If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it,” Isadora Duncan once said about her career. As maybe the most influential dancer of the 20th century, that says something — something I only recently put together, but something that is profound in a way that reaches beyond the world of dance to the more expansive realm of life itself.
The conscious experience of humans oscillates between thought and movement. Thought arises sporadically, in threads and pieces, and over time, it uses the structure of language to create our concept of self — of who we are — one we use to make sense of the world. Movement is an attempt at harmonization — it’s how we fit our particular being with the demands of any given environment, whether they be personal or social, whether they rely on speech or body language.
The relationship between the two is deeply intervened: Our choice of movement in the world is first filtered through our thinking patterns, both conscious and unconscious — to ensure compliance with past experience, to add context to interactions — but thought also generates worlds of its own, ones that lead to inner experiences that have nothing to do with movement. Many complexities we experience — our fears, our inhibitions — stem from a poor fit between the two as it relates to purpose and expression.
When you read a book, you are living in a world of abstractions, a world created by thought. It could be literature, or it could be philosophy, but whatever it is has little to do with what’s in front of you. Naturally, what you read influences how you move and act in regards to what’s right here. It also creates filters in your mind that shape your understanding of the world. But it doesn’t determine the success of your movements as they relate to a specific environment with specific demands. This success, knowing how to move and when, in a fluid manner, only comes when the thinking patterns that guide the movements are unconscious.
People drink alcohol or take drugs for various reasons, but one of the main reasons is that it lets them move beyond their inhibitions; the filters of their conscious thinking patterns. When the doubt that usually makes their movement rigid is removed, they gain a fluidity that is otherwise lost. (Or so they assume.) And with it, they find it easier to give that presentation, or to introduce themselves to that stranger, or push themselves past on old limit in a new realm they have just exposed themselves to.
Our conscious thinking patterns have two primary sources: external sources, like books and certain ecologies and other inputs we are deeply aware of as we consume them; and internal sources, which grow out of the unconscious thinking patterns we have internalized due to the accumulated wisdom of the movements we have expressed in the world.
When a dancer moves to a rhythm — in moments of deep flow, pushing the boundaries of her craft, without thought, without doubt — she is creating unconscious thinking patterns that will guide her movements the next time she wants to engage them in a similar situation. She’s taking steps in the real world, and using those steps, she’s finding her way.
If, instead, she was to consciously think her way through each step, with the prior knowledge accumulated from external inputs, she would lack the understanding to engage the right movements, in the right moment. And then, realizing this, she would begin to doubt, to fear, to inhibit herself. And then, she would latently stop herself from taking action in a way that would let her either express or improve those movements.
Successful movement — or, the harmonization of your particular being with the specific environment in front of you — grows out of a deep well, dug into the ground through repetition and experience, that is unmoored to strings of loose thoughts. Unsuccessful movement is born from hesitation — from the dominance of conscious thought when movement should have been dictating. Even if a movement lacks complete fluidity — say, due to the lack of experience — the mere act of pursuing it in an honest way signals an alignment, giving it the right edge, whereas movement that is driven by conscious thought only signals confused intentions.
In all animals, there is a deep connection between movement and emotion. No matter how much humans are capable of clouding their conscious experience with different patterns of thought, the core driver of action — which gives form to movement — is what we feel. At their base, fears and doubts and inhibitions, too, are feelings. The problem that humans face, however, is that they use conscious thought to grasp that momentary feeling of discomfort that comes before movement, and in the process of trying to grasp it, they create an inner world — filled with imagined fantasies and made-up stories — completely detached from the world in front of them, the world that just requires them to act.
The actual feelings we call fear or doubt aren’t objectively up for interpretation. They’re simply expressions of our being in a particular moment. Fear could just as well be thought of as excitement, and doubt could just as well be seen as curiosity. Granted, sometimes, interpretations of fear and doubt are useful, and they should be respected. Generally, however, the only difference between an emotion being interpreted as excitement over fear or curiosity over doubt is experience and context.
In this sense, movement is primary to existence, and the main purpose of thought is to interpret the emotions that lead to movement in a healthy way. Conscious thought can and does play a role in this, but for the most part, this entire process occurs most efficiently beneath the surface, where movement inspires unconscious thinking patterns that guide future actions. Conquering fears is a matter of, first, distinguishing between thought and movement and, second, ensuring that the gap between thought and movement is wide enough where movement can be sustained without hesitation.
When we see this expressed in specialized domains — like in dance, or in sports, or in art, or in business— we call it flow; the ability to completely dive into a moment in time to move with the presented reality and its given environment. This is an interaction guided by past experience, by unconscious thinking patterns, and it’s an interaction that moves the action forward without linguistic awareness, doing so fluidly and effortlessly. Even when there are setbacks in the movement, the act of following through works as an error-correcting tool for the future.
Flow, however, isn’t just limited to these specialized domains. In fact, given how crucial research has shown it to be for life satisfaction, one could argue that perhaps a well-lived life is one in which the number of domains or environments we are able engage this state of flow in is the highest; that life is only truly lived when we are in flow, or when we bypass the fears and doubts and inhibitions of thought to really tap into the movement that connects us the broader world around us.
When at a music festival last year, a friend leaned over to me and said, “You can tell a lot about someone by how they dance in places like this.” I think about that a lot because it’s true and you can. And in my experience and observation, it rarely has anything to do with skill. Sure, if you’re a professional dancer and you’re getting into your rhythm, on the surface, the aesthetics of what you’re doing are going to shine and people will notice that. But there is something else that stands out even more, something related to intentionality — something that can be seen in certain movements regardless of whether they are produced by a professional or an amateur. And this something has to do with a confidence that feels fear and doubt and inhibition but moves anyway — a confidence we all sense because it’s born out of an experience we’re all familiar with.
To live in a world of thought can be a joy. It’s what gives infinite life to both our memory and our imagination. But this world is not an end in itself. At most, it’s a means. On worse days, perhaps, it’s an escape. But over the long-term, thought is only as productive as its ability to inspire the right movement — here and now, then and there. When it guides us in doing so, it’s doing its job. When it unnecessarily hinders us, it’s time for a harder push.
A fear is nothing more than an abstraction. Sometimes, it’s an abstraction with utility. Other times, and more generally, it’s an abstraction that only leads to confusion where there should be clear intention. To live is to move, to move is to live, and to live well is to move in spite of the fear.
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