few more beats. We then change to the other thumb. Going back and forth we do every finger down to the pinkies.

I have found that this simple awareness of an interior rhythm allows something at the core to settle and the mind to become quieter. Its also a wonderful way to get to sleep at night when the mind-Grinches want to keep you awake.

Most people see time as moving in a direction. In front of us is the future; behind us is the past. We hear phrases like That is behind us now and We will see what lies ahead. I feel that this commonly held view of time has an effect on our dancing. It makes our movement more linear and symmetrical and less spherical and multifaceted.

I suggested to the class the image that time comes at us from every direction, from the entire sphere all at once, and disappears into the past inside us. Time surrounds us—we are consumers of time; we ingest it.

We used this image of time coming from every direction as a way to meditate on the threshold inside us, where time crosses over from the future, from the outside, to the past, on the inside. We sit at the cusp of time. This slight change in our view of time from linear to spherical had the effect of changing our perception of time from visual to kinesthetic. As we meditated on the passing of time, we played with putting the threshold where time passes into the past in the brain, in the heart, in the belly, in the groin, and at the skin. We made ourselves porous to time, feeling it as it passed into us.

From this place of awareness, of feeling time in motion, we began to move our bodies. We let the velocity of time move us. We filled our sails with time, looking for the place where the movement was effortless.

When a person yells into a canyon, each gorge has its own pitch at which an echo comes back the clearest. In the same way, each person has a rhythm in which they can move with lucidity and clarity. They do not will their movement along but allow velocity to move them. People can move for a long time once they find that rhythm. So, for a half hour, an hour, in the class, we moved, riding the brim of time.

This work evolved into partnering. With the new information and the complexities of relationship that emerged from working with a partner—expectations and judgments and reactions—it became difficult to keep our awareness on the passage of time. We had to slow way down. It took practice to quiet down enough internally to achieve a state where we could kinesthetically experience the dance with our partner as the embodiment of time passing. At this point, the workshop turned a corner and the focus became how to stay in that quiet internal place while dancing in a variety of dynamics.

Part 2: The Art of Waiting

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
for hope would be hope for the wrong thing;

Wait without love
for love would be love of the wrong thing;

There is yet faith
but the faith and the love and the hope
are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought,
for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light,
and in the stillness the dancing.

—T. S. Elliot

Working with time led us down an unexpected back road into the act of waiting. I have experienced that the people who bring the broadest palette of colors to the Contact dance form seem to bring a quiet thread at the core of their movement, a stillness. There is a sense that amidst the velocity and action, amidst the hurricane of activity, there is a quiet eye. I get the sense that there is a place in these dancers that is in the act of waiting.

The dictionary definition of waiting goes, in part, like this: To be available or in readiness, to look forward eagerly, to stay or rest in expectation, to attend upon or escort, esp. as a sign of respect, to soar over ground until prey appears. Etymology: Old high German wachton: to be wide awake.

I relate to waiting as being wide awake and in readiness. The idea of soar[ing] over ground until prey appears also pleases my imagination. The act of waiting is the act of soaring, eyes wide open.

Ive been looking for that quiet thread at the core for a long time. What seems like lifetimes ago, when I was in my twenties, I lived for years at Zen Centers and spent time visiting monasteries in the Far East. This included a daily meditation practice and monthly retreats. What I found was that my mind loves to move and is not fond of sitting still.

When I discovered Contact Improvisation, it felt like I had walked into a house and knew where the furniture was—I felt like I was home. I resigned as director of the Empty Gate Zen Center in Berkeley, gave up my robes and bowls, and committed to a life of dancing. My constitution found it easier to become quiet while in motion than while trying to keep still with my butt propped up on a cushion.

When I left the Zen Center, I wanted to continue some kind of regular practice. Knowing that movement was easier for me, I decided to do yoga. But I found a resistance to the long routine and could never keep it up. After a decade of off-again/on-again practice, I asked myself, Why am I beating myself up about this? How can I find the pathway of ease? I played with different formats until I found that I could do six minutes of yoga a morning. Six minutes. It works. I do it joyously. It feels like I could still do more, and the next day Im happy to return. And over the many years, those six minutes have added up in both time and effect.

Out of this research into what works to make a busy mind like mine quieter, Ive found other methods like the finger meditation described earlier. Most of these simple meditations ground a person somewhere in the body and the senses:

  • listening to the farthest sound / listening to the sound right in the ears
  • breathing through the mouth and nose simultaneously
    a slow soft self-caress
  • the small dance of standing
  • awareness of both the transition between the exhale and the inhale, and the transition between the inhale and the exhale

Another one of my favorites I learned from the Vipassana meditation teacher Jack Kornfield—the raisin meditation. Take a raisin and keep it in your hand. Feel the weight of it. With a finger, feel the texture and density of the skin and pulp. Put it to your nose and become aware of the topography of the raisins scent. Look into the valleys and peaks, the highlights and dark crevasses. Then put it in your mouth, close your eyes, and take a couple of minutes to get the full experience of eating a single raisin. Notice the trajectory of the flavor as it bursts forth, the flood of saliva, and the way the bodys chemistry changes the flavor. Notice the aftertaste and the echo of the aftertaste.

Doing this awareness exercise as a class warm-up opens up the body and faculties for CI. As the senses awaken and open, the joints lubricate, creating a willingness to stay engaged in sensation as we go into movement.

We started the second afternoon with the raisins. Continuing the awareness into the aftertaste is important in what it teaches us about waiting. When I dance with someone who has the lucid quality of waiting, I notice that while in motion they tend to broadcast where they have just been. They are still tasting or hearing the echo of what was. As their dance partner, I get the opportunity to relate to a wide range of possibilities—where the movement appears to be going, where it is in the moment, or where it just was.

To paint a picture of this: Imagine that you are dancing with a partner and you are both on your feet and in physical contact. Your partner begins to fold to the floor, softly creasing at the ankles, knees, and pelvis. But as your partner folds down, he leaves a hand up at your chest level. At this point, he might continue to the floor or, by centering in the hand left behind, spiral back up to standing. As his partner, you have a choice of relating to the destination of the floor, to the dropping motion itself, or to the hand that has stayed up in the air at your chest. By leaving something behind, his movement opens up your choices as well as his own. In each moment, there is a sense of relaxation in the myriad of choices. And in that profusion of options, in that generosity of possibilities, the cusp of the present gets wider. The moment becomes more alive in all that it is offering.

When myriad possibilities appear in each moment, the opportunities for self-criticism go down. You are less likely to think, Oh, I missed that one, because there are many more than one to choose from. The pathway you end up taking is simply what you are contributing to the dance, and youre less caught up in ideas of right and wrong.

For years I have wondered how I, how a person, can increase their capacity to stay in this quiet core. What I increasingly find is the need to let go of willful control, to drop the reins, to let the animal brain and body have a stronger voice. There is an inner dictator that demands resolution, a resolution that is fixed and unchanging. He wants a single picture of the river rather than letting the river flow. (My inner dictator also wants the classes I teach to be entertaining.) How do we increase our capacity to live in the unresolved?

James Hillman talks about this state when he writes:

But reaping these rewards requires learning to accept a self that remains ambiguous no matter how closely it is scrutinized. Fluid, active, filled with unresolvable contradictions, it is the nature of the self to remain beyond the egos willful demand for a logically consistent system.

Its like hitchhiking by the side of the road. You dont know if you are going to get a ride in the next minute or in the next three days. Its throwing yourself into your destiny—part is choice and part is surrender.

In the second weekend of the workshop, we danced with the idea of leaving something behind by working with the idea of follow-through—letting each movement, each moment, of the dance be the seed of the next. We attempted to calm our conscious and unconscious willfulness by allowing each instant to follow through into the next.

We also did exercises to build our capacity for staying in disorientation by continuing to follow through rather than re-center—even when we were off balance, up high, or in a moment of great exhilaration. Especially in these moments, we tried to leave something behind, stay quiet at the core, continue with a sense of soaring over the ground, looking for prey—waiting.

During these two weekends did time slow down? Had our focused attention given us more day? The spherical quality of our time did make the present junctures seem wider, like there was more choice, more experience packed into each moment. But at the end of each day, we were all surprised that our time was up so soon.

Get the Book: Dancing Deeper Still: 
The Practice of Contact Improvisation