The Dance of Freedom

I loved discussing freedom this past Wednesday. I thought the idea that the sinner and the saint both ultimately seek freedom, though of differing natures, was quite interesting. I believe it’s important to note, however, that the lines between good and bad, victim and perpetrator, sinner and saint are not as disparate as they may seem in our dualistic world. That we are the living composite of the universe: part flower, part lion, monkey, tree, rain, mouse, rabbit, part bird. Any characteristic we see in nature, we can also find within ourselves. True wisdom arises when we can come to know ourselves as both sinner and saint – one and the same eternally.

The blurred boundaries between victim and perpetrator are, in fact, what led me to wish to serve juvenile hall inmates. It’s been so interesting to observe just how much victimization lies within perpetrators of societal violence, crime and destruction. Just this past Thursday evening, one young inmate confided in me how scared he is to get out of prison due to having been violently stabbed by another young man. He and the other youth often share with me how they don’t feel safe anywhere. I shared with them why, then, meditation is a good practice, for developing heightened awareness of one’s surroundings and sharper survival instincts.

There is also a great deal of perpetration that, likewise, takes place within victims. Severe guilt. Self doubt. Self-critical thinking and self-punishment. Addictions of all kinds. These are some of the many ways that victims perpetuate even more violence and suffering upon and within themselves. A good friend who serves as a counselor for at-risk youth in the violent neighborhoods of Richmond, CA recently wrote how “compassion is a gift that is inter-personally transmitted.” Mitch also shares how a victim of any kind needs at least one truly compassionate person in his or her life to help overcome victimization. It is also interesting and very sad to note how in the case of so called ‘honor crimes’ against women, it is almost always women themselves who carry out and further perpetuate violence against themselves.

I am reminded in this of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” about how

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

I think of these words as they apply to children who grow up witnessing violence in their homes, and how much spousal abuse affects their ability to grow up feeling loved and create healthy relationships throughout their lives.

In examining any kind of problem, whether societal or individual (often societal problems are, in fact, gross manifestations of masses of individual problems), it is crucial to go into the root causes of the problems. It is not enough to simply judge and thereby cast off an action as being wrong or bad. I often hear from juvenile hall youth, for example, that the reason they resort to stealing in the first place is to actually serve and provide for their family members, friends and community members in need. Robin Hood is a great example of a thief, but one who stole from the rich to give to the poor. The real question at stake in examining robbery, then, often becomes whether a person’s so-called ‘need(s)’ is a legitimate survival requirement (adequate, healthy food, clean clothing and safe shelter) or whether the ‘need’ actually arises out of greed. As Gandhiji once said,

“there is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.”

In my own life, I have always had a strong yearning for the kind of inner freedom Swami Vivekananda eloquently describes here. When I was younger, though, I was unable to define this freedom as being internal and instead viewed freedom as being quite external. For this reason, I absolutely hated going to India. It was very apparent to me just how few (external) freedoms Indian women and girls possessed, in the strongly patriarchal society of modern-day India. In Gujarat, the word for ‘girl’ is pronounced “baby.” One day, as I was observing life on the streets from atop our family apartment balcony, I remember some teenage boys yelling at me, screaming “Hey baby, baby!” At 9 years old, I was certainly no ‘baby’ in my eyes and replied “who are you calling baby? I am not a baby!”

My mother always wished that I would take training in classical Indian dance when I was growing up. I, however, refused to subject myself to this, ignorantly believing such dances were weird and definitely Not for Me. Why do these dancers make such scary faces? I particularly did not understand the necessity for sticking their tongues out when dancing. So much of the deeply spiritual Indian culture made so little sense to me. I remember having prayed intensely before one of the many deities (probably, come to think of it, Kali herself, outstretched tongue and all!), wishing that I would one day be able to understand Her deeper essence. I always intuitively sensed that there was, indeed, something very sacred and profound to all things Indian, but that I would be wise to find a talented translator down the road.

My high school speech and drama teacher Mrs. Sanders encouraged me, instead, to be the change by becoming that translator when she gave me a high school graduation card with a Marcel Proust quote on it:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

My dance guru (teacher) Jyoti Rout, depicting Kali, slaying the inner demons that exist within all (photo courtesy of Jyoti Kala Mandir and

Six years later, these words continue to ring so true for me, as I find myself completely voluntarily training in classical Indian dance, having just completed a weekend workshop where learned a dramatic dance piece that involves a fight sequence against ‘Kaliya.’ I had to make the very scary faces I had always feared! But, finally, with an understanding of its significance and relevance to life. ‘Kaliya’ is a serpent who Krishna fights. Kaliya represents the inner demons we all possess within ourselves: anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, ignorance, doubt and despair. Odissi dance, for me, has become an exciting way of bringing the ancient yogic spirituality of India to life and serving as a bridge between two seemingly very different cultures. The order of learning for the dances starts with “Mangalacharan” (meaning auspicious beginning) and gets increasingly more complex until a student can learn a “Moksha” piece. “Moksha” is a Sanskrit word that means complete freedom from all forms of suffering. Moksha is, in fact, the ultimate goal of all my present passions, for Yoga, meditation, Ayurveda and dance. In delving deeper into my own culture, which I once viewed as restricting me from the freedom I have always sought, I have found that it is this very freedom that lays at the heart of all things (ancient) Indian. My journey has come full circle in wonderful ways, teaching me many important lessons along the road. Mostly, that freedom is a state of mind –  a subtle, but powerful shift in consciousness one often only comes to through a crisis of some sort. On this subject, I have written three poems you can read on this blog: Prisoner of My Mind, Freedom Is and The Lotus Blooms.

2 thoughts on “The Dance of Freedom

  1. Michael says:

    Om Ripa,

    I often find inspiration through the experiences others have gone through. You are practicing what you preach and I admire that. I look forward to reading your honest, inspiring and vivid stories.


  2. Jyoti Apa says:

    I loved it.
    You are something else.
    Its really blows me away when I come across something and someone like you. It shows that the teaching are the same but it’s the aspirant who takes the knowlase with her recieving qualities.
    All the best and thank you for sharing.
    Jyoti Apa

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