“That’s the paradox of selflessness—by periodically losing our minds we stand a better chance of finding ourselves.” – Steven Kotler, Stealing Fire
A few years ago, friends and I were visiting Brooklyn and on a Sunday morning we set out on an adventure that would change my life.
Our plan was to bike across Brooklyn until we hit the Atlantic Ocean. A beautiful beach spot called Fort Tilden was a couple of hours away. With our beach bags and bluetooth speakers on hand we jumped on our bikes and started out our journey.
It was a beautiful sunny summer day, not a cloud in the sky as we wound our way through the different Brooklyn neighbourhoods. We took turns curating music through our speakers, smiling and connecting with people as we went. First we passed through a huge Hasidic Jewish community, everyone out and about doing their thing. Then we were in a predominantly Black neighbourhood and passed a gospel church letting out, where everyone’s in their gospel fineries emerging from Sunday prayers. And then we rode into a Muslim area, passing mosques. I was stuck not only by the diversity but also by how each community chose to spend their Sunday morning.
We eventually hit the beach, basking in the waves, sun and sand before we took a boat back to Manhattan. Now we were treated to a different perspective, seeing the city from the ocean, meeting and chatting with new people. We got off the boat and rode our bikes to Mister Sunday, a party that happens every Sunday in New York. The sun’s setting at this point. We’re by the canal, there’s a lot of people dancing on a big outdoor patch of grass, all dressed in different assortments of clothing, lots of self-expression. I’m in the middle of the dance floor in a high state of ecstasy, just filled with all of this experience: the freedom of cycling, moving through different communities, combined with the ocean, combined with music and dancing and new people and places.
And I realized: This is my church. These are my people. This is how we celebrate, through rhythms and movement and uninhibited self expression under the glow of the setting sun, connecting to nature and connecting with each other. It was a profoundly transcendent experience for me.
This taste of transcendence is a place where celebration meets meditation. Where my ego diminishes, my consciousness expands and a deep feeling of connectedness emerges. There can be a sense of awe, of the immensity and grandeur of experience and mysteries of creation. All of these insights you can experience while meditating on the cushion, you can also access them while celebrating.
I came back wanting more of that transcendent joy in my life, so I started searching for it and creating it in the city where I lived. It motivated me to throw my own parties and spread the same joy that I was feeling out to more people.
I got involved with Ecstatic Dance Toronto, first as a participant and later as a DJ. I really enjoyed the idea of dancing without talking, in an open space where you’re free to dance without the typical dancefloor politics. If you go to a club or a party, you’re forced to have all these small social interactions that can be taxing. Here everyone was really just kind of doing their own thing, apart from the odd smile or eye contact there’s very little interaction with others. It feels different, more room for personal freedom and exploration. It draws in people of all different ages, bodies and abilities.
These dance journeys start with people lying on the floor in meditation. And then slowly build up from there, with a nice arc that goes to a height of intensity then brings you back down. It’s really a journey – you’re travelling through music with a variety of tempos and styles, but there’s also a kind of interconnectedness of flow in between them all. The journey crests the waves, up and down, and then ends back on the ground. It’s a full circle experience
Celebration through dance, music, nature and self expression has always been a big part of my life. The spontaneity around it, the inspiration. I need it, I suffocate without it. It’s an act of creation that energizes me. Every now and then I have to run out, and just saturate myself with music for a while
I’m also a facilitator for a living, I bring people together. So I’ve started to think about gathering in a deeper way. There’s an amazing book called The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. It asks “Why? Why are we gathering? What’s the intention?” You can make it a very powerful celebration if you build it around a clear intention.
In this spirit we started doing meditations before parties, adding some CEC practices to our social gatherings as an anchoring way to start a party. When you intentionally bring mindfulness into the celebration, it creates a space where you can diffuse your thoughts, get some distance from your monkey mind and connect with the here and now. You practice going beyond yourself, so once the music starts you’re less concerned with matters of ego, and you can play more freely.
A celebration environment is really dynamic.There’s a lot of stimuli, a lot of unpredictability and spontaneity. That’s what makes it powerful, but it also can get you hung up in a lot of different ways. Mindfulness enables you to unhook yourself and to keep going rather than to get stuck. It helps you to enjoy it more, and practice healthier ways of being and interacting.
When I was younger, being in party mode meant my intentions were focused around sensory pleasure, identity building, conquesting and collecting experiences. Now my priorities are a bit different. I’m more immersed in parent culture than party culture, throwing butterfly dress-up parties for my four year old daughter, creating spaces to help unleash the child spirit in safe and fun ways. Trying to build community amongst children and their parents, because we’re raising our children together and I think it’s healthy to celebrate while you’re doing it.
Our Soul Sunday street parties in Kensington Market bridge these worlds for me, bringing together the partiers and the parents, the silent meditators and the squealing children.
We start with a really guerrilla form of meditation, sitting in the crowded streets of Pedestrian Sunday’s carnival-like atmosphere. It’s a real test: can you sit here and connect with yourself in the middle of chaos where there’s lots and lots of external stimuli that’s happening?
When the music starts, there’s a wonderful spontaneity that happens, because often someone’s just walking by and all of a sudden you can see their faces light up, their kids’ faces light up. There are certain ingredients on display that feed us with joy. There’s music, there’s bubbles, there’s chalk, there’s costumes… all these playful activities to engage in. And so people start playing with each other and you can see all of these really sweet interactions.
It’s like this spontaneous community building project and the great thing about it is that we build a big enough tent that anyone can participate. We have kids playing, multigenerational families and multi-abled bodies dancing, hipsters trying on costumes, street-involved folks dancing and keeping watch and everyone’s together in this kind of happy bubble. The roles that we all usually play disappear in that environment and we can just be people dancing and playing with each other for a while. It’s such an intangible thing, weird to try to put words to it, because it’s a feeling that you get… It’s magic.
The act of celebration is a type of moving meditation. It doesn’t have to look like a dance party – that’s just the way that I like to do it. There are all sorts of personal celebration activities. It can be a walk by yourself, spending time in nature, an intimate dinner with friends – whatever the activity that helps to pull you out of your mind habits into the larger world of interconnection.
That dance floor feeling from Mister Sunday stayed with me for a long time, it never really left me. And now it brings me great satisfaction to share it with others. I see it at Ecstatic Dance, I see it at Soul Sunday, the joy that it brings to people to have spaces where they can express themselves and feel safe and welcome. People leave there feeling nurtured and inspired. They’re happy then to go and spread more of that magic in the world.
Mark Greenspan is the founder of influenceTHIS and CEC’s resident dance journey DJ. He has a passion for creating magical spaces that enable people to connect, be inspired and manifest new realities for themselves. He also loves to listen to music from around the world, dance and practice mindfulness. Sometimes he gets the opportunity to do all three.