Embodied Consent: Where is your ‘no’?

Image by Horia Varlan, via Flickr
The puzzle of no.

(Part 2 of my series leading up to my talk on Embodied Consent, happening October 11 at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women conference.)

So I’ve talked in this space about how hard it can be to say no. But what about to feel no?

In my work, Rubenfeld Synergy Method, we always come back to the body. The mind can play tricks, language can be contradictory, and emotions can cloud judgment. All of these things can be valuable allies in decision-making and healing. But the body is the holder of our most basic and profound truths.

Try this simple exercise. Think about a time when somebody asked you for something you didn’t want to give or do. No need to go deep into trauma territory for this: pick something that wasn’t too traumatic, but that you definitely did not want – like refusing a sales call, or being asked to stay late at work, or having to deal with that friend who is always getting themselves into trouble. Imagine the scene as richly as you can – where you were, what the air felt like, how you were positioned, what time of day it was.

Now focus on the part of you that, regardless of what you ended up saying, really didn’t want to do the thing. Focus on that feeling of ‘no.’ 

Then, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does ‘no’ feel like, physically? Is it heavy or light? Hot or cold? Is it sharp or blunt, curved or pointed? What is its density – thick like molasses, hard like steel, thready or fuzzy like cotton or spiderweb?
  • What does ‘no’ look like? Does it have a color? Is it bright or dark? Does it have a shape, a size?
  • What does ‘no’ sound like? Are alarm bells going off in your head? A door slamming?
  • What does ‘no’ smell or taste like? Do you get a “bad taste in your mouth”? Does something seem “fishy”? Do you smell staleness, or smoke, or something else?
  • Where is ‘no’ located in your body? Is it in your belly, roiling? Is it sitting on your chest, like an elephant? Does it make your feet feel like lead, or your shoulders feel burdened?

Once you begin to describe your ‘no’ with your senses, and locate it in your body (the sixth sense, called proprioception, comes into play here), your understanding of it can become clearer. Locating a feeling in the body helps us to concretize it, make it more real, and honor it rather than brushing it aside in favor of a polite response.

Finding your yes, no, and maybe, part 1: No

In anticipation of the talk I’m giving the weekend of October 10 at Wicked Women, I want to write some posts that lay groundwork for the concepts I’ll be working with in that talk.

The first of these is the very simple idea that saying no is hard.

In last year’s talk, Sam and I started with a great exercise that involved people asking each other for a kiss, and being required to say no. We then checked in with how it felt for people, both to say no and to hear no. The responses were powerful, especially for a controlled situation, with low stakes, where everyone already knew they were going to have to say, and hear, no. The foreknowledge and low stakes didn’t stop people from finding the refusal difficult, the rejection, disappointing.

Research performed around the turn of the millenium in Britain showed pretty clearly that saying no, even to ordinary things, is a disfavored behavior in our culture. A paper on conversational analysis, cited here by the fantastic Yes Means Yes blog, showed that even people turning down a non-sexual dinner invitation from a friend tended to soften their refusals, to pause, hesitate, hedge, placate, and explain rather than actually admitting that they didn’t want to.

It is built into our culture to avoid saying no; this makes imprecations to “just say no” nearly absurd. Think about how hard it can be to even hang up on a telemarketer or close the door on a fundraiser, let alone tell someone you like that you can’t meet them for lunch. Escalate that to telling someone you might want to sleep with at some point – or that you’ve had sex with a hundred times before! – that no, actually, you don’t want to have sex with them right now, and you begin to see the elaborate language we have built around refusal. We don’t want to seem prudish, we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we don’t want to put ourselves in danger, or appear arrogant by refusing before something is even offered.

Perhaps even more important, though, is the fact that for most of us, these softened hedged rejections are entirely clear. We know what these refusals sound like, and look like, and so pushing past them tends to be a matter of will rather than a missed communication. What this indicates, sadly, is what we already know if we think about it: very few rapes occur because of misunderstandings or lack of clear rejections. They occur because a small subset of men repeatedly look for cracks in those soft nos, and apply leverage until they can “wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.

But those people are not whom I’m addressing, here. I’m looking at people in communities where, while there are certainly a fair share of predators, most people are trying very hard to do things right.  People want to be “game” and try new things. People want to push past their own boundaries, and sometimes don’t even know what those boundaries are yet. People with well-established boundaries find their boundaries shifting depending on who they’re with, where they are, how many years have passed. And people are playing deliberately with power dynamics, where the person running the scene is highly responsible for their partner’s safety. It’s very easy to say, “Establish a safeword, negotiate in advance, know your limits,” and so on. It’s harder to know what to do when a scene becomes more intense than you signed up for, or when someone is suffering in silence out of pride, or when what you thought you negotiated turns out to be something else entirely, or when you are trying to deliberately push limits and go farther than you have before.

Add to this the social awkwardness that tends to permeate the geeky community (which overlaps mightily with kink and other alternative sexualities), and signals may not be as absolutely clear as was previously thought. “No” becomes not just difficult to say, but difficult to locate and identify in yourself.

Part of this talk will be about returning to the messages of the body, to get more clarity on what “No” feels like, and how to communicate it – and hear it – better.

Embodied Consent Workshop at the Wicked Women Conference

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I am pleased to announce that I will once again be giving a class at Bound in Boston’s Wicked Women event this year, over the Columbus Day weekend in October. This will be a revival and revision of the class I did last year with Sam at Safety Beyond Safewords, but I’ll be doing it on my own this time. I’m hoping to dig more deeply into the attendees’ own signs and signals, and overall make the class even more participatory and simpler. (Last year we tried to cover way too much material in 90 minutes.)

This year, the convention will also be a whole weekend rather than a single day, which is nice. I’m looking forward to helping more people understand their own and their partners’ yeses, noes and maybes.

I hope you’ll join us!

Facing (bodying) the fragility of life

Image by eklektik2xs on FlickrToday I returned to my other job after two weeks away, and discovered that one of my coworkers – a gentle, pleasant soul I did not know well after a month and change at the company, but whom I’d decided I liked – had died over the weekend. He was climbing with friends near a waterfall in the White Mountains, and fell 40 feet. He was 29 years old.

It is hard to know what to do in the face of such shocking news. I came into work this morning and one of my supervisors took me aside to tell me about it, which he did, sensitively and quietly, as I have observed to be his way. I noticed that he hadn’t shaved today. When he said the name, I had trouble placing it; I am still learning everyone in the office. But a brief description made it clear, and I found myself struck by a strange and nonspecific sadness, nearly the same feeling as I’d had after the Sandy Hook shootings: a shock and slowness and weight of grief over sudden death that could have been prevented, but that isn’t that close. And in this case, the strange regret – guilt? – that I never got to know him well, that now I never will. I’ve been near tears several times today, but never all the way to breaking. Some part of me seems to say, What right do you have?

The office is subdued, though the QA team still chats about random geekery, the engineers still play video games at lunch. One coworker with whom I work closely has tired eyes this morning, and is the second unshaven face I see. The stoic and kind manager who works at the desk behind me looks like he has been crying, and brings extra chocolate for the edge of his desk. He doesn’t quite make eye contact with me. We joke that there’s very little that dark chocolate sea salt caramels can’t fix, but the unspoken, more bitter than the chocolate, rings out.

Flowers arrive and fill my nose with a lilly smell I can’t abide, and his boss and I start a small shrine amid the team. Last night, before I came back, a few people went out for drinks, apparently until late, to raise a glass and remember. It is unclear what else we are supposed to do.

Move slowly, keep up the good work, and remember seems to be the answer so far. I want somehow to reach out, to let people know they can talk to me if they want, confidentially, that I’m trained for this. But like everyone else, I don’t know what’s appropriate. How do we listen to ourselves, to each other, after such a loss?

[Rerun] Self-care made simple

From Dr. Kathleen Young's blogOne of the most potent things I have found, both in my training and with my clients, is the utmost importance of self-care. For every acute problem, every chronic stress, every relationship explosion, cancer diagnosis, loathed job or existential crisis, self-care comes up again and again as not just the most important, but the very first thing that needs doing.

This is true not just for my clients, but for me, and other practitioners.  As they say, you’ve gotta make sure your own oxygen mask is secure before helping others.  And as the Rubenfeld principle goes, self care is the first step to client care.  And, lest we forget that other principle: each client is ultimately responsible for his or her own healing.

So it’s not all that surprising that when a client tells me something difficult, and I can feel my mirror neurons firing and my shoulders tightening, my breath growing shallow…the first thing I need to do, before I can even respond, is to check my own breath, my own body, return to my center, and respond from there.  If I do anything else, I put myself in it with them.  And, as anyone who has had someone so upset over something that happened to you that you ended up taking care of them knows, nothing good can come of that.

In my own continuing therapeutic journey, I’ve recently been introduced to Oasis in the Overwhelm, a little book by ex-Catholic nun, nightclub singer, type A go-getter, and Rubenfeld Synergist Millie Grenough.  Its essential core is four 60-second strategies for re-centering and calming yourself, basically at any time and place.

I already have a number of strategies that I use for this, and I pass them on to my clients when I feel they are needed. And of course there are more involved self-care pieces: working out more, eating better, getting enough sleep – all those things that your doctor is always telling you to do.

But for people who want solutions that they can learn quickly and use anywhere…I have to say that this is pretty fabulous.  Once I internalize them myself, I will definitely be incorporating them into my practice. Hint: they involve stretching, breathing, checking in with your body, and focusing on an object of comfort.

Go check it out.

 

[Rerun] Things Without (Shame)

I recently discovered the wonderful little comic, Things Without Arms and Without Legs (A Comic About Creatures Who Are Kind), and it delights me.

But as adorable and lovely as they are all on their own, I was especially taken when I found this old post, about some favorite topics of mine: vulnerability and shame.

Dear Things,” begins this post, which addresses the creatures directly and seeks to know what it is that their creator likes so much about them.  

You don’t carry shame. Shame that slowly steel the stars, creeping up like pollution and city lights. Stars diminishing in number, the weakest lights smothered first, then a narrowing field of the brightest lights, and maybe the smog will take them too.

Things, you don’t carry shame. Sometimes you feel guilt, but that is different. Sometimes guilt can face the risk of turning into shame and presses against you, but it is a puzzling thing to be looked at, to be asked questions, treated firmly and kindly and put down. There is no shame in worry, no shame in vulnerability, just an open, natural questioning. For you, shame is not a natural piece of star stealing virtue. Even shame is something you look at without shame.

The post then links to this wonderful video by Ze Frank:

And of course, in the end, it all comes back to Brene Brown.

Many layers of linkage for a Monday.  Enjoy, everyone, and come back here and tell me about your experiences with guilt, shame, and vulnerability.

Wednesday Sway: Taking flight

Three bikes on the canal bridge in Amsterdam, by joiseyshowaa via Flickr
Three bikes on the canal bridge in Amsterdam, by joiseyshowaa via Flickr

I’m going out of town at the end of this week, and I’m not going to be super-available by email or phone between July 25 and August 8. I’m thrilled to report that I will be traveling in Europe, for the first time in 20 years, and most of the places I will visit will be for the first time, period.

This trip in particular has got me moving with the idea of spontaneity. If there’s a single kind of movement I’d like to restore in my life, spontaneity is it. I’ve come to recognize that, especially when planning a trip, I can get very caught up in the little details, and very anxious that everything be planned in advance.

A long walk and talk with my partner in this journey helped me unpack, as it were, some of what is going on for me here. Raised in an atmosphere of uncertainty and lacking a sense of security, I often didn’t know what I would be doing or where I would be living next. Vacations, when I had them, seemed to pop up out of nowhere, suddenly, and holidays – which became very important to me – were often chaotic. In my teenage years, I often felt like plans could change on a dime, and things I was looking forward to could get randomly cancelled and changed without notice. I often felt left in “wait and see” mode, in a kind of suspended animation until decisions I had no part in were made around me. The message I took from this was: if you don’t do it yourself, it won’t happen.

As I became an adult, I tried everything I could to make special occasions special, and to make trips worthwhile. This resulted in a lot of nitpicky planning, especially since money was also often tight. I tended to get more and more stressed out with every event, trip or occasion, worried that we wouldn’t get to see everything, do everything, make everything perfect.

Naturally, this way of being isn’t easeful for anyone around me, and it also keeps me from having as good a time as I could.

My partner, in contrast, grew up traveling the world with his small family. They went everywhere – cycling across Europe, diving in Fiji – and they traveled lightly. They would find places to stay as they went, take the less beaten path when something interesting presented itself, have guidebooks on hand but go without a strict itinerary in mind. This left a sweet taste in my partner’s mouth: not planning too much means I can relax, and that I’m secure enough to do things on the fly.

So as I prepare to take this trip, I notice myself getting anxious, shoulders tightening, breath short, as I peer at my packing lists and things to do and stress over things like whether we have time to visit Alsace or not, because it runs parallel to the route we’re taking through the Black Forest.

And then I think of my partner, take a breath, and think about what it’s going to be like to be in a tiny European car with him, tooling through gorgeous countryside and seeing what kinds of adventures we stumble upon. And then my breath lengthens, my shoulders descend, and I can almost feel the warm summer breeze off the Rhine on my face.

I look forward to seeing you all when I return.

The power of instinct

I feel good! Photo by emdees via Flickr
I feel good! Photo by emdees via Flickr.

Instinct. It’s a thing we tend to ignore a lot in our culture, preferring reasoned thought, logic, and thorough consideration. We “have a bad feeling” about someone we meet, but we give them a chance…and then another. We know what our gut is telling us about a situation, but we second-guess ourselves. We’ve been this way before and something is telling us that we should turn right here, but we follow Google maps instead and get lost.

Now granted, blind following of instinct or gut feeling is no better. Diving into unsafe situations without preparation because they seem like fun can get you injured or dead pretty quickly. Responding to physiological nervousness or fear even after it proves to be unfounded is classic anxiety. Following a hunch in spite of contrary evidence is what got us into the Iraq War.

But instinct is a valuable starting point for many investigations, experiences, and creative endeavors. The gut feeling is a literal thing, as it turns out, a sensation that comes from the complex nervous system of the gut. It is evolutionarily very old, and is our body’s way of telling us what seems good or bad, unsafe or comforting, exciting or frightening. We ignore such signals to our peril, and often, they can be powerful messengers.

I have found great value in following my instincts in Rubenfeld Synergy. But I had some practice long before, as part of theatrical training. Actors, when they are good, are often spoken of as having “good instincts” and making “strong choices.” These performers are open and flexible, taking what comes to them and making it into actions and characterizations that are compelling to watch.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, I have found that the most profound, helpful, and healing sessions and moments come about when I relax, get my feet under me, and follow my instincts. I’ll say what comes into my head (within reason), even if it doesn’t yet “make sense,” because I have already sensed it. Nine times out of ten, what comes to me ends up unlocking an “aha” for the client.

I worked recently with an actor in a Rubenfeld Synergy session, and I was having fun noticing the way her vocabulary and the way she experienced her body lined up with the way I worked. It was easy for her to feel and locate sensations, to access emotion through the body, and to feel subtle changes as they occurred.

After working on one side of her for a bit, I came to her opposite hip. For some reason, a silly German accent came into my head; I have been learning a bit of German recently and am planning a trip there soon. For no real reason other than that it was there, I said something like, “Und now ve come to dee right hip…vich for zome reason ist German…”

This moment of silliness opened up a whole line of inquiry for the client. “That’s my German side,” she said, after a little laugh. “The rule-follower.” And we were off and running on a thread about the division in herself, between the fun-loving, connected, relaxed and artistically free person, and the person with so many responsibilities that she sometimes feels like she’s holding on for dear life just to keep up the appearance of control.

This could have begun another way, but my choice to follow what seemed like a whimsical instinct to do a silly German accent was what helped that story emerge. And at the end of the session, the German – who developed a personality, a look, an entire image in her mind and body – was what she said she would take with her.

What might change for you if you paid attention to your gut feelings more often?

When your body is a prison

prisonI had the pleasure recently of listening to Invisibilia, the relatively new podcast that spun off from Radiolab with Lulu Miller. The first episode concerns thoughts – one of the many invisible forces that powerfully influence our lives.

The second story in the podcast follows a very bright young man named Martin, who, at 12, suddenly fell ill with meningitis. It completely paralyzed and debilitated him, and left him in a vegetative state for about two years.

But after that time, he emerged from it, fully conscious, intelligent and aware…only to find that he could not move his body at all.

This, of course, ties into many of our worst nightmares: we are paralyzed during surgery, but conscious and cognizant of pain. Or we are trying to run from something, only to find our limbs feel like we’re trying to drag them through concrete. One of the most common fears – being buried alive – also comes to mind. You’re alive, conscious, living, breathing, and in full possession of your faculties. But you’re completely and utterly powerless to change your position, or communicate, or…anything.

In this state, the man in question thought endlessly about how pathetic, how helpless, he was. Until he chose to begin ignoring these thoughts, to let them float away. At which point he became detached to the point where each day, he wished to die. “It’s a very dark place to find yourself because, in a sense, you are allowing yourself to vanish,” says Martin, who now communicates through a computer much like Stephen Hawking’s. “Days, if not weeks, can go by as I close myself down and become entirely black within – a nothingness that is washed and fed, lifted from wheelchair to bed.”

But the remarkable thing about this story was that, shortly before he began to restore some functionality, he chose to return to engaging his thoughts, to draw attention to them, to wrestle with the darker thoughts as they came up. He began focusing on the few things he could control, like teaching himself to tell time by the shadows as they moved through the room. And over time, through many neurological developments, he began to regain some small amounts of movement – the ability to squeeze a hand, or hold himself upright in his chair. It was one nurse – a woman who believed that there was more going on inside than the doctors believed – who urged his parents to have him tested for intelligence.

Once he began to have the tools to communicate, he began to return – not just his mind, but his body as well. Not full functionality, but over several years and with a lot of physical therapy and training, the ability to have a job, to fix computers, to go to college. And, recently, he got married, and is planning on learning to drive.

Listening to this story, I teared up, remembering a story on Radiolab with a similar theme that blew me apart when I listened to it the first time. Here were two examples of people who had been abandoned, left for dead, treated like a houseplant that needs regular feeding and watering and maintenance, but has no way of letting the world outside know what is going on inside. Until through some combination of love and hope from the outside, and hard work linking the mind and the body back together on the inside, the person emerges again.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we so often work with the body as an access point to the emotions and spirit, as a way to let the mind light upon associations and make sense of life. Here, though, is a way in from the other side: using the mind and its capacity for deep attention to restore function to the body, and indeed, restore a person to life.

Listen to the whole thing here.

Shakespeare helps restore the body’s story to prisoners

At the recent conference of INARS, the professional organization around Rubenfeld Synergy, we talked a great deal about the restoration of movement to the body, and how restoring movement can give us our sense of soul back. In an interview with Bessel van der Kolk, he spoke of how in trauma, the body gets stuck in the experience, and the brain is unable to make narrative out of it – the story we have about our lives that helps us process and synthesize intense experience.

So when I also heard in that interview about a Shakespeare program as an alternative to prison for juvenile delinquents (van der Kolk joked about them being “condemned to be a Shakespeare actor”), I started thinking about the ways that theatre can help restore people to themselves. I had heard a This American Life episode called simply “Act V,” about a group of maximum-security prisoners performing a portion of Hamlet, and I was transfixed by the ways in which working with Shakespeare’s text and embodying his characters helped these men to reflect on their crimes, to know themselves better, and to heal.

It turns out that this idea has some traction, and a simple search on “shakespeare in prisons” turns up Shakespeare Behind Bars, a Shakespeare in Prisons conference, an Atlantic article and an NPR article on the topic, covering instances of this practice in Kentucky, Indiana, New York, and at Notre Dame.  What is it that makes the Bard so compelling as a tool for prisoner rehabilitation?

I cannot overstate the power of narrative to make sense of emotion, of difficult experiences, of our very lives. Human beings are meant to tell stories; it is something we have done in one way or another since there were people we can recognize as human. And making stories – whether with spoken word, ritual, theatre, writing, art, music, dance, or games – is the most powerful tool we have for freeing our bodies from the “thousand slings and arrows that flesh is heir to,” and making the things that hurt and scare us most manageable. In acting Shakespeare, what has been trapped inside literally becomes expression, emotion and story that happens outside the body, even as it is generated by the body – the limbs and heart and face and vibrating vocal cords of a human being trying to make sense of the world.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we combine talk and touch in order to help people not just access the stories that are held within their bodies, but to tell them in words – to make narrative out of the body’s sometimes incoherent signals, responses, pains and tensions. By going inward we find how the mind makes associations with sensations as we pay close attention to them. But the next and vitally important step is to express outward – to tell that story so that we may better understand ourselves.

These prisoners, then, in my view, are using the Bard’s words to help them in their journey of self-knowledge, and in acting those words, are moving emotions through their bodies that are similar to ones they know from their previous lives: jealousy, love, anger, guilt, shame, the thirst for revenge, the possibility of redemption.

I work with text as well as the body. If you are a performer, a storyteller, or just someone who wants to make sense of your life – contact me.

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