Monday, July 4, 2011

Inner Play

This past weekend I participated in a workshop at Dancing Rabbit offered by Devi (a vivacious white-haired woman from Kansas City) and her two playmates, Peter & Samir. It was called Interplay, and was organized by my wife, Ma'ikwe, after she'd experienced it last fall in Asheville NC. (It's actually spelled "InterPlay," but I gag at cutesy interior spelling.)

The concept was develop by a dude name Phil Porter and is based in Oakland. While it's spread across the continent, the movement seems strongest in California. It's been around for about 20 years, and is aimed at "unlocking the wisdom of your body." It was fun.

While I was only immersed in the Interplay waters for two days (which means there's certain to be interesting bywaters and deeper currents that I missed on my initial boat ride), here are the themes I picked up:

o Slowing Down
Take time to breathe and be in your body. Don't go faster than you can sustain, or is comfortable for your body. Take breaks as needed; it was OK to sit out any particular sequence.

o Moving Consciously from Stress to Grace
The premise is that this is a journey that we mean to be taking, so let's look at the components of it, especially as it relates to the body.

o Using Movement, Touch, and Voice as the Vocabulary of Emotional Expression
I think that Interplay is powerful because, as a culture, we are starved for emotional authenticity, and highly inhibited in our bodies. (There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but you get the point.) Interplay tries to open both of these doors, giving us a taste of what fuller expression might feel like. Though the context of the workshop is as benign as possible, we got a glimpse of what this might look like if we approached problem-solving this way, where our voices and bodies were fully welcomed at the table.

o Working with What's in the Room
While we mostly played it safe, in the sense that we were experimenting with the vocabulary and were not attempting to work any issues, I was impressed with Devi's willingness to incorporate other ideas in the moment (such as mirroring from ZEGG Forum), or to go deeper when we touched something tender (such as Ma'ikwe's ongoing distress with how long it's taking to complete the construction of her house, or Meadow's grief over losing her dear friend, Tamar, last fall).

o Being Brave with Strangers
The exercises involved a lot of improvisational responses, which brought participants face to face with their anxiety about performing in front of others or the ways in which they've absorbed the message that they can't dance, are not creative, or are not beautiful. Mostly we got through those moments of panic and awkwardness without gridlock, yet there were definitely a few adrenaline spikes.

o Working Inside While Playing Outside
Apropos the playfulness of the weekend, I purposefully tweaked the name in the title of the blog, to emphasize my gaining insights into how I inhibit emotional expression and retain stress (inner work) in deference to cultural norms—even when I know in my body how to handle it better (outer play), as was easily demonstrated in the container of the weekend, where "normal" cultural boundaries were suspended.

o Trusting the Body's Wisdom
For me, the most impressive moment of the weekend came late Sunday afternoon when we worked in pairs to describe briefly a person we each held as a model of Grace in our lives. Then, after Person A had told Person B their story, Person B would dance a tribute of appreciation to Person A's honoree, based on what they'd heard. It was a moment of grace about Grace, where we trusted our bodies to know what to do, and it seemed to work beautifully all around the room. Grace, in that moment, was truly amazing.

• • •
In addition to playful, the weekend was also surprising. It helped that I had carved out the time and didn't have deadlines looming, yet it was also calming and de-stressing (the opposite of distressing). I didn't expect that. While I was doing something I knew little about, performing improvisationally in front of others is familiar territory to me as a teacher and a professional facilitator. I also don't have much body inhibition, so I didn't give much attention to how well I was doing the exercises. It was a gift learning insights about each of my fellow Interplayers.

By Sunday morning, I noticed how relaxed I was (good), and how much that stood in contrast to a typical morning (not so good). The physical contact was a welcome release for me from the everyday tension I carry around about how I hold back from touching others in public—especially women. Although I know myself to be very touch oriented, I am frequently in settings in a position of power and trust (as a speaker, workshop leader, consultant, facilitator, teacher, older man, etc) and have learned in this culture of distorted sexual responses to back off from touch because of its strong potential for being misconstrued. I have allowed my need for touch to be trumped by my need to be effective in my work. Unless I'm confident that touch will be received as congruent with my words, I hold back, and the deep sadness that I carry around this welled up on Sunday.

During an exercise on Saturday, Nathan got a chance to fully express how much he hates cars. As there was no issue about cars that we needed to wrestle with—our job was simply to be present for Nathan—this flowed fine and Nathan found it exhilarating to let it all out. Ordinarily, Nathan feels he has to hold back the strength of his distaste for the internal combustion engine. Saturday he didn't. To be sure, some people reacted to a strong male speaking in anger, yet we didn't get hung up there, both because Nathan was not perceived to be dangerous, and because there was no issue to resolve that required us to labor with Nathan's vehemence.

This was a poignant moment for me in that it highlighted a clutch of important dynamics that plague groups:
—It's unusual to fully express feelings.
—When strong emotions are present, it seriously distorts the conversation until and unless they're disclosed and acknowledged.
—It's a double whammy for men to voice anger or rage, because of the violence that is often associated with angry men.
—It's a paradox that emotional safety (for different people in the same group) can simultaneously be associated with its full expression and with its full suppression! (Perhaps most intriguing of all is the person who demands freedom of expression for themselves while denies extending the same license to others—for fear that they'll use it injudiciously.)
—Groups rarely embrace non-rational knowing and sharing, even when we know in our bones that we'd be wise to do so.
• • •
All and all, there was a lot to play with. It's great being married to a partner who manifests opportunities for such insight—and it happened close enough to my home that I was able to walk to the weekend, cleverly sidestepping the possibility of provoking Nathan. Whew.


Cynthia Winton-Henry said...

Hi Laird. I'm one of InterPlay's cofounders. Thanks for your wonderful reflection. Very consistent with what we hear and know to be true for ourselves. 50 leaders met a couple of weeks ago in Racine. Over 1000 have participated in the Life Practice program. Yep. A lot of us have realized that the work ethic is not the only game in town and if it is, it needs a partner in order to dance.

cynthia winton-Henry said...

Hi Laird. I shared your blog on my Monday Morning InterPlay blog. Wanted to let you know.