Meet Arawana Hayashi

On “Nowness”, improvisation, and making emerging possibilities visible

If you have ever participated in Social Presencing Theater (SPT) practice or taken a course at the Presencing Institute (PI), you’ll most likely have heard of Arawana Hayashi. As lead educator and co-creator of Social Presencing Theater, Arawana brings her background in the arts, meditation, and social justice to “social presencing” practices, working to feel current reality and create space for emerging possibilities.

“Without forms, you get a mediocre approach to freedom,” says Arawana. She arrives here following the thread of a question on teachers and teaching: what does it mean to be a teacher? What did it mean for her to be taught? Listening to Arawana answer a question is like watching an improv dance: she takes us along her movements and ends at a place which seems both unplanned and known.

“Sometimes I think I owe all my life to my teachers,” began Arawana’s answer to that question. Arawana Hayashi herself is a teacher, among many other things. Social Presencing Theater is used at the individual and systems level to illuminate points of resistance and openings for change. It has been applied across many types of organizations and geographical contexts, blending the Theory U tools of the Presencing Institute with streams of performance, meditation, social action, awareness and embodiment-based methodologies.

It is, in short: “a way of being in the world, a way of looking at life, a way of noticing,” says Arawana. Evolving over the last decade as a collaboration between Arawana and partners at PI, Social Presencing Theater encourages the sensing of parts in ourselves or our social dynamics (for SPT exercises, this is most often in the working environment), which might be sleeping or stuck.

“It wakes up another kind of knowing, maybe even touches on to some kind of wisdom. Everybody has it in them, but not everybody accesses it.”

Social Arts Residency, Mexico, 2019. Beth Mount, Daniela Ferraz, Kobun Kaluza. Photo credit: La Vaca Independiente Archives

Theory Embodied: Journey to the Presencing Institute

The question is where she calls home. Arawana calls home the Hudson Valley of New York. As she speaks, it seems another sort of home for her resides in meditation, which she has practiced, trained, and taught over several decades and considers the basic grounding of her life. Another, in dance: “a wide array of dancing,” she says. “I was trained as a child, and just continued my whole life, really, with that.”

It wasn’t that she was necessarily encouraged by all of her initial dance teachers: “I don’t have the typical body or disposition of a dancer,” she says. “But, there were certain people,” like Jamie Cunningham in New York City, whom she credits with impacting her as a teacher, performer, and collaborator. After many years of studying, practicing and training in meditation, Arawana became an acharya (senior teacher) in the Shambhala tradition. The next three decades of her life were rooted in Cambridge, MA, where she founded or directed several performance companies, experienced her own children growing up, and fifteen years ago began working with the core group of MIT faculty involved in what would then become the Presencing Institute.

“Theory is integrated and interesting in its own way, but it needs to be embodied,” reflects Arawana. She is speaking in the context of PI; her words are perhaps also resonant for theory and foundations in general, which benefit from being embodied, so that “there is more wholeness.”

Otto Scharmer interviewing Arawana on the origins of SPT for the MOOC “u.lab: Leading From the Emerging Future”

By the time she first met Otto Scharmer at the Shambhala Institute for Authentic Leadership, Arawana was an experienced teacher in meditation and in interdisciplinary ensemble performance. In 2004, finding a theoretical partner for the artistic, she began to work on integrating meditation and mindfulness into the work done by a group of MIT Faculty members, including Otto, Peter Senge, and Katrin Kaeufer. In 2005, the Presencing Institute was born. The work found one home in Social Presencing Theater, and has continued there and in other currents since then, providing the “body to the theory,” as Arawana describes it.

“One wants a life in which what we are doing is meaningful, and beneficial, given how difficult things are. How to really help out somehow? PI has provided that container — that invitation.”

“More Wholeness”: Bringing Mindfulness and Movement to the Creative Process

Arawana’s training in seemingly opposing dance forms — exactingly traditional dance on one hand, and improvisation on the other — is an exercise itself in the dimensions of wholeness and the sense perception of knowing. Highly trained in the traditional Japanese court dance of Bugaku, Arawana is a foremost carrier of the dance’s lineage outside of Japan. An ancient art, Bugaku dates to the 7th century, is accompanied by the oldest orchestral music in the world, and is highly precise in its movements, music, and traditional dress. “The Japanese government still maintains an office of music and rituals,” Arawana explains. In Bugaku, there is a certain access to the Gods, “a sense of a harmony, between the heavenly and the earth.” This sense of traditional link with the “seasons, with the ancestors, and the dead… is part of how one experiences harmony as a human being.”

Arawana in traditional Bugaku dress

Carrying the thread of harmony, the precision of Bugaku is not so at odds with improvisation when viewed through the lens of a concept taught to Arawana by her meditation teacher: “Nowness.” Arawana speaks of “Nowness” as listening into whatever one is living, and finding the reality or emerging possibility in that. It applies to both dance forms: “Whether one is an improviser, or whether we’ve been doing the same dance over hundreds of times — that moment has never been lived before. It doesn’t matter what the context is; this particular moment with these people at this time has never happened before. And there’s something about that that gives birth to a sense of direction,” she says. Arawana’s training and experience in improvisation — with other dancers, as well as musicians, poets, and people in the room, is also an exercise in ensemble.

“In improvisation, which is true for Social Presencing Theater as well, it’s generally a group. And so you’re sensing into what is the group, and where does that being yearn to go?”

The question of where that being yearns to go underpins much of the work the Presencing Institute does. How would we answer this? For Arawana, the response to this question informs her work and life: “It doesn’t yearn to go towards dysfunction,” she says. “It doesn’t yearn to go towards stress, particularly, that’s just not how people are — there is a yearning for more ease, or openness, or love… there is a yearning for that. And it gets covered over by all the conflicts and confusions and habits and blind spots that we all have.”

Arawana reflects on how theory lives in the body, and how we live in our body and in relation to other bodies. “How do people tap into the body’s intelligence,” Arawana asks. “The sense perception of knowing, the care that the heart has for this world. How do you get that into the conversation and make that visible: that people care about this world. And they care about each other. To strengthen that — or make that more visible, more vibrant, more vivid — that experience has been possible within the context of the Presencing Institute.”

Art Practices to Explore Blind Spots: Social Presencing Theater (SPT)

Social Presencing Theater is an inquiry into the social body and the choices people can make. Arawana views it as a seed practice: “It is not a solution,” Arawana highlights — “it is a movement toward, or insight into.”

Understanding what is in a name is one way to unpack: the “Social” refers to the social body, the social fields, the “relational quality” of how the parts fit together, and the social soil which reflects the health of the system. “So we’re trying to uncover the blockages to that, which are often a certain kind of hope and fear dynamic. And hope and fear, and bouncing between those two, is not really a good basis for creativity,” says Arawana.

Then there is the “Presencing” component, a word made up of two words merged together, namely presence and sensing. “The word is with this awareness,” she explains. “How can we be aware collectively of what’s happening, what’s emerging.” The “Theater” part is simple, Arawana says.

“The word theater just means that it’s visible. You can see it, because bodies are visible. And thoughts are not. And neither is speech. Bodies, and what they do — that’s highly visible.”

Arawana with Ricardo Dutra at the Social Field Research Summer School in Berlin, 2019

SPT contains several practices, and processes will often integrate other methods as well, involving generative listening and dialogue. A central component in many SPT sessions is the “Stuck” exercise, in which participants move from one embodiment to another — from Sculpture One, a present reality, to their Sculpture Two, an emerging future. The Stuck exercise, and other components of Social Presencing Theater, finds roots in meditation practices and Arawana’s own meditation training. It builds on a basic tenant of her training: that meditation is never used to “repress or suppress difficulty.” Rather, “you let the feeling of that be present, and you don’t buy into the storyline.”

The crystallization of “stuck” as the concept shows the power of collaboration. “One of the patterns is that Otto has an idea,” says Arawana. “I go and I work on this with a few friends, and we bring something back, and that isn’t actually what is going to work. And this is a very common pattern,” she recalls. Then, in that gap, between when the idea is returned and when the group will next meet, or even right before it moves through the exercise, something else forms. “In this case, I had offered something around practice and what popped up, was Otto saying — I think ‘stuck.’ I think we should focus on that aspect.” And so Stuck was born.

Beth Mount, Arawana Hayashi and Ursula Versteegen at a practitioner circle, 2014

Arawana describes Stuck — which is a noun (“to have a Stuck, rather than to be stuck”) — as an honoring of a feeling, a way to “embody the feeling quality of being stuck.” The practice helps people to acknowledge, too, that the feeling is not sustainable. “It doesn’t want to stay there. It doesn’t want to be stuck. Even though Stuck is familiar, and it’s my Stuck, and it’s hard to let it go at times. It wants to — if you can tune in enough to the body — it wants to shift.” Stuck, and other Social Presencing Theater practices like 4-D Mapping, help to highlight the myriad forces that influence people and systems. Arawana highlights:

“Nobody is stuck by themselves. There are systemic forces. They could be other people, other kinds of larger systems, you know, racism, for instance, or the economic system. Or it can also be mental habits, self-sabotage, doubt.”

Moving through the exercise is asking people to track the movement that comes out of their Stuck. And there is a seed there, or insight. “Sometimes people make Stucks and their second shape is, if they’re really honest about it, more… I wouldn’t say more stuck than the first one, but it has a more kind of — depth… And oftentimes sadness or anger or something like that comes out of that. They hadn’t expected that, and they think it wasn’t a good result. But in fact, that’s a very good result in that there’s just more honesty and more clarity around something.”

Social Presencing Theater Online

Arawana admits that she began the online programs during the pandemic somewhat skeptically. There are some things that cannot be done online, or not to any analogous effect. Arawana works with spatial relationships, which she notes “is very different in two dimensions than it is in three.” In other areas, however, she says she has been surprised and moved at the amount that can be done, and the care that can be transmitted through the process online. “More is possible than expected,” she says. Arawana credits her team, with whom she constantly tries new things out and puts in hours of design time.

4-D mapping online: Arawana with colleagues Angela Baldini, Olaf Baldini and Manish Srivastava

And it works. In reflections on movements from Sculpture One to Sculpture Two, Arawana has felt participants in breakout rooms offering back insights on one another’s shapes that are deeply insightful, even (or because of) the screen in between. “I don’t know why that works or how. What people say is something that I knew, but I couldn’t access myself.” Arawana feels in her online sessions “a sense of a deepening in the whole collective. There’s something about the vulnerability of it, that makes people more tender,” she says. “Or something like that.”

Looking Forward

As the Presencing Institute is coming up to its 15-year anniversary, Arawana is looking forward to the release of her recently finished writing project: Social Presencing Theater: The Art of Making a True Move. The book enters the world in early March 2021 and in addition to Social Presencing Theater, it also introduces the underlying principles of Arawana’s teachings and approach to the world.

Ecosystem Leadership Program 2019: Laura Pastorini, Anne-Sophie Dubanton, Anastasia Totok, Ricardo Dutra, and Arawana Hayashi.

Arawana grounds the end of the interview in what her heart is beating for, now and toward the future: other projects, perhaps working more in education, and with people with developmental disabilities. She also is looking toward more writing and research. She has recently been a part of social art residencies in the Yucatán, and hopes to do more of that, too. “I missed the theater. I love the theater,” she says. Reflecting on her own life threads, Arawana recaps: “I still really like making things up. That’s never left.”

In responding to what motivates her, Arawana says:

“I have privilege, an ability to offer something back for what I have received. I feel like I have received a lot, around art practice, around meditation, and that has been such a richness in my own life. Every ordinary person, like myself, can be creative. Everyone can tap into that creativity in everyday life.”

Watch the recording of the interview below:

A big thank you to Hannah Scharmer and Randi Kaeufer for their interview and video editing support.

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