Improve your sex life with this one weird trick

Initiated by women of color, “The #metoo Movement” has sparked collective self-reflection and accounting that continues to unfold new layers of complexity and discomfort. People, largely men, are being held to account for coercive, assaulting, and harassing sexual behavior. The rest of us are left to contemplate our own sexual histories and behavior at work, to think of the myriad examples of times when we were thoughtless, disrespectful, tried something and thought we got away with it.

My audience for this writing is men because I am a man and I see my work as helping men get free of the life-negating bullshit of our culture. In most studies, men are the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of sexual abuse, assault, coercion, and harassment, but we are not the only ones. We are, moreover, people who get abused, assaulted, coerced, and harassed—by other straight and queer men, by women in positions of power, by intimate partners, by bosses and caregivers, by friends and relatives, by people whom we needed to protect us.

Image of two people embracing, facing a harbor.
Image by Mickael Tournier

The ever-present threat of rape, along with the threat of economic and professional ruin for resisting sexual coercion, undergird all of our sexual interactions. It leads to bad sex. Feminist Andrea Dworkin once famously argued that “violation is a synonym for intercourse,” which has become popularly restated as “all heterosexual sex is rape,” an interpretation that she believed missed the point. How I understand her argument is that when women as a class are materially inferior to men, and when the threat of rape and murder for disappointing the “wrong man” is ever-present, and when it is impossible for anyone to know who the “wrong man” will be, there is no possibility for genuine consent to sex. Though I think many men go through life without being aware of these looming threats, it affects all of us.

(This same dynamic informs other power differences—when a child is exploited by a parent, family friend, teacher, religious leader, almost any adult—that child is emotionally and economically vulnerable, and cannot consent.)

Many men get uncomfortable and even angry to think about this. Many of us don’t experience ourselves as powerful, threatening beings. We may feel anxious, insecure, deeply sensitive to rejection, shame-filled about our sexual longings. As sex is a powerful inner drive and carries a lot of meaning around male identity, men may feel a kind of desperation attached to whether they’re found desirable. Our partners’ willingness to have sex is a kind of currency that determines our sense of self-worth. Therefore such men may think their partners have all the power, and deny sex out of a kind of cruelty.

And some of these men may well have experienced violation, abuse, coercion. They may not understand living as women and queer people with the constant threat of physical violence, but they understand their own experiences of feeling humiliated, taken advantage of, cruelly ignored. Repeated experiences of loneliness and rejection begin to sensitize the nervous system to future social interactions.

Unfortunately, chronic loneliness becomes self-perpetuating. According to John Cacioppo’s Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, too much loneliness begins to make us more desperate and mistrustful. We more quickly perceive even innocuous and friendly social interactions as hostile mockery or rejection. We settle for relationships with people who take advantage of us. Then we feel even lonelier, and solidify our view of humans (or our desired lovers, whomever they may be) as basically cruel and self-interested.

With this at stake, it makes sense that we’d also be impaired in our ability to engage in loving, passionate, hot sex. Everything is too personal, too meaningful, too laden with intense emotions that overwhelm better judgment. It’s not testosterone that’s the problem, it’s poor emotional self-regulation mixed with patriarchy.

Patriarchy and years of media have set us up poorly for having sex in-person with other humans. We imagine that sexual desire is automatic and instinctive, that really hot sex should just happen without any kind of planning, conversation, or preparation. We’re also taught to separate out sexual desire from emotional intimacy—this happens for straight and queer men. Because we feel shame about our sexual longings, because intimate sex often brings up feelings of shame, we learn that we can only access our sexual fantasies with someone we don’t care about. We objectify ourselves and our partners.

That shame, I think, is tremendous. Where we have shame, we have a reservoir of life force and desire that desperately wants expression and integration. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hot to find someone willing to share an act otherwise considered taboo or wrong: we really get to be seen and desired as we are. Some of our desires, however, would manifest as behaviors that are dangerous, unethical, illegal, or not wanted by the partner. These are the desires that could be worked through in therapy (to curb dangerous behaviors and sublimate the desire into something prosocial) or explored in fantasy, in role-playing with a consenting adult.

But at heart, I think, shame is about our longing for connection. So many of us long for and fear being seen in all our sexual wants and needs. As much as we crave full connection, we fear the devastation of full rejection. We split sex into an imaginative fantasy of perfection or an inadequate, unsatisfying reality of denial and poor communication. To include our messy feelings, to make space for them in sex, creates an opportunity to be seen and known with highly charged erotic intimacy. It is something to approach slowly, with patience for one’s self and one’s partners.

So now here it is. The one weird trick: emotional safety leads to hot sex.

What’s sexy is a partner with the confidence to notice what’s going on with his lover, stop what he’s doing, and check in. “Are you into this? What’s going on?”

What’s sexy is a man who is able to not take his partner’s response personally. A man who can wait patiently and listen. Who is able to hear anything partners want to share without lashing out in guilt or shame. Who communicates with his body, his actions, and his words that he expects nothing from his partner but is grateful for what they are willing to share with him. That he truly wants to enjoy sex together and is okay with stopping if that’s what needs to happen.

This safety communicates to your partners that there is no threat of rape or punishment in this encounter. You don’t have to tell them you’re not like that, you are demonstrating it. That frees up you and your partner to get access to your sexual longings and desires together, to truly see each other and connect. That leads to great sex. There’s no longer a need to worry about whether you have consent, because you’ve laid the foundations for true consent. If your partner is too emotionally distressed, too intoxicated, or frozen to have those conversations, then it’s time to stop.

What do we need to establish emotional safety for ourselves and our lovers? Emotional safety for our selves. We need practice recognizing, naming, and offering acceptance to our feelings. One practice that I like for emotional safety is offering okayness. In this, I notice the emotion and offer okayness to it. Take a moment to notice your breath, letting it slow down and deepen into your belly. Notice what’s going on in your mind, heart, and body. For everything that bothers you, acknowledge it one by one, saying, “It is okay that I feel _____.”

“It is okay that I feel rejected.” “It is okay that I feel scared that I’ll be alone.” “It’s okay that I feel guilty.”

This is not about surrendering to the bullshit stories I tell about myself. “I’m going to be alone forever, and that’s okay.” This is about getting beneath the story, letting it be there while also making room for the rest of me. “It’s okay that I’m afraid I’m going to be alone.” When I see these stories and feelings as something intolerable that must be fixed, that leads me to do rash things that I end up regretting. When I allow these stories and feelings to exist without needing to do anything about them, I begin to see they are not the entire truth about me. I see there is no “bad” feeling, nothing to be fixed.

Learning to recognize and accept emotions, moreover, helps us to stay in our bodies and access more of our capacity for intimacy and sensuality. Which also leads to better sex.

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Cultivating Gratitude – A Meditation

The freshness and allure of a rainbow is, at least partly, due to their rarity. It’s a unique moment, one worthy of stopping to see and take in. If there was a rainbow every day, at nearly the same time every day, their colors would begin to gray in the mind and it would begin to fade into the background.

If you’ve ever stopped to truly watch a sunrise or sunset, you may have some awareness of this. It is a gorgeous event, awe-inspiring, and every day is different. Yet because of its dailiness, we lose interest. It becomes mundane.

So it is with much of life. For many of us, it is easier for the mind to fixate on problems, fears, and worries than it is to feel awe and gratitude at all the good, supportive experiences we have daily. We take things for granted.

Photo of a light-skinned woman laying on the ground amidst lavender plants. Her face appears serene.
Photo by Amy Treasure

There are two experiences that tend to wake us up from this taking for granted—grief, and gratitude. Losing what we took for granted really helps us to see how much we depended upon it, how important it was to us. Then we might feel regret at having not taken more time to appreciate it. Maybe the rest of life becomes more colorful and alive as we recognize that we could, and will, lose everything.

Fortunately, we can actively work on cultivating more gratitude and appreciation, before we lose something dear. We can practice gratitude in a way that activates gratefulness, and not waiting for gratitude or fixating on ingratitude.

Cultivating gratitude is a practice of connecting to that which feels supportive, nourishing, wonderful, or joy-inspiring. We can be grateful even when we feel suffering, when we feel guilt, when the things we feel grateful about are endangered or morally ambiguous. Gratitude does not eclipse harm, does not mean life is purely okay. It is more about widening the scope of vision. Instead of focusing narrowly on what is wrong, we widen the lens to also see what is beneficial about what is.

The practice of gratitude recorded in the following meditation engages with the often complex nature of gratitude. If I feel gratitude at the trees and plants for providing the oxygen that keeps me alive, a part of me recalls that these trees and plants may be endangered by certain economic and political practices. I feel a natural want to protect them, one that comes from love and not guilt and obligation.

The recorded meditation engages with cultivating gratitude for things about which we might feel guilt, shame, or hurt about. This is not about making excuses or minimizing harm. What has happened in the past, we cannot change, but we can change the meaning of that event. We can feel grateful for the ways we’ve learned to survive or thrive in spite of harm. We can feel grateful for what we’ve experienced since the harm.  We can feel grateful for the strengths and supports that got us through those moments.

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Mourning the Life We Thought We Were Supposed to Have

As someone born in the earliest years of the Millennial generation with a lot of privilege, I’ve spent time mulling over the cultural message that I could do whatever I wanted with my life. During the Great Recession, as I coped with the loss of my last career and wondered what would be next for me, I realized I’d been given an incomplete truth. I might be able to do anything I wanted, given enough tenacity, support, and favorable life circumstances; but I definitely could not do everything.

The depth and richness I sought in life—the sense of meaning—meant I must commit to a course of action and give up other possibilities. And this is in some ways inescapable. Even refusing any kind of commitment to stay perpetually unattached requires sacrifice of the life I could have had if I’d stuck with a relationship, a career, a project.

When I was younger, I filled myself up with dreams about the life I imagined I wanted, ideas about how people should treat me and what would be my signs of success. The dreams inspired me and motivated me to move toward them, yet in the course of living I would begin to encounter ways these dreams and aspirations caused me suffering. My dreams of a different life tended to be attached to a deep longing that had yet to be met. Yet when I was stuck in longing for what I did not have in my life, I was caught between two worlds. I could not walk confidently in either.

Confronting this sense of limitation and the finite nature of my time, energy, and money brought me to a deeper confrontation of the relationship between dreaming and realizing. These dreams had become expectations, and life frequently fails to meet my expectations. My expectations were formed at a time when I had no real experience. By the time I met the real person who would be my partner, I already had these imaginations of what marriage was supposed to look like. Before I began working, I had these expectations of career.

Image of a city street. In the foreground, a mannequin lay on its back. Its head is detached and turned toward the camera.
“Mannequin Parts,” by Edu Lauton

Imagination and expectations, furthermore, are unchecked by any limitations except the ones shaping my mind. I can imagine that a lover will respond to my intimacy and vulnerability with completely intuitive, empathic accuracy—will say the exact right thing—will know just where to touch—will know how fast or slow to go without me needing to say a word.

But then I take the risk and share, and my lover has had a long day and their attention lapsed as I shared with them. They didn’t understand why what I said was a big deal. They go too fast, or too slow. Or, my lover actually does something I envisioned. They say the thing I’ve longed to hear for years. But something didn’t work about it. It didn’t touch me the way I imagined it would. It failed to heal the pain, lift the burden of my self-deprecation.

Disappointed expectations often foster resentment, ingratitude, and blame. My heart is too filled up with beliefs about how life is supposed to be and feelings about why it’s not that way. There is no room for joy, or love, or gratitude.
These dreams and expectations run the risk of becoming a hostile form of entitled resentment. We feel angry that the world didn’t give us what we wanted or needed. We demand what we want and refuse to acknowledge that, once we are adults, no one is responsible for giving it to us. We rail against and resent people for things that can never be undone. We stomp on others and take what we need because we’ve suffered enough and fuck all those happy people.
The misalignment between expectation and reality often spurs us to change on or the other. Which we choose is not easily answered, and pain awaits in either direction. If my real, living parents consistently disappoint my expectations, I am in a muddle. I can try to change them, but the efforts are rarely effective and usually make my relationships worse. I could look for people to fill the idealized roles of Mother, Father, Parent, Caregiver and give me the nurturing, mentorship, tough love, or whatever it is that I feel my life is missing. Perhaps I’m lucky and find people to do that, or perhaps I experience a string of disappointments where yet another person seems to fail me.
In his poem, “Harlem,” Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” He continues with a series of questions, rather than answers. The dream deferred does not disappear or stay safely frozen in time, waiting for us to be ready for it. His images suggest the dream as something organic that can become stale, putrid, crusted-over, burdensome, and concludes with the suggestion of a dream being more like a land mine, in danger of an unexpected and catastrophic explosion.
That the poem is a series of questions suggests a lack of conclusion. The speaker of the poem does not yet seem to know, but perhaps contemplates their own deferred dreams, wondering—how long can this go on? How long will this dream be unmet?
For some, the most vivid and compelling dreams remain with us, becoming toxic until we finally realize the effort of resisting the dream outdoes the potential struggle and pain of moving toward the dream, embodying the dream, bringing the dream out of the ethereal realms of imagination, through the transforming and refining efforts of making it real.
At some point, whether we make the dream manifest or we accept it will never be, we stand at the threshold of grief. Here, the grief is our mourning that that reality is not what I thought it should be. My childhood dreams were impractical, or did not taste as sweet as I believed they would. The story I wrote is not like the one I imagined. The person I thought should never disappointment me finally does, and does in a big way, and yet I still love them.
There is a deep relationship between acceptance and grief. Grieving is the step most people want to skip on the path to acceptance and freedom. In grief and acceptance, I see that that what I am living right now is my life, and all my expectations and dreams of what should be are not my life. No matter how hard I work to set things up for success, to make my experience perfect, there will be variables beyond my control.
There is grief in growing up with family expectations one suddenly discovers are impossible to meet because you discover you’re queer or transgender, because you’re unable to bear children, because you don’t actually love or understand the career expectations laid out for you. There is grief in living with an abuser and coming to realize that there is no way you can get them to love you the way—somewhere deep in your heart—you truly believe they could.
We can get stuck in this grief, as much as we can get stuck in our efforts to avoid this realization. When I was younger, people called this stuckness “self-pity.” Perhaps they still do, but that expression seems to be less common. Calling it such may motivate some folks to let go and work through it, but for others it feels contemptuous and adds more shame and self-judgment on top of the stuck grief. This experience is the underside of that angry, self-righteous entitlement spoken of earlier. It is still anchored to that entitlement—a sense of unfairness, a sense that somehow, someone should make this right. There is still blame—self-blame, blaming parents, blaming society, blaming a deity.
What I want to speak of when I say “blame” is the emotional hook, not the act of assessing a situation and understanding why it happened and how peoples’ behaviors caused it. Blame feels heavy. It spurs up intense responses ranging from deep sadness to rage. It leaves us feeling powerless over ourselves. Blame says that the person on the other end of the blame to be different in some way, so I can be different. This is not acceptance.
Moving out of blame doesn’t require we say everything was okay. It doesn’t mean I say what abusers have done is totally fine. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t disappointed, or I don’t live under a system of injustice. It doesn’t necessarily make any of these things go away. What it does is unhook ourselves from these sources of suffering. We get our power back so we can think creatively about how we want to be in the world we have. 
To illustrate this in a concrete way: imagine having a parent who does not always act the way you think a parent should act. 
Let’s say you have this idea that Fathers are supposed to be inspiring, firm but kind, impeccable in their word, attentive, and interested in their children’s lives. Let’s say your father instead was somewhat meek, often traveled a lot and came home too exhausted to play, rarely stood up for you or himself. 
As you grow older, you may notice yourself having struggles—either being meek like him, or acting out ferociously when you feel disrespected, afraid of being in any way like him. You love him, but you feel embarrassed by him. You feel angry that he wasn’t more of a “man.” You think, “If only I had a real father, my life would be better.”
The relationship with this father would be complex in many ways. You might avoid him. You might confront him often, call him weak. You might hold him in quiet contempt. You might badger him to step up and be more “of a father.” At some point, this adherence to an idealized reality stops being useful. Certain things about your father are fixed, or he counters your efforts by withdrawing, fighting back, ignoring you. No matter what you both try, your relationship stays strained and distant. Eventually it becomes clear that it would be easier to mourn the father you never had, then figure out what kind of relationship you want with the one you do.
When you stop wanting or needing him to be different, suddenly different things become possible. It’s easier to be around him and appreciate the good things he does. When you see yourself acting like him, you have an easier time acknowledging this and figuring out if you want to act differently. Instead of wasting energy wishing your father would be different—something you cannot change—you can explore being the difference that you desire. Then you are free. You no longer need to blame your father for not being enough for you. You can begin to see the ways you can be enough for yourself, or find that enoughness through other relationships.
Grief immerses us in the pain of what we truly have no power over. Painful though this is, it is a healing bath that leaves us feeling lighter, cleaner with time. 
Moving through the grief and disillusionment, shedding the blame and entitlement, is also a sacrifice of the beliefs that inspired optimism and hope. Afterward we might feel lost or cynical, lacking the compass that oriented us in life so far. 
That optimism and hope, however, had become too rigid. It came from a place of externality, of imposition, of believing I am not okay because my life does not match these things. Moving through the mourning and the sense of emptiness, meaninglessness, is scary and painful. Eventually, however, we wake up to a deeper sense of our own values, a fresh way of being in the world. We see the dawning of a sense of hope that knows I can be okay and meaningfully engage in my life regardless of what happens.

 

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Finding the Growing Edge

Recently a friend shared an article that I loved from Ta-Nehisi Coates, “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things.” Coates discusses his experience of studying a foreign language, pushing through the despair, and experiencing moments of success while recognizing he will be back in struggle again:

There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.

His words on “giving myself an opportunity to get better at difficult things” particularly resonate. In many ways this blog post is largely agrees with him, so you might read that instead of this.

Some research on praising children suggests that giving too much praise discourages some kids from trying new, more challenging activities. Some of us learn there are certain tasks that easily garner praise and affirmation, while others feel more of a humiliating struggle, and focus instead on the tasks that are easier or already mastered.

I’ve experienced in my life—and talked with folks who have had similar experiences—internalizing an attitude that struggling is an intrinsic sign of failure. That either you’ve “got it”—an innate ability to do a thing—or you don’t, and if you don’t you should stop embarrassing yourself by trying.

An image of a small child at the bottom of an intimidating-looking flight of stairs.
Photo by Mikito Tateisi

This attitude sucks. It’s paralyzing, for one, and it causes people to think they are either “superior” or “inferior.” And while the “superior” folks may have some benefits in terms of entitlement and judgment, deep in their hearts they know they’re only a few public mistakes away from falling into the abyss of “inferiority.” It’s all a trap.

What I’ve come to learn is that the most rewarding and persistent experiences in my life have come from meeting and working through challenges. Defaulting only to what is easy or comes naturally means that my whole Being begins to warp.

When I was a kid, athleticism was my biggest weakness, but I was able to do the intellectual thing well. So I could cultivate a sharp mind in a body that wasn’t getting enough exercise or physical care. I’m fortunate that my father and friends around me continued to push me to find a physical activity that I could do for my health—though I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

When I experienced challenges later in life, I could look back to those early periods of feeling completely overwhelmed and powerless. Moments when I’d hiked ten miles and felt I was at my limit, but knew the only way out of the situation was to hike the remaining ten miles.

In the past year I’ve experienced success in parts of my life after a long period of struggle, and parts of me would like to simply bask in the success. But instead, someone pointed out that I was exhibiting some signs of physical discomfort and suggested I see a physical therapist. Both of these showed me imbalances in my body. I’d gotten good at working out the “big” muscles, but some of the rotator and less obvious coordinating muscles in my shoulders and legs were very weak. My body had learned to compensate with other muscles, and that compensation began creating painful conditions.

Seeing this therapist plunged me back into all my childhood experiences of discomfort, overwhelm, embarrassment, and the urge to avoid. And I kept going back, and doing the exercises, and discovered new capacities for strength and resilience. I began to learn why my body had done what it had done, and how that compensation affected other activities. Instead of feeling helpless to this condition, suddenly there was something I could do to make gradual improvements.

We all have different capacities and potentials, but we have room to grow what we want to grow. We build self-esteem by looking at the things we want to be able to do and giving ourselves permission to work toward it, even when there’s struggle.

It helps when we have an encouraging circle of friends and family and resources to get whatever training, coaching, or support. For some of us, that’s what we long to grow.

The challenge is less to become successful and a master; the challenge is to move through the upset and difficulty without force and self-criticism. The challenge is to not agree with the stories about limitations but to continue returning to the growing edge.

Spinning in the Wheel

In Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey, Sallie Nichols contemplated the tarot card The Wheel of Fortune in a way that has stayed with me for more than ten years. Nichols speaks of The Wheel as an image of human consciousness in various stages of evolution and Self-possession.

In the early stages of consciousness, we are at the edge of The Wheel. Our emotional reactions to life events “ride” us. We’re lifted high into the air and then slammed into the ground and run over. At the mercy of our emotions, we are even further at the mercy of life and the people around us who elicit the emotions. We cannot separate our awareness of self from the emotional reaction, we have no power, no choice in how we respond.

Nichols’s metaphor of spiritual growth is consciousness’s movement from edge to the center of the Wheel. In the center, we continue to spin, but the spinning is less violent. We are better able to watch the movements from a distance. We can watch ourselves spin around the Wheel but instead of lashing out or shutting down, we can try something different. In a sense, we see that we cannot control the Wheel of emotions and life circumstances but we can control how we engage with them.

Spiritual and contemplative practice help us to become more aware of this process. We see the cycle of emotion. We begin to see how we can take ownership of our emotional cycles, instead of blaming others for our feelings.

This is a spiritual growth that does not involve negating what is painful. It is a growth that teaches us how to move back into center when we find we’re at the edge of reactivity. Too many people have shame at having feelings at all, thinking that spiritual enlightenment means being an emotionless being that has transcended human vulnerability.

If that’s true, I’m not there yet. What my observation is, and what I have learned from the greatest Teachers of my life, is that spiritual growth means those emotions, passions, and reactions have more room to simply be themselves, to give their purest response, to alert me to their needs.

An image of of a fair-skinned person on a throne turning a crank. The crank appears to spin a wheel to which six fair-skinned people are attached. At the top of the wheel is a person with a crown holding two trophies. Moving clockwise, the people on the wheel appear to be falling over, one's crown falling off their head, and on the bottom of the wheel hangs a person looking distressed. Continuing clockwise, the two people moving upward appear to be becoming happier and more successful.
The Wheel of Fortune

I can feel the emotional reaction, watch myself going through the old cycles of blame and defensiveness, and all the while some part of me sits quietly in the center, knowing that it’s all bullshit. The emotion is valid, but the stories of blame often aren’t. Some part of me may say, very urgently, “They’ll be so mad at me!” and feel all the terror and guilt of disappointing someone else, and meanwhile in that still center there is that knowing. Perhaps it’s, “No, they won’t.” Or sometimes it’s even, “If they are, it is okay. They have a right to be angry.”

To shift the metaphor slightly, I see the trajectory of psychospiritual growth as both moving consciousness to the center of the wheel and, ideally, putting that centered consciousness in the driver’s seat. That entire sentence looks straightforward but getting there could take years of work, with growth and setbacks.

Some days, the best I can do is to be in my emotional reaction and conscious of the part of me that knows it will be okay. That part of me might be able to blunt my most toxic responses or impulsive decisions. Some days I lose it entirely and make hurtful mistakes, but with practice and self-compassion those instances grow further and further apart.

Even still there is a part of me that feels a “should,” that I “should” be able to move out of the painful experience into joyful enthusiasm. And some days I can. Other days, I need to practice the best I can with what I’ve got.

We Are All Capable of Evil

In a previous job, my primary work was with people who had been arrested, incarcerated, were on probation or Corrections supervision, or had accepted mental health and substance abuse counseling in lieu of other consequences.

As a case manager, my roles included supporting these folks in both getting the mental and emotional skills they needed to improve their lives and find better solutions to their problems, as well as helping them to find and apply for the resources they need to live a life within the bounds of law. It was my first job out of graduate school and I wasn’t great at it. Being a middle class person with a graduate degree didn’t help when I had no experience or expertise in navigating social service systems or surviving homelessness. Other clients were more adept, savvy, and familiar with the system that they knew where to apply and what to do.

As part of this work, I had a number of clients who were registered sex offenders. A few were in complete denial of their history and remained elusive to accountability, but others had done their time, followed their probation, engaged diligently in their mandated treatment and wanted to simply find a place where they could live and work and stay out of trouble. The highest level offenders were highly isolated, had few social and economic resources—even the folks who formerly made more money than I ever would struggled to find anywhere to live. Legally, the constraints were significant, and beyond that it was hard to find a landlord willing to rent a space. Forget about getting a job.

That’s an extreme example of the kind of problems my clients generally faced. Hopelessness was high, and in many cases the relative structure of incarceration seemed more tolerable than the freedom in which they received so little support.

I’ve reflected on this in the recent weeks since so many revelations of sexual harassment, assault, abuse, and coercion continue to surface in the media. I have this sense that in the larger culture, we don’t do accountability well. The dominant cultural pattern is to underrespond and overreact.

  • We underrespond: In so many of the stories coming to light, we hear the theme that the perpetrator’s abuse was an “open secret” for years. Colleagues and employees colluded. Friends and peers justified or minimized the abuse to the assaulted people. So many victims of childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault find their stories doubted or disbelieved because the perpetrator was respected in community, a friend and colleague, or else the perpetrator was so powerful and threatening that pushing back seemed worse than tolerating the abuse.
  • We overreact: Through some mysterious confluence of events, someone is believed and then all the stories come out. Or stories that have been out for years suddenly get taken seriously. That’s not the problem. The problem is that suddenly the perpetrator went from misunderstood person to complete evil demon who is a piece of shit. People, often seemingly male, make loud public declarations that “If anyone I knew did that to a friend of mine, I’d kill them,” without apparently contemplating the possibility that someone they know has done it, and it may well have been their best friend, their sibling, their religious leader. Or they may well have themself violated someone’s boundaries and consent at some point in life.

There are definitely exceptions, individuals and groups that are doing the work to protect each other while identifying and managing sources of harm. In the larger culture, however, the criminal bears the symbolic weight of the community’s evils, even after they’ve experienced the consequences of their behavior.

Image of a brown owl. A human hand is grabbing the owl from below.
Photo by Zachary Bedroisan

I think this tendency extends into communities where certain behavior and ideas are not legally criminalized but socially proscribed. When an accusation finally gets taken seriously, what follows could be the accused engaging in ritual confession and then seeking “treatment,” which typically is a way of avoiding accountability by reframing the problem as a personal struggle. When that is not possible, or the accused is not savvy or avoidant enough, they may instead be cast out.

What’s hard to do is engender effective consequences and accountability processes that keep the community together and recognize the personhood of victim and perpetrator. This is even harder to do when trying to interrupt patterns of abuse and harm before they escalate to tragedy and trauma.

There is no issue with prioritizing community safety, self-defense, and freedom of association. When someone is causing harm, the first task is to stop the harm, and then repair it. The wellbeing of those harmed comes before the comfort and success of those causing the harm. For those who use their positions of power to abuse and harass, I see the loss of that power and influence as a form of harm reduction. Rather than “ending their careers” it could be more like reducing the power they have to something safer for others.

What I take issue with is how collective outrage seems to allow the rest of us to ignore our own evil tendencies in a way to make us feel somehow safer. The sex offender we recognize—publicly known in community—is less of a threat than the one we don’t yet know about. The one who’s in our community. The one we like. The one “no one would expect” but sometimes people wonder about, quietly to each other.

When I say “evil tendencies” I don’t mean that all of us are going to directly commit violence in the course of our lives. But I suspect more of us than we want to acknowledge have either committed, contemplated, or colluded with some act, ideology, or bias we otherwise find morally repugnant.

Those of us who speak the loudest about others’ evil, who call for the greatest and most merciless violence against the people who they think embody evil—I don’t trust those people. No matter which ideology they espouse, which political party they vote for, whether they wrap it up in social justice language or speak with religious rhetoric. To me they’re as suspect as all of us who minimize evil, justify it, make excuses for it.

I’ve caused harm in my life, and I’ve suffered harm. I’ve taken the drug of self-righteousness and fueled vitriol against others. I’ve been silent when speaking could have aided others. I’ve failed to recognize what was happening and act when I could. People have confronted me with my harm and I’ve responded defensively, and sometimes I’ve responded with listening and accepted accountability.

When I consider that we’re all capable of evil, then I come to feel we need to confront each other with a compassionate heart. I want to offer good faith opportunities to the other person to hear the harm they’ve caused and give them an opportunity to redress. I also need to be ready for the other person not to show up in good faith, and know how I will protect myself and my community. I want to listen to my trust and mistrust alike, but seek with that synthesizing virtue named by Erik Eriksson, hope.

Are You Tired?

Are you tired?

It seems like everyone I know feels worn out and discouraged in some parts of their lives, though they may have other places where they feel enlivened and invigorated. Mostly what wears us out is the piece where we have to work together.

So often in organizations I hear people feeling resentful, drained, and burned out by meetings and efforts to move forward. Even when everyone nominally seems to want the same thing, the process of moving toward that thing is rife with conflict, doubts, betrayal, mistrust, ass-covering, politics, manipulation. We want this, but I don’t trust the way you want it.

We as humans inhabit a strange confluence of drives and desires that cause us to need each other while simultaneously resisting being absorbed in group consciousness. When we feel safe, we become more liberal, and when we feel vulnerable, we become more conservative. This world gives us ample opportunities to feel both scared and safe, and somehow to forget when we feel one how it feels to be in the other state.

Are you tired?

In groups there is also often a tension between leadership and membership. Those of us who are not actively leading, manifesting, creating have the best vantage to see how those leaders/creators/manifesters are screwing up, making mistakes, causing problems as much as they are generating new opportunities and structures. Sometimes, when our needs are being met, we can be at peace with this conflict and focus on what is good and working. Other times, when our needs are unmet, we focus on what’s going poorly and ponder strategies to get our leaders to meet our goals.

Are you tired?

So often I find anxiety comes with the unwillingness to be with. This may not be causal but co-arising. When I feel most anxious, I am afraid to hear what someone is about to say. I see the email sitting in my inbox but some part of me doesn’t want to know what it says. That anxious part of me seems to think that if I can simply not read the email then I can avoid the reality in which whatever the email says exists. Even when my rational brain knows that the email is already written and the person who wrote it already lives in the reality that’s happening—the reality where the email exists.

This creates tension. The tension of knowing my mind is not living in reality. The tension of attempting to navigate this Existential conflict between what I want to be true and what I know to be true—and the fear of having to face the unknown to enter reality. At some point I will need to risk reading the email and learning what’s there. Once it’s accomplished, I feel a sense of relief. I can finally respond to reality—although parts of me might ratchet it up a notch, respond with anger or denial and continue protecting the reality I want from the reality that is.

Are you tired?

What truths have you been avoiding? What experiences in your body do you find undesirable? What realities have you been trying not to accept? What grief have you been postponing?

What if turning toward and being with these things could offer you true ease? Not a comfortable ease, but the ease of no longer trying to control a world beyond your control. Not a reassuring ease, but the ease of finding what is actually within your power, what is meaningful to you, and finally investing yourself in that.

A woman in a white dress floating on her back in water.
Photo by Ryan Moreno

Voices on Boundaries and Compassion

My intention is to generally write weekly posts, but it’s also important for me to take in and learn from others. This post offers some links to articles from white women and people of color that I think help unpack and begin to work through the destructive, soul-killing effects of patriarchy and white supremacy. Please look through these and, if they speak to you, consider supporting the writers in whatever way you can.

“What I Don’t Tell My Students About ‘The Husband Stitch'” – Jane Dykema

An essay by a writer and instructor about “who we believe and why.” Particular focus on how language, memory, and emotions, and the ways certain patriarchal norms make it harder to hear, understand, and believe women’s stories of abuse.

“#ExpressiveWriting Prompts to Use If You’ve Been Accused of #WhiteFragility #SpiritualBypass or #WhitePrivilege” – Leesa Renee Hall

Writing exercises to help white people in particular reflect upon our racial identity formation and how it informs the way we relate to the suffering of people of color. Includes an overview of reactions to someone else’s pain and responding as a white person to being called out.

 

“Setting boundaries as a white ally: Why its important, why its challenging and how to do it ethically” – Tada Hozumi

Tada Hozumi offers useful guides to emotional self-management and boundary setting for white people engaged in activism, so that we do not burden people of color with our needs for emotional care.

“How to Set Boundaries with Your Abuser in Mind” – Kellie Jo Holly

This is an excellent primer on boundary-setting in general, with a particular focus on boundary-setting in abusive relationships.

You Matter

One day, during meditation practice, I noticed how much I kept moving out of the practice into fantasies or arguments playing on the movie screen of my brain. When I returned to my breath and presence, I had an unexpected thought.

Ugh, now I’m stuck in here with myself.

That errant thought was a thread attached to a long pattern of ways I’d related to myself and my life for years. All the forms of escapism, fantasy, all the difficulties with investing in myself and taking responsibility for my life. All ways parts of me tried to do anything but be stuck “in here.” Like it was middle school and my consciousness got stuck at the uncool table.

The more I sat with that, the more I saw how allowing that distaste to run me contributed to my unhappiness. If I did not particularly like myself or want to be around myself then I was limited in my ability to develop myself. I was too busy envying other people and putting down my wants and needs. I was unable to see the gifts that I brought. I was unable to savor all the ways that my life was already giving me the things I desired.

Feelings of unworthiness, self-hatred, beliefs that I don’t matter—these are some of the most pernicious and hard to unroot weeds in the garden of the Self. They take up space, they choke down the things we want to grow, they come back again and again. For so many, they are so ingrained in a sense of identity that we think they’re “reality,” just facts, confirmed over and over.

Others work themselves to death trying to prove these beliefs are untrue, which is another kind of trap, as trying to disprove something is also a way of giving it credence. “I have to get this person to love me so I can prove I matter.” This implicitly agrees that I don’t matter now.

Three figures in silhouette standing on a peak, looking outward at a star-filled night sky.
“Lost in a sky full of stars,” photo by Benjamin Davies

This doesn’t mean the effort is pointless. So many people grow up in cultures and circumstances that tell them, over and over again, that they don’t matter, such that building that inner certainty of worthiness is incredibly hard. Standing up for ourselves and making the effort to build whatever efficacy, power, and network of supportive relationships we need is all part of the work.

We all have our own journeys to becoming ourselves. For me, what that unexpected thought during meditation started was a process of realizing I needed to start taking interest in myself. I needed to begin to act like I mattered. I needed to recognize that, very literally, I matter. I am material, I take up space and resources, my very existence impacts the people around me, regardless of what my mind or people and systems in my life might say.

To believe I didn’t matter, then, was both self-destructive and an abdication of my responsibility to be in this world. I did a great many hurtful things to people believing I didn’t matter. I didn’t speak up when my voice would have helped. I didn’t reach out to people who cared about me. I didn’t develop my capacities to help, serve, and bring more joy into the world. My mind said I was doing it for others, but others did not want that of me. They wanted me to see I did matter.

My feelings matter. My wants and needs matter. Even when I don’t like them. Even when my mind, or advertising, or oppressive ideologies, or politicians, or spiritually bypassing religious teachers seem to tell me they don’t. Parts of me still don’t fully believe this, but the more I decide to act as if they matter, and take an interest in the Being I have and not what I think I’m supposed to have, the better life seems to go.

You matter, too.

Cover Your Feet, Find Freedom

Common sense says that when a person gets defensive it’s because they’re guilty. But I would suggest there is nuance here when people have grown over a lifetime to feel guilty or ashamed of themselves. People who grow up in certain cultures repeatedly receive the message that they are internally defective, untrustworthy, or wrong and need to “get right” through rigid perfectionism or ongoing displays of guilt and shame. Even when we get out of those families, religions, or other communities, that habit of reacting to any implication of guilt and shame persists.

Discussions about the “isms” are rife with defensiveness and hostility. Cisgender people who experience “cis” or “TERF” as a slur. White people who feel appalled, hurt, and disgusted at being called “racist.” Men who experience being told their behavior is “sexist” as “a disgusting insult.” Here I am focusing on these folks, recognizing that many white cisgender men (of which I am one) feel dogpiled, attacked, that somehow it’s okay to hate on privileged people but they’re not allowed to point out when others are acting with disrespect.

What I’m trying to name, before we even go into that, is that most of us in these conversations are reacting to our own feelings of guilt and shame when we hear these things. We think the person is calling us something awful because their words bring up uncomfortable feelings, and we defend against it like we do many other experiences of shame and guilt. We lose center and the possibility for a real, honest conversation in which there is mutual healing and growth.

Certainly anyone can be an asshole regardless of gender, sex, ethnicity, level of ability, class, etc. And it is certain that these reactions happen in all kinds of conversations, even the most seemingly innocuous ones. In our intimate partnerships, a simple disagreement over folding laundry might bring up these feelings. Sometimes it is necessary to step back and care for ourselves. Developing discernment about when to engage, when to step back, is a process that begins by looking at ourselves.

“Where would I find enough leather
To cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with leather soles beneath my feet,
It’s as if the whole world has been covered.”

― Śāntideva

One way I think of this is that two things happen from the inner and outer world. From the outer world we hear something like, “I’m pissed at you about what you said.” Or “You seem to listen to other men and belittle women.” Or “Black lives matter.” In the inner world, we “hear” more messages that come from our early wounding, like, “You’re terrible and hurt people you love.” Or “You’re worthless and don’t matter.” Though these are “you” statements, they come from within. They are actually “I” statements, my secret fears about myself. And they are all lies with just enough truth to be highly persuasive.

We could spend our lives trying to get people to stop saying things that bring up these painful inner experiences, which is akin to the solution of trying to cover the entire earth with leather. We could also begin to name, defuse from, and heal those inner wounds, which would be to cover our own feet with leather.

It is worthwhile to start small and engage in contemplation. This does not have to be a politically-related conversation but rather any kind of confrontation that left you feeling confused, hurt, or distanced from someone. Journaling is useful, as it helps to get the thoughts out of our head and so we can look at them with greater objectivity. Talking to someone who will simply listen and reflect what they’re hearing is also useful.

  • Think on these questions first—What happened? What was said? What did the other person say and do? What did you say and do?
  • What was your experience? What feelings, memories, imaginations arose? What in particular troubled you?
  • Taking the most troubling part of the interaction, engage in a process of contemplation. Follow the thread of meaning deeper. For example, “What did it mean to me when this person said [X]?” “What does it mean to me that I felt this way?” “What does it mean to me that I believe this?”
  • Review this material and see if a pattern emerges, a theme, a scary/upsetting/angering story about yourself or your relationships with other people.
  • Set an intention to watch how this story plays out over the course of the next two weeks. Whenever you notice that story arising, pause to take a breath, and perhaps journal about it later. Notice how often it comes up, in what circumstances, whether it is fairly constant or limited to certain situations. Also notice when things occur that seem to contradict the story, or times when you might respond.

At this point, we’ve gone far afield of the kind of political arguments with which I framed this, and that’s the point. This is a practice to help you come to greater self-awareness and freedom with your own patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Rather than taking them for granted as unfailingly accurate interactions with the world, they are material for study and growth as you grow deeper in your understanding of the truth of yourself and your relationships. When we do this, the harder and more nuanced discussions go better.

We are all figuring this out. Life, politics, cultural shifts, new technologies, economic transitions. The stakes are high and yet we’re all stumbling around in the dark with only our experiences and understandings of history to guide us. The more free I am with my guilt and shame, the better able I am to hear and respond to these difficult moments. I can sit with a confrontation and take in the information that is useful and discard what is not. I can withdraw from interactions that have become unproductive and focus my energy on what is life-affirming.

Image of a pair of legs standing at the edge of what appears to be a snow-covered pier. The legs are wearing denim and leather boots.
Photo by Ian Robinson