Home > Outside inspiration > The Tao of dancing – the no-mind flow

The Tao of dancing – the no-mind flow

Michael Jackson: Thinking is the biggest mistake a dancer could make. You need to feel. You become the bass, you become the fanfare, you become the clarinet and the flute and the strings and the drums.
Martin Bashir: So you almost become the physical embodiment of the music.
Michael Jackson: Yeah.
-Michael Jackson in Martin Bashir’s Living with Michael Jackson. source

Can you imagine the following: You dance, feeling elated. Slowly, you realise that your surroundings dissolve into nothingness. You begin to move without any directions from your mind. You perform moves that you never performed before. All of your fear, self doubt, your ego, even your thoughts melt away. You dance like a person possessed.

Meaning of “Elsewhere”: 1) The direction I attempt to push my style. 2) The Zone – the state of disconnection I experience while dancing. When I focus on my movements to the point that I am oblivious to my physical setting, I am mentally elsewhere.”

David Bernal on his dancing name. source

This may sound like hyperbole, or a romantic notion meant to enhance the mystic aura of the performer. Perhaps, but there is truth to it. It remains one of the great goals in any creative activity. A scientific explanation exists for this quasi-religious experience. Our minds can only process a certain amount of information. When one performs an activity with extreme concentration, your mind dispenses nearly every other sensory sensation. It feels like having an out-of-body experience.

How can you attain this extreme concentration? Definitely not by trying to focus really hard, as it seems. The type of mental relaxation can occur only after performing the techniques thousands of times. How long, how often? In the above clip, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi mentions a study that puts the number at ten years. The non-fiction journalist Malcolm Gladwell mentioned the same studies in his book Outliers. More precisely, he puts the time at roughly ten thousand hours of purpose-driven practice.

Some types of philosophic systems deal with this mental state. Take the concept of wu hsing (aka Mushin) in martial arts. Your reactions and actions come in battle should not from conscious decisions and strategies, but reflect the “correct” response to the situation. These natural reactions come only after extensive training and the repetition of drills thousands of times. You have learned the drills and the moves so often that you don’t even think about them. They have ingrained themselves into your memory, and they manifest themselves without effort. You perform the necessary movements with minimum of thought and effort.

This is connected to the more general concept of wu wei in chinese taoism (the religion of the “correct path”). Wu wei is the concept of not interfering with the natural flow and dispensing only the minimal amount of effort in your actions. Your actions are the “correct” reactions to the flow of the universe, and they are not tainted by your own intentions, wants, or ego.

Another relevant body of philosophy are the teachings of Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. He stressed the importance of stripping your prejudices, ideologies, habits and preconceived notions. Only then can you assess each situation according to its own merits. Your ego and beliefs only hinder you from attaining truth. They reduce your concentration, or as he put it, your higher intelligence. Any organised thought is useless, truth can only be found by the individual in each situation. Truth is a “pathless road”. Read this three page (summary) by Aldous Huxley, if you are interested.

There is a specific reason why I mention Wu Hsing and Krishnamurti. Both influenced the philosophy of Bruce Lee. His most memorable anecdote explains the origin of his belief that one should empty one’s mind before the actual activity and adopt the formless characteristics of water.

After four years of training Wing Chun with the famous instructor Yip Man, he grew frustrated that he could not attain the relaxed mental state and minimise your effort in battle (the wu wei concept of minimal effort). Yip Man told him to abstain from training for a week and reflect on the need to “[f]orget about yourself and follow the opponent’s movement. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the counter-movement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment.” Bruce Lee retired and meditated on this, but got nowhere. He sailed to the nearby lake, but not feeling any relief, he punched the water in anger.

Right there, he marveled about the qualities of the water. It was struck, but not wounded. You could try to grasp it, but that was impossible. Water only seemed to be weakest, softest substance. In reality, it could be the hardest substance in the world.
In that moment, a bird flew past and cast its reflection in the water. Lee began to reflect further.

[S]hould not the thoughts and emotions I had in front of an opponent pass like reflection of a bird flying over water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached – not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.
I lay on my boat and felt that I had united with Tao; I had become one with nature.

Bruce Lee (1997), Ed. John Little, The Tao of Gung Fu, p. 137

He believed strongly in Taoism, but started incorporating eclectic schools of philosophies and methods of practice, true to the principle that truth must be found individually along a pathless road. He thereby revolutionised mixed martial arts and became the most known martial arts icon in the world.

Don’t believe that these methods apply to dancing? Well, did you know that Lee won competition prizes as a cha-cha dancer?

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  1. Don Pickard
    May 14, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    I’d just like to say that this post is very meaningful to me.

    I’m 39 and I’ve never been a dancer (well, I’ve bounced around a bit). I have however, been doing tai Chi for almost 20 years. In the last two months, for various reasons, I’ve become obsessed with Dance. The goal was to integrate my Tai Chi into dance, and wow, I feel like I’ve unlocked (pun intended) something really powerful.

    Not only can I just do straight Tai Chi moves if I want to entertain, but it has taught me all sorts of things about body position, relaxation, and training skills.

    So now I’m spending every day working on dance techniques, and even just learning what dance techniques are available, or what they’re called.

    I’m enjoying your page greatly.

    Here is a majoy inspiration at this time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXO-jKksQkM

    • May 16, 2012 at 8:21 am

      This post meant a lot to me while I was writing it so long ago, and I’m glad to receive such a personal comment on it from you. Isn’t it strange that you can be obsessed about dance at any age? Also thank you for the Non-Stop clip.

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