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Meditation â" The Complete Guide
Techniques from East and West to Calm the Mind, Heal the Body & Enrich the Spirit
By Patricia Monaghan, Eleanor G. Viereck
New World LibraryCopyright © 2011 Patricia Monaghan and Eleanor G. Viereck
All rights reserved.
When your body dances, your soul travels and remembers, free of the limits of this life, free of the limitations of time and space.
— FRANK NATALE
Dance is not just a human activity. The dance of bees, which conveys to the hive's workers the location of a particularly abundant nectar source, is widely known. Sandhill cranes bend and sway in complex patterns when they perform their spectacular mating dances. Chimpanzees have been known to dance in circles, spontaneously and with great formality, sometimes even costuming themselves with vines. The dances of the animal world suggest that the human desire to move rhythmically has roots deep in our limbic system, referred to as the lizard brain, which is the oldest part of the complex human brain.
Dance, especially rhythmic and repetitive dance, connects us with the deepest part of our animal selves, moving us past the chattering of our more developed brains. As such, it has been employed for religious and meditative purposes for eons, perhaps since the beginning of human civilization. Petrified footsteps in the Paleolithic cave of Tuc d'Audoubert in France suggest a performance in which the dancer stepped heavily on the heel, circling a clay sculpture of mating bison. Such circle dances are found all around the globe and are often associated with religious healing ceremonies.
Animal movements are acknowledged, in legend, as the sources of some human dances. The ancient Minoans used the stately crane dance in their religious rituals, imitating the crane's elaborate mating movements and giving rise to folk dances that are still part of Mediterranean culture. The same animal dances gave rise, in Africa, to the Watusi dance performed by girls who were ready for marriage. The Chinese meditative and martial art of tai chi was inspired, legend has it, by observing a snake and a crane fighting to the death; movements in that art, such as "white crane flying" and "repulse monkey," still bear animal names. The Iowa people of North America claimed that turtles inspired their circle dances, and the Dogon of Mali learned to dance from Yurugu the fox, who also provided information on how to use the dance as a divination tool.
Mythically, dance is connected with both creation and destruction. In Hinduism, the goddess of matter, Maya, creates the world through her dance, but the great death goddess Kali will destroy the world the same way. Kali, myth tells us, one day became so entranced with her own dancing that she was shaking the very foundations of the universe. Her consort, Shiva, lay down before her to try to stop her. She obliviously continued to dance until the great god was almost dead, awakening just in time to spare his life. Someday, however, she will begin dancing again, and this time her dance will be unstoppable. Shiva is called the Lord of the Dance, and sculptures of him performing the creative and destructive dance of life are among the treasures of India.
Similarly, in Greek mythology, the goddess Erynome created the world by dancing with her self-created partner, the snake god of the winds. Also among the Greeks we find the mysterious tales of the maenads, women followers of the god of ecstasy, Dionysus; they became so intoxicated by their dancing that they sometimes tore living creatures apart with their bare hands. Usually these creatures were wild beasts, but occasionally the maenads would mistake a human child for an animal and rend it to pieces. The maenads were said to dance barefoot in the snow on sacred Mount Parnassus, so entranced that they did not notice the pain from the cold.
In Haitian voudou, dancing is an important part of religious experience. Ecstatic states occur when a dancer is "ridden," or possessed, by a specific orisha, or divinity. Each orisha has a specific way of moving in the dance, so when the orishas appear, they are acknowledged and greeted by the other worshipers. In Korea, too, women called mudang or manshin use dance as a means of altering their consciousness, in this case not to invite divine possession but to travel to otherworldly realms.
In American country-western saloons and urban clubs on any weekend night, some people experience the same kinds of ecstatic experiences that earlier peoples found in their religious dancing. But the setting is not necessarily a comfortable one for those seeking to use dance meditatively. Such events are organized for secular, usually commercial, reasons. They may provide an opportunity for alteration of consciousness through dancing, but they may not always provide an emotionally and psychically safe space for doing so. There are, however, other options. The ceremonies of those who use dancing as part of religion are still being performed throughout the world.
For those whose roots are in Native America, powwow dancing is a powerful route to the spirit; even those without such a heritage can, in a limited way, participate. In the United States, powwows are often open to non-Indian people, who can join in "intertribal" circle dances. It is important for non-Indians attending a powwow to ascertain what is polite and what is intrusive. Some powwows restrict dancers to those who have Indian ancestry or who are following a specific tradition. Sun dances, for instance, are not typically open to drop-in participants. But at large public powwows, there are usually times when strangers are welcome in the dance circle.
The basic step is simple enough to learn: lift the foot, touch the floor with the ball of that foot, then step forward with the other foot. This one-two rhythm is relatively easy, but one can just walk rhythmically to the sound of the drum. Once the dance is over, leave the dance floor until you have determined whether the next dance is an intertribal one.
Similarly, African Americans may locate practitioners of voudou or orisha religions who are willing to teach the religious underpinnings as well as the dances of the religions. Individuals who are not rooted in that heritage can also occasionally find instruction and initiation. The religious rituals of these traditions are not usually publicly advertised but can be found through word of mouth. Botanicas, stores that provide ritual materials, are a good place to start a quest for a teacher of such religious dance, and so are colleges with departments related to the subject.
In addition to these traditional dance religions, there is also something that could be called nondenominational trance dancing. Instructors who are not connected to a specific tradition develop their own movement styles, which they then teach in New Age or healing centers; these are often referred to as shamanic dancing or movement meditation. Some instructors employ movements from Asian martial arts; others stress a completely free-form movement. Most use drums, often with live drummers, although some use recorded music.
How to Begin
Trance dancing is a kind of meditation that creates a euphoric, sometimes ecstatic state of altered consciousness. For people who define meditation as the attainment of a serene, contemplative state, trance dancing may be disturbingly exciting. Trance dancers commonly experience an intensifying of emotion, sometimes including sexual passion. Again, this is disturbing to some, whereas others can appreciate and learn from the information provided by our emotional selves in the meditative experience.
There are some physical challenges that may indicate that trance dancing is not a suitable choice of meditation style. Those with epilepsy should be especially careful of this activity, for there is a possibility of seizures occurring as a result of the dancing. Similarly, those who have severe cardiovascular difficulties may find this form of meditation too strenuous; it is not necessary to dance vigorously, however, for continually repeating small movements or steps can be sufficient to bring on a meditative state.
Trance dancing can be performed alone or in a group setting. Most newcomers will find that the group setting heightens their experience. However, with a little practice it is possible to use dance meditatively without others. Find a time when you are not likely to be disturbed for at least half an hour. If you are using recorded music, select something with a sturdy beat and with long rather than short selections. Simple drum music is often sufficient.
Begin by moving spontaneously to the music. You will soon find yourself falling into repetitive movement patterns. Move into the repetition rather than changing the motions, because repetitive movement is more trance provoking than continual change. As you move, concentrate on the music. Feel it flow through you; move past any thoughts of how you appear or whether you are "doing it right." There is no "right way" to dance. There is only the way your body wishes to move. Listen to it and follow its lead.
To practice trance dancing in groups, you can simply ask friends over and dance with them. For more structured experiences, look for workshops or classes. At these gatherings you will sometimes be offered a blindfold or a padded eye cover, which cuts out your awareness of the others in the group and permits you to concentrate on the messages coming from your body. You will often be less self-conscious with such a blindfold. You may be surprised to find that you don't crash into others as often as you might expect, for senses other than sight will usually warn you of another's presence nearby.
Finally, pay attention to any negative feelings that might arise in you when you interview a trance-dance teacher or attend a workshop. When you are in a light trance, you are very suggestible; unscrupulous people may use this state to encourage you into relationships or activities with which you are not comfortable. Never remain in a class or workshop in which you feel the slightest discomfort or confusion about the leader's intentions. Trance dancing is a powerful opener of the soul. It is better to dance at home than to risk opening up in an unsafe space.
Checklist for Practice
 Select a style of trance dancing to explore. If you have a religious or an ethnic heritage that includes a dancing tradition, consider exploring that.
 If you are considering exploring a traditional indigenous religion to which you are not connected by heritage, ask representatives of that culture whether you are welcome rather than assuming that you are. Some research may be necessary here, whether online or in person. Just because someone claims to be authorized to teach a tradition does not mean that he or she is. Check the credentials of any teacher of indigenous rituals or techniques.
 Dancing at home is a good way to enjoy the benefits of trance dancing. Make sure you will be uninterrupted for at least half an hour; use music that is repetitive and strong in beat; let your movements arise from your body's sensations rather than from a choreographed set of steps.
 If you want to experience trance dancing in a group, observe a class before you join. Pay attention to any signs of inappropriate behavior by the leader. If you experience any discomfort about the leader's motivations or intentions, withdraw immediately.CHAPTER 2
Man by nature is a rhythmic being. He walks, breathes, and sings rhythmically; his heart beats, an internal drum.
— STEVEN LONSDALE
The use of the drum to attain a meditative state is both ancient and widespread. Drums are found in virtually every culture and on every continent. Frame drums called bodhrans are played in Ireland with tiny fat sticks, whereas similar but much larger drums are played with long bowlike rods by the arctic Inuit. Hollow logs covered with skin form the African ashiko and djembe; ceramic and metal vases, the Arab doumbeks, are mounted with linen or skin or even plastic heads. Asian instruments range from the massive taiko drums of Japan to the small two-headed bell-rimmed drums of Korea. Native American drums are typically fashioned of hide and played with skin-covered sticks. Rattles, tambourines, bells, and even parts of the human body — anything that can be struck to make a sound — constitute the vocabulary of percussion.
Not only are percussive instruments found throughout the world; so too is the association of drumming with spiritual states. Among the Ojibwa of the north-central American forests, the drum was one of the primary civilizing gifts from divinity to humanity. In early Japan — and still today in rural Okinawa — the drum is connected to the religious practitioner called miko or noro, as it is in Korea, where the spirit summoners called mudang dance in flowing silk to the drum's heavy vibration. Drumming accompanied religious ceremonies in most ancient and tribal societies, such as when the Egyptian goddess Hathor was summoned with timbrels and sistra, which were considered the instruments of a percussive prayer and were presumed to put devotees into a focused state of mind for ritual. Throughout Asia and the Americas, the pulse of the drum was the thread that shamans followed to return to their bodies after journeying in other realms.
Although the sound of the drum — the heartbeat of life — is vitally important to the drum's religious and symbolic significance, the instrument's material and shape also hold meaning. Thus the bowl-shaped drum represents the magical essence of earth, whereas the hourglass-shaped drum depicts divinity pouring into the human world. Magical symbols and representations of the celestial gods are often painted on hide drums. Today the trap set may be associated with ballroom dancing and the snare drum with military drills, but the ancient connection between drumming with these instruments and the spirit has not been obliterated, and the use of drumming to attain meditative states is becoming increasingly popular, especially among neo-pagan ritualists.
Drumming has never ceased to be employed in traditional religions, including those native to the residents of the Americas. On any summer weekend in the Midwest, the sound of the massive tribal drum, struck rhythmically by a dozen players, powers the dancing at powwows. African orisha groups gather in urban areas to draw bembe, the power of spirits, into their midst. Voudou practitioners rely on their drummers to invoke the loa, the spirit that will ride the dancers in ritual.
Not all drumming is practiced in the context of tribal and ethnic traditions, however. In recent decades, drumming has become widely recognized as a style of meditation that transcends any specific religion. Private drum groups and public drumming circles have sprung up in major cities as well as in smaller communities. A significant part of this movement has been the emergence — or reemergence, as Layne Redmond, drummer and author of When the Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual History of Rhythm, argues — of women's drum groups. Redmond traces the connection of women and the drum, especially the frame drum, into prehistory. Discouraged for millennia because of its association with ancient woman-empowering religions, the women's drum circle now draws both beginners and advanced drummers alike.
Excerpted from Meditation â" The Complete Guide by Patricia Monaghan, Eleanor G. Viereck. Copyright © 2011 Patricia Monaghan and Eleanor G. Viereck. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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