Remember that moment when you were trying to learn how to ride a bike, the moment when your parent let go and you had to trust that the wheels would roll and the center would hold and you’d stay upright. You probably didn’t even realize that you needed the center to hold. You probably weren’t aware of gathering your energy into your core; of the fine balance between your effort and the need to let the bicycle do what it wanted to do.
You trusted. Yourself.
You trusted, even though you’d probably fallen a number of times before the whole trick of simultaneous balance and forward motion worked out. Even if you’ve never ridden a bicycle, you know what I’m talking about, or at least your body’s memory does. Every important physical movement we learn in life is the same process. Walking. Holding a glass. Cutting with a knife. Swimming. Jumping over something. We learn a lot of these motions so young that we don’t even remember the transitional moment between uncertainty and trust.
These are supreme moments of try-not-try in our lives.
Recently, I’ve been working personally and intentionally with try-not-try in Gaga people dance classes. I am not a dancer. I’ve taken one-off dance classes over the years and usually feel awkward, ungraceful and not flexible enough. At Gaga people, I transcend. I remember how much I love to dance. Classes when I reach a state of try-not-try, I connect with my inner grace. I stop caring how the outside looks. The result is a feeling of grounded exhilaration that stretches out over the hours after class. It’s not just me either. My partner comes with me and he feels it too. More, virtually everyone leaving the class has a gigantic smile and helium in their shoes.
Why does Gaga work?
- The first rule—keep your eyes open. You cannot lose yourself behind your eyelids, so you naturally engage with others’ energy.
- The second and only other rule—participate in the instructions. The instructions are simultaneously rigorous and borderline absurd. Such as: Imagine your skin is fur; or imagine your butt is talking to someone behind it. It is as impossible to be right, as it is to be wrong. The spirit of exploration is embedded in the instructions. We shed the self-conscious fear of making a mistake, as well as the natural desire to be dance-y graceful.
- The constant flow and layering of instructions, which disrupts our instinct to perfect (and therefore judge), as well as our instinct to take refuge in a comfort zone.
Gaga’s goal is to enliven the imagination. We all have our own imaginations. Again, no right or wrong and so on. It’s all play, and what is play, if not a process of try-not-try? It’s only a game. We’re only playing. We are trying, but in the end, if things go awry, we laugh. As Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research.” Yes, I know, sometimes we take our playing awfully seriously. We can’t laugh, because we are all try without the not-try. This is the fine balance of push and release we all have to find. A balance that is different for each one of us.
I’ve started with physical examples of try-not-try, because they are the easiest for us to understand. Why? Because we’ve felt the knowledge. All of us have at one time or another been in the try-not-try state of flow. I interviewed so many women for my two Run Like A Girl books who experienced this truth in their sports and then moved that wisdom into other aspects of their lives.
When the intellect learns, we understand without deep knowing. When our bodies learn, wisdom blooms.
Yet, try-not-try is a core life instruction for everything important (not just physical learning!) and one of the most difficult to consciously intend. We can’t think our way into the balance between effort and no effort. Our intellect alone cannot decide to simultaneously go for the brass ring and let go of the outcome. Try-not-try requires what I call embodied mindfulness, embracing the unified functioning of body and mind. This is what athletes call flow. It’s what mindfulness practitioners call being present. It’s the Taoists’ wei wu wei (action through inaction); the Buddhists’ wise (skillful, joyful) effort.
By the way, I owe the expression try-not-try to the television show Undone, about the liminal space between what we label “mental illness” and shamanism. The heroine’s dead father who is perhaps training her to become a shaman (or drawing her deeper into her delusions) instructs her to try-not-try as she learns how to time travel. Okay, so, yes, most of us are not going to time travel, as cool as that might be; but try-not-try is, for me, the most vivid expression of the concept.
Why do we want to try-not-try, to be wise about our effort, to flow, to be present and to wei wu wei?
This is the path to becoming, belonging and being. These are our most precious desires in life. They lead us to a more expansive love for self and others. Virtually every one of us longs, in some part, to become a version of ourselves we are not yet. At the same time, we yearn to belong to a community greater than ourselves.
Which comes first? Do we become to belong? Or do we belong to become? Neither, is the answer. These two desires are a spinning wheel. When we are held in the warm embrace of belonging, we are nourished with the daring we need to become. When we have the courage to step into becoming, we find that we belong. Know that this cyclical motion can spin in both directions. If we are bound by too many ties of belonging, our becoming energy is stifled. When we deoxygenate our becoming energy, belonging is an effort and we struggle to fit in. How and who we are, our being-ness is the energy generated by this cycle; the energy we offer the world.
Try-not-try to become and we belong. Try-not-try to belong and we become. And all the while, we are. Becoming. Belonging. Being.
I write this sitting at a desk in an Airbnb in Paris, a city where I feel like I neither belong nor don’t belong. My partner and I spend one or two months here a year. Away from home, yet in increasingly familiar surroundings, I feel in-between belonging and becoming. When I am here, I am simply being.
Being can be fertile. Being is where we reap the harvest of all our try-not-try to become and belong. In the best of circumstances, being is awheel on a perfectly tuned bicycle.
One year in Paris, I developed an addiction to Jean de La Fontaine’s 17th century fables and translated 100 of them. Another year, the strong female characters from my theatre class led me to gather a group of collaborators to devise a play in which all the women are on stage together. In both cases my being opened paths to becoming.
I don’t know what will come of this year’s sojourn. Yet.
I do know that I have tried on some new roles. After the first night of a group theatre class in which I knew no one except the instructor, I reached out to two of the other women and asked if they’d like to do a scene with me. That kind of outreach is not my usual MO, especially not when I’m working in my second language. But I’d just read Cathy Salit’s, Performance Breakthrough, and was inspired to try (not try) on a new role for myself—that of a woman who believes that people want to work with her, even if her French is imperfect and accented and she forgot some of the lines of her monologue in the class (their first and only impression of me). Our work together led to an offer to translate that play I mentioned earlier.
At the same time, I’ve felt at odds with my being. Adrift, without a strong sense of either becoming or belonging, I question everything I’ve done and am doing. I feel the urge to lie on the couch with a book, instead of facing the day. Actually, I have done that.
Finding the balance that keeps the wheel spinning demands us to keep our eyes open and engage with rigor, absurdity and imagination. To play, like we did as children. Gaga. Googoo.
Learning to ride a bike doesn’t mean we never fall over again. Just recently, I was pulling up to a bike stand on my Velib (shared bikes in Paris), ran into a protruding construction barrier and fell over sideways. I was super fortunate. Nothing was broken. The delicate net overlayer of my skirt and my favorite leather jacket did not tear and the bruises from hitting the concrete and having a bike land on top of me were a reminder of my luck.
We ride the wheel of becoming, belonging and being into our potential. Our potential to renew our being and to be nourished by belonging. Our potential to be loved and offer love.
Become. Belong. Be.
This piece was originally published in Medium