Original Content at
September 4, 2011
Sundance No. 2, 2011
By Lewis Mehl-Madrona
Barbara and I write this following our second sundance of the season. In this article we contemplate the idea of the sundance as an embodied metaphorical struggle in which the suffering and deprivation encountered are physical metaphors for the suffering of life. The mindset we use to embrace uncertainty matters in everyday life. We do best when we abandon the idea that we can know what is going to happen next.
::::::::written with Barbara Mainguy, MA, MFA
This is the third summer in which my partner (a therapist) and I have danced in two separate sundances. We are part of a small number of people who are called to dance twice, because one dance leaves us feeling unfinished. Somehow, dancing twice feels like enough. It offers opportunities for accelerated growth and learning -- a chance to put into practice quickly what we have learned in our first dance. Our second dance is shorter, a three-day dance, and it is smaller. It is a family dance, handed down from an inspired leader. It has one-third the number of dancers as in our other dance, but we are an intense group, ferocious in the dance, and it is no less difficult than the first.
At this dance we meditated on the idea of the dance as an embodied metaphorical struggle in which the suffering and deprivation are physical metaphors for the suffering of life. Hunger and thirst offer themselves as symbols for our struggles with money, time, pressures and responsibilities. The challenge to keep dancing in spite of this suffering reminds us of the difficulties we face in situations where we cannot stop or walk away. When we face a serious illness, when we face tension in life, trials, caregiving for someone suffering, the legal system or adversarial family members, we need models for how to carry through. Sometimes, the idea that we must keep going and triumph over adversity feels unbearable. We want to quit, we want someone or something to make it stop. We plead and make bargains with the spirits; we cover our heads, cry, and rail against circumstances. But then we realize that it's not up to us. The duration, the extent, the severity, and the outcome are not ours to decide. So then, the question becomes how to keep dancing in spite of this knowledge, without being discouraged. Indeed, we must discover how to rise to the best of ourselves, to exemplify courage in adversity. The dance is life. Can we face the circumstances with grace? Rising to the occasion, somehow being present and mindful in the face of the suffering is part of the task. So we dig deep and find in ourselves that place where we understand that we are truly not in control. Indeed, any effort to try to bend circumstances in our favor only leads to more suffering. The more we long for the dance "round' to stop, to get off our feet, the longer it seems before the chief signals the drummers to stop. The more we think about the food and water we will receive on the third day, the hungrier and thirstier we become. This year, we learned that giving ourselves over to the flow of the dance, expressing radical faith that we can survive the suffering, helped to spare us the pricks of pain that come with expectation. The metaphor suggests to us that life comes with suffering, whether through our own actions or those of others around us. We can choose to face the suffering with as much courage as we can muster, or with as little. In the end, it is our choice to see it as an event for spiritual learning or as an unfair insult from the gods. We can open ourselves to learn about it, or we can try to run and hide. Once we embraced this, we felt much better.
We discovered that the mindset we used to embrace uncertainty and give up on the idea that we could know what was going to happen next could be applied to other things. We broke down the technique. One simple question we had asked was, what else do I have to do right now? Actually, nothing, we realized. We were scheduled to be there, and there was nowhere else to be and nothing else to do. Whatever happened or didn't happen, it wasn't going to change the amount of time that we were scheduled to be here. So, we might as well relax and just be here fully. That worked well. Also, finding was to stay in the present and not anticipate what would happen next or later in the day worked well. We focused on small moments, watched nature, clouds, the elders as they discussed the dance (and, to torment us, the bacon and eggs they had had for breakfast). We became aware of small sensations, the way our feet felt on the ground, the moment when we were given some herbs to chew -- a tablespoon of licorice root tasted like a three course dinner.
Afterwards, we realized that put together, these are basic principles of mindfulness. Basic principles are sometimes difficult to learn but Sundance provided us with a laboratory in which we could learn these principles and apply them to our immediate situation. Having done that, it became easier to generalize these lessons to other life situations. When I feel impatient for something to finish, I can remember my Sundance experience, take a deep breath, and relax into the moment. When my partners want things to hurry up, she can remember Sundance, and remind herself that the day passes in its own time and to enjoy the moment, because the moment will soon be gone. These can appear to be trivial insights, but when they are embodied, they are profound. Sundance gives us the opportunity to cultivate the embodied awareness of the present moment in a way that lasts into future moments and allows for positive and permanent change.
Of course we want to mitigate unbearable suffering. As health care workers we are bound to reduce or at least not cause more suffering than is necessary. But psychotropic medications, narcotics, street drugs of choice present an idea to us that life can be lived without suffering. Of course they have their place. But in some cases, they help to create an impression that "normal' life is lived in a state of emotional numbness, that emotions are simply too hard to feel, that life circumstances simply come with too much suffering. It seems to us that we do a disservice to people when we unwittingly endorse that perspective. Perhaps it is the job of life to learn how to suffer a little. The word to suffer means "to undergo'. We have created a mental health system where a "successful' outcome is when a person spends their days watching television, drinking coffee and smoking, rather than annoying us with their struggles to negotiate the world. At this year's second Sundance, we wondered if, perhaps as health care workers our jobs could include an aspect of education around the management of suffering.
Barbara and I will be at Rowe Conference Center, September 16-18, 2011, in Rowe, Massachusetts, for further dialogue and experiential learning on these issues and the importance of working with story. For more details, see http://www.rowecenter.org or http://www.mehl-madrona.com. Also, related to these topics is a forgiveness workshop that Coyote Institute will be sponsoring with Olivier Clerq, September 9-11, 2011, in Brattleboro, VT. For more details, see http://www.coyoteinstitute.us.