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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Say Shit to Your Therapists

Since becoming a mental health counselor, I’ve had a number of conversations with people who aren’t my clients that vary around a particular theme. “I like my therapist, but …”

The “but” is often that the therapist is missing something important that’s going on for the client. “I realize I bullshit them for a whole hour.” “We talk about what’s going well but not [significant problem].”

In these conversations, I have hesitantly wondered whether they’ve discussed this with their therapist. I’m hesitant because the question seems so obvious as to be offensive, and I’m not wishing to come across as blaming the client. But I do find that, often, the answer is no.

The “no” is for many reasons, all of which are perfectly valid, and most of which are getting in the way of therapeutic progress. There is a power differential—the therapist is supposed to be the one who sees clearly, the one who knows what’s going on. A client may feel sheepish about correcting or challenging their therapists (not all, believe me, but it happens). A client may feel scared of what could happen, if the therapist will respond well or respond in a damaging way.

Often these inhibitions resemble our relationships with other authorities, or with our parents. It’s vulnerable to challenge an authority figure directly—far easier to go to a friend or acquaintance and complain.

A client may also be unfamiliar with how the psychotherapeutic conversation differs from an everyday conversation. They want to spare their clinicians’ feelings. They may want their therapist’s approval and respect, and feel reluctant to expose vulnerable or complicated emotions. They may not trust their therapists.

Another possibility is that the client, and perhaps the client and therapist both, are hesitant to broach a potentially explosive topic. Perhaps both sense intuitively that more time and trust building is needed before opening up these difficult experiences. Perhaps one, the other, or both are simply avoiding the topic. Perhaps one, the other, or both simply can’t see the topic.

A particular acquaintance of mine reflected that often after therapy they would realize they “bullshitted” their therapist for the full hour and felt concerned that the therapist didn’t notice. My question was, “When do you recognize that you’re bullshitting your therapist? How long will you let yourself continue to do so?”

Photo of a white male in a leather seat, sitting with one hand clutching his forehead.
This one can’t believe how much his therapist is screwing up. Photo by Nik Shuliahin.

Occasionally we hear of stories of that perfect therapeutic moment, where one’s therapist sees clearly and put words to something the client didn’t even know they felt until it was named. Those moments are really special, and I bet that same therapist has a good amount of hours under their belt where they missed the mark—possibly even with that same client.

Many of these patterns are our defensive social patterns playing out in the therapeutic room. They are the behaviors that keep our pain and struggles locked in place. We deeply want to be seen, and we deeply fear being seen. The therapeutic relationship is the perfect opportunity to try something different.

Say shit to your therapistsWhen you realize you’re avoiding, bullshitting, not talking about something important. Bring it up. Bring up the fact that there’s something to bring up and you’re afraid to bring it up. Whatever you feel able to do. It’s vulnerable, and there’s a risk, so be gentle with yourself. Your therapist ideally is creating with you a relationship that is safe enough for you to step out of your comfort zone. They can’t force you out of it.

These kinds of issues and conflicts are important, and having a conversation about it can help you and your therapist break through into a deeper and more effective working relationship.

Or you might discover that your therapist isn’t the right fit for you—they respond poorly, or they continue to engage in avoidance or denial. Then you might consider saying something like, “I’m going to find a better fit.”

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Committing Through Doubt

One of my growing edges this year has been practicing a martial art. One of the important practices, as I understand it, is learning to do backward and forward rolls with confidence and consistency, so that one may more easily practice the techniques with their partners.

Amidst the difficulties I’ve had learning the practice, I’ve watched more experienced students be thrown with apparent grace, rolling across the floor and standing up as though nothing particularly serious had happened. I decided my goal was to get to that point. In a conversation, I recently made an offhand observation that I realized went deeper than I thought: “I think I would be more courageous if falling wasn’t so scary.”

The basic techniques of the rolls is its own challenge—figuring out how to make my body do what they are teaching me to do, getting my muscles to consistently respond in ways that soften my fall and protect me from jarring, painful collapses.

What makes the learning harder is my moments of doubt. When about to fall or roll, something in me wants all the action to stop. My anxiety instinctively moves toward freeze. My mind wants to fully assess the situation and decide the correct response. It’s almost like that self-doubt is saying, “Are you SURE you’re going to get through this? Better not do anything until you’re SURE.”

That self-doubt wants to get a teacher and ask them to walk me through it again. It wants me to ask everyone to go easy on me, so I can get more practice before I really do it.

A person in a pink bathing suit jumping from a dock into the water.
“Jumping Off the Dock,” photo by Erik Dungan

Recently I read through Steven Hayes’s Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, where he speaks of acceptance, daring, and commitment. He speaks to how “trying” to accept a painful reality is a half-measure that does not work. I can’t “try” to accept my sadness, because some part of me is hedging for safety, seeking an out if things get too hard. Similarly, I can’t “try” to jump off a diving board. I am either launching myself into the air or standing still. At worst, “trying” to jump off a diving board means I am more awkwardly slipping off.

What Hayes suggests is a full commitment to action. You can set limits—“I will accept my sadness for five minutes.” But you can’t accept your sadness in a conditional way. “I’ll accept my sadness unless I feel too sad.” The metaphor of jumping off a diving board is not incidental—acceptance is an act of daring that brings up anxiety.

The anxiety worries because it does not know what will happen when I accept. It fears something awful will happen, and wants to control every step of the way. Which comes back to trial. Though it feels more controlled, it is ultimately less effective and sometimes more dangerous than simply jumping.

That dance between down, trial, and commitment play out in my falling. When practicing with a partner who’s about to throw me, that moment of self-doubt is dangerous. It pulls me out of the moment and into my mind—but my mind’s not going to execute the fall. The throw happens too quickly for my mind to do anything but freak out and sprawl. 

For the past few months, my efforts at forward rolls have been clumsy and awkward. I’d be about to go for it then feel stopped by that moment of self-doubt. When I tried anyway, I would suffer for my lack of commitment midway through the roll. Since I didn’t launch myself with the energy and speed I needed, I would collapse on one of my shoulders or thump my low back. 

After reading Hayes’s work, I realized I needed to commit. So the next time I attempted the forward roll I bent down, noticed that moment of self-doubt, and decided to do it anyway. I put all the force and energy I could into the movement, and within seconds I felt myself smoothly flipping over my arms and rolling off my back to my feet. It was amazing. Then I tried again, and it was amazing again.

The third time, of course, I was starting to analyze what just happened, figure out what worked so I could replicate it consistently. Being back in that mental space of anxiety and control, my falls began to suffer and I had some back-thumping moments. I need more practice with this commitment, this daring.

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Unweaving the Mind

The mind is skilled at building a latticework of ideology and worldview, something sturdy enough to help us move through the world but ideally flexible enough to help us adapt to changing circumstances. Unfortunately, when we become identified with that latticework—when we think the ideas are the reality—we lose that flexibility. 

Worse, we root down into that certainty and argue things we certainly do not know and could not prove. Some of us are better than this, able to spin convincing-sounding rationalizations so quickly that you can’t see the seams showing. The mind generates worldviews off of our subjective experiences and the bits of information and ideas that come to us, and those worldviews form a prophylactic that keep out information and ideas that might threaten the worldview.

There is so much the mind thinks it knows that it does not. So much effort that goes into preparing for things that never happen.

Anxiety, I think, demonstrates the dangers of a mind that becomes too rigid and too enamored of its own certainty. For people whose anxiety is of a mental, ruminative nature—constant worry, thinking the same things over and over again, preparing for the worst—these ideas become a cage rather than a ladder. In my darkest days of anxiety, I might be unable to sleep for an entire night, playing over and over again the conversations I expected to have the next days—usually confrontational conversations, sometimes angry, sometimes being called upon to “prove myself” in some way. In my imagined conversations, I thought of all the ways I could be defeated, all the ways I could defend and overcome. I thought of all the dangers and secret desires to show my self-righteousness.

Not a single one of those conversations has ever transpired. Not because I was cowardly—though, at times, I was—but because I was making all that shit up in my head. Every conflict was internal, between parts of me that I dressed up with real peoples’ faces. When I met with the living people, they had their own subjective worlds. They weren’t upset about the things I worried they were upset by. They didn’t say the lines I’d planned for them. The times I did manage to break out a well-rehearsed comeback, it came out particularly clunky and confusing, inappropriate for the actual conversation that was happening.

The difficulties I experience in life are very rarely the ones I plan for. In part because that planning gave me enough preparation to weather the expected difficulties. But merely worrying about a feared event has never done much good. When I find myself worrying now, I try to watch it for a bit, figure out what practical steps I can take to address the worry, and then do them.

What is hard is how worrying and planning for feared outcomes gets in the way of life as it’s actually happening. Sometimes I need to get out the door to get to work on time, and sometimes I can stop for two minutes to ground and actually talk to my loved ones.

When I worry about what traffic will be, I am no longer in the situation. I’m not even accomplishing anything useful. My mind has no access to traffic data, it can only cycle through expectations and memories and create scenarios. If I want to know what the traffic situation is, it would be better to listen to the traffic report. Or simply go ahead and experience the traffic as it is—knowing about it won’t change it, necessarily, though it may help me to adapt my plans in a way that works more easily.

It takes practice to relax the controlling, fearful nature of mind and sink into my experience of reality. The more I practice, the more I find that even the unexpected surprises and chaos of reality is easier to endure than my mind feared. Serenity becomes possible—meeting life as it is with a calm, witnessing presence.

Image of a person with a warm smile, surrounded by sparks.
Photo by Xan Griffin

 

Note: Starting in December, I will be shifting my blog schedule to twice-monthly postings, every second and fourth Tuesday. I am still thinking through what this will look like, but my thought is to post one short article per month and then something that is either a longer article or guided meditation. I am also contemplating starting something like a Patreon that would give participants access to these works ahead of the publication schedule. 

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.

loving what limits

So many popular strains of spiritual healing and coaching, frequently referencing popular spiritual modes like The Secret, are revamped and de-Christianized forms of Evangelical prosperity teachings that wealth and success go to the spiritually adept, and those who experience pain or suffering in this world have manifested it through their own failings. Like many popularized teachings, I think there were one or two profoundly insightful truths that at some point got blended up and watered down to be accessible (and marketable) to a wide audience.

Nearly every religion and spiritual system has something in it that we can use to try to avoid, minimize, or rationalize our suffering, just as most or all of them also have teachings that we could use to deepen, strengthen, and bring more resolve to times of difficulty. Even in the same church or coven you might hear one person saying a chronic illness is a sign of poor practice and another saying this is the time when one most needs their practice.

United States culture is not particularly friendly to limitations, restrictions, restraints. Like the capitalist system we tout, success to us looks like a continuous upward path of constant growth. When we experience contractions and constrictions, we respond as though these are crises engendered by some bad actor and not something inevitable when living in mortal bodies in a finite planet.

Image of a green snake curled up upon a thin branch in a forest.
Photo by Chris Barton

We’re not here to grow upward and outward indefinitely. Sometimes we must move downward and inward. Sometimes we must experience those unpleasant, messy, painful feelings to discover the next path of growth. Contraction, grief, anger, resentment—none of these have to be anybody’s “fault”, but they can very well point out larger causes of suffering that need to be addressed for future health. Like pollution of our lands and water sources. Like cultures of sexual coercion and entitlement that elevate a narrow range of human experience and demean the rest.

Or, more personally, those experiences of grief, pain, and anger that have secretly ruled us for years, things which we’ve taught ourselves not to look at too closely. Those sources of envy and jealousy that show us our secret insecurities, the things we long to achieve but are too afraid to risk trying for.

Few people are excited to face unpleasant, toxic truths about ourselves and the cultures in which we live. Naming our poisons helps us to discover the antidotes. These “dark” emotions are connected to our deep needs, needs we have yet to know well enough to meet. These needs are not the face they wear—my envy won’t be satisfied by my neighbor being less, but rather by me becoming the more that I am afraid to be.

Sitting in meditation, some days I find myself lost in thoughts not matter how much I practice. Other days, when I sit I feel pain and discomfort in my body. The pain roots me in the moment, it calls me back to presence. Parts of me despise it, but this limitation is no longer allowing me to move through life like an automaton.

This does not mean I simply endure it, believing this suffering is warranted and I should just suck it up and not complain. This pain is something to work with, to learn about, to discover where it leads for healing. This pain is a wakening.