Madly Singing in the Mountains

Orgiva  4th February 2018
Snowy Pilgrimage to Green Tara
On the last Sunday of my retreat I had the priviledge of having an official walking guide called Santiago, take me on a little known walk to the Buddhist Centre that is hidden away, high in the Alpujarras. The Dalai Lama and the Alpujarras have a surprisingly strong connection…more about that another time. The forecast was for snow and rain, and right up until that morning there had been doubt about whether it would be possible to walk in these poor conditions. However, I was hopeful, and put all my layers on with a waterproof over the top. I had developed such bad blisters from my boots that I couldn’t wear them any longer, and when Santiago picked me up, he was both amused and horrified that I was wearing sandals. As we drove to the start of the walk, sandals looked even more inappropriate because it began to snow and cover the ground the higher we climbed. 
When we got out of the van at about 1600 metres up, it was bitterly cold with fine snow swirling in the bracing mountain air. In spite of all my layers the icy wind penetrated right through to my bones so I was pleased that Santiago set off at the kind of pace which would keep us warm. The views at this height were breath taking and as we climbed higher and higher I grew more overwhelmed to the point of tears by the tremendous power, size and natural beauty of these mountains. Up here we were in the National Park and it was full of trees and animals. We followed the tracks of a fox for a while along the edge of an acequia, one of the ancient irrigation channels that create a network across these Alpujarra mountains, taking melting snow down into the valleys all year and throughout the parched summer. We also saw the tracks of a stoat or weasel and evidence of wild boars rummaging and foraging. 
After an hour or two our way began to descend and we watched the clouds swirl and ebb like sea foam mounding up in the valleys. The cloud eventually reached us, plunging us into a white world of mist where the leafless trees loomed like ghosts. I was very glad to have someone with experience up here as it became increasingly difficult to keep some orientation. Our way took us past a mirador, a viewpoint which would have been spectacular had we been able to see more than 4 or 5 metres ahead.  We continued on, not following any footpath now but descending on an open field and down towards the Buddhist community.  Out of the swirling mist I began to discern a structure ahead of us. This was the shrine of the Green Tara, one of Buddhisms Bhoddisatvas. She was startlingly large, perhaps 2.5 metres, with full round breasts, beautiful hands, one held in a mudra (a ritual hand gesture) and the other facing upwards in a welcoming gesture.
She was raised on a plinth in the middle of a large man made pond and she was beautiful. I learned that she was the Bodhisattva of compassion and action who comes to help us in our physical, emotional and spiritual suffering and we must circumnavigate the pond three times whilst singing her mantra to gain the benefit of her blessing. Without hesitation Santiago took my hand and began to walk and sing. After a moment of self consciousness, I began to sing too; Om tare, tuttare, ture, soha… Then something strange and mysterious happened. The fog began to swirl around the pond, and overhead it began to get brighter. We continued walking and singing as the light whitened the air around us. My eyes which had grown used to the fog began to water in the brightness, and soon we were standing in sunlight, holding hands and looking at each other in delighted surprise. As we left, the fog swept back in behind us and Green Tara disappeared from view. If you live in a world of dead things this will be a coincidence of precipitation. If you come and live in my world, you will learn that the inner world is not separate from the outer world. It all occurs together in time and place and if we have the eyes to see it, we are surrounded by seemingly magical events that are really only natural phenomena brought about by consciousness and loving intention. William Blake says, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is, infinite.
We spent some silent and prayerful time at the Buddhist retreat centre looking at the beautiful shrines that were scattered at intervals down the chilly hillside. The slower pace meant I began to feel very cold and when I mentioned this to Santiago his response was to resume our walk at a running pace.  For the last twenty minutes we bounded over the rocks and up and down ridges and scree until we arrived back at the van, panting, hot and feeling very blessed and happy.

Madly Singing in the Mountains

Orgiva 29th January 2018

Danger and revelation
The custom of hitch hiking is common in Orgiva, so I tried my luck at cadging a lift high up to the mountain village of Capiliera, the furthest of three “Poqueira” villages. I didn’t have to wait long but the car only went to the first of the three villages, Pampaniera.  This meant that I had to walk up through all the villages before I even started the walk I wanted to do which was out beyond Capiliera to an abandoned village. When I finally go there I saw a very strange thing. I had no idea crouching on the ground with my camera just centimetres from this astonishing sight, that I was in real danger. 
These are Processional Caterpillars and when I showed someone a photograph of them days later, he was horrified that I had got so near to them. If this caterpillar is threatened it ejects harpoon like hairs that penetrate the skin and inject a powerful irritant. They are particularly dangerous to dogs who lick the hairs and transfer the irritant to their tongues which then swell and choke the animal. These caterpillars are real killers.
Setting off into the mountains or into the woods alone is often something done as an initiation event where you have to face your deepest fears and where dreams are realised and actualised. These experiences are told again and again in stories, myths, legends and fairy tales and they follow a three fold pattern;
– An acknowledgement that you need to nourish yourself. This is why we retreat from the world.
– A need to trust and follow the urging of your heart, no matter what the danger, or no matter how many people want to stop you.
– A revelation of who you truly are, a need to know yourself.
In the stories, the hero or heroine sets out on a quest, often stealing away in the night or running from a wicked step mother. They see that something has to change, a wrong must be put right or something has to be freed. They make their epic journey and return as the revealed true Prince or Queen. In all these legends, one’s true nature is revealed: the frog or the beast are revealed to be a true heirs, the scullery maid or the sleeping girl return to take up their places as rulers of kingdoms. We tell these stories to our small children, little knowing we are planting a seed in them that could take root and flourish at times in their lives when they need to know a way forward in a difficult situation. Even if we don’t fully acknowledge the steps we are taking, we often follow this self determining, mythic pattern of releasing ourselves from difficult situations in relationships, jobs and events in our lives.
As I write this, the Christian season of Lent has begun. We hear how Jesus went to the desert on a kind of vision quest, a time of finding his path, knowing himself through testing, and coming back into the world with a purpose. Lent is often kept by a rather shallow decision to stop eating chocolate or something like that, but at heart, if we take the Lent call seriously, whether we are religious or not, setting that time apart to examine our lives and learn more about ourselves could be a deeply enriching experience, not just for ourselves but for our families and communities. It is, of course a perfect opportunity to begin meditating. (You can join me any time!)
I have been experiencing times of transition and change, times of great peace and prayer, times of sadness and turbulence. We all have these times in our lives and they are opportunities to shine a light into who we are becoming. They are times of challenge to stop trying to be someone else, to look for answers outside of ourselves, or idols to emulate.  We must evolve into the unique people we were created to be. We must find our own purpose, the thing we are uniquely called to do whether that is being kind to small furry things or steering nations. Whatever our purpose is, we need to do it with all our heart, dream it into existence and contribute to bringing life back into this dark, troubled world. The more single minded we are in our purpose, the better we fit into this world. 
Visiting my Spiritual Guide she said, when I die and go to heaven (or whatever your idea of that is), God won’t say to me, “Why weren’t you more like the Virgin Mary? The question will be, why weren’t you more like Linda Richardson?”

Madly Singing in the Mountains

Orgiva 3rd February 2018
No Clothes, No Make-up, No Shame
I don’t know if this catches your imagination or not, but it is a fact that we see more images in one day than our medieval ancestors would see in a lifetime.  Go on, imagine that! I took a couple of selfies while I was in Spain. I wanted to see myself there, there in the mountains and walking the paths because I knew when I came back I would need to remember that I was there. It would be necessary to call on that woman who walked in those mountains and ask, “what would she do in this situation?”
We think of selfies as a new invention but it turns out that the Pharoahs had them in their tombs, and our ancestors left hand prints in caves deep underground. Here is evidence or our lives. We existed! All things can get out of hand as is recorded in mythology when Narcissus, so in love with his own reflection that he couldn’t love anyone else, wasted away beside a pool of water where his beautiful reflection gazed up at him.  The Gods had mercy on him and turned him into a flower.
But there came one night when, for a mad moment I thought about taking a naked selfie and posting on on Facebook entitled, “no clothes, no make-up, no shame!” Thankfully this impulse was quenched by the thought of my sons coming to terms with a naked image of their Mother on Facebook. However, behind the impulse was the furious outrage that our culture considers older women no longer good to look at. And I thought of those riven faced men who sport scars on their faces and bodies.  They have conquered, they have killed and overcome and we value their chiselled looks!  Women on the other hand, we have brought life into the world and the marks on our bodies are from carrying and bearing new life. We are bearers of the future, of generations, we nourish and sustain a tiny seed, then in anguish, sweat and blood, labour to bring this life through our own bodies and into the world.  The marks we carry as mothers and elders, are considered ugly by a society obsessed by youth, and brainwashed by images mediated by interests other than nourishing human well-being. We must inhabit our bodies, no matter what shape we are in, and give thanks that we are, that we exist and for some of us, that we have given life and it has left its beautiful, beautiful mark upon us.

Madly Singing in the Mountains

Orgiva 27th January 2018
Two Arrows
Whenever I go on a retreat, there is always one day when I fall apart, a dark night of the soul. You never see the arrow coming so you can’t dodge it but truly, it always ends in a lot of tears. The Buddhists have a very good teaching about this arrow, because it is always followed by a second arrow. The first arrow hits and we are scythed to the ground. Perhaps we made a terrible mistake at work and got found out, or someone hurts us, or we get bad news, whatever it is, there is no escaping it. We can lie whimpering on the ground for hours, days or even weeks.
The second arrow is much more interesting because it is how we react to the first arrow. This arrow is in our own hand and we can plunge it into our heart and twist it around in self pity. We can stick it in our belly and sicken ourselves with vengeful fury. We can open a vein in our thigh and let our precious life blood seep slowly onto the ground in self loathing. Or we can take that arrow and snap the thing in half over our knee and continue on our way, stringing pearls for heaven.
Often we need somone else to help us see that there are a variety of choices and in my case, thank god for Facebook Messenger! I was talked out of my tearful, snotty misery by a friend who just stayed with me and talked about art and soup but refused to give me advice. I was told that direction must come from within and work outwards. Hmph, I thought, (looking at that second arrow in my hand).
So I pondered the difference between acceptance and passivity. Acceptance is acknowledging the reality of the situation you are in, even if it causing you pain. It is what it is. At some point you will get up and see what you can do to change it, but ignoring or denying it causes even deeper suffering. Passivity just accepts that it is what it is and makes no effort to change anything, which usually makes us feel worse than ever. The same friend read this poem to me:
It is nonsense
says reason
It is what it is
says love
It is calamity
says calculation
It is nothing but pain
says fear
It is hopeless
says insight
It is what it is
says love
It is ludicrous
says pride
It is foolish
says caution
It is impossible
says experience
It is what it is
says love
 Erich Fried

Madly Singing in the Mountain

Orgiva 30th January 2018
A Night with a Shaman
You know those apocalyptic films where alien abductees live in camps in the middle of nowhere and speak in riddles? Ladies and gentlemen, I have been there. Not only that but I can also report that people who live in these edge-lands seem to have shed layers of etiquette that most of us wouldn’t dream of removing, not even for the neighbour’s dog. This makes them both highly receptive and very vulnerable.
I found myself bumping along the mountain roads of the Sierra Nevada in Harald’s red van, a few days after he had kindly given me a lift. I say ‘I found myself,” as if I had no say in the matter, but I had arrived here due to a confusion of language. Harald had invited me to the mountains to join a group of people, only there was no group. He had got his ‘I”s and ‘we’s’ confused and so I found myself travelling alone with him. The lucky fact that Harald was not a murderous psychopath was all to the good.
The Rolling Stones sang out agelessly on the CD player, the collection of dead biros, stones, feathers, sticks and accumulated bric a brac, slid two and fro on the dashboard and Harald had asked me a difficult question about meditation and silence which I was struggling to answer. Just as I began to speak, a stone hit the windscreen with a loud crack and Harald turned his piercing blue eyes to me. With his heavily accented English he said, “Ah! Linda! Are you silent or are you being silenced? You see you are safe from answering question by big bottle of emptiness. What is the universe telling you?” After a short, stunned silence we both burst out laughing.
The conversation continued in this way until we came to a mountain village where we stopped to fill his water containers at the spring. This water comes straight off the snowy mountains and many local people drink and cook with it, using the tap water only for washing. We continued into the mountains and Harald talked about his dog, Moondance who had died last year. He clearly missed her and was telling me how he had called a fat Iranian to come and look at her. I puzzled about this for a few moments, not knowing if I had misheard or if he was speaking in riddles again, but I asked him,
“A fat Iranian?” 
“Yes, yes,” he insisted, “a fat Iranian.”
What did I know about the conduct of Austrians and their sick dogs? When Harald mentioned that the Iranian had come to put  Moondance to sleep, I suddenly understood, and at this inappropriate moment began to laugh. 
“Oh, a Vet-enarian!” I said.
Harald rolled his eyes at me as if I was the most stupid English woman he had ever met, and we came to a halt. 
“We are walking a bit for here.” He said.
Walk isn’t what I would describe the vertiginous descent we had to make carrying several bags and canisters of water. We slithered and slid down the hillside for fifteen or twenty minutes until we came to a gate made out of pallets and a bed frame. This unpromising entrance opened to a stunningly beautiful flat plain of about an acre with mountains arching around one end and a gentle slope down into the valley, and towards the distant sea at the other. It was an exquisite location and the total isolation was both alarming and breath taking. 
Unfortunately for Harald, the previous owner had left him with a mountain of junk that was almost impossible to shift because of the difficult access. It was a mess, and I think he had become resigned to it. His “chalet”, was a large summer house, not the farmhouse that I had expected, and the toilet was a grey plastic barrel situated centre stage, with a panoramic view of this beautiful mountain valley. I looked at that barrel with a deep sense of panic knowing that no matter how long I sat atop it, my bowels would be gripped with constipating modesty. Looking at the junk, the chalet and the barrel, I was filled with the desire to run for the hills but being already there, I took some deep meditative breaths and remembered something I had written in my diary by Henry David Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I was exactly where I wanted and needed to be, living simply and having a direct experience of nature. I was out of my depths but I chose to swim, at least for the next twelve hours as having been under the impression that there would be several people here, I had agreed to stay the night. 
I find that red wine always puts a positive perspective on things and soon I began to feel quite cheery. We cut lots of wood for the stove because it was the only form of heating, and our efforts at this end of the night would be very welcome in the cold hours of the morning. I was unaccountably happy sawing wood with a very blunt bow saw, and snapping the smaller branches for kindling. I didn’t care in the least that my hands were bleeding and scratched, and while we worked, Harald and I chatted about our lives. It grew cold and the sky turned into that luminous, stained glass blue, but our eyes adjusted and the work kept us warm. 
It astonishes me how you can tell things to a stranger that you would have trouble telling to your friends. This must be because our friends have an image of us that we have spent a good deal of time nurturing and maintaining. Harald demonstrated his excellent listening skills by asking direct and insightful questions. He often challenged me and occasionally made some painful observations. At the same time he kept up a very high level of ridiculousness so I felt like I was in some kind of self-help comedy therapy. Later as I described these events to my Spiritual Guide, she asked, “So, who was Christ to you on this retreat?” And I was so surprised to hear myself say, “Harald.” Once again I learn, and relearn the lesson that a King can be born in a stable, can be homeless and apparently criminal, and that compassion and kindness can come to us in ways and in people that we least expect.
Some time in the small hours, as I sat on the barrel with my bare legs glowing like parallel strip lights beneath a blazing white moon, and with the stars arching above me in an infinite arc of brightness, I was supremely and childishly happy.

Madly Singing in the Mountains

Orgiva, 26th January 2018
It is beautifully bright this morning and my phone says it’s eight degrees but it feels much colder.  I am huddling under a duvet and a thick wool rug in this tomb cold hostel, and unless I go to the hassle of putting my socks and shoes on I am going to have to nip down the ice tiled corridor to the loo in my bare feet.
Winter is short out here and not too severe. People, at least the ones in the South of Spain, just seem to endure it without going to the hassle of installing central heating. They stand in lines at the bars, keeping their coats on and huddling together, the energy of their dialogue warming their bodies and the entire bar. I am taking it easy today as I walked for more than eight glorious hours yesterday, a most exhilarating walk where I had a nowhere-near-death-experience that scared the living daylights out of me. I was walking the mountain path from Canar back to Orgiva when the mountainside fell away steeply to the right and dropped many hundreds of feet into a gorge below.  The footpath, if you could give it such a grand title, was barely visible along the edge of this gorge but not for a minute did I think of turning back, even though my legs were like jelly and my heart was thumping like a teenage boy’s hatch-back. I took this photo from the other side just after I did a little dance to celebrate remaining alive!
After seven hours of walking and still a while to go before I reached Orgiva, I found myself on the road. Even before I got out my hitchhiking sign, a battered red VW transporter van pulled up alongside me and a thickly accented voice asked if I wanted a lift. At this stage I didn’t really care where he was going, I just needed to sit down for a while. I was profuse in my thanks and beamed at him in gratitude. We chatted as we rattled along and soon he turned off the main road and onto the rougher road that led to Bayacas, a settlement a mile or so from Orgiva.  His name was Harald and he was an Austrian with huge blue eyes that sparkled and rolled in a very comical and endearing way. He stopped the van disappointingly soon but we chatted for a few more minutes, time enough for me understand that he was a very unusual human being.  He seemed both highly intelligent and ridiculous at the same time and we immediately connected in laughter. We hugged as we parted and as I walked off towards Orgiva he called, “I suppose first time is not too soon for a kissing on lips!” I laughed and continued to walk, leaving him behind.  After a few moments I suddenly felt a sharp stab of regret that I hadn’t returned and given him a kiss, and blessed him with a, “Namaste,” the divine in me kisses the divine in you. Convention had paralysed my instinct to love and be generous. The mind leapt in with its judging and having weighed the situation, concluded that such an act as kissing a stranger was beyond the pale. I had forgotten that we are here in this life for such a fleeting and beautiful moment…..and then, what? 
Why does everything have to age and decay? Even the plants, the trees and the mountains will crumble and fall. Why are we brought into existence to die and die and die? I feel these moments of burning joy like a match in a black cavern, blinding and bright and then they are gone. Why must life be snatched away just as we begin to get the hang of it? I feel as if I have spent most of my life in a barely conscious state, not realising that everything has a consciousness, even the mountains, it is just an older and much slower consciousness. You know your are held by it when you walk there for eight hours.  On my return to England I was asked by my Spiritual Guide to finish this sentence:
“When I was walking in the mountains I was……”
Without hesitation I answer, “Praying.”

Madly Singing in the Mountains

Madly Singing in the Mountains.
One Wonderful Life
Writing  a blog for my website is a lot harder than I thought it would be.  You start out wanting to share something of your own experience of life and find that your life is completely enmeshed with the lives of other people,  And you don’t want to implicate some unsuspecting friend or relative in your possibly weird or unusual experiences.  Neither do you want to embarrass your children, which I am delighted to say is getting more difficult. And then there are always my lovely Christian friends who are likely to come to all manner of conclusions ranging from not being at all surprised to being rather shocked, depending on how well they know me.  Honestly, I think that if everyone’s life were laid out for inspection we would be both shocked and delighted at what we found lurking behind the well managed image we present to the world.
So here I am in Spain, with the words of one friend ringing in my ears, “Tell people you are going with a friend or they will think you are having marriage problems!” As if having marriage problems is the absolute worst thing I could possibly have! I AM having life problems, or not exactly life problems but something more akin to uncertainties. That sounds much less grave, except when you have built the foundations of your life on these certainties. Certainties ranging from the existence of God to what are the best ways of being human. Concerning the last topic, I and many of my friends think that we live very upright, responsible lives.
In Orgiva, Spain, where I am staying there is a community called Benefício.  It is a small village that nestles in a small river valley and has a Rivendell feel about it. It is co-owned by many of the residents and within it there are small businesses, including a shop, bakeries, free range eggs and cheese making.  They have shared facilities like composting loos, sports area, large tipi, and outdoor kitchen.  There is no electricity or plumbed water.  This comes from a mountain stream and electricity, if you want it must be generated by solar panels. The children are like healthy ferrets, running about covered in freckles with very very bright eyes. These people hardly leave a footprint on the earth and they turn up on market day in Orgiva. You know they are from Beneficio because their clothes are often very worn out, they have unkempt hair, they might not smell of persil, they are strong and walk with animal grace. But if you met them in the street of Cambridge, you would likely disregard them.
Drop outs is what they are. They have dropped out of polluting the atmosphere with their cars, from contributing to landfills, from filling their houses with goods they want but don’t need, indeed from nearly all of the destructive practices that the rest of us in the affluent west are engaged in and would defend with all the democratic vigour of people who feel entitled. So if god exists, would he/she prefer a person from Beneficio, or someone who likes to have the correct religious credentials to earn them eternal life while defending the capitalist rights that sustain the annihilation of other species and destroy the planet? An interesting question that leads me straight to the conclusions that NO WAY could I live like those good folk of Beneficio. Maybe if I was 20 but not now. So what can I do or not do? Plenty, but that’s written about in much more creative ways than I can do here. What we mustn’t do is nothing. And I do know that’s a double negative but honestly I think it deserves it. What are we waiting for? Someone or some government to rescue us and impose green policies on us? We don’t vote for them. Not only that, we won’t clean up our own shit until that country over there clears up theirs. The first will be first and the last will be last.
But how to live more simply in a complex and competitive world that is hardly fit for humans any more? Many people are doing jobs they hate for far too many hours in order to provide goods that other people don’t really need. And I ask myself, why do we continue to live like this? I have taken a sideways step because I feel I am failing at everything I do.  Not that it doesn’t look good on the outside, but inside I feel raw and empty and I feel like a loser. Don’t consider patting me. I am glad to be here. I am beginning to understand that I want to be accepted as a human being, not because of what I do or achieve but simply because of who I am. This is the message that Christianity, the religion that has formed much of the thinking in the west should be teaching surely?  That we must become losers, have little, be simple, not laud our achievements, even be despised and rejected….Now there’s a thought. Instead we learn to run and many of us keep running right to the end of our lives to keep the plates of achievement and success in the air. But we are worth so much more than life on a treadmill.  We are glorious and wonderful and creative and deeply lovable but most of us have forgotten that we only have one wonderful life….what will we do with it?

Madly Singing in the Mountains

Madly Singing in the Mountains
Jan 23rd Orgiva, Spain
The pencil begins to write but what am I going to say in this brand new notebook, dated at the top and located by the word “Orgiva”. What have I come here for?  In the taxi on the way from Granada I told Daniel, the driver, that I had come back to find my heart in the mountains. I had somehow  misplaced it here last October. Mi corazon, donde esta mi corazon?
As the plane lifted off from Gatwick I whispered, “Good bye my beloveds,” and we swam upwards through the dense grey cloud and drizzle.  It began to get brighter, so bright that my eyes started to water, and like a drowning man the plane burst out of the cloud and into the sunshine. Up here in the blue I had detached from England and I was crying. I ate some bendy sandwiches and slept all the way to Spain barely hearing the announcements that precede the trolleys stuffed with food like substances or must have goodies that promise eternal youth and beauty.  Somewhere over the Sierra Nevada I opened my eyes. Here I was at the start of this strange turn of events in my life. 
Snow has blanketed the mountains above Granada and the range floats above an indigo landscape like a dream. I want to devour those sharp peaks until they are all inside me, crisp and dry like a meringue. The poor woman next to me must be convinced that I am terrified of flying because I am, to my own surprise, crying again. At that moment I have a strange realisation that if we were to crash and my body were to smear and burn into the Spanish landscape, I would be content, and a few minutes later, stepping off the plane and into the warm, golden afternoon sunshine I unexpectedly feel a huge surge of relief.
It was here that some terrible mountain god shoe-horned a great empty space inside me and filled it with a painful longing for mountains, nature, and a deep hunger for the Divine. I have been running around ever since, looking for comfort but really nothing has touched the sides. Music, no matter how loud, just sounds clamorous there, the space is too vast to fill with dance, only friendship and love light a candle in the cavern from time to time, and even then, only once has someone had the nerve to stay and watch with me. 
I wonder, “Why me?” why have I become unplugged from the Matrix? Why do I find myself standing on the edge of burning reality watching the dead bury the dead, shouting, “Wake up! Look at the terror and beauty that grip you in their wild dance! It’s what you’re made for. You are Divine! There is only one dancer and only one dance!” I don’t remember swallowing the red pill yet here I am with my walking boots for two weeks, leaving behind a few bewildered people, and hoping to return to them with more than just blisters on my feet.

Ecstatic Dancing

It’s Friday evening and I am crawling through the traffic on Hills Road in Cambridge. Around me I see people, lots of people, all rushing somewhere and I wonder if they are happy. At the red light I want to leap from the car and take hold of one particularly harried and weary looking woman and say, “Come with me and in an hour you will be dancing with joy.”

I am on my way to St Paul’s Primary School Hall, where Alex Svoboda, a charismatic Russian man, is teaching Freedom Dance. I am greeted with hugs by three thirty-something women who are taking our money at the door and around them are piles of coats, clothes, and shoes. Behind them the school hall is subtly lit and packed with people. There are white heads and dreadlocks, farmers and nurses, artists, hippies, business people and students, people of all ages and sizes, and they are listening to Alex who invites us to, “open to the music”.

For thousands of years people have left the grind of work behind them to meet under the stars and the trees or around fires where they would hold hands in a circle and sing songs to begin the dancing, spinning and whirling faster and faster until a climactic sense of unity and bliss was found. This exhilaration and ecstatic emotion was seen by the celebrants as a direct experience of the Divine, and was particularly attractive to working people. Inevitably it drew the disapproval of the civic and religious authorities, who had no control over this unruly and ungovernable behaviour.

This deeply human and instinctive activity was stamped out around the 17th century when worship became mediated by Priests, who lined up the worshippers in front of him, in straight wooden pews. In spite of this suppression, dance kept bursting out all over the place in carnivals and festivals but now, having been separated from the Divine presence it became experienced as a purely hedonistic activity.

Tonight as I join with sixty or seventy other people, I am about to experience a mystical state, not one mediated by religion or therapy but by this lovely Russian with excellent taste in music. Dancing is not some special ability, gifted to only a few people who have skills, it belongs to every human being who is prepared to let go and give themselves to the music and the dance.

When describing their experiences people use words like, home, healing, self acceptance, no judgement, a return to who I really am, or as a discovery that you’ve got a second, third, fourth and fifth gear of perception, when all you have ever accessed before is first gear. In neurological terms, our brain waves on a day to day basis are dominated by beta waves (problem solving, cognitive) but we can tune into our alpha waves (awareness and power of now) and delta and theta waves (creative and transcendent) through intentional activities like meditation and freestyle dancing.

The music flows and sometimes we dance alone, moving around and between each other, sometimes we hook up in twos and threes to dance together. It is exciting, exhilarating and often very funny, and comical. Alex skilfully blends one track with the next, building and building the rhythm and pulse until it reaches a heart thumping crescendo where we all let go in utter abandonment and an incredible high. This shared experience can often create a deep release in the dancer and it is not unusual to see people in a silent embrace while one weeps silently into the sweat soaked clothing of another. With this shared intensity of experience it is hardly surprising that real friendships are made and a supportive community grows up around the dance.

The dancers come from many back-grounds and life experiences and there is no dogma here. From my own Christian perspective I see myself as a creation or expression of the Divine who wants to dance with me in an ecstatic and direct experience of worship and joy. For others it is a cathartic release from a week of stress or anxiety at work, and there are those who just love to dance. When the music ends a dozen or so of us decamp to the local pub, famished and thirsty. From our table gales of laughter billow around the room and I notice envious glances being sent in our direction.

Medical research shows that dancing has huge health benefits. It is a great cardiovascular work out and according to the New England Journal of Medicine, “dancing dramatically reduces the occurrence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But not just any dancing will do. Freestyle dancing requires constant split-second, rapid-fire decision making which is the key to maintaining intelligence because it forces your brain to regularly rewire its neural pathways….Frequent freestyle dancing was shown by the study to reduce the risk of dementia by 76 percent, twice as much as reading and playing sports or practising choreographed dance sequences which had no benefit at all.”

So leave your inhibitions behind, get into some loose clothes, grab a friend and find the dance. They are not exclusive and although you might have to travel to a town or city, I am certain you won’t regret it. On the Internet search for “5 Rhythms Dance” or look here “

(Linda Richardson)