A reliable reference for the body moving in space

Took my first Ballet class in 25 years (with the encouragement of my friend David Cho). From the deep unconscious, I obeyed the piano and Piqué’d, Frappéd, and Dégagé’d en Cloche…steps I haven’t practiced in decades. If I paused to give it a moment’s thought, the choreography fell apart. But if I listened to the music and remembered to breathe, flow.

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman


I felt grateful for all those years I studied with Beth Hoge as a teenager in Oakland, and later with Ernesta Corvino at SUNY Purchase. Their classes, rooted in the Cecchetti method and deepened by Alfredo Corvino (Beth’s mentor and Ernesta’s father), prioritized precision and timing over extremes of range. Under their careful tutelage, even a short-legged modern-dancer, with what was then, an unfashionably-pronounced booty, could learn what Ballet offers: a reliable reference for the body moving in space. And so, years after, the head knows to be over the foot in Pirouettes, the fingers and toes finish together in Développé, and the body automatically aligns with the invisible diagonals of the room…Croisé Devant, Effacé à la Seconde.

I’m sure I’ll be very sore tomorrow, but I may go back. It felt relaxing to do something where I’d already put in the hard time trying to achieve. Not to imply that I have, in any way, figured Ballet out, but only to say that I no longer have any skin in the game. It doesn’t matter if I’m good or not. The dirty secret is that it never mattered. All that’s left is to have fun.

And, in case you are not a former aspirant ballerina or danseur noble, if you have no interest in sewing ribbons on toe shoes, or brandishing princely hand waves, you can still achieve a reliable reference for moving your body in space by studying the Alexander Technique.

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Facebook is Selfing. Zen is No Self.

Wind Caves

Some thoughts on my return from Tassajara Zen Mountain Retreat. I was only at Tassajara for 3 days, but I stayed off Facebook from May 29th through today – June 24, a record for me who has posted daily updates since 2008.’

Without Facebook I felt the portals of my mind close. Remember Being John Malkovich? I was no longer leaping into other people’s heads, and even better, no one was leaping in to mine. It felt peaceful. Stable. Secure

My second day at Tassajara, hiking up to the Wind Caves, which are just that, caves sculpted by wind, through the richly scented chaparral and explosions of wildflowers, cresting the peak and looking west towards a hidden Pacific, I felt that melty feeling in the chest when the heart opens. All the anger, heat and constriction that I’ve been carrying for over a year, since the last election cycle, left, as did the pain of months of disciplined work, and the growing pile of interpersonal frustrations, regretted words and mistakes. All the disasters of birth, biology, society and history, for a brief moment, let up. What did the butterfly care? The wings in my chest spread. I breathed in the bright sky, the heat and the cool purple shadows of caves. I didn’t want to return – ever.


What does the butterfly care?

What happened on this Zen retreat? Nothing. I ate a lot. I wouldn’t ordinarily pair gastronomical excess with Buddhism, but Tassajara, which runs Greens Restaurant, has a long tradition of baking bread and gourmet vegetarian food. I ate everything with the desperation of lack. I thought, “When will I ever eat this well again? Yes! Please! I’ll have seconds.” My single-person cooking is limited to a routine of farmer’s market salads, steamed vegetables, lemon juice, tempeh, sweet potatoes and the like. But Tassajara is old-school vegetarian fare – their famous fresh baked breads, with no stinting on cheese, herbs or olive oil.

I hiked. I soaked forever in the hot springs. I took advantage of their complimentary supply of EO Lavender and Citrus Honey body lotions and shampoos. I jumped into the river. I cooled my head in the waterfall. I utilized the yoga room. While hiking, I ran into a well-known local author and tango dancer, and was invited back to a life of teetering heels and the mystique of suffering, desire and connection. I still haven’t managed to shake off the deep stillness of Tassajara, I can’t yet emerge from summer hibernation.

Three weeks of introvert recovery after 9 months of intensely peopled work. Pulling myself out of the cave hurts. Light is too bright. My still cool apartment, with its endless list of tiny and fascinating projects – pounding pesto with a mortar and pestle! – envelopes.

During these weeks, I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of the New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Lost Child. I read with fury, and annoyance. Without social media, there was no one but the reviewers from the New Yorker to compare opinions about this cast of beautifully rendered but unlikable characters. I made pasta and cooked with olive oil. I pretended I was Italian.

This time off Facebook has returned concentration. But without Facebook, I discovered that I have less motivation to write. Ideas remain locked inside my head, such as, the fascinating elbow injury that points out years of misconception, or the familiar pain of error, countered by the willful enthusiasm of my fool self. There’s no way of steering clear of trouble. Skillful action always seems like someone else’s good idea.

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

I jotted down a few notes from Tassajara:

Since the Self is multifaceted, how can we know ourselves? How can we judge others when we can never fully understand our own motivations?

(and yet, back in San Francisco, plugged back in to the news cycle, things are not so Zen. I no longer understand what it means to not judge)

Facebook is Selfing. Zen is No Self.

(but now that I am back in my life, I also see the benefits of Facebook – input, connection, community, albeit ethereal).

So much energy is expended trying to control what is uncontrollable. There’s relaxation when we accept that which we can’t control.

(but now that I am home, I wonder how this relaxation is paired with action for change)

The Bayou

I popped in my ear buds, chose a science podcast and walked out my front door. When I came-to five hours later, I was somewhere in Bay View, which I called “The Bay View,” and pretty soon just The Bayou. I could tell it was the Bayou because of the large gully that I was walking alongside and the distant view of Twin Peaks and Bernal Hill. The salt scent of the estuary blew across my face. I was lost, and should have been concerned, but it was a beautiful winter day. The sun sparkled, and the air was cool. I set off walking along the river bank. In my right hand, which was now a sharp metal hook, I held a rope leash leading the alligator beside me. My  pajamas looked like Huck Finn’s rags. A sixty-foot prehistoric barracuda cruised by. I thought it was an android. Side streets split away from the water beckoning with Chinese vegetables stands and 99- cent bargains.

I could have walked forever, but somehow I remembered my other life. I looked for the way up from the water’s edge. The bank was too steep. I was carrying bags, scarves, pens, my phones and other slippery objects in my left arm. In my right hook, I held the rope leash. My legs were rubbery and weak from the flu. I couldn’t climb out.

Five hours later, I was back in my living room, on the phone with my father, trying to explain what had happened.

My dreaming mind is not wasting time with subtly. I didn’t lose five hours, more like 18 years. From the moment at age 22 that I moved into my apartment on Guerrero St. and spent years wandering around San Francisco (no earbuds available in those days), in a state of semi-ecstasy from not eating, letting my skin melt to just the shimmer of an outline as my body dissolved into sky, light and the back drop of the city. I wasn’t one to dive into life and get messy. The Alexander Technique was my spiritual bypass, a way to perfection that didn’t cost. I held myself back and waited, missing all the usual the human drama of marriage and children. I’m not sure who likened eating disorders to a golden cage, but the metaphor is apt.

The trance began to break when I turned 40. Painful loss threw me into Pema Chodron’s pages and eventually meditation. A welcome disillusionment occurred, and I mean that word in an unusual positive translation. The illusions and stories fell apart. The practice of sitting and watching it all, breath by breath, provided courage to dive into the mess of life.

I walked home from the De Young Museum today, my 48th birthday, rushing into the few remaining patches of winter sunlight, still alone, but counting everything that is not wrong with my life. Middle age, it seems, is about having a constantly broken heart. Enough people that you have loved and have loved you fiercely are gone. More will leave. But regret, will just drive the trance deeper.

There’s no option of holding love back.