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The Aging Dance

Lanny HarrisonCOLUMN: Aging in Shambhala
A conversation between Lanny Harrison and Andrea Sherman

Andrea: Could you tell us about your background in terms of the dharma, the arts and how aging fits into all of this?

Lanny: I’ll go back to when I first heard about Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, because it was an important turning point for me. I was on tour with Meredith Monk doing Education of The Girlchild and I realized I was longing for some kind of practice. I went to hear Trungpa Rinpoche and his teachings spoke to me; there was a lot of…connecting the dots when I heard him.

I could never separate myself as an artist and myself as a Buddhist practitioner. Not that you do these things at the same time. When you are sitting you are sitting, when you are dancing you are dancing, but the view, the mindfulness awareness and extraordinary intelligence, that’s why many artists connected to the path.

Chogyam Trungpa said it is a choiceless matter. Once you put your foot on that path…he said, “I’m going to haunt you.”

How do I connect to the world as an artist? An artist teacher, who can speak to people’s suffering? How can the creative process soothe the heart and soothe the body? Certainly I had experienced that in my own life, with my students, with my friends who are artists and their students. I’ve experienced that for many years.

Andrea: How does this relate to growing older?

Lanny: I just turned 70. I realize that as I am getting older everything is the dharma. It permeates everything that I do – mindfulness awareness practice, the practice of sitting meditation and experiencing the vibrancy of now, experiencing the body getting older, the law of impermanence and how sometimes it can shine. Yes we are getting older, but each moment has life.

As I get older, my eyes, my ears, are more attuned to the suffering of the world because I am realizing that I need to hear the whole story – about something that happened in India, like the stoning of a woman, like the drones killing women and children. I feel, as I am getting older that I need to educate myself all of the time in terms of what is going on in the world.

The fear factor is starting to lessen, and the curiosity, the discovery factor is becoming fuller, even though the depression factor at times is greater. I’m not going to die from depression, about how hard the world is sometimes. I am going to pay attention to it. It is like your antennae get honed and they can move in a lot of different directions as you get older. Sometimes if I find myself dipping into darkness, I sit, I lean into it, and as Pema would say, I breathe, it moves, it’s not solid. I dance.

Speaking of dancing, in some ways as I am getting older I feel that my dancing is fuller, more interesting, even though I have more physical limitations. I feel like the limitations move around so they are not always the same ones. Some are, but you can work with them, that’s the other great teaching. Trungpa Rinpoche always said everything is workable. And that includes the aging process. We work with it and it is difficult, but – so it’s difficult!

I am also more and more interested in what lineage means, and this summer I will be teaching with Jerry Grannelli and Barbara Bash at the ALIA Institute in Halifax. We are leading an intergenerational group about lineage, about how young peoples’ voices can rise. We are teaching spontaneous performance, improv based on what can be contained within structure. So we are going to be working with young people, because it is our responsibility – which we are embracing.

Andrea: You mentioned curiosity, and I know from your improv class, “Characters in Motion,” that this is helpful for people as they are aging, that sense of improvisation.

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 6.44.41 AMLanny: What’s great is that we have quite a big age span. The ones on the older end, perhaps physically, they won’t be rolling around on the floor, doing somersaults, but it doesn’t matter. What they are getting is a chance to practice strongly with mindfulness awareness through their physical bodies, synchronizing body, speech, and mind.

How can we practice synchronizing body, speech, and mind? These are all deep muscles, deep parts of ourselves and when we work them, it is like massaging that imagination muscle, moving through the space, connecting with others in that same way. We are honing sensitivity, spontaneity, joy – and we are connecting all parts of ourselves. We are practicing on so many different levels and sometimes our selves are just our ear, sometimes our selves are movement throughout space, and sometimes our selves are in a duet with someone else, feeling the other in the space.

Andrea: Sometimes it’s hard to articulate the effects of the aging process. There are losses along the way, and it seems that your class offers opportunities to express these primordial emotions.

Lanny: I think there is a misconception around this issue of aging and creative expression. Maybe you will retire from a job, but in terms of retiring from creating, from your own being, you don’t need anything, it costs very little, but it pays big.

Everyone can express themselves, and you can do it until you die. My mother had dementia, she was 95, and we were still singing together. She would start singing a song and she would say, “What are the lyrics?” Or we would just hum. That exchange was important to her until she died. We keep on challenging ourselves through creative expression. As Chogyam Trungpa said, you get “feedback from the phenomenal world,” and it does not have to be confirmation. That’s an important point. We are not practicing for confirmation in the workshop – “oh you were so good.” We don’t talk that much about results here. We are being with each other, tending to each other, watching, doing. We are challenging ourselves to dig a little deeper. Through practice we are digging deeper.

And I think it makes for a kind of flexibility, which the Sakyong talks about too. He talks about flexible mind…well it’s about how we are we viewing this, holding this in our mind, processing this in our mind.

Andrea: I remember reading recently that Trungpa Rinpoche said that meditation is celebration – joy. How does that relate?

Lanny: It’s not just challenges, discipline. I think that as humans we want to dance. As humans we want to dance with each other, we want to create with each other, and I love the word celebration because it is an ongoing thing. It isn’t always goal oriented. In the workshop we don’t know how it is going to pan out. It’s an ongoing celebration, and at times we are all laughing – the juxtaposition, the commitment between people doing something ridiculous and sublime together.

~~
­­­Lanny HarrisonLanny Harrison is a character actress, dancer and cabaret artist. She began her career in the New York Pantomime Theater in 1966, has performed a number of theatrical duets, and has been a member of The House, Meredith Monk’s theater company, since 1969. She has an ongoing workshop at the New York Shambhala Center and has taught at Naropa University for many years. Since 2000, she has been a member of the Shambhala Arts team at the ALIA Institute in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is also on the faculty of the Gallatin division of NYU where she teaches a theater course integrating Eastern contemplative disciplines and Western theatrical technique. Since 1973, she has practiced Tibetan Buddhism as a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and is certified as a meditation instructor.

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2 responses to “ The Aging Dance ”
  1. Kirk Cornwell
    Jun 28, 2013
    Reply

    Liked the reminders to ease up on “results” and the need for “confirmation”. I see a lot of my middle-aged contemporaries hitting a wall there that blocks self-acceptance and happiness.

  2. Reading this was like diving into the waters and emerging refreshed and invigorated and full of life, full of joy.

    To think of Celebration as something that is not goat oriented, to think of The Ridiculous merging into The Sublime, to think that there are uses for aging and being creative about that…

    And always, the movement!

    Keep moving through your 70 years, Lanny, and take us with you as it were!


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