Archive for the 'food for the joybody' Category

Food for the Joybody: cultivating self-compassion

January 20, 2015

Last week my teacher at the Iyengar Institute mentioned a concept new to me: the eight limbs of yoga. Buddhist practice has so many numbered constructs – the four thises, the five thats – it’s hard to keep track of all of them. When he named the eight limbs that Patanjali outlined in the Yoga Sutras, I recognized many of them by name. I’d just never heard them organized this way. Apparently there is a particular hierarchical order, similar to Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of human needs.

The eight limbs of yoga begins with the lower branches, the yamas and the niyamas, which guide moral behavior. The five yamas refer to conduct toward others and counsel doing no harm through stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, or taking what is not freely given. The five niyamas refer to self-discipline and advocate for cleanliness, contentment, tapas, self-study, and surrender to God – or, for people who are allergic to the concept of God, celebration of the spiritual. Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy, therefore there’s no dogma, no insistence on faith or belief. That’s why Buddhism has no commandments but rather guidelines for ethical behavior.

(A word about tapas. Tapas is an important concept – the word is translated variously as austerity, discipline, and “zeal for yoga.” I like this explanation: “Tapas can mean cultivating a sense of self-discipline, passion and courage in order to burn away ‘impurities’ physically, mentally and emotionally, and paving the way to our true greatness.” In tantric practice, tapas is associated with “sitting in the fire” and expanding your tolerance for impatience, frustration, imperfection, and all the other obstacles that inevitably occur on the path to serenity.)

After the yamas and the niyamas, higher on the tree of yoga you find asana and pranayama, which are the practices we associate with yoga classes – postures and breathing practices. Positioned above them are three limbs related to meditation: pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (focus), and dhyana (state of meditation). Finally, at the top of the tree is Samadhi, bliss, union with the divine. 8-limbs-of-yogathe-eight-limbs-of-yoga---yog-sundari-ulkup29dMy teacher brought up the eight limbs of yoga to introduce the theme of grounding oneself in the basics. Before you get to bliss, you have to learn to focus. In order to learn to focus, you have to practice the asanas and the breathing. In order to ground the physical practice, it helps to be grounded in ethical behavior and self-discipline. That’s easier said than done. For the contemporary urban person, it’s pretty easy to find a class or a structure within which to study yoga postures, breathwork, and various forms of meditation. But where do you get instruction, guidance, and support for ethical behavior and self-discipline? Throughout much of time and throughout much of the world, organized religion provides those services – that’s the strong appeal of membership in a church, a synagogue, a mosque, to have consistent access to a community and to teachers who have spiritual authority. Organized religion can offer comfort by providing answers to the timeless questions of what to do, how to behave, what to believe. The shadow side of organized religion is the potential for rigidity, fundamentalism, and intolerance of difference or questioning. Most people in my world live outside the culture of organized religion, even those who are deeply committed to spiritual practice.

I know from personal experience and from my therapy practice how valuable and yet how elusive the Buddhist concepts of svadyaya and santosha can be – self-study and contentment. Cultivating a spiritual practice requires a considerable amount of initiative, self-awareness, and willingness to take an honest and compassionate look at yourself. I like the phrase that comes from the recovery movement’s 12 Steps: “taking a searching moral inventory.” The dilemma that comes up when conducting such an inventory is that inevitably you bump into all your imperfections, your failings, your mistakes. It’s all too easy to get stuck there, identified only with your deficits, and to live with a constant barrage of harsh self-judgments and the feeling of never being _______ enough. Good enough, thin enough, successful enough…fill in the blank. Arriving at a place of contentment and self-acceptance is the central spiritual challenge for most people: finding a way to hold one’s full humanity – all of who you are, your ups and downs, your triumphs and challenges, your joys and your sorrows, your assets and your imperfections – with kindness and compassion. Everyone struggles with this. It’s not easy for anyone.

I remember reading that when the Dalai Lama first started teaching in the United States, he was astonished and sad to learn how many Americans he encountered on the spiritual path live with a crippling self-hatred. Among the most beautiful Buddhist teachings is the notion that compassion begins with oneself: “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” The kicker is that if you live with a huge amount of self-judgment, being unable to summon self-acceptance or self-compassion can be one more thing to be down on yourself about.

Three things have helped me grow compassion for myself. Daily meditation practice has been an important foundation in my life for 25 years now, but something major shifted the first time I did a 10-day vipassana retreat at Insight Meditation Society in western Massachusetts. Sitting in silence hour after hour, day after day, I was forced to pay attention to the harsh critical judge in my head constantly blasting his criticisms through a loudspeaker, loudly announcing everything that was wrong with me and everyone around me. It was so painful that I had to realize that this voice came only from inside me (though traces of it sounded very familiar from my hyper-critical father) and it motivated me to learn the skills it takes to turn down the volume on that cruel broadcast and to replace the messages with more soul-nourishing words. Mindfulness retreats generally include instruction in metta, where one practices prayers of lovingkindness and compassion for yourself and others: “May I be peaceful. May I be healthy. May I be happy.” Self-compassion can be learned. It takes practice.

Years of therapy also helped me come to terms with myself, my resources, my limitations, my family heritage, my cultural imprints, my hopes, and my fears. In my training to become a therapist, nothing was more effective and revelatory than the hard long work I did on myself in individual and group therapy, along with clinical supervision from my teachers and colleagues.

I’m also a reader, so in addition to meditation and psychotherapy my svadyaya, my self-study, has always included books by spiritual teachers and seekers and thinkers. Many books have had a profound impact on me, but five of them resonate so strongly that I share them with therapy clients all the time. They have practically become the textbooks that accompany the careful, compassionate inner work that I do with people.

Taming Your Gremlin by Richard Carson came to me from the realm of life coaching. Carson introduces the extremely useful concept of the gremlin, that voice inside you that knows you so well and knows how to speak to you so persuasively and protectively and is absolutely expert at spoiling your fun. It’s a short, breezy, light-hearted but smart book that offers guidance on identifying and dealing with gremlins, mostly by not engaging or arguing with them but by taking some breaths and doing something different.

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach directly addresses the struggle to win free of the harsh internal voices insisting that you’re not good enough. I met Brach when she co-facilitated that life-changing vipassana retreat with Jack Kornfield (another important teacher of mine), and I appreciate how much she draws from her own personal experience in humorous, honest, and self-forgiving ways. Often when I need to summon the voice of self-compassion, it’s her soothing voice that I hear (largely thanks to the CD, Embracing Difficult Emotions, that came with Radical Acceptance).

The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs is the best psychology book I know of that speaks directly to gay men. Downs charts three stages of gay men’s emotional development: working through toxic shame around being gay; working through toxic shame around imperfection; and arriving at authenticity. The key concept that made sense to me is how Downs describes the second stage as revolving around seeking validation from others, which is something we all do. The ultimate goal of authenticity arrives when the validation comes from within. But that can be a long journey. And when you’re seeking external validation, Downs points out, if you’re not being actively validated, it can feel like you’re being actively invalidated – which is simultaneously enraging and, you know, not nice, so it has to be hidden: thus, the Velvet Rage. How to identify these phenomena as they occur in your life and to manage them compassionately is the gist and the gift of his book.

A therapy client turned me on to David Richo’s How To Be an Adult. At first I was put off by the title of this slim volume because it sounded so Mickey Mouse, so simplistic to the point of being insulting. But it lives up to its subtitle: “A Handbook for Psychological and Spiritual Integration.” Richo addresses core issues such as fear, anger, guilt, and intimacy with remarkable succinctness and tremendous wisdom. He organizes his brief chapters often around lists and charts. The one that distinguishes anger from drama is so simple and clear yet surprisingly true that you have to laugh.

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown grew out of her social research on the subject of vulnerability (the subject of her famous TED talk). Her writing contains all the warmth and humor and self-revealing genuineness of her speaking voice. And she’s especially good at addressing the issue of shame, describing what it is, and sharing a pathway to acquiring what she calls “shame resilience,” a way to greet harsh self-judgments sensibly and effectively.

I don’t consider any of these books to be sacred texts to swear by or that require you to read and believe every word of. Nor are they the only books that deeply resonate with me; I could just as easily talk about Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart, Byron Katie’s Loving What Is, or Pema Chodron’s teaching tape Getting Unstuck. To me the value of these books and these teachings is that they offer a vocabulary for identifying and understanding the emotional, spiritual, and psychological challenges that we all face as human beings, and they provide a valuable, non-dogmatic road map for the journey to self-knowledge, self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance. Svadyaya and santosha.

For some people, reading books provides fantastic spiritual nourishment all by itself. For others, it helps to share books with other people, individually or in groups. As I mentioned, key concepts from these various books have provided fuel for many fruitful sessions with me and my therapy clients. If any of these topics resonate with you or sound like something you would like support to address and understand, please know that I am available as a resource to you.

food for the joybody: THE DANCE OF INTIMACY, THE ROLLER-COASTER RIDE OF ROMANCE

March 22, 2014

Don’t you want to fall?
Don’t you want to fly?
Don’t you want to be dangled over the edge of this aching romance?

matt alber

Last night I saw Matt Alber’s concert in Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. The bearishly handsome, golden-voiced Texan doesn’t hide his love for men in the songs he sings about the quest for intimacy, to be seen and known. His best-known song, “End of the World,” uses the metaphor of an amusement-park ride to talk about the terrifying and exhilarating process of getting to know someone:

I don’t want to ride this roller coaster
I think I want to get off
But they buckled me down
Like it’s the end of the world
If you don’t want to have this conversation
Then you better get out
Cause we’re climbing to our death
At least that’s what they want you to think
Just in case we jump the track
I have a confession to make
It’s something like a cork screw

I don’t wanna fall, I don’t wanna fly
I don’t wanna be dangled over
The edge of a dying romance
But I don’t wanna stop
I don’t wanna lie
I don’t wanna believe it’s over
I just wanna stay with you tonight

The second half of the song kills me with the nuanced way it talks about the courage and vulnerability it takes to pursue love and connection when your heart’s been broken when other relationships haven’t worked out.

I didn’t mean to scream out quite so loudly
When we screeched to a halt
I’m just never prepared
For the end of the ride
Maybe we should get on something simpler
Like a giant balloon
But I’ve got two tickets left, and so do you
Instead of giving them away to some stranger
Let’s make them count, come on
Let’s get back in line again and ride the big one

Don’t you want to fall, don’t you want to fly
Don’t you want to be dangled over
The edge of this aching romance
If it’s gonna end, then I wanna know
That we squeezed out every moment
But if there’s nothing left can you tell me why
That it is you’re holding onto me
Like it’s the end of the world

This is exactly the territory we will be exploring in “THAT’S AMORE! Creative Rituals for Intimacy and Connection,” the workshop I’m conducting at Easton Mountain Retreat in upstate New York April 24-27. (By “we,” I mean me and the participants, not me and Matt. <grin>) It’s an opportunity to learn and practice using verbal communication, physical touch, and creative imagination to devise limited-time experiments in deepening the dance of intimacy and navigating the roller-coaster ride of romance. For more information about “THAT’S AMORE,” go here: http://bit.ly/AmoreEaston.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already seen it, also check out the video for “End of the World,” which is one of the most beautiful, succinct, and swoonily romantic gay films ever made:

Food for the joybody: the Wall Street Journal on married sex

October 28, 2013

married sex cartoon

An article by Elizabeth Bernstein in the Wall Street Journal recently summarized findings from a couple of Canadian research studies about what constitutes satisfying sex for married couples.

For many years, scientists believed that humans had sex for a few simple reasons: to reproduce, experience physical pleasure or relieve sexual tension. Then a 2007 study from the University of Texas identified 237 expressed motives for sex. The reasons ranged from the mundane (stress reduction) to the spiritual (to get closer to God) and from the altruistic (to make the other person feel good) to the spiteful (to retaliate against a partner who cheated by cheating).

Now, two studies by University of Toronto researchers published this month in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, have divided the most common reasons why people have sex—and the ones most relevant to long-term relationships—into two broad categories of motivation: approach and avoidance. Approach motives pursue a positive outcome. (“I want to increase intimacy with my spouse” or “I want to feel closer to my partner.”) Avoidance motives aim to evade a negative outcome. (“I want to avoid conflict” or “I don’t want to feel guilty.”)

It’s a pretty interesting analysis (though focused exclusively on heterosexual married couples), with some testimonials about the value of sex therapy for couples wanting to deepen their physical intimacy.

How can you become more positively motivated when it comes to sex? If you’re feeling like you’d just rather go to sleep, try tuning into the emotional connection between you and your partner, says Julie Hanks, a clinical social worker in Salt Lake City. “Lead with what you want instead of what you don’t want to happen,” she says. 

About a year ago, Ms. Brinton decided she and her husband needed to work on their sex life. “I thought, ‘I want to enjoy sex. I want to feel connected to my husband. I want to reclaim my sexuality.’ ” So she started doing things to make herself feel sexy: She bought new lingerie and started reading erotic romance novels. Ms. Brinton also asked her husband to go to a sex therapist with her.

Her husband says he was thrilled. He figured there would be a lot of sex as homework. But, at least initially, their homework was to focus on real communication—not just small talk—about issues unrelated to sex. “I came to realize that you can’t have a great, intimate sex life until you have learned to connect outside of the bedroom,” says Mr. Brinton, who owns a custom-framing business. Eventually, their conversations led to talk of sex—and then more sex. Once “we knew how to talk about other things, we felt comfortable with the difficult questions about what the other person likes in bed,” says Mr. Brinton.

Check out the whole article here and let me know what you think.

FOOD FOR THE JOYBODY: Cruising and choosing

May 28, 2013

Is it possible to choose what thoughts you think? I’m not sure you can choose what thoughts float through your mind any more than you can choose what you’re feeling at any given moment. If you could, we’d choose to be happy all the time, right? I do believe, though, that you can choose what thoughts you give weight to. That’s probably the biggest benefit of learning to meditate – getting quiet and still enough to notice the obsessive/brutal/anxious thoughts that occupy your monkey mind and to practice turning down the volume or replacing them with thoughts that create serenity rather than suffering.

Is it possible to choose what kind of people you find attractive? That’s the tougher question that came up today in my therapy session with Roger (not his real name). He’s a fit, perky, reasonably attractive middle-aged guy whose consulting job requires him to spend a lot of time on conference calls. The other day he met in person someone he’d only previously encountered as a disembodied voice. Matthew turns out to be an extraordinarily handsome young guy in his early thirties, and Roger’s crushing out on him already.

cruising choosing collage
We had an interesting conversation about the rules of attraction and what body types gay men are trained to idealize. Roger tends to prize men who are young and handsome, and when it comes to dating, he tends to rule out men who are older and heavier than he is. I know that many gay men of a certain age were socialized to have that specific taste in men, which I consider somewhat tragic – tragic because 1) most people aren’t young and handsome, 2) the ones who are don’t stay that way very long, and 3) if you’re only turned on by young, pretty guys, the pickings get slimmer as time goes by. Maybe I’m a bit of a pervert (“Maybe?” I can hear my friends saying) but I never bought into the classic gay stereotype of drooling over hairless skinny young twinks or muscle-bound guys with six-pack abs. A pot belly and a receding hairline have always been more likely to turn my head, and I think I’m far from alone in that predilection.

We talked about how gay culture has expanded over the years to acknowledge a wider spectrum of physical attractiveness and a richer diversity of erotic affinity groups – daddies and daddy-hunters (noting that “Daddy” no longer connotes “Sugar Daddy” who pays for everything), white guys and men of color who are drawn to each other, bears and their various sub-subcultures, the many flavors of kink. We talked about Bob Bergeron, the New York City-based psychotherapist who wrote a book about gay men aging gracefully — and then committed suicide on the eve of its publication, a victim of the toxic belief that you have to “stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved.” And by contrast we talked about the great gay poet James Broughton, the subject of the new documentary film Big Joy, who lived to be a juicy old man. We talked about how one of the roles for elders in any community is listening carefully to and bestowing blessings on younger people, and how challenging it is to give blessings when you don’t feel that you have received as many as you would have liked.

We cycled back to Roger and his thoughts about Matthew, which vacillated between “He’s so handsome – I wish I were that handsome – I’ll never be that handsome” and “He’s so handsome – I wish I had a partner that handsome – I’ll never have a partner that handsome.” Neither of these trains of thought left Roger feeling very happy. I proposed an alternative: “He’s so handsome.” Period. Bestow a silent blessing. What happens if you give weight to that thought?

Choosing what has meaning to you and choosing where you want to put your energy and awareness is also the subject of a famous commencement speech given by novelist David Foster Wallace (another suicide, for what that’s worth) to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College. Check it out and let me know what you think. What thoughts plague you, and what other choices are available to you?

FOOD FOR THE JOYBODY: The Gift of Desire

May 20, 2013

Last month I gave a talk at Living Soulfully, the monthly gathering the Center in New York City for friends and associates of Easton Mountain Retreat Center, where I’ve taught for many years. I adapted the talk into an article which has been published by the online gay newspaper EDGE. The gist of the article is this:

As a gay sex therapist, I spend a lot of my working hours listening to people talk about the nitty-gritty details of their sex lives. I meet a lot of smart, soulful, intelligent men frustrated at their inability to find love and connection. One of the themes that comes up again and again has to do with asking for what you want.

“Ask for what you want” is advice that’s easy to give but often strangely difficult to practice. What gets in the way of identifying our desires and sharing them with others? Growing up gay, we probably learned early on to view our deepest desires as shameful, socially unacceptable, or at the very least subject to other people’s negative judgments. No wonder we’re a little gun-shy when it comes to letting others know what we want, especially in the realm of love and erotic play.

You can read the whole article online here. Check it out and let me know what you think.

gift of desire

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