• nadia milford

Respire and inquire

When was the last time you lied to yourself? Think about it for a moment... Could you be lying to yourself about something right now? If you’d asked me this question a few months ago I would have said no, but recently I’ve come to think differently. I think we lie to ourselves all the time unknowingly. One of my favourite quotes is from Picasso who said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth”.

To me, he is saying that art reflects the emotions, thoughts, and feelings that our conscious minds can’t quite yet understand. It’s not literal, it connects to a deeper part of ourselves - one that we don’t often share with the world and perhaps not even with ourselves. Sounds a little strange, I know. How can you not share yourself...with yourself? Surely we know everything we need to know about ourselves? I’ll say now, I definitely don’t. This is what has always drawn me to art - each creative project to me is a process of self discovery.

This article is about a recent performance that made me contemplate vulnerability - what it means to be vulnerable, honest or truthful and how that opens us up to richer experiences; freedom and perhaps even bliss.

Last year just before the pandemic reached Australian shores, I started performances for Respire Respire, an installation by artist Mel O’Callaghan. Myself and a collection of unique performers used trance-induction techniques, performing cycles of high intensity breathing in an attempt to trigger altered states of consciousness including ecstacy.

Very interesting right? Who doesn’t want to reach ecstasy from breathwork? ...Perhaps someone standing in an art gallery in front of a curious audience. But I was keen to try, and determined to succeed.

Image by Clemens Habicht for Respire Respire UQ Art Gallery

I felt by pushing my body close to its ‘end’ point in the breath cycles I would reach this state. My thinking: do the breathwork with 100% conviction and transcend. My body responded as my eyes swelled up, face and hands stiffened and at times my feet stumbled and I felt like I was inflating myself so much I was no longer connected to the floor. I was definitely experiencing the physical intensity of excess oxygen in my body, but no transcendence occurred. Externally or physically I was transforming but at the same time my thoughts were task based. I was awaiting musical cues or assessing my technique - I was ‘performing’. I felt stuck somewhere inside my head where no amount of pushing my body would achieve the bliss state goal.

This made me question what it means to give yourself completely. In my stubborn mind I felt I was giving everything and if I gave more I’d pass out... so why wasn’t I transcending? I wondered, am I lying to myself here? If I’m not giving everything, what am I holding onto?

After each performance we all had time to debrief. You could always sense a change in our collective energy and mood; it was usually slower, softer and somewhat fragile. In this time I could listen to others' experiences. Some in the group were experiencing something transcendental; hallucinating, feeling like they’re inside a void, in ecstasy, and needed extended time to return back to reality after the performance. Meanwhile I experienced small shifts in my mood like a sense of lightness or heaviness and it took some time for my body to return but I didn’t feel too much emotional residue from the practice.

I wanted to understand what I was doing differently, and why. I wondered were the transcenders in the group more ready to give or unable to withhold? They looked exhausted after each performance and some days it seemed incredibly emotionally draining. I admired them, but did I envy them?

Could it be a good thing I have the ability to withhold and reserve part of myself?

I started to consider this concept more broadly. Is my reservation a form of masking? We all do it, probably now more than ever in this rife social media culture. We wear many hats and hold many fronts. Personally, I’ve always hated the idea of being reliant on anybody, be it friends, partners or even family. I noticed I held this front of fierce independence, finding comfort in this safety barrier.

If I don’t need anybody, then I have all the control.

To a degree this mentality has served me well as a dancer - resilience is everything in this game. It also probably explained how I could perform the piece over and over, with physical intensity and still bounce out of the gallery afterwards.

But in having all of this control, it became apparent I was foregoing something more. I questioned the authenticity of my approach, now sensing I was avoiding true vulnerability. I wanted to be able to give everything. I needed to give myself that choice.

It was in the final breath round of the final performance something shifted within me and I saw the whole potential of these trans-induction techniques. The breath round seemed extended, like the music was never going to end and I reached a peak level of frustration with myself, not wanting to push any deeper because I was so full of oxygen.

So I simply let go. I stopped pushing and forcing the breaths, stopped listening to the musical cues and actually just relaxed.

At that moment, it was like my brain switched and I released the image I had of myself. I forgot about where I was, the outside gaze and any sense of performance. I felt the sounds of the others’ breaths move through me like my own and I felt this surge of freedom. My breath became uncontrollable and I almost felt like I was laughing. It was light, effortless, like my soul was escaping from my chest in each breath. I reached a moment of bliss. And then the cycle was over.

In the debrief afterwards I felt a second wave of emotion move through me in small sobs and rolling tears. I had the gentle realisation that perhaps being vulnerable is letting go of who you think you should be, and instead embracing who you really are. It was frustratingly simple for something that had seemed so difficult.

I had an experience of seeing myself objectively, understanding where I came from and how I got to that point. I felt simple and wise all at once. I returned to that line by Picasso, realising this process had revealed some truth I didn’t know about myself that I’ll likely still be uncovering for some time.

Laying yourself bare to a live audience is an extreme vulnerability test and not one that I’d necessarily recommend to all. What I would encourage, is for you to consider the masks you wear (we all have them) and whether yours are servicing you? When was the last time you felt blissful? Have you ever for a moment lost consciousness of self to something more? Because what I’ve discovered is that if we can be brave enough to be vulnerable and live through our true selves we open up a whole new world of joy.

This project was certainly no easy feat. Then again, if it were that easy, the freedom of letting go may never have been so sweet.

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