“You don’t like my friends.” “You’re so in your own world you hardly see me.” “You could never even dance with me …” With each phrase my heart sank deeper into my anguished belly, searing both for their truth and for their linkage to my partner’s affair. While I had heard these themes before, I brushed them off. After initiating meditation in the relationship’s messy aftermath, I began to appreciate the ways in which my fusion to these stories about my identity—e.g., “I can’t dance with partners because I have no mirror neurons”—engendered suffering and delusion.
At a recent bluegrass concert, I was transported back in time to the moments I was first exposed to this music with my ex-partner. The toe-tapping tunes are infectious and nostalgic, curling notes into bones and spiriting limbs to movement. At such concerts we’d watch others dance, but after several failed and clumsy attempts together, my impatience foreclosed his efforts. “I just can’t do partner dance,” I’d sigh in frustration, sashaying away to my own rhythm.
Samskara are sometimes so powerful that they warp even our spirituality, strengthening our maladaptive patterns rather than transforming them. For years, I used yoga philosophy to legitimize my avoidance of partner dance and connection with others. I confused my personality with my soul or essence, justifying my interpersonal anxieties with the belief that social life conflicted with my dharma and divine nature (Atman). I longed for the life of an ascetic; to retreat from the world, which I found so painful, and to live instead in a cabin, immersed in kundalini reverie like my beloved Swami Kripalu.
And then, the ice water, the affair, shattered my world. The meditations following birthed crystalline clarity, as I began to realize these patterns were learned samskara, rather than eternal and unchangeable truths.
The “I can’t dance” samskara goes way back, to middle school, to being taunted for my odd style of dancing and the awkward trampling of my partners’ feet. In high school my dance team try-out spectacularly failed; the other girls formed a choreographed, beautifully synchronized cadence while I awkwardly flailed to keep up, far out to the left (and not just symbolically). At the party celebrating their dance team acceptance, the VHS depicting my demonstrable lack of mirror neurons was played repeatedly, I was told, to endless laughter.
This story threads roots both familial and ancestral. Early on, I came to believe I was unable to synchronize or connect with others on a deep level. “My” personality and preferences—highly individualistic, self-sufficient, a loner—followed suit, scaffolding this core belief and defensively masking a sense of alienation.
This concert was bittersweet, for it was my first time seeing a bluegrass show since we parted, and the “other woman” was a bluegrass musician. With strong memories and tender heart, I struggled to remain in the present. Sharing these sentiments as my friend and I watched some old-timers carouse on the dance floor, I concluded with the well-worn story, “But, I can’t dance with others.” At that moment, a dapper gentleman’s hand materialized. Speaking over my protestations—“I’m a good leader, don’t worry about it”—he whisked me away.
Whether it was the wine, my meditation practice, the right moment—I’ll never know. I let go, surrendered and allowed myself to be led, released my tired story and was danced. I barely noticed the once or twice I lightly stepped on his feet, feeling only the swelling in my heart, the memory of my teacher’s words from retreat—“you are not your story, you are not your conditioning (samskara), you can embody a different way of being,” and feeling, for the first time, hope.
Hope for the future, for relationship, for evolution—that I can enter the world of others, that I do have mirror neurons, that when I show up in this moment, I transcend my samskara and the limitations that entails. And hope for all beings, that they too may recognize the conditioning that gives rise to suffering and separation, and so will come to know the deathless.
This is freedom. And in eight years of practicing yoga asana and pranayama without consistent meditation, I had yet to taste its sweetness.