Stillness is a state of mind

“And eeeeeven when you are reaching for your toothbrush, you are dancing.” I remember my ballet teacher stretching out, cat-like, her limbs taut and lean, torso erect, one arm gesturing dramatically toward the corner of the studio. In her own masterful way, she instilled in us what Silas House describes in “The Art of Being Still,” a way of embodying your craft wherever you are, whatever you may appear to be doing. When I look back on the period of time when I was dancing, I think of it as a time when I was always dancing, just as my teacher had insisted. That meant stretching my calves at the bus stop or going over choreography in my head, but it was also something more subtle and persistent. It meant that I saw the world in relation to dance, and even the simplest aspects of daily life were metaphors for something I was learning in the studio. The flow of traffic in the halls of my high school was a chaotic, pulsing choreography. Every moment, from the sacred to the mundane, was set, in my mind, to a soundtrack of classical music.

Conversely, I also brought the studio with me into the world. The constant tension between strength and flexibility in my practice also found its way into social interactions. The discipline and intensity of my ballet training manifested itself in my studies as well.

When House explains that he gathers material for his writing while standing in line at the grocery store or biking to work, I get it. I’ve never felt exactly that way about writing, but I’ve experienced it through dance. There’s a certain state of mind that persists when your body is your tool. From the top of your shellacked bunhead to the tip of your aching toes, every part of your body seems to exist to remind you that there is work yet to be done and that whatever your other roles in life may be, you are ultimately a dancer.

It might seem odd to compare dancing with the stillness House describes, but I think it is simply a particular state of mind. It is a way of allowing the foreground of your mind to attend to the business of living, while in the background, your creative mind remains agile and supple, perhaps idling, but never turned off completely. This is not the same as multitasking or absentmindedness. If anything, it is a way of being present.

As dancers, we cultivated this state of mind through many, many hours of practice. Since we spent so many of our waking hours in the studio, it was impossible to ever really leave it behind completely. As for writing, I’ve never been quite sure how to cultivate the same sort of presence. Writing a lot helps, of course, and reading does too, I think. Not the sort of online reading, which darts rapidly from one link to another, wandering among disparate bits of information. Rather, it’s the deep reading that comes only by curling up with a paper-and-ink book and settling in for the long haul. Perhaps one’s mind is simply freer, while suspending disbelief in order to be enveloped by someone else’s world, to tinker in the background with other worlds-in-progress.