Spread Out Like Polka Dots

Written by Amelia Terrapin

August 27, 2021

Let’s spread out in the space like polka dots.

I’ve said those words hundreds of times to thousands of people in a wide variety of settings: corporate retreats, lecture halls, workshops, conferences, and classrooms. I say this particular phrase to set up the first movement exercise in a systems thinking workshop for professionals.  

Prior to working with organizations in this way, I had 10 years of experience refining my learning-through-movement methods with public school students. I cut my teeth as a facilitator on some of the toughest crowds around.  A 3rd grader will tell you point blank and with zero fanfare when something doesn’t make sense (sincere thanks to the thousands of 3rd-5th graders who, through the grace of their blunt honesty, helped me hone my fuzzy ideas into something sharp and useful).

When I was first invited to use movement as a learning tool with adults, I was very unsure what would happen.  How would ‘professionals’ respond to being asked to move their bodies in a training session?  It felt so counterculture to the norms of work environments. Fortunately, my years in public schools had prepped me with a what-the-heck-let’s-try-it attitude.

Now after many rounds of doing this in professional settings, I can tell you that when adults spread out like polka dots, what happens next is always the same: people dutifully disperse into the open space, with emotional states ranging from terrified to nervous excitement in response to being asked to head into this vulnerable unknown together.  

Then, once I’ve given the instructions and the music is playing, people start to….relax. To smile. To inhabit themselves more fully. To see each other. To enjoy the simple act of moving and learning together.  

Yes, they are learning about the intriguing nature of living systems, which is intellectually rich and stimulating.  But something even more profound is also happening, beneath the surface. Within minutes, I get to watch people undergo a transformation from polite to present. From ‘professional’ to playful. From anxious to engaged. From being in their heads to being in their hearts.

It’s this profound shift that I want to tell you about with the exuberance of a 3rd grader, and the awe of a budding scientist!  The way that movement can take us from polite to present might seem insignificant or irrelevant due to its subtlety, but it has profound implications for how we organize, lead and create together.

Why does finding ways to be present and playful matter so much right now? And why is present and playful such a rare and valuable state, especially at work?  

What Belongs Together Has Come Apart

It’s rare because we have come apart…mind separated from body, separated from spirit.  The reason a state of playful presence is so rare and valuable is because for the most part, we’ve been leading solely with our minds.  

This is remarkably clear when I ask folks to move their bodies as a way to learn about systems.   People are sometimes initially resistant, because moving our bodies can at first feel vulnerable in spaces where the mind is used to being in charge.  Unlike those exuberant 3rd graders, we have a lifetime of conditioning that separates us from ourselves.

I have seen just how many purpose-driven folks (social entrepreneurs, public servants, educators, artists) are burned out and overwhelmed with neglected bodies and withering spirits.  We demote our bodies and spirits to the backseat, relegated as parts of ourselves to be exercised or fed when not at work. 

If we keep leading with our minds alone, we will continue to create the unsustainable mess of systems that don’t know how to care for our whole selves, bodies, minds and spirits.

If the task of our time is to build new, life-giving systems, it’s impossible to birth them from this place of body, mind and spirit delaminated from each other.  So how do we bring back together what has come apart?

What Belongs Together, Comes Together

We need to bring physical and spiritual practices into every aspect of our lives, including work.

Including the body connects us to the deep presence and aliveness that is always available if only we will access it.   

After spreading out like polka dots, groups move together to experience different aspects of systems.  I get to witness the effervescence and playfulness that erupts from a group moving together with the sole purpose of learning about the world, themselves and each other.  To bring back together what belongs together, movement is the first part of the equation.

The second part of the equation is to engage in the simplest of spiritual exercises together: shared reflective practice, or more matter of factly, the debrief.  After the movement exercise, I ask a well-crafted question and watch the floodgates open!  Suddenly all of the aliveness and creativity uncorked in the movement comes tumbling out in the form of heartfelt reflections, penetrating insights, and laughter.  I get glorious glimpses into the possible future of united bodies, minds and spirits working in service of a beautiful world.

This combination of movement + reflection brings back together what belongs together. It takes groups of people into the heart of their purpose together faster than any other tool I’ve seen (even a well-rehearsed PowerPoint presentation). 

What I have learned from working with thousands of purpose-driven folks is that getting bodies moving and spirits soaring unleashes a cascade of benefits. I have seen time and time again how inviting body, mind and spirit together allows groups to tap into the deep well of care, presence, and aliveness necessary to sustain world-changing work. This! THIS! Is the space from which we can create a beautiful future together.

Towards Reciprocity

If you’ve been working at making the world better for even a short time, you know that creating a beautiful future with others is no small feat. Especially when you lead with only the mind,  you may argue that “there’s no time for movement and reflective practice.  That’s not productive.”

The bottleneck on fulfilling your bold visions isn’t time. And, believe it or not, it isn’t money either. 

Time and money can’t buy the connection, trust, creativity and collective will that flows when you get bodies moving and spirits soaring

In the same way we can’t keep extracting nutrients out of our soil without replenishment, we can’t keep wrenching more productivity out of ourselves without physical and spiritual nourishment.  As we make the subtle, radical moves to bring our bodies, minds and spirits back together, we step away from extracting productivity and step towards reciprocity; with ourselves, each other and the earth. 

Movement and reflective practice create the conditions for this nourishment and reciprocity to flow. As people move and reflect together, I get to watch them drink in the nourishment it provides to them not just as individuals but also to their purpose together as a group.  If your deep desire to serve and transform our broken systems could use some nourishment, take heart that the antidote to leading only with the mind can be found in the simplest of acts.

It Arises Naturally

The antidote to the burnout that comes from leading only with the mind arises naturally in your impulses towards what brings you joy, intimacy and connection.  It shows up in your desire to walk with your colleagues at lunch, to meditate together in the morning, to do a personal check-in at the beginning of a meeting, or…to spread out like polka dots!

While I use a particular blend of movement + reflective practice, you can move + debrief in infinite ways.   Let your instincts guide you… if it will get bodies moving and/or spirits soaring, you are likely moving in the direction of bringing back together what belongs together.  

Give yourself and others the permission to prioritize these activities as valid and essential for achieving your visions together.  Trust whatever your impulses are, knowing that it’s a muscle that will get stronger with use. The more improvised the better!

Find an Ending…

At the end of the systems thinking workshop, I ask the small group of participants that are demonstrating a systems concept to find an ending. This prompts people to organically, improvisationally work together to bring their movements to a harmonious close.   The rest of us get to witness a group of humans daringly find a way to momentarily act as one collaborative body.  We watch individual choices accumulate and bend towards the wisdom of the larger ensemble as they find their ending together.  Being available to vulnerably create emergent beauty together is the medicine we most need as leaders right now. Being given opportunities to vulnerably create emergent beauty is the medicine the whole world needs right now.  There is no other more urgent or powerful move you can make than to confidently, proudly get bodies moving and spirits soaring, on your team, in your family, and with your community.  When our bodies, minds and spirits come back together, our deep well of care, presence and aliveness will naturally give rise to the beautiful, life-giving systems we all yearn for.

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