At a dinner gathering once, I seated my childhood friend Perry next to my Mentor-in-Chief, Gabrielle Roth, whom he had never met. Gabrielle’s husband, Robert Ansell, was sitting at the end of the table. Perry later told me that he had been very uncomfortable talking to Gabrielle, because “She was looking at me in a way that only lovers have looked at me, and her husband was sitting right there.”
“Oh,” I responded, “that’s how she looks at everyone.”
It was true. Gabrielle had a razor-sharp, penetrating vision of each person she encountered, and saw everyone as a lover, a soul, a magical spirit; an artist, a dancer, a poet; an innocent child and a person of great hidden power and mystery. She had a natural ability to pierce through false veneers of personality, social formalities and layers of self-protection and fear, straight through to the heart of people; to the heart of me.
The very moment I looked into Gabrielle’s eyes in January 1979 at the East-West Center in Greenwich Village, New York, I experienced a deep and profound recognition within me that there was nowhere to hide, and no need to hide. The extremely private “me” that I generally censored and concealed from the world, I would learn, was the very part of me that Gabrielle both elicited and celebrated. And that ability to see into a person’s soul was a gift she would eventually share with thousands and thousands of people around the world, each of whom, like me, felt seen in their very core. Even without ever doing her work, people who met her were often seduced by the electricity of her presence alone. Like an “urban shaman,” a moniker she preferred to distance herself from, her Being itself served as a catalyst for others. And what precisely did she catalyze? In a word, movement. Movement of the body, the psyche, the spirit. In her words,
Movement is my medicine, my meditation, my metaphor and my method, a living language we can rely upon to tell us the truth about who we are, who we are with, and where we are going. There is no dogma in the dance.
While she was also passionate about theater, created an extensive collection of music, and was a mystical prose-poet of the written and spoken word—the rapturous stream of her spontaneous speech was dazzling—her central tool was the 5Rhythms® worldwide movement practice, to which she devoted most of her life. She called upon the 5Rhythms to physically launch people’s bodies into motion, but in service to their souls.
Set the body in motion and the psyche will heal itself.
It was clear to her that most of us, most of the time, are unconsciously locked into very predictable, safe patterns of thinking and behavior, boring habits, and ancient conditioning that is etched into the very cells of our bodies and expressed in every move we make, every word out of our mouths. All of our attention, she’d point out, is generally preoccupied with the incessant “I-mail in the Chat Room” inside our heads, and we—as in we humans, for the most part—are also emotionally trapped inside wounded hearts no longer truly able to feel. Our life stories, in Gabrielle’s view, are a tale told by a “nice, normal, neurotic nobody,” or a “trizophrenic who thinks one thing, feels another and does a third.” And she believed in her very bones that the way out of this cage of restriction, the way to unify this utter fragmentation, quite simply, is to dance.
We dance to fall in love with the spirit in all things, to wipe out memory or transform it into moves that nobody else can make because they didn't live it. We dance to hook up to the true genius lurking behind all the bullshit—to seek refuge in our originality and our power to reinvent ourselves; to shed the past, forget the future and fall into the moment feet first.
Moving our bodies to shake ourselves free, we leap and glide, pace or pound the floor, float up down and around, step forward and back, in circles, lines and poly-tetrahedrons. We dance to the music and learn to make love with empty space, to dissolve time, hear silence, and to consciously re-awaken our elbows and shoulders, hips, knees and fingers, to put “your mind in your feet and your body in the beat,” and ultimately, to recover the authentic choreography of our Essential Being.
After spending many years at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, surrounded by countless spiritual, New Age and human potential paths, Gabrielle came to a singular conclusion:
Dance is the fastest, most direct route to the truth—not some big truth that belongs to everybody, but the get down and personal kind, the what's-happening-in-me-right-now kind of truth.
Hers was an embodied spirituality, asking each of us to literally call the spirit down into our physical forms, rooted in our feet, connected to the ground, to earth, water and sky. The 5Rhythms is a moving meditation practice that drops the practitioner inside, in the empty, silent, still-point at the very center of our being, where we release all goals and awaken to the mystery of the moment, of being full-bodied, full-breathing, sweat-soaked humans, pouring heart and soul into this one and only wild ride.
Between the head and feet of any given person is a billion miles of unexplored wilderness. The question I ask myself and everyone else is, "Do you have the discipline to be a free spirit?" Can we be free of all that binds and bends us into a shape of consciousness that has nothing to do with who we are from moment to moment, from breath to breath?
Gabrielle’s work is a multi-layered map, a medicine wheel that begins at the center with the core teachings of the 5Rhythms practice, a rhythmic “wave” of five fundamental energies she termed Flow, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness. She observed this cycle in nature, in thunderstorms, in the act of giving birth and making love, and translated it to the dance floor, each individual rhythm containing its own teachings, archetypal metaphors and personal life lessons for the person who dives into the dark black waters of the practice from the deep end.
From this core practice rooted in movement, the dancer moves into “Heartbeat,” the level of Gabrielle’s map that explores the often-barren emotional landscape of those of us frozen in fear, armed against our anger, wounded by a deep river of seemingly endless grief. We use the power and energy of the rhythms to move and express these places of forgotten feeling, to the point of releasing ourselves to the possibility of experiencing the genuine joy and compassion that arises when one’s heart is finally surrendered, breathing deeply, at home in the “Unified Field” of love and implicit connection to self, others, and life itself. "Like a cat," D.H. Lawrence wrote, "asleep on a chair, at peace, in peace, and at one with the Master of the house."
Perhaps my favorite Gabrielle quote of all time was one day, after spending hours moving and dancing and sweating, various people in the room were experiencing emotions ranging from someone deeply sobbing in a corner to another beaming with elation, and Gabrielle casually tossed off one of her classic, mind-stopping one-liners:
You didn’t really think this was about dancing, did you?
And after 34 years, the answer for me has always been, and remains, “No, I didn’t, and don't.” For me, the movement is always merely a vehicle for releasing and letting go of whatever inside me is preventing the experience of authentic and deep connection with others, soul-to-soul. Her work is about peeling away layers of fear, sorrow, anger and self-protection, and landing at last—for a few moments at least—in the silent, still point in the center of the soul, directly wired in to the “Unified Field,” which in other practices and traditions might be termed, simply, the "One Consciousness," (which, as you probably know, is one of God's favorite nicknames among some people.) Gabrielle’s 5Rhythms have the capacity to transport us to a place where we can glimpse and have a visceral experience of that underlying shared Reality we all inhabit. Some simply call it Love.
There is only one of us here.
That was the entire reason I stuck around for 34 years. I was in it for the love and the connection, for the tangible creative electricity in the air. I never really loved dancing per se, or the 5Rhythms practice. What I loved—incurably—was Gabrielle herself! And I loved the experience of love itself, as we collaborated on theater and writing projects, and I would feel myself coming fully alive in the process, compelled to offer her only the very best of me. (Of course certainly 99% of those who do the 5Rhythms practice regularly, as their primary spiritual path, do so because they actually do love to dance and do love the 5R. What a concept!)
I did love the end result of practicing the 5Rhythms and attending workshops: I would always wind up feeling powerful, real, and loving, and connected to people with a deep sense of mutuality and utter safety and vulnarability. Who doesn’t like that? It was a sense of having found my tribe, my people.
(Or perhaps simply another tribe, as i am poly-tribal.)
Next in the spiral of Gabrielle’s teachings is "Cycles," which uses the 5Rhythms as a means for individuals to deeply explore their personal stories, their narrative development from childhood through adolescence, puberty, maturity and the death cycle. It is the dance of autobiography.
Years ago, before she mapped her work into these levels like a cartographer of the spirit, she needed human subjects to join her in the exploration of each area under investigation. I was fortunate enough to be one of those subjects, and a small group of us spent hours and hours, day after day, diving and dancing deep down inside the history of our lives to find out which doors in our psyches were locked shut, and which rhythm potentially held the key.
We used Flow to move our earliest childhood fears from a state of frozen inertia back into the land of the living and fluid. We re-experienced the utter Chaos of puberty, discovering that most of us in this culture were so confused the first time around that, with Gabrielle as guide, we only truly danced our way into and through puberty’s perils, promise and possibilities when we were nearly 30 years old instead of 13!
And through moving in Stillness, we discovered how to put into practice the ancient maxim, “Practice dying before you die.” The cycle of the death process moves, if at all, in barely perceptible increments of motion, yet when we slow ourselves down like that, then come to a complete halt, in body and mind, we momentarily abide in a silent Emptiness that consciously witnesses, from the singularity of our soul and vision, the vast Void and vista of existence in all its mystery and wonder.
Kabir, the great Indian mystic poet of the 14th century, said,
“I felt in need of a great pilgrimage, so I sat still for three days.”
The next tier of Gabrielle’s “Maps to Ecstasy,” as she titled her first book, is called "Mirrors," and deals with the self-conscious ego-dramas that we all perpetually enact on a daily basis. The Mirrors work invites all of those voices inside our heads to speak aloud, to come alive, to be playfully exaggerated and seen for what they are. When we first met, she literally had me reveal my inner dialogue about my sex life on a public stage, before hundreds (and on several occasions, thousands) of complete strangers in a Ritual Theatre performance that a small group of us presented weekly in Soho, New York City, and elsewhere, in the early ‘80s.
(My favorite line from one of my monologues: “Everyone says you have to truly love yourself before you can really love anyone else or be in a successful relationship. Well I tried that, and I found that I just couldn’t make a commitment. I needed to have an open relationship with myself so that if things didn’t work out, I’d be free to see other people.”)
At first, most of us felt quite exposed revealing our intimate secrets on stage, yet at the same time we began to see that exposure is a good thing, it is liberating. Masking who we really are requires a ton of energy; being ourselves is far easier and more relaxing, and Gabrielle was a big fan of authenticity over the assorted social personae our egos usually put forth to appear “okay” and get by in life. It was next to impossible to hang out around her and persist in being one of your myriad false selves. It became just too embarrassingly obvious, and at the same time, being real became effortless and natural.
Many of us are so accustomed to our ongoing parade and charade of false characters that we not only deceive others, we have also managed to unwittingly hide who we really are from ourselves. In Gabrielle’s theatre, a hall of mirrors, we were given the opportunity to personify and publicly reveal those interior ego characters, and give them each a name.
If, for example, I notice I am saying or doing something merely to get attention, I have learned to recognize that inner character as “Larry Look-at-Me,” taking charge and speaking through my mouth. Or often his first cousin Sam Special gets front and center in my life. And trust me, you really don’t want to be around when Steve Stubborn, Barry Blame, or Arnie Angry is at the helm. Just inquire with my wife.
When we performed in New York, my perpetual tendency toward melancholy was presented on stage as the ever-miserable Danny D. Presso. My friend Martha Clarke, portraying Connie Cling, would literally leap onto my body and not let go, while I was speaking! I simply couldn’t shake her off and wound up dragging her from the stage, as she grabbed on to my ankles for dear life. Nearby, Gladys Gorge devoured a box of cookies center stage in under 45 seconds. All the while, Judy Judge stood on the sidelines, arms folded, criticizing all the other actors, and Captain Control just kept marching back and forth, barking orders at everyone in the cast to do things HIS way, NOW!
The audience would recognize themselves in each character, laugh at themselves, and be released, for a moment at least, from the confines of lackluster personality patterns and behaviors that are mostly on automatic pilot. We the performers were likewise freed from our usual roles and able to relax into a more spacious dimension of Self that Gabrielle called “The Holy Actor,” that part of our own awareness that is not identified with any one of our ego-characters, but is an impartial witness to the whole show. (This part of her work, interestingly, was influenced by her time spent in Chile in the early 70s with teacher Oscar Ichazo, founder of the Arica system, who shared his insights into the ancient system of the Enneagram, a way of personality-typing. Unbeknownst to us at the time, Gabrielle had adapted those principles to a theatrical context.)
Gabrielle Roth passed away on October 22nd, 2012, five years ago today, at the age of 71, from lung cancer, and it is only now that the significance of our initial moment of connecting—of transmission—has finally become clear to me. Two nights after her death, looking at her photo, what should have been completely obvious for three decades suddenly dawned on me like a light bulb flashing over my head: Oh my God, I did have a teacher in this life! Like Castaneda to her Don Juan, I’d always been a bit slow to grasp matters of the spirit. But clearly I had met someone who would not only become my teacher, but a lifelong friend and someone whose presence in my life and in my heart and soul was so potent, vibrant and alive, that when she died I actually felt no grief nor sensed any absence.
I am truly not a New Agey type of person who says things like what I'm about to say, and it may purely be my imagination at work, but the fact is, even for an old, hardened cynic like me, in the days following her passing, Gabrielle remained as vital a presence and mischievous trickster spirit in my inner world as she had been before, almost as if the fact of her physical disappearing act was merely incidental.
And then the “coincidences” began, as if she was poking me in the ribs from the other side. I was sitting alone in the examining room at a doctor’s office in Richmond, Virginia, thinking and reminiscing about my years with Gabrielle and Rob, her beloved husband and my old friend. In the midst of my reverie, I overheard a conversation outside the door at the nurse’s station. Someone hung up a phone and said, “That was Rob; he is such a wonderful man.” And another nurse replied, “You should meet his wife Gabrielle, she’s really amazing!”
Later that week I got on the train in Richmond, heading north, and the conductor took my ticket and slid it through the little machine he carried. He stared down at the screen, then up at me, then back and forth once more and said, “You’re not Gabrielle!” Later I would learn that people around the world were having similar experiences, quirkly little visitations, or vivid dreams. As far as I could tell, this wild woman may have died, but she was clearly not gone.
Even though after that first meeting with Gabrielle I would continue to devote much of my life for the next 30 years to seeking out other teachers, meditating with gurus and alleged Messiahs and Avatars, traveling to ashrams in India, taking shamanic potions in the jungles of Brazil and so forth, throughout all of it, Gabrielle was the one teacher I consistently remained in touch with, would return to, would take another workshop with, or another lunch, and would count on to answer my phone calls and emails, though I knew she received upwards of 700 personal messages a day. So when my last email went unanswered, I knew something was up.
Something was up. She was dying. Because of the thousands of people who would have bombarded her and her family with well-meaning phone calls, emails, texts, and Facebook posts, they opted to keep it quiet. So quiet, in fact, that only the week before she had sent out a cheerful email to greet and welcome the hundred participants from around the world who were coming to New York to take a workshop with her the following weekend. Her close friend and workshop producer Lori Saltzman called her and asked, “Uhhh, what’s with the perky email?” They both knew she couldn’t get out of bed, let alone lead a workshop. On the other hand, Gabrielle had already pulled off many surprises in her three and a half year journey with cancer. Lori reported that Gabrielle, who could barely speak, croaked in response, “It’s my retirement party.”
She never made it to the party. But those hundred people danced their hearts out, joined by nearly 10,000 people from every time zone in the world, spontaneously pouring out their love on a dedicated Facebook page 24 hours a day, a virtual vigil, an astounding testament to the power and possibility of one courageous, daring spirit touching the lives of so many; of one person changing the world. People offered prayers, poems, memories, appreciations, photos, music, irreverent jokes. (That would be me: “In lieu of flowers, Gabrielle has asked that you make a contribution to my offshore account in the Cayman Islands.” Or, “Hey Gabrielle, I guess it would be a bit embarrassing now, after all this attention, if you didn’t die….oh, and give me a call if you get a chance. Nothing urgent.” She trained me to be the irreverent comic; that’s one of the parts she loved about me, so I wasn’t about to let her down at that point.)
If this were an obituary, I would be sure to recount Gabrielle’s life story and long list of accomplishments. But far more than the facts of her biography, she was first and foremost an Artist of the Soul, an Artist of Being, an urban street shaman who devoted every ounce of her energy and passion to shedding light on the illusory and limited nature of our repetitive life stories and pumped-up resumes. So why then, would I offer up her resume here, when she’s the one who finally helped so many people recognize that who they really are is so much vaster and more mysterious than what they’ve done and where they’ve been?
To come full circle, it was her presence alone in people’s lives—in my life—along with her 5Rhythms movement work, which she described as a "map of the creative process," that pushed all of us deeper into our artistic power, our vital life force and originality, and the courage to express it:
She once said to me,
If you are a thousand watt bulb, El, don’t dim your light; let everyone else wear sunglasses.
Then I learned that she said that to lots of her students. Sam Special would have to wait another day to be singled out. (Secretly though, between you and me, she always did make me feel special. Maybe I am! Wouldn't that be ironic?)
Gabrielle herself was a ten-thousand watt blinding light, and like using one candle to light another, her unbridled and untamed inner flame ignited thousands of others across the globe.
Lest this sound cultish or overly-worshipful, which would annoy the hell out of her, let it be clear that I kept returning to Gabrielle’s world because it never turned cultish or weird, because she never wanted people to worship her, or be like her; she only asked that we be like us, and helped us uncover whoever that was in each individual case. When all was said and done, she was more artist than teacher. And those of us around her were, in a sense, more collaborators than students.
You want to dance like me? she once asked. Then dance like you.
I also kept returning because she had a very real and ordinary home life with Robert Ansell—“Rob”—her loving husband of 35 years,
and a devoted son, Jonathan Horan, who, along with his sister Lucia Rose Horan, were all deeply involved in producing and teaching her work. It was a family business, a Mom & Pop shop of the soul.
I helped her shop for sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce at Whole Foods to prepare for her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Such signs of ordinary domestic life are always good things to watch for in a spiritual teacher, albeit rare. (And consider this: isn’t it a bit strange that simply being a real and ordinary human should even be something worth mentioning when describing a spiritual teacher, as if it is a rarified character trait instead of the very first thing to be assumed? But time and again we have seen our charismatic leaders towering above us on pedestals only to inevitably topple and fall, exposed as simply another flawed human being. Gabrielle, on the other hand, started out being exposed, and lived her life from a place of being raw and nakedly herself, so there was never very far she could fall.)
And finally, I kept returning to Gabrielle because she invited me into her apartment, into her life, out to dinner, to help her over the phone at midnight with last-minute writing deadlines. I got to see her up close before she put on make-up and the sleek black outfits she loved so much. After so much disillusionment over the years with fallen spiritual teachers, she was pretty much what she said she was until the very end; no more, no less. During one of her final radio interviews, “Dancing with Cancer,” the host kept repeatedly prodding her to speak about how she viewed the dying process through the prism of the 5Rhythms work, since she had a tendency to view nearly all life experiences through that lens. Finally, after being asked for the third or fourth time, Gabrielle answered:
“I have no idea” she said, “I haven’t died yet.”
She was a lifelong devotee of the simple truth of where people really are, not some dressed up capital T-Truth of their spiritual fantasy life. What’s really going on inside you, right now, and can you allow it to move and change, using your body as a tool?
And now, finally, like a parting gift, her passing made it clear to me that I did in fact receive her offering. The “Artist-me” she perceived, the edgy, creative character she seduced forth from behind my hesitations and fear, the originality and power of my birthright that she celebrated, is all firmly etched in my inner view of myself, a personal model and interior identity I will forever aspire to express and be true to, hearing her urging me on from the sidelines of my soul, laughing and crying with me through the tragicomedy of my life and ongoing dramatic storyline, and through it all, beckoning me to join her on the dance floor, connecting deeply in the amazement of shared being, letting the whole catastrophe go, disappearing into the dance, into spontaneous bodies and souls in motion, in a deep inward dive into the heart of the dark mystery of being alive.