From Sheltering in Place to Dancing on Shifting Ground

For days a robin has been flying into the glass doors of my studio, bouncing off and then standing nonplused on the deck, looking back at the glass with, what I take to be utter consternation. Then she goes at it again, hurling herself against the glass, bouncing off and then standing four feet away confused, I suppose gathering resolve for the next, duty-bound attempt.

At first, I thought she might be a pregnant female looking for a good nesting site. Worried, I did a bit of robin-nesting research online and built a small bird-house along the lines of what I’d seen on birding sites. I mounted the little house on the exterior wall of the studio, where the robin could see it. I even collected some nesting materials—grasses, sticks, and mud. But the robin took no interest and continued bashing herself against every glass window and door. Alarmed, I sent off emails to various birding sites asking if anyone had seen something similar.

In just a few hours I had received a half dozen replies. (Birders are a devoted clan.) Everyone agreed that my lady robin was not a lady at all. He was a male staking out territory, and when faced with his reflection in the glass, he saw a competitor and was obliged to challenge him. Crestfallen and a bit embarrassed for my sheltering-in-place romanticism, I went out to shoo the macho away and wish him well.

There seems to be an unavoidable metaphor lurking here: We can be so invested in defending and perpetuating our ideas about ourselves and the world that we will bash ourselves against our projections ad nauseam, ignoring the visceral, immediate feedback from the phenomenal world.

View from the studio. Photograph by author.

In this time of sheltering in place, I’ve found it helpful to step back to give myself a pause, a gap and breathing room to feel how I’m doing—to assess how I’ve been living, what I’ve lost track of, what I miss and long for. This may be a precious opportunity for all of us to reassess: to reflect on what is important; what each of us truly cares about; what may be out of balance in our life, in our society, and our world.

I’m an old dancer, tai chi practitioner, and meditator. I have a daily movement practice that I rely on to remind me to come back to basic simplicity, to touch into what’s going on for me physically, emotionally, and mentally.

The practice is radically simple: I start by lying on the floor and tuning into my breath. Releasing with gravity into the support of the floor, I begin to slide and roll until, getting my legs underneath me, I slowly come to standing, as if for the first time. I allow myself to feel whatever I’m feeling, for the body to inform and move me. I acknowledge and honor what is genuine at this moment, letting the movement arise and express itself without analyzing, judging, or suppressing. Release, release, release. Little by little I dance out the joy, the sorrow, the loss, the loneliness, the aching heart of longing for connection with those I love and miss and those I don’t know and will never meet. Whatever comes is fresh, pre-thought, visceral, and vibrant.

You don’t need a special space, method, or outfit. If music helps, use it. But at some point, dance in silence, listening deeply to the currents of your inner rivers and tides that join you with the immense, luscious space that sustains us.

Ah, not to be cut off
not, through the slightest partition
shut off from the law of the stars.
The inner—what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.

—Rainer Maria Rilke1

You can share this practice with someone you trust to honor its journey of intimacy, awkwardness, vulnerability, and discovery. Or, it can be a powerful solitary practice in which to meet ourselves deeply: what we fear, hold back, long for, already know so well.

There is no right or wrong way. This is a practice of daring. We can invite, explore, feel, and embody the entire field of our experience. There is wisdom in the unlabeled, uncensored experience of dancing with our life as it is.

The woods out back. Photograph by author.

Some afternoons when I’m in the studio, a lady fox trots through the woods below as the light is fading, returning to her den. Tonight, she pauses, executes a sumptuous downward-fox stretch, and lies down. From my window, she seems to be assessing the state of our relationship, its ongoing viability, my trust-worthiness as a neighbor, and her safety. In past years she has raised cubs here in close proximity to us humans. She is wise, resilient, and gorgeous, her full red tail waving like an ink-filled brush quivering over the canvas of white snow. Her dignity and magnanimity—the gleam in her dark eyes. My heart surges with an urgent sense of communion and responsibility when she appears and rests a few moments, just yards from me. I have much to learn from her about my place in our shared world and our web of mutual interdependence.

When I go to town for supplies I’m struck by my abrupt connection with others, particularly strangers. With most of our faces hidden behind masks, what remains uncovered is our eyes. What stops me, moves me, is that we are truly meeting one another’s eyes, staying, not turning away. It feels to me that we are acknowledging a need to share an intimacy and vulnerability that in “normal times” we often bypass and ignore. Now, it seems to me, meeting in this slightly awkward intimacy, a contagion of tenderness and courage is transmitted, warmth and support to the person in front of us. We often take for granted another human presence, both our shared fragility and power. It’s too frightening to nakedly meet the gaze of another, to pause and drink in that open-ended, vast, and frightening connection. Now, everything is different.

The pandemic has exposed so many interrelated inequities, injustices, and hypocrisies structurally embedded in our society. Perhaps this moment of disruption and uncertainty offers an opportunity to examine received and accepted assumptions about our individual lives, our relationships, and what ultimately constitutes a good and healthy society.

When things fall apart, there can be sudden glimpses of possibility; our realities are not bound by old assumptions, but are wide open and free of the limitations of habits. Embodiment practices empower us to stay present with uncertainty. They nurture a sense of daring and possibility that we can renew within ourselves and then bring out into the world when it is safe for public life to reopen. We can learn to dance on shifting ground, to celebrate one another and transform our world.

Sheltering in place is an opportunity to fully come home, to embrace our quaking hearts, to appreciate the raw truthfulness of living in this, our moment, and to access our intelligence, creativity, and the tenderness and longing to connect and care for one another.

Every evening at 8, we go outside and join our neighbors, sending our voices out into the darkening sky in gratitude and affirmation. The choir of town dogs sets the pitch and we chirp in, howling for all we’re worth.

I send peace and solidarity. Keep moving with sadness and joy!

Rick Merrill is professional dancer and choreographer. He performed and taught for many years in New York City and Europe and most recently was a faculty member in the Theatre and Dance Department of Western Washington University. A member of the Shambhala Buddhist community since 1974, Rick teaches meditation and embodied contemplative movement.

Return to contents page of Practice, Resilience, and Compassion in the Time of COVID-19.

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  1. Rainer Maria Rilke, Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell (New York: Random House, Inc., 1995).