Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Entwined Desires

I drove across New York State this past weekend to a conference outside of Rochester. Throughout the nearly six hour drive, I kept pressing the search button on my radio, surfing for local stations.

Friday morning’s results didn’t surprise me. With every search, I found a handful of morning shows, featuring rousing banter whose thinly veiled sexual innuendo framed rock songs sporting the same. The vibe was so similar from one station to the other. Some catchy title—The Point, The Rock, The Wall, The River; Star and Buzz—punctuated with a bright signature line, promised more music all the time. Between songs that told of of hearts meeting, beating, bleeding, and bleating; swooning croons, jealous anger, and pent up desire, the hosts—one woman and several men—laughed outrageously at their own off-color wit.

So too with every search I found a couple of Christian shows, featuring sermons that expounded on the importance of right relationship with God. Here male preachers spoke in rhythmic cadences, citing biblical authority as proof of the transforming power of God in our lives.

I remarked on the juxtaposition. Once. Then again. And again. Clear across the state, I found it, sex and spirit, alongside one another, parting the waves between them.

What do we desire?

On the way home, on Sunday afternoon, I tried my experiment again with similar results. This time, however, pop songs replaced the raunchy morning shows, and pop songs stood in for the sermons. Then it got interesting. Station to station, I heard the same yearning hearts—similar voices, instruments, phrasing, and emotional arcs. Even the titles seemed interchangeable.

Was “You Make Me Sing” offering praise to God or compliments to a handy partner? Was “Empty Me” a believer’s call for God to work wonders or a rapster’s call to an appealing chick?
Our desires are entwined. Desire for physical intimacy. Desire for spiritual affirmation. As a scholar of religion, it shouldn’t surprise me. History is chock full of love songs to divine powers, and lovers worshipping their partners. Still, the degree of interpenetration in our culture is distinct. The patterns of sensation and response are the same, running the gamut from delight, anticipation, patience, and excitement, to longing, frustration, irritation, and anger. We want that feeling that fills us up and bubbles over in bliss. But what we want is not forthcoming as easily as we would prefer. We want more.
More what? Desire for spirit? What do we desire when we desire “spirit”?

I use the word “spirit” because its meaning is deliciously multiple. It can refer to an entity like a god or goddess but also to an energy that moves inside us, inspiring us. There can be team spirit, school spirit, good spirits, raised spirits, and the spirit of Christmas, as well as Holy Spirit.

The span is intentional, for whether we see it as entity or energy, the effect on us is the same. The “spirit” we desire provides us with a sense of vitality, direction, and belonging, that together let us know that our lives our worthwhile. We know that who we are has value, for someone or something. Without such spirit, humans cannot live.

As with our desire for nourishment and physical intimacy, there is evidence too in contemporary culture that large proportions of people are not finding what they desire. The signature symptom is depression. A depressed person suffers from feeling no vitality, no sense of direction, and no connection to meaningful others. It is as if life force has leaked out, leaving nothing to fuel hope or action. What once seemed possible folds in and collapses upon you, a weight you cannot move.

Most people experience some degree of depression at some point in their lives. The proximate causes may range from traumatic loss, relentless stress, overwhelming anxiety, persistent loneliness or a lack of sleep, nutrients, or love. The symptoms can range from mild malaise to debilitating paralysis, and may clear up shortly or endure for years.

Our responses run the gamut as well. And here the comparison with our desires for food and sex is illuminating. For, as in these other realms, what we see dominating our cultural sensibility is a tendency to suspect our desires for more, and mobilize a mind-over-body sense of ourselves as our first and best line of defense. We want our discomfort to end, of course, and so we look to what we can acquire that will make the sensation quickly and completely disappear. We look for ways to distract, numb, or dazzle ourselves; we drug ourselves with substances ranging from sugar and caffeine to pornography and prozac. We look outside ourselves for the one true belief that will save us.

There is another way.
In the next two months, we will be exploring this desire for spirit—how it manifests, how we respond, how it entwines with our desires for nourishment and intimacy. We will expose the mind-over-body logic that continues to loom large in how we sense and respond to this desire, and we will explore what a difference a shift to a perspective of bodily becoming makes.

As we shall see, when we know for ourselves that “I am the movement that is making me,” we have what we need to discern the wisdom in our desire for spirit. We can find in our feelings of depression, alienation, and despair a wisdom guiding us to create the relationships that will support us in unfolding what we have to give.

Think about it. What is it that gives you a sense of vitality?
When in a given day, week, or month, are you most likely to feel like your life matters?
With what communities or contexts or universes or worlds do you feel most connected?
How often do these things hover in your consciousness, at the horizons, below the surface, or in the center, enabling you to go on?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

How It Works

Life long passion may be about learning to love, yet it is not about learning to love in general, as honorable an activity as that may be. It is about learning to love and be loved by a particular bodily individual, and doing it well. It is about learning to express our love in ways that allow our partners to feel that love as a force releasing them into freedom and creativity, pleasure and joy. It is about learning to give and receive a touch that is, in this sense, life enabling.

For this journey, there is no formula, map, or destination. There is only an ever-unfolding process of tuning in to what we and our partners need in order to be released into the flow of our own becoming.

Most of us, however, are not mind readers—or body readers. We don’t know how our partners want and need to be touched. We barely know how we want to be touched. And rather than find out for ourselves, our tendency, given our cultural mind over body training, is to rely on images of love and sex plied to us.

We imagine that touching and being touched is a technical matter of identifying the right spots and applying pressure as needed. For our part, we want to think of touch as merely physical, for if it is then we can be sure that we will get the satisfaction we desire, even if we are not on the best of terms with our partners. Better yet, we know that we will be able to give it to the other whether or not we feel like it. Satisfaction guaranteed.

It’s not. In attaching to such images, we are training ourselves not to be able to ask for what we need. We cannot imagine that our tenacious sensations of physical yearning might be pointing towards kinds of touching that are not merely physical—the gentle question, the inquiring glance, the encouraging comment, the well-earned appreciation. We cannot imagine that there is work to be done in breathing into our selves, and bringing our sensory awareness to life with another person. It is about getting to know another person, for sure, and it is also about being willing to be present with ourselves, to allow ourselves to be known.

Even if we have a small inkling of the need for such work, we are likely to ignore it. For it is easier not to ask than to risk opening ourselves to the disappointment that we, or our partners, will not or cannot touch us as we or they need to be touched.

No asking, no friction, no fear.

We thus lose registers of discernment—the sensory cues that would help us recognize in ourselves what releases us into pleasure. It remains a mystery.

When we don’t know what we need and don’t ask for what we need—even and especially when we think we are doing so for the sake of holding the relationship together—we create pockets of silence in ourselves and in the relationship. Dead spaces. The relationship shrinks; the sensory space it occupies in us shrinks. We are less satisfied with the relationship as it grows less able to provide us with cell opening blasts of life enabling touch. So is our partner.

When I ask for what I need, I have more to give.

It is a paradox, but true. When I ask for the touch I need, just ask, without expectation, as a way of being present to myself and with you, I give you the greatest gift. I give you what you need to succeed in doing what you want to do: love me. I give you the pleasure of releasing me into ever greater love for you. Intimacy deepens. Love grows, and I find in myself more capacities for responding to you when you ask of me.

This logic cuts across conventional wisdom and bears repeating. When we do not ask for what we need in order to be seen, feel whole, or unfold fully, we prevent our partner from getting what he or she desires.

When we ask for the kind of touch that will enable us—and open to explore what that might be—we give the gift that is most desired: the gift of ourselves.
How do we know what we really need? We need a relationship in which our physical satisfaction is an ever-evolving reality. And for that, we need to share and listen, be present with ourselves and for another, and honor the tangled yearnings and tired frustrations and pesky irritations we feel as guiding us closer to one another.

When we breathe down and through such yuck moments, we can begin to appreciate them as gifts. They are expressions of what we want, of what we believe is possible. They are opportunities erupting in us to ask for the precise compassion that will release us into the flow of our love for the other person.

We can ask without fear or resentment, because we trust in desire.

We can listen too. We can listen in response because we know what we want.

When our partner asks us to move in a particular way, it is easy to feel defensive (I already did that), or inadequate (I didn’t think of it), or overwhelmed (I have way too much to do, can’t you see?!). It is easy to get wrapped up in the fear that we are letting our partners down.

However, if we are able to recognize the wisdom in our own yuck feelings, then we can hear it in our partner’s as well. We can hear our partner’s asking of us as evidence that s/he trusts in his or her desire for us. That she believes in the relationship. That she has more to give to the relationship. We can hear such requests not as signs of our inadequacy, but as signs of our partner’s desire to move closer to us.

How can we find a way to connect right now?

It takes time. Attention. But gosh, it is good.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Breaking Through

Breaking News! What a Body Knows will be a book!!

Actually, it already is a book, but now it will be published and sold by a dynamic young publishing company from the UK, O Books, and no longer lying on my study floor. The expected due date is May 29, 2009. You will find information about my book HERE.

Meanwhile, I will continue writing this blog, introducing ideas here that are treated with added depth and anecdote there. There I flesh out the experience shift I imagine possible in relation to our desires for nourishment, physical intimacy, and spiritual affirmation. Here I apply ideas in the book to happenings in the news week to week. The dream has always been that this blog would become a place for readers of the book to ask questions, share their reading experiences, work out the details, and comment on contemporary events. May it be so!

Until then: more!
Two books are in the news and on the blogs this week: 365 Days and Just Do It. Each book chronicles the story of a married couple who decide to have sex every day for an agreed-upon time--one year or 101 days. In each case, the couples confirm: the experience increased intimacy. Their relationship is better; their sex is better. They feel and are closer to one another, more in love.

Such positive results might seem guaranteed (of course more sex is better!), until you move beyond the titillation factor, and think it through. A big question looms: how do you manage to share yourself with a partner day in and day out for that long? How do you allow yourself to open to feel what you are feeling, regardless of your stress or performance anxiety, your level of confidence or happiness, your attitudes towards your self, body, work, or what you did and didn’t do on a given day? Takes guts! Humility. Determination. Faith in the practice and process and partnership.

Sure, it is possible to have sex without intimacy. Happens all the time. But when partners take on such a project as friends and co-parents, involved in each other’s daily lives, at least remembering that they took vows for life long love, then it is highly likely that the project will attune them to one another more and more. Why? They have to pay attention. They have to pay attention to each other and to themselves, not television or email. That is what made the difference in their relationships. Not the sex.
Our desire for physical intimacy is and is not like our desire for food. On the “like” side, both desires are rhythmic, tracking arcs of pleasure that rise and fall. Both are sensitive to triggering by memories of past pleasures or promises of future satisfaction. Both activate the same reward and pleasure centers of the brain. Both impel us to create the conditions needed for their satisfaction. So too, both are vulnerable to the mind-over-body training we receive. We can learn to sense and respond to each with doubt, denial, and deferral.

Our desire for sex, however, is "unlike" as well. It is relational. With that relationship comes the additional challenge of coordinating arcs of desire—mine and yours. For, as we saw last week, what we most want cannot be taken, forced, or bought. What I most want is you wanting me.

It is over these last two words, “wanting me,” that partners tend to trip and split. For if one “wants” and the other doesn’t, then to the one who is wanted, the wanting doesn’t seem like it is “for me.” And for one who doesn’t feel wanted, the want is all the greater. A pattern begins: demand and withdrawal. One partner demands, the other withdraws, or more to the point, counters with another demand. Standstill.

This is a primary challenge in every relationship between lovers: how can we embrace the mismatched, cross-hatched desires of any given moment as an opportunity to be together, to grow more in love, to give and receive a life-enabling touch?

The solution to have sex every day for a period of time gives this tension a rest, for sure. Partners no longer have to worry if and when and how. It is already decided. Still, this decision doesn’t make the task of relating that much easier. It just dramatizes what is always true. It allows the desire for sex to be a force driving partners to learn to live in the love that they share.

It’s the bulldozer effect (see June 3). Our desire for sex, even if acted out in a contract, provides the motivation and direction we need to create a relationship within which our ever-evolving pleasure is possible. We pay attention. We deal with our stuff. We have to in order to be present with ourselves, with each other, feeling what we are capable of feeling. It is how we learn to live in love.

Neither partner of either couple suggested continuing the practice beyond the allotted time. (It wasn’t that good!) And the question remains: can temporarily suspending the tension involved in negotiating if, how, when, why help us develop the ability to stay present with ourselves and each other more consistently, able and willing to give and receive on all levels, including physical, the touch that enables our ongoing lives? It might work. For some. But only when they realize that sex is not the issue, and never was.
It is hard not to think of sex as the goal. We want to make sure we get it. But when we focus on sex as goal, we miss it. We forget that pleasure is a function of our openness to it. What we can sense depends on how open we are to sensing. And the more open we are to ourselves and each other, along the multiple folds and dimensions of our living, sharing our pleasant and not-so-pleasant thoughts, the richer our experiences will be.
So what does the cycle of breaths (see side bar) have to do with this? As with our desire for food, having such a practice can open up a perspective on a given moment—those yuck feelings in particular—that allows you to find opportunities for sensing and responding that you didn’t think possible. The perspective that opens is one in which I am aware that I am the movements making me.

Breathing down into the earth, I allow myself to let go into the desire, to affirm it in the moment, whether knotted in irritation and resentment, or extended in longing, as who I am and what I am creating.

Breathing open and releasing into air, I allow those crimped and cramped sensations to unfold, supported by the ground in myself.

Breathing down in the fire at my core, I discern the heart of the desire, finding in yuck feelings the truth of what they represent: a desire for more in the relationship. For more given and more received. More living in the love that is possible.

Breathing through the opened, warmed, grounded space, my righted desire finds ways to be present and open with my partner. To pay attention to how we are creating this impasse, and finding in the pain direction for how to move, what to say, how to engage, differently.

Next week: How it works.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Wanting More

The day after I posted my blog last week, I went to the mailbox and found two editions of the same weekly magazine—one a week late. Why now? The late one was graced with a photo featuring “Happily Married Man” and “Not His Wife” together in bed—top billing for the article entitled: “The Affairs of Men.” The on-time magazine chronicled a firestorm of letters in response. Here it was on the page: desire bashing 101.

At first the opposite seems to be true. In the article, the happily married male author shares his yuck feelings (May 28). He wants more sex. His wife doesn’t. He is frustrated.

In response, he takes the first sidetrack I described last week: he roams the landscape of evolutionary theory, hunting for reasons why he should get what he wants. Perhaps we are not wired for monogamy—women or men. Perhaps our ideal of life long passionate love is an historical anomaly, a physiological improbability, or a psychological impossibility. If so, he argues, then why couldn’t it be OK for him to have some extra-marital sex, release the tension, dump his surplus desire, and still preserve his happy marriage?

Readers responded from the other sidetrack: making pronouncements about what we, humans, should do. Readers scolded, calling him irresponsible, childish, and worthy of divorce. The overriding messages were those well-worn in our mind-over-body culture: sex and love are at odds. In marriage, sacrifice, compromise, and competition are inevitable. Self-control is the way to maximum pleasure.

Author and his readers: The two positions, seemingly so opposed, are not. They share the same attitude towards desire we have been unraveling: “it” is a physical urge that “we” must manage through some cocktail of indulgence and repression. There is no wisdom in desire.
Shift to the perspective of bodily becoming—I am the movement that is making me. What if our desire for sex is a desire to giving and receiving a life enabling touch? What more is there to say? What kind of wisdom could the author’s yuck feelings possible contain?

To begin, he wants more. And what is that more?
He wants her. But not as object. He respects her. He loves her.
What he wants is for her to want him.
Or rather, he wants to be the person whom she wants.
Meaning: he wants to be the person who can touch her in a way that releases her into the present, into the fullness of her own desire for him, so that she can touch him as he wants and needs to be touched.
But he can’t and he isn’t. Hence his frustration.

It is this dissatisfaction that prompts him to consider outlets outside of the relationship. Yet even then, the outlier alternative he proposes is less than palatable to him. When his wife responds: “Sure, and I’ll be out Wednesday night,” suddenly the idea is not so compelling. It is obvious that the problem is not her lack of desire.

What turns him from her, then, is not his respect for her. What turns him away is fear. His fear of not being enough—not desirable enough, not good enough--his fear of not having enough.

When it gets right down to it, no amount of extramarital flinging is going to help, even though he imagines it might. For he is, in that moment, choosing to live in fear, not love. Opting out of relationship while pretending to stay in. Pitting himself against himself. Satisfaction will elude.

But is the only alternative to grin and bear it? No. It is possible to trust the wisdom in desire—the wisdom that wants more.

How? (Breathe to move, move to breathe.)

For one, it involves realizing that desire is not the problem—not his surplus, not her lack. The shapes of dissatisfaction and resistance are what the two partners are creating. The partners in this case, and most cases, are perfect mirrors of one another. Neither is content; both want more. And they both want more of the same thing—more of the touch that will enable them to release into the fullness of themselves. The fullness of their love for one another.

It is not about sex. It is about learning to give and receive a life enabling touch.

Second, it is realizing that this touch can occur on any register, within any span or our sensory potential—emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual. The touch we need in any given moment has no set source or destination. No given point of contact. Its coordinates will change from moment to moment, day to day. In one moment it could mean sharing a concern; in another, taking a walk, working together on a project of mutual interest, or helping out with the housework. It involves seeing and being seen by another human as a whole human.

This is the challenge, the adventure, the exquisite, transformational, liberating work of being in a relationship. It is not about finding the fail-safe technique to pacify, but about getting to know another human. It is not about figuring out a list of likes and dislikes, but being a part of another person’s becoming. It is not about “talking” versus “doing it,” but about realizing the potential for pleasure in every moment of our living that desire senses is possible.

The challenge, then, is to be vulnerable. It is to be honest about what we are feeling. It is to ask for what we want in the faith that the other can give. It is to hear what our partners ask of us as the information we need to succeed in learning to give to them.

I have to say it again. That we do or don’t feel like having sex is not a problem. It’s not the issue. The issue is how do two people develop the ability to connect with one another in the moment wherever they are, however they are feeling, greeting our patterns of resistance and yearning as opportunities to go deeper in knowing each other.

Desire guides us to do the work of opening to one another that pleasure in relationship demands.
I’ve been searching for metaphors to try to animate the various view of desire.

One thought for the mind over body perception is this: desire is something like a butterfly, a flirting fluttering perpetual quest for the ultimate nectar. Lifting its wings from flower to flower, the butterfly hovers in the light, skipping over obstacles, never if ever touching the ground. It is all about its own pleasure, never satisfied, always on the move.

But when I try to come up with an image that honors the wisdom in desire, all I can think of is a bulldozer (with apologies to my two year old). Or rather, two bulldozers, facing each other. As a mutual desire draws partners close, each pushes a larger and larger pile of dirt. When they get close enough, the dirt forms a wall between them. This wall, created by desire itself, is made up of all of the possible feelings and hurts, angers and resentments, the misreadings and misconceptions of our own desiring, that hinder us from opening to one another. It is the more we want, the more we believe the relationship has to offer, the more we have to give, the more we want to heal.

However, if we rev our engines long enough, unable to fly over, around, or through the wall, we run out of gas. One or the other or both turns the motor off. Partners agree to settle into the current proximity, with whatever arm’s length connection is possible.

However, the pressure of desire can also transform that dirt into a bridge—an opportunity to cross over to one another, and allow the love we share to grow stronger than the pain and fear that separates us. In this case, desire, in its frustration, is what motivates us to deal with the dirt—to free ourselves from what holds us back in all areas of our lives. Here, the metaphor surely breaks down.

Do you have a better one?

Next week: More (and the) Cycle of Breaths