This was published in the Tulsa World today. A fitting conversation to have on Mother’s Day!
How many of you celebrated Valentine’s Day by telling your child, your grandchild, your friend or your parent that you love them? I know there are others of you who spent time yesterday feeling lonely or grieving for someone who is gone. I want to acknowledge that the Hallmark Holidays are difficult for many people and I want you to know that I hold you in my heart.
Now, my blog today is going to be aimed at intimate relationships, but everything I share is true for all of our relationships with family members and friends. So I think everyone will find it both valuable and useful. So let’s start by recognizing that many people do find Valentine’s to be a time of celebrating romantic love. In fact, it is estimated that 6 million people expect to get engaged on Valentine’s Day. Last year one of those couples of Jim and Jan.
On their wedding night, they were getting ready for bed when Jim took off his pants and tossed them to Jan. Then he told her to put them on. She said, “I can’t wear these. Their much too big.” And he said, “That’s right. And let that be the first lesson of our marriage. I wear the pants in this family.” Jan nodded then took off her pants and tossed them to Jim. She said, “Put these on.” And he said, “I’ll never get into these.” To which she responded, “That’s right mister, and until you change your attitude you never will!”
Would you Choose to Accomplish Your Goals or Experience a Meaningful Relationship
So here’s my question today. If you had to choose, would you rather die having accomplished all of your goals but never having had a deeply meaningful relationship? OR Having experiencing the most deep and meaningful relationship possible but not having accomplished a single goal?
You can’t have both. You have to choose one or the other. And don’t worry. There are no wrong answer. Both answers are right. Here’s another way to look at it. Would you rather ravish your partner or be ravished by your partner?
The answer to these questions indicates your dominant sexual energy – either masculine or feminine. And it has nothing to do with your gender or your sexual orientation. Whether we are heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or even asexual, it is helpful to leave behind stereotypical definitions of male and female and to think instead of masculine and feminine energy. Both the masculine and the feminine move within each of us. And at the same time, one or the other dominates nearly all of us.
Together feminine and masculine are represented in the Yin Yang symbol of Taoism. The Yin Yang is the concept of two halves or two dualities that together represent wholeness and completion. Yin energy is feminine. It is the black portion of the symbol. Yang is masculine and it is represented in the white portion of the symbol.
Neither Yin nor Yang are absolute. Nothing and no one is completely Yin or completely Yang. Yin and Yang are all about balance. Each trait contains the beginning point for the other trait. Yin and Yang are interdependent on each other so that the definition of one requires the definition of the other to be complete.
Yin or Yang
If you answered yes to the first question, that you would rather meet your goals, then you tend to operate primarily out of masculine energy, no matter what your gender or sexual orientation. If you answered yes to the second question, that you would rather have a deep relationship, then you tend to operate out of feminine energy.
Men and women who are in their masculine essence are goal oriented and purposeful. They want to get things accomplished. Men and women in their feminine essence are nurturing and creative. They are willing to go with the flow. The masculine drive is for freedom; the feminine drive is for fullness. Both paths, that of freedom and of fullness, lead to spiritual bliss.
But masculine and feminine tend to be drawn to different spiritual practices. Think about meditation. In meditation we sit in solitude and expand our awareness, allowing ourselves to leave the boundaries of our physical existence. It is a freeing experience – a very masculine practice.
Contrast that to the spiritual practice of service. In service we interact with others by visiting, feeding, clothing, helping other people. We experience a sense of loving fullness – a very feminine practice.
I am a woman fully engaged in a heterosexual relationship. While I am very good at fulfilling the nurturing role of a mom and “wife” I am also self-employed and highly driven. I am happiest when I am in control and making the decisions. I need security (feminine) and I crave freedom (masculine).
My partner Leif works for the Park system. He is charged with enforcing the rules and he values needs solitude (masculine). But he is also a primary caregiver for his 19 year old niece. When she was born with Down Syndrome her own father went away, and Lief stepped in to provide her with nurturing care, love and support (feminine).
Escaping the Box
Understanding that we all have both feminine and masculine energy allows us to escape the man box and the woman box. The man box defines men as domineering, aggressive, competitive, achievement oriented, and controlling. The woman box defines women as nurturing, supportive, passive, sacrificial, giving, and vulnerable.
Our society incorrectly dictates that if we move out of the appropriate man or woman box, we will be negatively labeled. For instance, men who move out of the man box risk being seen as weak and ineffective, of being called a “pussy.” Women risk being seen as threatening and unattractive, of being told they have “balls.” The truth is, each one of us can express both attributes of masculine and feminine in different aspects of our lives and that’s ok.
When we claim our whole identity and give others permission to be the whole human beings they are, we can celebrate all of our strengths and recognize that the traits we exhibit are present in both men and women alike. Escaping the man box and the woman box offers us liberation from that which oppresses, binds, and enslaves. It allows us to become more vulnerable with each other and more open to accepting people as they are.
Changing Our Energy Field
Now, it’s also important to realize that we are not frozen or static in our energy field. We can and do move back and forth between masculine and feminine energy all the time as we are comfortable and as the situation requires.
I am in my masculine mode when I work. I have to take control and make a lot of decisions. I have to organize people and situations in order to accomplish specific results. Sometimes after a hard day of work, I don’t want to make any more decisions. I just want to bask in my feminine energy. I want someone take care of me. Let’s face it. By the end of the day I’m ready to be ravished.
Let’s Talk About Sex
There will always be a mystery as to why we are attracted to someone else, but one aspect of the spark of sexual attraction is sexual polarity. In this case opposites attract. Masculine energy attracts feminine energy and vice versa.
If you and your partner are operating in different energies (and it doesn’t matter which is in the masculine and which is in the feminine) you can expect a sexual arc of attraction. But if you are both operating in the same sexual energy field, there will most likely NOT be a spark of sexual attraction. If both of you are in your feminine and willing to do whatever and just go with the flow, you might end up doing nothing at all and not feeling very well taken care of. On the other hand, if you are both in your masculine mode you may end up in a power struggle about who gets to decide where you go and what you will do. Or you may both agree on all the requirements of a romantic evening without experiencing any of the desire.
The cool thing is, you can change your energy field! Just by being aware of it, you can consciously choose to switch from your current energy to the opposite – and then watch the sparks fly! That energy can even change within the sex act itself as we move from submission to dominance and back to submission again. As long as we operate in the opposite energy as our partner, we find connection and excitement.
In our sexual relationships, the joy is that we connect with each other in a really profound way. However, we cannot maintain that connection indefinitely. We cannot lay total claim to each other. There is a sacredness of the other, untouchable and inaccessible which plunges us into a kind of powerlessness.
Fear and Anxiety
We can celebrate that powerlessness and the gift of being unique and independent people, or we can respond with fear and anxiety. When we become anxious, masculine and feminine react in opposite ways. The natural posture for the feminine is to move toward greater attachment and increasing interconnectedness, even to the point of enmeshment. The natural posture for the masculine is to move into more separation and distance, even to the point of detachment and cut off. When these patterns continue, the masculine feels suffocated and the feminine feels abandoned and lonely.
Picture this scenario. Adam and Steve have a fight. Adam operates primarily in masculine energy and Steve operates in feminine energy. Adam tells Steve that he has to be alone to think about things and goes to the family room. Steve becomes even more upset, marches into the family room and demands that they talk. Adam walks away, grabs his coat and tells Steve that he’s going for a ride to clear his mind. Steve is devastated and starts begging Adam not to leave, pleading with him even as he pulls out of the driveway.
In this case we see that stress brings out Adam’s masculine energy and Steve’s feminine energy. The masculine drive is for freedom, the feminine drive is for fullness. The masculine fear is losing one’s self; the feminine fear is losing the other. So Adam feels suffocated and responds by needing to get away. Steve feels abandoned and afraid of being left alone.
The story ends much differently when Steve is able to give Adam space and Adam is able to reassure Steve that he isn’t going to leave him. Despite the messages on Hallmark Valentine cards, two people never become one person. When we can contain our anxiety and celebrate the uniqueness of our partner as a separate person, then we can dance between identifying who we are as individuals and the joy of connecting with each other. Then we don’t have to worry about losing our “self” or losing the “other.” We celebrate love and experience intimate communication with each other by relaxing into each other and spontaneously offering our deepest gifts.
Today’s Blog is Very Personal
Think about the times you felt either suffocated or abandoned. What did you do? The next time you are feeling suffocated, ask for the space you need while also offering reassurance that you are still in the relationship, and that you love and care for your partner. Challenge yourself to stay connected knowing that the masculine grows spiritually by learning to live as freedom, rather than by struggling for it.
The next time you are feeling abandoned, ask for the reassurance that you need and then do something for yourself while allowing your partner the space they need for their own self-care. Challenge yourself to accept the anxiety of being in your own company, recognizing that the feminine grows spiritually by learning to live as love rather than hoping for it.
When we relax into the Yin and Yang of the Tao we see that everything is ultimately interconnected and whole. The Taoists note that nature itself is interactive and full of creative, life-giving sexual energy. Rain penetrates the earth, giving birth to trees and flowers; rivers caress rocks; the ocean plunges into the sand; and the sunshine is absorbed into the womb of the earth, giving birth to all life. Sexual energy is the creative force that permeates the universe.
The goal isn’t to separate, organize and label every detail of our lives or to create unnecessary dualities, but to use it as a lens for recognizing patterns — in nature, in our relationships and in our own quest for self development and growth.
I want to close with a quote for Valentine’s Day that I hope we can all appreciate, no matter what our relationship status might current be. It’s from Charles M. Schulz who once said, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”
It’s no secret anymore. The holidays are a stressful time for almost everyone. And of course the most recent stressor is the fact that now we are supposed to get through it all without feeling any stress! How are you doing? Before going further, I think it’s important to point out the difference between the holiday blues and holiday stress. According to psychologist Mark Gorkin, holiday blues is what we feel when we can’t be with family and friends who play a significant role in our life. Holiday stress is when we have to be with them!
According to the American Psychiatric Association, 69% of us are stressed out because of a perceived lack of time, 69% because of a perceived lack of money, and 51% because of the whole gift giving/gift getting requirement. One of those people was an elderly man who finally decided not to try to figure out what presents to buy his grandchildren, especially in this high tech age. Instead he wrote them each a check. In their card he wrote, Merry Christmas, Grandpa. P.S. Buy your own gift. He thought that they all seemed a bit distant and remote during the holidays and this gnawed at him into the new year. Then one day as he was straightening out his den he found the stack of checks he had forgotten to include in his grandchildren’s cards.
On a more solemn note, a good friend of mine called me earlier this week because he needed to talk to someone about his family. He was 25 when he came out to them as gay, and now at 44 years old, he is still struggling with their lack of acceptance and understanding. And while that is an all year struggle, the holidays tend to create more obligations for togetherness while promote idealized images of family that can leave us feeling both frustrated and flawed.
In the Beginning
Since so much of the commotion centers on the birth of a baby named Jesus, I thought we might look at the actual story. The Gospel of Matthew begins…
The book of the generation of Jesus Christ,
The son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob,
And Jacob begat Judah and his brothers,
And Judah begat Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
And Perez begat Hezron,
And Hezron begat Ram…
And on and on for 52 generations. OK, it’s kinda long and it’s kinda boring. But it’s interesting because each of those family members add a story to Jesus’ life, just as each of our family members add a story to ours – something that helped shape us, for good or bad, into who we are.
Matthew begins right where we all begin – having been begot by someone or another. And in the begetting and all of the stuff that comes afterward – attention, neglect, permissiveness, punishment, praising, scolding, laughing, crying, screaming, silence – we come to be who we are. Who begot us? Not only at conception, but as we continue to grow?
Adorned with Relationships
This week I saw a gorgeous Christmas tree. It was the perfect tree in shape, color, texture, even smell. I complimented the owner and she thanked me. But then instead of talking about the tree, she started talking about how it was decorated. And in this regard, the tree also was lovely. A rich and odd assortment of shapes and patterns and colors, some ornaments delicately manufactured, some lovingly crafted by hand. All interwoven with lights and garland and branches and needles. Each carrying with it a story. Together creating a beautiful piece of art.
It seems you and I are a lot like that tree, adorned with a jumbled array of relationships, often more colorful and diverse than any odd assortment of Christmas ornaments. Mismatched and oddly shaped, intertwined with the events in our lives that have brought sorrow and that have brought joy. Each its own complex story. Together shaping us into a beautiful piece of ever changing art. But with one extra complication that the tree doesn’t have to contend with – we don’t have the luxury of putting away the decorations at the end of the season. Nope – they just keep clinging to us so that we’re stuck with them all year round.
Oh, we can ignore them or pretend they’re something they never were. But once a year at Christmas time when there is so much focus on family, we often experience a profound sense of stress as we struggle with the stories of our life.
Families in Conflict
Of course, in conflicted relationships, someone is usually identified as the problem – maybe even you or me. When a family is overwhelmed by prolonged stress and anxiety it usually will identify the problem as a child, as the marriage, or as the spouse who has developed alcoholism, depression or some other symptom. But when one person or one relationship is labeled the problem, other issues become clouded from view. The greater our anxiety, the greater the tunnel vision and the more likely we are to ensure that nothing will change.
Because in the end we can’t change problems, we can only change our self. All of us have ways in which we normally interact with others. We may pursue or distance ourselves, fight or give in, overfunction or underfunction. And whatever our normal style, we will do it that much more when conflict and stress get elevated. Stress makes us reactive. So the answer to stress is to simply remain calm and rational. Of course, it isn’t quite as easy as that.
Therapists and counselors are quick to point out that our reactions have deep roots. As we have grown we have been formed and shaped by our experiences and our relationships. Our reactions and the things we react to are an important – but not unchangeable – aspect of who we have become. And who we have become is important. All that we are and do has come about for a very good reason and serves an important purpose. But sometimes those very important traits outlast their usefulness and we find that we need to let some of them go, cull some of them out, prune some of them off, if we are to be healthy and whole.
If our goal is to be less reactionary, more capable of handling stress, and more effective at healthy relationships we always have to start with our self. This means identifying both our strengths and our vulnerabilities, being clear about our beliefs, values, and priorities and then living them. And it challenges us to address painful and difficult issues and relationships that we would often rather ignore; to stay emotionally connected to significant others – including our first family – even when things get pretty stressful.
Whether you believe the way they tell it or not, you gotta feel sorry for poor old Joseph of the Jesus birth story. Now here is a man under stress! Can you imagine the tension when Mary and Joe get together with the in-laws – on either side? Can you appreciate the predicament at work here? Who would look forward to a family reunion with that kind of dynamic in place? I know I’d be looking for an excuses to get out of it…
But according to psychologist Harriet Lerner, “Slowing moving toward more connectedness rather than more distance with members of our own kinship group is one of the best insurance policies for bringing a more solid self to other relationship.” And she says, “The degree to which we are distant and cut off from our first family is directly related to the amount of intensity and reactivity we bring to other relationships.”
Of course no matter how successful we are at uncovering and healing old wounds, at changing patterns, at recovering our true self… No matter how calm and relaxed we become – things will go wrong, unexpected events will occur, life circumstances will suddenly change. Divorce, disease, death. We will discover that there is much we do not and cannot control.
We cannot avoid stressful events in our life, but we can learn not to respond with more stress – by becoming fearful, anxious and depressed. And we do that not by following the example of a baby still in need of a self, but of a grown up Jesus who has become fully himself.
Some Things We Cannot Change
Jesus and other teachers throughout the ages have repeatedly told their followers not to worry, not to be anxious. But they never paint an idealized picture of the world. Instead they reveal to us that death is certain, that life is fragile, that dangers abound, and that human beings are full of limitations. And in revealing to us our powerlessness to change these certainties, they tells us not to try to do the impossible. For it is in learning to let go of that which we cannot control that we finally find peace and the ability to live in the/this moment.
There is a Zen meditation koen called “Tale of the Unfortunate Traveler.” A man was crossing a field when he encountered a tiger. He ran and the tiger chased him. Coming to a ledge, he grabbed a vine and swung himself down the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to see another tiger waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Then two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
What can we do when there is nothing we can do?
Living Life Fully
Life is often painful. Every day people like Joseph and you and I are required to do things no one should have to do – to endure things no one should have to endure. We can let life thrash us as we become increasing agitated and stressed out or we can take steps to identify the source of our deepest pain in order that it be healed.
My friend cannot change his family. None of us can change anyone else. Nor can we change the inevitable stresses that come as an every day part of our living and our dying. This realization, accepting our own powerlessness, is a profoundly spiritual state – and one that leads us to inner freedom, and inner peace. It is in accepting death that life becomes more abundant.
That Christmas tree I mentioned? It has been cut down and is already dying. Department store trees, on the other hand, never die. And they are amazing to behold. All lights and glitter. Perfectly symmetrical, color coordinated, cold, artificial masterpieces of human design. My wish is that our lives look more like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. A few branches broken, needles dropping, ornaments held together with tape and Elmer’s glue … an honest tree, a genuine tree, that has know life and known it fully. That tree is the most beautiful one of all.