A Watercourse Way
Updated: Jan 26, 2022
“There is no way that anything is supposed to be. There is only the constant mutation of is.”
-Stephen Nachmanovitch, The Art of Is
Just over a week ago we arrived in a small town just outside Orlando, Florida. My aunt and uncle are taking a summer-long RV trip across the country to avoid the dreaded Florida summer heat and invited Alexa and I to house-sit while they’re away. In our current circumstances, Alexa and I couldn’t turn down living for a few months rent-free. And it's a rare opportunity to reside in a beautiful home, on a lake, that I have fond memories of visiting as a child. Plus, the view from the dock isn’t as bad as it looks.
From Brooklyn to Westchester to Boulder to Florida, our Covid-adjusted path has been a crooked road, and Boulder was no exception. The 9 months spent at elevation continued a change in perspective that began around the start of the pandemic. My thoughts on movement, and movement culture, expanded and evolved. I pondered how a movement practice can echo the complexities of life. I also spent a lot of time wondering about the values I’d like to see in the world, and how I might be able to share and express those through my teaching. The journey has not been without its ups and down, twists and turns, and laughs and tears. There were plenty of pitfalls, bumps and bruises, and very real pain and heartbreak. My decade in stand-up comedy in NYC, with its often-dramatic flip flops of highs and lows thickened my skin and my spirit. Imagine being collectively booed by 150 people at midnight in Times Square, and then getting back on stage the next night, and every night thereafter. I've lived it, so it takes a lot to give me a full knockout blow. Those rough nights were often heartbreaking, but they were also gifts. Gifts that were unwrapped after I wiped away the tears and could see clearly the lessons learned.
While in Boulder, one of the many gifts I received was clarity on a question I’d been speculating on for a long while: Is the version of movement culture, the one I had been a longtime subscriber to, a dogma? Google "dogma" and you'll see it defined as "a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true." This is not new; dogma has the potential to arise everywhere. We’ve seen it in self-help and religion, and fitness and dance. Although the term “movement culture” casts a broad net, there are specific corners that have fixed methodologies and truths, and one of these corners is where I had invested the better part of 6 years. I recognize that dogma is a powerful tool for discipline, education, and focused change. And perhaps a period of that kind of discipline is valuable in varying degrees of intensity and time relative to each person. I certainly don’t regret my time following a dogma, as it laid a wonderful foundation and helped develop work ethic and gumption. However, I now see that dogma has the potential to lead to an elitist viewpoint, frowning on different or changing ideas. Unable to see my own dogmatic approach in the past, I too once trekked up an elitist mountain and looked down upon those with different ideas. Although I am deeply grateful for all my experiences, I later felt the repercussions of this approach when my own ideas evolved. Being on the receiving end of the type of judgement I had previously placed on others for their exploration gave me clarity. This dogmatic approach to movement made detouring from its principles and ideas sacrilegious, even if the North Star was still in the same direction.
I am liberated by this realization. I no longer want to simply be handed answers and told what is and isn’t. More than ever, I feel an insatiable hunger to feed my curiosity and ask questions. Being a part of a hierarchy required me to surrender my curiosity to someone else, who would produce not only the acceptable answers, but the acceptable questions. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have regained my curiosity, and along with it the surprises and questions that continue to lead to more of each.
"There is no way of putting a stream in a bucket or the wind in a bag." – Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way
Letting go of dogma can be both liberating and unsettling. My mind once demanded answers, and defined rights and wrongs, but I’m growing to understand that there is no right way. The flow of water shows us that, the watercourse way. The movement of water is unique, adaptable, and constantly changing. The water can slow to a trickle or grow into a roaring river; navigate over, under, and around stones; snake and bend to travel with the everchanging landscape; and sometimes it comes to a complete stop while awaiting the next rainfall. Regardless of the circumstances the water moves effortlessly, without force, and always finds its way. The practice of movement can be like the flow of water, adapting to the environment and seasons, twisting, and turning, speeding, slowing, and stopping. The complexity of the relationships we have with ourselves, each other, and our ever-changing environments cannot be bound to a paved path of specific moves, games, sets, reps, and rest periods. Like the stream, we can’t capture our movement practice, or life, in a bucket. While dogma is about attempting to control, the watercourse way is about accepting we’re not in control. Honestly, I’m still learning to submit to the flow while learning to paddle in it. And everyone is on their own watercourse way.
My interest has transformed into a river of curiosity about contributing to, and being a part of, a culture of movement rather than a subscriber to a fixed movement culture. During the past year I’ve had the privilege of speaking with movers and groovers, players and shakers, artists, and thinkers, both over coffee and for my Behind the Movement Podcast. I've also connected with people through a wide mix of online movement workshops and in-person classes including breakdancing, contact improv, pole dancing, Gyrotonics, and Animal Flow. These conversations and experiences led me to wonder about movement supporting culture, as opposed to culture supporting movement. I believe movement can help us learn to be citizens rather than individuals, by welcoming uncertainty and surprise, enriching the relationships we have with ourselves, others, and nature, and celebrating imperfection and impermanence. Movement has the potential to enhance our capacities for compassion, communication, collaboration, and creativity. It is not one way of movement that feeds these qualities and ideas, but all forms interacting, changing, and cross pollenating. It is the uniqueness of various movement mountains joining together in a collective heartbeat. I’m new to reflections on culture, and culture making, but it does seem to me that the ideas and qualities mentioned above have the potential to be valuable ingredients in culture soup.
For the final 4 months prior to leaving Colorado, I had the privilege of facilitating small movement jams twice a week with a group of curious characters in North Boulder Park. There was no money exchanged, and rather than explore a methodology or dogma, we gathered around a mindset, playfulness. The jams were controlled accidents. I never arrived with a hard plan, but instead kept my sights on the playfulness message. There were more questions than answers, and more suggestions than instructions. Although I led the group, the jams often morphed with suggestions, ideas, and exclamations of, “Let’s try this!” We played to play, took risks, surprised ourselves, and got out of our own way. Everyone came from unique backgrounds of life and movement. Instead of to trying to fit them into a specific movement box, I had the privilege of witnessing and experiencing their individual approaches to games and scenarios, and how each person effected every other person. I watched the break dancer observe the clown, the contemporary dancer groove with the wrestler, and the contact improviser follow the child. Soon the titles, labels, and identities would begin to diminish, and eventually all I saw were players. All the while we developed bonds and friendships that I expect to carry on through this lifetime and the next. This approach is what I now call Infinite Play, and have had the pleasure of sharing it with new groups of players over the last few months at jams and workshops in New York, Washington, and California. Throughout the summer I look forward to sharing the message with more groups in the US, and potentially in Europe in the fall.
Infinite Play is one of my offerings to a culture of movement. It is not more important or valuable than any other approach, idea, concept, or methodology; it is just another ingredient in the soup. We all have rare and delicious ingredients to add to the pot. So, please embrace curiosity, take risks, and ask questions because this is how we feed a culture of movement. And, remember, there is no right way, there is only the watercourse way.