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Saying No to be able to mean your Yes

As we approach Queer Spirit Festival 2017 I am reminded of the year that has passed since the last event in 2016. One of my most powerful lessons there was to discover that it was ok to say no to certain things during various workshops. There were a few occasions when I had a choice to stay and endure something or say no. On one occasion I was in a pair to work with someone with whom I did not feel comfortable working. On another I was in a workshop when someone I knew came in and I no longer felt comfortable being in the space sharing personal information, so I said to the facilitator that I was leaving to go to the dance tent instead. I then had the most amazing dance and was so glad that I had left. This marked a real shift, as in the past I would have worried that leaving would impact on the facilitator and would have stayed in order not to cause any upset or bad feeling on their part – ignoring how I felt.

Over the last year I have had a number of occasions to recognise the power of a no. I remember all to well the impact of not saying my no and instead giving a dishonest yes. When I was 20 I visited Italy and spent seven weeks traveling from North to South. Whilst in Rome I found a gay night club – pre internet I really can’t remember how I even found the information to locate it, but I did and wandered in at the end of a day of sight seeing. A man whom I did not in any way find attractive started talking to me as soon as I arrived and sat me down at a table after buying me a drink. I spent the whole evening with him wanting to leave but fearing hurting his feelings. I imagined how I would feel to have someone say no to me and how upset I would be and I felt I could not impose this on him so preferred to endure the discomfort myself.

At the end of the evening he asked me to go home with him. Following the same train of thought I said yes, when inside I was screaming no. And so I found myself in the middle of Rome with a man who was obese and I did not find attractive in any way, in his bed, hoping he would just want to fall asleep. He did not. The next day I went back to my hotel and saw a scab on my chin – his bristles had been so rough that  they had cut my chin as we kissed and for the next two weeks I had a thick scab. I remembered that I did not like the feeling of him kissing me, but I was not able to stop it or pull away. Again, it was easier to say yes than assert a no. So that was the end of any adventures on the gay scene in Rome!

At University a year after the experience in Rome I met a man I found incredibly handsome. I was involved with an older man at the time whom I did not find attractive (notice a theme here) but had not been able to say no to when he made his advances. This older man lived back in Cambridge where we had met and I was now in Hull but I felt that we were still boyfriends and that I was not free to meet anyone else. The man I met at University was someone I would have dreamt of getting to know and dating – and he actually pursued me. But in a spirit of misguided integrity I said no to him as I was already involved with someone else.

It was a few months  latter that I  finally reject the older man by becoming celibate as a way to bring the sex part of the relationship to an end. Again I was not able to say a clear no….I preferred to stop having sex altogether as a way out of the relationship than say I wanted to stop being with him. In the same way I had left the University I went to in London the year before in part to get away from an older man who had become keen on me when I went to Act Up: it felt easier to drop out and find another University than say no to his attention or hold my boundaries with him.

It’s OK to say no!

Now as I approach 47 I have finally found that it is alright to say no, and to say yes to what I want. The world does not fall apart when I say no. People do not die, or hate me….and if they do, that is their business to process if my reason for saying no was authentic rather than intended to hurt.

I was on a massage and intimate touch workshop a few weeks ago and was partnered with a man who reminded me of a man who keeps occurring in my dreams and who scares me. The thought of working with this man in real life who held such a strong reminder of a dream image was just too much. But I had to take a breath for a moment to step into that place of saying “I can’t work with you in this exchange”. I felt terrified – of hurting his feelings, of not being good, of seeming selfish or mean. But once said he took it well and we went to the organiser who then reallocated us to different partners, and we then had a good session with our new partners in the exercise.

The same happened at Queer Spirit last year, where there was a woman I could not work with in one workshop. By saying no she then got a partner who could enter into the exercise fully, whereas if I had given an inauthentic yes we would both have had a frustrating experience as I would have held back and resented being there and she would have felt this reticence.

In this way, saying no may be the most generous and kind thing to do if it opens the space up for a more authentic connection to occur.

 

Having stepped into saying no, I am starting to discover my yes in a more assertive way. Last Friday I was feeling a bit down and sad and alone. I was walking to my local shop which is near a friend who lives nearby and I was thinking how I would like to see him. Rather then sending a text, as I might often do in the past, asking how he is in the hope he may reply and suggest we meet, I simply said I was feeling sad and wanted a hug….was he free?

This was a new approach, as in the past I would feel I was imposing by making a request, I should wait for it to be offered – but then my communication would have an edge of being manipulative as I would seem to be enquiring about the other person when really wanting some attention for myself. This way of directly asking felt cleaner and more direct, and I trusted that he could say yes or no according to how he was – I did not have to try and shield him from my need, fearing it was too much to ask. He replied immediately saying “come over”. We had a great evening chatting, and the hug was very welcome, and I left feeling nourished.

This connects with the theme from last week’s email of seeing the house builder: the story teller in my mind says I will overwhelm people with my needs and that I should be self-sufficient and not make any demands. The subtle and covert ways by which the story teller then goes about trying to get his needs met then can have the unintended consequence of making people feel uncomfortable as silent and unspoken contracts are made that if I care for you you will care for me. Rather than feeling that they are receiving unconditional care people may feel a dissonance as this care seems to be based on setting up a contract that implies a return of something unspecified. Certainly my story teller has had a habit of regurgitating the thought “how can they not be there for me after all I have done……” and it is a painful house to live in that is built by that story. I’m pleased that I am starting to see that house builder and no longer letting him construct that edifice of self-identity so much.

If you are someone who has always been able to hold your boundaries and say yes or no when you need to this may all sound strange and unfamiliar. But you will very likely know people who give you signals you find confusing. If you can say no when you need to you may find it confusing when a friend says yes and then seems to resent the thing they have consented to! I hope this reflection helps put you in touch with the sense confusion and the desire to be good and please the other person that is behind this complex and confused communication.

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Don’t Believe The Story Teller

There is a beautiful quote of the Buddha’s from the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta that I have always enjoyed:

“So many births I have taken in this world, seeking in vain the builder of this house; in my search over and over, I took new birth, new suffering.

Oh! house builder, now I have seen you, you cannot make a new house for me; all your beams are broken, the ridge pole is shattered; my mind is freed from all the conditionings of the past, and has no more craving for the future.”

The Buddha would often teach through parables and poetry. This story does not give the logical mind much to hold on to, or make sense of, but does speak to the heart. When I first read it about 25 years ago I remember being intrigued by it and moved by the Buddha’s joy at expressing his freedom from the house builder – whatever that was!

To me it is suggestive of the deep insight that can arise in meditation through which we become free from the stories we tell ourselves of who we are. Reading some commentaries on the text they refer to Ignorance, which in the Buddhist tradition is the root of suffering: the ignorance that leads to thinking we are a separate and distinct entity rather than part of the flux and flow of life. This sense of isolation can give rise to the idea that this life is all about what I do and make happen: that there is a me to whom all these experiences occur and who is going to carry the weight and memory of them into the future. What the Buddha suggests is that with insight we learn to loosen this sense of an essential, unchanging ‘me’ to whom things happen. Instead there is what is here in the present moment, as it arises as part of a nexus of interconnected conditions and factors.

Seeing ourselves from the perspective of ignorance as a single separate self is like saying the tree is just as it is in any one moment of its constantly changing interaction with the environment in which it grows. Is the tree the fresh green leaves of Spring? Is it the heavy and fecund leaves and fruit of late Summer? Is it the brown and brittle leaves of Autumn? Is it the bare branches of Winter?

Are the leaves the tree or when they fall and rot and become soil at which point do they stop being the tree and at what point does the nutrient of the soil no longer be soil and again become tree?

The tree exists as an exchange and interaction with its environment: the sun, the carbon dioxide we breathe out, the soil.

At what point can we stop the flow of being that is the Universe expressing itself as a tree and say this is the basic non changing essence of this tree? Or do we just accept that there is no such thing as a tree in any unchanging state, only the interaction of numerous factors that are finding expression in this moment as something we call a tree?

It is the same with us. But we like to create the idea that because we can think of ourselves as an identity there must be a basic ‘me’ that is here experiencing all of this. As we meditate what we see is that there is experience but no one who experiences it. But we then create the notion of a subtle spiritual me who is witnessing the stillness of meditation. The ‘dark night of the soul’  that Christian mystics talk of may be that time in all contemplatives lives that faces them with the fear of letting go of even being a spiritual being or entity. This is the fear of the void – which the ego sees as destruction for it is impossible for self to conceive of how existence is possible without the ‘house builder’ who creates the notion of the container of ‘me’.

I wish I lived in this open space of being! But I am still well entrenched in my house!! But I do resonate with this teaching and in my daily practice the observing of the arising of identity through grasping at ideas of existing and ideas of not existing.

Ideas of existing arise every time I dwell on thoughts of who I was in the past or identify with thoughts of the future, or hold on to experience arising in the present as something fixed and eternal.

Ideas of not existing arise when I am trying to go into a peaceful place where there are no thoughts, where I can experience the stillness of being – but with the notion that it is me experiencing the stillness.

 

 

This week I have been faced with a powerful lession in how painful it can be to hold onto the creations of ignorance to build the house of self-idenetiy through anticipating the future. A few months ago I had some issues that led to seeing my GP for a prostate health check up and the result of some blood tests led to going in for an MRI scan. I went in last Monday morning, thinking I was just going to be told the results – instead I had a biopsy on the prostate!

This was relatively painless, the worst thing was the injections for the anaesthetic. By the time I was teaching that night it was a bit sore, but nothing too bad. The really difficult thing to work with has been the thoughts about it. It’s been fairly easy to keep coming back to the present moment, to reminding myself “unsure, uncertain” if the mind starts to create stories about the future. Until I get the results I simply don’t know – it may be all clear, or there may be some cancer there. No amount of thinking about it now tells me what the result will be so I can only stay in that place of not knowing, trusting that whatever action is needed will happen once I have the results. Once I know, the I will be in a position to respond to the known, not to an idea of what might be.

The procedure has had an impact on other things as well as for a few weeks to a couple of months there may be blood in the urine and ejaculate. This is a harder story to work with, as it ties into the story that I will not be wanted. Suddenly any thought of meeting for a date or anything intimate seems all too difficult. Again this is the story telling mind saying that it will all be awful for two months. I simply need to see how things progress over the next week or two and if the healing happens more quickly or takes its time. But the sense of dread and anxiety of imagining a future that is difficult and frustrating creates the feeling of it as if it were here right now.

At these times I have to remember Ajahn Sumedho’s consistent teaching: “this is how it is, it’s like this”. The ego house builder wants it to be how it thinks it should be and the struggle with this causes suffering: “it should not be like this”, “it’s not fair”, “why does it have to be like this”, “I don’t want this”……..Accepting, “this is how it is, it’s like this” I am then simply left noticing the house builder at work constructing ideas of me, the imagined future, and what might happen. It doesn’t stop the process, but it gives a chance to witness it and be less in its control. And perhaps in that way it is possible to see the house builder and deconstruct the edifice of self-identity he has erected using ideas of me and mine.

No More Mr Nice Guy

A few years ago a friend recommended a book he had read, called ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’. I recently bought it and have found it fascinating to read. The images below give a brief over view of the text:

 

This may not resonate with you, but as I read it I recognised so much of my own habit patterns of relationship. The saying that stuck with me from the School for Life video I shared a few weeks ago about why we fall in love with people who are not good for us was that “we fall in love with people who love us in ways that feel familiar” (my emphasis). Add to this that we relate to others from our habit patterns of dealing with toxic shame and feeling that we are wrong and need to be perfect in order to be loved and it makes getting into a relationship a mine filed!! 

This is not just an academic concern. Each time I have become involved with someone romantically in the last 12 years it has been as a rescuer. I have sought to be very good, to serve their needs and hope that they would then give me what I need. But each time the relationship has broken down, as the connection has not been an honest or truly healthy or nurturing one. Instead it has been based on a secret contract that perhaps each is responsible for co-creating, but my part in these codependent relationships has been to act from the unspoken contract: “if I look after you, then you have to be there for me even when I do not say in what way that needs to be”. This way of relating just built up resentment when the other person didn’t keep their side of the secret agreement I had imposed on the relationship. I would cook, clean, give massages and be solicitous, I would listen and be gentle, send kind texts and always agree. Then I would boil with rage when they did not reciprocate with unconditional care – after all of my unconditional love! 

In No More Mr Nice Guy the author describes how smothered the partners of Nice Guys feel – all the flowers, kind texts, loving attention – it all feels too much, as if they could never repay the debt that they feel is secretly being built up. 

I’ve found that men who are emotionally healthy back off from this dynamic – and I am left feeling sad as I wonder why another man has become a spot on the horizon “after I was being so nice to him”. Or people are attracted because they have a need to feel adored. But his doesn’t make for a healthy relationship.

Thus, I cannot offer anything that insightful right now as I feel that as a personality I am still locked in this dynamic. But, the power of mindfulness practice is the ability to bring a curious and honest observation to the dynamics of self and to be open to change. Buddhism teaches ‘no self’ which is often taken to be nihilistic, being seen as a statement that there is no-one here to be called ‘me’ and thus no self. But it can also be taken in the sense that we are only ever the story we tell ourselves of who we are: habit patterns that have fossilised into an identity, but that this is not a fixed or eternal thing. The less I attach to these habit patterns and try to defend them as being right, the more fluid they can become, and it is possible to allow change to occur.

On a scientific level this relates to the plasticity of the brain. Whereas it was once thought that once the brain and personality were formed that was it for life, it is now known that the brain is plastic – that it is capable of reforming as new choices are made that create new neural pathways and allow old neural pathways to fade. 

Something like therapy or reading books that raise self-awareness are offering that chance to form new neural pathways as they hold up a mirror for us to see our unaware automatic actions for what they are and make new choices, forming new neural pathways.  

I’ve nearly finished my first reading of No More Mr Nice Guy and plan to read it again and do the exercises it contains to see what difference this can make. 

To buy the book click here

If you would like tread a free online PDF of the book click  here

There is also a Meet Up group that meets in London on the last Friday of the month to meet and discuss issues that arise from the book. For details click here 

 

 

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Exploring intimacy – through touch from the heart

When I left the monastery 12 years ago I did feel that I was selling out a bit. I left the monastery after feeling a deep attraction to a man I had met there but who lived and worked in London. I wanted to explore if there was any possibility here for a relationship, and if not knew that I needed to explore my intimate and sensual experience, having been celibate for most of my adult life. I was 34 when I left the monastery and had been celibate from the age of 22. 

On arriving in London the relationship with the man I knew from the monastery grew into a beautiful friendship, but never developed into being boyfriends or lovers. But I did start to explore Eros. I started by going on GMFA workshops about sex and HIV. They were a great mix of information about safer sex in the context of a workshop on different areas of sexual activity. As the years went by I explored this more though Tantra for Gay men workshops, erotic massage training weekends and other events and workshops exploring intimacy, massage and touch. More recently I’ve started to explore issues of intimacy, trust and vulnerability through my therapy sessions. All of this work keeps coming back to boundaries, and how to hold my own and negotiate how I connect with others and meet them at their edge rather than crash through!

Whilst doing this I always felt that this was all somehow separate form my life as a spiritual practitioner. Again feeling the shame of somehow selling out: that as a real spiritual warrior I would not be tempted by the flesh! As such I always treated the sensual workshops that I did as something secret or not to be included in my teaching work as a meditation teacher. In this way I helped to maintain the tendency to create a dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, spirit and the flesh. 

Last year at the Summer Queer Spirit festival I led a workshop on Exploring Intimacy. The festival was a place of experimenting and allowing oneself to be a little more free and spontaneous. I led the workshop on exploring intimate touch as well as teaching the morning and evening meditation. And for the first time the two areas of my interest over the last 12 years of living in London met. 

The workshop was something that had been forming in my mind for a while, drawing on work I had done with Andy Saich, Kai Helmich, Gill and others. When I first came to London I trained in a Psycotheraputic form of massage called Biodynamic massage. Some years latter I attended the weekend training where Andy taught the body flow erotic massage, which introduced me to a form of massage that was more erotic than my formal training, and allowed for the Eros energy to be a part of the massage rather than excluded or denied. Gill led evening workshops around touch and holding, which introduced me to working in a naked space with other men.

Most recently Kai has been my somatic body therapist over the last year and has helped me enormously with starting to make friends with my body and feel more at ease in myself as a sexual and erotic being so that this aspect of my energy no longer has to be in conflict with the sense of being a ‘spiritual’ seeker. With Kai I explored recieving massage and sensual touch, holding boundaries, exploring asking and saying no, combined with time to talk and explore though conversation what was happening in my emotional life, my patterns of relationship and fear of intimacy.

Drawing these experiences together I created the frame work for the workshop and led my first session at last years Queer Spirit Festival. The session was clothing optional and involved people exploring holding their boundaries and expressing how they wanted to be touched as they went into working in pairs. We started with a group discussion about intimacy and people’s experience of touch and opening to connection. We then went into pair work through a process of exploring boundaries and inviting people into our space or asking them to move away. The intention of this was to have a sense of how a strong yes can only come when we feel comfortable saying no.

We then walked the space and slowly came to a point where people were in pairs through a process of stopping and turning to someone who was near. Once in pairs people talked about what they would feel comfortable with, what they would like from the other or what they did not want. Some pairs undressed, other stayed clothed. Each pair agreeing what felt right for them. People then explored giving and receiving touch. It was beautiful to be present to, and out of the event some strong friendships and connections emerged that ppeole then explored over the rest of the festival.

Coming back to London I intended to run more of these events, but my doubt came in and I questioned if I could do this and run a meditation group and teach mindfulness. Then at New Year I led the event again at Loving Men and got good feedback from participants. 

Now I feel keen to explore this here in London. I have found it so hard to get over my shame about the body, sensuality and sexual desire. It makes relationships so complicated carrying this toxic guilt. And I am sure I am not alone in this! I’m so excited now to have a chance to explore this consciously with other men who would like to  meet in a non sexual but intimate space of touch and holding. The first workshop will be on Thursday 20th July and thereafter on the third Thursday of every month. Full details of price and location to follow soon.

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

I was listening to Soul Music on Radio 4 this week. The song was one I did not know: Sandy Denny ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’, which she wrote when she was 19. It’s a very poignant song about the passing of things and how we experience time and loss. The programme brought together various people who had been touched by the song and at the end David Eagleman was interviewed. He is a neuroscientist and has studied time and how we perceive it, his interest in this growing from an experience he had as a child. He described how as a child he fell off a roof and as he did so had time to consider if there was anything he could grab hold of and also to think that this must be how Alice felt as she fell down the hole – before hitting the ground.

Latter when David Eagleman studied physics he worked out how long it had taken him to fall, and was astonished to realise that what had seemed like a long duration in terms of his thoughts and observations, had only taken .8 of a second. This reminded me of my experience of being knocked off my scooter as a 17 year old. I was going along happily making my way home when a car pulled out of a side road in front of me. I saw it and knew there was no way to avoid hitting it side on as I pulled on the brakes and tried to swerve to avoid a direct hit. I hit it side on and was thrown over the car onto the opposite side of the road. As this happened I had the most bizarre experience of time seeming to stop and be vast as I felt my self in the air. I remember seeing my whole life as a film, playing in front of my eyes. And I had the thought “it’s not time to go yet I have things still to do”. With this I felt a thud as I landed on the road. I sat up, my chin bleeding. I looked around, and said “I have the most frightful headache!”.

The rest of the day proceed at normal time, with the trip to hospital, going into surgery for my chin to be stitched. Recovering. But I was left, as with David Eagleman, with a sense that time is not what we think it to be. In the space of a second I felt that I had had time to review my whole life – all 17 years it at that point, so not so much – but still more than I would usually be able to remember in a second!

Now as a 46 year old man I notice how for both myself and friends we all have the experience of time passing so much more quickly than as a child. I remember how as a child the long Summer holiday really did feel as if it was a universe of time – it seemed like a vast expanse of weeks, full of adventure and long summer days. Now I reach the end of the year and wonder where 12 months have gone!

David Eagleman addresses this as well in the programme and what he says has really fascinated me. His interest in time has led him to study how we perceive time and he has found that there is a reason time seems to last longer as a child. Children are learning about the world – it is all new and full of wonder and surprises. The brain is still building up its template by which it will read the world so is constantly learning and taking in new information to assimilate and file. As an adult we’ve learnt the rules and patterns that govern our perception of the world and so are not laying down new memories. As a result of this there is less for the brain to do to process and store each day and thus less of a sense of time being long and expansive as each day is like the last and passes without note or novelty.

Think of it as going on a journey for the first time. You look at the landmarks, orient yourself, notice how to navigate your way along the route. But once this has become familiar after several journeys, you soon slip into auto pilot, not even needing to pay that much attention to where you are going in order to arrive. I remember this experience even as a child – for some reason the route to my Uncle’s always seemed longer on the way there, whereas driving back always felt faster – although it was the same time and same route. What if our life is like this – having become familiar with it, it just goes by quickly?

David Eagleman suggests that to give ourselves the sense of living longer – or at least slowing down the perception of how fast time is passing – through seeking novelty. If we give our brain something new to learn or do it will once agin have to store new learning, memories and experiences, making the perception of time slow down. I remember on an 8 week mindfulness course we were talking about auto  pilot, which is the theme in week 1. Some people really reflected on how they had fallen into automatic ways of behaving and started to take a different route to the station on leaving work. They said how amazing it was to walk a new route after years of always going the same way, and how much more enjoyable it was to have this sense of novelty. Perhaps as well as finding new routes in our outer life, though walking different streets to get to a familiar destination, we can also take new routes in our life: learning a new hobby, trying out a new way of being, or as  mentioned last week finding a new way to start our day – for me this has been by dancing in my room rather than our usual routine of starting the day!

 

The other place you can notice this relativity of time is in meditation itself. On any Monday evening there will be those who feel that the 25 minutes of the sit went by so quickly. Whilst for others the sit will have seemed to be an eternity. In that sense there is no such thing as 25 minutes. There is only our perception of time in the present moment. And that changes depending on how we are relating to the present moment as it arises in our experience. Wanting an experience to be over, it seems to go on for ever. Wanting it never to end, it seems to go all too quickly. This makes boredom in meditation a very valuable place to work. All we are doing is sitting, resting our attention on the breath – so there is nothing really to object to in this experience. But when the heart-mind does not want to settle in the moment there is a sense of struggle and this can give rise to a feeling of boredom or irritation: either way the desire is the same: for the meditation to be over. By sitting with this experience it is possible to learn that time exists as a perception and changes when I change how I am relating to my experience in the present moment. Become interested in the sense of boredom and suddenly instead of the time dragging until the bell goes it will pass quickly.

This applies in our our life as well as our meditation practice. There is a fantastic scene in Metropolis where a worker is waiting to be relived from his shift. As he looks at the minute had of the clock it seems to last an eternity before clicking the last minute to the end of the shift. I remember this experience myself when I was working as a customer service assistant on London Underground. Standing at the gates looking at the clock for the last five minutes of my shift seemed to last longer than all the hours I had worked! So this seems to point to a paradox. If we take what David Eagleman has said about time seeming to last longer when we approach things with a fresh and questioning mind but that it also slows down when we are disengaged and bored. Perhaps the difference is the sense of alive engagement. In boredom and the feeling of life passing by too quickly there is a sense of not being fully present in the experience of living. In both an engaged and curious exploration of life through being fully in the moment and the experience of life being novel and new through finding ways of living that step out of our routine habits, there is a sense of aliveness in the moment.

 

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