I’ve been reading Shadows before Dawn by Teal Swan recently. The subtitle is ‘Finding the Light of Self-Love’. The book explores various ways we can connect more deeply with a feeling of self love but the author starts from the point where she had a total absence of self love, to the extent of self harming and attempts at suicide. She had to learn to love herself or she was going to destroy herself. We may not feel it so extremely, but as a gay man I grew up with so many messages telling me I was wrong – the gay shame so powerfully explored in Alan Downs book ‘The Velvet Rage’ and now looked at afresh in Mathew Todd’s book ‘Straight Jacket’. Why is it that as gay men we are more likely to kill ourselves, take drugs, be addicted to substances or sex and act in ways that do not express a sense of self love? I don’t have an answer, the books mentioned explore the dilemma and give suggestions. And drawing from this as I read them I thought the Summer theme for the group would be learning self love – a Summer of Love!
What I see in myself was a bright energetic and joyous boy who grew into a frightened and shut down teenager. My mother has commented that something happened when I moved from being a boy to my 11 or 12 year old self and that throughout my teens the light and vivacity that had been there as a boy went. Replaced by a quiet and withdrawn guardedness.
This was the time that I was becoming aware that I felt something no-one else (as I thought) around me felt. Even as a boy I would go to the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge and furtively look up at the Greek and Roman statues of handsome nude men – terrified of being seen looking as I knew my interest was more than aesthetic! Or as a 9 year old walking past the handsome young male students who filled the streets of Cambridge and taking a breath in so I could smell what a man’s scent was, at the same time holding my mum’s hand as we walked along and hoping she would not notice!
Then as a teen there were the school showers after sport. And the horror of anything inappropriate happening as I stood near the boy I found so attractive. And being sneered at for being ‘gay’ by the other boys as we stood waiting for the bus home – not knowing what it meant but feeling that it was a condemnation, so that when I did learn its meaning I already associated it with being shamed and rejected.
Add to this the all pervasive mocking ‘humour’ in the 70’s of anyone gay and then the awfulness of the 80’s sex education and anti gay rhetoric and it’s little wonder that a sense of shame and difficulty in relating to my sexuality and thus to myself became established.
We all have our own stories. Whether we are gay or straight there were the moments the we took in a message that we were not right. The sad thing is this was often what we made something mean and live with it as if it were a truth, but it was the meaning we chose to see in it.
One line in Teal Swan’s book that struck me, and which she makes her central theme, is to ask oneself the question “what would someone who truly loves them selves do” on considering an action or life choice. This brings us back to the question how can I learn to love myself more deeply? And this is something I do not have an answer to as it is what I am exploring now in my own life. So these emails will be an exploration rather than guide. Exploring the question rather than giving an answer.
The Loving Kindness practice has offered me a place for 25 years to be with this sense of wishing myself well and it’s here that I turn to again. How to sit in the first stage in a way that starts to bring a deeper sense of self love and take this out into my life. To start with I need to go back to the point where I cut off from that spontaneity. To return to the child who at some point decided it was no longer safe to be himself and be seen by the world. And to re-own that freedom. Over the last 10 years I’ve regularly gone to the LGBT five rhythms group that meets in the Central YMCA on Friday nights. When I first went I felt as if I could not move, I was terrified of being seen, judged and thought to be in some way inadequate. I felt totally inhibited about moving. And as the dance is sober there was no way to avoid this feeling by getting drunk! Over the years I have danced with this feeling of stuckness and explored it in the other activities I’ve engaged with: massage workshops, body therapy, nude modelling for life drawing classes – a powerful way to explore being seen! Meeting this in the dance on Friday nights has enabled me to meet the feeling of shame and lack of self worth and to feel more relaxed in myself and my body and I have now come to a point where I love my Friday nights. It’s no longer a feeling of wishing I could let go and dance but of jumping into the open space of possibility the evening offers and letting go into it.
So the first element of self love of me has been a willingness to stay with the feeling of awkwardness and lack of ease rather than trying to bury it in a false self through drink, drugs or other avoidance strategies. Learning that it is ok to feel scared and blocked and that that can be held in the moment and given kind attention rather than told it is not wanted – which is what I do if I try to self-medicate it away. Finding a safe space where I could be with this fear and know it was not judged was also important. Unlike a club the five rhythms dance space is a space of removing as you wish and as your body needs. Its not a place to impress or dace the ‘right’ way. And this gave me permission to dance with feeling stuck, to dance with feeling uncoordinated and inhibited. By staying with this over time and being authentic to how I was feeling this stickiness has become my dance and the frozen energy as it melts has brought fire to where there was ice. So perhaps in the heart of the place where you do not want to go, the emotions it may be tempting to avoid or self medicate away with drink or drugs or sex or television or porn or whatever it is that stops you feeling deeply, perhaps by simply allowing that emotion to be there, to be felt, to be held and loved then it can return some of the energy that has been absorbed in resisting it and keeping it looked up.
In the first stage of the Loving Kindness practice we have the opportunity to sit with that sense of ourself. To rejoice in what we love about ourself and to welcome that which we find difficult an let it know that it too is loved, to too is part of the family. We’ll explore this more on Monday night.