Tango as Spiritual Practice: Bringing Together Heaven and Earth.

Image by Christine Soghomonyan

Also on Medium.


In previous pieces ‘Statement of Purpose for The Modern Spiritual Seeker’ and ‘Critiquing the ‘All Incense’ Approach to Spirituality’, I started to build up an account of spirituality that requires practice, structure, and the willingness to radically discard structure in order to acquire wisdom. While this piece is intended to make sense on its own, I would recommend those who are interested to go and explore those earlier essays.

As promised, I’m about to give an account of social dancing as instantiating my requirements for a peak spiritual practice. In my case, the social dance is Argentine Tango, though I’m certain this applies to other dances such as Salsa or Blues. With that in mind, I’m going to focus specifically on how I see the spiritual aspects of social dance manifest in Tango.

Additionally, I’d like to mention that I’m a man, and I’m a leader. This will likely influence my perspective. I’ve tried my best to generalize, and where I can’t generalize I’ve tried to take the female or follower perspective when appropriate. Please forgive me in the inevitable instances that I’ve failed in my attempts to do so.

Before we can get to that, I want to ground the discussion in some background theory. If that isn’t your thing, feel free to skip ahead to the beginning of Part II.

This piece was quite a personal journey to write. Hopefully you’ll get as much from reading it as I did from producing it.

I.

The Master, (The World): Now it is time for one to be two.

The Student, (Us): I am here! What now? Who are you?

The Master: You will spend the rest of your short life learning that.

— — — — — –

Consider the account given of learning Kyudo — Japanese archery — in Zen and the Art of Archery, wherein the author, Eugen Herrigel acquires a key realization: to know is one thing, to do is another. There is an important lesson there for us on the importance of rigorous formal practice, and then the relaxation of the goal-seeking mind.

For those of you walking with me from the beginning of this sequence of essays, you might recognize the reciprocal processing loop, an alternating cycle that loops between the right and left hemispheres of the brain outlined by Ian McGilchristin his book The Master and His Emissary.

In Nietzschean terms, to borrow from The Birth of Tragedy, we would say that the optimal spiritual practice requires a balance of the Apollinian and Dionysian modes. For Nietzsche — this is important, so pay attention — culture and mythology reached their highest expression in Attic tragedythrough the perfect mix of the analytic Apollinian and the intuitive/ecstatic Dionysian thematic modes.

In the thought of John Vervaeke, we would say that optimal spiritual practice involves a form of reciprocal and participatory processing. A certain angle on Daoism comes to us through Jordan Peterson, via his emphasis in Maps of Meaning on the balance between Order and Chaos. Arguably, in Peterson, we can also see a perspective on a common theme in Tantric and Magickal thought, which is the birth of the Divine Child through the interplay of the Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine.

Or in other terms, we could say that the ideal mode of being is brought about by the union of perfect form and pure potential. A union which proceeds according to the Hegelian dialectic: First, pure potential, like the emergence of Gaia in Hesiod’s Theogony; Then, a division between is and is-not, comparable to the moment of division in the book of Genesis; Finally, at the third step, the interplay of is and is-not produces a frothing, indeterminate soup, like the foam that grows on a glass of Coke, sustained by a balance of atmospheric and internal pressure.

Why is it important to consider cosmology in spirituality? Well, just as Joseph Campbell claims in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in firm lock-step with Hegel, who are in turn each echoing the Hermetic maxim ‘As Above, So Below’: the development of the character and the development of the cosmos proceed in accordance with the same law.

II.

The Master, (The World): Remember to dance; you are a bubble of foam waiting to pop.

The Student, (Us): You must be joking. I cannot dance! I have two right feet! What do you want me to do?

The Master: I’ll show you. Do it gracefully and gracelessly, and in perfect proportion.

— — — — — —

In order for any of this piece to make sense, we will first have to define social dancing. I think it’s best understood in terms of some important features. From the perspective of a leader, social dancing involves:

1. Letting yourself be close to someone, and letting someone be close to you, to the extent that your follower can read minute changes of tension and energy in your body. This step requires you to trust someone enough to let them see you. It also requires you to trust your ability to will the good. If you can’t plan and execute a good dance, then you have failed — though you’d better not be thinking about that as you dance.

2. Letting yourself be open enough to reality, as opposed to your expectations, that if your lead isn’t followed precisely, you can react to it with giving, and make something nice out of it. This step requires you to trust actuality. It requires you to drop the map and to explore the territory.

3. Putting yourself in a position to constantly express desireand to constantly be rejected if it just isn’t your night. This step requires you to open yourself up to uncertainty. It requires you to consider the possibility of a metaphorical death. From an evolutionary perspective, social exclusion in a precursor to death. Social rejection is associated with similar patterns of neuronal activation in the brain as those shown during physical pain.

4. At the moment of truth, when it really comes down to it, proper dancing requires that you dance. Which is to say that you move unselfconsciously, in the manner of the Kyudoka firing an arrow blindly at a target in the dark. You have to move without there being any you there to move. This step requires you to trust yourself enough to disappear. It requires you to disappear.

Then, there’s what happens when the dance is over: you thank your partner, you let go of them, and then you return as a self-conscious being, but better off for having remembered what it was like to be absent.

There are some differences when it comes to following, though there are also similarities. To follow, as far as I can see — and in my limited experience as a follower — is to skip straight to the fourth step, to be in an instantaneous way, and only then to impose your own desire on the dance and return to the first and second steps. In Tango, this can only occur in cases where two sufficiently skilled and well-matched partners form a pair.

There are other relevant factors we should bear in mind, including the importance of navigating a crowded dance-floor. In Argentine Tango Milongas, the dance floor proceeds in a counter-clockwise whirlpool. Given that every pair of dancers are improvising every step in Tango, it is important not only to dance with your partner but also to dance with the whole room.

III.

The Student, (upon returning): Where did I go?

The Master: You never left.

— — — — — –

No matter which role you take in the dance, you have to allow for physical closeness. In Tango, you dance chest to chest. You can feel the other person’s heart beating at the most intense moments in the music. At peak Tango, you perceive the other person’s breath on a subconscious level, and you find your own rising and falling in sync.

Any sufficiently accomplished dancer would be able to tell you that peak Tango is better than — or at least just as good as — the best sex. But enough talking about side-effects. I promised you a discussion of Tango as a spiritual practice, and so here it is.

In order to understand why Tango is a theoretically valid spiritual practice, we’ll have to compare it to other spiritual practices, the paradigmatic example of which is meditation. In Zen, there are many forms of meditation, each of which contributes to what Vervaeke would call an ecology of psychotechnologies(hereafter ‘EoP’).

For our purposes, let’s take the tools of Soto Zen, and momentarily disregard the technique of koan meditation technique from Rinzai Zen. That leaves us with walking meditation, concentration meditation, and non-directive meditation:Shikantaza or ‘just sitting.’ In each of these techniques there is also an important emphasis on posture and form.

We could roughly map these practices onto those of other Buddhist schools, For example the initial emphasis on breath meditation that transitions into insight meditation in Theravada. For our purposes, let’s use the framework given by Vervaeke to outline the necessary components for a comprehensive EoP.

For Vervaeke, a comprehensive EoP includes an element that trains focus; an element that trains open non-judgemental awareness; another element that trains the ability to fluently and fluidly switch between the two. This third element is where we can see the dialectical and reciprocal principles embodied in his thought.

Vervaeke suggests that the ideal fluency and fluidity practice is performed in motion. He gives examples like T’ai Chi or Chi Gong. From personal experience, I can attest that walking meditation in a group provides a solid opportunity to practice reciprocal cycling from open to focused awareness. As an aside, Vervaeke situates the importance of alternating between specific and general modes of cognition as a component to training the skill of insight.

One example of how a switch from a specific to a general mode of cognition might enable insight, and vice versa, can be found in the common phenomenon of the ‘shower thought’. Another example could be found in the common advice: ‘sleep on it’; or perhaps in the noted tendency of prolific writers to take long walks in nature.

Hopefully it’s beginning to become clear why Tango serves as a multi-function psychotechnology. Given that all of the above-cited individually psychotechnologies are known to be incredibly satisfying when practiced and considered individually, we can also get a sense for why Tango is so notably addictive. Especially because it includes a necessary community element that is not necessarily present in the techniques cited from Zen, though it can be and is often noted as a very important aspect of serious meditation practice.

Considering this issue seriously, we need to admit that Soto Zen takes as it’s founder a man who was known to sit stock-still in a cave, alone, for eight year intervals.

IV.

The Student: Now what shall I do?

The Master: The only thing left to do: ascend The Holy Mountain.

The Student: I have both feet now, but its edges are so thin! They are like razor blades.

The Master: So ascend it step by step, and do it with perfect balance.

— — — — — –

There are numerous taxonomies of spiritual achievement. One that I find really useful is Daniel Ingram’s take on the Progress of Insight.The first proper meditative achievement in modes of thinking like this is the knowledge of Mind and Body.

There are plenty of ways to consider this, or to cache it out. The way I cache it out is in terms of an experiential familiarity with the relationships between your thoughts, your feelings, and your bodily condition.

Hopefully, the fact that the mind and the body are intimately interrelated is somewhat obvious to the reader. That being said, I think it’s fair to say that materialist-consumerist culture is fantastic at wiping away conscious access to the genuinely experiential. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t need to be writing this piece in the first place. So I’ll cache out the knowledge of Mind and Body in terms of what we know from the study of psychology.

If we want to phrase one observation you can make once you have the knowledge of Mind and Body in terms of psychology, let’s take Antonio Damasio’s Somatic Marker Hypothesis.This idea is also explored among other very findings relevant to the knowledge of Mind and Body in Lisa Feldman-Barret’s exceptional How Emotions are Made.

In order to really illustrate the idea, I’ll just give you an example. I encourage you to look for possible examples as well in your own life. At one point in my life, as a young man, I was just getting into strength training, and I discovered barbell exercises like the Deadlift and the Back Squat.

The singular importance of barbell training in any serious discussion of physical fitness is that the barbell — as opposed to the isolation machine — allows one to train almost all of the muscles you would expect weightlifting to train by completing a very small range of exercises.

A consequence of this is that you can often acquire soreness in areas of your body a few days after that you cannot consciously account for, if you aren’t used to dealing with delayed onset muscle soreness.

In my case, two days after completing a particularly heavy set of back-squats, I realized that I was incredibly anxious. I couldn’t think straight in class, I was walking around with my posture curled in like a frightened lobster, and I was definitely compelled to be more shy than the usual scrawny seventeen year old. That struck me as the exact opposite to the desired consequence of weightlifting, so I started to examine my body in greater detail.

At that moment, I discovered that my abs were sore. Which I thought was odd, because I hadn’t done abdominal exercise at all the day before. But that had definitely been the source of my anxiety. I always get a sore stomach when I’m anxious. So I associate a sore stomach with anxiety. This is where the fascinating proof of the Somatic Marker Hypothesis comes in, and you could mark this as the moment when I first appreciated knowledge of Mind and Body: as soon as I realized the soreness in my stomach was not a sign of fear, but was instead a sign of a good workout the day before, my anxiety vanished completely.

Now, bear in mind that the knowledge of Mind and Body, just like all the other stages of insight, are fewer milestones and more modes of cognition. I won’t get into the later stages here, because they all tend to get really weird, and also because I don’t feel strictly qualified to discuss them as if I was any kind of authority. The ultimate consequence of the fact that Mind and Body is a mode of cognition, and not a milestone or achievement, is that in order to really understand the fact of it, you need to practice.

One exceptional way to practice Mind and Body is the aforementioned sitting stock-still in a cave for eight years. Or in other words, what Shinzen Young calls Strong Determination Meditation, wherein you choose a fixed length of time to sit and commit to not moving for the entirety. You would be amazed at what you learn by doing this. You can also experience this in the latter half of S.N. Goenka Vipassana retreats, I’m told.

Another exceptional way is to take upon yourself the task of manipulating the subtle energies of your body in such a way as to produce a desired change in the world, in a way that is both fun and motivating.

Maybe you could do it while hugging an attractive member of the opposite sex — or the same sex if you are so inclined — while participating in the peak emotional experiences associated with the enjoyment of particularly good music. That would introduce both a really strong positive motivation for practicing — which I really hope is obvious — and a very strong prompt for iteration. It’s hard to get dances unless you’re good. It’s hard to get good dances unless you’re really good.

Are you starting to see what I mean?

A final side-note: do not underestimate the people you think are meat-heads. Some of the greatest practical wisdom you will ever find can be found in a gym, that contains honest working-class men and women, who are ultimately concerned with pushing themselves to the greatest heights of physiological development.

V.

The Student: What a perspective! From here I can see it all. All the small things, and all the great.

The Master: Don’t think you’ve attained a thing. To have and to not-have are not so easily disentangled.

The Student: So loss can be just as full as gain.

The Master: Precisely.

— — — — — –

The purpose of this section is to fill in the blanks I’ve left so far in my account, and situate to Tango into a wider psychological and therapeutic context. We’ll also see, blow-by-blow, how Tango emerges as an organic spiritual practice.

We have at least one reason to believe that Tango is an effective spiritual process. Among others are that it is demonstrably flow inducing: Csíkszentmihályi notes in his bookFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience that the happiest people are those whose lifestyles promote flow. He sees this as a consequence of the self briefly popping out of existence during a flow experience, and then returning in the aftermath.

Or in other words, and to paraphrase wisdom which is so common that it is now cliché: to find yourself, you must first abandon yourself.

This is one way in which Tango, alongside other social dances, promotes what Vervaeke would call optimal fittedness: the sense that the personality is maximally adapted to the environmental context, or ‘arena.’ But we could make these same comments about weightlifting, Tai-Chi, Yoga, or whatever you’d like.

The essential edge that Tango has over these practices is that it relational. I don’t mean relational in a master-student way. I mean directly relational. It Takes Two to Tango, Stupid!

What we learned from the great psychotherapeutic experiment of the 20th Century was that the experience of being seen — as Carl Rogers, the originator of person centered therapy would tell you — provides a transformative opportunity. There is no more direct and physiological way to be seen than by engaging in the arena of social dance, both on a macro-social scale, and on a micro-scale that focuses on the couple.

As anyone who has been to Buenos Aires will be able to report, save football, the Argentinians love two things above all else: Tango and Psychoanalysis. We can also see this principle in action if we consider in detail Slavoj Zizek’s romantic life.

A point I made in my recent post on Spiritual Seeking was that a psychotechnology, if it was to come with a surrounding mythology of the sort that could support a community, would need to have evolved organically. At the very least, we have plenty of evidence that Tango evolved organically, and in order to answer a very specific need: it was invented by a large body of young, disenfranchised young men who had immigrated to Argentina, and who were experiencing a lack of community; an alienation from their host society; and the sort of hopelessness that we could all recognize as the fear of death.

Those are the perfect conditions for the expressive principle of a dynamic system to evolve. But what about the restrictive principle? What about the second half of the dialectic? Well, in that case, we need to consider the massive gender imbalance in Buenos Aires in the early 20th century. I don’t have a statistic. Suffice it to say that there were many, many young men who had no hope of ever finding a family and a community if they did not develop and then master this dance-form.

How Tantric is that? The mythology is all there: learn this art form, which perfectly balances the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine. Or die.

These conditions of imbalanced prompted the development of the codigos, which existed to protect a minority of eligible young women from the mass of potentially dangerous young men. Some of the key rules are as follows: you can only ask a follower to dance with your eyes, this is called the Cabeceo; second,a dance lasts exactly one tanda — which is a set of three to four songs — before you are obligated to break embrace, and then ask again if you want to keep dancing.

You do not need words to dance Tango. That means there is no necessary involvement from the linguistic tyrant. You cannot always have what you want. You must expose yourself to uncertainty. You must always accept the end of the dance.

Tango is the only participatory art-form that rivals the heights of culture as described by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy andlast realized in Attic Tragedy. Because Tango is where emptiness meets form, and because it participates in the essentially musical and tragic, that is what enables it as a transcendental experience.

Because it celebrates the impossible and the impermanent, it allows us to bridge the existential chasm, to a position from which we can infuse our own immanent deaths with meaning, and ideally, even celebrate them. What more could you really ask for in a remedy to the death of God?

VI.

There are some weak points we need to acknowledge. Tango is not currently optimized for spiritual practice. There are some things we need to overcome before we can employ it as such. Likewise, Tango might not be a universally suitable spiritual practice. We need to recognize that possibility and see what we can learn from it, and what we can take from it to incorporate into a possibly more generalizable spiritual practice.

The first weak point is that Tango which aims at the development of the self and the promotion of eudaimonic well being, or human flourishing, is not necessarily the same as the Tango that is oriented towards performance and beauty of form. This is not to say that beautiful and intentional tango is impossible. More that Stage-Tango is something different from a Spiritual Tango. The relationship between Stage and Spiritual Tango would be something like the relationship between a Shaolin Monk performing for a crowd and the Shaolin Monk practicing Kung Fu for its own sake.

In order to address this problem, we will need to acknowledge that beauty without depth is empty. This means we would need to reject, or at least insulate ourselves from social contexts that promote the development of superficial beauty. We would need to concern ourselves less with the production of beauty, and more with — as Plato would put it — internalizing The Form of the beautiful.

We need to orient ourselves and develop a spiritually aware Tango. However, there is a paradox here, which is that no spiritual practices can be designed. I suppose in some sense, this piece is me asking a question: who else has considered this? Who wants to help me solve this problem? Because I certainly cannot do it alone.

The second weak point is that Tango is not well suited to everyone. If it is a useful spiritual practice, it definitely falls further to the mystical/tantric side of the scale, and far away from the exoteric/dogmatic side of the scale. That means it’s possibly dangerous — as anyone who has had a Tango relationship will tell you. But don’t take my humour as an excuse to say that danger isn’t serious. The danger isn’t just relational; it is also spiritual.

Tango, as a ‘worldly practice’, is something that can help you acquire wealth, fame, power, sex, and admiration if you do it right and that’s what you want. Which means it’s really easy to pull someone into the dark side — Tango is inherently a flirtation with the darker side of the soul. For our purposes, that flirtation ultimately aimed at transcendence and a dialectical unification of opposites. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t get tied up in the dark side and end up in a bad situation.

So mind the codigos! Don’t be all incense! Love your neighbour. Don’t be a Tango Tom-Cat.

VII.

There is a moment in Herman Hesse’s book Steppenwolf, when the protagonist Henry Haller finally rejects his here-to-fore nihilistic, non-participatory approach to life. It happens in the middle of a dance party, in the arms of a beautiful woman from whom he had spent most of the book learning to dance: Hermione. Note that her name is a feminized version of ‘Herman’. Over the course of the story, she serves as his guide to the world of the Dioynsian; this provides the solution to his constitutionally Germanic and terminal Apollinism.

In Jungian terms, you could say that this was the moment in which he was reconciled with his Anima. In Nietzschean or Heideggerian terms, you could say he learned how to inhabit nature again. In Vervaeke’s terms, he overcame his sense of domicide.

Rather than talk about it any more, I’m just going to find a passage from the novel that expresses my point and then I’ll reproduce it:

To float like this on a wave of sexuality was like a childhood game, full of charm, full of danger, full of surprise. And I was amazed to discover how rich my ostensibly barren and loveless Steppenwolf existence had been in episodes of infatuation, sexual opportunities and temptations. I had let almost all of them slip by or had run away from them. Stumbling upon them, I had forgotten them as fast as I could, but here they were all stored up in their hundreds, every single one of them. Now I could see them, surrender to them, open myself to them and descend into the rosy half-light of their underworld…

From this unending current of temptations, vices and entanglements I resurfaced calmly and silently. I was now well equipped, full of knowledge, wise, deeply experienced, ripe for Hermione. For it was she, Hermione, who emerged as the final figure in my mythical cast of a thousand. In the endless series of names, hers was the last to appear, and its appearance coincided with my return to consciousness. It also marked the end of my erotic fairy tale, because I had no desire to encounter her here in the half-light of a magic mirror. Only the whole Harry would suffice for her, and I was now oh so determined to reconfigure all my chess pieces solely with her and her fulfillment in mind…

The current had washed me up on dry land. I was again standing in the silent corridor behind the theatre’s boxes. What now? I felt for the little chessmen in my pocket, but the urge to rearrange them had already lost its force. All around me I was confronted by this inexhaustible world of doors, inscriptions and magic mirrors. Mechanically my eyes lit on the next notice and I shuddered to see that it read: How to Kill the One You Love.

Remember our earlier cliche: to find yourself, you must first abandon yourself.

If you’ve ever seen a Flamenco performance, perhaps you’ve seen the audience or the other performers shout ‘Olé!’ at the most intense and involved moment of the dance.

There are some who say this practice evolved from the Andalusian Moors — it makes sense, because you don’t get Flamenco without them. They would intone the name of Allah at the moments where the Flamenco dancer was most deeply and intuitively participating in his or her own movement. At the moment of maximum participation in the dance. They did this because they saw God in the motions. Over time, ‘Allah’ became ‘Olé.’

Or on the other hand, consider the mystical practices of the Sufis, who whirl themselves into a trance with the goal of experiencing participatory unity with the world. Now, I’m not going to say I can dance Flamenco, or that I’ve ever even participated in a Sufi ceremony. But from my perspective, it seems as if the basic principle of all these practices is the same. It also seems like they can deeply inform our pursuit of spirituality through Tango.

VIII.

Watch the following. Take it in. Bear in mind that it is completely improvised. Then look me in the eyes, and tell me it doesn’t utterly express the fullness of Being, moment to moment, in all of it’s fizz and pop, through both the positive and the negative modes. I dare you.

Watch what he does. Watch what she is. Then look closely, and you’ll note the dialectical moment where he begins to be, and she ceases to be led.

Olé!

2 thoughts on “Tango as Spiritual Practice: Bringing Together Heaven and Earth.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s