Befriending Wildness

For reasons that are just now becoming conscious for me, I have been steeping myself in wildness more than ever. And because of that, I’ve begun to notice that many others are doing the same. It’s as though nature is finally managing to vine its way back into many of our lives.

When I use the word wildness, I mean that which exists in parallel to our lives: plants that grow in cracks in our sidewalks and at the edges of our yards, the coyotes that come down into urban neighborhoods from the Santa Monica Mountains, and, of course, the night sky. These things are not separate from or unaffected by us, and yet they have this entire existence onto themselves that we typically know very little about. Like the body, where we can look for some of the clearest and simplest information, the wildness of nature offers us tremendous wisdom.

My re-acquaintance with wildness seems to have begun through gardening. More and more plants are showing up in my yard, in my home, and in my office. My clients can certainly attest to this change, which became especially apparent when a tree in a twenty gallon pot appeared atop my filing cabinet. I’ve realized that this shift in me is in direct response to what I’m seeing happen in the states and on our planet in general. It’s a place to put my care and attention that’s both needed and well-received. As a fellow therapist in my office building said, “My garden has never been so free of weeds as it is under this administration.”

It can be difficult to articulate the ways in which interacting with wildness is good for the psyche, partly because the gifts are simultaneously simple and vast, but especially because it’s such a felt experience. That in itself is a huge part of why it’s important; it’s embodied. It requires us to be present, to be tuned in, to be hands-on. We have to be aware of ourselves, the space we take up, and the impact we have. With gardening in particular, we must be committed witnesses who take action on what we see. We have to experiment to find the right course of action. Sometimes we have to be patient as a process unfolds. And all of this gets to happen alongside enjoying the beauty, oxygen, medicine, and food that plants have to offer.

With the intention of finding more words for some of these felt experiences, I just took a pause from writing to go outside for a little gardening, and was reminded of a major component of tending to the earth. It’s humbling. I have two passion fruit plants, which I sprouted from the seeds of a few fruits that I ate last year. They grow rather slowly, but just recently have begun to really look like plants. After over a year of tending to them, it’s been very rewarding to see that, and to imagine that soon they’ll begin to vine up the fence I placed them near. I’ve been wondering how many years it’ll be before they produce fruit, and have imagined how special it will be to finally eat one. Last week I noticed a caterpillar munching on one of the plants, so I moved it as politely as possible. Just now when I went out to transplant something nearby, I saw that one of the two plants was completely eaten, and that my caterpillar friends (of which there are now four) have begun on the other. Therein lies the challenge that brings humility. Do I keep fighting the caterpillars? Do I kill them? That’s an easy no for me; I made a commitment some time ago to avoid killing other creatures, unless my health or safety would definitely be affected otherwise. Fortunately those moments are blessedly rare, and that was very important to discover. We so often approach situations with a zero sum mentality when in actuality, nature rarely works that way. When we give to it, it gives to us. We just don’t always get to choose exactly what we get back. So it comes down to: do I want passion fruit, butterflies, or to plant more of something or other that the caterpillars might focus on instead? I’m going with the butterflies. And chances are I’ll get to see them cocooning somewhere nearby and I’ll get to witness their growth instead of that of my plants. Seems like a pretty fair deal to me. In this way, gardening is both self-care and activism. I get to grow and so do plants.

It’s these sort of experiences that inform my way of looking at the world in general. If I always choose convenience, to prioritize my individual needs, or narrow-mindedly stick to my original plans despite receiving new information, I’m choosing a selfish and eventually destructive path. Selfishness accumulates and eventually it affects others before finally returning to us. That is what we’re seeing now. We’ve been selfish with ourselves, with each other, and in our relationship to Earth. It’s fairly clear what we’ve been getting wrong organizationally, but what we do on the large scale is but a macrocosm of what’s happening inside our hearts and heads.

So I find it very heartening to see what’s happening in two areas in particular: art and fashion trends. Now of course I know that as the curator of my own perusal of art, I’m likely seeing more wildness than is average. But it’s clear that earth-based elements have increased within popular culture. Plants are everywhere in our art. We’re bringing crystals and minerals into our homes in both old and new ways. Geometric shapes have dominated the furniture market for several years now. And the succulent craze has brought more plants into people’s lives than any other houseplant trend in the recent past. I’d offer that this might be rivaled by the macrame extravaganza of the ’60s and ’70s, but we’ve brought those back, too. Simple shapes, raw wood, brick, beautiful glass… we are surrounding ourselves with basic elements. We must need it. And just look at all of this grounding, evocative, nature-based work…

“Bathing Beauty” by Rachael Dean

art and tattoo by Lisa Cardenas

“Mama Bird” by Racheal Rios

“eternal return” by MerakiLabbe/ Vanja Vukelic

“connected soul. spirit sisters” by Marcy Ellis

Notice how many themes are repeated across the pieces: plants, intermingling, growth, the feminine, birth and death. I am most definitely a sucker for symbology, and know well through my studies and experiences what a profound impact it can have on our psyches. Notice how often heads are replaced by plants. I love what’s suggested by finding a plant where one would normally encounter the places where our thinking, seeing, and speaking originates. I won’t ruin it by over-defining it. Just ponder that. Feel into it.

My hope for this time is that this love for the natural world does not fade from us as trends do, that we understand how badly we need to make lifelong friends with nature and wildness, and that we incorporate this knowledge into our institutions in such a way that it cannot be lost again.

Shame Overload

Shame fills the little hollow cavity that vulnerability creates.
-Kate Sheehan

Kate is my therapist. She said this to me in session when I was struggling to make sense of an emotional reaction I’d had. I think it’s a perfect articulation of the somatic experience of shame, and it was especially useful to me in that moment, because I hadn’t yet become aware that shame is what I was feeling. And that’s the thing about shame. It is so good at its job that you don’t even know it’s there. I think that’s exactly what’s happening in our country right now. It’s an ugly process the way it’s being held within our current political structure, but people are bringing it into the therapy room and it tends to go pretty damn well there. So let’s look at why and how, and get moving on resolving this on the cultural level.

Let’s begin by giving shame a face so that we can keep our eyes right on it, which is what shame both hates and needs. Shame is extreme discomfort caused by the feeling of not being ok with oneself. This discomfort stems from a chasm between how a person is seeing themselves or believing themselves to be seen, and how they believe they are supposed to be according to their own standards or societal ones. I often go to the words of Brené Brown for guidance here, and her distinction between guilt and shame is particularly handy: where guilt is “I did something bad,” shame is, “I am bad.” Somatically-speaking, it is the desire to hide when feeling more than a tolerable amount of discomfort with being seen. When we feel shame, we are often motivated to hide at any cost- sometimes literally, sometimes behind thoughts and words. Most painful and most insidious is that shame can be so good at getting us to hide that we will sometimes hide from ourselves. Typing #metoo into the town hall that is social media has been a way to bring ourselves back out into the light, and into the light we are bringing the shame that forced us into darkness. That affords us an incredible opportunity to face and dispel toxicity. But the gravity around shame is strong.

Allow me to disclaim right here that this article does not contain anything graphic, but I am going to discuss various aspects of sexual trauma and that alone can evoke difficult sensations and emotions. Please go slow in reading, and use your intuition to take care of yourself in what ever way you might need. What I’ll be focused on here is the role shame is playing within the #MeToo Movement and how to manage shame outside of the therapy setting, because we are struggling like crazy with resolving our collective experience of it. And thank goodness, because we are long, long overdue.

Brown writes that “shame gets it power from being unspeakable.” I would bet that that’s hugely why it’s taken us so long to begin to look at these topics that evoke so much shame, and why we’re having such a wretched time with it. Working with shame means regularly walking the line between tolerability and traumatization. That is exactly why trauma work requires a trained and practiced professional. And yet here we are having to work it out within our social-political structure.

So let’s get into what shame needs. In the therapeutic setting, shame surfaces the most often around intimacy and sexuality, and especially around sexual or physical trauma. This is because the body and its contact with others is the most potent medium through which we experience ourselves and the world. When these experiences go poorly, especially if they go poorly many times and/or are traumatic enough, shame begins to take up space within them. If we are quite young when these difficult or traumatic experiences happen, shame is particularly likely to rush in as a way to protect us. It is, in fact, a penultimate resort- the last stop before dissociating entirely. Sometimes it simply becomes a launching pad into exactly that. We can’t avoid feeling, but we can avoid feeling what we’re feeling. It’s a brilliant mechanism when we have nothing else at our disposal, and the protective part is something to keep. The work is in replacing shame with other forms of protection, so that feeling can become safe again.

In somatic work, we work directly with the experience of being seen in the literal sense. When in the therapy space a client and I are onto shame and its sneaky little game, we begin to look at the nature of our eye contact, at how much space is between us in the room, whether I’m facing them directly or I’m at an angle, what sort of physical contact might be helpful, if any- all these ways in which we can contact each other in the room. What we’re doing is finding out together what’s needed in order to have safe, comfortable, authentic connection, which is the antidote to shame. From there we continue to practice listening and responding to the body as we work to stay in contact with ourselves and each other.

Let’s deepen this a bit further with an example of how shame typically shows up around sexuality, since it’s sexual content we’re dealing with in our cultural struggle right now. In the therapy room, the experience usually goes something like this: a person realizes that naming something sexual is necessary within what we’re exploring (that is in itself a feat to be celebrated since shame will keep us quiet for a long time). This might be a fantasy or desire, a masturbatory habit, a frightening encounter, or even just a casual remark with sexual content. Even if there’s conscious awareness of how it could help, the disclosure might be followed by sensations of shame. Shame needs no invitation from us. So a person might begin to feel things like: a sinking sensation, pressure in the chest, closing one’s eyes, covering the face, feeling cold, feeling numb, feeling floaty or fuzzy, feeling confused. These sensations overlap heavily with the symptoms of dissociation, and that makes sense, right? Shame is about hiding, and dissociating is a very effective way to hide by hiding from what you’re feeling. For that same reason, anger has a high chance of surfacing in this space. It will sometimes surface when shame is being evoked, and sometimes it will rush in to replace the experience of shame after it’s begun to be felt. Feeling angry is especially common for people who were raised not to show any vulnerability. They don’t know what to do the feeling when it surfaces, so they feel angry at whoever or whatever made them aware of feeling it. I find it really helpful to know how common this is, because it helps me to respond appropriately. Let’s spend another moment on that.

One of the aspects of shame that seems to me to be the least understood is that it will surface entirely on its own. It doesn’t need to be drawn out or added to. Because it’s a protective mechanism of the autonomic nervous system, it pops up automatically. So what’s needed most for the experience of shame to become useful is for it to be safe to become vulnerable. I like to think of shame, and guilt too, like an alarm bell; it lets us know that there’s something to pay attention to. The struggle almost always comes in the response. We have to know how to pay the right sort of attention to shame to create a proper holding environment for resolving what ever is being highlighted by the shame. This is exactly what makes it so incredible when a person who has been a victim of sexual violence is able to speak up for themselves despite a high likelihood of being shamed. They are doing for themselves in that moment something that very few of us can do: create the space to be vulnerable, open up our chests, and keep them open by shrouding them with respect, kindness, and acceptance as we are pummeled with anything but.

I wanted to get this piece of writing out and into your inboxes and feeds, so I’m publishing it in its current form. I keep starting into other components of this dynamic we have around shame, but it’s getting too big for one article. I know what that drive is in me, which also motivates me to stop here for now: I want to help you create a safe holding space for yourself right this very moment, so that you can get on with the beautiful experience of being free to feel. But shame can’t be rushed out the door too quickly, or it comes back louder. The work is only done well at a steady pace. So I’ll keep at it and give you more pieces as soon as I am able to paint them, but I’ll leave you with the name of one particular portrait.

It is incredibly important to this process that we end the stigma around mental health, which contributes to the perpetuation of a hierarchical structure. Right now we’re working with an especially ugly version of patriarchy, but any hierarchical structure is problematic unless (or probably even if) we know how to be truly fair with anyone who we encounter. And this is not to diminish the agonizingly harmful effects of Patriarchy in itself; the problem is cyclical. Patriarchy perpetuates mental illness and the failure to address mental illness serves to maintain Patriarchal structures. If you want to dive further into understanding this in its complexity, I highly recommend the writing of James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Laurie Penny. They will show you how necessary it is to understand not just basic but complex principles of psychology and sociology. Low emotional intelligence is a severe hindrance to critical thinking. I happen to believe that emotional intelligence should be a core curriculum subject beginning in the first grade. Naturally there are many people out there teaching children how to notice and make use of their sensations and emotions. Yet what we’re seeing right now is in part an effect of a collectively low ability to address our intrapsychic worlds, so we know that we have to keep working at this. It’s a skill that needs to be more widespread and practiced far earlier in life, so as you move back out into the world after reading this, know that you can have an immediate, steady impact on all of this by being a proponent of mental health literacy.

New Series: Sacred Masculinity Interviews

In the autumn of 2016, I had the very moving experience of looking around and becoming aware of how many men around me are safe, aware, and helping. I’m sure that a good portion of this has to do with my age and my growing ability to surround myself with healthy people, but it also seems quite clear that something about masculinity is happening at a rapid rate.

After the election results came in later that year, it was so painfully clear how much toxicity still exists in our culture. The article I wrote about it at the time focused on toxic masculinity, and this series is focused on addressing that. But allow me to make a couple of things very clear: the toxicity within male gender socialization is definitely not the only kind that exists, and when I speak about masculinity, I am not talking about men. I use the term “sacred masculinity” to refer to a concept of qualities. One of the greatest gifts of this generation is the burgeoning awareness of intersectionality, and the concept of masculinity is just one section. I’m choosing to focus on it because I see a shift happening in society at large, and it’s showing up in my practice. As a therapist, I have the honor and privilege of getting to understand why and how people come to be as they are. As an activist, I feel compelled to share my insights, especially now.

A few months ago, I met with Meredith Redding to talk about the parallels we were seeing between the therapeutic process and what’s happening in our country. She’s one of my favorite colleagues and she really knows her shit when it comes to Depth Psychology, so I was extra excited to talk to her. We began by talking about shadow selves, and very quickly got onto the topic of masculinity. She said something that really stayed with me, because it was a succinct articulation of what I’d been seeing in my practice, too. “Something different is happening with the men,” she said.

We have a president who is such a clear embodiment of toxic masculinity that it has thrown us into a full-blown crisis. Yet there are a whole bunch of people who feel resonance with this man. When you get to talk to them in an honest and nonjudgmental setting, it becomes quite clear how much that has to do with concepts of masculinity that attempt to address the experience of desperation. In particular, the desperate desire to feel ok with oneself and to have some sense of command over one’s life. That is not how it can appear from the outside, and I am not for one second excusing any of the horrendous behavior that has led to and resulted from this. But if we want it to stop, we have to get to the heart of it. This is the case for every therapeutic process.

Blessedly, you can see already that we’re doing a whole lot of processing, and that it has the power to bring tremendous healing. The #MeToo Movement, the #BlackMenSmiling Movement, the unrelenting push for trans rights, and the incredible activist demonstrations by the children of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are shining examples.

How does this address the heart of the problem? If we look at this through the illuminating power of myth, we can think of this time as the return of the goddess to her natural position of power. That calls upon the god not to step down or retract his positive influence, but to act as a supportive counterpart. Goddess and god balance each other, each with an equal and opposite attribute with which to meet the other’s. We have been clear for some time on what does not bring balance: violence, superiority, and indifference. We need more examples of healthy masculinity and healthy men to be right in our faces more often. So let’s discuss with some emotionally intelligent people the qualities that they believe masculinity, in its pure and sacred form, has to offer.

Find the beautiful and ever-growing collection of interviews here.

A Lesson from #MeToo: Intellectual vs. Somatic Knowing

We do ourselves a great disservice when we devalue the power of feelings. The somatic landscape holds much of the information that we seek, and yet so much of how we live prevents us from knowing that. A client once reflected in session, “I used to hate having emotions. Now I know how to use them.” I could have jumped with joy. Country, let’s make this the norm.

When I saw Caitlin Flanagan’s response to what “Grace” shared about her date with Aziz Ansari, I felt nauseous. She made a lot of damaging comments, but the one I’m taking on here is her belief that Grace could have simply left. It is a brutal misunderstanding of the power of feelings, and I cringe knowing that anyone read it and agreed. From Grace’s account, we can pretty safely hypothesize that she was stuck in a freeze response. When neither fighting nor running away are perceived as possible, our parasympathetic nervous system offers up this third option. In extreme cases, it can look like playing dead. It can also look like playing along. Now whether or not that’s actually what happened for Grace, no one can say except her. We can, however, use her story to look at what has become a common encounter.

The #MeToo Movement has been extraordinary for shedding light on the pervasive epidemic of unsafe sexual behavior. We’re finally voicing this deep collective trauma and with each new story, we’re made increasingly aware of the need to understand what brought us here and how to move forward in a way that is healthier for everyone. This is a psychotherapeutic process like any other; it’s just on a very grand scale. So we will be well on our way to healing if we can learn and enact the wisdom offered to us through the psychotherapeutic process. Most relevant here: the need for embodied wisdom.

Historically, we tend to get stuck on deciding who’s responsible for an unpleasant sexual encounter. What therapy teaches us is to be interested primarily in understanding and navigating the interpersonal dynamics involved. Even in the most objectively black and white circumstances, the ability to say whose fault something was is only helpful in bringing us to the next steps: what each person can do moving forward. So rather than looking at fault, we ought to be looking to answer more specific questions like, “Why couldn’t Grace leave?” and, “Why couldn’t Aziz notice her cues?”

It’s very fortunate that #MeToo is bringing us into exploration of these gray areas of human interactions. It’s where some of the most important work can happen, and that’s exactly why it’s so challenging. What’s happening in response to what Grace shared should make very clear how impossible it is for us to quickly lay blame somewhere and move on. The subsequent conversations it has provoked have been a loop of “he should have…” and “she should have…” Often both things are true. But the complexity does not end there, as there is a myriad of reasons that brought each of them- and any two people- to this interaction wherein one person left feeling violated. So it’s time we distinguish between intellectual and somatic understanding.

“Somatic” means whole body. The word is used as a way to point to the entirety of an experience rather than to artificially separate what’s happening in someone’s body from what’s happening in their brain. The two are inextricably linked, and that’s extremely important to understand particularly as it relates to sex. Our bodies will tell us right where we are with things, which is vital to pay attention to, because knowing something intellectually is not the end of the process. You can think of it like learning to play a musical instrument. Studying theory is helpful, but you won’t be able to really play until you’ve practiced.

We’ve been more acutely onto this knowledge over the last decade or so. We’re realizing that intellectual insight is limited. It does not automatically translate to being able to do anything with the information. We can understand something, but not believe it. We can know why something is happening, but feel unable to prevent or change it. We can even fully believe something in thought while our body strongly disagrees. Embodied knowing simply takes further work.

When so many people are upset by a topic this disturbing, one of the greatest challenges is finding our common goal in the work. Fortunately, this one is quite clear: we all want safe and enjoyable experiences with others, especially when it comes to sex. Knowing that is an important part of the process, because we now get to address what’s in the way of getting there. Our current roadblock: we’re lousy at attending to feelings.

The experience of feeling unable to do something is, in the moment, no different that being physically unable to do it. This awareness is built nicely into all fields of psychotherapy in the form of verbiage for states like post-traumatic stress, which is a response to a real or perceived threat of injury or death. Fortunately, this knowledge has been sneaking into popular culture in various ways. We’ve finally begun to consider the “placebo effect” a legitimate effect, for instance. And indeed it is. If it has an impact, it’s an effect.

But historically we have been very poor at acknowledging emotions as real, legitimate, and unpreventable. It’s that last one that seems to give us the most trouble, because we can learn to make choices that make particular emotions less likely to surface in certain situations. But this control is limited, and it’s limited even more so than our ability to control something like hunger. With hunger we can eat regularly, eat enough, eat well, carry snacks, and so on. But with emotions, we have far less control because emotions most often surface in response to other people, who are ultimately out of our control. You can be well rested, well fed, and in a great mood and fear will still surface when you nearly hit someone who walks in front of your car. So our greatest power comes in our ability to respond to our own emotions appropriately. And no matter the context, an appropriate response means one that comes from a place of compassion and openness. These are the qualities that allow us to listen to, learn from, and make use of our feelings. Once we can do this for ourselves, we can begin to extend the practice to others.

Now think about that myriad of reasons that, even without knowing their unique backgrounds, allow us to guess at why Grace and Aziz would find themselves in such a confusing and painful exchange. To name what I’m sure is far too few:

  • People, especially females, are routinely objectified. Objects are things that we can interact with as we please. The impact we have on them is irrelevant, and so we often don’t even consider it.
  • We fail to teach people, especially males, how to interact with their emotions. We will even use shame to suppress them. Since emotions do not long tolerate being ignored, they find ways to get their needs met surreptitiously or violently.
  • The above factors create a very dangerous combination. Objects are handy sources for getting our needs met, since they require nothing of us. We don’t have to admit our feelings to them in order for our needs to be fulfilled. So it confuses, scares, and sometimes angers us when an object suddenly speaks up about their subjective experience.
  • We teach women that sex won’t be all that enjoyable, and to be polite about that. This was actually written in pamphlets given to women at the turn of the 20th century. That’s only a few generations back for a lot of us, and so its remnants remain strong.
  • We are persistently reinforced with the notion that there is a way to successfully manipulate our interactions with others, and that most of it has to do with pursuing and distancing. If we pull back a little, the other person will come pursue us. If we lean in too much, they might distance. They’re distancing themselves because they want to be pursued. You can’t be explicit about pulling back or you’ll hurt their feelings. Most plot lines depend on our belief that we should be indirect. The next time you’re watching a television show, imagine what would happen to the trajectory of the story if just one person were able to share what they were feeling.

It is no surprise then that we have ended up here where one person wasn’t trusting their feelings and the other wasn’t even noticing them. So whose fault was it? Everyone’s. It is collectively our fault. We train our females to resist their urges to fight or flee, and we train our males to fight no matter the circumstances. Most of us contribute to this even though we consciously try not to. It’s my fault for not speaking up last week when someone used the term “man cold.” It’s the fault of every catcaller. It’s the fault of every person who agreed to distribute that pamphlet to our great-grandmothers. It’s the fault of the schools that fail to teach sex ed. It’s the fault of everyone who’s ever said, “You’re just emotional.” We must attend to all of this if we want healthier interactions. Fortunately, we’re already amidst a gender revolution, and I suspect that one of its many gifts will be to draw us away from rigid roles that train us out of our natural states of being.

I hope that any of us could find our way to relating to either person in an interaction like Grace and Aziz’. If any of it seems easy, I encourage you to recognize how you’re devaluing your abilities or taking them for granted. The ability to leave, speak up explicitly, or accurately read bodily cues are all strengths. If they’re strengths you have, figure out for yourself how that came to be, and then help others to develop these qualities. If these aren’t strengths of yours, learn to listen to the subtle cues of your body, and then learn to do so with others.

It is returning to embodiment that brings us health. We need our sensations and emotions in addition to our thoughts in order to understand what’s happening in the moment and to act accordingly.

Further Reading and Resources

Books:
Healing Sex by Staci Haines
Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
The Sex and Pleasure Book by Carol Queen with Shar Rednour

Research:

http://usabp.org/research/somatic-oriented-journals/

https://traumahealing.org/resources/

http://journalofpositivesexuality.org/archive/

How to Speak Out Effectively

The current political climate is tumultuous to say the very least, and in the wake of a few conversations I’ve had online, I was asked to share what I do to effectively manage difficult conversations. So here are a few important factors to consider, which I included in a previous post and have expanded upon for you here.

Ride your anger; don’t let it ride you.
Anger towards an oppressive force is an early stage of healing. While you’re in it, direct your anger as specifically as you can. Do not let it turn to shaming others. Avoid speaking in absolutes and making generalizations. Be mad as hell, just not at everyone. That feels crappy anyway.

Ask permission.
Ask if your feedback is willing to be received. This isn’t necessary in an original post online, but it is in any conversation- especially ones with strangers. Before you get into it, ask the other person if they have a few minutes to hear your experience. If they say no, you’ve wasted no energy on them, and that’s a win for you.

Respect feelings.
There isn’t a thing that anyone can do to avoid the surfacing of an emotion. What can be controlled is what one does with them. Heated conversations are filled with emotions, and most of the time they aren’t being named. Even so, if you respond accordingly to the emotional tone, you are much more likely to be heard. They aren’t very difficult to see or hear, if you’re open to understanding. Just take a moment before you respond to see if you can pinpoint what the other person is feeling (you can always try asking!), and then guide your response accordingly. This prevents the dialogue-killer where everyone is stuck in that feeling of, “But you don’t understand!”

Every emotion stems from a need. Get clear on what you’re dealing with, and why.

A big one to remember: anger stems from fear, and it aims to set a boundary. Respect that. Respond in a way that shows that you hear them, and that you’re safe.

Make it personal.
Speak about your experience only, and attach your experience to facts. A point is not made stronger, but weaker by exaggerating or using absolutes. Tell the person what you feel, and why, in response to the situation at hand. That will indeed mean being somewhat open, and that’s exactly what’s needed in order for someone to hear you. If you can’t communicate with at least some openness, that’s ok. Wait to say your piece until you can, or find someone who can say it for you.

Jump at opportunities to speak up.
Especially when you can use privilege for the good. It is easiest for a person to hear something from someone they consider an ally or the same as they are in some way. When that’s you, it creates a beautiful opportunity for change if they say something with which you disagree. Remember that what you say can be very simple. “Something feels off about that, ” or, “My experience has been different than that,” are brief and safe, but very powerful statements that can get others thinking. This isn’t easy either, but it’s easier. And it feels really, really good.

This Thing That We’ve Been Calling Masculinity

For a few weeks, I’ve been wanting to write about what I’ve been seeing and experiencing lately amongst males. What happened tonight in the election helped me to make it happen. I know most of us have little room to take in anything more right now, so just hang with me for a quick personal story, and I’ll get to the bigger picture.

I recently had an experience that surprised me by surprising me. I went to the birthday party of a friend who is new enough that I didn’t know most of her other friends. Late in the evening, upon leaving a drink with one of her male friends while I walked outside, I realized that I felt completely safe to do so. Not unchecked safe. Full presence and awareness safe. While feeling safe with men is not at all new to me (and while that’s not been without plenty of challenges, I feel very grateful for that), somehow this stood out to me. This man and the others were strangers. And yet I had absolutely no doubt that they were safe. I know that that is a packed statement in itself, because plenty of people have been hurt after being sure that they were safe. That crossed my mind, too. But I could feel it viscerally, and potently. And it was awesome. And as I said, I was surprised. Feeling that safe in vulnerability with strangers was new to me. And through that novel experience, I realized how often I’d actually felt unsafe with strangers.

If you’d asked me a few weeks ago how safe I feel around people I don’t know, I’d have said, “Quite.” And that’s how it goes. It is safe to assume that the fish has not yet discovered water. Only when I felt a change did I realize what I’d been swimming in. This is what happens when change occurs. We become aware of what was before.

I felt terribly grateful that evening. I was teary. It was like a big ol’ game of trust and I felt caught and held perfectly. This is the current state of gender relations, I thought, if only one newly sprouted branch of it. For me, feeling safe in a group of strangers is hugely about how much more complexity we have invited into gender notions.

As I began to write tonight, I reflected on my post about the hashtag movement “#MasculinitySoFragile.” What I realized more than ever before is that it is. It is fragile. As fragile as any other construct that is too rigid and too small.

But we have been rapidly expanding what masculinity (and femininity) means. We’ve been dissolving gender norms and expectations. This work goes back decades, but in the last several years, we seem to have almost caught up with reality. People of all genders have become far more vocal about sexism than ever before. Conversations turn more quickly to internalized -isms and the need for intersectionality than ever before.

But even when the oppressive force is gone (or is becoming defunct), we are left with the way we organized ourselves around it. Absolutely everyone can relate to this, regardless of privilege. At some point in our lives, we all experience another person’s attempt to restrict our self-expression. When that experience comes from a caregiver or other powerful entity, we organize ourselves around it in order to tolerate and survive it. So even when it’s removed, we find ourselves struggling with the same limits. Therapy revolves around this dynamic. We interrupt ourselves where others interrupted us. The work is to become conscious of those patterns, so that we have some choice in the matter. We re-organize in a way that’s uniquely suited to us, and then we constantly practice, refine or restructure it to keep to stay calibrated with our evolving needs.

As we move out of this old gender binary, look who appears: all the ickiest parts of toxic masculinity wrapped up in one individual. And only a narcissist could be such a caricature of it: no self, all artificial structure. A monster created by male socialization. Thinking about Frankenstein’s monster? Yep, Shelley knew her shit. It’s a miserable situation, and the monster is as plagued by it as the rest of us. Don’t ever think he’s not. He can still cause harm, yes. But remembering that he’s trapped inside his own tight constraints is a necessary awareness for maintaining empathy and clarity.

Ultimately, this can help us move forward. By exaggerating the character, we can see clearly its severe limitations. He is an example of what not to be, and of the dangers of trying to crush oneself into a tiny little concept. Seeing what not to do is a great way to learn boundaries when we are testing them by growing and expanding. With progress always comes regression. That’s how we integrate the progress. We move way outside of the emerging paradigm so that we can really see it before we feel able to comfortably step into it.

Even amidst my disbelief about what was happening, when I heard, “That’s it. Donald Trump is the President of the United States,” I thought, “Wow. That makes sense.” I don’t want it to. But that’s where we are. As a group, we can’t move too much faster than our slowest members. And therein lies much of our collective work. When you feel willing and able, help others to feel safe enough to speed up a bit. When they show you glimmers of authenticity, reflect it to them. And remind them that it’s ok to be afraid. We all struggle with unfolding.

So as I sit here reading and feeling about the outcome of this election, I take great comfort in the fact that I know very few people like Donald Trump. We are progressing. We don’t produce nearly as many “Trumps” as we used to. But sometimes there’s still too much fear to integrate what we’ve learned. And so we have before us the final stand of toxic masculinity before we blow it out the god damn airlock. It is the beginning of the very end of this deplorable construct. If you are already taking concrete steps towards abolishing the fear of self-expression, keep it up. Steady your hand at your post and help to provide the safe space for this country-sized tantrum. Be firm and also be warm. Work towards more critical thinking and more emotional intelligence. Constantly do your own healing work. Inspire it in others. And at every possible junction, teach it to children. Help to make it safe for people to express themselves. And in the meantime, soak up the presence of those around you with whom you feel safe and like yourself.

show your bleeding heart: A Guest Post from Tulasi Adeva

Tulasi Adeva is a therapeutic mentor and embodiment facilitator who lives and works in beautiful Hanalei, Hawaii.

I had the honor of working with her at the Oakland Center for Holistic Counseling. She has a fiercely open and clear heart, and I was often speechless when I would hear her talk about the way she knows people and the world. She is often able to articulate what is deep down inside of us all, and this article is no exception. She wrote this beautiful, perfect piece in response to what happened in Orlando this week, and I have the honor of sharing with you here. This applies to everything, and I believe it’s terribly important to realize how vital this work is. I challenge you to allow her words into your body. Try them on and see what shifts, or what would need to.

“maybe vulnerability is the greatest key we hold to our collective healing. not vulnerability held close like in a poker game we are trying to win, but vulnerability revealed, vulnerability laid out for those around us to see.

this is not an easy thing. as humans we grow good at being guarded. we learn all too well how to hold our emotional cards close in. we learn to navigate the hazardous terrain of relationships by defending and protecting. the brain is so sophisticated and complex it manages our whole strategy in such a way that it feels like a second skin, like this is just the way it is.

but when you hold a baby in your hands, a fresh being newly breathing air, you know that our essential nature is vulnerability. and with vulnerability comes unconditional love. with vulnerability comes our capacity to trust. with vulnerability comes our capacity to fully be all the way here.

because let’s be real. this being alive is VULNERABLE.

we may try to hide away, and defend against, in order to protect ourselves, but that protection cuts us off from what we truly want… to be seen, acknowledged, appreciated, LOVED.

we are a complex system of beliefs and cultural conditioning. we are a store house of generational trauma and instinctual survival. amidst all this we are evolving at such a rapid rate, individually and collectively, that we don’t entirely know how to keep up. we are boiling inside.

with our deep desire. with our own fears. with confusion. with pain. with rage. with longing. with heartache. with a calling for more.

without a firm grip on our inner compass, a deep connection to our own heart, a tender acknowledgement of our own vulnerability we get locked into a stance of defense. we resist what is.

we want to hold on to what we know, we want to have it all figured out so we can avoid risk (vulnerability) and play it safe.

part of my teaching is about feeling what’s here to be felt. going all the way in. this is not an easy task, often it feels like the pain or discomfort will never end. but inevitably on the other side we meet our vulnerability, our tenderness, our hearts. and there we come to know ourselves more completely.

there is a teaching in relationship work to take 100% responsibility for what is going on in a relationship. in akido when practicing with another the resistance you feel, is your own. both of these teachings are pointing us toward self responsibility, personal accountability, toward a recognition that how we move and what we choose to do impacts the space and outcome of what unfolds.

but as david whyte says we have to take the close in step. before we can take 100% responsibility, before we can identify the perceived resistance in another as our own we have to know ourselves. i mean really get to know ourselves. look in the mirror and look deep. what are we hiding, what have we tucked away, what don’t we want others to know and see?

our pain is the catalyst for our creative expansion if we have the courage to face it and the willingness to see what’s there to be seen. when we meet and greet our own vulnerability it opens up space, it opens up compassion, it opens up a renewed relationship with responsibility – to ourselves and the world around us.

because no matter how we come in, what we’ve been told, each one of us is a sovereign being with a calling and a purpose for being here at this time. but until we get that, we are flying blind in a selfish charade of pleasure seeking and self protection.

amidst all that the world is reflecting back to us these days it is so easy to be broken hearted– especially if you are in touch with your own tenderness, with your own vulnerability. on countless occasions the intensity i have seen or felt or heard has knocked me to my knees. i’ve wanted to scream but i have kept my mouth shut. i have wanted to cry and so i did behind closed doors. i have wanted to pretend that this was not real and not going on, so i would look the other way and let life go on.
to be a vulnerable human being means to walk through the world with your heart broken open. it means to hold it bleeding in your hands because it’s yours and it’s rhythm matters. to be vulnerable means to be courageous… to move and live with heart. it means we must see ourselves- the light and the dark. it means we acknowledge who we are – divine beings with a greater purose and fallible humans figuring it all out. it means that we appreciate the path before us – the one we have chosen, with all the challenges and triumphs it provides, for this life is our teacher calling us back home to our whole-hearted-ness. it means we bring forward love – for ourselves and for each other, as often as possible, just as we would love that brand new, completely vulnerable baby.

when we are in touch with our own vulnerability and we see it in another, we are opened, connected, changed. today i watched a raw filmed video of a woman speaking the potent truth of something that touched and moved her deeply. she shared the healing of a vulnerability she has been carrying most of her life. and though it was not my story, i felt her in hers. though it was not my story i felt the healing happening. though it was not my story i understood that her healing is my healing for we are never alone and on our own, we are both that baby, we are both vulnerable to all that is unfolding.

lately every sign i see is a call for deepening. a soul dive beneath the surface of the way things seem and the labels and stories we can read. it is a tap root connection to the truth of our own soul. it is a willingness to be vulnerable and speak from that place, to share from that place, to lead from that place.

this world is changing. so rapidly. every day. there is so much more to it than big money and good branding and how many likes your posts receive. it is a life or death battle for the earth, for humanity, for heart. and the only way i can see to get through to the other side is to be all in. take your heart out in your hands and show it to the world.

what if we were courageous enough to be raw and real? what if we no longer held ourselves back? what if we practiced compassion for ourselves and each other, even when we disagree, because we remember and honor vulnerability?

i am still learning. i am practicing. i am afraid that you will hurt me, not see me, not care. i am afraid you will say it doesn’t matter, that i don’t matter and that i shouldn’t share. i fumble all the time. i do not have it all figured out. but when i tend to that still small voice within, i know i am 100% responsible for all of this and my voice matters, my heart wants to be felt. i am letting all of us down when i don’t let the truth of own vulnerability come out.

and so i offer it to you. i offer you a seat here with me, in a wide open space where all that needs to be said can be said. where all that you feel is a welcome expression of the truth of your experience, where all that i feel is a welcome expression of mine. and in this field i know we will meet and see each other again for the first time and remember that we are one. we are tender, vulnerable, open hearted love.

here we will change the world.”

Find Tulasi and her incredible work here.

Originally posted by Tulasi Adeva on June 14th, 2016. Source: http://www.rockyourjuicylife.com/inspire/2016/6/14/show-your-bleeding-heart. Reposted with permission from Tulasi Adeva.

What It’s Actually Like To Be A Therapist

Spoiler: It’s awesome.

From time to time I’ll get little peeks into what people who’ve never been in therapy, or who went briefly, think it’s like. It’s usually off-base in some way, sometimes minor and sometimes pretty unsettling. A bunch of this is surely due to the many misconceptions and goofy portrayals of therapists in our entertainment media.  So I try very hard to be quite vocal about the reality of it, with the hopes that more people will allow themselves to find out. The work is incredibly beautiful and fulfilling. But its authenticity, and how that extends far beyond session time, comes up too infrequently. Even those who are clients of therapy probably don’t know a bunch of this stuff, which I realized when I began to have conversations about it with friend of mine. So I thought I’d share a few things that the general public might find fun, funny, helpful, relieving or maybe even a little scary.

I want to answer very thoroughly the question, “Is it hard not to ‘take your work’ home with you?” The short of it is that no, it’s not, because I know my role, and I’m pretty awesome at boundaries and self-care. I’m not a fixer. I’m a witness and a supporter. The work is entirely about healing and experiencing and growing. It results in the ability to enjoy way more pleasure, because you get to learn how to manage pain and complexity. And for any of that to happen it means I get to have deeply intimate connections with a bunch of people. It’s pretty awesome.

Now, keep in mind that this is about only me as a therapist. While much of what I will share is universal, that won’t be the case for all of it. Let’s start with a big, fun one…

I dream about my clients.

All.the.time. And how could I not? I spend hours with them engaged in deeply intimate, difficult and moving explorations. My dreams are part of those explorations, because they can inform me about what’s happening in my unconscious and subconscious in relationship to my client. They tell me things I may have missed, they inform me about what I’m thinking or feeling about someone, what I’m feeling about myself as their therapist, where their material overlaps with my own, etc. Sometimes I’ll dream that a client has met someone from my personal life, which opens up a whole other bag of possibilities: Is that about something they need in their life? Is it someone I would or wouldn’t want them to meet? Why? All of those things further inform me and our work together. It’s like free case consultation with my subconscious. Our subconscious is very smart, you know. It’s like the Oracle in “The Matrix.”

I think about my clients outside of session all the time.

It’s not just during my sleep that a client will pop into my mind. A song will remind me of them. I’ll see their favorite food and think of them. I’ll hear a joke that I want to share with them. I’ll see a store I think they’d like. I’ll remember a story they told and I’ll giggle or worry or feel proud. I’ll suddenly have a question or insight about them. The same goes for my old clients. I wonder how they are, what they’re doing, how our work together is or isn’t serving them now. And I often miss them like crazy.

I bring things from my clients lives into my own.

As with any interaction we have with others, I learn more about the world through my clients. I read books they read, watch movies they have mentioned, try restaurants they like. Sometimes I do it primarily for their sake as a means to deepen an exploration by having more information about it. Sometimes it’s just because it’s of interest to me personally. But even then, I enjoy thinking about my client, imagining their experience and thereby learning more about them in that way, too. And I get to learn more about myself, because I have my own, different reactions. In exploring those differences, I learn things about both of us.

I learn things from my clients’ processes.

I’m inspired by and learn from my clients all the damn time. If someone paid all my bills and supported my knitting and vintage clothing habits, I’d do this work with only that as payment because it’s a huge source of nourishment and reward. Because this work is about what’s best for the individual in front of me, I have to constantly look at my own stuff to keep it out of their way. And sometimes I’ll encounter a place where I have a blind spot or an unconscious agenda. Sometimes just recognizing that is enough, other times I have to take it to my own therapist to get her support in processing the material. Sometimes (and this is a fun and challenging one) a client will come in with something that I was just exploring in my own life. If the material is too painful or I can’t keep my agenda out of it, I refer out. But because therapy isn’t about advice-giving, and especially because I work somatically, the work stays clear. It very often doesn’t matter if I’m still working on the same explorations. So many of them are life-long, anyway. I think that’s beautiful. We are masterpieces that get to be attended to over an entire lifetime.

A client once asked me what the difference is between therapy and the outside world. As you can see, not a whole damn lot. That’s why you can and should trust it. It’s the safest possible version of the outside world, because we therapists are trained to be awesome at making it that way for you. It’s incredible what people are capable of when the environment and the relationship is right.

We affect each other. That is the point of therapy: to find healing in a relationship, and to master being oneself (in all its complexity) while in a room with another person so that you can move through the world in the same way.

If you have a therapist and this is bringing up a few questions for them, don’t be afraid to ask. Be ready to process what you learn, or even the question itself, but you can always ask. While we’re on it, the same goes for hugs. Little known fact: hugs are a-ok by a whole lot of us. Ask for them. See how cool this work is?

#MasculinitySoFragile

#MasculinitySoFragile is a hashtag movement intended to shed light on the very important issue of ego in the self-expression of males. The message is supposed to be that masculinity is strong and complex enough to withstand such things as two straight men sitting right next to each other in a theatre, or the use of things colored pink. However, even just standing on its own, the wording of the hashtag borders on mockery. Worse, I’ve been seeing it used too often in shaming and passive aggressive ways. So I feel compelled to unpack it a little. There’s so much juice in this movement, and we need to reach in and extract some of the sour flavor so that it can have a wide positive impact.

First of all, the essence of this message is beautiful: Masculinity is complex and diverse. It can stand up to judgment or doubt. It is not devoid of vulnerability or emotion. I love seeing people push this. I especially love what a great reminder it is that gender is a social construct. It is what we make it. It is what it already is inside of us. That’s good stuff. It’s the true stuff. And we need it to reach the people who don’t yet understand. We need seeds of complexity tolerance to be planted in the people who use phrases like, “Don’t be a pussy.”

Those folks won’t be reached through posts that use broad spectrum or absolute language like, “#MasculinitySoFragile that these manbabies are offended by this HT.” Ouch. Wouldn’t you like to show your vulnerable side around the person who wrote that? I sure as hell wouldn’t. What runs through so much of what is being made fun of is shame. It will not be a shaming stance that brings people out from underneath shame. One of the loudest voices of opposition, who has been tragically attacking back with his own use of absolute language and cruelty, happened to find a great word for it: taunting. Indeed one can’t expect a taunt to result in change, let alone self-reflection. Taunts buy you hurt feelings and defensiveness. As the same fellow pointed out, negative comments in response to this hashtag do not prove that it’s true. They prove that cruelty begets cruelty. Somatically speaking, this creates severe muscular tension and shallow breathing that can become chronic if they aren’t already. This serves to perpetuate the problem. Free expression of the self comes through relaxation, warmth, connection and safety. We don’t need more divisiveness; we need less.

Where we find shame, we know lives anger. So let’s unpack this a bit, too. It’s ok to be angry. It makes perfect sense that the tone in many of these posts is an angry one, because it’s a response to the oppressive force of patriarchy. And anger is excellent fuel for action. Expressed cleanly, it has the power to be heard and to exact change. Anger expressed through hate can be cathartic, but it’s important to know that that will be solely for you and those who already get it. If you’d like to help create change, it will be through connecting.

Patriarchy and simplistic views of masculinity are painful and damaging largely because of their ability to divide and disconnect. Being inside the man box means that a man is forced to be separated from a terrifying number of things: vulnerability, the landscape of emotion, fraternal or platonic intimacy, delicateness, sensuality, receptivity, openness, gender fluidity, orientation fluidity. It’s a force so oppressive that it causes massive internal oppression and splitting. “Splitting” is something that we do in our minds to keep things in tidy little black-and-white packages, and it’s hugely responsible for the absurdities we’re trying to call out. It’s what happens when you refuse to allow new information to expand your understanding of a concept.”What?! I’ve never seen a blue pen before. This must be an entirely different object!” A narrow definition of something that is in reality quite complex creates endless absurdities.

Being in touch with and expressing emotions and vulnerability takes practice, and it’s wonderful to see attempts at empowering more men to start practicing. That’s the feeling to look for: empowerment. So sure, poke fun at things, point out the absurd. Just be sure that what you say has an air of “fuck that,” instead of “fuck you.”

When something like this hashtag surfaces, I believe that it’s really important for lots of people to speak up. I’d love to see Twitter flooded with positive messages for males as a result of this so that when a guy clicks on it, he feels inspired to shed false fears. So here are a few tweets that I appreciated:

#MasculinitySoFragile that in general, men either challenge my masculinity or assume we’re allies in an unhealthy toxic masculinity. Over it. -@handsomefmnst

My brothers told me that they’ll never paint their daughter’s nails. #MasculinitySoFragile -@funfettipancakes

#MasculinitySoFragile 2 men at a Subway will LET U FUCKIN KNOW just bc they are paying for their food together doesnt mean THEY are together. -@discohaylie

#MasculinitySoFragile “My masculinity is so important that I’d rather go a week without washing than use some god damn pink FAIRY SOAP!” -@N_Ver_Sean

All of these tug at my heartstrings. Even the last one in all its silliness, because I have heard sentences exactly that absurd uttered with total seriousness. These posts leave me wanting to make sure that I’m helping to make it safe for the men around me to just be. Make no mistake, there must also be an internal process for everyone in order for change to be made. But it’s welcoming and informed environments that make internal change possible and effective. And it’s our widespread mutual goal to be allowed to simply be who we are.

Combining humor and activism is a form of artistry. Sex educator and comedian Dane Ballard once said to me that humor has this beautiful ability to deliver a sort of package. It’s easily received, but then unfolds in the mind of the listener. This is the opportunity we have with #MasculinitySoFragile, but it must be used well.

How to Speak Out Effectively

  • Anger towards an oppressive force is an early stage of healing. While you’re in it, direct your anger as specifically as you can. Avoid speaking in absolutes and making generalizations. Be mad as hell, just not at everyone. That feels crappy anyway.
  • Ask if your feedback is willing to be received. This isn’t necessary in an original post, but it is in any conversation- especially ones with strangers. Before you get into it, ask the other person if they have a few minutes to hear your impressions. If they say no, you’ve wasted no energy on them, and that’s a win for you.
  • Speak about your experience only. A point is not made stronger, but weaker by exaggerating or using absolutes. Tell the person what you feel, and why. That will indeed mean being somewhat open, and that’s exactly what’s needed in order for someone to hear you. If you can’t communicate with at least some openness, that’s ok. Wait to say your piece until you can, or find someone who can say it for you.
  • Jump at opportunities to speak up, especially when you can use privilege for the good. It is easiest for a person to hear something from someone they consider an ally or the same as they are in some way. When that’s you, it creates a beautiful opportunity for change if they say something with which you disagree. Remember that what you say can be very simple. “I’m not sure that’s true,” or, “My experience has been different than that,” are brief and safe, but very powerful statements that can get others thinking. This isn’t easy, but it’s easier. And it feels really, really good.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke from 1908:

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”

Terry Coffey on Caitlyn Jenner: A Public Display of the Therapeutic Process

The marriage of activism and the therapeutic process has been on my mind constantly. Perhaps that’s why I’m seeing so many examples of it lately, but I hear others remarking on it, too. We seem to be experiencing a major boost in raw feminism as of late. This particular public announcement of self-reflection and healing was such a display of activism that I couldn’t help but write about it.

After the Vanity Fair article “Call Me Caitlyn” was released, a man named Terry Coffey responded with the following post, which was promptly shared thousands of times:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a sentiment shared by many, who seemed to feel that the term “hero” being applied to Jenner negated other uses. It’s not an uncommon belief that the only true heroism comes in the form of facing physical danger, preferably war.

Well someone noticed that the image is actually not of real people, but of figurines. This was drawn to Coffey’s attention, and after some research and some pretty epic self-reflection, he created the following post:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a beautiful example this is of the therapeutic process of tuning in, self-reflecting, and practicing something more authentic. When Coffey educated himself on the history of the photograph he’d chosen, he must have had many, many sensations and emotions arise. I am very impressed with how honestly he listened to them. He let those feelings guide him to a new way of seeing things. And then he immediately and publicly exacted change. So not only do we get to hear about this incredible (and quick!) journey, but we get to be inspired by his process, which can in turn affect our own self-understanding.

When I saw Coffey’s follow-up posting, I didn’t feel surprised. I felt relieved. I had that lovely grounding sensation in my stomach that a deep truth can bring. This is what can happen when someone unpacks their beliefs. Love comes springing forward.

We probably don’t get to know what factors in Coffey’s life led him to react with that initial post, nor do we know where he’ll go from here, but the gift of witnessing his experience will remain. And there’s so much power in the fact that he will reach people who may otherwise not be exposed to such a change of tune, or those who would discount his second sentiment if it came from The Opposition. Interestingly, the sentiment isn’t actually that different. It’s just more inclusive. Transpeople are risking their lives for their freedom.