It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose…Maybe

Greetings All,

If all goes according to plan (or at least somewhere close to plan) then I will be posting much more frequently over the next few weeks.

I’m about to embark with the Dandelion Dancetheater interdisciplinary ensemble that I direct on a 2.5 week residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City. I’m very excited and a little fearful.

We’re going to be exploring the nature of competition, winning/losing and success/failure. And while I would like to say that I live by the old quip “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” in reality I am a slave to the drama of winning and losing.

In my experience, competition can be a very healthy and inspiring fuel for powerful action. However, I find myself wrestling with deeply ingrained habits of unhealthy competition–of judging and comparison and feeling somehow unworthy. Usually competition is painful for me.

When I’m clear and grounded, I see artistic practice as something that is far beyond the binaries of comparison. Art is open and free and ultimately a non-dualistic vehicle for truth-seeking.

But I compete in my mind over grant awards, festival invites, popularity, attention, integrity, ability to not seem competitive and more–with all the artists that ironically also make-up my closest and most important community of support.

Why do I look outside myself for validation? Why does one person’s success so often seem like my failure? Why am I so hungry for positive feedback, awards, recognition, praise? Why do I get so focused on “winning?” And why, when I do seem to “win,” does it end up feeling empty so quickly?

Somehow my beliefs and deep-held values are in direct conflict with many of the unconscious workings of my mind and my sense of self. And I don’t seem to be alone on this. In Buddhist practice there are four Brahma Viharas, which are seen as highly skillful qualities to develop. One of these is Mudita,  or “Sympathetic Joy.” This joy in the happiness of others almost always eludes me. I’d like to feel it. I believe in it. But I’m usually so focused on my own gain and protection, that I have very little space inside for true happiness for the good fortune of others.

H.H. The Dalai Lama says (and I paraphrase here,) “If I am happy for the happiness of others, that means there is a six billion to one chance that I’ll be happy. I like those odds.” And he calls this kind of view something like “Skillful Selfishness.” One of my teachers, Sharon Salzberg told me that the main way to work towards Sympathetic Joy is to fully experience my own joy. Of course, these things are easier said than done.

The closest I’ve been able to come to “Skillful Selfishness” is to include people around me in a group I identify with, rather than another opposing group–and so making their gains my own. For instance, when a San Francisco artist that I secretly compete with receives a big honor, I think of myself as a San Francisco Artist, and so a member of the group receiving the honor, rather than a New York Artist or a London Artist. And then if a U.S. Artist becomes famous for an innovative discovery, I think of myself as a U.S. artist, and so a member of the group that made the discovery–rather than a European Artist or an Asian Artist. This feels like a step in the right direction, but still very dualistic and competitive.

I’ve struggled with these issues throughout my life. I’d like to transform my relationship to them. And so I turn to my most trusted of transformation devices, artistic exploration. I can already see that this is going to be a long and grueling journey, with many pitfalls along the way. But it is a journey I feel ready to undertake. And I’m so grateful to have such a fabulous group of Dandelion artists to accompany me.

These explorations are part of a Dandelion project that is currently titled “America’s Next Dance Maverick.” In collaboration with filmmaker Austin Forbord, we hope to create a reality TV show that emerges out of the world of experimental dance. In December of 2009 we did our first experiment with such competition structures, and it was terrifying to see how quickly we each switched from a sense of making fun of competition, to being completely caught up in it.

This residency at the BAC is our next step. Through the creation of the first draft of a performance piece (titled “Don’t Suck!”) we will be pushing ourselves to face all of our hidden and not so hidden relationships with competition.

I see this step as a descent into our shadows, both individually and collectively. We’ll be doing lots of improvisation, discussions, inquiries and group-processing. But we’ll also be involved in a competition. Based on a complex point system (modeled after the point system at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) we’ll be competing against each other throughout the residency, to eventually name a winner and loser. And then this will be part of a larger competition held throughout Dandelion’s activities for the whole year, that will culminate in a grand prize winner (and a complete loser) at our CounterPULSE Residency performances at the beginning of April 2011.

All of our egos are threatened, and our defense systems are popping up all over. And we’re using this as an opportunity to dismantle these systems, so that eventually competition isn’t as painful for us.

Please join us as we delve into this sticky swamp of emotional baggage, uncovering long-held insecurities and surprising treasures of the psyche.

We’ll be attempting to post a written and video entry on each day of the residency. We intend for this to be interactive, so please stay tuned, and write responses, and even vote on who you think should be winning and losing our various competitions. We want all parts of this process to be both profoundly investigative on the part of our ensemble members, and transparently accessible to friends and colleagues. While we’re not yet crafting the final version of the reality TV program, we are beginning to make research-based simulations of high-pressure competitions that will lead us towards some larger and more widely shared performance/video project. We welcome your feedback and ideas.

On our marks, get set, GO!

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