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Don't Confuse My Finger with the Moon

The Zen master brings his disciple outside one night to show him the moon. He extends his arm and points one long finger at the moon. It is full and luminescent, shining pale light. The disciple stares in rapt concentration at the Zen master's pointing finger.

“Don't confuse my finger with the moon,” he says.

A friend recently said to me, oh, X has been doing a very good job teaching you! Everything is all the teacher's doing, the student does nothing, the student is nothing without the teacher, the teacher is the one who does it all!

Teachers are indeed wonderful and worthy of respect bordering on reverence. Which is why I have to thank my own best teacher. The moon inside me.

I've spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours taking tango lessons, but I consider myself self-taught. There are very fine teachers out there, but all they can do is point at the moon. They can indicate some aspect of moonfulness that they've personally experienced, and maybe it will resonate with something inside me, and maybe it won't, and maybe it will trigger some completely new observation. Taking physical mechanics from them is just staring at their pointing fingers.

Learning is an unfathomable process. I have no idea how we do it. All I know is that I spend a lot of time playing with somatics, and I notice things, experiment, forget things, try to drink other peoples' Kool-Aids, don't do what I'm told, and somehow, over time...I don't feel like I ever get any “better,” but something shifts in my dance relationship with the world. Often what shifts has nothing to do with what I've been “working” on. Sometimes things are abrupt, sometimes they happen without my noticing them, sometimes I regress and can't stand up on two feet without falling over. Those are my favourite times, the frustrating times, when I feel like a total Muggle. They usually herald breakthroughs.

My inside moon is that thing that pipes up out of nowhere and says, “hey! Notice that? Let's listen to that! What happens if we...? And what fun things can we do with that? What does this tell us about life?” —My inside moon's attention might get caught by a shoulder, or a vertebra, or a psoas, but I know I haven't really understood what it's telling me until the thing it notices gets absorbed by the whole body and then stated as a philosophical maxim. Stepping forward into the sweet embrace of the future. Inviting the outside world into our private sphere. Etc. A recent observation that my knees were opening in boleos turned into a treatise on allowing engagement of yang energy in the perimeter to give core yin energy the fluid space it needs to ground. And no, my knees no longer open, and no, telling me to collect never ever worked. I'll never understand “collect.” Talk to me in energetics and the Tao, though, and everything clicks.

I know many dancers who do something some way because that's how their teacher did it, and then they did it a thousand times unthinkingly and memorized the action by rote.  I can't memorize, and I don't understand anything until I accidentally feel it in myself.  Then I learn what energetic or focal state makes that feeling happen, and then I reproduce the state.  I don't know the basic, I can't learn figures no matter how many times I'm shown, and it was only last month that it finally sank in that my step, unless otherwise led, was probably about the same size as my walking step (and even then, what sank in was the feeling of security and an untroubled mind, not "move your foot about eleven inches").  —There is value to obediently reciting the poem your teacher taught you.  Exposure to poetry helps us learn.  But recitation without awareness or empathic comprehension is just movement, not dance.

I think too many of us get caught up with the symptoms of dance, believing we can deduce source from periphery. I hear too many of us talking about where to put our feet, with no connection to the energetic motivation that, if heeded, will naturally put them in exactly the right place every time. I hear too many people obsessing over their hamstrings, scapulae, knee-caps, without any understanding of the greater motivation that all these body-parts are just pointingto. People come to the dance floor with bullet-pointed laundry lists of a thousand body parts to keep track of and Techniques to remember to implement. But when you dance from the outside in, you're not listening to the real teacher: your inside moon. When you really let it shine, you dance from the inside out.

And isn't that what you want to share with your partner? They feel whatever you're feeling. Do you want them to feel you ticking off items on your list? Or do you want them to feel the fruits of the most useful lesson I ever had (thank you, Bruja Alicia Pons): “it's a real embrace.”

Lessons are wonderful. I hope to keep taking lessons until the end of time. But if you really want to learn, go stare at your inside moon. If you wait with it quietly, it will spontaneously tell you everything you need to know, every time. And you will be the best dancer you can possibly be at this point in your life.