6 Ways to Deal with Emotional Suffering

 “Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama.” —Ram Dass

Suffering is part of the human condition—especially for those of us living out our dharma in the fast-paced, urban trenches of Los Angeles. Sometimes, when we are highly emotional about something, we say we are “really in it”, as if we are submerged in the suffering itself. The most powerful—and perhaps, essential— ways to navigate emotional suffering is to develop the ability to be simultaneously SUBJECTIVE and OBJECTIVE—to observe ourselves in this state without judgment. In other words, we can have our feelings, but we are not our feelings.

The greater our ability be our own witness, the more adept we become at acknowledging, recognizing, understanding, accepting, and releasing our suffering.

Here are 6 ways to cultivate your witness:

1. Slow Way Down

Stillness is the prescription for bringing consciousness to anything. Rushing through the experiencing of anything, including feelings, means that we miss subtleties and nuances that feed our understanding of it. The first step in separating ourselves from our drama is to slow down and be with it. Resist the urge to DO. Simply BE.

2. Invoke Your Third Person

It may feel silly at first, but when you are in the middle of an emotional reaction, stop and say, “This is Zoë having an emotional reaction.” Or, “This is Zoë feeling angry.” Work your way through it until, “This is Zoë accepting what is and knowing that all will be okay.” If you don’t get all the way there, don’t worry. This is a practice in distinguishing yourself from your emotions, first and foremost.

3. Checkpoint: Mindfulness

Set an alarm at regular intervals four times a day. When the alarm sounds, do a brief mindfulness practice. Notice your physical presence in its environment. You might articulate it like this: “Feet on the floor. Feet on the floor…Hands on the keyboard. Hands on the keyboard…” Repeating it twice gives the mind and extra beat to become fully present and objective.” Interrupting the flow of the day with Mindfulness develops our ability to discern between emotional and physical experience.

4. Take a Nature Walk

The muscles we use to observe the world around us are the same ones we use to witness ourselves. The way the clouds drift in the sky, the palm fronds rustle in the breeze, or birds fly in formation, gives context to our suffering, by reminding us that we are one small part of something much greater than ourselves.

5. On the Arc of a Rainbow

Just as connecting with nature can set a context for a difficult moment, stepping back and considering how that moment fits into your life story can set a different, and equally powerful context. We tend to assign undue urgency or importance to our experiences—especially when they are emotionally-charged—when they are really just one small chapter in the arc of our entire story.

6. Lighten Up

There is a not-so-fine, and fairly blurry line between pain and self-pity. Denying or burying our emotions can be hazardous to our health. At the same time, so can taking ourselves too seriously. Holding things lightly can go a long way in cultivating grace in the dancing with our feelings.

The Night That Changed Everything: Cancer at 20

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.” —Pema Chödrön

A few weeks ago, I was up in the redwoods outside Santa Cruz in Northern California, leading workshops at a fabulous retreat, Camp Fireheart. One of the other facilitators, Paula Lindquist, led us all in a shamanic soul retrieval ritual in which we were guided to recover a part of our soul that had been lost due to a traumatic event in our lives. For me, it was easy to find that part. I have already spent the better part of this year in search of ways to identify and heal residual wounds from having survived cancer when I was 20 years old. In a session with one of my healers, I broke down and sobbed at the realization of the innocence that was lost on the night that I sat in the emergency room and received the news that I had cancer. Now months later, I had an opportunity to reconnect with that young woman whose life was changed forever in that moment, reunite with her, and reintegrate her into my soul. It was all very poetic, moving, and I wasn’t at all sure what it meant in a real sense.

The day returned home from Camp Fireheart, I received a message from the doctor who treated me in the emergency room that night. We had reconnected a couple of years ago through Facebook and he was now coming out to California for a conference, and we are going to meet for dinner. The last time I saw him was exactly 33 years ago, and he was the very last person to witness my pre-diagnosis self. In a way that my native New Yorker-self rolls her eyes at, while my California Spiritualist-self feels in her bones, he is coming to return that piece of me that was lost that night.

Here is the story:

I have been dancing with Kali my whole life. She is the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, but also liberation because the sword she carries cuts through that which we choose to not see, leaving us face-to-face with the truth of what is so. She is the dark mother, fiercely protective of her children, and a willing practitioner of “tough love”. And though I wasn’t familiar with yet by name, she arrived unannounced in the Fall semester of my Junior year at University of Pennsylvania. Sword in hand, and prepared to settle in for a while, she sliced through veils of illusion in fits and starts, pausing just long enough for my human mind to process the truth. The slicing of the veils was like the ripping of a Band Aid—sudden, shocking, and painful. She’d swaddle me in her arms as the initial trauma subsided and as soon as she could feel me relax into the new landscape of truth, she’d pull out her sword and do it again. If I had to describe the essence of this episode of my life story, it would be a tangible sense that the universe was simultaneously knocking me down and taking care of me in the process.

It was election night, Tuesday, November 6, 1984, and Ronald Reagan was predictably defeating Walter Mondale. It’s not that I was a passionate supporter of Mondale, but he was a legacy of the great Jimmy Carter and he had a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, on the ticket for the first time in U.S. history. Most of all, he was distinctly not Reagan. I took a break from watching the TV coverage and wandered over to my friend Arnd’s room. He was typing a research paper on his early-issue word processer and I offered to type for a while. He showed his gratitude by massaging my shoulders as I worked.

“What’s this funny bone I can move around?” he asked in his unmistakable German accent as his fingertips explored a pea-sized lump, rubbing it back and forth over my left collarbone.

I had had a cold the week prior and my first thought was, “Oh shit. I probably have mono and it’s going to ruin my semester.”

The following day, I had a full schedule of classes. Afterwards, I ate dinner with my friends at the dining hall in basement of our dorm and headed over to after-hours Student Health, which was a dedicated section of the emergency room at Hospital of University of Pennsylvania (HUP) with it’s own entrance. It was completely unrelated to the regular Student Health Clinic, where grumpy old men bumbled around barely listening to their patients and practicing medicine by habit. By contrast, I was attended to by a young, razor-sharp doctor who was manning the post that night. His name was Dr. Elliot Barnathan, and he remains, to this day, high on my list of people to whom I am eternally grateful.

I was the only patient that night. Dr. Barnathan looked like the nice Jewish boys I grew up with. I imagined he must be making his parents proud. He stood about 5’9” with brown wavy hair and glasses. His badge said, “Cardiology Fellow” under his name, which meant, technically he was still in post-residency training. He was warm and present, thought not at all a nebbish. He had a quiet confidence and almost a bit of a swagger, and under other circumstances, I might have been crushing on him. He called me into the room and examined me. After feeling the pebble in my neck, along with several just like it, he sent me to Radiology for a chest x-ray. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. For a child who had grown up with severe asthma, a chest x-ray is standard procedure. When I returned from Radiology with my films, Dr. Barnathan took them from me, held them up in the air so they’d be illuminated by the ceiling fixtures and looked. It was clear by his face that he felt the same way I did about the previous night’s election result: disappointed but not at all surprised.

He directed me into the exam room and had me sit on the table while he shoved the films upward into the holding clip on the light box which hung on the wall across from me. He showed me the white cloud of cotton candy billowing from either side of my sternum and explained it was a mediastinal mass, which, together with the lumps in my neck and my age, was a clear indication of lymphoma—a malignancy of the lymph system. Cancer.

A black cloud came over me and I fell backwards, losing consciousness. He delivered the rest of the news as I was lying down in shock. He explained that there are two kinds of Lymphoma: Hodgkins—which is very treatable, and Non-Hodgkins—of which one type is treatable and another is not at all treatable. He said, what I was hoping for was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It occurred to me quickly how certain he was that I had cancer at all. I tried in vain to negotiate with him for the possibility of pneumonia or something else of an infectious nature (curable with a simple course of antibiotics). He looked genuinely sorry to have to disappoint me, but the confidence I was attracted to an hour ago was now showing up in his medical expertise. I got it. Cancer.

Lying there in shock, my mind didn’t race, my heart didn’t race, I was oddly calm. I had the sensation of being suspended in darkness, suddenly untethered by the threads of everyday life which had tied me to reality: the dorm I lived in; the French class I was failing; my childhood experiences; the salad I had eaten for dinner. Suddenly these threads had been cut, and I was floating.

“Where are your parents?” Dr. Barnathan gently asked as he stood over me.

“At home in New York.”

“I want you to call them.”

“I can’t talk. I don’t know what to say. Can you please call them?”

“I want them to hear your voice first. Say hello, and tell them you are okay. Then you can hand the phone to me and I’ll explain what is going on.”

So I did, and he did, and then he handed the phone back to me. My parents and I said goodbye. None of us can remember that conversation, but I am sure it included a poignant expression of love.

The next thing that Dr. Elliot Barnathan handled was the contacting of a revered oncologist, Dr. John Glick, who was on the team that “founded the cure” for Hodgkin’s. His answering service reported that Dr. Glick was at a dinner party and inquired whether it something that required he be paged. “Yes,” Dr. Barnathan said, “Yes, please page him immediately.” Within minutes, Dr. Glick was on the phone with Dr. Barnathan who explained every detail of who I was and what had just transpired. Medical terms were said, names were mentioned, and plans were made. I was to call his office first thing in the morning and I would be fast-tracked as a high priority.

And then it was time to send me on my way. In a final act of loving care, Dr. Elliot Barnathan asked me if I had a friend I could call and be with. A friend who had known me for a long time, he advised, would be preferred. I thought for a moment and called my friend Mark. We had grown up together at summer camp and he was the reason I ended up at University of Pennsylvania. I walked directly to his apartment. He opened his door, and then opened his arms where I stayed for hours as we processed my new reality into the wee hours.

The Ins and Outs of Penetration

Men are built to penetrate, not only anatomically, but also emotionally and energetically. Several years ago, I was putting my five-year-old son to bed. We were indulging in the practice of finding creative ways to express our enormous love for each other. I told him I loved him so much my heart was going to explode. He took that in, grinned, and in a moment of inspired one-upmanship said, “I love you so much, my heart is going to explode right into your mouth so you can swallow it.”

“I love you so much, my heart is going to explode right into your mouth so you can swallow it.”

On another occasion, in a genuine burst of affection, he said, “Open up your love hole, Mom, and let me fill it up.” Terrified by the loss of innocence I might detect, I asked nervously, “Where exactly is my love hole?” To which he matter-of-factly (and to my great relief) replied, “Your heart!”

My son’s expressions of love and affection are devoid of sexual meaning for him. He has no idea about such things, but the energy behind his words got me thinking. I often observe my son moving through the world with ferocious enthusiasm—on the soccer field, on his scooter, the way he hurls his whole body at me when he wants a hug.

It’s beyond how he thinks or acts; it’s who he is. And it’s how he loves.

Neuroscience tells us that that a small almond-shaped structure, deep in our anterior temporal lobe, called the amygdala, plays a big role in our emotional reactions and emotional memories. It is widely accepted that women have smaller and more efficient amygdalas, which enables them to have more emotional memories and engage in what scientists call “ruminative thinking.” There are other gender-based differences in our brains. The right and left hemispheres are connected by tissue called corpus callosum, and men have less of it. Women spend more time acting and speaking from both sides of their brains. Men think and act more linearly, leaving emotion and intuition out of the equation.

“The male brain is programmed to systemize, while the female brain is taught to empathize.” —Simon Baron-Cohen

According to Simon Baron-Cohen, Cambridge University Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, “The male brain is programmed to systemize, while the female brain is taught to empathize.” Perhaps the most obvious difference in the brains of men and women happens in the womb. A female brain in utero is bathed in estrogen; a male brain in testosterone.

Largely in an effort to understand the nature, causes, and prevalence of autism, Baron-Cohen conducted multiple studies looking at the amount of testosterone a baby is exposed to in the womb and then followed them through their infancy and early childhood, evaluating their capacity for human connection. About testosterone, he says, “The more you have of this special substance, the more your brain is tuned into systems and the less your brain is tuned into emotional relationships.”

All this is not to say that men don’t empathize and women don’t systemize. Each of us is a unique combination of all aspects of the human condition. But there is something compelling in organic gender polarity that has inspired books like John Gray’s, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex, and has made the work of David Deida author of The Way of the Superior Man: A Spiritual Guide to Mastering the Challenges of Women, Work, and Sexual Desire so wildly popular. All we have to do is look around to see and feel how men are more equipped to slide through the world, moving in and out of situations and relationships systematically, without getting bogged down by their emotions.

While men are driven to penetrate, as women, it is our nature to want to be filled up by something other than ourselves.

When I described my heart exploding with love for my young son, the vision was that a warm effervescent blanket would unfurl from my chest and wrap him, contain him and ultimately taking him in. While men are driven to penetrate, as women, it is our nature to want to be filled up by something other than ourselves. The outward expression of this is the way we nurture—whether it’s our children, our lovers, or the world in general. We invite people into our warm embrace.

The passive version of this expression is our desire to be taken, to be penetrated. As women, we hold so much. Most of us have a complex matrix of things and people to take care of—responsibilities. And in the hierarchy of needs, we usually put ourselves last. At the end of the day, we long for a lover to take us away, to force us to let go, to bring us beyond reason—to fuck us senseless.

In the tradition of Tantra, the Divine feminine quality is Shakti—fluid energy, manifestation, and change. The Divine masculine is Shiva, or pure consciousness—the solid, unlimited, unchanging observer. Shiva has no desire, he is the blank screen onto which Shakti projects her desires in full Technicolor drama. When a man and woman come together in alignment with this paradigm, it can be a powerful way to connect not only to each other, but also to explore ourselves and own nature as an expression of this universal principle. Our longing to be fucked senseless is rooted in the desire for Shiva to penetrate the maelstrom of our own dynamic energy and propel us into another state of consciousness—an argument could be made here for the benefits of having “mind-blowing” sex.

The trouble with all this penetration is what happens when it’s not happening.

For a woman, there is a feeling of completeness when a man is inside of her (or a baby, for that matter). She walks around with a hole in her physical body (her vagina, her womb), but also in her subtle body.

The question is: How do we cultivate a healthy emptiness?

It is easy to confuse the absence of something as a loss, the space as a vacuum. It is tempting to try to sate the hunger as if we are starving, while we resort to filling ourselves up by eating, smothering our children, or engaging in co-dependent relationships. Ironically, the more we try to fill ourselves up, the lonelier we feel.

In her song, Down to You, Joni Mitchell declares, “Everything comes and goes, marked by lovers and styles of clothes. Things that you held high and told yourself were true, lost or changing as the days come down to you.” Allowing the flow of life, of lovers, and of love requires some willingness to tolerate discomfort, but far less than the suffering that results from trying to fight it or to clinging to things past their point of completion.

Holding our internal space is a muscle that can be developed over time.

Holding our internal space is a muscle that can be developed over time. Resisting the urge to fill ourselves up with something other than ourselves gives us room to connect with ourselves, to recognize our own voices, to feel our own desires. Relaxing into our inner space affords us the awareness of choice. It is a powerful place to feel sovereignty over who and what we choose to let in and out.

As Joni suggests, it all comes down to us.

When we learn to feel complete in our natural emptiness, to embrace the potentiality in the space, we begin to align with the natural cycles of life, birth, death and rebirth, in a way that makes sense of our true nature, as vessels, of life and love.

 

Worshipping Pussy

It’s not hard to see that the world is out of balance. Old systems and structures are breaking down—both globally and individually—as it feels like we are heading for either annihilation or a rebirth. We have been ensconced in a kind of masculine, rational, linear, problem-solving paradigm for centuries and the disintegration of what no longer serves is an opportunity for the feminine to rise. Already in corporate culture we are beginning to see a trend towards a more feminine leadership style: collaborative and process-oriented as opposed to more the typically masculine, hierarchical and goal-oriented style. I’ll save it for a longer post at some point soon, but what I am beginning to see clearly is that we have largely lost touch with a fundamental devotional relationship with the physical manifestation with the feminine: PUSSY.

I believe (and I am not kidding), if we would adopt a universal practice of regular yoni worship, we would naturally become a compassionate, loving society and the world would energetically recalibrate to support this new paradigm.

There is a people in Rwanda and Uganda who worship the feminine in this way. In this practice,  called Kachabali in Uganda and Kunyaza in Rwanda, a man uses the head of his penis to massage the clitoris, labia, and opening of the vagina with circular, up-and-down and side-to-side motions. The vagina is also tapped or slapped rapidly, while he holds his shaft like a flashlight, between his thumb and fingers. When touched this way, many women experience multiple, squirting orgasms. Even the 80% of women who have difficulty with vaginal orgasms, find that the clitoral stimulation Kachabali/Kunyaza provides wakes up all the pleasure centers between her legs.

I came across a poem by writer, Erika Harris, which describes Kachabali/Kunyaza. It is one of the sexiest pieces of writing I have experienced. See what you think…

 

King of Kachabali. King of Kunyaza
By Erika Harris

He reads her labia
as the sacred script that it is.
He is a pussy devotee,
and he has been endowed
with The Power Of The Hand.
And also, The Power Of The Wait.
He has the power to wait for her, without hurry
or expectation. He is genitally generous.
Circling and churning her honey-pot.
His wrist rotates… spins, like a whirling dervish.
Cockwise. Counter-cockwise.
He wants only to reunite the glans of his erect penis
with the glans of her erect clitoris.
He will let supple, sensitized skin do its thing.
He will not frantically plow into her…
like a big, dopey porn-ox.
This wise womb-worshipper knows
that most of the best-feeling places
in her vagina-temple are actually near its doors.
The lipsss.
So that is where he puts all his focus and energy,
simply sliding slickness all around there…
rhythmically tapping and gliding between her slippery folds
with his warm, silky head… penetrating ever-so-briefly,
and not even all the way…
This teasing, pulsing prayer makes her vulva,
with its 8,000 clitoral nerve endings, reach toward him
like a hungry mouth, wide open to this attentive King
who brings her from dry to drenched.
From thirsty to quenched.
Y’know misogyny? This is the opposite.
If ever something could transform
patriarchy into ecstasy, this is it.
Such giving Kings, your Queens adore you.

Getting Back on the Horse: Literally and Metaphorically

We hear from many sources from Ram Dass with his seminal Be Here Now, to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now about being present in the moment. By now, we are well-versed in the benefits of mindfulness and the awareness of what is right in front of us. We know that living in the past limits our potential and worrying about the future inhibits our behavior. But every once in a while it is helpful to look back, to acknowledge growth and expansion. This is especially true with regard to healing after a break-up. I wrote this piece nine years ago. It serves not only as evidence of my own progress, but as a reminder of the value of resilience.

•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •

In the last several months, I’ve taken up horseback riding. Until recently, I had had a single experience on a horse when I was 17 on a camping trip in upstate New York with my high school boyfriend. Let’s just say that it was short-lived and ended with the horse running back to the stable after nibbling my feet. I asked for my money back.

My mother is a classic New York Jew who believes if you perspire, you are working too hard and should immediately return to the air-conditioned salon to dine on chopped chicken liver and cucumber sandwiches while reading a good book.

I was never what you would call an athletic kid. It’s not that I wasn’t fit. I danced from the age of three—ballet, modern, and tap. I was raised by intellectual, artist-types. My mother is a classic New York Jew who believes if you perspire, you are working too hard and should immediately return to the air-conditioned salon to dine on chopped chicken liver and cucumber sandwiches while reading a good book. My father is a tenderhearted, philosophical Norwegian. His Scandinavian stoicism allows him to endure root canals without anesthesia and shovel snow in little more than a T-shirt, but somehow that stoicism didn’t make its way into his workout ethic. My parents could not have been more loving and supportive, but they did not push the sports.

In my 20s, I discovered yoga and hiking. In my 30s, I started snowboarding and kayaking. In my 40s so far, skiing and horseback riding. Though I have slammed my body against the mountain numerous times by “catching an edge,” what happened yesterday morning was far different.

It was about the ninth or tenth time I’d been riding. I was alone with David, who has been on horses his whole life. He is English and a retired polo player as well. We often ride with our kids and take it easy, trotting with an occasional canter if one of the horses decides to cut loose. This ride was intended to let us run. We were riding horses that we often ride; he was on Twister and I was on Cherokee. After a little warm up, David took off and I followed. He cantered ahead of me. Cherokee was reluctant to go and being inexperienced, I didn’t force her. Recognizing we were falling far behind, she decided she’d better catch up and she picked up her feet. We got a good pace going, but when she lost sight of the others, she broke into a full gallop. It was faster than I had ever ridden and it was magical.

This time, when Cherokee took it from canter to gallop, it was smooth and graceful. For a moment, I got lost in it. I was flying.

One of the things I have learned is that you have to hug the horse with your legs. Standing in the stirrups, your lower body must be engaged as if it is part of the horse, providing an independent suspension system. With my very limited experience, I am very comfortable walking and trotting, but as soon as we start cantering, I become conscious of every nuance of the motion and how my body feels in that moment, making sure I stay balanced. This time, when Cherokee took it from canter to gallop, it was smooth and graceful. For a moment, I got lost in it. I was flying. We caught David and Twister and took a breath.

Palos Verdes has a bridle path covered in mulch. It winds around behind “horse properties” and through some commercial stables. It’s beautiful, even on a grey morning threatening rain, as it was yesterday. When we reached a straightaway, we decided to run some more. Again, Cherokee and I watched our friends disappear in front of us. I stood up and pressed my heels into her ribs. She responded and started to run.

This would be a good place to acknowledge that there is a tremendous amount of trust required to get on the back of a horse and ask it to gallop away. I am not sure I really grasped that until I was in the saddle doing it. I can’t think of another experience in which my wellbeing has been in the hands (or hooves) of a living, breathing being with whom I can’t even have a basic conversation. Feeding her a few carrots as the ranch hands saddled her up is not the same as if I had been able to share a few laughs over a beer, or at the very least, discuss the weather.

So there we were, running on the path and I felt her stumble. My mind raced. What was I supposed to do?

So there we were, running on the path and I felt her stumble. My mind raced. What was I supposed to do? I remember being told to put my feet forward and flex them so if she went down I might project forward and land on my feet rather than my head. It’s mostly a blur, but I do know this. She recovered her footing. I did not. I was thrown to the right and lost my left stirrup. For a short time as we were galloping along, I thought I might be able to hoist myself back up into the saddle. I was hanging on with everything I had and trying to figure out how to pull back on the reigns to slow her down. But it was happening so fast, and I was sliding further off-center. There was a definitive point at which I decided I’d better bail if I wanted to have an ounce of control in how I was going to fall.

I can’t believe I am falling off a galloping horse.

I was shocked at the sound my body made as it hit the ground. If I was going to try to describe it, I’d say it went, “thud.” The impact was hard enough to knock the piss out of me…literally. And then the pain. I couldn’t form words. I moaned. Apparently I had yelled for David on the way down because he was riding back towards me asking me if anything was broken and if I could move all my parts. It took me a minute to be able to answer him. For one thing, I hit my head really hard. I was smart enough to be wearing a good helmet correctly. I also know how to fall: Tuck and streamline your body. Whatever you do, don’t stick a limb out trying to break the fall. The only thing you’ll break is that limb. So after wiggling each identifiable body part (intentionally), I got up. No permanent damage. My ribs are sorely bruised and I’ve got some road rash (or mulch rash), but I am lucky, and made some good decisions on the fly. A stronger rider would not have gone down. But given the particulars of my situation, I believe I did as well as I could. At least that. I got back on Cherokee (who was standing over me looking concerned) and we rode back to the stable.

In the day and a half since the accident, I have thought about the next time I ride. Suddenly the phrase, “getting back on the horse” has new meaning.

Early this year I ended a ten-year relationship. In an overarching kind of way, I am happy and healing and thankful to have my life back. As is normal, I continue to work through feelings of hurt, betrayal, disappointment and anger, the legacy of which tends to surface in facing new relationships. A classic dilemma: How do I surrender to vulnerability? How do I know that the person I am entrusting with my emotional safety—my heart—is not going to stumble along the way, throwing me so far off center that I have to bail. The parallel is not lost on me. In some respects, I had been riding a creature with whom I couldn’t have a basic conversation.

In the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I will be riding again. I am sure I’ll find some challenging moments. When I first break into a canter, I will have to fight the urge to associate that sensation with the feeling of falling. The memory of the pain as I hit the ground will be tangible. The thing is, I don’t plan to give up riding horses. I could analyze the fall over and over and try to figure out what went wrong and what to do differently. This kind of reflection—like therapy in the wake of a break-up—is helpful, or even essential to progress. But in the end, it’s about applying what you’ve learned by putting yourself in the very situation in which you were once hurt. And so…I will get back on the horse. Hopefully, he will be more solid and I will find new strength and flexibility.

Why Sex is Important for Women

Throughout my years of working with women, there is a conversation that I have over and over. The specific details vary, but the bottom line is that an enormous number of women have lost their desire for physical intimacy. We are too tired, too busy, too angry at our partners—at the end of the day, the last thing we want is to let someone into our bodies. For many women, sex has become another thing on the To Do List—an obligation, a favor. What is most surprising and disheartening about this pervasive attitude is the idea that sex is not important for women. Culturally, we give our brothers permission to want sex, to claim its importance, but we don’t do the same for our sisters.

“…lest we forget, the survival of the species depends on women wanting to have sex.”

There are many things that shape our sexuality without us even realizing it—the way our parents expressed affection with each other when we were young, and the way nudity was treated in the household. What about our relationships with our fathers and brothers? Did you hear comments about being so pretty your father would need a gun when boys started to want to date you? What does that say about sexual desire in general and how does it affect us to be told we are vulnerable and need one man to protect us from another one? Much has been written about how the media shapes our feelings about ourselves—the advertising industry portrays women in a very specific way. What if we fall outside the range of what we hear is HOT? From booty-licious to thigh-gap, we have many criteria of desirability by which to judge ourselves. From the time we are young girls, we receive a constant stream of mixed messages about our sexuality. With all noise interfering, it’s nearly impossible to cultivate a healthy relationship with a very tender part of ourselves. We are given little context for our identities as sexual creatures. And yet, it is exactly this expression that spawns life and sustains humanity—lest we forget, the survival of the species depends on women wanting to have sex.

There is scientific evidence of the physiological benefits of sex for women. Engaging in sex regularly has the following effects:

  1. Increases DHEA—Hormone that boosts immune system. Produces healthier skin, and decreases depression.
  2. Increases Oxytocin—Hormone that causes the release of endorphins, a natural opiate that relieves pain.
  3. Reduces Cortisol—Sex reduces stress, and thereby reduces cortisol levels which means more balanced blood sugar, blood pressure, and lower acidity in the abdomen.
  4. Increases Immunoglobulin A—Antibody which boosts immunity. Women who have sex twice a week have 30% higher level of immunoglobulin A.
  5. Some studies even show evidence that the increased blood flow and muscular contractions that occurs with regular penetration and orgasm promotes the structural health of a woman’s pelvic floor.

Though the facts are compelling, ironically the very nature of looking to science to prove we should be having sex is an obvious symptom of the reason why we are not having it. We are so caught up in a world that worships the masculine, that we have neglected the feminine. The most powerful evidence that sex is important for women is arrived at intuitively.

“The most powerful evidence that sex is important for women is arrived at intuitively.”

As women, we play many roles: partners, wives, daughters, bosses, employees, mothers. We deliver, nurture, manage, and please. We are accomplished jugglers, master manifestors; we make things happen. The bi-product of navigating our hyper-connected, multi-tasking lives with poise and grace is the suppression of raw emotion. To perform these many roles effectively, we contain, conform, and control our feelings, our words, our behavior. As a matter of survival we adapt to a culture that values our rational minds. In the process we become alienated from our innate, intuitive nature, often feeling unseen, unappreciated, and misunderstood. When we lose our sense of self in this way, we suffer in our relationships. We get angry; and we shut down. Our confidence takes a hit, along with our self-esteem, self-care, and our precious sex lives—the very thing that should be our source of power.

We can measure hormones and proteins in our bodies in connection with sexual activity, but what is even more powerful is the energetic, psychological, and spiritual benefits of sex as a form of creative self-expression.

There is a fire that burns inside each one of us. It is the flame of passion, of desire. It glows, it roars, it’s wild in nature. It is our birthright. This fire is our feminine essence. It is the stuff that is uniquely ours, that gives us eyes in the back of our heads, that makes our hearts twinge when a loved one thousands of miles away is hurting, it’s our spidey sense, the way we can heal with a hug, our ability to feel when a decision is the right one.

“When we step away from our contained, controlled lives, and soften into the expansive formlessness of sexual arousal, we create a space for the feminine to rise; we stoke the fire.”

When we step away from our contained, controlled lives, and soften into the expansive formlessness of sexual arousal, we create a space for the feminine to rise; we stoke the fire. Passion is a necessary nutrient, desire, an essential ingredient. To pretend otherwise is to deny ourselves—and the world—a vital part of who we are, and how we can serve. Whether we are in the kitchen, the boardroom, the yoga studio, or the bedroom, our practiced access to our feminine fire is a source of vitality for ourselves, and in turn for our families, communities, and organizations.

So if you feel like the only reason to have sex is out of obligation to your partner, consider this: It’s not about getting someone else off, it’s about turning ourselves on, so that we can light up the world.

PS:  It might be helpful to know, self-pleasuring counts!

Death is Not Good or Bad

It’s been a tough year in the American zeitgeist. We have endured perhaps the most grueling and divisive election cycles in modern history. The experience of which felt very much like the disintegration of the only governing structures we have ever known. 2016 has been disorienting, chaotic, and downright scary at time. Add to this, a seemingly disproportionate number of celebrity deaths and it has started to feel like some sort of apocalyptic cultural cleansing.

The one that really hit me hard was David Bowie. For one thing, he had just released what turned out to be his final album, with a set of gorgeous images of him looking so vibrant and alive. He hid illness entirely from the public—no small feat in this technology-enabled, privacy-deprived culture, in which we somehow have grown to feel entitled to know everything about everyone down to the minute details of their personal lives. And then there was the narrative of his wife and kids. His late-in-life love affair with supermodel Iman was the stuff through which we could live vicariously.

I was shocked and sad. It was hard to imagine living in a world without the enormous life force called Bowie. I quickly acknowledged that he lives on in the world through a lifetime’s worth of artistic contribution. The fact that he is no longer in his body hardly diminishes his presence. And while my heart aches with empathy for his family, it is not my story and frankly, not my place to adopt their pain and make it mine.

As the year comes to a close, and we witness the death of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds back-to-back, a trend surfaced on Facebook. For days, my newsfeed was an endless stream of status updates that read, “FUCK YOU 2016! No, seriously. Go fuck yourself.” or “Not fair, 2016. That was a low blow.” or “Really, 2016?! How many more are you going to take from us?” I find the idea that the current calendar year is somehow responsible for death bizarre, and as the collective voice grew louder and louder with anger and protest, so did my frustration, until yesterday I posted the following on my personal Facebook page:

 

“I’ve been baffled and disappointed by the pervasive lack of skill I see in handling death. The choice to be victimized by a calendar year—which is a human construct to begin with—and then the assumption that death is inherently bad…that people die too soon… Really?! Do we believe that Prince and Bowie and Carrie all owed it to us to stick around, or even wanted to stick around? Clearly at a soul level they did not. How arrogant to think that we have a clue how this all works. We have no idea what divine contracts others have. The timing and manner of people’s deaths is between them and the Great Spirit. We don’t get to weigh in. Sitting in sadness and sorrow without making up fairy tales about how wrong it is that people die…THAT is the opportunity here. Do the work.”

 

No surprise, my words elicited some impassioned responses. For the most part, my voice resonated with my friends who have been feeling similarly. But there were a few people who found my words “brazen and cold,” or reminded me that everyone is allowed to grieve in their own way. One friend accused me of “spiritual arrogance.”

I let the comments roll in and sat with it all for a bit to let any defensiveness on my part dissipate, and then posted this:

 

“I knew when I posted yesterday about Death that I would cause a stir. I made a conscious choice to stand in my own truth and express myself freely and authentically. I too have an emotional reaction to so many of my favorite artists leaving the planet, especially at a time like this. I am not cold or unfeeling. And although my tone was a product of frustration and disappointment with what I perceive to be a persistent knee-jerk victim posture in the collective, I have deep compassion for the process of grieving and coping with loss. My point yesterday might have been more effectively communicated had I gently suggested that we resist the urge to join the cultural tidal wave of shock and horror at how 2016 could be so cruel to us, and in the process lose the opportunity to meet death in a way that allows us to be intimate with the loss, letting go, and ultimately living and loving. I am not sorry I chose the words I did, but I do want to acknowledge the few souls who took me to task to make sure that I allow people their processes and be mindful not to judge. I hear you, and I honor you. Thank you for engaging in this conversation about perhaps the only bigger taboo than sex (my other favorite button pusher). I share with you this quote from one of my favorite teachers and role models, Roshi Joan Halifax. She has devoted her life to the exploration of consciousness and death, and holds much wisdom on the subject.”

“In accepting death as inevitable, we don’t label it as a good thing or a bad thing. As one of my teachers once said to me, ‘Death happens. It is just death, and how we meet it is up to us.’” —Roshi Joan Halifax

 

More than anything, I am deeply satisfied to have opened a conversation about death and how we meet it. It’s the sleepy auto-response engagement with the world that I seek to shine a light on, so that we may grow deeper, wiser, and more open-hearted over time as we navigate this crazy life. Ultimately, we are born alone and we die alone. In the meantime, as Ram Dass says, we are all just walking each other home.

The Excruciating Pain of Heartbreak

I nearly forgot the gut-wrench of loss. We call it heartbreak, but a close second to the hot ache in my chest is the writhing pain just below my solar plexus. It’s shocking how much physical pain can be caused by emotional suffering.

It might be easier to endure a broken arm or a concussive smack on the head. Simpler, at least.

It’d been nearly eight years since I opened myself up to the risk of heartbreak. When a ten year relationship to my son’s father ended abruptly, existential disorientation resulted in a deep dive into spirituality that included a tantra immersion, daily yoga, and a commitment to remain uncommitted to a relationship.

After seven years of “solitude,” I resurfaced with a whole new set of skills and a whole lot of stories to tell. I became masterful at the art of non-attachment, even in the most physically intimate relationships. I was able to appreciate the moments of vulnerability and connection, experience them fully in the moment, and then let them go without succumbing to the urge to project into the future, look for meaning, shape the outcome. Freeing myself of the constraints of the logistical negotiation of a partnership (boundaries, emotional needs, etc.) allowed me to experience another as whole and complete, and largely without expectation.

And then, finally, I felt a longing to go deeper, to take my new tools back to the sandbox and see how they altered the play. The universe immediately complied with a magical man who swept me off my feet. My attempts to stay somewhat sober in the drunken love fest were unsuccessful, and we fell deeply in love. What was good about the relationship was great, but there were parts of the relationship that were equally not so great, and after seven months, it became clear that it needed to end. The specific details of the issues are irrelevant for the purposes of this article, I’ll simply say that although we had a great deal of love for each other, the logistics of our lives were not aligned.

If that sounds pat and easy, it was not. Words were said, things were done—it hurt. The pain was agonizing.

Pema Chödrön says, “There comes a time when the bubble of ego is popped and you can’t get the ground back for an extended period of time. Those times, when you absolutely cannot get it back together, are the most rich and powerful times in our lives.”

Here are some of the things I discovered during this rich and powerful time:

THE VALUE OF SOBRIETY

In the few weeks immediately following the breakup, I made the decision to stay sober throughout the initial grieving. We often turn to our addictive or indulgent behaviors (drinking, eating, obsessive cleaning, etc.) for relief from the discomfort. By staying in the experience and not numbing out, I exposed myself the power of the emotions as they unfolded. I was able to discern were sadness gave way to loneliness and anger boiled down to fear. Had I bathed these feelings in a Martini, I would have blurred the experience, thereby sacrificing the clarity I gained and the insights into the nuance of thought and emotion.

THE CLEARING OF DEBRIS

The mental drama after a breakup is intense as the mind tries to make sense of the chaos of emotion. The cycle begins immediately in which we feel, analyze, dissect, project, accept, and release. Part of the letting go of a relationship involves this kind of mental eviction. I was surprised by how persistently my mind wanted to fill up the space.

As soon as I found some peace, emptied my internal psycho-energetic bowl, the whole process would begin again. Resistance was futile. Thank God for my darling BFFs who are willing to have these conversations over and over and over again! We cannot stop our minds from filling the clearing, it is our human nature. We can only allow the continued arrival of debris, and vigilantly clear it. Eventually, the great momentum slows, and then finally stops. In these times of great dissolution, and annihilation of ego, the cultivation of an empty bowl is not only crucial to our healing, but our biggest opportunity for healing.

THE POST-GAME ANALYSIS

In the anatomy of a breakup, there is a funny phenomenon. As we approach the decision to end the relationship, we begin to see and feel what is wrong, what is not working, what doesn’t feel good, with increasing intensity. Suddenly, as soon as it’s over, we are only able to see and feel the good stuff, the blissful moments, which intensifies the sting of loss. At one point, in an effort to counterbalance this rose-colored myopia, I literally made a list of all the things I was grateful not to have to deal with anymore. Going through the history of the relationship and realistically remembering the good, the bad, and the ugly, restores a more balanced perspective and can release the grip of grief.

THE ESSENCE OF THE LOSS

Over a period of several weeks, I returned to the feeling of loss over and over, asking myself, “What exactly am I grieving?” If every relationship is a mirror, then there is an aspect to the loss that has nothing to do with the other person.

As I sat with this inquiry, I had to spend some time drilling it down. My answers began with things like, “romantic dinners in his beautiful backyard” and “gallery-hopping on Friday nights”. With a little more digging, I started to realize I was grieving possibility—that this man would be my partner for many years, that I would grow old with a companion.

And then finally I got to the root of what I was losing. Physical intimacy with this man was a wildly transformative experience for me. He opened me up in ways I didn’t even know possible. I was able to step into another way of being—in my own body, and with another, as I move through the world. I was suffering greatly over the idea that I was losing the woman I had become through this physical relationship. This realization allowed me to look at the grief differently. Identifying specifically what I am missing gives me the information I need to look at what I’ve gained from the experience and also what is possible for the future.

Working with the layers of grief, loss, and sadness takes time. We cannot see everything at once. The peeling back of each layer gives us valuable insights into our own mental and emotional landscape.

THE RETURN TO SELF

If the aftermath of a breakup feels like swimming in a stormy sea, eventually we find the shore. In the process of grieving, finding ways to remind us who we are (outside of the relationship), helps us find solid ground sooner than later. Calling my high school friend, leaning into my yoga community, taking a trip with my daughter, were all ways of strengthening my sense of self in the world. And there is nothing quite so healing as a good couple of hours blasting Led Zeppelin and singing at the top of my lungs while cleaning the house.

Daily Incantation for Every Woman

At then end of each of my workshops, I invite all of us to circle-up and hold hands. We spend a few moments feeling the energy in the room, which is invariably both tender and powerful. Once firmly rooted in loving connection, we repeat this incantation. I have been asked many times for a copy of this so that it may be used in daily practice. So here it is:

I am love.

I am light.

I am a divine expression of the sacred feminine.

There is a fire that burns inside me.

It is the flame of passion.

Of desire.

It is the spark that sustains humanity.

It is wild in nature and it is my birthright.

It is my responsibility to tend this fire.

And to stoke it in my sisters.

For my own wellbeing.

For my community.

And for the energetic recalibration of the world.

To My Daughter As I Leave Her at College

Dear Peanut,

To say that I am proud of you is an epic understatement. Pride is a word I used for a great dance performance on the Community Center stage when you were six, or for passing Algebra II after watching you work your butt off all semester. I was proud of the way you handled your job at the restaurant with grace, even when it was the last place you wanted to be. Pride doesn’t begin to describe what I am experiencing right now as I leave you at college.

As I observe you creating yourself and your life, here in Alaska—nearly 3,000 miles from the only home you’ve ever known—I am struck by how self-aware, self-expressed, self-possessed you are. Pride is a self–referential feeling, and this moment in your life has nothing to do with me. This is your time. This is your life. This is your vision. Rather, I am impressed, humbled, and honored.

I am impressed that at the young age of eight, you heard the calling of your life’s purpose and have used it as a beacon ever since. In the process of growing up and individuating, you have never let your struggles define you. You’ve remained clear in your commitment to your purpose, letting that ground you and remind you of who you are, beyond whatever story was playing out at any given time. I am impressed that you found your home—the place that was calling you—a small mountain town near the ocean. And I am impressed with the courage you displayed in moving towards this new life, one giant step at a time.

I am humbled by your commitment to your health and wellbeing. The fierceness with which you have made veganism a priority, for the health of the planet as well as your own, makes me see clearly where I am out of integrity with my own habits. By observing your transformation this last year, I am able to see a living example of conviction-in-action. You bring new meaning to the terms self-care and service. In this way, you are truly my teacher.

I am honored to be your mother. We refer to children as “ours” as if they are our possessions, as if we own them and have a right to mold them to our liking, and demand that they behave as we wish. I’ve never been comfortable with this perspective. I would prefer to call you “the girl I birthed” or “the being who I am parenting”. From the moment you were born, it was clear to me that you are your own person. You move through the world differently that I do. It’s one of the things I appreciate most about you. I have learned so much in holding space for your own process and supporting you in finding your own way. Thank you for letting me in, for sharing with me the deepest, most tender parts of yourself. It’s been a privilege to be your spiritual and emotional Sherpa, and I hope that role continues.

The milestone we face together right now, the transition of our relationship, is no small thing. And while it will take care of itself, and we will find our new rhythm, I feel to articulate this:

There is nothing you can bring me that won’t elicit my unconditional love and support. Judgment and shame have no place between us. As long as I live, I will meet you with compassion and collaboration. I honor who you are and I am committed to supporting the unfolding of your fullest self-expression. No matter what the physical distance between us, I remain here, connected to you by the energetic thread that connects a mother and daughter. You may affectionately laugh at my stretching umbilicus humor but there is truth in the metaphor. The thread that connects us will live forever. Use your awareness of it as needed to calm your worrisome mind, and comfort your aching heart. Use it to exchange your fear for love. Through this connection, I am always present to you.

You are the next in our maternal lineage to take your place in the world. Let you not carry with you the struggles and limitations that we who have come before you have endured, and may you be lifted by the ancestral river of love and wisdom that flows whence you came.

My love for you is boundless and eternal. You know where to find me.

Your ever-loving mother,

Zoë