On a Path, in a Circle
A circle keeps appearing.
Sometimes it’s a very ancient circle, a group of people, a community moving and dancing in one circle. Sometimes it’s an image I saw in the newspaper this summer of a woman in a park sitting cross-legged in a circle she had drawn around herself, a reminder of what personal space looks like in Covid times. Sometimes it’s just a whisper of a circle, an intimation of something new and possible.
I wonder if these three circles are embodiments of consciousness evolving over time. The first circle, embodying collective ritual, carries and holds the group. The second circle embodies the experience of a singular self, unique and distinct from the group, a consciousness and way of being that has developed out of the first circle. And now as we try to figure out how not to feel so isolated, so separate, perhaps we are realizing that, as Janet Adler says, “individual consciousness is necessary but not enough”.
The inquiry and teaching practice that Janet has spent the past 50 years immersed in, is a relational process that develops embodied individual consciousness and leads organically over time towards the possibility of the third circle. Conscious enough individuals longing to bring their full selves and willing to participate in collective bodies may find themselves met by others within consciously embodied groups. Janet calls the practice of this developmental path, this journey, the Discipline of Authentic Movement.
In relation to circles evolving, some months ago I had been musing over something Ann Hamilton said in an interview: “Where is it we can gather and be alone together?” This question, she said, is at the heart of her practice as a “maker” of art installations. She’s interested in creating spaces that people can occupy together, provoking the “interesting intimacy” that can arise among strangers, each having their own inner experience in relation to the work. In the pandemic spring of 2020, listening to Ann’s words spoken in the winter of 2014, I felt her question had an added poignancy now that being alone and gathering carried new meaning.
Having moved some of my teaching practice to an on-line format, I am actively engaged with re-examining how I offer the Discipline of Authentic Movement. New questions come alive: How do we stay connected when we are physically separate? What is our experience of relationship as we move and witness from afar? What kind of space does Zoom provide for us to gather in? An invitation to be an on-line presenter for the October 2020 Embodiment Conference, offered an opportunity and a further challenge because, unlike working with my students, I would not be able to see or hear the participants.
The following excerpts from my presentation for The Embodiment Conference, with minor edits, include a brief history with a focus on the development of mover consciousness and witness consciousness. What are not included are the moments of practice shared during the presentation. The full recording of the event can be seen in the video at the end of this article.
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In my studio, when I teach the Discipline of Authentic Movement, we begin standing in a circle, whether in a dyad or a larger group. The circle holds the mysterious wholeness of mover and witness as one; the discipline invites an embrace of mystery and is completely centered in the intimacy of relationship. I remember Janet saying: there is no offering of the discipline without you to receive it.
The shape of our circle becomes vivid as we make eye contact and feel the unique presence of each one of us. We then turn our attention to the emptiness made palpable because of our circle. The circle holds the emptiness, invoking an experience of potency, a concentration of what is present and unseen. Out of the emptiness, each person declares aloud, their intention to be a mover or a witness, affirming their commitment to enter, to be present, not knowing what will unfold.
The Discipline of Authentic Movement calls us to a deeper knowing of two aspects of ourselves. One is what arises in us as movement and bodily experience, and the other is the part of us that is aware of the experience, our perception of what is happening. Often and for the most part, these two, experience and perception are merged, blended, in a way of which we tend to be unconscious.
What is moving us? What is the source of impulse?
The first person that I’m aware of who studied and wrote about paying attention to an emerging impulse was the dancer Isadora Duncan. She would stand alone for hours in her studio, not moving, her hands on her solar plexus, waiting for an impulse to move, seeking and eventually finding what she called the “central spring of all movement”. Reflecting on what she discovered in these explorations, she wrote in her book My Life (1927), “do you not feel an inner self awakening deep within you?‟
A few decades later, in the 1950s, Mary Whitehouse also discovered this felt sense of an inner self, awakening through movement. Mary, who had studied and performed with choreographers, Martha Graham and Mary Wigman, transformed her West Los Angeles dance studio into an empty space, inviting students to close their eyes and move in her presence as she sat to the side, inviting them into an inner experience of moving & being moved. Janet has written at length of her gratitude to Mary as her teacher and for all that she learned from her about entering the unknown and descending into inner realms through the body.
Before meeting Mary, Janet had come to her own questions about accessing the unconscious through the body. In her early professional life as a dance movement therapist, much of her work was with young children. Janet tells the story of discovering the power of the circle in a classroom setting. With her great longing for children to move freely and expressively in their bodies, she encouraged them to “move any way you want”. With such boundless permission, the children froze. Seeing this, Janet drew a chalk circle around each child, telling them that, “So long as you don’t step outside the circle, you can move any way you want.”
A boundary can be a boon to freedom. An intentional circle offers a form one can step into, a safe containment of infinite possibility.
During that time, Janet also worked with children with severe autism. In her groundbreaking film, “Looking For Me” (1970), she moves with individual children, mirroring their spontaneous, classically autistic gestures, reflecting their embodied world back to them. In the film, it is possible to see over time, just as Janet did, the dawning of relational consciousness within the child. Small sparks of awareness of self, awareness of another, glimmers of something significant which years later Janet would name the inner witness.
I am currently in the midst of working with my colleague, Bonnie Morrissey, in collaboration with Janet, on a book of her collected writings (to be published by Inner Traditions in Spring 2022). In reading through 50 years of Janet’s writing, Bonnie and I were amazed to discover the word “discipline” in her very first published piece from 1968. In describing her research and work with the children, she writes, “I was hesitant to demand of myself any ‘laboratory’ discipline, as I knew it would involve a new kind of work”.
A couple of years later, during a period of immersive study with Mary Whitehouse, Janet wrote in her journal that “this is the discipline I’ve been looking for, ready for”. To Mary’s inquiry about self-development through a process of moving and being moved, Janet brought her own questions about consciousness developing because of relationship, because of the process of seeing and being seen.
What in us is aware of the experience?
Here we turn to the other aspect of ourselves, the part of us that perceives. From Mary, Janet received a form and what she brought to this form was the recognition that relationship is the container, a living vessel shaped by the presence of one person embodying the role of mover and another person embodying the role of witness. Within this vessel of relationship is something else: the potential vibrancy of the empty space between mover and witness. Here, the exacting details and the full scope and mystery of human experience can be welcomed and held. Processes of transformation and healing can unfold.
In the presence of a witness, and in relation to an emerging impulse, how do we feel about being seen? It could be, among many possible responses that I don’t want this to be seen. Or…how I long for someone to see me. Or…is this okay to be seen? Or…who is seeing this?
Each of these and a myriad of other responses would inform whether we choose to follow an impulse or not. In the process of being seen by another we learn to see ourselves. We can come to know and recognize our own patterns arising out of our personal history. We may also come to know and embody our experiences of the numinous, the mystical, arising from a source that is not personal or historic.
In the late 1970s, Janet transitioned from working as a dance movement therapist to her own path of teaching. Integrating what she had learned in her work with the children and from her two most influential teachers, Mary Whitehouse and psychologist, John Weir, Janet came to be guided by a question—Who Is The Witness?
I marvel at how long Janet has held and witnessed the unfolding of this question. I’m reminded of something else that Ann Hamilton said, reflecting on her own process: “You don’t know what it is for a really long time… you kind of have to cultivate the space around you where you can trust the thing that you can’t name….a space that allows you to dwell in that not knowing”.
Janet’s question has guided her tracking of the discipline as it evolved in studio practice with students over decades, maturing over time as its own distinct practice. In recent years, as Janet steps back from teaching, a program called Circles of Four has emerged, founded by Janet with an international group of faculty and designed to prepare students who want to teach the discipline.
For me, and in this work, the question, Who is the Witness—holds the deep desire I imagine we all share— to be seen, understood, and welcomed as we are, as I am in my essential wholeness. This question also holds the longing to know myself. To recognize the way my habits of mind, my projections and associations and judgments may cloud and obscure my perception of others, my clear seeing of others in their essential wholeness.
In becoming aware of our inner processes of perception in the context of our experience, we may discover how harsh our inner observer can be—full of judgment directed toward ourselves, our bodies, toward other people and their bodies. But we may also discover another quality so completely different from this more critical inner voice, that it can feel like a whole other being within us, a benevolent presence, full of acceptance and compassion—this is the developing inner witness.
In the practice of the discipline, this longing to know and see oneself clearly, to feel seen enough by an outer witness leads organically to our longing to see others clearly. In this way, the path towards being a witness starts with being a mover in relation to a witness. It is the beginning of a path of development that leads from ways of knowing grounded in duality to unitive states of consciousness, intuitive knowing, where what is moving within and our perception of what is moving is directly known in undivided consciousness.
What in us is opening to Witness Consciousness?
I am grateful to the organizers of The Embodiment Conference for providing an opportunity to offer a small experiment of intimate connection through moving and witnessing within a circle as wide as the world. I am especially grateful for each person who attended, accepting my invitation to remember someone in their life with whom they felt seen. Because of each one who participated, sharing initials or first names of a witness through Zoom’s chat feature, we evoked a vast and loving circle, creating a space to enter—alone and together.
I was deeply moved by what became palpable, as movers from within their own separate spaces shared through chat, a brief moment of their movement in the voice of their embodied inner witness. Glimmers of something significant. Perhaps this taste of witness consciousness on a global scale is our work of the next fifty years. May our longing be met, to support each other and be supported in cultivating a more intimate sense of embodied relationship with ourselves, with others.
As we listen beneath the visible, something is stirring. As we listen for what is moving, something is emerging. As we stay close to our embodied experience we can listen for what is ready to be spoken.
With gratitude for support in preparing this presentation, I extend special thanks to Nina Kungurova…. to Stephanie Turner…. to Bonnie Morrissey…and to my teacher, Janet Adler.
Looking for Me excerpt
Janet’s film, Looking for Me (1970), is available for purchase through the American Dance Therapy Association, along with her film, Still Looking (1989).
Circle images (from left to right) Ancient circle: Communal Performance and Ritual Practice in the Ancestral Puebloan Era of the American Southwest, Claire Halley, Cambridge University Press, Wood circle: Photographed by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird, Distanced circle: San Francisco Chronicle – May 21, 2020, Red onion circle: photographed by Paula Sager, Authentic Movement Circle: Photographed by Stephanie Turner
Janet Adler 1980’s, photographer unknown
Looking for Me still from the film Looking for Me (1968)
Moving + Witnessing photographed by Joan Webb
Mover photographed by Stephanie Turner