Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Easy Way Out, Over, Under, Around

Roundabout or straight through?
As a noun, a bypass is a road that passes around, rather than through, a city. You can also receive a coronary bypass, wherein a vein or an artery from elsewhere in your body is grafted to your heart to create an open channel for blood flow when one of your coronary arteries becomes blocked. As a verb, to bypass describes personal behavioral decisions: go past or around, avoid, evade, dodge, escape, elude, sidestep, shortcut. Choosing to circumnavigate something rather than go straight through the center of it can be pragmatic (i.e. The Fire Swamp with its quick sand and R.O.U.S.). It can also indicate fearful avoidance. Are you being intelligent or cowardly? Thoughtful or weak? What motivation lies beneath your course of action?

There are places we may never want to go, towns to which we may never want to return. We would drive 100 miles out of our way to avoid catching so much as a glimpse of the skyline. No matter how far, deep and wild our travels may be, these places follow us like specters, lurking just outside our consciousness waiting to visit us in sensitive triggers and haunted dreams. Our fear, trauma, anger and sadness have fiery homes in our bodies and minds, and as long as we build bypasses around them they remain in residence, smoldering and dictating our direction.

Bypasses look different for everyone. You'll know you're engaging in bypassing when you reach a difficult point where you cannot go any further without being truly vulnerable and veer sharply to the left. What comes after varies based on what your poison is and what you're avoiding by its usage. Sometimes these behaviors are called "coping mechanisms" or "self-medicating." When we hit the wall and retract from the challenge it presents, it is these tried-and-true methods we use to come back into our familiar equilibrium and feel good again.

Being vulnerable would allow us to ask the illuminating and therefore possibly frightening question, "Why?" Why am I doing this? Why am I so afraid? Why am I so angry? The right questions are an upsetting force to our equilibrium. They shift our perception of reality and allow us to see what clouds the lens with which we view the world. Sometimes we already know the answers to these questions without having to ask, which can make our challenges all the more formidable. We know exactly what we're avoiding and are sure that confronting it directly will crush us under its punishing weight. No one particularly enjoys discomfort, thus our creative tactics and tools for maintaining a sense of the rightness of things, even if it is illusory. Let's examine some of these facilitators of bypassing...

Spirituality
A couple of years ago my friend was kicked out of a hippie house for being too negative. In reality, she was going through an intensely difficult time and was being honest about her process. If she was having a bad day, she wouldn't pretend otherwise. In hippie-speak, she was being authentic. However, her housemates saw their own darkness mirrored in her and found this far too confrontational. So she was asked to leave and ended up moving into a grunge house where she was accused of being too sunny and positive, but was loved and accepted anyway.

Spirituality is a tricky one because it usually looks healthy. If you're having a bad day, you throw on some uplifting worship music or take a yoga class. How is that a bad thing? Well, it's not unless these activities are band aids which get you out of asking the difficult but right questions. When bad days amass into a few bad months and you continue to feel the tidal pull of negative patterns, maybe it's time to examine the Why behind it all. This requires us to sit still in and learn from the "bad" feelings. If it supports this process, we should absolutely keep meditating, praying, reading scripture, going to temple, chanting or whatever else you like, but without fearless, stringently honest self-inquiry, none of it will assist in meaningful, long term change.

Spiritual practices can be a means of self-inquiry, but can also be used to achieve feel good feelings that are as temporary as the effects of any drug. It will leave you a mile wide and an inch deep- all smooth, glittering surface and lack of space to hold anything substantive. Learning to go deep gives us the gift of wisdom imbued by our heartaches and traumas, a gift which is only available if we look for it while grieving what happened. What we bring on to the mat, into church, up in our conversations with God is not meant to just be the parts of us that are neatly shined and pretty. We offer up everything, extending an open invitation into our light as well as our darkness. This is how we come to live as wholly whole, integrated human beings; we allow for the fullness of our experience, even if it makes us, or others, uncomfortable.

Busyness
Workaholics are particularly good at this and like spirituality, work is usually seen as healthy and normal, so no one will look down on you for working hard. It's a highly prized virtue. It may be an even better tool than spirituality because while that may be seen as frivolous, work is not. Depending on the work, it can be a wonderful way to improve our world, provide for our families and grow ourselves. It can also be a way to avoid ourselves and our families. You simply don't have the time to tend to your relationships or your inner work. You are just that busy.

This is productive escapism. You may be getting something done, but it's not the something that needs to be addressed. There are many types of work, each possessing its own value. Being home with and raising children is just as valuable as going out in the world to earn a paycheck. The work we do internally provides for us in a way a paycheck cannot. Learning who we are and what we need enables us to make choices that better support our long term health and happiness. Successful businesses are built on strong foundations, and successful lives are no different. If our personal lives and our insides are a mess, we cannot hope to maintain a healthy professional life. There is a cost to ignoring self-care and introspection that will be paid out in all the areas of our lives if we ignore this vital work.

Noise, Drama and Chaos
Have you ever known someone who could not stop talking? It doesn't even seem to matter what they are saying, they will talk about anything to avoid the quiet that allows their thoughts room to speak. Inviting or creating trouble in our lives is a sneaky way to bypass our important inner work. If we make messes outside of ourselves, or focus on other people's messes, then there's no time to look within. (Focusing on other people and their needs to our own detriment can also be a symptom of codependency.)

This is a much less productive version of Busyness that looks a lot like self-sabotage. Just when everything is peaceful, or you are right on the verge of greatness, BAM! You create or invite some obstacle in to block your way. To deflect responsibility, lovers of chaos and drama paint themselves as victims and offer up excuses. "I could've done that but this thing happened to me and there's nothing I could do about it." Sometimes things do happen that are out of our control, but if we respond well to the setback and keep moving, our progress will not be stalled.

Those who do not honestly wish to progress are ever on the lookout for moments or people who will upset the quiet. Peace and quiet are the enemy when one has something to avoid, for it is in peaceful, quiet spaces that our avoidances become all the more evident. So we talk and talk and talk and get too drunk and miss work and get fired and date inappropriate people and get in fights and invest in other people's problems, all in the quest to never look honestly at our own. This cycle will continue forever, unbroken by the advancement of age or passage of time, unless one becomes self-aware enough to see it. It requires that we give up the cheap attention we receive while in distress in favor of striving for the more meaningful, positive attention born of real achievement. It's much harder work, but we will have created something lasting with our efforts rather than just making a bunch of noise.

Romantic Relationships
There's nothing quite so intoxicating and enveloping as oxytocin surging through your veins as you fall in love. Perpetually being in or seeking out love and coupledom is a brilliant way to bypass learning several essential life skills, such as the abilities to be comfortably alone, to self-soothe and to self-approve. These are not easy skills to learn, though. The silence of aloneness is deafening to some, especially if you have something you're avoiding by being with someone else. Sometimes there is suffering in aloneness, and as vulnerable as it is to love another, there can be a distinct, sharp vulnerability to being alone. Being in partnership has much to teach, but aloneness is a space where you do work that cannot be done in the presence of a lover.

If you are unhappy alone, you will remain unhappy in partnership. Your partner won't really change you. They will show you where you need to change and it's up to you to choose that for yourself. I, for one, would not want to be in a relationship for the purpose of filling my own or someone else's basic emotional needs. Of course we provide emotional support to one another in all kinds of relationships, but I want to know that my partner can stand on their own, as well. It puts tremendous stress on a relationship when one or both parties are relying on the other to provide them with their sense of self and stability. It is also unreliable, unsustainable, and ultimately, avoidant.

The inability to be happily, confidently alone can be crippling to ones freedom. It keeps people in relationships that are unhealthy and have long surpassed any usefulness. We must be able to do for ourselves so that our loved ones are not burdened with doing for us every day, lest we fall apart. The ability to function with emotional independence grants us unlimited movement and space. We can be anywhere and be fine because we have a solid base within. But first comes the honest answer to the Big Question: What am I avoiding by avoiding being alone?

Drugs and Drink
People can be unusually forthright about their vices, especially alcohol. Reliance on substances to moderate our emotional life has been normalized to the point where it's completely acceptable to be dependent, so long as its not perceived this way. Addiction is a sort of love that dare not speak its name. I have watched countless family and friend groups dance delicately around the truth of their loved one's addiction, laughing hollowly and nervously when they've had too much, suggesting with a forced joviality that maybe they should cut back. No one wants to talk openly about what's really there.

There is great wisdom in the ancient Greek aphorism "Know Thyself." Honest self-knowledge and the exorcism of personal demons has the potential to pull addiction up from the roots. It is the inability to be honest with self and others that ushers us down the path of addiction. If we could boldly identify and examine that which haunts us, the need for the substance would diminish as the wound was healed and its power faded. With the right tools and support, there is a way out of anything.

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You will not feel the heat of the fire from 100 miles away. We fear the lick of the flames of our pain and anger, but if we continually bypass it and keep it at a distance, it will rage unchecked and burn us alive from the inside out. We are oftentimes not the only victims- our loved ones and our relationships suffer, as well.

We are meant to walk towards the light of these fires. Looking at them directly may sting, but it will illuminate all that we fear, all the ways in which we are wounded and limited. This process can be grueling and painful. We may be burned, but it will be a deliberate, controlled burning up and burning out of everything inside that hurts. And in the end we rise from this crucible as the phoenix- renewed, transformed and freer than ever before.

Freedom. This is the ultimate gift of bypassing the bypass, of getting to the heart of the matter. We can never be free if shackled by the fear of our own darkness. There is a way out, and it is almost never easy or around. The way around may cost us much more time and cause more pain. Our fear will burn us alive if we don't choose to bring it to light and burn it up ourselves.

With fear and courage in our hands, we walk straight into the fire.

Wanderlust Warnings


"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.

When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last he must implement the journey. How to go, what to take, how long to stay. This part of the process is invariable and immortal. I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teen-agers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.

Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckages on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it."

-John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Being Your Own, Owning Your Being

When you tell someone that you're taking pole dancing classes, there are a few, almost guaranteed reactions: a raised eyebrow, a wry, judgey smile and the question, "That's a really good workout, right?"

It is. I could barely raise my arms after my first two classes. After the next two, my abs and legs and...well, everything...were sore in a profound way for days. I hadn't worked like that in a long time. It made me feel strong and healthy.

It's interesting to me that the only permissible reason to take a pole class seems to be for the exercise. When I approached this experiment it was because I had taken some turns around the pole at my friend's studio, Evolve, and it stirred something deep within me. I spent a lot of my life feeling awkward in my skin, only feeling sexy in the presence of someone mirroring that back to me. And even then, it always came as a surprise that anyone saw me that way. Alone with the pole at Evolve, I watched myself move in the mirror and began to see that my sexuality was something that lived in my body; it didn't need to be given from without, it already belonged to me within. I had awoken what Shelia Kelley of SFactor calls my "erotic creature" and there was no putting her back to sleep.

Pole class is a thoroughly vulnerable place to be. Women usually arrive in pairs, sisters or best friends, in baggy sweats and t-shirts, laughing too loud, too wide smiles twitching with nervousness. I was nervous at first, too, but I've been dancing my whole life. Being in a hard wooded, mirrored room feels more at home than most anywhere else. I didn't know what to do with the pole yet, but between all the dance and yoga, I sure know how to stretch. Thus, I arrive early and coax my cold muscles open while watching these shy, curious fawns creep in.

If my fellow classmates were speaking the truth of their sacred hearts, I'd wager that they didn't seek out this experience just for the workout. There are countless ways to exercise that don't involve being down on your hands and knees, twerking in a room full of strangers. Why do something that generates so much anxiety and requires so much courage to show up for when you could just as easily go to the gym? Because the workout is only a beneficial side effect of the truer meaning of the practice, the feeding of the secret, quietly pleading need to have full ownership over our bodies and our sexuality.

The commodification of women's bodies has led us all astray. Even with the advancements women have made socially and politically, our bodies are still seen as tools of commerce and enjoyment. We are no more valuable to some than the products our bodies are used to sell, our sexuality only allowed to be on display after careful airbrushing and in support of capitalism. To make a public display of our sexuality for no one but ourselves is a radical act that defies a woman's role as the facilitator of someone else's orgasm. When I dance, it's just for me and my pleasure. I am in complete control and have total ownership over my whole being. In that moment, I am living for myself alone.

The double standard is endlessly confusing. Women are blatantly sexualized in advertising and other medias, our sexuality and bodies are used to pedal all manner of products, and yet we're not supposed to seek out or enjoy sex. Men can rack up dozens of partners and be admired for it, but if a woman enjoys sex, even if she has been with relatively few partners, she's obviously a slut. Only a slut would express her sexuality for something other than selling people shit they don't need.

This isn't the reality, though. We all want our sexual partners to revel in their time with us, and this is especially true in the case of men who have sex with women. An incredible amount of pride and ego gets wrapped up in the generation of the female orgasm. Men want their women to get off. They have been taught that this is of the utmost importance in sex, that it, in fact, defines it. For far too many women, though, our orgasms have been shamed underground. If we really allow ourselves to let go, like our partners so desperately want us to, surely we will be looked down upon for relishing sexual contact.

The disconnect between how women are taught to behave as sexual beings and what our sexual partners expect is massive. Most of the bodies that tiptoe into pole class are so locked up they can hardly get through the routines. There are several possible factors at play here, but I'd guess that a large portion of it is that women aren't allowed ownership over their own bodies. Standard women's magazines are filled with tips and tricks to make yourself look suitable enough to be in public. We've been conditioned to dread made up things like "bikini season" and deride our own honest reflections in the mirror. If you have any "imperfections" you better scrutinize them sharply and cover them up!

In the whole of my life, I've owned only a few real pairs of shorts due to the ever present kiss of my inner thighs. My goodness, how I hated my legs for so long! I've wasted so much time staring at myself in the mirror, wedging my upper thighs apart with my hands and longing for permanent space to exist there. It would be years before I learned that the "thigh gap" is a skeletal structure impossibility for some, no matter how much body fat they lose. If it happens naturally, that's great. Sometimes it does. But it's not something to which to aspire.

In order to honor and celebrate my ever-so-amorous-for-each-other inner thighs, I wear itty bitty shorts in pole class. There is nothing wrong with my legs, despite what women's magazines may contend. They are strong and muscular, and yes, they touch in the middle at the top and really, who cares? This is my body. It exists as a vessel for my own joyful experience of life. If someone else happens to be made happy by my presence, great! But that's not the goal.

Erotic dance has the ability to unlock a woman's body so that she can fluidly, fluently express her natural sexuality and sensuality for her own empowerment and pleasure. It can give her the confidence to bring this expression into her romantic relationship, offering herself to her partner so much more powerfully and authentically then she could have hoped for before.

As long as women are not given full agency over their beings, there will always be disconnect between the needs and expectations of male and female partners.

Let us, as women, begin to reject the notion that we exist for others. We deserve to get ours, to be wholly whole, satisfied and self-approving. A fully fulfilled, confident, empowered woman is a beautiful force of nature. Using whatever ways and means that work for our bodies and hearts, let us be that for ourselves, for our partners and for our world.

Let you, as men, do anything you can to nurture the development of your partner's confident sexual expression, and your own. Any effort will be well worth your time. You know exactly what I mean.

Let us know from bones to skin, from head to toe, that our bodies belong to us alone.

Let all beings rise together in mutual ecstasy.