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Posts tagged ‘shame’

Exploring intimacy – through touch from the heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making The Unconscious Conscious

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.
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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.

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.To read the article on loneliness that these are extracted from click here.

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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.

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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?

 

Being Gay…..and not being happy

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?

Minority Stress

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.

To read the article in full click here

The images below are from two sites: Pinterest and Vintage Gay Couples

 

Only connect

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 

Keeping hope alive – and the epidemic of loneliness and suicide among gay men

You may be familiar with the myth of Pandora’s box. Pandora was the first woman, created by Zeus as a curse to punish what until then had been a society made up only of men for Prometheus giving them the power of fire. Pandora’s curiosity led her to open a box she had been told not to open and out flew all the evils that now blight our word – fear, anger, lust, jealousy etc.  All that remained in the box was hope. When we have been attacked by all of these evils we can always return to this one constant, hope.

But for some of us hope can also seem to vanish.

This last month two men I know have killed themselves. Both were gay. Both grew up in cultures where they were vilified for their sexuality. Both struggled in their lives. Stef turned to drugs and chem sex and lost himself in that to the point of ending up in prison for murder. The other I met when we were both monks. But he left the monastery a few years after me and then cut off all contact. It was only seeing a post on Facebook that I heard what had happened.

Stef came to the group looking for a way to find peace. He was a highly intelligent man. Sensitive and hurt by his families rejection of him for his sexuality. He left Italy for  London, in the hope of finding a more tolerant home. My monk friend was gentle, and quiet.  He came to the group once and led the most heart centred loving kindness practice. But growing up in apartheid South Africa he carried so much self-hate. Both men struggled with loving themselves and finding peace. In the end that led both to withdraw, isolate themselves, look for ways out of the suffering: through being good and ‘spiritual’, or loosing oneself in addictions, two extremes with the same root: low self-worth and shame.

It is my belief that there is nothing wrong or unnatural or unhealthy about being gay, but just as a child with brown eyes who grew up in a culture where brown eyed people were seen as evil would take that view in and loose self esteem, so to for us growing up in a culture that has only recently shifted to a more embracing attitude we carry the wounds of this disapproval and rejection. As a 20 year old in 1990 for me to have sex was to break the law. I enjoyed feeling that sex was a political act as much as an act of pleasure, but it made me very aware as well that I was in a society that treated me as different to my straight fellows who could legally enjoy sex at a younger age. I had abuse shouted at me as I cycled into Cambridge by van drivers. School mates made fun of me for being gay, before I even knew what the word meant. AIDS was used as a means to condemn me and all gay men as filthy and degenerate.

Even now if I am kissing a man in public I have one eye open to look for trouble. I was talking with a friend about this recently, how we can fear the threat of violence for as simple an act as taking our lover’s hand in the street or kissing a man good bye after a date. This is a lot to carry, a lot to place on a new relationship as we navigate not just when it is ok to kiss him, but if it is safe or the right place to do so! Or the feeling of upset when our date holds back from a kiss because there is someone standing there they do not want to see them kiss a man. Add to that the feeling of shame we may have internalised as we grew up sensing there was something wrong about us and it is no wonder the incidence of suicide, addiction and much higher rates of smoking occur amoung gay/bi men than straight men.

At New Year I had the realisation that although I look to men for love, I also fear that men cannot love, and that they will always walk away. How many of us have grown up with the subtle disapproval of male figures in our life, the slight withdrawing of affection and approval as fathers, teachers, school mates, realised there was something different about us? For me it was my step-father’s condemnation of me as a bit of a mother’s boy. The coldness from my school mates. The feeling of never belonging.

That is why I set up the group. To be a place where we can meet and create community and friendships.  Where we can share our joy and hope. Where we can speak freely and know from hearing others speak a familiar story that we are not alone.  That is why I share my struggles. I often get emails or have conversations after the group with men who are touched to hear another speak of the things they feel. To know that we are not alone is the most powerful healing. That I am not a solitary failure, but that this struggle acts to connect me to the human condition. That in suffering, and in joy, we find our shared experience of what it is to live in this world beset by the evils released from the Pandora’s Box of intolerance, bigotry and judgement.

When I loose hope, the world becomes a dark place. It is only the confidence that “this too will pass” that has kept me going at times of difficulty. I have had moments where I felt I would rather not live. But I found a way through. And I want any one out there who is struggling right now to know that once through this dark valley the sunlight one thought could never shine again does break through the clouds of depression. Keep reaching out, keep meeting others, keep talking and sharing. When it feels that all hope is gone – it is still there, it’s just that the flutter of its wings is so faint sometimes we have to listen attentively to hear it.

I recently started reading a new book that develops on the ideas in the Velvet Rage, called ‘Straight Jacket: how to be gay and happy’. After recent events it seems more important than ever to keep exploring this theme. Learning to love ourselves, to be able to be at ease in our own skin, to value who we are and the gift we are to the world. As gay/bi men we offer so much to humanity. It’s time to live each day as if it were Pride, to value who we are and what we offer: so much of culture, creativity and beauty that is part of our heritage was from the creative heart of our brothers. Before it was vilified for a man to love a man we served a role in societies throughout the world as the shamans, medicine men, healers and story tellers. We did not have our own families so we cared for the family of the tribe. My hope is that we can find a sense of real pride in being the unique part of humanity that we are, to share our gifts with the world and to be able to love and be loved. And as we all know, loving starts with ourselves. So we will continue to explore how to open to a sense of self-care and self love in the class each Monday.

Ruby Wax on Mindfulness

Today I’ve attached a talk by Ruby Wax.  I went to see her show when she was in London recently and this is an earlier version of it. She is a fantastic proponent of mindfulness as she does not fit the stereotype at all! I was at a mindfulness conference a few years ago where she was the final speaker.  All of the previous speakers had had an appropriate tone, demeanour and register – calm, softly spoken, speaking form stillness. Then Ruby Wax came on! A few people were late coming in as there had been a break and she looked at them and said “what the F…k, …..”and made a joke about being late! There’s an authenticity to her presentation as I feel the rawness of the place she is speaking from. She is not pretending to be fixed or to be free from the struggles and mental anguish that led to her depression. But she speaks eloquently of the pain and of how mindfulness provides her with a tool to be with it.

As a friend of mine once said of himself “I’m a mess in progress”. Sometimes it helps to hear from someone who is at ease with the mess that they are and is able to share form that place without their inner critic getting in the way and telling them to shut up and put on a good front. The sad thing in life is that we all show our Facebook personas to the world: happy, successful, full of fun and interesting activities. But this is only a part of our life and by this collective act of not sharing from the place where we struggle we are all left feeling that our dark place is a strange anomaly only felt by us. In fact it is what we all feel, it’s what unites us – the fear of our sense of lack, our fear of failure, the thoughts that say we are no good or are only of worth if we keep succeeding and being the best – it’s this that we all share and keep  hidden. The result is that we can feel so alone with this secret, and it’s a delight to hear someone like Ruby Wax openly laughing at it and showing how she found her way through by using mindfulness.

I hope you enjoy this, her humour is distinct and may not be for everyone but if you listen her overall message there’s a lot of learning in this half hour.

Learning to Love

 

I love this song – but this video has got me crying my eyes out! It reminds me that under all of the pain, there is still that bright young child looking out at the world with wonder and hope. Not just hope, but belief that the moment can be different, that things are never so bad one can only despair. And it reminds me of a therapist I knew who would always say “we are wounded in relationship…but we also heal in relationship”…and it’s only when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to enter relationship – with friends, with lovers, with ourself – that healing can start to happen.

Mindfulness practice and Loving Kindness is about learning how to come into relationship with ourself, and with others.  Learning how to love.  We can do so much damage to ourselves with the hard, harsh  inner dialogue: “When will I learn”, “what’s wrong with me”, “I’m such a failure”, “all these years of self development and workshops and still I’m a mess”, “when will I be fixed” and so it goes on, just add your own favourite! The desire to be fixed, to be free, to be well comes form a genuine wish to be whole, but when it manifests as a desire to reject what is there in one’s experience right now then it does the opposite, for to be whole is to heal, and to heal means to embrace whatever is there right now with love – holding the worry, fear, pain or whatever it might be that we wish was not there. “I could love my self if only I weren’t such a failure/ so full of anxiety/ so stupid…….” Is this Love? Thinking we could love some perfect abstract form of ourself, but not the mess that we are? Or is love that which embraces us exactly as we are right now?

Mindfulness and living a life based on awareness is a reminder to stop and feel at such times.  Under the blame, the anger, the contempt is shame, and under the same is fear. Fear and shame do not need to be fixed or got rid of – they need to be seen, held and embraced. The unconditional aspect of loving Kindness means that we do not only love ourselves or others when we or they are doing what we think is right or when we are getting what we want.  It is a love that responds to self or other in the moment as that moment presents itself – not as we think we or they should be or ought to be. This may be a very different way of loving to what we are used. Praise and pride can masquerade as love as a parent congratulates you on your achievements, but if the feeling is there that that affirmation would be removed if you had got a lower mark or failed the exam then it is not love. Love would say “I love you as the being you are, and well done for passing your exams”. Vicarious living out of one’s own hopes and aspirations through others success and the need to be seen to have produced successful offspring or have a successful partner says “I love you for doing well”.

To return to the quote from my therapist friend: “we are wounded in relationship…and we heal in relationship”. We may have internalised a sense that “I am only of worth when I achieve/make others  proud of my success” We may fear rejection or be very proud. It is by coming into relationship with others that these get triggered and in our relationship with ourself that we can learn to embrace what is there, holding that which is in pain and wanting to be seen, heard, held. Our daily practice of mindfulness and loving Kindnesses creates the space to learn to embrace the moment as it is – but it is not for just in the meditation but something we bring to every moment. And then we may once more connect with that childlike sense of trust, love and vitality.

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