I didn’t want to go to the Tantra workshop. I had to. Because of my Policy of Yes.
The Policy of Yes arose from spending the better part of a 10-year relationship under house-arrest. Not physical or legal chains. Worse. Domestic psychological chains.
There was hell to pay
My then-partner was pathologically jealous with a hair-trigger temper. He was okay with me attending some events alone, but not others. The difference between the sanctioned and unsanctioned events was the presence of other men – who, obviously, I might leave him for.
He never explicitly forbade me to go. But if I did, there was hell to pay. A huge fight would erupt about something apparently unrelated. There would be accusations of selfishness and hours of shouted abuse.
It was easier not to go out. His goal was my gaol.
Since I worked from home, that was a lot of my life spent in a small space. By the time I left him, my life had shrunk. I hated it, but I was used to it. A small life had become my norm.
I returned to the city along with returning to university. It was thrilling being back at university, but it was tough. I was physically and psychologically exhausted. Navigating returning to study – I’d dropped out of university 15 years previously – alongside navigating a separation as ugly as the former relationship, was almost impossible.
Staying a shut-in is easy
Despite being physically free, I felt the persistence of the psychological bars. My exhaustion made it too easy to spend yet another night at home. Despite the open door in front of me, y life had been small for so long I was at risk of staying a shut-in.. I realized if I wasn’t to waste my hard-won freedom, I had to force myself out that door.
Hence the Policy of Yes.
The policy rules are simple. If I was invited to an event – no matter how boring or bizarre sounding – unless I had a prior engagement or a note from a doctor, I had to say “yes”.
So when a date invited me to an evening Tantra workshop, I had to say yes. I had no prior engagement and I wasn’t yet a doctor, so as desperately as I wanted to, I couldn’t write my own note. His assurance the workshop was of the ‘clothes-on’ variety wasn’t very reassuring.
Scroll forward a week, and I’m standing in a dark car-park at the edge of a beach. A full moon plays on the water, and the boat club – the workshop venue – lies at the far end of the beach.
I’m crawling out of my skin
My date is late and I’m crawling out of skin with discomfort. I worry I’m at the wrong place. I worry I’m at the right place.
People start to arrive. They look like Tantra-workshop types. Maybe it was the one person with dreadlocks, maybe it was the two women in long flowing skirts. Maybe it was because they were carrying blankets and pillows down the beach towards the boat house.
This is not my scene. I have never done anything remotely like this. My vaguely liberal upbringing suddenly seems ultra-conservative. I do not want to be here.
Just as I’m contemplating doing a runner, my date materializes out of the dark. We take the beach walk.
Inside the boathouse, we are greeted by Scarlett, the Tantra teacher. Oozing zen and smiling beatifically, she embraces us as we enter.
They looked normal
Inside was an assortment of maybe 25 other humans. There was an even gender and age mix from, I’m guessing, 20s to 60s. And they were attractive, normal-looking people rather than the obvious-Tantra-workshop-attendees of my anxious imaginings.
My brain started unravelling almost immediately.
The workshop started innocently enough with a simple dance warm-up. The problem was I was so self-conscious. And I was surprised at being so self-conscious.
I prided myself on not caring what others thought of me. Plus, what was there to be self-conscious about? It was just people moving to music, in their own space, and – as instructed by Scarlett – eyes closed. I know their eyes were closed because I opened my eyes to look.
The closed eyes made it worse. How can I be self-conscious when no one’s even looking at me?
Of course, the word ‘pride’ was a gargantuan hindsight hint. I started beating myself up for being self-conscious. Then, because I prided myself on not beating myself up – I started beating myself up for beating myself up. And then I started beating myself up for beating myself up for beating myself up.
A vicious hall of mirrors
And so I slid down the hall of mirrors. At the end of the hall was the realization that a huge part of myself didn’t exist – the calm, reasonable, rational, non-socially anxious, non-beating-self-up part of me was a complete fabrication.
And this resulted in the most surreal week of my life.
Before I tell you how I survived that week and its lasting legacy, I’ll re-cap the remainder of the Tantra evening.
Although the word ‘savoring’ may have been mentioned more than five times, like the warm-up exercise, the rest of the workshop was physically very innocent. There was lots of eye gazing, hand stroking, and walking towards and away from people – testing physical and emotional boundaries.
But physiologically and emotionally it was one of the most erotic experiences of my life. I began the evening profoundly uncomfortable and guarded. Whereas I ended the evening, as someone pointed out, glowing.
The morning after
The full impact of my mind-unravel hit the morning after. The part of me that didn’t exist was the core of my self-identity. It dictated how I interacted with the world. My social rule book had vaporized along with my fictional self. I didn’t know what the rules were anymore. I didn’t know how to talk to anyone anymore.
I felt like a baby born into an adult’s body.
It was truly bizarre. Possibly like a bad drug trip. Not that I’d know from first-hand experience (my illicit drug symptoms are restricted to a sore throat from smoking several cannabis joints – they were probably oregano) but I can’t think of a better way of describing not knowing how to be in the world.
It was a rough week. The first two days – the weekend – were the most frightening. It was then I realized how controlling conversations are. We say something with the intent of triggering a particular response in the other person. A simple example; “How are you?” will – nine times out of 10 – trigger the response “I’m fine. How are you?”.
The problem was, I didn’t know what response I wanted, let alone what to say to trigger it.
Fortunately by the Monday – back to my Ph.D. office – I had a plan. I didn’t know what to say to people, so I figured I’d just give up the whole ‘knowing’ part. I would just say whatever occurred to me in the moment – or not.
Fortunately, the first person I encountered was the nicest person in the world, my friend Mathijs. Equally fortunately for my bewildered brain, he spoke first: “Hello, how are you?”
I’m feeling a bit peculiar
That was easy. I could answer that. “I’m feeling a bit peculiar,” I said carefully, trying out some words and trying not to sound too peculiar. “I don’t know how to talk to people anymore.”
He gave me a funny look and said “You look okay.”
The week improved from there. It was the ultimate in mindful speaking. I focused on saying whatever occurred to me in that moment. I responded to questions, or asked questions that I wanted answers to. One conversation at a time.
It worked. It got me through the week. The week after that I was back to normal. But it was a new normal.
Who am I?
I drew on a conversation I had many times during my years as a Lifeline telephone counsellor. Many callers no longer knew who they were after a major life change, such as a redundancy or a divorce, that had previously defined them. I felt the question “Who am I?” wasn’t particularly useful for these callers. As they had no idea who they were anymore, the question “Who am I?” was a distressing dead end.
I found a much more useful question was “Who do you want to be?”.
It turns out that “Who am I?” isn’t a particularly useful question for anyone, including me. The Tantra workshop freed me from the tyranny of who I thought I was and freed me to be whoever I want to be.
It has also freed me to acknowledge, rather than deny, when I act like someone I don’t want to be. It’s much easier to course correct when we can admit that we strayed off course. And it’s much easier to admit we’ve strayed off course when we aren’t wedded nor welded to our fabricated self-identities – when we can recognize that they are fabricated.
In ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) this is known as ‘psychological flexibility’. It’s considered a good thing – highly conducive to robust mental health. The kind of mental health that can scale Mount Everest in a single bound.
I would recommend Tantric workshops if you’re interested in unraveling your mind and boosting your psychological flexibility (and getting hotter sex), except I can’t. Last I heard Scarlett was in Thailand.
Make love not porn
I do think Tantra is a good thing – especially at a time when intimacy-bankrupt pornography is the norm. There’s plenty of books on the topic of Tantra, but in lieu of Scarlett’s workshops I suggest looking up Cindy Gallop’s website: ‘Make love not porn’ The website features real couples and triples having real sex. Including, apparently, off-duty porn stars.
But the point of this article isn’t Tantra per se. The point is trashing our comfort zones – which is why I developed my Policy of Yes. I didn’t know exactly how my life had gone so badly wrong, but I knew there had to be something better and I was going to find it.
And I did. And I still am.
“Invisible wounds” – This book is for you if you suspect you, or someone you know, is in an abusive relationship. It’s is the best resource on psychological, or emotional, abuse I’ve found. While it doesn’t directly address physical or sexual abuse, all forms of abuse are underpinned by psychological abuse. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t deviate one iota from the stereotypical view of the male abuser: female victim. However, if male abuse victims can stomach the gendered pronouns, it’s still a valuable book.)
What the sex therapist told me en route to the burlesque show – Want to know the No. 1 reason couples (and triples) go to sex therapists?
The best gift you can ever give someone – I’ve gotta come up with a less sappy title for this (I think) quite cool article. Edgier title suggestions invited. I usually cry when I think of a certain person in this article.
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