Can You Dance on the Head of a Pin?

In the Eastern view, the dualistic energies of heaven and earth meet within the human body. Many Western traditions say as much: we are soul made flesh.

I picture the divine in each of us as a ballerina en pointe. Exquisitely balanced, gorgeously graceful, she (or he) hovers between heaven and earth, barely alighting. She goes by the name Best Self, and as good as she is, even she slips sometimes. Too much earth, not enough heaven - or vice versa - and things go off-balance. We're only human, after all. Forgive yourself, as any angel would. Regain equilibrium, and strive upward once more, as if on angel's wings.

Pondering the Imponderables

Puzzling over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is a job for the so-called higher brain, seated in the frontal lobes of our cerebral cortex. Seated, you might say, as if on a throne, for this most highly evolved region of the brain is our skull's resident scholar, the one who can do what the very best brains of other animals cannot: crunch numbers, use reason and logic, collect arcane trivia in hopes of winning on Jeopardy! someday...that sort of thing.

Well, were I to risk it all to speak truth to power, I would put this question to that royal-highness of a brain: "So tell us, Your Majesty! With all those super, human smarts of yours - not to mention your savvy for programming machines to think like you - how come you haven't designed a robot yet that can even walk with the grace of a human, let alone dance like one? Eh, Yer Highness? How high is your ‘higher brain' functioning now?"

Enough, enough. Lest I forget, I'm making a case for the better angels of our nature, here.

Jack Be Limbic, Jack Be Quick

I got snotty there for a minute to make this point: the higher brain may be clever enough to do math and use logic and even win on brainy game shows, but it doesn't know - nor does it care - one bit about hurt feelings (or sex or food, for that matter). What's worse, it couldn't run you out of a burning building to save your soul.

Higher brain, my foot. If dancing with angels is what you want, come on down to the limbic level, what Peg and I like to call the Limbic Lounge, 'round the bend from the frontal lobe, in the temporal lobes on the sides of the head. The limbic system may not rank as high as the higher brain, but it's the more feeling brain, the brain who cares! It knows where your edges are and senses beyond them. Gut feelings plug into the limbic brain, and its fight-or-flight sentinels stand ready to save you. Thanks to the limbic system, rock-a-bye motion soothes the crying babe, and deepening emotion transforms strangers into friends....

Yeah, life would be mighty dull without a limbic brain in our heads. Except for the even sadder possibility that we'd all be extinct by now.

Be an Angel, Will You, Love?

The compassionate limbic brain evolved to aid survival. Before it emerged, about 100 million years ago, the most sophisticated animal brains were "reptilian" - and you know how snakes can be. If they happened by as their own eggs were hatching, they'd be like, "Hey! Lunch!" But not us mammals. Our limbic systems ooze with emotion, and we fall in love with our babies, just as we fell for their daddies or mommies before them (not to mention countless grannies and aunties, cousins, and buddies). Forget saving ourselves: we'd run into burning buildings for these guys!

My sister Theresa gave our brother Sean two-thirds of her liver. The risks were enormous, her children were still at home, but she never wavered in her decision to try to save Sean's life. And she did. The way I see it, Theresa now dances among the angels - in a beautifully scarred body still living right here on earth!

Cool Moves: Balance Challenge!

Practice hatha yoga's Tree Pose (Vrksasana) every chance you get. Stand tall with your feet together. Place the right foot against the (inner) left leg at the level of ankle, knee, or thigh (mid-thigh or higher up), as you're able. Higher placement = bigger challenge. Fix your gaze on a low spot about ten feet in front of you. Inhale and raise your arms overhead, with palms facing each other or touching. Straighten the elbows, arms to ears, chin slightly tucked. Breathe mindfully. Grow upward! Hold for twenty to thirty seconds. Repeat on the other side.

Things to Try at Least Once

  1. Dance. With a partner, alone in your room, fast, slow, cha-cha-cha! Take dance lessons - ballroom, ballet, belly - whatever moves you. Just get up and booooogieeeee!
  2. Pick an angel, any angel! Consult a deck of Angel Cards and let them lift you with their single-word encouragements.
  3. Take on balance challenges. Ride a bike, play hopscotch, climb rock walls, spin a ball on your fingertips, play tennis or soccer, balance a yardstick vertically at arm's length, or pretend the curb is a balance beam and that you're going for Olympic gold!
  4. Host a Dancing Angels film festival. Invite your friends (or not) for a marathon of movies about angels and dance. Might I suggest Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, the American remake of it, called City of Angels, and anything by Busby Berkeley?

50 Ways to Leave Your 40sExcerpted with permission from the book:

50 Ways to Leave Your 40s: Living it Up in Life's Second Half © 2008
by Sheila Key and Peggy Spencer, M.D.

Printed with permission of the publisher, New World Library, Novato, CA. or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.

For more info or to order this book.


Sheila Key

Peggy Spencer

About the Authors


Sheila Key & Peggy Spencer, M.D are the authors of 50 Ways to Leave Your 40s: Living it Up in Life's Second Half.  Visit them online at

SHEILA KEY is an award-winning writer and graphic designer who has freelanced for publications ranging from corporate business journals to New Age magazines to anthologies of poetry and art. Before writing and designing full-time, Sheila worked in radio for ten years. Sheila lives with her husband and two children in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

PEGGY SPENCER has a B.A. degree from the University of California Santa Cruz and an MD from the University of Arizona. She completed a residency at the University of New Mexico, is board certified in Family Medicine, and is currently employed at UNM as staff physician at the Student Health Center and adjunct faculty at the School of Medicine. She writes a column for the New Mexico Daily Lobo newspaper answering reader-submitted health questions, and contributes articles to UNM Parent Matters and UNM Today. Peg is married with two children and lives in Albuquerque.


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