On finding self-awareness and self-love with the aid of tantra workshops and the policy of yes, by Dr Rebecca Stafford aka Dr Habit

What REALLY happened at the Tantra workshop

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 finally left him, my life had shrunk. I hated it, but I was also 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. Study requirements and my exhaustion made it all too easy to spend yet another night at home. Despite the open door in front of me, my life had been small for so long I was at risk of staying a shut-in. And 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. I also wasn’t yet a doctor. So, as desperately as I wanted to, I couldn’t (legitimately) write my own doctor’s note. My date’s 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 tantra 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.

OMG!!!

This is not my scene. I have never done anything remotely like this. My vaguely-liberal, middle-class 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 long 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, ranging 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.

However, my brain started unravelling almost immediately.

The workshop started innocently enough with a simple dance warm-up. That’s where the trouble started. The problem wasn’t the simple warm-up. The problem was me. I felt incredibly, ridiculously, self-conscious.

And I was startled at being so self-conscious. I prided myself on not caring what others thought of me. So what the hell was there to be self-conscious about? It was just people moving to music, in their own space, and – as instructed by Scarlett – with eyes closed. And I know their eyes were indeed closed because I opened my eyes to look.

But 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 massive hindsight-hint. I started beating myself up for being self-conscious. And 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 was a complete fabrication. It turned out that the calm, reasonable, rational, non-socially anxious, non-beating-self-up part of me simply didn’t exist. A huge part of me wasn’t.

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 Scarlett may have over-used the word ‘savoring,’ the rest of the workshop – like the warm-up exercise – was physically very innocent. There was lots of eye-gazing, hand-stroking, and walking towards and away from people. There was lots of testing of physical and emotional boundaries, but hardly the stuff of mainstream porn.

But physiologically and emotionally it was one of the most erotic experiences of my life. I began the evening profoundly uncomfortable and guarded. I ended the evening, as someone pointed out, glowing.

The morning after

The glow got me through the night. The full impact of my mind-unravel hit the morning after. To explain the extent of this, the part of me that turned out not to exist, was the core of my self-identity. It dictated how I interacted with the world. This meant 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 alleged 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 frightening. It was then I realized how controlling our 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 Monday – back to my PhD office – I had a plan. As I didn’t know what to say to people, 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 question. “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.”

I thought, “That went quite well.” 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 people’s questions, or asked people questions that I wanted answers to.

I tried not to worry about the fact that I couldn’t predict or control any conversations. One conversation at a time.

And it worked. It got me through the week. The week after that I was back to normal. But it was a new normal.

Who the hell am I?

I drew on a conversation I’d 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. Consequently, I found the question “Who am I really?” wasn’t particularly useful for these callers. More often than not, the common counseling question; “Who am I?” led  to a distressing dead end. 

Fortunately, I found a much more useful question. That was “Who do you want to be?”

It turns out that “Who am I?” isn’t a particularly useful question for anyone, including me. There was a life-redefining upside to the surreal Tantra workshop experience. It 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, or welded, to our fabricated self-identities. And not identifying with these fabrications is much easier 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. And I hate this is where so many of our young people are getting their sex ‘education.’ 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 (which is just as well, as I know stuff-all about it). 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.

 

Further Reading:

 

“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 survivors can stomach the gendered pronouns, it’s still a valuable book.)

Self-control: The biggest myth about habit change!

Think you don’t have enough self-control? Sick of struggling with habit change? – this article is for you! This post busts one of the most common myths about habit change – relating to the widespread misunderstanding about the nature of self-control. Click here to read about boosting your self-control – the fun way!

Sick of struggling with procrastination?

Here’s a short video on the top psychology strategy for beating procrastination ( = trouble starting) and perfectionism ( = fancy procrastination = trouble FINISHING). Also known as ‘How to get the mind-focusing effects of Ritalin – without taking the drug’ – it’s the key technique I used to get from university dropout to PhD.

Curious about 1:1 psychology coaching with me? Click here.

SUE’, PART-TIME UNIVERSITY STUDENT, BUSINESS OWNER, WIFE, MOTHER, TAURANGA “A+! I’m pretty chuffed with that!!!!! I am very proud of getting more life balance along with study and getting an amazing result! Thank you Rebecca, understanding what was behind my procrastination and self-sabotaging behaviors was like turning the light on.

I am now able to move forward with confidence (and less fear) knowing that I have an amazing toolkit of learnings and techniques to help keep me on track. You’re a star!”

TERESA AHERNE, AUCKLAND, NZ “I’ve tried everything over the years to stop smoking, and then, a month ago, Rebecca fixed my brain (well, the part that wants to smoke) in 10 minutes. I haven’t smoked since.”

Intrigued about Corporate Habit Coaching? Click here.

KIRSTEN WONCH, FOUNDER – THE WORKSHOP, PONSONBY, AUCKLAND We hosted Rebecca to present a workshop on beating procrastination through habit change & mastery. It’s the best feedback I’ve had from our residents after any of our ‘lunch & learns.’ Some of them implemented Rebecca’s psychology strategies the same day and commented it was “life changing.” The response was so impressive we’re having her back for a 6-part series!

SARAH LINTON, WORKSHOP ATTENDEE, AUCKLAND, HEALTH COACH, TIDES OF CHANGE “Rebecca is a font of knowledge! A mind expanding and illuminating workshop that has provided new layers and insights to the fundamentals of my practice. Rebecca’s passion is inspiring, her stories are ‘goose-bump’ material that validate the theory and bring light and life to key psychology areas, such as the concept of positive and negative rewards and punishments. 

Subscribe for free goodies: Click here to subscribe for free articles and a free download How to get the mind-focusing effects of Ritalin without taking the drug: The top psychology strategy for beating procrastination. FYI The free download is basically a transcript of the video above – which a key difference. The download has the ‘dial-back technique’ which is not in the video. the dial-back technique allows you to calculate the ideal amount of time to set your sabertooth kitten for, for maximum focus and productivity.

Please comment below: I’d love to hear your thoughts and have your help promoting discussion on these critical topics.

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  1. Frank C

    I lived in a tantra ashram in Ponsonby for a few months. Vegan yogi men with beards and long hair who rose at 4am. The women lived in another house. It wasnt a liberal sexual environment at all.
    It wasa bit like Hari Krisnas but a different and smaller sect.

    I did some yoga at times in my life. It seems to incite sexual passions, all that pelvis stretching, as many western yoga teachers of acclaim seem to be embroiled in sex scandals with students. In the 90’s the Haris had over a thousand class actions due to sexual abuse in their US schools. A bit like catholic scandals eh?

    I think its best to view these things in time. In that history is required to expose a charismatic as a psychopath. Not saying tantra attracts psycho’s, probably just playboys or those with strong sex drives.

    Sexual pleasure is all fine and good, but in excess its like an addiction, and people crash and burn. I’m a bit conservative but I have dated some nymphos, and boy [or should I say girl] do they do some lying and cheating! Its all pretty screwed up living under patriarchy anyhoos,, I spent some time in a matrilineal society [sumatra and lao], and women are very forward if they like you. Usually they just want your good genetic variation into the bloodline of the village. Subliminal motivation in westerners??

    By inserting the word ‘tantra’ into your workshop title, you get noticed and studied intently, and people sign up because of this. We still have the hangover of Victorian prudishness.

    For me though being around free sex hippies, its a bit like going to a nudist colony for the weekend. Not keen on sharing chairs.

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