Pay attention! Receive relaxation.


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“I don’t need to describe what relaxation is like. I’m in it, right now.” -A client, near the end of a session

The other day, a client I’ve been seeing for some months came in after a bit of an absence and, after lying on the table for a couple minutes, described the sensations of her body. She noted that her legs, in particular, felt very sunk into the table, and, she thought, “fairly relaxed.” The last phrase had some uncertainty to it, the ending going up, like a question.

Touching her feet and moving her legs a little in what we Synergists sometimes call the “windshield wiper” move, I noted that her legs hardly moved at all, and felt heavy and stiff to me. “Relaxed” wasn’t a word that came to my mind, and in a moment, the client herself withdrew it, noting that in fact her legs felt tired, resistant, and wary. As I moved to her knee and we brought some more attention to her feet and legs, she noticed tension starting to gather in her hips and upper legs. She felt as if her legs were reluctant to reveal more, that being vulnerable was too risky. Yet she longed to let go of whatever she was carrying, or at least, not to carry it alone.

The way we use language to talk about bodymind states is fascinating, and one of the thorniest paradoxes I’ve found is the apparent dichotomy of attention and relaxation. So often in sessions, when people bring attention to a place, they also bring tension. The body speaks its own, impressionistic language, and many bodies seem to respond to the fact that the words sound alike. It doesn’t help, either, that the word “attention” has so much baggage in our culture. Soldiers and servants are meant to stand at attention: that is, stiffly, formally, awaiting orders from some outside authority. Children are constantly being told to pay attention, and that idiom doesn’t end with childhood: as adults learn what it means to pay for things, attention becomes another form of rare currency, not to be spent lightly. When I was growing up in the ‘80s, we “the MTV generation” were forever being told that we had short attention spans; today, the subsequent rise in diagnoses of attention deficit disorder – and the attendant overprescription of medication – remind us again and again that attention is in short supply, and moreover, that paying attention is difficult, tedious, and anything but relaxing. Attention and tension become almost synonymous.

Relaxation, meanwhile, is a word that evokes a total lack of tension – and further, a lack of attention. Attention, we believe, takes a lot of work. Relaxation, therefore, is about lying inert on a beach, or sinking into a hot tub, or “vegging out” in front of the TV or a video game. We even use the word vacation when talking about taking time off of work, as if we were going to vacate our minds and bodies altogether in favor of some mysterious state where no tension – or attention – is required. (It is an interesting side note that these vacations often wind up being more stressful and non-renewing to our spirits than we expect.)

But a curious thing happened to during my session with this client – a thing I’ve seen happen with clients repeatedly. By the end of the session, as she kept bringing her attention – her awareness – to parts of herself she had been neglecting, she began to feel more relaxed. Her legs began to move much more freely, and her feet, rather than being splayed out to the sides, were much more upright – at attention – than they had been. Near the end of the session, she noted that her body – especially her lower body, where we had spent more time – felt much more alert and awake than it had at the beginning, and much more relaxed – genuinely relaxed – than it had been when we started. She felt relaxed, alert but not on guard, grounded, enlivened, and like the outside world wasn’t nearly so overwhelming as it had been.

I’m going encapsulate and boil down this idea, because it struck me and continues to strike me as very important: Attention and relaxation are not opposites. In fact, I might go so far as to say that true relaxation and attention require each other. Relaxation is not vacation. Relaxation is attention without tension.

One of the wonderful things Rubenfeld Synergy does for people is help them to pay close, loving attention to themselves, in a way that people often don’t have time, energy, or, frankly, inclincation to do. There are many things at play here, culturally: the separation of mind and body, the Judeo-Christian valuation of spirit over flesh, a Protestant urge to not be “self-indulgent,” a mass media culture that pushes us to punish ourselves in order to be the best. Whatever the web of causes, there isn’t a lot of space in this modern world for people to just sit or lie down and really pay attention to their bodies. But when they do, the surprising result is often a sense of enlivened peace, relaxed attention. A sense of being here, awake to the fact that we are, in fact, our bodies.

And this state, this grounded, relaxed alertness, is what true attention feels like. When it is available, it is much harder for anxiety and overwhelm to take over. Outside circumstances seem more manageable. One is allied with one’s body, instead of treating it as an ornery, unwelcome intrusion, a vehicle to get you from here to there, whose aches and pains you ignore and push through. And this alliance, this state of having body, mind, emotions and spirit all in one place, keeps us in touch with the resources we need to get through the struggles of our lives – and to fully appreciate the joys.

“Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”


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catalog-coverI’ve said quite a bit about gratitude in this space in the past, but this year I want to let someone say it better than I could. This week on NPR, I heard a review of a new book by poet Ross Gay, called Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. His description of the book really says it all:

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace in the processes of the garden and the orchard. That is, this is a book that studies the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.

The titular poem, published in Waxwing to be read for free, oh glory, made me cry (several times) upon reading it. I invite you to give yourself ten minutes – it is a long poem, and Gay repeatedly thanks the reader “for hanging tight, dear friend. / I know I can be long winded sometimes” – and enjoy the ways in which he repeatedly makes the specific universal, opens the lovely limitless chest of nature and lets the treasures of that chest, that heart, pour forth.

Below is the entire poem, or you can read it here. Happy Thanksgiving, all, and thank you, thank you, thank you.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
Friends, will you bear with me today,
for I have awakened
from a dream in which a robin
made with its shabby wings a kind of veil
behind which it shimmied and stomped something from the south
of Spain, its breast a’flare,
looking me dead in the eye
from the branch that grew into my window,
coochie-cooing my chin,
the bird shuffling its little talons left, then right,
while the leaves bristled
against the plaster wall, two of them drifting
onto my blanket while the bird
opened and closed its wings like a matador
giving up on murder,
jutting its beak, turning a circle,
and flashing, again,
the ruddy bombast of its breast
by which I knew upon waking
it was telling me
in no uncertain terms
to bellow forth the tubas and sousaphones,
the whole rusty brass band of gratitude
not quite dormant in my belly —
it said so in a human voice,
“Bellow forth” —
and who among us could ignore such odd
and precise counsel?

Continue reading

Tools for making my workshops more powerful: a critical review of my own Embodied Consent Workshop last month


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Image by Thor via Flickr


Last month, I gave a workshop on Embodied Consent, which I talked about a lot in this space. It went relatively well, but I had some criticism for myself, and I’m looking forward to doing it – and other workshops – again with this greater knowledge.

So what didn’t I like? I thought I talked too much. I ran out of time as I often do when I give talks, and couldn’t do all the exercises I wanted to. And as a result, I didn’t give as full and rich a presentation as I’d hoped.

So what would I change? Here are a few ways I plan to make my workshops in general more effective.

First off, I need to remember that giving workshops is not as hard as I think. I have really good material that tends to speak for itself: it’s powerful. I have a lot of material, too, which means I don’t need to worry about filling the time. In fact, I need to worry more about overspilling the time.

What makes workshops easy is letting the participants do a lot of the work for themselves. Every single time I presented them with an exercise, even a little one, they did three things:

  1. Participated fully in the exercise;
  2. Had strong responses to the exercise; and
  3. Had a lot of awesome things to say about it.

When I let my audience have experiences with themselves and each other, then discuss them, it is far more powerful and gets the material across better than if I try to tell them about all of it in advance.

So why do I do that? It’s a question of self-confidence, of trust that what I’m talking about has merit, makes sense, and is resonant for my audience. Even though I know the material is important and resonant, I tend to keep yammering on about it, making a bunch of points and giving too many examples, rather than starting from the place I’m always talking about starting from: the body.

Show, don’t tell, is a super-old lesson, both from theatre and from writing, that I tend to abandon when I’m less sure of myself. But it is basically always true that getting my audience directly involved, even if they’re not sure what they’re doing yet, works far better than over-explaining.

In the next iteration, I’ll start with a few sentences, then an exercise. I’ve realized the structure should go: Short intro, exercise, discussion. Complication: next exercise, discussion. No more than 5-10 minutes of explanation before going on to another experiential piece. The experiential pieces tend to be so rich that the explanation does itself, after the fact.

It also empowers my audience, allowing them to collaborate with me and come to their own conclusions rather than being spoon-fed my ideas, which they might not be quite ready for, because they haven’t found them with their own bodies and minds.

So that’s my goal. Looking forward to the next one. Let me know if you’d like me to come give a workshop at your event, meetup, organization or workplace! A new page with my offerings is coming soon, but I teach about Finding your Yes, No, and Maybe;  Body-Centered Performance; and Restoring Your Personal Power. I can also design workshops for your particular needs. Contact me here!



Halloween, Permission, and Being Something Else


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Me, as a forbidding faerie queen

Me, as a forbidding faerie queen

Halloween was always a thrilling time for me, both as a child and as an adult. It’s not that I was that into being scared; scary things were actually way too intense for me when I was little. And candy was nice, but given the weird scares of the 1980s, I wasn’t allowed to eat most of the candy I collected anyway. No: what really drew me was the opportunity to dress up and be someone different.

Costuming has always been powerful for me, especially as an actor. A different set of clothes, hair, makeup, shoes – it can all serve to change how you stand, walk, move, even think. The interaction between the body and the things we wrap it in is a source of constant fascination, changing our relationship to gender, age, place, season, cultural identity, time, and self.

If you think that’s a bit strong, think of how different you feel when you are sitting on the couch at home in your PJs, versus how you feel when you put on a suit, or dress up for church, or go out dancing on a Saturday night, or go to visit an elderly parent, or prepare to work on your car, or go hiking. If you’ve ever worn period clothing, you know how much a corset, or a loose tunic or robe, or a frock coat, or a flapper dress, can change how you stand, move, bend and carry yourself. Cross-dressing or deliberately queering gender through clothing has an effect on the wearer, as well as an effect on the viewer, depending on the culture in which it is done, the level of tolerance of the people involved, and the context. Today, a guy in my office won the costume contest dressed as Princess Leia – not, I think, because he looked silly, but because he looked so good without hiding any of his masculinity, and pulled it off proudly. Were he to show up dressed similarly on any other day, the context would have shifted, and the office would have a different response.

While it may be true that our “true selves” are inside us, what we express outwardly both reflects that internal state, and can shift it in minor and major ways. Halloween and other events like it – Carnival in various parts of the world, Purim in Judaism, and so on – offer people a chance to be something they are not, without any real consequences. As a result, it can offer a rare opportunity for people to explore something that they would like to be, or would like to play with being.

Even if you don’t go out to parties, or trick or treating, take some time this holiday to mess around with your outward appearance. What happens to your state of mind and the feeling in your body when you wear something you wouldn’t ordinarily wear? What becomes possible that wasn’t before?

So what is “embodied consent,” anyway?


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For the past few weeks, I have been posting about different aspects of the workshop I will be giving this weekend at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women conference, which is called “Embodied Consent: Finding Your Yes, No, and Maybe.” But what is it, exactly, that I mean by “embodied consent”?

It’s an interesting question, really. As with so much concerning Rubenfeld Synergy work, the answer is more complex than one might think. The search for meaning leads to various threads, which weave in various directions, which then branch and form new patterns, until you’ve got a really weird-looking meaning-sweater.

When I really boil it down, though, I believe the answer is this: Embodied consent is a dynamic, conscious, living form of consent, an ongoing conversation between the parties engaged in whatever requires it. It means paying attention – to your own body’s signals and to those of the person you are interacting with. And it means doing so continually – never letting things shift to autopilot.

Now, this might not sound like very much fun. Especially for those who are into kink and BDSM, and are deliberately playing with ideas of consent and giving over / taking on control, having to be constantly aware of consent in every moment could seem like a chore. But I like to think of it the way I think of partner dancing: much of the time, there is a leader, and there is a follower. In order for the dance to go well, both parties must always be aware of where the other is, maintaining a connection, and thinking several steps ahead. For those practiced in this art, it becomes automatic. For those less practiced, for partners who are not at the same skill level, or for partners new to one another, more consciousness and continual awareness is required.

I look forward to seeing you Sunday morning, if you’ll be there. Otherwise, let me know if you’d like me to teach this workshop at your organization!

Embodied Consent: Where is your “yes”?


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Image by Ged Carroll via Flickr

Image by Ged Carroll via Flickr

(Part 3 of my series on Embodied Consent, leading up to my talk on the subject at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women Conference next weekend.)

One of my favorite truisms about consent is that a true “yes” is not possible without the option for a true “no.” That being said, one of my primary objectives in this workshop is to help people find their “yes” – to open up possibilities, take chances, and make room for greater joy.

So, if we’ve confronted our cultural reluctance to say no, and been able to identify and locate what our “no” feels like so we can use it, then we are one step closer to being able to employ our “yes” without fear.

Because while the possibility that a “no” won’t be heard or respected is terrifying, the prospect of hearing or giving a “yes” can also be daunting. What does “yes” mean? What am I agreeing to? What does the person saying “yes” expect from me once they’ve agreed? What if one of us changes our mind?

Part of dealing with all of these possibilities is the same process as the “finding your no” exercise: embody it. Imagine something you said “yes” to wholeheartedly, and remember it in as vivid sensory detail as you can.

  • What does “yes” feel like in your body? Warm or cool? Expansive, or small and delicate, or like a cozy sweater that fits your body perfectly?
  • What does “yes” look like? What image comes to your mind? Are you glowing with light, or is the “yes” in a tiny box inside your chest? What color is it?
  • Does your “yes” have a sound? Loud or soft? For all to hear, or just for you? Is it a shout, a sob, a laugh, a song?
  • What does it smell or taste like? Sweet or savory? Metallic, or wooden, or like cotton or wool? Does it remind you of a crisp fall day in the woods or a summer evening by the ocean or…
  • Where is your “yes” located in your body? Everywhere at once, or mostly in one place? Are there other parts of you that are still unsure?

Exploring and locating your “yes” in this way doesn’t completely remove its potential complications, but it helps you meet it and talk with it, which makes its possibilities more flexible. It makes it possible to go from a vague “yes to everything” to a more nuanced dance, where you can check in with yourself moment to moment and see what the borders, contours, and limits of your “yes” are.

More than that: when you are clearer about what both no and yes are like in you, your partner can get a better sense, too – not just because your communication will be clearer, but because your whole self will be. I’ll explore more on this next week.

Embodied Consent: Where is your ‘no’?


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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


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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!