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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.

 

Mindfulness or Heartfulness

Do not try to become anything.
Do not make yourself into anything.
Do not be a meditator.
Do not become enlightened.
When you sit, let it be.
When you walk, let it be.
Grasp at nothing.
Resist nothing.
If you haven’t wept deeply,
you haven’t begun to meditate.Ajahn Chah, Thai Forest Monk (1918-1992)

I first read this quote some years ago but it was only recently that I came across this version with the final sentence: “If you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate.” I was reminded of this quote on visiting the monastery where I used to live last weekend. One of the monks was talking about the importance of listening into our bodies and opening to our emotions as a source of wisdom, rather than having an intellectual understanding of our experience. Reading the first part of the quote is inspiring, but it may support the sort of view I had when I started to meditate that I needed to escape from what I was feeling, as if there was some basic true identity that could press emergency release and be blasted out in the life shuttle of Enlightenment from the mother ship of ego, suddenly floating free and blissful in the enormity of space.

What this quote above and the monk’s teaching at the weekend emphasise is that practice is about turning in and feeling fully: letting go through embracing, the core koan of our practice! A koan is a Japanese Zen teaching phrase that is seemingly contradictory, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “what moves – the flag or the wind?”. The koan is known only when the rational mind finally surrenders and stops trying to make any logical sense of it. In the same way the logical mind tends to think in black and white: reject what is not wanted, then I’ll feel good. Hold onto what makes me feel good so I feel even better.

This tendency of the mind to grasp at, or reject, thoughts about the past or the future or the present moment and to fall into a sense of an identity that seems fixed and real for the time it is there, but evaporates like a mist to be replaced by another identity and then another as the day progresses is the basis of Ajahn Chah’s teaching above: mindfulness is the art of resting into that gentle allowing and knowing that notices without attaching or rejecting. But as well as this noticing it is also a knowing that fully participates in the experience and fully feels what is there, whilst not getting lost in it or rejecting it. In this sense the awareness that arise from mindfulness practice has been described as a participant-observer, as opposed to the dissociated observer that looks on from a distance. This is an important distinction, as the tendency to associate mindfulness with looking on from a distance only adds to our separation from being fully present in our life.

This may in part be due to the use of the word mindfulness to describe this way of being. We associate mind with the brain and so think of mindfulness as looking down from our head or from a discrete intelligence that is separate from what is being observed. Perhaps it helps if we look at the Buddhist word for mind, chitta, which means both mind and heart. So we could as easily talk of heartfulness instead of mindfulness. In this practice we are learning to hold all of our experience in an open heart, that observes and feels and witnesses.

The awareness that arises from the practice of mindfulness was described by the Buddha as “the middle way”.  It is the middle way between the extremes of grasping and rejection, between wanting to exist forever as an identity (grasping onto what we are enjoying) and wanting not to exist (resisting an experience and wanting it to be over). Mindfulness has been described as the art of feeling an emotion without being the emotion: feeling sad without being sad, feeling happy without grasping at happiness and wanting it to last forever, but instead enjoying it as it arises and allowing it to pass as another emotion arises to be held. Or bringing compassion to a difficult emotion as it arises to be greeted by awareness at the door of perception. In this way we come fully into being alive in the present moment, rather than dwelling in thoughts about the past or anticipating the future or not wanting the present moment to be as it is.

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These thoughts about past and future often arise unwilled by conscious thought and a Harvard study found that we spend around 47% of our time is spent in distracted thinking.  This means nearly half of our waking life is spent not being present or fully awake. If we are spending half of our life caught in such unproductive thinking patterns it’s not surprising we can experience a sense of frustration, sadness and worry! It’s almost as if the thoughts are thinking themselves and we are just swept along in the flood!

From popular ideas about meditation it would be easy to think that mindfulness is about switching off – stopping these unwanted thoughts through a deliberate effort of will to silence the mind and find peace. After all if it is these thoughts that make us feel bad then surely we need to stop them to feel good? This is the ‘doing mode’ approach to the dilemma: trying to fix the problem by an act of will. The ‘being mode’ approach is to open to what is there, to hold it with curiosity, to feel into it and allow without getting swept away in the thought. As we start to meditate we may feel discouraged when, a few minutes in, we’re beset by thoughts and distraction. Then the mind starts its commentary – “this is impossible”, “I can’t stop thinking – this isn’t working”, “I’m no good at this”, “Perhaps if I go away to a monastery I’ll do it but not in my busy life”. And so we tick it off as something we tried but that didn’t work.

Whilst we may have moments of the mind being still and calm as we meditate the main value of mindfulness practice is the ability to learn to be present despite the busyness of the mind rather than mindfulness being a means of stopping thought: thus mindfulness is the ability to be present with our mind as it is, not how we think it should be. This may mean mindfully attending to the breath whilst also being aware of a busy, worried or anxious mind.

My teacher Ajahn Sumedho would often comment, the thought “I don’t want any thoughts” is simply adding another thought into the already busy mind! The paradox is that a practice intended to bring peace actually just creates another self-identity: the one wanting to be a calm meditator! And so we sit with thoughts like: “I hope I can get calm”, “when will I be peacefull”, “I was peaceful in my last sit I hope I have that experience again”……Instead through mindfulness we learn to bring non-judgemental attention to what is here right now: noticing thought but then avoiding the duality of getting pulled in to it or rejecting it. In this way mindfulness practice is more about embracing what is there and holding it in the heart of awareness. It is not a process of dissociating and rising above thoughts and feelings but of being fully present to them, to how it feels in the body to experience them and to witness how they arise, stay a while and then pass away, which may open us to a deep sense of peace that isn’t dependant on silence or absence of thoughts but that can exist within the busyness of mental activity. It’s like finding the calm eye in the middle of the hurricane when one had spent one’s life trying to stop the hurricane.

The eye of the hurricane: knowing

As you engage with this mindful presence there can be a sense of ‘knowing’ that is a gentle witnessing of what is there. This witness is not separate from what is there, but fully engaged, just as the awareness that arises whilst you pay attention to the sensations in your toes as you do the body scan is not a separate witness, but comes into being as a result of meeting the sensations. In this way we shift beyond the duality of observer and observed when there is simply a unified experience of sensation and that which knows the sensation. In the same way with thoughts, when we shift from an idea of a separate intelligence that is looking on at all these thoughts and instead know that our sense of identity is arising from witnessing the thoughts as they arise there can be a subtle sense of calm that arises. The knowing itself is calm, even if what it knows is busy and distracted thoughts.

A traditional teaching metaphor for thoughts in meditation is that they are like clouds in the sky. When we think we need to get rid of thoughts to be calm it is like the sky thinking it needs to get rid of the clouds in order to be the sky. The sky always has the nature to be clear and untouched by whatever storm is blowing through it. In the same way this capacity to know is always present, always clear, but by focusing on the clouds of thought we are like the sky that has forgotten itself and instead thinks it is the storm clouds. The sky does not need to destroy the clouds to feel its open spacious and clear nature, so in the same way we do not need to destroy thoughts to rest into our own clear, open and calm capacity to be present, to be the knowing.

I look forward to exploring this together again this Monday.

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

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