Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fearlessness, Vulnerability And The Mask Of Everyday Life

I was walking my dog this morning--the usual route through my neighbourhood. It is a crisp and clear day, the sun peeking out sheepishly behind the ersatz celestial bedcovers of clouds.

I have a very large breed dog, one who elicits every reaction from fear/avoidance, to grins and blithe indifference. A woman came down the sidewalk from the approaching direction, seemingly with the latter disposition. I say this because the gigantic sunglasses she was wearing hid any dare of outward mood. Her expression was blank, even slightly dismissive as I offered a "hello" (as I had been, all morning, to all I greeted).

Now, I don't expect everyone I encounter to acknowledge my gestures or presence. I can certainly appreciate a woman perceiving a friendly morning smile and 'hello' as unwanted flirtation, or even just intruding on her insulated experience (she was also wearing earbuds). What did jump out at me, in kind of a ridiculous way, was that she was wearing a very distinctive animal beanie on her head. You know: kitty/doggie/bunny ears perked up high, Nordic chin ties dangling down. Kind of like a five year-old hasidic jew in animal drag. So the slight frown and dismissal of my greeting suddenly made the whole experience profoundly ridiculous. As I walked past her, my gangly, huge young dog trotting down the block, sniffing, peeing, mushing his face in the melting snow, I began to laugh at the encounter.

I'm not singling this woman out here. There are plenty of days where I want to shield myself from the intrusions of the world--especially the rage-provoking imposition of someone else's insistence, through a smiling suggestion that I connect on a human level, to 'lighten up' and be happy. Sometimes we just want to be insulated in our grouchiness. I'm serious. And yet, as I type that sentence, I see the absurdity of the statement. We are walking contradictions. We seek to belong, to feel a 'part of' the world, while simultaneously wanting it to leave us alone. The paradox is akin to the early stage of development of our childhood--'come here...leave me alone.' We want the autonomy and the attention. We are all trying to walk this tightrope of emotional need and stoicism. Somewhere along the way, we learned to try and hide it, to put on the mask that "I'm ok. I don't need anyone." There is a simple and heartbreaking reason for this adaptation: fear and shame.

Social Psychologist Brené Brown talks about this via the conversation about vulnerability. The fear part of the equation is that we are afraid to show our true selves for fear that we will be rejected, for being too weak, too open--not what we think others expect from us. There is a primal, evolutionary driver beneath this: weaker herd members die alone, hungry. The deeper catalyst for shutting down is shame. That is, we feel at our core (and as the result of gaps in our attachments in early life, the lack from feeling insecure, dismissed or not truly seen/heard) that we are not enough. And the fact that we dislike and want to divest ourselves of this feeling is a strong motivator to keep others from seeing this illusory core flaw in ourselves. In truth, the opposite (as Brown's research shows us) is true. When we turn inward/outward stress into social connectedness through vulnerability, openness (what I would call 'being human' with ourselves and others), we allay these self-distortions, and find solace, support and resilience. We no longer hide from ourselves, from life.

In Aikido class last night I was teaching my black belt students how to deal with a knife thrust to the abdomen. The exercise is less about control of the weapon, as it is control of one's own fear. When we offer ourselves to our attacker with openness and fearlessness, a willingness to die in the act of being fully present, and subsequently move in synchronized step with their movement, the 'target' ceases to be there (nor the collision of attacker/defender). The attacker's subconscious mind perceives total vulnerability, and at the moment of anticipated full-power contact, the defender turns to let the weapon glance by, while applying downward energy. The attack is controlled because the attacker's energy has been matched without reaction, and their power absorbed.


'O'Sensei' Morhei Ueshiba, circa 1960s
When we relinquish our sense of having something to defend, we become invincible. We see the preciousness of our own life as vital as that of our so-called opponent. In effect, we are overcoming our own ego-defensiveness. We are taking appropriate, in-the-moment action to reduce the conflict. As I say often in my class: we are not training for the unlikely, though ultimate, challenge of someone challenging our life--that comes as a byproduct of the training. We are training to overcome the aggression and fear towards ourselves, to help us foster self-responsibility and coexistence in daily life.








Thursday, February 13, 2014

Addiction As Compulsion (And Why Morality Fails)

Post-mortem: Philip Seymour Hoffman


One of the most brilliant actors of this, or any other time, recently succumbed to a relapse of addiction after 20+ years of sobriety. The internet has been, predictably, awash in speculation, opinion and judgement at the actor's death (which had him leave behind three children and a spouse).

A recent article critically examines the 75 year-old 12-step program model, and why this and other models of recovery are flawed in terms of long-term results and efficacy.

The article assesses the approach of author Dr. Lance Dodes, the former director of Harvard’s substance abuse treatment unit at McLean Hospital, describing his theoretical orientation here:


 "Addiction is a compulsive disorder, an attempt to cope with anguish by engaging in ritualistic behaviour that is soothing and predictable, despite ongoing negative consequences."


The piece mentions that Dodes comes under scrutiny for selectively assigning certain conditions as medically-related (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), while characterizing addiction/substance abuse as distinctly a psychological disorder (with clear physiological symptoms). Notwithstanding the latter point in parenthesis, I believe Dodes is on the right track. Most of what we now know about pharmacological intervention (drug treatment), for example, when it comes to say, pain management, or depression, is that placebo is statistically very high, upwards of 70-80%. What this points to, as McGill researcher Dr. Amir Roz points out, is that our physiological responses/conditions are to a large extent top-down regulated. In other words, mind controls body.

This is also to say that the socio-psychological benefits of peer support, anonymity, and spiritual connection are not without tremendous benefit as regards the 12-step movement. It's just that the process is underscored by a fundamental moral purview of addiction which, while trying to simultaneously surrender our poor self-control to the universal authority of a 'higher power,' undermines our immediate sense of agency and self-healing. The article makes the case that while a great many people who do engage programs like AA experience change, it doesn't speak to the statistically much higher people whom recover without any organized program.

Where do we go from here??

Join us March 1st in Vancouver for a life-changing workshop, as we get to the heart of addiction with Have A Nervous Break...THROUGH! With Michael A. Gordon, MSc.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ecology VS Environment


“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

--Walt Whitman


I came across this wonderfully colourized photo of Walt Whitman the other day, and was gratefully reminded of the profound declaration of his poetic philosophy. Somehow, as we ponder the scale and impact of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it seemed timely to raise this discussion regarding our distancing from the environment.

I was listening to an extensive interview with noted cell biologist and author (The Biology Of Belief) Bruce Lipton, PhD, where he described human civilization itself as a socio-biological evolutionary system of humanity. In other words, each and every one of us is, more than ever, interdependently linked within a living organism/system of humanity, and as in nature, all biological organisms must behave cooperatively within their system to survive and function.

People with schizoidal psychological or mental disorders often present with 'dissociative' behaviour. 'Depersonalization' is one such dissociative adaptation, where not only is the person dissociated from their immediate environment, but within their own ego structure. In other words, 'tuning out' or 'turning off' from the overwhelming stimuli of reality can also mean disconnecting from any grounded sense of self.

It seems clear to me that to comprehend the destruction of the biosphere--at our own hands--is too shattering a concept to embrace on a daily basis. It is inherently disempowering and traumatizing. Like a child in abusive conditions, the notion of losing or risking rejection by a parent (despite their abusive behaviour towards the child) is a lethal notion. Rather, in a pre-rational state, the child will deny, personalize and divert any antagonistic thought or feeling toward a neglectful or dismissive parent in the name of survival. Our current slide into global ecological collapse suggests a similar dynamic of a) traumatizing conditions; and b) denial/disassociation as a primal defense.

Ecology is the study of an organism and its relationship with its surroundings. Environment is the projected identity/character we place on those surroundings. In doing so, we continue to reify the consensual illusion that the 'environment' is something outside of us altogether. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We need, more than ever, to recognize ourselves, as Whitman suggests, in the face of all living creatures, in the shadow and glow of the Earth and Sun, in each others' gaze, and collectively act to make real and precious our Ecology of spirit and form.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Being Present, Tantric Life and Erotic Intelligence

There is nothing special you need. No special training. No magic insight, invitation, auspicious or formal entrée. We each and every one of us have the essential and innate capacity for beingness.

It is only the perpetuated illusion of separation that creates the experience of duality; of self and other. In this separation is rooted the unfolding self-narrative and body consciousness that distorts our perception that the world is happening to us, apart from us. But as the great Sufi poet Rumi reminds us, "You are not a mere drop in the ocean. You are the mighty ocean in a single drop."

So what does 'tantra,' the root principle of Tantric Buddhism teach us about our subjective connection with reality. First, it expresses the traditional buddhist doctrine of "two truths," which is the notion that there is the conditional truth or conventional awareness (consensual reality) and the absolute truth (enlightened mind/heart). Simply put, tantra denotes a commitment to path that leads us to knowing the divine, or connecting with Godhead, through ritual practices that bring to fruition the inherent buddha-mind awareness within each of us.

In the West, our truncated and simplified association with Tantra is via tantric sex practices. Tantra in this regard is far from trivial, as far as one sees it as a path to unification of one's sexual aspects, one's masculine and feminine energies, and most importantly, with the quality of full imminence and presence in the moment as a way of contacting reality in all of its sensual and phenomenological richness.

The latter is truly the heart of the matter, as it relates to being fully open to the 'juiciness' of life in an erotic manner. Eros is a concept derived from the ancient Greek such as to conventionally denote 'intimate' or 'romantic' love. Plato, however, suggested that eros can be cultivated and idealized intellectually to a higher, more realized form--one that expresses love for the quality of a person, an idea or life itself, hence "platonic" love. Taken further, as Carl Jung suggested, eros embodies a yearning for sustaining life energy itself, the desire for wholeness, interconnectedness and "psychic relatedness." There is a whole side discussion here towards other goals of buddhist practice, i.e. towards developing a sense of interdependency, equanimity, compassion and empathy. However, for the time being the focus here is on viewing eros and tantra as portals to connecting with the full passion of life.

This is what is meant by 'erotic intelligence.' It is not simply the sexual drive to merge with another in desire and fantasy, but the impulse to creatively engage with the passion of life itself. To be fully alive, to develop the capacity to have emotional and sensual fluidity through our connection with experience, with ideas, with the unbridled energy of the universe--whether through sexual passion or 'platonic' tenderness--refreshes us and vitalizes our relationship with the world. Erotic intelligence, apart from emotional intelligence--which is the capacity with which we are aware of our social interactions, the the emotional currency and dynamics of relationship--allows us to explore, define, and cultivate for ourselves the texture, contours, sensual openness, surrender, yearning and desire of our passionate life. It charges up our expressiveness and our receptiveness as sensual beings, whether it be through aesthetic, spiritual, sexual/physical, intellectual, platonic or tactile engagement with reality.





Sunday, February 17, 2013

Grains Of Sand

I searched for the great Love of my life, and it was life itself.

I searched for the illumination of God's presence, and it was in the twilight of my dog's gentle gaze.

I searched for deep meaning to the emptiness of the universe and existence, and I found stillness.

I searched for greater riches and abundance in worldly, tangible ways, and found the genuine gratitude of those I had helped.

I searched the essence of my true nature, and I found the expansion and contraction of the infinite universe; light, darkness, cold, heat, desire, longing, desperation, and beingness.

I searched for causality and found discriminating awareness and choice.

I searched deep into the eyes of evil and found the light of humanity, compassion, suffering and liberation.

I searched for union with 'other' and found myself.

I searched for answers, and learned to let go. Again, and again, and again...and found transcendence; grains of sand leaving the hourglass, only to return and fall again with only scant trace of remembrance, until the last grain  returns to the whole, cycling into forever...

I stopped searching, and joy found ME.


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Exploring Gender Role Socialization, Desire, Intimacy & The Male Sexual Gaze


A female friend, a feminist and philosophy professor, recently posted interest on a social media site for any online material addressing male gender role socialization and how it affects male sexuality. Simply put, her concern is around how the culture at large and prevailing patterns of gender roles socializes boys into becoming (heterosexual) adults whom see women through a very distorted, stereotyped and limited lens—to the disadvantage of both genders.

So I took up the call. This is great topic, and one of personal interest. I find myself single and dating after many years of serial monogamy. So it’s very topical for me at the moment! Sexuality is such a complex maze of influences and impulses, all pushing and pulling on us for attention. Some of it relates to hidden biases from our past that keep us stuck on some carousel of hellish repetitious behaviour. Some are just true, while critically unaddressed social messages about approval, shame, guilt make it totally confusing.

In a 2009 piece, included in the Best Of 2010 Sex Writing, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel (http://www.bestsexwriting.com/2010.html) John DeVore lays out his personal case for just owning, as men, our real desires. (http://www.thefrisky.com/2009-04-30/mind-of-man-the-types-of-women-that-really-turn-us-on/). DeVore describes how two archetypal female forms fire his loins: one, the curvy, voluptuous, zaftig woman; and two, the demure but sultry, long-legged slender vixen. I agree with John’s point about cutting through conventions or any sense of external approval and just paying attention to what revs your engines. The problem is, for many men, what sends the flag up the pole, so to speak,  may be preventing them from loving real women from a more diverse pool of choices,  or relating to a more complete sexual connection with women who may not fall into what may be a narrowly pre-conceived (and subconsciously ‘safe’) template.

As a clinical psychotherapist in private practice, teacher, writer and public speaker I have spent many years in my own in therapy, sifting through the detritus of my internal and externalized psyche: broken relationships, unresolved grief, succumbing to numbing low self-worth and depression, and generally having a really rough go. I have sat in men’s circles—drumming, humming, chanting and ranting. And I have spent agonizing moments of self-recrimination, regret, loss and deep suffering over failed intimate relationships, tormented by the confusion of creating conflict between owning my desire, trying to be a ‘nice’ guy, and pushing away intimacy. In hindsight, and with the benefit of helping scores of therapy clients, I now see clearly that I simply made the wrong choices in women, for me.

There’s a sort of double-bind at work here. The very conditions of our early life—what we can call primary socialization, that is, how we see and internalize models of love and intimacy and communication from our parents—set us up to operate from unresolved or distorted self-worth, or limiting cognitions. In other words, we feel bad or confused in relation to self, our needs and sense being made a priority by those caring for us go unheeded, and we internalize a message that builds a script about what we deserve and what to expect in love. Worse, we can directly suffer or witness major abuse at the hands of those guiding and nurturing us. At the same time, the research evidence is adding up to support in every way that downloaded parental stress, neglect and even perceived abandonment affects us even at the genetic level.

So the double-whammy? The very conditions that sent us in the wrong direction now set us up to make bad choices, and since we are the ones who are now responsible for recreating those early conditions of neglect or deprivation, we layer on a deeper cloak of self-loathing and shame. This is really pronounced with diagnoses such as Borderline Personality Disorder, where the subject vacillates between extremes of tolerance in object relations (whom we seek to connect with and love). In other words, BPD types ultimately suffer extreme social isolation because they are capable of only ever putting people on a pedestal, or making them the sum of all evil. So you can see the distorted, destructive and contemptuous capacity of (self) love gone wrong. The disorder takes early emotional deprivation and turns it into a cruel compulsive cyclical behaviour, where one pre-selects out of what they want to deserve/feel out of a kind of foregone conclusion mentality of despair, while projecting the blame onto the ‘other.’ You can see how this would factor into a guilt/shame complex that steers men away from the kind of personally-defined, libertine, gonad-driven desire DeVore describes.

But there’s something more disturbing going on. Looking at the previously described dynamic really begins to open up some deeper analysis of our commodified, social-cultural fetishization of women: namely, porn and advertising. At once, these grossly idealized (and hetero, race, class-centric) images of women are both the object of refusal and male entitlement; refusal, because being idealized women they don’t really exist, and might be out of actual reach for many men, and entitlement because of perceived patriarchal endowment. Clearly, this is what points to the ample research data correlating such stereotyped images and sexualization of women with real acts of violence. In effect, the ‘woman’ of these images is the projected distorted fantasy of the personality disorder male type—it is impossible for her to represent the complex diversity of all women, so she thus becomes a hyper-realized woman whom really transcends real womanly traits. She is the misogynistic effigy.

In his 2001 PhD dissertation, “An Analysis Of Masculine Socialization And Male Sexual Anxiety (http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-12102001-201705/unrestricted/Dissert1-5new.pdf). Andreas G. Philaretou raises the broader social-cultural messages we receive, transmitted through parental modeling, male values and the demands of conforming with heterosexual ‘normalcy.’ He writes:


Briefly, patriarchal socialization refers to the process of allocating and transmitting male privilege from one generation of boys to another. Masculinity could be conceptualized as the practical application of patriarchy; the personification of patriarchy in men’s everyday lives.

Male sexual anxiety refers the generalized feelings of sexual unrest experienced by men as a result of their historico-socio-cultural conditioning in the patriarchal masculine ethos. Relational abuse deals with the physical, psychological, and emotional variants of abuse experienced in intimate relationships. Sexual addiction has to do with one’s mental preoccupation with and physical enactment of sexual behaviors for the sake of alleviating male sexual anxiety and as a substitute of true intimacy in interpersonal relationships.


There is ample ground here for a book, and perhaps one I will write. In the meantime, I will bring the discussion back around to DeVore’s declaration of genuine, red-blooded authentic desire. I’m with him: curvy women are very attractive, and there's no problem with personal preference. The deeper concern here is for the men who fall within the broad spectrum I describe above--what Philaretou classifies as generalized male sexual anxiety. There arises a kind of chicken and egg question as regards the greater culture and the images of women it presents, who controls and defines them, and how they reproduce some of these underlying pathological drives. I do believe that, clearly for women, those dominant images and messages are confining, limiting and destructive in many ways, as are all stereotypes. But they also confine men from exploring a broader relationship with desire, intimacy and female sexuality.

So herein lies the deeper conundrum. Part of the inherited/learned/socialized behavioural adaptation for men is to be disconnected or illiterate vis-à-vis their intimacy skills. Many heterosexual men watched their dads, or popular culture versions of their projected dads, operate in a binary social world. In world one, they are the Mad Men, or perhaps the construction site men, where real feelings, insecurities and expressions are stowed away in fear of ridicule and rejection, in favour of hyper-masculininity—talk of sports, work, etc. In world two, they come home (or seek out) the women in their lives where they channel their pent-up need for vulnerability through a impossibly pressurized container of intimacy via their relationship. In this container, men are placing bets with the stash of their social and emotional intimacy, while also playing out against their spouses their likely muddled expressions of desire via an idealized projected internal image. Suddenly, we see the exigence of the ‘madonna & the whore’ syndrome, trapping both man and woman in impossible confines. So I think this discussion brings wider attention to the need to explore non-sexual intimacy between men, men and women, and to come back to sexual desire from a more fully-realized palate of emotional experience.

In the end, let’s bring together the curvy women with the men who love them, the thin women the same, and every other combination in between with love, respect and mutual desire. The man who loves and respects himself at core will be open to desire in whatever shape moves him, and give reciprocity in that exchange with the women who holds him in her mind with equal regard, lust and imagination.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Non-verbal Cues & Qualities Of True Leadership

Nine years ago I made a decision that changed the course of my life, and continues to challenge me to be open, compassionate, gentle and strong. The decision? I adopted a 130-lb Rottweiler/Mastiff rescue named Maximus.

The shelter assessment gave Max a full 'green light' in regards to being socialized with people and other dogs. Skeptical, I took the shelter staff's suggestion and consulted a controversial but very experienced local dog behaviourist and aggression expert--one whom, in fact, had actually helped design the very assessment forms I was relying upon to make my impending decision to adopt my new buddy. Turns out, this fellow made a profound observation: in the shelter environment, the dog is going to display compliant and reserved behaviour to adapt to the stress of the environment, despite close-quarters. However, outside in the human world, dependent on the skill/environment of his potential human caregivers, it is about a 50/50 roll of the dice how his (fear-aggressive) behaviour will play out.

Fortuitously, the opportunity arose to foster Max for three weeks where my friend's theory proved true: this dog, as he later told me, had some 'secrets' that would reveal themselves. In the end, Max, I suppose, chose me. It has been a life-changing, stressful and challenging journey, but we have both come a long way. My behaviourist friend, leaning on empirical research of wolves and pack behaviour in the wild, completely turned around my ignorance of prevailing and outdated 'dominance theory' when it comes to pack leadership. The methods I was instinctively using to 'correct' Max's fear behaviour were, in fact, worsening the problem. Why? Because in completely inverting my model of psychology to recognize that it is about serving the dog's need to cope in a human world--rather than my need to apply anthropomorphized human social expectations to Max to comply with my notions of 'obedience'--I could appreciate and help him make better decisions.

Simply put, this epiphany required me to understand the more accurate model of pack behaviour that is built upon building trust between me and the 'subordinate' member. In other words, leadership, hitherto thought to be enforced and maintained by (ruthless) authoritarian and fear-based dominance, is in fact engendered and agreed to when safe and trusted actions win the acceptance and cooperation of the pack members for survival. This is profound. Leadership is wise, smart, strong and trustworthy...So it became less about the misguided notion of correcting Max in stressful situations (which just confuses him), and entirely about not leading him into those situations in the first place! Once I recognized with some proficiency how to determine his 'safe' window of learning--that is, the safe distance from his stressors: dogs, people, buses, etc--I could reinforce his disregard or calm response, and thus work on closing the stress distance/gap. This is essentially a kind of exposure therapy. But, as with any psychological/behavioural therapy, it is predicated upon a trusted relationship, modeling, and encouragement. Doing more 'positive' is much more proven model of learning than doing 'less' (let along punishing!) of the negative.

This leads us back to the not so huge leap to the world of human behavioural responses and social adaptation. In a TED interview, social psychologist Amy Cuddy talks about the difference between the body language and actions that build leadership through trust and warmth, as opposed to the reliance on reinforcing one's projection of competency and power. Cuddy doesn't suggest the latter are outmoded; quite the contrary. She just suggests that building one's projected sense of inner power and competence is better cultivated as such--internally, or at least privately, or removed from the theatre of trying to win over participants, students, etc. She quotes some amazing research data showing that taking an empowered posture can increase testosterone levels by 30%, while lowering cortisol levels (stress hormone) by 30%! At the same time, it is warm, trust-enhancing and, dare I say it, gentle strength from a leader to their audience/crowd/fellowship that imbues a deeper sense of inner control and dependability.

Read her insights here.

This kind of calm, inner depth of core strength, projected as warm and winning leadership, is what personally drew me to the art of Aikido. It is what I endeavour to manifest in my own effective trusted leadership as an Aikido teacher--to model warmth and trust, while conveying the limitless power and competency we have all to discover and reveal for ourselves. In the end, perhaps Max has been my greatest Aikido teacher after all....