Many of you may not be aware, but I’ve been off at a meditation retreat for the past three months.
I realize this is pretty unusual for us in the western world (though not in Asia), but I’m very happy to have done it. A meditation retreat at Plum Village was one of those things that fit in neatly with all of the reasons I detailed in my previous posts about leaving the world of professional dance.
This is going to be a kind of mid-year analysis with myself to see how things are going. Sorry, this post might be a bit self-indulgent… but I thought it might be an interesting exercise to revisit the four reasons I highlighted for leaving the dance world and to see where my life fits into those ideas five months later. Think of it as a reality check.
Number 1: My identity was no longer attached to being a ballet dancer.
This remains true, although I have warmed to the possibility of working in a ballet company again in the future.
During my three months at the meditation retreat, I had constant reminders that I was different. In a funny way, there were many more positive reinforcements that I was a “ballet dancer” than I had ever had in a ballet company. In the ballet world, we are surrounded by dancers. Being able to do these particular amazing things is the norm, and it becomes our standard. Only the extremely rare talent invites intrigue.
But pretty much everywhere else, those skills make you stand out. The fact that I stretched while reading consistently surprised my roommates, who were not used to seeing anyone reading with their leg next to their head. Never having met a ballet dancer and knowing little about dance, many felt prompted to ask questions about dance – particularly about why I decided to quit that world. Seeing a double tour was fascinating for many.
A few times, I was asked to lead movement classes.
During the first week there, I was asked to teach a few yoga classes. Now, I am not certified to teach yoga in any way. But I did see that my knowledge of the body and of movement could be used to help others, especially those that had neglected (or just plain ignored) their bodies for years. I had done a fair amount of yoga in my past, and I took advantage of the opportunity to not only teach, but to learn as well. It didn’t have to be a specific yoga technique to be beneficial. So I taught a few classes. I enjoyed it, and so did the people that came. This reinforced my identity as a mover, if not necessarily a “ballet dancer.”
This continued throughout the retreat, and near the end there was one surprise event that allowed me to explore my ballet side a bit more, with just a little twist: one of the elder monks asked me to create a short ballet on the monks, to be performed at the party for the Vietnamese New Year, known as Têt.
A ballet for monks!
Number 2: I wanted to learn how to build good habits, and I wanted to create.
Well, if I wanted to create, here was an opportunity. I created a very short ballet, set to Waltz of the Flowers music from The Nutcracker. This wasn’t the biggest challenge creatively, but I had a hell of a lot of fun with it. How many times have you seen a monk in robes doing ballet?
But creating isn’t just about making a ballet, or a product. It’s about thinking in novel ways. I had the chance to do that, and I have exciting ideas about the future. It remains to be seen whether my life leads in that direction, but I know for sure that I want to be a part of something with movement that helps others. We’ll see if my ideas come to fruition.
A large part of whether that happens or not is up to me.
And to do that, I need to know how to build good habits. This is what I’m focusing on now. At the monastery, just like in my dance life before, I had a full schedule. So I didn’t push myself with extra activities, instead trying to enjoy the space we are supposed to find and enjoy at a monastery.
But being back home, with a free schedule, I need to make sure that I have structure so that the forces of laziness and comfort don’t exert too strong a grasp on my life.
Writing this blog is a part of this. Exercising is another. And meditation remains my rock, the best way to start my day.
I’ve realized first-hand now that without the structure of a 9-to-5 work life, each activity becomes a choice. This is great, but that freedom takes up more mental energy, so if I don’t build my life conscientiously, entropy will take over. I can’t just wait for inspiration to reach me if I want to accomplish my projects. I have to put my nose to the grindstone.
So I’m creating my routine.
Importantly, when building my own schedule, I can also build in moments of rest in the way that I need. This is an important part of knowing how to work: knowing when I need to rest and giving myself the breaks that I need.
Knowing how to use time to our benefit is crucial. And that doesn’t just mean knowing how to “work efficiently.” It also means taking time to find inspiration – setting aside time to daydream and explore our passions.
Number 3: I have other interests, and time is a precious commodity.
We each have different-sized bank accounts, but there is one currency that we all have more or less the same amount of: time. So what do we do with it?
Obviously, there is no way I would have been able to go to a three-month meditation retreat had I continued dancing full-time. Modern work life doesn’t afford us the possibility of stepping away for such a long period of time.
But I believe that different kinds of experiences are paramount to a well-rounded understanding of the world. My adventure at Plum Village showed me a different possible philosophy, and rhythm, to life. I intend on bringing some of those ways back with me.
Clearly I can’t force the rhythm of a meditation retreat onto modern life, but I am already seeing some of the things I learned at Plum Village start to integrate themselves into my day-to-day.
This includes certain practices, like walking meditation, where you focus yourself entirely on your body and its sensations in the present moment, but it also includes other ways of understanding the world. I won’t delve into them here.
In any case, since I stopped dancing full-time I have been able to do many things that I had never done before: rock climbing, trips to the back country of Nice, long hikes, mushroom hunting… and hopefully soon a paragliding trip, courtesy of my dear girlfriend and the company members of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo as a parting gift from the company.
But these are just little highlights of what I see as an underlying narrative of my life – the search to be a source of positivity and support for as many people as I can reach.
Number 4: I wanted to find a way to dedicate my life to helping others.
This was really what these three months at the meditation retreat were all about.
Ultimately, it was another kind of training, a way of getting to know myself and my emotional habits better. As Matthieu Ricard puts it, happiness is a skill you can learn, just like riding a bike.
It was with this intention that I went to Plum Village. This was an attempt to learn ways to bring myself to a more positive way of being. Anyways, it’s only from that place that we can actually help others.
And it was quite easy to find this inner peace and positivity at the retreat. It’s essentially that monastery’s raison d’être. And so it’s from that place that I thought about the future and what I might be able to give… so what skills did I have that could benefit others?
This brings me right back around to the first point – my identity may not be tied to being a ballet dancer, but I have a lot of knowledge about dance, movement, and the world that encompasses it. And that might be the best bridge for me to help others.
Many people out there have neglected their bodies, and are paying dearly, not only physically but mentally, for it. This is one area where I can help.
Another is related to this blog, and it has to do with the kinds of mentalities I’ve observed in dancers relating to self-judgment and the way it can disturb our happiness and satisfaction with life. My hope is to find a way to help change the narrative that we dancers often have about ourselves. It’s a tall order. This was what my first article on this blog was all about, and I intend to continue in this vein. Here’s hoping I can provide insight and receive some in return as well.
My path ahead is not particularly clear, and helping the world is not in any way straightforward. But I have a compass, and I have inspiration. Time to jump back into the fold.