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The Importance of Feeling Part of a Community for Emotional Well-being

This Friday I was listening to Thought For The Day on the Today programme. It was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaking and his theme really caught my interest. He referred to the work of Susan Pinker, who had visited an Italian village to explore why it had more people living over 100 years of age than anywhere else in the world. She discovered that although poor and living in harsh circumstances they lived in a close knit community where no-one was alone as family and friends where all there to offer support and contact. No-one was left alone for long. As a result of this close emotional and physical contact the body’s natural response is to release oxytocin, endorphins and neuro-peptides that support the immune system and aid recovery. In contrast isolation increases stress and reduces life expectancy.

This village in Sardinia is an example of how we lived before industrialisation, consisting of shepherds and farmers and extended families living close together. With industrialisation close knit extended family groups started atomising into isolated family units living in separate houses increasingly far apart from each other. So that now the old are no longer mixing with the young, but are put into homes, lined up in chairs like tomb stones. But, in the early stages of industrialisation people still had their community around them, people they would chat with: friends in the street or meet at discussion groups, parties and social events. In our modern post-industrial service economy technological world families now live scattered across continents and although technology has given us a means of being in touch with innumerable people many of us have little real connection with others.  It is as if we have retreated into a virtual world of connections. Our friends are icons on a screen and words typed silently from within our head, their reply taken in as silent symbols representing speech which are turned into words silently in our brain.

E.M. Forster brilliantly foretold this dystopian future in his short story ‘The Machine Stops’, which is an amazingly prescient imagining of a world where real human connection has all but died and humans only connect via a screen. Written in 1909 it imagines a world where humans have retreated to underground cities, due to the earth above being for some unspecified reason no longer being habitable. Here they live in isolated rooms, never leaving and communicating only through the technology that sustains their lives: the machine. In one quote Forster states: “The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti (a lecturer and mother of the hero of the story) nor her audience stirred from their rooms.” The people who lived in the machine no longer communicated face to face but from monitor to monitor. Talking through the machine that supports their lives, her son says to her: “I want to see you not through the machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.” “Oh Hush!”, said his mother, vaguely shocked. “You mustn’t say anything against the machine.”  Decades before computers existed Forster imagined the internet and a world of disconnected intellects, living isolated in their room whilst connected to many thousands: “People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.”

The result of this world becoming a reality in our own time can be an intense sense of isolation, no matter how many hundreds of friends we have on Facebook, or followers on Instagram or Twitter, or how many watch our blog on You Tube. Or how many chats we have going on dating apps. The sense of loneliness can feel overwhelming sometimes. When we do finally meet an elusive sex date from an app it can feel so fleeting and the longing for real intimacy may only partly be satiated as they rush away without time to hold or cuddle – fearing this is a step too far into intimacy. So I find in casual sex there is often a sense of contact through the body but not from the heart. And as this need for real contact is not met, it can lead to a desperate search for it among more random contacts, as one hopes that the next one or the next will take away this sense of loneliness.

I long for the days as a teenager when a friend would just telephone me and we could connect through a conversation….and then arrange to meet, for the need for face to face meetings is all the more important for our sense of well being than verbal conversation, and for me much of my sense of dis-ease arises at times when I feel isolated and lonely. I do experience a healthy solitude: it provides space to reflect, nourish myself and have a sense of my own being. But I feel the need also to have time spent with others, for we are social animals, descended from chimps, who for most of human history have lived in small and closely knit social groups.

As much as I may enjoy casual sex dates it seems to me these need to be the iciing on the cake, the cake itself being a social network, friends and social groups. Eating too much icing just makes you sick after all! I am also exploring my antipathy to really going deeply into a committed relationship. My fear of being rejected by another man, my uncertainty as to whether I can believe that another man has the capacity to really love me. For those of us who are gay as we grew up our love interests were often unattainable, distant and most likely perceived as a threat and this can be carried over into how one perceives men as an adult. The teenage me feeling desire for another male who was both wanted and feared: the boy I looked at in the shower  after sport, whilst dreading that he might see me looking, or that the other boys might spot where I was looking and ridicule me. That early experience of sexuality being mixed with the unattainable man and the fear of having him. This seems to play out for me as an adult in living in a world of gay men who are both very sexualised and yet withdrawn from wanting to make a commitment – myself included.

Pinker adresses this in her book ‘The Village Effect’, which I have not read but have just ordered for delivery. In this, according to the info on Amazon, Pinker writes of our need for close social bonds,  and uninterrupted face-time with our friends and families in order to thrive – even to survive. Creating our own ‘village effect’ can make us happier. It can also save our lives.

 

What is your village? Where is your tribe? Who forms your close social network?

Over the 12 years I’ve lived in London I have felt intensely alone at times, but I have also been lucky to meet and become part of social groups that overlap but are also distinct in what they offer. Before living in London I had an even more direct experience of living in small communities: in the monastery I had 6 years of living with a close knit network of monks and nuns and lay practitioners. We really were a village. In Northumberland there were around 8 of us living together as a community: working, socialising and meditating together as a unit. Then in Hertfordshire at Amaravati I lived in a larger network of about 30 people.

In Cambridge as a young man in my 20s I lived and worked in a community of about 40 men and women, living in a community house with 8 other men and sharing my room with a close friend. The idea then was very much to go beyond personal ownership of space and possessions so sharing a room was both practical as it meant a small terrace house could hold twice as many people. But it was also with the intent of letting go of personal ownership of things. It did create a really close network and with my room mate, which was never a sexual relationship, I experienced a really close bond as we talked about life and practice at night before falling asleep. In the morning we would all meditate together, as we did in the monastery. Then in the evening one of us would leave work early (we all worked in the same warehouse, importing  and distributing ethnic gifts) . That person would cook a vegan meal and we would sit at a table together talking and chatting as we shared the meal.

On leaving the monastery and coming to London 12 years ago I looked for something like this. At first going into Soho and ‘the scene’ I hoped to be embraced by a big gay family. Being skinny, poorly dressed, with a bad hair style and so shy any attempt to dance looked like cold spaghetti tangling itself into a knot I found little solace in the clubs and bars. In fact I learnt what it is like to be invisible. The cool gay elite treating me like the cool boys at school had treated the unwanted and unwelcome gay boys we once all were.

 

 

Finding My Tribes

Then I started to find my tribes. Tribes can be an emotive word, so to clarify by tribe I do not mean a group that defines itself in opposition to another group, but a place of connection, shared interests and mutual care and support.  My discovering my tribes in London started with meeting Bodhi and going to Five Rhythms Movement Meditation. I was introduced to this in the monastery by a close friend and we used to whirl around in our robes during the Family Camp. Going to Five Rhythms was in part the one connection I still had with the monastery, along with my daily meditation practice. At first going to what I saw as a dance group was an experience of absolute fear. Tangled spaghetti trying to dance is not a pleasant experience!! But slowly I realised that it was a space where I could go and move and not be judged. A space where I could move with the sense of stuckness and explore this. In fact I realised it was not dance, it was a movement practice. When I let go of the idea of trying to dance and instead allowed myself to move with the rhythm of the music and my own heart then I could let go into the inner rhythm of my own body’s response to the music and I’ve found this intensely liberating. I’ve also met a group of men and women with whom I enjoy spending Friday evenings, both at the session and afterwards at the meal many of us go on to share together. This led to going on a Summer retreat last year in Greece, led by Bodhi and another teacher called Alex. It was an amazing experience of connection, and I gained much deeper friendships from that which have lasted since and nourish me to this day.

Later on I met Darren, first as a life coach, but this led on to participating in The Quest. I found this to be a powerful experience of exploring issues relating to my childhood and the buried experiences and emotions of growing up gay. This was a one off course, but with some follow up events and my main sense of expanding my tribe here was to make a deeper connection with Darren and to move from him being a life coach whom I saw professionally to a heart friend and brother along with Bodhi.

More recently I have gone to two of the  Loving Men retreats, the New Year celebration in Wales for gay, bi and trans men. This has been a fantastic space to explore living in a community that we rarely create for ourselves in the busyness of the large urban centres we inhabit. It is a space where what is possible as a community of men becomes apparent: living from the heart, softening, opening to an ease of connection and expression of  affection for our friends when we are no longer afraid of what others will think if they see us holding another man’s hand or leaning against a friend’s chest as we listen to a talk or watch a show.

Last year I went to the Queer Spirit Festival organised by the Radical Fairies of Albion. I became friends with Shokti years ago, who is very involved with the Fairies, and had fluttered around the edge of Fairy gatherings without ever fully landing. But last Summer I did by attending the Queer Spirit Festival in Wiltshire and it was such a magical experience. A place inviting those present to be fully self-expressed, to let go of fear and shame and to allow life to be fun and playful and connected. I’m really looking forward to the next Festival which is taking place in July, details of which are below in the community notice board section. Since last Summer I’ve started going to more Fairy events and last night was at the full moon drum circle in Vauxhall, which was an amazing experience. It was a chance to reconnect with friends I know through the Fairies, to move with the rhythm of the drums and be aligned to the rhythms of nature through being conscious of the moon cycle as I used to be in the monastery, where our rest days fell on new, full and quarter moons.

When I was at Loving Men this New Year, I met Phoebus who runs a fortnightly discussion circle called Open Connections and  since then have been attending these regularly. They provide a space where it is possible to explore through discussion issues relating to sex and relationships. I’ve really enjoyed connecting again to the sort of open space for discussion I used to have when living in my first Buddhist group where I used to go on regular retreats and have heart circles with other practitioners. To explore this further I took up the opportunity of being in a closed group for 10 weeks, which I am still in the midst of, having two more sessions to go. Meeting with three other men with Phoebus facilitating, this has been an incredible space to open to the vulnerability of having the conversations it is so easy to avoid. A space to be honest, vulnerable, connected. A space to express anger and annoyance and have it held. A space to see the beauty of another gay man who initially annoyed the hell out of me, but my heart warming to him as we melted the hard armour of our egos in the furnace of honest disclosure.

And of course there is the Monday mindfulness group! Which I set up with the intention of creating a social space where gay, bi and trans men could meet and socialise in a relaxed space away form the pressures and demands of clubs and bars. Through this I have met other heart friends, without whom my life would feel very empty and cold. And it has been a delight to hold a space which enable other gay/bi/ trans men to meet and make their own connections. There have now been 1000 people come to the class over the 7 years it has run. Each week around 260 men read these emails, so as you read this you are connected, in a subtle way, to all of them.

Growing out of these connections I am now working on a weekend workshop with a friend I met at the group which will combine mindfulness practice with therapeutic insights specifically addressing issues of loneliness and isolation which may then give rise to symptoms that are treated as an illness or addiction rather than held as something needing compassion and self-care. This will be available once we have got it finalised. I also plan to run more week long retreats where we can start to go away together of yoga and mindfulness retreats and build our own sense of a closer community, as well as having our social events here in London.

I am also working on an idea for a group where we explore more connection and intimacy for those who are happy with touch and sensual contact. In this I’ll bring in the work I’ve done in exploring gay tantra and Eros through Andy Saich’s excellent sensual massage workshops and I’m looking forward to attending a workshop on Exploring Intimate Touch he has helped to facilitate, taking place in July, to continue this exploration of connecting more deeply with myself and Eros energy. This new group will also draw on my connection with Kai Helmich who has really introduced me to the power of somatic body work for healing and who has challenged me to bring this into the work that I do.

Through attending all of these I now have a feeling of being held. I have a network of friends, some of whom I met in these groups and who I see there, others who are outside of these groups. The feeling of having a village is certainly there as people who goto these groups overlap so I meet and recognise people as I move from one group to another, as well as meeting people who are unique to each group.

These may not be what will form your Village. But this is an invitation for you to consider what is your village? And if you do not have one how might you explore these and other groups to get more of a physical connection to others, rather than the virtual connection of apps and social media.

To read The Machine Stops click here

Full details of the groups mentioned above and others that I know but may not have attended are below.

For a full list of sports, social  and recreational groups in London, compiled by GMFA click here  This  list is a few years old now so may be out of date in parts.

 

Marrying the findings of the new field of social neuroscience together with gripping human stories, award-winning author and psychologist Susan Pinker explores the impact of face-to-face contact from cradle to grave, from city to Sardinian mountain village, from classroom to workplace, from love to marriage to divorce. Her results are enlightening and enlivening, and they challenge our assumptions.
Most of us have left the literal village behind, and don’t want to give up our new technologies to go back there. But, as Pinker writes so compellingly, we need close social bonds and uninterrupted face-time with our friends and families in order to thrive – even to survive. Creating our own ‘village effect’ can make us happier. It can also save our lives.

To buy click here

How Do We Choose The People We Fall In Love With?

This New Year I went to Loving Men in Wales. I was looking forward to my second visit there and the opportunity to socialise and enjoy the company of around 80 gay men, attending workshops and activities over the few days of the retreat. Being single there was also curiosity about who would be there and if romance and dating might be possible. I’ve started to realise that I am a total romantic and believe in the notion of love at first sight so it wasn’t surprising that early on the first day on seeing a man there whom I was intrigued by and attracted to I was keen to start talking with him. Over the rest of the day we got on pretty well and after a dance in one workshop and a few cuddles and intimate chats my romantic heart had already flown high on the excitement of first meetings, and in my heart he was my next boyfriend, if not future husband!

Being a Romantic has its dangers though, most notably this tendency to open quickly to another in the hope they will be ‘the one’ rather than taking time to get to know them or see if they really are available. So when he told me at the end of the day that he was already dating, and that although we were both living in London this was not the start of anything other than a friendship, the reality came crashing in on my fledgling hopes, breaking their tender wings, sending them falling to the ground.

As we chatted about it I commented that this was like Groundhog day, for the same thing had happened last year, when I had seen and fallen for a man who then turned out to be unavailable as he too was dating – although I didn’t find that out until I returned to London. The man I met this year commented on this, saying how it was interesting that over the two years I had been drawn to men who were unavailable both times – out of 80 men! Not only had I chosen them but there was almost a wish to then stay in the sweetly familiar place of loss, longing and melancholy that this then aroused in the days, weeks and even months after the meeting. The man I met this year even challenged me by saying that if he were available I would be the one to run, and there is truth in this, as I focus on the unavailable man with longing but as soon as someone is available it feels unfamiliar and overwhelming and I can have a wish to run away.

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members”

It’s almost as if I have the attitude expressed by Groucho Marx in his letter of resignation to the Friars’ Club: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members” but apply it to relationships: I don’t want someone who wants me but will try with all my might to get in with someone who does not want me. It’s as if I see the person who wants me as a fool for offering love to such an unworthy object as myself, whereas the one who is aloof and withdrawn is immediately desirable as they confirm my own inner belief that I am unworthy, so they must be a good judge of character and desirable!

By being absent the unattainable man gives me the familiar feeling of longing that I had for my father, who was never there, and just as I hoped as a child that if I were to be good enough my father  might want me again, so I hope now that if I show myself to be patient, generous and attentive enough the unavailable man will do what my father never did: return to me and want me. With this hope lies the longing for the deep pain of rejection by the father to be taken away by his replacement figure: the unattainable love interest.

Perhaps there’s even the hope that if I can get the unavailable person to love me then I may not actually be so bad after all. But in contrast someone who is available for love, who sees my qualities and offers love doesn’t feel familiar and does not fit any pattern of relationship that means anything to me. It’s as if those of us with low self esteem have internalised the thought that only those who treat us as badly as we think of ourselves truly see us. While those who treat us well are seen as fools, or dull, or boring, or are just not seen and thus they can’t possibly be worthy of consideration as partners as they so clearly do not see us, at least according to our perceptions of how we are.

 

How we choose the People we Fall in Love With?

 
This experience at New Year has started a process of reflection this year, combining therapy, mindfulness practice and self reflection.  As part of exploring this theme I came across this fascinating School For Life video on how we choose the people we fall in love with, from which all of the images in this weeks email are taken. The video describe how as a culture we have shifted from a time of arranged marriages and alliances to the notion made popular in the19th Century of Romantic love: the belief our hearts will guide us to our one true soul mate. Unfortunately Romantic love does not necessarily lead to greater happiness, and may result in more pain as ‘the one’ turns out to be not so ideal: having an affair, rejecting us sexually, becoming no longer attractive…..

Why is this? As the video explains, it is rooted in how we have learnt to recognise love. As a child the way our parents or those who matter to us relate to us creates a template of what love is, and how we recognise love from others.  It is as if we start with a clean window but over the years it gets cracked and dirty or overgrown with ivy and weeds until the way we look out at the world is determined by what we can see through the window, which is not actually how the world is but is how we see it through the distortions of the window. Hence we fall in love with others who give us a familiar feeling of how it is to be loved, and care for us in familiar ways and this may not be what is best for us or even what will make us happy. We may overlook the nice guy, seeing him as boring, whilst being attracted to the man who will ignore us and make us feel unvalued. The example in the video is of a little girl ignored by her father who goes on to be attracted to men who ignore her as her experience of being loved is of a man who is self-centred and leaves her on the edge of his attention. In this way we do not fall in love with those who are good for us, but who care for us in familiar ways.

 

Not only do we feel attraction to the people who love us in familiar ways, we may overlook those who would be truly good companions just because they do not feel familiar or even feel too right…..it is too easy to get their attention, they seem ‘too keen’, which is our way of justifying ignoring them when in fact it may just be they are emotionally well balanced and are giving us an unfamiliar experience of being seen as worthy of attention and love. If we have low self esteem, such people showing us approval and love may seem a little too right, or feel a little too unfamiliar to seem right, and we reject them as potential partners.

 

 

This self awareness does not mean we then fall into a pit of despair, blaming our parents for having messed up our chances for love and fulfilment. As a conscious adult we can chose how to investigate this dynamic and once seen clearly make conscious choices about how we will relate to these old patterns of how it feels familiar to be loved. There is even an opportunity for compassion as we bring to an end what may have been generations of family habit patterns of relating to loved ones by becoming fully conscious of what has been passed on to us, which was passed on to our parents by their parents from their parents.

One way is in therapy. I had an experience of this recently, when I went to my therapy session after missing the preceding one due to confusing the time and being an hour late. As I approached the session after the one I had missed I felt a sickness in my belly and fear. I explored this as I stood on the DLR on my way to the session. I felt a familiar anxiety that my having ‘failed’ though missing the last session would mean my therapist would be angry with me, would loose patience, tell me off and would no longer want to work with me.

On arriving he did want to talk about why I had missed the last session and I spoke of how I had felt as I was on my way to the session. He wasn’t angry. He didn’t tell me off. And he is still working with me. Slowly, in this way a new pattern of relating emerges where it is possible to be questioned and challenged if my actions have impacted on an agreed meeting, but without the message that I am a failure, or am going to be rejected. The limbic brain is then able to slowly reprogram its experience of what relationship is: rather than one of being at the mercy of an angry parent whom one has to please at all costs, there can be a sense of relationship being a more welcoming and nourishing place of equals.

 

 

As well as therapy, there is also the investigation we can do in the privacy of our own home and heart. The value of therapy is it involves us in a relationship with another person, and as the saying goes “we were wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”, we heal when we discover that there is a relationship where our weaknesses and foibles are held with care and love rather than being condemned. We also heal as in the relationship we are each able to reflect back to the other how the others actions are experienced, helping each person to explore more deeply their habitual ways of relating and behaving. But if like me you are not in a relationship or therapy is not for you, due to cost or inclinations, the video offers a lovely suggestion for self-reflection that can be doe on your own at home.

 

An exercise in self reflection:

Setting aside a good amount of time and taking paper and pen reflect first on what sort of people attract and excite us, and which put us off. Then trace these qualities back to the people who first loved us in childhood and ask how much our impulses really are aligned with things that will make us truly happy.

As we do this we may, for example, notice that we tend to be attracted to the bad boy type, overlooking someone who would treat us well. Perhaps we remember that a parent always ignored us, or was stern or judgemental and we realise that this energy of being ignored or belittled is our sense of what love can feel like – but that does not mean it is what love is.

During meditation and with the awareness that this cultivates we can also notice what our inner dialogue is like. How do we talk to ourselves? What sort of world do we weave into being through our thoughts? What is our place in that world? Are we at the centre being adored? Or are we at the edge being ignored? How does this inner drama impact on how we then interact with the external world? Does our inner drama become the way we make sense of the outer world, leading us to look for scenarios and relationships that confirm the world view we have come to believe in? If we think we are unlovable do we sit alone in our room lamenting how cruel and lonely the world is? If we believe we deserve to be the centre of attention are we out jumping into a party or a social engagement as we read this? It’s as if a drip of water has worn down a groove in the rock, once we could have been anything but now we live within the narrow confines of this groove of how we believe ourselves to be.

By exploring this we can start to open up to other possibilities of being loved, that right now feel unfamiliar. It may be that we are limited to being attracted to certain types because of things that happened to us in our past, but as we bring awareness to this we can start to question the certainty we feel when we believe we have met ‘the one’ when in fact they may simply be ‘the familiar’ which we equate with how it is to be loved. On meeting someone who does not bring up this familiar feeling, or whom we consider to be wrong or boring despite objectively having a lot going for them we may question if that necessarily means they are not suitable just because they do not feel familiar  – or in fact does the lack of familiarity perhaps suggest that there is something here that we do not have in our emotional lexicon but that could in fact be a healthy experience if we were to open to it. The next time we want to dismiss someone as being too keen, or too good, or too boring or unexciting asking if that is just because they do not feel familiar.

If you have enjoyed this theme the 5 minute video below outlines it in full detail. All images in this email are from this video.

 

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