I recently went to a great restaurant that has dancing on Friday nights. I was so excited until the band started up, and I discovered that they were a Grateful Dead-sounding band that did lots of Allman Brothers cover tunes. That took some wind out of my sails, as I am primarily a disco/’80s dancer. To make matters worse, when my friend and I got to the edge of the dance floor and saw only six or so people on it, I wanted to bolt. I don’t know how to dance to this, I thought. But my friend had started to shimmy and sway beside the other dancers. She likes the Allman Brothers. She’s a good dancer. She could probably dance to any kind of music if she wanted to.
“I’m going out there,” she said. I tried to pull her back from the abyss. “I’m not quite ready,” I pleaded. My friend is polite. She waited about a minute for me to get up the gumption to cross the line. Then she made her move and bopped past the bystanders.
I took a breath and followed her, diving into the cold, crisp waters of the underpopulated dance floor, where I allowed myself to fall. Not literally, just internally. I fell through the awkwardness of finding my rhythm to music I didn’t know. And there I found a beat, one that my torso and limbs could connect with and express. I breathed. And I smiled at my friend, who was beaming a bright smile back at me. Life was good. I had survived—even enjoyed—stretching beyond a place of security and falling into the unknown.
I use the words stretching and falling to describe this process of expansion of our inner selves. Many of us are accustomed to stretching our physical bodies so that our muscles gain tone and length, so that we can feel more space and freedom in our bodies, and protect ourselves from injury. Similarly, it is important to stretch our consciousness if we want to maintain a healthy, vital, and enthusiastic spirit. Ah, enthusiasm. Why, if stretching ultimately feels so good, is it often so hard to be enthusiastic about doing it? Because when we move towards expansion and pleasure, we usually encounter some amount of discomfort, which we often expertly avoid.
Is stretching really necessary? If you want to preserve your spontaneity, a sense of inner buoyancy, and connection to your spirit, then absolutely yes. You will know something is a stretch for you if it is new, if you feel somewhat uncomfortable at the prospect of doing it, but are also very excited at the possible results. If you are a workaholic, taking on a really big project is not a stretch, even though it may stretch your artistic abilities or juggling capacities a bit. You are still in your element and your comfort zone. An example of a stretch for a workaholic would be to take off a whole day to rest, smack in the middle of a project—pajamas, slippers, and all.
I have some exceedingly social “foodie” friends who love to eat out. They were joking about the rut they were in with the same few restaurants they frequent. They asked me if I knew of any new places they would like. I suggested that if they really wanted to try something new, they should stay at home, each cook a dish, and feed it to each other. That would be a stretch—a change that would likely feed and grow their spirits in ways they couldn’t have experienced by repeating their comfortable restaurant routine.
The “falling” part of this process is an act of faith. Most folks are afraid of falling, and it is this fear that keeps them frozen and clutching the railing on the skating rink of life. I like the word falling because it contains within it the idea of motion, and motion is what we all need when moving from one place to another. Haven’t you been paralyzed by a feeling of overwhelmingness, self-doubt, or terror when change presents itself? The idea of falling into a new situation invites you to keep moving through the “stuff” that comes up until you land in a new realm. It requires you to trust that the discomfort of your stretch will be short lived, and that the aliveness of the unknown will be waiting for you on the other side. Falling permits you to keep flowing and not get stuck in the awkwardness that usually precedes positive change.
The words stretching and falling are metaphors that help me stay connected to the process of growth and expansion in the face of the routine of daily life. I imagine stretching the hardened edges of my habits and my persona and falling more deeply into who I really am.
Are you interested in exploring this practice? Below are some stretches that you can try—though not all in one day. Give yourself a week, a month, a year to try them. Allow yourself to fall into the pleasure and awareness that await you.
Many people spend a large portion of their day commuting or running errands, and yet what transpires in the commute is rarely eventful or remembered. For one day, take off the iPod. Turn off your cell phone. Take down the to-do list on your brain’s fridge door. And when you get in your car, or walk that everyday walk to the train, or get groceries, do so with totally new eyes. Receive the amazing colors and textures of the environment around you. Soften your body. Feel your feet touching the pavement through your shoes. Connect with your pinkies. Smell the amazing and sometimes not-so-amazing scents that arise and subside. Listen to the sounds of the cars and pedestrians. Make eye contact with people you pass. Breathe into any discomfort about being so aware. Then take another breath and see what happens. Who knew you could feel more alive and connected to the world just by going to work?
It amazes me that something as simple as being fully aware of eating can be such a big stretch for so many people, including me. Try to just eat and taste your food. No phone. No TV. No music. No conversation. No inner conversations either, like arguing with yourself about all those things you wanted to have said earlier in the day but were too repressed or caught off-guard to speak about. Let it be just you, your food, your taste buds, and your digestion.
Does it make you anxious to imagine sitting with an intimate partner for five minutes without talking or having sex? It’s a stretch for many of us. Try it. It will be fascinating and bonding. No words. No embrace. Just five whole minutes of sitting on the couch with each other, making eye contact as much as possible, falling into your connection beyond words. Then discuss what it was like—and notice what happens to the connection between you when you start talking again.
Try stretching beyond your usual sexual scenarios—keeping them safe and respectful, of course. Perhaps that means going to a store to browse erotic merchandise. Let yourself fall into acceptance of the items that really turn you on. Fall through any shame that comes up. Fall into your curiosity. Or perhaps rent an X-rated film or read erotica. If these things are not a stretch, then the stretch for you is to explore lovemaking with your partner or pleasuring yourself with no fantasies, no movies or magazines, no toys. Just the physical self, its many sensations, and its life-sustaining rhythms.
We all have a story about what is happening to us. Sometimes this story helps us feel good, other times it brings us down. When you tell your current story, are you complaining or whining, or using the words, “I can’t,” He can’t,” or “She can’t?” Do you feel a victim in some way? If so, take a big pause. Stretch yourself past the story you are telling yourself, and enter into the feelings behind it. This is best done with a witness, ideally someone you love or trust deeply. Allow yourself to fall into feeling, letting emotion pass through you, until it dissipates. You could find a lot of space, freedom, and acceptance waiting for you.
And finally, love yourself, no matter what. This could be a very big stretch. Self-critical voices can be willful and insistent, but instead of arguing with them, imagine falling straight through the clouds of doubt and self-loathing right to the center of your heart. And proceed from there.