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Dance movement therapy contextualised within a Shambhala Buddhist Vision of Enlightened Society.

Context :

This essay was written during my visiting scholarship to Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado U.S.A, August – December 2016. Naropa is a Buddhist inspired University founded in 1974 by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Naropa combines a Tibetan Science of Mind with a third level western education. I had the opportunity to audit classes in; Dance Movement Therapy, Ikebana traditional Japanese Flower Arranging, Mudra Space Awareness Ensemble Actor Training and Shambhala Meditation Practicum: An Introduction To Meditation Practice and Dharma Reading . Please note, I am not a dance movement therapist and therefor the ideas discussed in this essay are from an outside observer perspective. Perhaps they can facilitate discussion between the practice of dance movement therapy and the psychological metaphors employed within Shambhala Culture.

This paper intends to frame dance movement therapy within the context of Shambhala Culture. I suggest that this vocabulary can function as psychological metaphors in the therapeutic process. I suggest that movement practices, such as contact improvisation, can be considered Shamatha – Vipassana meditation in the same way as sitting and walking practices are within the Shambhala tradition. I also suggest that Dance Movement Therapy is a Dharma Art, that it uplifts the human soul and restores the inherent dignity of the human being. Additionally I detail Trugpa’s idea of Authentic Presence and how this may relate the notion of ‘presence as protest’ from an embodied dance perspective.

‘The way of cowardice is to embed ourselves in a cocoon, in which we perpetrate our habitual patterns of behaviour and thought. We never have to leap into fresh air or onto fresh ground. (Trungpa: 1984: 51)

Trugpa describes the cocoon as those habitual patterns that condition human behaviour into fixed ways of thinking and doing. From a dance movement therapy perspective, the cocoon may provide a metaphor for those habitual patterns of behaviour exhibited in a patience’s movement. A patient’s ‘movement cocoon’ could be an index of deeper psychological and emotional trauma. While the cocoon plays an important developmental role in child rearing, as adults we have a tendency to repeat the same ways of thinking and doing over and over again to the point of becoming redundant – we make the same mistakes over and over again – A dance movement therapist could use the metaphor and image of the cocoon as a movement stimulus allowing patient’s to explore their cocoon kinaesthetically in the space.

In Shambhala culture the Cocoon relates to Jung’s notion of the Shadow – those least desirable aspects of our personality that we ignore due to their ‘unsavoury’ nature. In fact, the Cocoon may be those defence mechanisms that shelter us from our Shadow, our neurosis. A classical Buddhist metaphor for realising one’s inherent enlightened nature is the lotus flower blooming from the mud. The mud is a metaphor for the Shadow that contains the seeds for our own self – actualisation. Again Shambhala culture provides dance movement therapists with a practical metaphor for exploring the shadow through the kinaesthetic sense. A dance movement practitioner is also given sage advice as to how to work with their own and other’s shadow – with genuine sympathy-.

‘Basic Goodness is very closely connected with the idea of Bodichitta in the Buddhist tradition. Bodhi means “awake” or “wakeful” and “citta” means heart, so Bodichitta is “awakened heart”. Such awakened heart comes from being willing to face your state of mind’
(Trugpa: 1984 : 30)

Basic Goodness my provide a therapist with a general ethics of best practice and way of relating to their patient. Basic Goodness is the natural state of the human being as compassionate, intelligent and wise. From this perspective, any neurosis exhibited by the patient is merely their unresolved shadow expressed through their ‘cocoonish’ behaviour. Of course, from a clinical point of view this may be a naive statement. It may be that there are some people that are born with a genetic disposition towards perverse behaviour, yet, the basic attitude of Basic Goodness remains valid – that no human is beyond repair and fully capable of realising their virtue. The symbol for Basic Goodness is the Sun which is the universal sign for divine wisdom. This symbol can be traced back to the Egyptian king of the Gods Ra. Again, Shambhala offers a useful metaphor for creative arts therapists, the journey from the mud to the sun, the inner battle with the shadow to discover the light.

‘The Great Eastern Sun world is a flowering plant that grows up towards the sun… Setting Sun hierarchy is a lid that flattens you and keeps you in your place’
(Trugpa: 1984: 48)

Trungpa’s notion of the Great Eastern Sun is contrasted with the Setting Sun. These metaphors operate as a dualism and function both on the personal and cultural level. The Setting Sun is an attitude that dons’t respect life or acknowledge death. A Setting Sun attitude seeks to fan the flames of neurosis; passion, aggression and ignorance where as the wisdom of The Great Eastern Sun cuts through the shadow towards the dignity of the human heart.

Embodying Basic Goodness is to realise The Great Eastern Sun. To realise one’s inherent human dignity independent of external materialism. A society that organises itself around The Great Eastern Sun cultivates a natural hierarchy where human society collaborates, preserves, and learns from the natural environment. A Setting Sun Vision of the world, perpetuates a wasteful and materialist culture that privileges the self serving and individualistic ‘I’ at the expense of others and the natural environment. Such a culture creates arbitrary social hierarchies that bolster the privilege of the few over suffering minorities.

From a dance movement therapy perspective, the attitude of The Setting Sun perpetuates the systems of class – race and environmental oppression that affects the most vulnerable. Setting Sun may be described as collective neurosis (society /culture) where as the cocoon in the individual’s neurosis. Yet from a Buddhist perspective, there is no difference between the individual and the society, ‘the darkness or light I see in the world in a reflection of my heart’ . Movement therapists are given a rich metaphor – moving from the Setting Sun to the Rising Sun. The metaphor illustrates the individual and collective journey towards virtue.

‘Acknowledging fear is not a cause of depression or discouragement, because we poses such fear we are also potentially entitled to experience fearlessness. Fearlessness is not the reduction of fear but going beyond it’ (Trugpa: 1984 : 33)

In order to unpack one’s cocoon and to jump into the fresh ground of Basic Goodness to realise the dawning of The Great Eastern Sun, therapist and patient alike must embody courage to encounter one’s fear in-order to convert it into insight. In this respect, patient and therapist are Shambhala Warriors in that they are willing to meet the shadow of their mind with gentleness.

In Summery, Shambhala culture offers useful psychological metaphors for dance movement therapists to explore with their patients kinaesthetically in space. At a rational level these metaphors may seem naive and simplistic. Yet Shambhala symbols aren’t rational, like dream images, they function as way to access the unconscious mind . They are metaphors to be actively contemplated and personalised.

The Shambhala symbols are used by Trungpa to effectively communicate The Teachings of The Buddha to a western audience. In Tibetan Buddhism, The Dharma – the eternal law of the cosmos, inherent in the very nature of things – is discovered through intellectual learning and the embodied practice of meditation. Studying the teachings of the Buddha and practicing Meditation are described as the two wings of the Dharmic Path. From a western perceptive, this is the dialogue between theory and practice. Ideas and concepts are actively explored and tested through practical inquiry . ‘The Truth’ or ‘The Dharma’ is realised through this ongoing dialogue between the rational mind and the embodied experience.

Shamatha – Vipassana or Mindfulness – Awarenes meditation is an example of one such embodied practice. Shamatha is translated from Sanskrit as ‘calm’ or ‘peaceful’ ‘abiding’ were as Vipassana is the Sanskrit for ‘awareness’ or ‘insight’. Shamatha – Vipassana practice hinges upon the individual’s innate ability to focus the mind on an object of concentration e.g the body or breath. In doing so, the individual recognises the difference between bare attention – non conceptual embodiment of one’s senses – and conceptual mind – the ideological thoughts, images and narratives that attempt to justify and codify the raw emotion or sensation.

The process of unpacking the cocoon is to embody the raw emotional landscape of one’s psyche rather than fulling the story line of discursive thoughts around the raw emotion or sensation. Meditation teaches the individual that they are not their thoughts or emotions, that these feelings and inner monologues are transitory – like clouds passing through the sky.

Contemplative dance my provide a dance movement therapist with a Shamatha – Vipassana meditation analogous to the practice of sitting and walking meditation in Shambhala Culture. For example, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness as handed down from Siddhārtha Buddha places an emphasis on the following;

Body – awareness of physical form and it’s sensations

Feeling – awareness of one’s emotional landscape

Mind – awareness of one’s thoughts

Sense Perceptions – awareness of ones sense of: touch, smell – taste, hearing and sight

(Fergeson: 2009 : 25)

These classical Buddhist instructions – the For Foundations of Mindfulness – refer to sitting meditation within Shambhala and Buddhist Culture, however, I suggest that they are useful instructions within a dance movement therapy session. My experience of contact improvisation is that the object of attention becomes the sense of touch which then gives access to smell – taste, hearing and sight. Once the body has been sensitised through a heightening of the sense perceptions then the subtler aspects of the emotional and mental body can be felt.

The dance movement therapist would work with the patient through this practice as a means of unpacking the patient’s cocoon and helping them to realise their basic goodness. In this way patient and therapist are practicing the principles of Shambhala Warriorship by synchronising mind and body.

‘The basic idea of authentic presence is that, because you achieve some merit or virtue, therefore that virtue begins to be reflected in your being, your presence’

(Trungpa :2007:183)

In Shambhala Culture, Outer Authentic Presence is achieved through right moral action – contributing to the uplifting of society through the practice of virtuous actions. Inner Authentic Presence is generated by realising one’a personal ethics. In both cases, mediation and the synchronisation of mind and body is required to facilitate of introspection. The feeling of authentic presence for me is experienced as if the space of the mind where encompassing neurosis. Life becomes a workable joy. Many a time after a contact improvisation session or after a meditation I feel this Authentic Presence . My internal monologue is quite, my body is relaxed and strong, my senses are heightened and I perceive an inherent beauty in all that I see. This state of being described by Trungpa as Authentic Presence may provide individuals with a personal protest against the neurosis and confusion of the world. During a Dance Movement Therapy Class at Naropa University, the lecture, Wendy Allen, suggested to the class that;

‘In these times of uncertainty’

( Trump had just been inaugurated into office)

My protest is to stay grounded’.

(Allen: Naropa University: 2016)

Perhaps Wendy’s sentiments resonate with Turngpa’s notion of Authentic Presence. That the most powerful thing to do in the face of confusion is to stay ‘earthed’, ’rooted’ and to maintain the mindbody connection through the breath. In Trungpa’s, terms to maintain ‘Basic Sanity’. Again, we see a similarity between Shambhala Culture and Dance Movement Therapy – to return the human being to their original state of being that is basically good, fundamentally wakeful and simply alive. In this respect Dance Movement Therapy and Shmahbala Culture are Dharma Arts, which is;

‘..simply the activity of non – aggression..’
(Trungpa:1994: 2)

In conclusion, dance movement therapists can contextualise their work within a Shambhala View of Enlightened Society. Shambhala offers a rich vocabulary of phycological metaphors that can be used to plumb the depth of the unconscious mind through kinaesthetic play. Contemplative dance, such a contact improv, can function as Shamatha – Vipassana practice for the cultivation of peaceful abiding and insight. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness provide a structure in which this exploration can take place. The synchronisation of body and mind brings about a Natural Elegance that is the best kind of protest in the face of the confusion in the world. By encountering their Cocoon or Shadow, patients and movement therapists are Shambhala Warriors because they have the courage to accept and transcend their neurosis. In this regard dance movement therapy is a Dharma Art – a way in which to realise one’s inherent virtue.


Allen, W (2016), Introduction to Dance Movement Therapy, Naropa University, Paramita Campus, Boulder, C.A, U.S.A

Ferguson, G, (2009), Natural Wakefulness: Discovering The Wisdom Were Born With, Boston, Shambhala Publications Inc

Trungpa C. R, (1992), True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art, Boston, Shambhala Publications Inc

Trungpa C. R, (2007), Shambhala: The Sacred Path of The Warrior, Boston, Shambhala Publications Inc

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