In one of the last calls of life coach training, our teacher, Dr. Martha Beck, told us a story about meeting a South American shaman. He told her that when people come to him, he always asks them, “When did you stop singing? When did you stop dancing? When did you stop dreaming? When did you stop telling stories? When did you stop playing?”
As often happened to me when listening to Martha, I felt she was talking directly to me!
Just before hearing that call, my husband and I had visited an Irish Pub in Tokyo. Most of the patrons were English-speaking ex-pats who came for the Guinness on tap or the cricket match on television. But there were a few Japanese there, too. One man was standing near the bar, alone, and dancing to American 80’s music with his eyes closed.
I flashed back to a memory of myself at eight years old. It was winter, and there was a lot of snow on the ground. We were not allowed to go outside after lunch, so my teacher brought music in for us to dance to instead. On this day she played a 45” of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.” I loved that song! I started to dance and it felt so good that I closed my eyes and let myself go! When I opened my eyes I saw that my classmates had formed a circle around me and were smiling. Encouraged, I kept on moving with the music, lost in the joy of the moment. But the next time I opened my eyes I realized my classmates were laughing at me, not with me. I was mortified. I was a little chubby and thought they must have thought my body clumsy, my movements ungraceful. No matter how much they cajoled me, I would not dance anymore. I would not open myself up like that again.
I have loosened up quite a bit since then. I regularly embarrass my children with my dancing and lip-syncing at home and in the car! But I don’t consider myself a dancer. I hardly ever sing out loud, not since the girl next to me in 7th grade choir made a toss-away comment about my inability to sing on key. I don’t consider myself an artist – my drawing never progressed beyond stick figures. It took a great act of will to out myself as a writer, though I have written almost every day of my life.
When did this happen? How did it? Who decided that only people “with talent” ought to continue expressing themselves creatively, and the rest of us should become watchers instead? Who decided that, regardless of aptitude, every child should become proficient at math and science? But art? Music? Dance? Why is it okay to let creative outlets atrophy sometime in childhood, and what does it tell us that life is about? Unless we are “good” at these things, we adults only feel free to do them when we’re alone – or drunk, in a pub — and can pretend no one is noticing.
Martha’s shaman went on to tell her that we are here to surf the mystery. That message seems antithetical to our money-focused culture, which fixates on the bottom line — on the product and whether it can be sold. In our culture we encourage children to explore the world, learn and grow through creative expression. Eventually, though, we consider their play and creativity an indulgence which they must learn to do without if it will not someday earn money. (Witness how early recess is done away with at public schools, and how little time children get for art and music.)
But the shaman’s message is that we should never stop singing, dancing, dreaming, telling stories and playing. If we do, we stop living and start simply surviving. When we open ourselves to creative expression for its own sake, just for the joy of it, we surf the mystery: we connect to our highest selves and to one another, we open ourselves up to insights, and we affirm that the experience of joy and love and physical sensations are the point of living. Babies and young children know this, but we train them out of it.
A call to action to Japanese pub man, eight-year-old Allison — everyone reading this who is over age eight: Are you a human being, and do you have a voice? Then you can sing! Do you have limbs? Then you can dance! If you have eyes to see, you can paint and draw!
How do you express yourself? Do you do something creative on a daily basis? How often do you became so absorbed in something that you lose track of time?