“If you’re gonna do it, you have to live it.” This was the line that often got batted around when I was coming up as a young tap dancer. It was a way to encourage the kind of immersion in the form, music, and people, necessary to take on and fuel the journey. Such immersion would show up in one’s dancing. Audiences who knew nothing about tap dancing would be able to tell the difference between a dancer who had been immersed and one who had not. They would carry themselves differently, make different choices, and respond to the challenges of the journey in different ways – on and off the stage.
Since remounting Rising to the Tap recently in Atlanta (after a two-year hiatus due to COVID), I’ve been thinking about immersion a lot. I hadn’t touched that show since the last performance of it at the Vancouver International Tap Dance Festival in the summer of 2019. Then within a few months, along with every other project on the plate, I began to immerse myself in the script. The words, music, and dancing all reentered my life. It was like having an old roommate come to live you again. Somethings were recognizable, somethings I had grown out of and needed to navigate, and somethings needed to be approached differently to find a home in me again.
As I went through this microcosmic immersion, I tried to find time to reflect on the process as it was happening. I noticed my thoughts begin to shift – thinking more and more about the story of the show with each day. My energy levels began to trend higher as rehearsals intensified. I began to forget other little things that I used to be able to hold in my mind, like bits of my schedule. I became concerned with the possible outcome of this immersion. Would my achievement-oriented personality trigger again? Would I be on the path to another burnout? How would immersing myself in this story shape me? These are questions that crossed my mind, even as I worked.
As I’m thinking about all of this now, the run of shows is done, and I’m back to a more regular level of intensity of life – whatever that means. My thoughts around immersion, however, have continued. I recognize even more viscerally now, the formative nature of immersive experiences. Some we choose to enter into – like major projects or pursuits for example. Others we find ourselves in without a choice of engagement – like family (or lack thereof), economy, and geography for example. I am curious, too, about how our own perspective of the immersive nature of life in general, may shape how we think.
A year ago, I ran a pilot course for the project What We Leave Behind. The course explores the relationship between our inner world, the choices we make, the impact we have, and the potential for change that every individual has – both within ourselves and our social relationships. One of the lessons in the course focuses on exploring the idea of impact. Notably we present the idea that impact is something that is always happening. It is not isolated. Our impact is a function of the fact that we are immersed in our lives. We always operate within the context of relationship. Something or someone is always affected by the choices we make. Even if that someone is ourselves.
Let me pause for a moment and take a step back. If we take a look at the individual person as the basic unit of measurement, and take their perspective in a given scenario, any action by said person will encounter feedback by the environment and relationships the action interacts with. This is the impact of the action. Physical actions are embodied choices. They bring thoughts and feelings to life. The connection (and space) between the inner parts of a person and their actions is a worthy exploration, but one for a later time. It is enough for us here to say that our choices go forth in action and those actions have impact – always.
By extension, if that same person were to identify all the choices they make in a given day, and have to consciously weigh their options at every moment of choice (for the sake of thinking through the consequences of their actions), their life would become unduly burdened. Imagine someone having to consciously think of every single thing they did (or did not do) from the moment they woke up to the moment they fell asleep. They would likely find it at least exhausting if not untenable to live that way.
This brings up the idea that there are some choices that we need to be able to not think about while still making them, and others that we would require conscious effort to make. If this is true, another important question comes up: What’s the threshold? I have found that my threshold is directly proportional to the level of trust I have with myself to make the good choice in any given circumstance. What are the choices that I can trust myself to make without having to think specifically about them first? What are the choices that I cannot trust myself to make without thinking about them first?
The question of trust in my own self is a deep and important one. If I can’t trust myself to make the “good” or “right” choice, then there must be something operating in me that I don’t trust. Part of my person is not trustworthy. Maybe I feel like I don’t have the understanding, expertise, or experience to navigate a particular scenario. I don’t trust my intellect. Maybe I feel like I’m not sure about my actual intention in a given scenario. I don’t trust my heart. Maybe I have caught myself doing things just out of habit, and know that not all habits are good. I don’t trust my body. Any distrust in any aspect of my own person will show up as a kind of disintegration of the soul. The soul here is thought of as both a part of the inner person and the wrapper for all the other parts of the person. From the position of a soul that isn’t whole, connected, or complete, it is exceptionally difficult for me to make any kind of choice (especially ones I think are important) without severe internal conflict.
Dallas Willard describes one of the first steps in the spiritual formation of a follower of Jesus as immersion into the trinitarian community of love. In this immersion the individual person is not the center of the equation. Rather they become a part of something that is already happening – that is the giving and receiving of love in a community of distinct personalities all sharing the same essence. The experience of immersion in this case is meant to deeply affect the person who is joining. Their formation is dramatically affected by their immersion in the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Their understanding of this new community they are joining begins to be transformed as they interactively experience the relationships between the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and themselves. The person is immersed in a model of perfect community, and is changed because of it.
In the case of such immersion a particular kind of change occurs. Have you ever been in a relationship so connected that parts of you had to change for the relationship to continue? It wasn’t just behavioral change. It was something deeper – some internal shift began, was sustained, and ultimately became the new normal because of this connection. Imagine this on a cosmic level. That, for the sake of the person you can become, Jesus offers himself (his sacrifice, authority, power, and love, among other things) as a teacher and mentor, for us to follow. Where are we going? We are going into the kind of world that we wish we could live in. One infused with generosity, good will, patience, kindness, love, composure, and gentleness. One devoid of envy, jealously, strife, contempt, manipulation, and de-humanization. One that is exemplified in the trinitarian community of love. But in order to enter and experience this world fully, we must be on a path of sifting through our own person, such that we identify and are willing to leave behind everything that has no place in this world. At the same time, as we are immersed in the trinitarian community of love, and following Jesus, we become more and more infused with all that already fills this world.
There is one last question that I’d like to think about here. That is, “How?” What, in all practicality does immersion look like? This is a rich question to ask that has many possible answers. There are at least three important things we can do to facilitate an immersive experience. The first thing we can do is address our thoughts. There is great power in working, to whatever degree we can, to observe, curate, and cultivate our thought life. Here it is good to note that it is easier to set something before our mind (that is bring a thought to mind) than to try to stop thinking about something. In the example of spiritual formation this shows up in the idea of “setting the Lord before me” (Psalm 16). We can take time in silence to observe our own thoughts. We can make a practice of meditating on the character of God and other formative ideas. We can interact with stories from the Bible by reading them, imagining ourselves in the middle of the story, and engaging with the questions that come to mind. This all cultivates our thought-life.
Secondly, we can curate, at least to a degree, what we take in. Over the years, our current context has grown in the amount of information, conversations, and stories, that are thrust upon us. This is especially true for cultures that have industrialized distribution methods for communication, entertainment, and news. Think about television, radio, the internet, and our devices. While the distribution method may be viewed as innocuous, what it carries, and the underlying design values of cultivating attention may be more insidious. If we are to be intentional about our own immersion, we must be able to take the driver’s seat regarding the kinds of stories, conversations, and information that find their home in our minds. This is not an advocation of disengagement, but rather an offering of prioritization. We are limited people. The question for me has been, “What do I want to fill my mind with first?” This proposition has been helpful:
Seek first the kingdom of God, and it’s righteousness…(from the Book of Matthew)
Lastly, our bodies are important here as well. Where we go with them, what we do with them, even the literal positions our bodies are put in during times of rest and activity can all facilitate or interrupt the process of immersion. In this frame of thinking, explicitly tying activities to thoughts is exceptionally powerful. We must explore the question, “Why?” Jesus, for his part, seemed to know this. In instituting the communion table (the ritual of remembrance connected to the eating of bread and wine – common food elements of the time) Jesus gave his followers an oral tradition. He gave them an activity – something they can do physically – that would set their minds on memories of him, experiences of him, and the explicit WHY that is tied up in all of it. Notably, what Jesus gave them wasn’t only an external activity, but had to do with the internal workings of the human body. It was not extravagant, could be done anywhere, and brought together physical and spiritual realities. Talk about immersion. Genius.