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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This New Year I went to Loving Men in Wales. I was looking forward to my second visit there and the opportunity to socialise and enjoy the company of around 80 gay men, attending workshops and activities over the few days of the retreat. Being single there was also curiosity about who would be there and if romance and dating might be possible. I’ve started to realise that I am a total romantic and believe in the notion of love at first sight so it wasn’t surprising that early on the first day on seeing a man there whom I was intrigued by and attracted to I was keen to start talking with him. Over the rest of the day we got on pretty well and after a dance in one workshop and a few cuddles and intimate chats my romantic heart had already flown high on the excitement of first meetings, and in my heart he was my next boyfriend, if not future husband!
Being a Romantic has its dangers though, most notably this tendency to open quickly to another in the hope they will be ‘the one’ rather than taking time to get to know them or see if they really are available. So when he told me at the end of the day that he was already dating, and that although we were both living in London this was not the start of anything other than a friendship, the reality came crashing in on my fledgling hopes, breaking their tender wings, sending them falling to the ground.
As we chatted about it I commented that this was like Groundhog day, for the same thing had happened last year, when I had seen and fallen for a man who then turned out to be unavailable as he too was dating – although I didn’t find that out until I returned to London. The man I met this year commented on this, saying how it was interesting that over the two years I had been drawn to men who were unavailable both times – out of 80 men! Not only had I chosen them but there was almost a wish to then stay in the sweetly familiar place of loss, longing and melancholy that this then aroused in the days, weeks and even months after the meeting. The man I met this year even challenged me by saying that if he were available I would be the one to run, and there is truth in this, as I focus on the unavailable man with longing but as soon as someone is available it feels unfamiliar and overwhelming and I can have a wish to run away.
“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members”
It’s almost as if I have the attitude expressed by Groucho Marx in his letter of resignation to the Friars’ Club: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members” but apply it to relationships: I don’t want someone who wants me but will try with all my might to get in with someone who does not want me. It’s as if I see the person who wants me as a fool for offering love to such an unworthy object as myself, whereas the one who is aloof and withdrawn is immediately desirable as they confirm my own inner belief that I am unworthy, so they must be a good judge of character and desirable!
By being absent the unattainable man gives me the familiar feeling of longing that I had for my father, who was never there, and just as I hoped as a child that if I were to be good enough my father might want me again, so I hope now that if I show myself to be patient, generous and attentive enough the unavailable man will do what my father never did: return to me and want me. With this hope lies the longing for the deep pain of rejection by the father to be taken away by his replacement figure: the unattainable love interest.
Perhaps there’s even the hope that if I can get the unavailable person to love me then I may not actually be so bad after all. But in contrast someone who is available for love, who sees my qualities and offers love doesn’t feel familiar and does not fit any pattern of relationship that means anything to me. It’s as if those of us with low self esteem have internalised the thought that only those who treat us as badly as we think of ourselves truly see us. While those who treat us well are seen as fools, or dull, or boring, or are just not seen and thus they can’t possibly be worthy of consideration as partners as they so clearly do not see us, at least according to our perceptions of how we are.
How we choose the People we Fall in Love With?
This experience at New Year has started a process of reflection this year, combining therapy, mindfulness practice and self reflection. As part of exploring this theme I came across this fascinating School For Life video on how we choose the people we fall in love with, from which all of the images in this weeks email are taken. The video describe how as a culture we have shifted from a time of arranged marriages and alliances to the notion made popular in the19th Century of Romantic love: the belief our hearts will guide us to our one true soul mate. Unfortunately Romantic love does not necessarily lead to greater happiness, and may result in more pain as ‘the one’ turns out to be not so ideal: having an affair, rejecting us sexually, becoming no longer attractive…..
Why is this? As the video explains, it is rooted in how we have learnt to recognise love. As a child the way our parents or those who matter to us relate to us creates a template of what love is, and how we recognise love from others. It is as if we start with a clean window but over the years it gets cracked and dirty or overgrown with ivy and weeds until the way we look out at the world is determined by what we can see through the window, which is not actually how the world is but is how we see it through the distortions of the window. Hence we fall in love with others who give us a familiar feeling of how it is to be loved, and care for us in familiar ways and this may not be what is best for us or even what will make us happy. We may overlook the nice guy, seeing him as boring, whilst being attracted to the man who will ignore us and make us feel unvalued. The example in the video is of a little girl ignored by her father who goes on to be attracted to men who ignore her as her experience of being loved is of a man who is self-centred and leaves her on the edge of his attention. In this way we do not fall in love with those who are good for us, but who care for us in familiar ways.
Not only do we feel attraction to the people who love us in familiar ways, we may overlook those who would be truly good companions just because they do not feel familiar or even feel too right…..it is too easy to get their attention, they seem ‘too keen’, which is our way of justifying ignoring them when in fact it may just be they are emotionally well balanced and are giving us an unfamiliar experience of being seen as worthy of attention and love. If we have low self esteem, such people showing us approval and love may seem a little too right, or feel a little too unfamiliar to seem right, and we reject them as potential partners.
This self awareness does not mean we then fall into a pit of despair, blaming our parents for having messed up our chances for love and fulfilment. As a conscious adult we can chose how to investigate this dynamic and once seen clearly make conscious choices about how we will relate to these old patterns of how it feels familiar to be loved. There is even an opportunity for compassion as we bring to an end what may have been generations of family habit patterns of relating to loved ones by becoming fully conscious of what has been passed on to us, which was passed on to our parents by their parents from their parents.
One way is in therapy. I had an experience of this recently, when I went to my therapy session after missing the preceding one due to confusing the time and being an hour late. As I approached the session after the one I had missed I felt a sickness in my belly and fear. I explored this as I stood on the DLR on my way to the session. I felt a familiar anxiety that my having ‘failed’ though missing the last session would mean my therapist would be angry with me, would loose patience, tell me off and would no longer want to work with me.
On arriving he did want to talk about why I had missed the last session and I spoke of how I had felt as I was on my way to the session. He wasn’t angry. He didn’t tell me off. And he is still working with me. Slowly, in this way a new pattern of relating emerges where it is possible to be questioned and challenged if my actions have impacted on an agreed meeting, but without the message that I am a failure, or am going to be rejected. The limbic brain is then able to slowly reprogram its experience of what relationship is: rather than one of being at the mercy of an angry parent whom one has to please at all costs, there can be a sense of relationship being a more welcoming and nourishing place of equals.
As well as therapy, there is also the investigation we can do in the privacy of our own home and heart. The value of therapy is it involves us in a relationship with another person, and as the saying goes “we were wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”, we heal when we discover that there is a relationship where our weaknesses and foibles are held with care and love rather than being condemned. We also heal as in the relationship we are each able to reflect back to the other how the others actions are experienced, helping each person to explore more deeply their habitual ways of relating and behaving. But if like me you are not in a relationship or therapy is not for you, due to cost or inclinations, the video offers a lovely suggestion for self-reflection that can be doe on your own at home.
An exercise in self reflection:
Setting aside a good amount of time and taking paper and pen reflect first on what sort of people attract and excite us, and which put us off. Then trace these qualities back to the people who first loved us in childhood and ask how much our impulses really are aligned with things that will make us truly happy.
As we do this we may, for example, notice that we tend to be attracted to the bad boy type, overlooking someone who would treat us well. Perhaps we remember that a parent always ignored us, or was stern or judgemental and we realise that this energy of being ignored or belittled is our sense of what love can feel like – but that does not mean it is what love is.
During meditation and with the awareness that this cultivates we can also notice what our inner dialogue is like. How do we talk to ourselves? What sort of world do we weave into being through our thoughts? What is our place in that world? Are we at the centre being adored? Or are we at the edge being ignored? How does this inner drama impact on how we then interact with the external world? Does our inner drama become the way we make sense of the outer world, leading us to look for scenarios and relationships that confirm the world view we have come to believe in? If we think we are unlovable do we sit alone in our room lamenting how cruel and lonely the world is? If we believe we deserve to be the centre of attention are we out jumping into a party or a social engagement as we read this? It’s as if a drip of water has worn down a groove in the rock, once we could have been anything but now we live within the narrow confines of this groove of how we believe ourselves to be.
By exploring this we can start to open up to other possibilities of being loved, that right now feel unfamiliar. It may be that we are limited to being attracted to certain types because of things that happened to us in our past, but as we bring awareness to this we can start to question the certainty we feel when we believe we have met ‘the one’ when in fact they may simply be ‘the familiar’ which we equate with how it is to be loved. On meeting someone who does not bring up this familiar feeling, or whom we consider to be wrong or boring despite objectively having a lot going for them we may question if that necessarily means they are not suitable just because they do not feel familiar – or in fact does the lack of familiarity perhaps suggest that there is something here that we do not have in our emotional lexicon but that could in fact be a healthy experience if we were to open to it. The next time we want to dismiss someone as being too keen, or too good, or too boring or unexciting asking if that is just because they do not feel familiar.
If you have enjoyed this theme the 5 minute video below outlines it in full detail. All images in this email are from this video.
In a conversation I was having with a friend today about addiction he made the comment that in his experience his addiction had arisen from the desire not to have to feel the pain of being disconnected from others. To avoid the pain of feeling isolated and disconnected he turned to porn as an addiction to numb the pain of feeling alone. It could as easily have been sex, or drugs or work. In my case I’m starting to think I am addicted to sadness! By turning to our addiction it gives a sense of the familiar, and being able to loose oneself in this.
This reminds me of the teaching of the two arrows, where the first arrow is the immediate experience of suffering as it impacts on us: breaking up, an injury, loosing a job, ill health etc. The second arrow is what we fire by resisting feeling the first arrow: resentment, anger, sorrow etc. The first arrow we cannot avoid, it’s already struck us. We either stay with this primary pain or we fire the second arrow by resisting being with the first arrow and in doing so add to our suffering. Looking at it from this perspective one might say that addiction is the second arrow, arising from the desire not to feel whatever the first arrow might be, one possible cause being the pain of isolation. . . Isolation, social exclusion and addiction
In a fascinating study from 2013 it was found that rats isolated during adolescence were more prone to addiction to amphetamine and alcohol as adults, and once established it was harder to extinguish.
A section of the study makes for fascinating reading:
On observing the rats that were isolated it was seen that “They are more anxious. Put them in an open field and they freeze more. We also know that those areas of the brain that are more involved in conscious memory are impaired. But the kind of memory involved in addiction isn’t conscious memory. It’s an unconscious preference for the place in which you got the reward. You keep coming back to it without even knowing why. That kind of memory is enhanced by the isolation.”
The rats in the study were isolated from their peers for about a month from 21 days of age. That period is comparable with early-to-middle adolescence in humans. They were then tested to see how they responded to different levels of exposure to amphetamine and alcohol
The results were striking, said Mickaël Degoulet, a postdoctoral researcher in Morikawa’s lab. The isolated rats were much quicker to form a preference for the small, distinctive box in which they received amphetamine or alcohol than were the never-isolated control group. Nearly all the isolated rats showed a preference after just one exposure to either drug. The control rats only became conditioned after repeated exposures.”
This repeats the evidence of the impact of isolation from previous studies looking at heroin addiction which suggest that the cause of addiction may have more to do with isolation and loneliness than the drug itself being inherently addictive. Rats that were in a cage alone soon became addicted to the heroin laced water rather than drink the clean water that was also available, returning to it until they died. Rats in a communal cage with plenty of food and play mates did not get addicted to it despite occasionally drinking the heroin laced bottle, preferring to go to the clean water instead. Thus although they were exposed to heroin and drank it, that did not lead to addiction. Isolation seemed to be the core reason determining if the rats became addicted. Seen in this way people who are addicts may need to have this primary pain of isolation and loneliness addressed in order to help them rather than be punished or made to feel a social failure thus pushing them further into isolation and deeper into addiction.
Any of us who have experienced our teen age years as a time of social exclusion and isolation will know this feeling of separation, and the tendency to be more prone to addictive behaviour and for gay/bi men and women it suggests one aspect of why people in our community are more prone to addiction.
.To read the article on loneliness that these are extracted from click here.
Healing Through Connection
In addressing his own addiction my friend remembered when I discussed the example of the rats in a previous email and started to explore his addiction in relation to feeling isolated. He was able to shift his attachment to the addiction by building on his connections with others and with himself: through giving time to his friendships, going to groups that provided a community, and therapy which helped him connect more deeply into himself so that he could bring into conscious awareness what had been unconscious. His meditation practice was essential for this process, but in itself was not enough. He also needed the therapy, connections to others through social groups and friends.
As a young man first learning to meditate I had a desire for my meditation practice to take me out of my pain. But in fact it seems meditation is really more about creating the opportunity to hold what is here and to become more whole through opening fully to what is presenting itself rather than trying to transcend the pain and float off into an Enlightened state of bliss. Through turning in and fully opening the heart then there may be a freedom that is amazing, but it is a freedom that arises form a deep inner connection, rather than a dissociated rejection of oneself. And this deep inner connection requires rich outer connections through friendships, community and someone who can hold one fully, with unconditional kind regard and without judgement – a therapist or if we are fortunate a very well balanced partner or friend.
. . Making what we don’t know we don’t know conscious
It has been said that there is what we know that we know, what we know that we don’t know, but also what we don’t know that we don’t know. It’s this last one that is most destructive, for it may be what everyone around us can see as part of our character or motivating impulses, but we are totally oblivious to it.
What we don’t know that we don’t know seems to be the cause of so much suffering as it keeps us going into familiar patterns that we then blame on outer circumstances. One way I’m starting to think I can see what is in this blind spot of the psyche is to look at what patterns of suffering keep repeating. For they are like a mirror through which I can see reflected back to me what is creating this habit pattern of acting in familiar ways so that I have familiar experiences. In a sense the outer event is the second arrow arising from my unwillingness to turn in and see the first arrow buried in the unconscious.
An example of this for me is my tendency to go for unavailable men. I was reading my diary recently and was reminded of yet more examples of men I had fallen for who then pulled away – time and again! The excitement of meeting, the thought this could be it, then a week latter the sorrow of writing about how they had not been interested after all. With one we got as far as spending the night together, only for him to come back into the bedroom the next morning saying he couldn’t look at himself in the mirror as he stood in the bathroom because he felt so bad. He returned to his church and I saw him a few more times but he was going full speed back into the closet as the ‘gay support group’ in his church helped him to go fully into denial.
For a long time I felt that I had bad luck in dating, then that gay men are just flaky and I’ll never meet anyone who will want to commit which led to a rejection of dating and a preference for more casual meetings. But more recently I’ve started to wonder what is it that this experience of going for unavailable men, of being rejected, gives me? It is a sense of drowning in the familiar experience of sadness, longing and abandonment. This then gives me something to fight outside of myself, the thought that if I can make the other person like me enough, or be good enough that they will want me, then the pain will all be taken away. But this ignores the source of the pain and recently I felt more deeply what this was: the unconscious belief that I am unlovable and bad.
It is this first arrow that I can do something with, rather than wanting the other to take away this feeling of being unwanted or make it better. By seeing in the reflection of the outer world my own inner dynamic there is a chance to bring ‘what I don’t know that I don’t know’ into conscious awareness. To realise that this is a choice I am making rather than just bad luck. It’s a choice I make to stay in a familiar place of longing through feeling not good enough rather than turning to this belief and feeling the pain of it, and then letting it go. It is a reality created by a child to try and make sense of the world, a reality made at a time when it was easier to feel I was wrong than feel angry at my father for not being there (he left when I was born and I never knew him). So although it is locked away and marked “danger do not enter” as an adult it is not really the devastating monster the child thought it to be. But to feel it I have to go through the wall of fear the child created. Even if this turns out to be more of an illusion than real it is still easier to keep turning away than face it.
For this reason this turning towards the primary pain of core beliefs cannot be done alone. I need support. I need friends. I need spiritual companions. And the support of a therapist is making this so much easier, for they hold this process of letting the control strategies fall apart and the feeling of vulnerability from not knowing anymore what is the ‘right’ way for me to behave. As an example of this, at some point I made a reality that to get angry would mean people would leave me. I told myself I had to be very good. In a group therapy situation recently I had it reflected back to me that this was in the hope that my father would come and get me. I’ve spent my life trying to be good and kind and attentive so that people will always be there for me. Of course, it doesn’t work. For the people I feel romantically drawn to feel this silent demand – I’ll be good to you, but you must be here for me – and it puts them off. They also pick up that I am annoyed or angry, but I am the type to say “nothing, everything’s fine’ when asked what’s wrong. So communication breaks down. And as I get attracted to men who find it easy to express their anger they then angrily demand that I talk….but I withdraw into silence.
Thus, paradoxically, the more I try to be good so that people won’t leave me, the more they back off or I feel isolated and alone! I was recently challenged to speak my angry feelings by a man I like and had hoped to get to know better but then that wasn’t possible – another unavailable man! Rather than talk to him directly about the situation and say what I felt I just tried to be nice, and hoped that eventually he would see what a good catch I am and would come and ‘rescue’ me from my loneliness – my dad would come and see I had been good enough to deserve his love once more. It didn’t work – he just got more distant. But he didn’t abandon me. He invited me to say what I was feeling, sensing that I felt some anger towards him. And in a small way I was able to speak this. Instead of pushing him further away, as I feared it would, it seemed to bring us a little closer – as friends at least even if not as lovers. At least he now knows what I am thinking!
What repetitive patterns do you see in your life? Do you have a certain type of man you always get attracted to, which ends in a familiar sense of upset or sadness? Do you follow similar patterns of behaviour again and again even though they do not make you happy? Might it be possible to use these as a mirror to look back at yourself, rather than rage at an unfair and unjust world? What might you see in your own shadow if you use this mirror of the familiar but painfully repetitive life experiences?
Last week I went to a Dean street event put on to mark the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England in Wales in 1967. Scotland had to wait until 1980 and Northern Ireland 1982. Listening to the speakers I was struck by how young and old they all shared one characteristic – courage. Their families had disowned them, their country, culture and religion taught them they were wrong – but despite this they had come through and are now active in improving things for LGBT people now and the lot for those in the future.
Over the coming weeks the theme for the class will be self love, and the focus will be on how we can open to caring for ourselves through bringing compassion to where we hurt and rejoicing in where we are whole. But in this special email we will have a different focus: looking more at a celebration of men who loved men throughout history. When I started writing this I only intended posting a few photos of gay men from history but as I explored the theme it has developed into more of an essay on homosexuality around the world throughout history. I hope that you enjoy it and it offers food for contemplation.
What became apparent as I explored examples of men who had loved men was that one cannot apply modern ideas of sexual identity to the past. Many of the men in this list were married, so may be considered as bi-sexual. But marriage was seen as a social duty and before Romanticism in the19th Century encouraged the idea of loving a marriage partner it was often dynastic and for the purpose of having children. There may also have been genuine affection, as with Oscar Wilde and his wife, but even here one also clearly sees a man who preferred the company of men who in the modern age might have identified as being gay. That said, this list is not intended to claim all of the men as gay, but as examples of how societies in the past had a different attitude to men who had sex with men, or even celebrated it above sexual relations with women, as in Greece. What we also see is the more complex relationship men who love men have had in more recent history, with examples from even this century of men who were married but eventually could not sustain the lie and came out.
So, let’s start our journey through time by going back to a time when love between men was an accepted part of society: Greece and Rome.
. Hadrian (76 – 138 CE) and Antonius (c.111 – 130 CE) – Emperor and Lovers
At the top of this email we have images of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his Greek lover Antonius. Hadrian was Roman emperor from 117 to 138 CE (CE Common Era = AD, and BCE Before Common Era = BC) and is known for building Hadrian’s Wall and his military prowess.
Despite being married, ancient sources make it very clear that Hadrian formed a homosexual relationship with a young Greek male called Antinous. Homosexual relationships were not considered unusual in ancient Rome, but the intensity with which Hadrian mourned the 20 year old Antinous’ premature death through drowning in the Nile was without precedent and he encouraged those who wanted to create a cult which made Antonius a god. The statue below was found in Hadrian’s Villa in Rome and is one of 2000 made throughout the Roman Empire to be worshiped as a god. To read more click here and here
Achilles and Patroclus (approx 1250 BCE) – Warrior and Healer
Another pair of lovers form the Ancient world are Achilles and Patroclus. Achilles was believed to be half god, half human and he fought with distinction in the Trojan war. Patroclus was his constant companion and lover from early boyhood until their death and their relationship is a key element of the story of how the Trojan War played out and is central to Homer’s Iliad ( written in the 8th century BCE). Homer simply states a close bond between the two men, but In the 5th and 4th centuries BCE the relationship was portrayed as same-sex love in the works of Aeschylus, Plato and Aeschines.
Whilst Achilles excelled at warfare, Patroclus was trained in medicine by Chiron and he cared for the Greek soldiers, tending their wounds and excelling as a surgeon and healer. Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles (2011) is a coming-of-age story told from Patroclus’ point of view, showing the development of a loving homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. It is a beautiful read, moving and gentle and immersing the reader in a world where two men are fully in love.
Epaminondas (died 362 BCE) – military general
Epaminondas, was a Theban general and statesman of the 4th century BCE who transformed the Ancient Greek city-state of Thebes, leading it out of Spartan subjugation into a preeminent position in Greek politics. In the process he broke Spartan military power with his victory at Leuctra and liberated the Messenian helots, a group of Peloponnesian Greeks who had been enslaved under Spartan rule for some 230 years.
In matters of character, Epaminondas was above reproach in the eyes of the ancient historians who recorded his deeds. Contemporaries praised him for disdaining material wealth, sharing what he had with his friends, and refusing bribes. One of the last heirs of the Pythagorean tradition, he appears to have lived a simple and ascetic lifestyle even when his leadership had raised him to a position at the head of all Greece.
Epaminondas never married but is known to have had several young male lovers, a standard pedagogic practice in ancient Greece, and one that Thebes in particular was famous for. Click here for more info on the practice of Pederasty in Ancient Greece. An anecdote told by Cornelius Nepos indicates that Epaminondas was intimate with a young man by the name of Micythus. Plutarch also mentions two of his beloveds (eromenoi): Asopichus, who fought together with him at the battle of Leuctra, where he greatly distinguished himself; and Caphisodorus, who fell with Epaminondas at Mantineia and was buried by his side. Click here to read more about Epaminondas.
The Theban army was know as the army of lovers, The Sacred Band of Thebes was a troop of select soldiers, consisting of 150 pairs of male lovers which formed the elite force of the Theban army in the 4th century BCE. Its predominance began with its crucial role in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE. It was annihilated by Philip II of Macedon in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. To read more click here
Alexander the Great (356 BCE – 323 BCE) – King and Warrior
Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was a King of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon. Born in Pella in 356 BCE, Alexander succeeded his father, Philip II, to the throne at the age of twenty. He conquered most of Greece, Persia, Asia Minor, India & Egypt and was acknowledged as a military genius who always led by example, although his belief in his own indestructibility meant he was often reckless with his own life and those of his soldiers. The fact that his army only refused to follow him once in 13 years of a reign during which there was constant fighting, indicates the loyalty he inspired.
Alexander’s boyhood friend, Hephaestion, was his closest friend and most likely also his lover. Their tutor, Aristotle, described their intense closeness as “one soul abiding in two bodies.” According to Arrian, Alexander and Hephaestion publicly identified with Achilles and Patroclus, each laying a wreath on their tombs. Both Plato and Aeschylus acknowledged that the Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, so this wreath laying ceremony would have been seen as a very public declaration of their love.
In 324 BCE, Hephaestion contracted what a now appears to have been typhoid, while he was in Susa. Alexander, hearing the news rushed to be at his side, but the time he arrived, Hephaestion has passed away. Plutarch says “… Alexander’s grief was uncontrollable …” and adds that he ordered many signs of mourning, notably that the manes and tails of all horses should be shorn, the demolition of the battlements of the neighboring cities, and the banning of flutes and every other kind of music. Arrian related that “… he flung himself on the body of his friend and lay there nearly all day long in tears, and refused to be parted from him until he was dragged away by force by his companions …” . Arrian states that “… for two whole days after Hephaestion’s death Alexander tasted no food and paid no attention in any way to bodily needs, but lay on his bed now crying lamentably, now in the silence of grief.“
Alexander ordered a period of mourning throughout the empire. Alexander sent messengers to the oracle at Siwa to ask if Amon would permit Hephaestion to be worshipped as a god. Word came back that he could not be worshiped as a god, but as a divine hero. Alexander erected many shrines to Hephaestion; there is evidence that the cult took hold. Hephaestion was given a magnificent funeral. Alexander gave orders that the sacred flame in the temple should be extinguished, something that was only done on the death of a Great King.
Alexander’s most telling tribute: he cut his hair short in mourning, this last a poignant reminder of Achilles’ last gift to Patroclus on his funeral pyre. According to Arrian “… he laid the lock of hair in the hands of his beloved companion, and the whole company was moved to tears.”
As well as Kings and warriors from the Ancient world there is also Plato, the philosopher whose works provide the foundation for much of Western thought. The most celebrated account of homosexual love comes in Plato’s Symposium, in which homosexual love is discussed as a more ideal, more perfect kind of relationship than the more prosaic heterosexual variety. To read more of this discussion click here
Acceptance and Celebration of Same Sex relations in Ancient Cultures
When I was traveling in Italy in my 20s I visited the ruins of a Greek settlement in Paestum. As well as being some of the best preserved Greek Temples in existence, there are also some amazingly well preserved murals. Imagine how it was for me as a young gay man, only recently out to myself and the world to see this depiction of men enjoying such easy intimacy. The images below show a symposium where men have gathered to eat and socialise. The look between the two men says so much: tender, loving and sensual. The two men below are not in such an intimate pose, but the ease of their physical intimacy says so much of a society where men were not afraid to be intimate.
I had this as post card on my wall for years, the intimacy, care and love each man shows to the other was so beautiful and a real celebration of same sex love that porn and modern photo shoots of hard, cold objects for objectification didn’t seem to express.
As well as the tenderness and intimacy shown here other art works from the Ancients openly celebrated same sex love in its more passionate expression. Years latter seeing the Warren Cup at the British Museum was a real delight, for it connected me to a people for whom the desires I feel now were a part of the societie’s life, to be celebrated in works of art rather than a thing of shame. I felt a connection and comradeship with the Romans who made this. I felt less alone by knowing the history of how the desire and love I felt now had been an integral part of societies in the past, even if vilified later in history with the consequent impact on the present.
Same Sex Love in Ancient Egypt
One of the world’s earliest carvings conveying human sexuality shows bisexuality was normal, even over 3,000 years ago
The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs, rock carvings found in a remote region in northwest China, show a fertility ritual.
Archaeologist Wang Binghua discovered the symbols in the late 1980s, but little has been written about them.
In a new report from Mary Mycio, the carvings show 100 figures which abstractly depicts different ways of expressing sexuality. Over a number of scenes different sexual parings are depicted but the last full scene contains no women at all.
Mycio writes: ‘Ithyphallic males and a bisexual take part in a frenzied dance. One male seems to have his arm around another while a loner near the bottom seems to be masturbating as a parade of tiny infants streams from his erection. It looks a lot like a frat party.’
One of the world’s earliest carvings conveying human sexuality shows bisexuality was normal, even over 3,000 years ago
The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs, rock carvings found in a remote region in northwest China, show a fertility ritual.
Archaeologist Wang Binghua discovered the symbols in the late 1980s, but little has been written about them.
In a new report from Mary Mycio, the carvings show 100 figures which abstractly depicts different ways of expressing sexuality. Over a number of scenes different sexual parings are depicted but the last full scene contains no women at all.
Mycio writes: ‘Ithyphallic males and a bisexual take part in a frenzied dance. One male seems to have his arm around another while a loner near the bottom seems to be masturbating as a parade of tiny infants streams from his erection. It looks a lot like a frat party.’
The Two-Spirit people of Indigenous North Americans
It was not only in Ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece where same sex love was honoured as part of society. As an article in the Guardian explains: “Native Americans have often held intersex, androgynous people, feminine males and masculine females in high respect. The most common term to define such persons today is to refer to them as “two-spirit” people, but in the past feminine males were sometimes referred to as “berdache” by early French explorers in North America, who adapted a Persian word “bardaj”, meaning an intimate male friend. Because these androgynous males were commonly married to a masculine man, or had sex with men, and the masculine females had feminine women as wives, the term berdache had a clear homosexual connotation. Both the Spanish settlers in Latin America and the English colonists in North America condemned them as “sodomites”.
The last King of Uganda, King Mwanga II (1868–1903), had a male harem and was known to enjoy sex with men – his anger was roused when these men started to refuse to have sex after converting to Christianity and as punishment he had them executed for disobeying his authority. Eventually loosing his kingdom to the British after leading an army against the British in several wars he was deposed and anti-gay laws were then passed by the British colonial administration in 1902 and 1950.
Persia, Turkey, Japan and China
Abu Nuwas (c.757-c.814) Arab poet Master of witty, erotic love poetry (ghazal), celebrating wine, beautiful boys and song. Famed for his mockery of taboos as the court jester in Baghdad: “Away with hypocrisy … I want to enjoy everything in broad daylight.”
IRAN – MARCH 30: The poet Hafez (1325-1326 – 1389-1390), Shiraz, Iran. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Hafiz (Mohammad Shams Od-Din Hafiz) (c.1319-c.1389) Persian poet Dubbed Sugar-Lips for his sensuous lyrics, many in praise of rough trade. Regarded as a Sufi mystic, but preferred taverns to mosques. His tomb in Shiraz (southern Iran) is a place of pilgrimage.
Mehmet II, the Conqueror (c.1430-1481) Sultan of Turkey Captured Constantinople in 1453 (renamed Istanbul), defeated the Byzantime Empire and founded the Ottoman Empire (incl. Greece, Serbia, Albania). Captured Christian men were placed in his harem.
Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693) Japanese novelist Homosexual love was his major theme, esp. in The Great Mirror of Male Love (1687), a collection of short stories about love between samurai men & boys, monks & boys, and male actor-prostitutes in kabuki theatre.
.Emperor Ai became Emperor aged 20 and around 4 BCE began a relationship with Dong Xian, a minor official. Both men were married, but homosexual relationships were open secrets and generally tolerated. Emperor Ai bestowed many titles upon Dong Xian, and anyone who opposed this was swiftly punished. Eventually, Dong Xian was made the commander of the imperial armed forces. He was 22 and effectively the most senior official in imperial China.
Historians refer to Emperor Ai and Dong Xian as “the passion of the cut sleeve”, which refers to a time when the couple were napping and the emperor cut off his own sleeve rather than move Dong Xian’s head and possibly disturb his slumber. To read more click here
A Gallery of Men who loved Men
No longer free to express same sex love gay men in the modern era still carried something of the role of the healers, shamans and medicine men of old. As leaders, artists and philosophers they shaped their societies.
Leonardo (1452 – 1519), widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived. When he was twenty-four years old, Leonardo was arrested, along with several young companions, on the charge of sodomy but this was dropped due to no witnesses coming forward. He never married but had many handsome young students in his studio as followers. As with many figures in history the proof of his being attracted to men is limited, but feasible.
Michelangelo (1475 – 1564), considered the greatest living artist in his lifetime, he has since been held as one of the greatest artists of all time. Again any proof of his love for men is limited and contested. The clear delight he took in observing and depicting the male form is often taken as evidence of his interests and in 1532 Michelangelo met and fell in love with a young Roman nobleman, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, described by the humanist Benedetto Varchi as possessing ‘not only incomparable physical beauty, but so much elegance in manners, such excellent intelligence, and such graceful behavior’. Tommaso married in 1538 and had two sons, but Michelangelo remained devoted for the rest of his life, dedicating numerous poems and several presentation drawings to him. For more details click here
My lover stole my heart, just over there
– so gently! – and stole much more, my life as well.
And it was not only the artists of the Renaissance who liked men, but also, it is claimed, several Popes, including Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) and Pope Julius III (1550-1555). For more details click here
In the centuries since gay men have been artists, composers, writers, poets, philosophers, leaders, sports men and scientists, as well as men history no longer remembers, simply living their lives in the hope of happiness. The following is only a snap shot and not at all intended to be exhaustive. Names are listed below the photograph montage.
1. Economist and Playwright: John Maynard Keynes and Oscar Wild
2. King and poet: Ferdinand I of Bulgaria and Langston Hughes (1902-1967)Langston Hughes was an African-American poet and a central figure in Harlem Renaissance and founding father of black American literature.
3. The War Poets: Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen
4. Novelists: E.M. Forster and Marcel Proust
5. Art critic/ballet impresario and composer: Diaghilev and Tchaikovsky
6. Composer and playwright: Sir Michael Tippet and Tennessee Williams
7. Politician and poet: the two contentious men on this list! Abraham Lincoln and Shakespeare. Lincoln was known to have shared a bed with a male friend he lived with for several years as a young man and later as president his body guard was known to share his bed when Lincoln’s wife was away. This is explained as being usual 19th Century practice where men shared beds when traveling or were too poor to rent their own rooms. Lincolns marriage and fatherhood is presented as proof that he could not have been homosexual – but then Oscar Wilde was married and had children. There are some poems by Lincoln that describe a same sex relationship which were suppressed for some time from his published work and more recently a diary has been found that purportedly is Lincoln’s and gives evidence for his same sex love. We may never know. To read more of this discussion click here.
With Shakespeare the discussion is contested and rests on the reading of some of the sonnets and the playing with gender identities in the plays. Sonnet 20 is most often looked at as evidence of Shakespeare’s longing for another man. Just as contested is whether there is a true likeness of him in any portrait. The Cobbe portrait was identified in 2009 as being of Shakespeare and shows a man of striking appearance who with a change of clothing could easily be at home as a hipster today! The painting was commissioned by the Earl of Southampton who was also Shakespeare’s patron, opening up an intriguing question of what the connection was between the two men. To read more of the various faces of Shakespeare click here
What’s in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
What’s new to speak, what now to register,
That may express my love or my dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet like prayers divine
I must each day say o’er the very same,
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love’s fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page,
Finding the first conceit of love there bred
Where time and outward form would show it dead.
Sonnet 108, Shakespeare
To read of the sexuality in his sonnets click here
What the lack of clarity shows is how hard it is to find clear evidence from an age when such relations had to be secret and how many men have been presumed to be straight due to the silence they had to maintain. In this I’m reminded of how even in the 20th Century gay men in the public eye maintained that they were straight, which brings us to Dirk Bogarde.8. Actors: in the closet and out. Dirk Bogarde directly denied being gay, saying “why should I lie about this” whilst actually living with his male lover in France. This despite his role in the ground breaking film Victim, which looked at the impact of blackmail on a gay man. Were we to only go on the evidence of interviews with him and his surviving written work we would have to assume Dirk Bogart were straight. To read more click here. How much harder then to find evidence from an age when, as in Shakespeare’s time, the punishment for sodomy was death?
Sir Ian Mckellen, who came out in 1988 aged 49.
9. Actor and philosopher of history: Rock Hudson and Michel Foucault
10. Scientist and musician: Alan Turing and David Bowie. Two men who shaped the modern age through science and art. Turing not only broke the German enigma code but was also the founder of computer science laying the foundations for the modern age of computing. Convicted for gay sex and chemically castrated he killed himself a few years later.
11. Polymath and activist: Stephen Fry and Peter Tatchell
12. Dancer and activist: Rudolf Nureyev and Harvey Milk
13. Gay rights campaigners: Allan Horsfall (1927–2012) was a British gay rights campaigner and founder of the North West Committee for Homosexual Law Reform, which became the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. In Horsfall’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Peter Tatchell described him as “one of the grandfathers of the gay rights movement in Britain” and “one of the truly great pioneers of LGBT equality in Britain” To read more click here
Antony Grey (1927 – 2010) is regarded as Britain’s first gay rights activist and was instrumental in forcing the government to push through the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which paved the way for modern law reform. He began campaigning for gay equality in 1958, when he joined the Homosexual Law Reform Society, which campaigned to change laws which criminalised gay men.To read more click here
14. Political activists: Keith Boykin, the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Clinton White House Kieth helped organize the nation’s first meeting between gay and lesbian leaders and a U.S. President.
Bayard Rustin, who campaigned with Martin Luther King for black rights and went on to campaign for gay rights. He convinced King of the value of non-violent protest and helped to organise the March on Washington.
15. Writer and musician: James Baldwin, author of Giovanni’s Room and Frank Ocean, the first Hip Hop artist to come out as gay.
16. Football and swimming: Justin Fashanu, the first professional footballer to come out as gay in 1990, who sadly killed himself. Tom Daily, Olympic swimming champion.
17. Rugby: Keegan Hirst: The first British rugby league player to come out as gay in 2015 aged 27.
Gareth Thomas: Thomas’ public confirmation of his sexuality in 2009 made him the first openly gay professional rugby union player.
18. Comedian and writer: Julian Clary, whose show ‘sticky moments’ on channel 4 in 1989 was central to my coming out process. Seeing an openly gay man being cheeky and playful with a mainly straight audience gave me hope and helped me to realise that I was not alone.
G. Winston James is a Jamaican-born author and poet and a former fellow of the Millay Colony for the Arts. James’s Lambda Literary Award finalist collections include and his March 2010 anthology Shaming The Devil. James is the former Executive Director of the Other Countries: Black Gay Expression artists’ collective and a founding organizer of Fire & Ink: A Writers Festival for GLBT People of African Descent. James is also co-editor of the historic anthologies Voices Rising: Celebrating 20 Years of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Writing and the Lambda Literary Award finalist publication Spirited: Affirming the Soul and Black Gay/Lesbian Identity. To read more about him click here
19. Fashion: Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent
20. Tech and banking: Tim Cook, CEO of Apple “If hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is … then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.”
Antonio Simoes CEO, HSBC Bank
21. Buisiness and banking: Michael Sosso, Vice President, Ethics and Compliance, BP and Peter Zorn, Managing Director, Deutsche Bank.
22. Entrepreneurand human rights activist: Jared Eng, founder of pop culture website justjared.com Just Jared was recently named to Yahoo’s Top 10 Bloggers Roll (alongside the Huffington Post & TMZ) and was previously highlighted by Vanity Fair & InStyle as one of the world’s leading Entertainment Sites.
Dan Choi became the face of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when he first came out on The Rachel Maddow Show in 2009. Lt. Choi, who’s Korean-American, was an Arabic translator in the Army National Guard and was discharged under the discriminatory policy that barred openly gay and lesbian soldiers from serving in the military. DADT was repealed in 2011.
23. Politics: Alan Duncan, MP for Rutland and Melton was the first Tory MP to voluntarily come out, in 2002.
Stephen Twigg was elected as a labour MP in 1997, defeating Micheal Portillo in what was thought to be a safe Conservative seat. He was elected as an openly gay man. There are now more openly gay MPs at Westminster than in any other parliament around the world. To read more click here
24. Politics: Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil is an openly gay Indian prince who is the son and probable heir of the Maharaja of Rajpipla in Gujarat.
Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s minister for social protection, who is the strong favourite to replace Enda Kenny as Taoiseach of Ireland. The 38-year-old, who came out as gay during the same-sex marriage referendum campaign in Ireland in 2015.
And so the list could go on…….
If this selection has interested you to see a much more detailed list of men and women who have loved their own gender from throughout history click here
To see a list of the 2015 leading 100 LGBT executives click here
As we mark the partial repeal of the anti gay laws it is worth remembering that more gay men were prosecuted after 1967 than before and that it only took the brave work of activists and ordinary people daring to live their lives with truth and authenticity for us to be where we are now and what we do now will shape the world in which future young gay men and women grow up.
I hope that if we can feel ourselves to be part of a lineage that stretches back throughout history it gives us a greater sense of self-worth and hope.
A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to an article. Thinking it would be a short but interesting read I clicked on it and 20 minutes later I emerged knowing I had just read one of those seminal texts that shape the discourse on what it is to be gay and the search for happiness, fulfilment and wellbeing. The article gave me hope, and made me cry. I’m sharing the link here as I hope it will touch you as well if you have not already read it and give a way for us as a community to start to talk about the issues it raises around loneliness and self-harm.
I posted it on Facebook with some reflections on how I felt in response to it. I was a bit anxious about sharing, but I’ve been reading a number of books on well-being and self-love recently that all encourage authenticity as the key to self-worth and self-love: saying how you are and how you feel and being yourself rather than presenting an edited socially acceptable ‘Facebook’ persona. I was so touched by the responses I got from people to my Facebook post and it really helped me to feel cared for and held by my gay friends.
The thing that most struck me in the article was the statement that more gay men in Canada die as a result of suicide than HIV/AIDS. Consider that for a moment. If suicide were a communicable disease we would all be terrified of it. But it is a silent killer – one man lost here, then another, then another……..slowly building up until the toll is in fact worse than AIDS (statistics of gay suicides are not available in many countries, but Canada does keep them). And it leads to asking why is it that even younger gay men are still more likely to be addicted to drugs or to be depressed or to try killing themselves than straight men of the same age?
A section of the article really struck me and seems to answer some of this question:
“We see gay men who have never been sexually or physically assaulted with similar post-traumatic stress symptoms to people who have been in combat situations or who have been raped,” says Alex Keuroghlian, a psychiatrist at the Fenway Institute’s Center for Population Research in LGBT Health.
Gay men are, as Keuroghlian puts it, “primed to expect rejection.” We’re constantly scanning social situations for ways we may not fit into them. We struggle to assert ourselves. We replay our social failures on a loop.”
Which raises the question: why? How can it be that just growing up in relatively safe environments, where some of the younger men have not even experienced direct homophobia or been physically abused for being gay, why do even these men show similar signs of post-traumatic stress to combat veterans or rape survivors?
As part of an answer to this the article goes on to discuss the issue of “minority stress”. This is not a term I’ve heard before, but it makes a lot of sense. To quote from the article again:
“Being a member of a marginalized group requires extra effort. When you’re the only woman at a business meeting, or the only black guy in your college dorm, you have to think on a level that members of the majority don’t. If you stand up to your boss, or fail to, are you playing into stereotypes of women in the workplace? If you don’t ace a test, will people think it’s because of your race? Even if you don’t experience overt stigma, considering these possibilities takes its toll over time.
For gay people, the effect is magnified by the fact that our minority status is hidden. Not only do we have to do all this extra work and answer all these internal questions when we’re 12, but we also have to do it without being able to talk to our friends or parents about it.”
This was exactly my experience, and that of so many I know: the feeling of having survived childhood and adolescence as the increasing sense of not being a part of the male ‘tribe’ around me intensified. I still remember the intense fear I felt on going to the introductory session with the Cubs, being in a hetrocentric male world felt terrifying, it was not my world and on an unconscious level I felt that I would be seen through. We had sport on two days a week at my school, and I cried myself to sleep two nights a week in fear of what was to come the next day. Not just occasionally, but every week, for five years. I’m sure I am not alone there. I was talking with a repair man who came to my flat recently. He was straight, and loves to play football. I asked him about Rugby as he was tall and strong and looked as if he could play, and he said he hated it, he used to cry and not want to play it so his dad went in to his school and told them he didn’t want his son playing Rugby. How I longed for that sort of father! But as a boy who didn’t fit in with other boys at all, there was the sense that I needed to man up. Whereas this man saw his son playing football and being a regular boy, but who just did’t like Rugby so he acted for him.
These little moments of stress all build up, and the article outlines the impact of them on the body and future development:
“Growing up gay, it seems, is bad for you in many of the same ways as growing up in extreme poverty. A 2015 study found that gay people produce less cortisol, the hormone that regulates stress. Their systems were so activated, so constantly, in adolescence that they ended up sluggish as grownups, says Katie McLaughlin, one of the study’s co-authors. In 2014, researchers compared straight and gay teenagers on cardiovascular risk. They found that the gay kids didn’t have a greater number of “stressful life events” (i.e. straight people have problems, too), but the ones they did experience inflicted more harm on their nervous systems.
Annesa Flentje, a stress researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, specializes in the effect of minority stress on gene expression. All those little punches combine with our adaptations to them, she says, and become “automatic ways of thinking that never get challenged or turned off, even 30 years later.” Whether we recognize it or not, our bodies bring the closet with us into adulthood.”
The article goes on to say that healing this involves learning to bring awareness to the patterns, to recognise what was automatic but unaware behaviour and to bring kindness to oneself. I recently saw a report that the suicide attempts among teenage gay men in the US had dramatically decreased after same sex marriages were legalised. It was as if they had received a message from society that they were not alone….reducing that feeling of minority stress just a little through seeing that there were other men out there looking for love and that society now allowed that to be celebrated in a public ceremony.
Letting the Ice of Repression Melt
Right now it feels as if something is thawing in my life. A great continental ice shelf of repression and denial and I feel so much fear, anger and rage. Not actually feel it as right now it seems to be at a distance, but I struggle as I see it like some mummified remains of a monster appearing in the thawing ice….knowing, fearing, that on thawing it will come to life again and devour me.
This doesn’t feel very spiritual. And the fact that I sometimes feel so alone and that there are times that I reach out to friends and they don’t reply or respond and that that then pisses me off, but I try to be understanding and nice about it. Well even that I’m starting to get tired of. But I’m still too nice to tell them…..so the rage goes inside and eats at my gut like a rat in my belly or maggots and flies in my head. And then I see that I do it myself to others: being self absorbed, forgetting an arrangement to meet, only seeing others as a means to filling my sense of emptiness rather than a real connection from the heart.
In the monastery I had a good straight friend, but we fell out after several years of closeness. He told me he felt me to be selfish. It was so hard to hear as I thought I was being so kind and attentive to him. But I guess, looking back, he had a point. All my kindness and attention to him which he eventually rejected was not for him. It was so that he would not leave me. But as Jung says “what we resist persists, what we fight we get more of” and eventually it was this very energy of trying to keep his affection by not being authentic, but by showering him with kindness and attention that triggered his stuff and led to him cutting off from me to hold his own boundary and stop himself from being overwhelmed. And it’s a pattern I keep seeing. But like a car crash I see it happening but can’t stop it. I started therapy this Thursday, so it will be interesting to reflect on all of this in the sessions and feel into it more deeply. “Know thyself”, the key to freedom.
Reading this article was well timed and has added to my reflections on what is shifting for me right now. It talks of how as gay men we are less likely to have close friends over time, more likely to feel isolated and alone. Find it harder to build intimate relationships – romantic or social. And as social animals we can have food and water and all our other needs met, but without true intimacy we perish. But knowing this is not enough – I have to learn how to be intimate. That starts by opening fully to me and what is here. To be able to cry, and laugh and feel fully. To stop being spiritual and start just being. Easy to say. I don’t know how the fuck to do it. I’ve spent a lifetime being the good spiritual monk!
I realise that the idea of opening to another scares me. I fear that no man will truly be there for me, that they will all leave or let me down, that love is not truly possible, that I am not able to love another…..and why would any one want to love a mess like me anyway? So the work is on opening fully to self-care and self-love. And seeing that there are men out there who are wanting to connect from an authentic place, from the heart and who want to explore healing their wounds around relating through being in relationship. As part of this I looked online for images of male couples, and it was a lovely surprise to see so many from the past, as well as present. So I’m finishing with a montage of these, a lovely reminder that men have loved men throughout history, that we have sought each other out even in times of adversity when being gay truly was the “love that dare not speak its name”. They are our family, our ancestors, out tribe. Just as we are offering our healing to the gay men who will come after us and inherit the world we have created for them to live in. Here’s wishing you well in your own journey of self-love, self-care and deep heart connection with self and other.
I was 18 when I read E.M. Foster’s novel Howard’s End and it was one of the most powerful books I had ever read. It was as if he were speaking to me, was speaking my own thoughts and feelings. It was as if he were me. It was uncanny. And it was this quote that resonated most with me. The idea within the novel that it was connections that matter – not status or wealth or possessions, but human connections. And that one has to live as a whole person, to connect with all of oneself, not split off into the ‘monk’ or the ‘beast’ but to let those energies coexist and nourish a total sense of being.
As a teen still in the closet, it spoke to me of the fear of sex and intimacy, the tendency to see it as the beast, the desire to be good, to gravitate to the ‘light’ of spirituality away from the ‘darkness’ of sensual desire. For a teenager living in the shadow of denial about his sexuality how ironic that it was a man from 100 years earlier, who had lived in the same shadow for much of his life, who should speak so eloquently to me in my place of fear of the need to open to all of who I was. I heard and it spoke to my heart, but the lesson didn’t take effect at once and in some ways I am only realising now the significance of what he was saying. Coming to sexual maturity in the1980s didn’t exactly help me to open to all of my being! The sex education I had at that same time was about HIV and AIDS and as I slowly began to realise that I wanted to have sex with men this was fused in my mind with the thought that sex would kill me.
Reading ‘Straight Jacket, How to Be Gay and Happy’ I was struck that the author had the same experience as a teen in the ’80s: seeing the tomb stone safe sex ads for HIV and taking away the lesson that sex kills. I still remember the fear after my first sexual encounter, and the first of many trips to the GUM clinic to be tested, convinced that I was now going to die.
It’s hardly surprising then that after a few years of being out and tentatively exploring my love and sex life my interest in Buddhism and spirituality fused with a subtle inner homophobia that had never been addressed and was able to use my genuine commitment to the spiritual path as a screen to create the duality of the monk and the beast, as I then attempted to push the ‘beast’ underground through 12 years of celibacy, culminating in 6 years of literally being a monk! I wonder how many of us in our own ways have done this? Perhaps not become celibate but found our own way to split off the monk and the beast: going to one or other extreme, but never finding that middle way that celebrates them both?
Even on leaving the monastery there was still a sense that the real spiritual work was to be done in a solitary retreat, that living here in London I was selling out to my ‘base’ desires for sex, a relationship, a man. But why create this duality? This idea that there is the spiritual – pure and undefiled, and the worldly – tainted by desire and corporeality. It probably wasn’t helped by having grown up with one of the few Medieval judgement murals still in existence in a British Parish church, showing the blessed and the damned! It certainly fed my child mind with the idea that one is either good and saved, or bad and damned. It’s not entirely clear in the image below as part of the mural is damage, but on the right are the souls being dragged into a the gaping mouth of Hell, whilst to the left the souls of the saved go up to Heaven. How often do we carry this sense of the damned and the saved with someone sitting in Judgement on us?
Last week I went to a presentation organised by Dean Street for a new organisation in London. It’s been set up as an affiliate of a group running events throughout the United States and other countries. It’s run by a group of young gay men, and one woman. Its intention is to find new ways to raise awareness of how to live a fulfilled and healthy life as a a gay man, to enjoy sex but to be aware of how to stay healthy and safe. As such it celebrates the enjoyment of sex, but seeks to promote awareness of the options around for staying healthy. It was so refreshing to hear the young men talking as they explained what they were setting up, to hear them say without shame, “I love sex” but to then want to explore how to share a message with all gay men, but especially younger men of how to explore their enjoyment in a way that minimises the risk to their health and mental well being. It made me think of my own struggles and how I wished I could have met others who could have given such a sex positive message when I was in my 20s, to counteract the shame I had taken in as a child and teenager.
And this is not just about having good sex. As Dr Downs expresses so well in ‘The Velvet Rage’, if a core part of my self identity, my sexual drive, is seen as being wrong or tainted then in effect I believe myself to be wrong or tainted and the choices and actions I perform will grow out of this self-belief. I may see myself as the beast, never able to be good enough to be the monk, and so choose a path that takes me into suffering through low self-esteem and lack of self-worth. Or I try desperately to prove I am not the beast and in my own way be the perfect, good gay. If I believe I am unlovable, how will I ever open to anyone to love me? And if someone does – then they must be a fool to love someone so bad, and so are not worth trying to get to know further. Instead I will chase those who give me the message that meets my inner truth: the ones who do not really want me, who treat me with some form of disdain, for this, on some subtle level, is how I feel I deserve to be treated. And if I think on some subtle level gay sex is wrong, how can I love another man who is so flawed? All we can have is passing encounters.
It is for each of us to find what we want in our love and sex lives so I am not saying we should all fit one model – but to have sex without shame, whether monogamous, polyamorous or casual or not at all (but out of a free choice and a deep sense of contentment rather than due to shame) is something I believe will bring a greater sense of self worth to us all and open us to loving the other men we are meeting along the way, connecting from the heart and not only the groin. This starts with learning to love ourselves and so we continue in the group to explore how to open to embracing all of who we are, to let the monk and the beast no longer fight but embrace and give us all of their energies. As part of that exploration the Impulse initiative may provide some of us with support and a place to meet others who share this wish. To find out more about Impulse London click here