Flow Arts as Spiritual Community

Several years ago, my disillusionment with the spiritual communities available locally bubbled over. Nothing felt like a good fit for me theologically or culturally, and yet I yearned for intentional connection with similarly seeking and passionate people. I needed a community.

My embodied understanding of divinity and search for a non-theological, non-hierarchical, quasi-spiritual community eventually led me to the discovery of flow arts after seeing Beth Lavinder hooping at a public event, recognizing that there was something powerfully transformative happening in her in her hoop practice, and talking to her about how she learned to hoop and what it meant to her. That year, in 2009, I began to take hoop classes with Ann Humphreys, now of Line and Circle. Over time, I worked in a few classes with Baxter from Hoop Path. I became friends with people who spun poi and did aerial silks and worked with fire and felt out the boundaries of the body —  how it moves through its connections with other objects and through space.

What I found in the flow arts community was a shared sense of meaning. The meaning itself wasn’t shared, exactly; just the shared and passionate realization that each of our lives had meaning beyond the minutiae of everyday living, and that this meaning could be explored through the metaphors of how we move through and interact with our tools, how we discipline our bodies to respond to our tools, and how they become extensions of our body once we reach a state called “flow.” In the act of community-based hooping, I found acceptance (of each of us with all our varying levels, ages, and bodies) and cheering of our current skills and encouragement as we learned new, more difficult skills. In the hooping itself, I found new ways of understanding my body, greater patience for myself as I made mistakes on the path of learning, and those cherished moments of bliss in which my body disappeared into the hoop and it into me.

In the hooping community, I found a model for seeking out and creating heart-based community in which people are invited to bring their authentic, whole selves to their work as well as their play. There were hoop classes and hoop jams, but there were also fire festivals and potlucks and social events at which people were able to share who they were, how they were facing challenges, and what they were learning about themselves and their lives. The social was spiritual, in the sense of acknowledging a deep sense of purpose and offering fertile soil for meaning to be sowed and co-nurtured among similarly-impassioned (if not like-minded) people.

While my schedule left me in the periphery of the hooping world for a few years, I returned to a similar community in early 2016 when I finally started attending ecstatic dance. What initially drew me to it was feeling tired of being out of community and anxious socially, and wanting a place in my life in which I could explore interpersonal relationships and communication in a safe space, with safe people. Ecstatic dance, at least in our community, is a 90 minute “dance wave” of music that starts with slow, meditative sounds, works its way up to a high-energy, upbeat middle, and then gradually expands back into a mellow close. Some people come and dance alone for the entire dance each week; others prefer partner dancing. Many make plenty of time for both solo and partner dance. There is no talking on the dance floor; consent is essential, emphasized, and negotiated nonverbally, though just like in everyday friendships, a comfort level emerges with those who dance together regularly and consent becomes less mechanical. Anyone can decline any offer to partner dance gracefully, with no hurt feelings. Gender becomes part of the play, and many who attend consciously break up gender norms in their dress, behavior, and approach – men dance with men, women with women, women with men, and a host of gender-nonconforming folks with everyone, with no expectation that one will lead and the other will follow. Instead, the focus is on paying close attention to your partner’s nonverbal communication and allowing your bodies to match movements, falling into a dance that is comfortable and fun for both of you.

Sometimes this means partner dances are quite intimate – I’ve danced with my body entwined with another, have been part of the swirling 20-person multi-partner dances that sometimes spontaneously occur (I call this phenomenon “the amoeba”), and have ended more than one ecstatic dance wave lying on the floor in the pile of people we like to call the “cuddle puddle,” eyes closed, absorbed in shared bliss, unsure who was holding my hand or whose limb was thrown over my shoulder (or whether it was an arm or a leg). I once spent an entire song with a partner/friend and I holding each other, barely moving except to match the rhythm of our breaths. (The number of people with whom I share this level of intimacy on the dance floor, remains small and controlled – all within my comfort zone.)

Ecstatic Dance at The Flowjo
Ecstatic Dance at The Flowjo

Other times, partner dances are silly and fun, interspersed with childlike humor, games of peek-a-boo, laughter, and make believe. Sometimes, someone does something playful – starts marching around, or honks like a goose, or takes a friend’s hand and begins a chain of people that weaves in on itself – and others join in, welcoming the chance to play. In our ecstatic dance community, there are performers, singers, voice teachers, artists, and dancers. There are counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, and yoga teachers. There are accountants, architects, teachers, developers, researchers, and web designers. There are people in their early twenties, “senior citizens,” and people of all sizes and body types. Each dance flow feels like a lesson — a classroom in which social anxiety, interpersonal skills, jealousy, fear, friendship, and love can all be examined through the lens of dance metaphor.

In this community and the open, safe space it has provided, I have found much of what I had been missing in terms of spiritual community, even as much of my personal theology expresses as solitary activity and I’ve only in recent weeks even attempted to begin to articulate some of my personal beliefs to others. There are no dogmatic rules in ecstatic dance, although non-judgment, freedom of expression, and consent are key ideals. We don’t discuss theology or religious worldviews at dance as a routine, though a sense of gratitude and wonder about the universe, the shared ecstatic bliss of the dance space, and universal and personal growth patterns are regularly discussed as part of our closing circle. In social events outside of official dance spaces, we take opportunities to discuss how we are working these ideals into our larger communities and how they affect our lives. For those who aren’t huggers, none are expected. For those who enjoy touch, long hugs and leaning on friends are the norm.

There’s a lot of crossover between the hooping, ecstatic dance, and other flow arts communities, and many of the friends I’ve made in one of those circles are also involved in others. Talking to them, I know that they also see the connection between flow arts, dance, and the embodied spiritual traditions. If Spirit expresses into the world through us, our words, and our bodies, then conscious exploration of movement and sound, of mindful focus and unthinking ecstasy, and of where self and other meet in communion become ritual acts of growth and devotion to a manifest Love and embodied Divine. Shared in a community without dogma or hierarchy? Just what I needed.

Five benefits to working with established forms

Early in 1999, I was arguably at the peak of my conversion energy, a few months into my formal involvement in New Thought churches. I was so enamored of the mind-power philosophies — all I had to do is focus my mind, and I could manifest changes to improve my life. Medicine, ritual, prayer, and such were outer rituals, and while they were practiced by some of the people in my spiritual circles they were frequently presented (derided?) as crutches that you could use while you honed your mental powers. They were sort of the processed food of energy work — good enough if that’s what it took to keep you and your family from starving, but not as ideal as farm-to-table goodness.

During that time period, I lived next door to a wonderful New Age woman and her teenage Pagan daughter. They were great neighbors and good friends, and I enjoyed having people close by with whom I could talk alternative spirituality. One day, I was on the front porch chatting with my neighbor’s daughter and her boyfriend — a teenage boy solidly glowing with the enthusiasm of his own Pagan conversion energy. We noticed a big, beautiful spider web splashed across the walkway and stopped talking to admire it. The boyfriend spoke up.

“Hey, did you know I know a spell to make a dreamcatcher out of a spiderweb?”

Gently teasing, I replied. “Oh yeah? Well, I could make a dreamcatcher out of my underwear.”

At the time, I was focused almost entirely on the power of the mind and the lack of need for established forms in spiritual and religious expression. And in many ways, I was right. We don’t need to use an established form or ritual to focus the power of our minds. We don’t need a specific material object to invoke its energy, any more than we need the physical presence of a loving grandma to feel the warmth we hold in our hearts for her. We don’t need the established forms to practice a meaningful spirituality any more than we need electricity, cars, or indoor plumbing. That doesn’t make them any less nice to have when you want them, though, and nobody should ever apologize or feel badly about their mental practice if it incorporates physical forms, established and spontaneous, as focal points.

Following are five ways that using established forms can sometimes be beneficial. As always, take what works, and leave the rest.

1) Established forms build on collective energy. One of the things I love about attending services at an Episcopal church is how little the liturgy has changed over many hundreds of years. There have been tweaks to the service and wording to reflect a modern understanding of Church, and for these I am thankful. But overall, there is a direct connection between what I do in service and what millions of people have been doing since the earliest days of the church. In my nature-based practice, when I perform a simple ritual to honor the turning of the seasons, a small bluestone from a site near an ancient cairn (dated somewhere between the 17th and 14th centuries BCE) sits on my altar, calling up in me a connection to my distant ancestors who celebrated the seasonal transitions with song, dance, and offerings. When I draw upon the imagery of spiderwebs and spiders I do so with the certainty that I’m working with imagery that has been used in spiritual and storytelling imagery for a good, long time, whether it’s the imagery of a dreamcatcher, or simply a reminder to be “Some Pig.”

2) Established forms frequently transcend religious divisions. Speaking of religious experiences, Carl Jung said, “The fact is that certain ideas exist almost everywhere and at all times and they can even spontaneously create themselves quite apart from migration and tradition. They are not made by the individual, but they rather happen — they even force themselves upon the individual’s consciousness.” (Psychology and Religion) When I light a candle to acknowledge that I’m entering into sacred space, the fire that burns before me triggers an ancestral connection with the power of fire. Long-standing traditions from the monotheistic religions, Eastern religions, and ancient Pagan practices use fire as a marker of sacred space, as do several modern, even secular, practices. While some established forms are clearly the work of one specific tradition, as someone whose path is interfaith my practice is enhanced when I draw upon those that span traditions.

3) Established forms can help you venture into new territory. Sometimes, I read up on an archetype, philosophy, or tradition that I’d like to explore in more detail. As I’m unfamiliar with the new element, it can be helpful for me to have an established form to facilitate the introduction. For example, if I’m wanting to learn to use guided imagery to heal past trauma, I might benefit from using pre-written (and possibly pre-recorded) visualizations designed for that purpose. While I might eventually be comfortable with a go-with-the-flow approach, allowing spontaneous imagery to flow with and through me, prepared visualizations could provide a safe place to begin and test out the experience.

4) Established forms (at the elemental level) can provide ingredients you can mix to customize your practice. With as much diversity as there is in the expression of humanity (personality, background, race, nationality, gender, age, etc.), it is only natural that different people will experience similar rituals and traditions differently. What is meaningful to one may be less so to another; what is perfect as is for one might create a stronger impact on another with a few slight variations. In exploring established forms, I can learn how I react to different stimuli, approaches, and types of connection. As I learn more about myself and what works best for me, I can begin to craft a custom practice that is meaningful and beneficial for me, that inspires my greatest connection to The Divine, and that allows me the greatest number of opportunities to grow, learn, and manifest my potential. While my practice is always evolving and uniquely my own, it incorporates elements I’ve learned and modified to make my own as I’ve experimented with established forms.

5) Sometimes established forms are simply a more efficient way of going about your spiritual work. Let’s be honest here. Sometimes there is great value and personal fulfillment in the DIY approach. Sometimes it is simply more fun to wear the scarf you knitted yourself, or to eat the veggies you grew yourself in your own garden. Other times you want a scarf that looks or feels different, or you want pizza, or you have other things going on in your life that make it hard to maintain as full of a garden. There are times when I’m serious about an intention, so much so that I spend weeks (or more) planning out the words of the ritual, focusing on a goal, or exploring the concept. There are other times when life gets the better of me and I find myself searching the web the night before a full moon to find a prayer for a certain kind of celebration. Sometimes my long-planned rituals turn out to be far less fulfilling than I had hoped, and other times my copied and adapted prayers turn out to be powerful and insightful in a way I never expected. The universe works that way sometimes. Things happen, and as they do, they teach us and we grow. If using the established form feels right, or gets you to honor a transition that you might not have the time or motivation to honor otherwise, go ahead and use it, and without shame.

There will be times when the work takes on no elaborate form at all — you sit, you focus or open your mind. There will be times when the work takes on a form you have designed and created for yourself. And there will be times when you use an established form that has been developed and honed by others. I choose not to put any one above the other, but to keep an open mind to the possibilities along my path.