Monday, October 15, 2012

In Praise of Nonconformity

I’ve long been wary of idealism in the context of personal growth or spiritual devotion. The intention behind any pursuit may well be pure of heart, but where idealism thrives, fanaticism lurks. It’s easy to spot a convert. They’ve found the key, and they’re singing its praises. Whatever it is they are doing, you should be in on it; otherwise, you become one of them.

My skepticism stems, in part, from a deep discomfort with those set on “transcending” their humanity in order to reach enlightenment. The blissed out “free spirits” I met in Haight-Ashbury in the early 1990s. Meditation junkies without grit. Self avoidance cloaked in positive thinking. New Age groupies hooked on answers. It comes in many forms.

For me, a spiritual life doesn’t hold water without being rooted in nature, in everyday life, and in my body. It doesn’t make sense to separate it from the wounded remnants of the heart. That’s why I was happy to be introduced to Jeff Brown, a self described “grounded spiritualist” who aspires to live in all aspects of reality simultaneously – the emotional, material and subtle realms. Like me, he holds the conviction that the emotional body and spirit are linked. We did an interview together. In his book SoulShaping, his concept “spiritual bypass” speaks of a turning to spirit in order to avoid pain. What defines a bypass? “It’s not easy to identify a bypass from the act itself,” he writes. “What you do to bypass reality, someone else will do to confront it. It’s all a matter of intention, and only you can know your intention.”

I particularly liked his documentary Karmageddon, a personal take on the life and impact of a 1960s counter-culture icon once described by the Rolling Stone Magazine as the Jimi Hendrix of chant. The film dares to pose questions common to those on a spiritual path, such as “What does the abuse of authority mean in the context of spiritual teaching?” – for this alone it had my attention. The centre of his subject, who once spent a month in a cremation venue surrounded by human ashes, believes that the yoni – the Sanskrit name for vagina – is the door to life, and that menstrual blood is sacred.

At first I remember thinking to myself “wow! That’s pretty awesome.” But then you learn of his moniker, “Lord of the Vagina,” his penchant for bedding young students, and the not-so-pretty aspects of how he treats people. I wondered how he got away with it until it dawned on me: it’s intoxicating to be worshipped as divine and ravaged as an object of desire at the same time. The film is a compelling look at the seduction of fame, and the sway that popularity or charisma has on judgment. The most dangerous people in power aren’t necessarily greedy corporate creeps or cult leaders organizing mass suicides. They’re those with a pipe line to the sacred. There’s something real under all that wreckage, so it’s not so easy to dismiss.

Which brings me to what motivated this post. Another one of Jeff’s concepts is a “soulpod” – defined as anything we find a resonance with, be it strangers with a lesson, or someone appearing on our path to inform or catalyze our expansion. Kind of cool, right? Except how do you discern the lesson being offered with a soulpod – be it a person, or a body of teachings? How do you know how deeply to dive into that which you are resonating with?

It’s taken a long time for these questions to form for me. It may sound straightforward but I don’t think it is. Because if you resonate with something strongly, it’s easy to stick around long past the expiry date. To confuse the lesson. Overlook the delivery. Get lost in someone else’s version of things. All in the process of trying to claim something of yourself.  If you’ve been conditioned – like many of us have – that the means to a fulfillment is in someone else’s hands, it’s pretty much a given at some point. So how do you navigate a soulpod? Recognize it for what it is?  And how do you know when it’s time to move on?

The answer, I think, lies in a full-hearted commitment to finding our own way; to discovering the voice that is uniquely ours. This can be a lifetime’s work. For me, learning what questions are mine is a key catalyst in that work. But there’s something else – something I’m still struggling to articulate. And it has to do with resisting conformist impulses, in order to make room for what calls us within.

In her book The Powerof Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain presents some interesting research done by psychologist Solomon Asch, who conducted a series of now-famous experiments on the dangers of group influence and the power of conformity. In 2005, an Emory University neuroscientist named Gregory Berns conducted an updated version of Asch’s experiments. The results corroborated Asch’s findings. His brain scans of research participants showed less activity in the frontal, decision-making regions and more in the areas of the brain associated with perception. “In other words,” Susan concludes, “peer pressure is not only unpleasant, but can actually change your view of a problem.”

I think about all the times, in my personal development, I’ve participated in programs or workshops over the last 30 years, where the pressure to conform – though it was never interpreted that way – was omnipresent. Of all of them, the est training (aka Werner Erhard) was the granddaddy. Now widely considered to have been a cult (or cultish), it peddled follow-up workshops with the spin that anyone not registering was not serious about their self development. And this is the camp into which I was cast. I could never really fully buy into it. I was the defector. I am proud of that now.

One day, I will tell the longer version of that story. Suffice it to say I have learned firsthand how important it is to recognize where the pressure to conform dwells in our lives, and to what extent it is shaping our perception. It was Ivan Illich who said that “personal growth is a growth in disciplined dissidence.” I would be tempted to take it even further. Can we ever really come into our own without granting dissidence reign?

I think not. With age, our greater selves willing, that is a muscle that grows.

None of us will ever accomplish anything excellent or commanding except when he listens to this whisper which is heard by him alone.  
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, August 20, 2012

It's All in the Angle

Something I don’t talk about very much is that I produce and host a weekly radio program. Though I don’t get paid, it offers me the opportunity to speak to all kinds of interesting people I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to meet, and an hour of air time every week to do whatever I want with.

It’s a venue I use for personal development; to practice deep listening and presence of mind, among other things. After 13 years of this, you can imagine how much work I’ve had to do! Though I’ve come a long way, I am still working with the ongoing challenge of discovering what my questions are – and how to position them in a way that stimulates responsiveness on the part of my guest.

Sometimes it just flows out of me. Someone I am interviewing, who has done a lot of media – people on major book promotion tours, for example – tells me they found my questions more interesting than they’re used to, and I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.  

But other times, the right question eludes me. It’s there, just below the surface, but I can’t get to it. I spit something out that is a cross between a botched crossword puzzle and verbal diarrhea.

The one thing I have learned is this: the angle you take with a question plays a big factor in determining the kind of answer (or result) you get.

And so it applies to everything, I think.

Take the popular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. To break the cycle, we might try a different approach or another way “in”. It may not get the result our stubborn ass is insisting on, but it will definitely shed light on the matter.

It can be anything – a project at the office; a writing piece; a creative venture; a conversation with a friend. We need a good cry or we’re learning a new skill. Whatever it is, we’re blocked. Or we’ve hit a plateau. It’s not moving the way we want it to. What would a “side door” approach look like?

I think about this a lot. I remember being at an African music festival once where I got talking to a Jamaican man. We were speaking in English, then at one point, a friend of his passed by and they broke into patois – a rather musical, Jamaican dialect I am familiar with and have always loved the feel of. When his friend left, I asked him about it. I was curious what made him go into patois, because his friend spoke English too, and they were both Canadian. Was it habit? Familiarity?

His answer was so interesting I never forgot it. He said that patois allows him to express emotions he can’t express in English.

When I think of my “side door” metaphor, I think of that.

What inspired this post is a blog I read last week called the Delight of Handwriting: one writer’s thoughts on how she can easily access thoughts and feelings using a fountain pen and a piece of paper that she just can’t access on a keyboard. It was so beautifully written she’s had hundreds of comments. People talking about how writing longhand helps them to slow down; how they miss the luxurious sensuality of the fountain pen’s edge against the page. How we’ve allowed technology to distance us from the things that connect us. And since many of her readers are British, I am learning that calligraphy is actually taught in London schools. Imagine that! And here I am, having written since I was five years old – and I’ve never used a fountain pen. I didn’t even know they still existed. My idea of a nice pen is the Ultra BIC Round Stic Grip.

Now, a whole new world has opened up for me. How will my writing experience change with a fountain pen, or something different than I’m accustomed to? One reader spoke fondly of rollerballs – I might well start with one of those. Or I might find out more about those pens that actually mold to the hand that is using them.

I imagine it’s similar to painting with oil versus painting with acrylics. The materials, the approach – they each have their own way of providing access. As any good photographer will tell you, it’s all in the angle you take. It’s a mantra I try to adopt with almost everything.

Go back to the basics. Switch it up. Find another way in. It’s all in the angle.

I’m still learning.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Phenomenon of 50 Shades

I was on Twitter last week engaging a fellow writer about turning 50 – the implication in our exchange being our 50s were something to look forward to – when a young woman piped in that she hoped we were right. “I’m inching closer to 30 and I’m just a little bit nervous about it,” she tweeted. “Oh please,” my friend Billy replied, and I laughed.

The exchange stuck with me. It reminded me of an old episode of Friends, where Jennifer Aniston’s character spends almost the entire show fretting about turning 30. I have to admit its sort of freak-show-ish to me. How did we get so fucked up about aging?

Not only do our attitudes about age make us miserable, they fuel a sort of impossible idealism that keeps us small – as evidenced in the wildly-popular novel, 50 Shades of Grey. Call it escapism if you want; fantasy as antidote to the stresses of fast-paced, modern day life. I still think it’s doing a number on our psyches. The more we indulge this stuff, the smaller we feel, and the less magnificent our everyday moments of intimacy become.

50 Shades is the most radical (and disturbing) example of the idealization of youth, power and beauty I have come across in some time – there is little or no semblance of the two main characters to anything in real life. Christian Grey is an omnipotent and insanely hot 27 year old with perfect abs and hair who, apparently, would rival the likes of Gilles Marini or Brad Pitt in his heyday. He is stinking rich and treated like God – he has something like 40,000 employees who serve him without question, female staff who ooze and tremble around him like teenagers, and he earns $100,000 an hour. AN HOUR. Nothing is outside of his reach. There is also no end to his sexual appetite or testosterone levels: not only is he ready to go 24/7, he’s ready to go immediately after every orgasm, as many times as required, and his infallible erection is never, ever dampened by human emotions like sadness, anxiety or despair, god forbid. Oh, and the kicker? He’s always monogamous.

But it doesn’t stop there. The female character, Anastasia Steele, is a knock-out, too – except she’s also a virgin who has never masturbated, of course. Think the lack of any urge might mean a low sex drive on her part? Don’t be silly. It just needed Christian Grey to come along and now, magically, not only is she always instantly wet and “ready” before he even touches her, she has multiple orgasms and – wait for it – she can come on command, too!

I had a lot of mixed feelings reading this book. The description of some of the sex scenes – minus repetitive statements like “I want you so much right now” and “Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?” – is actually quite well done, and the email banter between the two characters is often witty and amusing. But the rest of it was pretty much nauseating.

What really bothered me about 50 Shades, however, was how anti-male it was. It goes like this: despite Christian Grey’s troubled childhood and taste for BDSM, he is forthright, honest, articulate and fully in touch with (and open about) his weaknesses. More importantly, he is kind, endlessly appreciative, and always respectful of her wishes and boundaries. He will do anything for her.

But no – this isn’t enough, not for Anastasia Steele. He isn’t perfect enough. He’s “depraved”. He has issues. When he insists an unconventional Mrs. Robinson experience he had when he was 15 was a loving one, she believes she knows better, referring to the woman as having “robbed him of his youth” and whining incessantly about it at every opportunity. Further on in the book, she makes it her mission to intrude into his early life as often as possible, interrogating him at every opportunity in the name of “getting to know him better.” No amount of information is enough, and she often plods merrily along in spite of his expressed wish not to. She tells him again and again how fucked up he is, and he concedes, thanking her for loving him.

And that is at the heart of what turned me off about this book – the emotional cesspool underlying much of their relationship that of course never interferes with the sex; the subtle emasculation of a man who is both desperately in love and eternally unaffected; her constant adolescent tantrums and his implausible patience. In essence, something so far removed from anything real that it is impossible to relate to. What the hell is driving the sales of this book?

That is the question that drove me to read it. I also wanted to know how anyone could make a novel about BDSM socially acceptable and the answer, just as I suspected, is that it’s been sanitized, prettied up. A man with a dark side is miraculously and religiously principled and safe – there is a lengthy contract with detailed expectations and all boundaries are negotiated; his insatiable desire never interferes with obtaining her consent and ensuring her safety. The author can’t even get through a sex scene without mentioning the “crinkling of the condom wrapper”, for god’s sake.

Idealism hurts us. It separates us from values unfettered by impossible standards and leaves us lost, far away from anything we might call home. Perfectionism is a recipe for misery. The best artists that ever lived all spoke of beauty, even eroticism, in our flaws. “There is a crack in everything,” Leonard Cohen sang. “That’s how the light gets in.”

It is in this spirit I would like to see an erotic novel get written in, and become a bestseller. Even better, an erotic novel about two people over 50 – not stuck in pretense or clinging to their youth but rather, something real with sensuality and wisdom. And maybe one day, when I’m still alive, they’ll even make a movie out of it that is intelligent, tasteful and sophisticated.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Quiet Whisper of Hope

There is nothing in this world more essential to life than hope. Where it lacks, there is no light. Hope, to me, is the breath of life; it emboldens you and makes you brave; the echo of promise, ever present. It lifts you up when you are leaden, and keeps you going when you feel weak. Hope, of all things, reminds you to dream, no matter how things might look; it is optimism given license….the quiet whisper that says, it is possible. You deserve it. What is yours will come.

I just turned 50 today. And I am so excited. I am telling everyone who will listen I am 50! The way I see it, today marks my induction into a new life passage; the best years of my life. I can’t explain it, but I feel proud to be 50. I know, with the years, the tiny brutalities of aging will continue to hit me – a changing body, discrimination, invisibility. But I intend to find refuge – even salvation – in my aged worldview, unfettered by petty grievance or the silliness of youth. To live in a way that integrates everything I’ve learned into my visceral self, edging me slowly to a different way of being that says, this is your life. It is a gift. Relax and enjoy the ride. Make every day count. Dedicate your focus to finding beauty, even in what isn’t pretty. Endeavor to be kind. Don’t ever forget that hope is the chalice on the altar of dreams. And to keep it alive, don’t look back.

[To Jerry – whose encouragement, support and generosity of spirit have given me hope, in the most profound sense of the word.]

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On Turning 50: Longing to Relax

If our “second adulthood” had a jumping-off point, it seems to me it would be the year we turn 50. Up until that point, I think, we often carry on as a version of our younger selves, still bound to the ideals of a culture bent on youth. We get smarter about how we spend our time and have a stronger feel for who we are, but we’re not quite at the point where we’re counting the years we might have left. If we choose to, we can still deny the process at hand, and unless we have terrible genes, we can fare quite well.

But our 50s are a whole new era. It gets a lot harder to play make believe. Yet if our eyes are open, we gain access to a new pool of wisdom, and we can start to get our feet wet. Pretending loses its appeal. We begin to let go and enjoy the freedom that comes with aging.

At least, that is what many women have told me, and what I, in turn, believe, in the most visceral sense one can have. I am about to turn 50 in ten days; the beginning, as a friend of mine calls it, of my “second wind”.

I am aching for a revolution. More than that, I am aching to relax, in every conceivable way. And nothing brought that home more than my mother, just out of the hospital, set on a regimen, unwilling to consult a second opinion. Without going into details, let’s just say that what I saw in her scared the daylights out of me. Because it was a blown up version of something I’d been witness to my whole life: an unquestioning loyalty to an authority outside herself, and a “pulling in” – not the kind of pulling in we do in introspection, but a pulling in that involves tightening, holding in or holding on.

I know she is doing the best she can with what she has. I know she is fighting the only way she knows how – her “pulling in”, oddly, is also a form of protest. But it doesn’t help, because I want to see her happy, and because of what it triggers in me. I am deathly afraid of becoming rigid as I age. In my experience, one of the many challenges of getting older is a tendency to resist change, even when our sanity, or peace of mind, depend largely on the contrary. Living in a society where elders are so grossly undervalued, it’s easy to hold our emotions in as we tell ourselves, nobody wants to know anyway. If we become bitter about society’s disregard for us, we would often be wholly justified.

But do we want to sacrifice our quality of life to silent protest? I certainly don’t. Nor do I want to become set in my ways – yet I have already seen signs that this is where I am headed. And it’s chilling. I remind myself that my stress levels are high; that seizing up is all I’ve known, and that I am actively working to unlearn it. Then my mother re-enters my consciousness, and the haunting resumes.

In many ways, she and I are polar opposites in our personalities, priorities and character. We would never be friends if we weren’t related. We have worked hard to find common ground over the years, and to focus on the love we have for one another. And I do love her – fiercely, desperately, and without bounds. But her way of coping; of dealing with her emotions, really fucks me up. I can’t be around it. I need fluidity. I need to learn how to really relax into life, and to court change. And I hope as I enter my 50s, I can find the strength to do just that.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Finding Love as an Introvert

All my life I have admonished myself for not wanting to be “out there” more. When I was in grade school, I was always jealous over the “it” girl in class. In high school, I wished I was part of the cool crowd, reigning supreme at the back of the bus. Into my 20s, I took self help workshops to learn how to be more dynamic and likeable. Even in my 30s I spent inordinate amounts of time trying desperately to be someone I wasn’t.

Thank god for aging. It wasn’t until I got into my 40s that I began surrendering to the hand I’d been dealt, which involved a long and arduous process of struggling, in earnest, with who I really was. And I’ve come quite a distance. Many years of solitude and introspection have enabled me to get out of my own way. My character has finally begun to take shape and find expression. And I am far more interested in living my own life than anyone else’s, even with all its uncertainty. For the first time in my life, I have found liberation in not knowing. I’m going to be 50 in June, and I’m very, very excited.

For years I have heard from women about how great the 50s are. You finally start relaxing and learning to really enjoy life. You don’t sweat the small stuff. You are in your element sexually. You tell it like it is. The list goes on. I intend to reap all of this and more. But more than anything, my 50s will be an ownership and a celebration of my true, introverted nature.

I can thank Susan Cain for this, in part. Her book, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking has opened my eyes to a “cultural evolution that reached a tipping point around the turn of the 20th century.” America, she says, has shifted from what the influential cultural historian Warren Susman called the Culture of Character (which focused on inner virtue and honor) to a Culture of Personality (which focuses on outer charm, and how others perceive us). In other words, extroversion has become the North American cultural ideal. Today, she says, “we make room for a remarkable narrow range of personality styles….we are told that to be great is to be bold; to be happy is to be sociable.”

But the great thing about this book – I am still reading it – is that it is helping me to see myself in a new light; to “take stock of my talents” as an introvert and to appreciate all the qualities that come with it. Of course, most of us are on a spectrum, so I do have an extroverted side, born of a stronger inner core – but it’s interesting that, when people see that, they can hardly believe there is an introvert buried underneath it, calling all the shots. I have become someone I never thought I would be and frankly, spent much of my life fighting: a deeply sensitive, unconventional outsider who needs substantial alone time in order to assimilate, integrate and refuel.

That makes finding love extraordinarily difficult. I have spent the vast majority of my adult life on my own, outside the bounds of any conventional relationship. Couples who have found happiness in spending most of their days together are foreign to me; I cannot imagine living that kind of life. I have always put passion over domestic love; I am what author Esther Perel calls a “romantic”. Since I don’t get out much, I have been on dating sites, but I find small talk intolerable. I ache for something real – thought provoking, deep discussions that expand my mind, touch my heart, or inspire me to see the world differently. And I aspire to affect others the same way. When this happens, it rocks my world. I treasure it; become hungry, reach for more. But at some point I have to back off, re-group – and none too soon. I need my space, and lots of it. Somehow it makes whatever was shared mean that much more.

I know there are other people like me out there, but finding them is another matter. Intimacy with someone you trust and have chemistry with is a gift. But so is a connection with self. The life I have chosen, the solitude I have had – it has, many times, been lonely, but I would rather be lonely alone than lonely in a relationship. And it has taught me a lot about independence. I suspect, if I were ever challenged by the prospect of an ongoing, long term relationship, I’d have to learn how to do it. Learn how to “do” a relationship. Maybe I’ll get lucky. Maybe I’ll find someone who needs time alone as much as I do.

Or maybe not. Either way, I want my 50s to be a time when it all starts coming together; of coming home to my destiny, and living in harmony with all my core values. Cultivating a rich, inner life, I think, is what helps make that possible.

Friday, January 6, 2012

On Kissing: What Matters?

Having recently been treated to the company of a sensual and distinguished gentleman, I’ve experienced a most gentle stirring of all things visceral; places tidied up, shelved or ignored. It’s nice. Though I haven’t met him yet – our contact has been limited to the telephone – he brings to our conversations a strong and intriguing presence, and a certain something that I cannot yet identify, but draws me to him.

The other day, he asked me what kind of kissing I liked. Nobody has ever asked me that before, and it got me thinking. It got me thinking about how intimate the act of kissing is, and is in some ways more intimate than intercourse. I thought about past lovers; the ones I felt inclined to kiss, and the ones I did not. I thought about the times that kissing a man repelled me, and what it was about it I didn’t like. I remembered the kisses that made my heart want to burst with joy, or that stopped my world.

As with many other things in my life, it was only with experience and the passage of time that I really got to know, and trust, my deepest of sensibilities. And just as there are thousands of ways to make love, there are just as many ways to kiss somebody. I’ve got a pretty good range, and I’m fairly confident that my technique rivals that. But as most of us know, a good kiss can only go so far without someone responsive on the other end. And responsiveness is limited by what we are willing to experience.

I’ve had some decent kisses in my time, a few of them pretty hot. But my quest for the Holy Grail continues, and by that I refer not so much to an ideal but to a quality; something open and dynamic, an eroticism born of both heart and passion. That I am entering my “second adulthood” is fuel for that inspiration. I’ll be 50 this year, and I am far keener than I ever was to nuance. I’m ready for a whole new world of kissing, and for the first time in my life I’m beginning to feel I deserve it. To be desired sexually is one thing, but to be kissed, by someone who longs to kiss you – that is quite another.

That’s just me. So when he asked me that question, I did my best to answer it. I was shy. I like almost kissing, I told him, those tentative moments. But I also like ones that are sure; kisses deep, raw and lustful. So much of it depended on the mood, I told him. I tried to be eloquent, not sure how I fared. Inside, in my most private fantasies, I roamed. I imagined kisses that tantalize, or dance on the edge of something. I imagined foreheads kissing in tender communion. And I thought about the soft animal kiss; the one that explores, or indulges a primal yearning.

I remember the time that Adrien Brody surprised Halle Berry at the Oscars with a passionate kiss when she went up to accept her award. I remember the way he held her, and cradled her head. It reminded me of the way Clark Gable kissed Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. We don’t see that style much any more. A lot of big screen kisses look and feel similar to me, even when there is chemistry. We live in an era of “everything you need to know about kissing” books. Maybe we need them because the average person lacks imaginative kissing abilities. While I’d be the first in a room to pick up a book on the “art of kissing” out of sheer curiosity, I think courage of heart matters more than skill.

At least in our later years, when hopefully, performance gives way to an earthly presence, and kissing becomes an expression of something that really matters.