Giving & receiving feedback

Giving and receiving feedback is very important. In this article I’m going to explore why that is and how we can do skilfully and effectively.

Why is feedback important
First of all, I want to explore why giving and receiving feedback is so important. A key reason, in my opinion, is that other people can see things about us that we can’t: our blind spots and our shadow behaviours. These are the things that we do unconsciously, the aspects of ourselves that we haven’t yet integrated into our conscious awareness. So at the same time they’re the hardest things to see and the ones that potentially cause the most harm and do the most damage.

People close to us can often see those aspects clearly. They see them and they still care about us – in fact, they care about us enough to bother giving us feedback about them. Giving feedback isn’t easy: in fact, it’s really tough. It takes courage and integrity and it’s a vulnerable thing to do. When we give feedback we risk hurting someone’s feelings. We do so because we care about them and feel it’s important to share what we can see. So when someone takes the time to give us feedback, it’s a gift – even if it hurts to receive it. More on that a bit later on.

This leads to the second reason that giving and receiving feedback is so important: it creates a culture of authentic communication in which vulnerability is honoured and respected. Over the last few years we’ve seen a broad array of books, talks and courses exploring the importance of authentic communication and vulnerability – most notably Brené Brown (check out her awesome TED talks on vulnerability and shame) and Kristen Neff. These researchers working in the fields of shame, vulnerability and self-compassion have demonstrated how intimacy grows out of our ability to ‘dare greatly’, to be brave when things get tough, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable rather than playing it safe.

This approach leads us home from the ‘never enough’ rugged individualism that’s making us emotionally and spiritually ill. Giving and receiving feedback is a great tool for opening up a space of authenticity and vulnerability, which in turn leads us back to our humanity and to whole-heartedness in our relationships.

So this is the third, interconnected reason why giving and receiving feedback is so important: it opens up a space of intimacy between us and others. As humans we are ‘hardwired for connection’, but in our current climate it’s hard to achieve real intimacy with other people. Giving and receiving feedback, like other richly uncomfortable interactions, is a powerful way to bring us closer.

| Read more |

The Narrow Band

Most people spend the majority of their time in some kind of pattern or avoidance behaviour. Living like this can seem less painful and difficult than staying present. And it self-propagates: the longer and more often we do it, the more habitual it becomes.

Since my experience with Lord Iboga in December, I’ve been noticing and tracking my avoidance strategies more. Predictably enough, as I cultivate this awareness in myself I’m presented with clients and participants who are working on this issue. And although this is still very much a work-in-progress, the beginnings of a theory is emerging to support my work with this theme.

The Narrow BandAs I see it, presence – being authentically in touch with what’s alive in us from moment to moment – is a narrow band. All around it are behaviours that are less rich and less alive than presence, and often we fall into one of them. These options feel a bit flat and 2-dimensional compared to the vivid, complex, 3-dimensional feeling of being fully alive. But staying in the narrow band is tricky precisely because there are so many ways we can fall away from it.

When I started thinking about this topic I asked the Sacred Pleasures Facebook group for some input. My question was specifically about strategies for avoiding feeling certain feelings – at the time, that’s what I thought this post would be about.

My original list was:

  • numbing (feeling nothing)
  • laughing / making a joke out of it
  • collapsing / becoming overwhelmed
  • talking too much / focussing on detail
  • picking a fight
  • self-pitying
  • distraction (Facebook etc)
  • self-medicating (smoking, drinking, sugar, marijuana etc)
  • raging
  • self-doubt

to which people added:

  • creating situations where the other feels what you’re not feeling and blaming them for it
  • pleasing
  • procrastinating / over-analysing / not committing
  • controlling
  • using banal / light / cliched language
  • changing the subject
  • shopping
  • having sex
  • giving it all over to ‘the universe’
  • being judgmental / superior / arrogant / playing big
  • playing small
  • initiating a big change or starting a new project while others are only half done
  • dissociating through meditation rather than being embodied
  • feeling guilty
  • getting something physically painful (e.g. tattoo) when you originally felt emotional pain
  • physical over-exertion
  • over-working
  • going into auto-pilot
  • being passive-aggressive

This list, while not comprehensive, is impressive in its scope. It shows a deep recognition of the many ways we avoid the ‘narrow band’ of presence in favour of something less rich but more comfortable.

As I reflected more deeply on the subject, I realised that often these avoidance strategies come in pairs or small groups. So for example playing big often goes with self-doubt: we use the arrogance strategy to avoid the fear that we aren’t good enough; and when we run out of steam or things don’t go our way, we collapse into self-doubt or self-loathing.

Often the strategies we use are close to but not the same as the real feelings we’re working hard to avoid. So in the example I’ve just given, we probably do feel some real inadequacy and fear around what we’re doing. But rather than allowing ourselves to sit with that, to be in it, to feel it to its depths and to learn what it has to offer us, we fall into a shallower, less rich place inside ourselves. Which naturally is also a less scary place too.

There are a couple of key reasons why we develop these avoidance strategies. The most significant, in my opinion, is that showing up means risking being hurt. Often what looks like vulnerability actually isn’t: it’s just part of our patterning. A great example of this is the person who always falls into self-pity and cries easily when things don’t go their way. From the outside it may look like they’re being real and vulnerable, but after we’ve been through the pattern with them for the 20th time, it becomes obvious that they’re still squarely in their comfort zone.

As a wise friend of mine recently pointed out, someone who never expresses anger allowing themselves to feel and show this is actually a very vulnerable thing to do. So in our example above, the crying might be a cover for deeper feelings which are more alive but also scarier. By contrast someone else might fly into rage easily but avoid the delicate feelings of confusion and not-knowing-what-to-do that lay beneath.

For most of us, there are at least two layers of emotion present at a time, and the one we go into habitually is the shallower one. Often it’s one of these two combinations: pain masking anger or anger masking pain. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two – we follow one pattern in certain situations (e.g. at work) and the reverse in others (e.g. in our love life). And for some people one emotion is always the ‘top layer’ and the other one is always what’s hidden.

Take a moment to think about which emotion(s) you go into most easily and which ones are harder for you to access. You can be sure that the place of authentic vulnerability is in feeling and showing the one(s) you can’t reach so easily.

So we have two interconnected ways of noticing how and when we avoid being present. The first is to notice the narrow band where we’re really alive to what’s happening, that place where we’re really showing up with our rich complex web of contradictory feelings; and the second is to recognise that certain emotional responses are easier for us to express than others.

With this in mind we can begin to witness our patterns and avoidance strategies with a bit more awareness. They’re still going to happen, you can be sure of that: patterns take a long time to break and the mind is a crafty bugger! – but when we start to see them more clearly we are not completely ruled by them. If we’re lucky, we might even start to enjoy our little tricks and find it a bit amusing. Humour is a great tonic to taking ourselves too seriously and laughing at our patterns is a great way to help develop self-awareness.

Over time this witnessing can bring about lasting change. At first it may be a conscious process – noticing the strategies and gently guiding yourself back to riskier, more alive ways of being. But gradually this noticing becomes more instant, maybe even automatic: a new and healthier habit replaces the old one and this pair or set of habits loses its power over you.

Naturally enough it isn’t long before another pair or set of habits or avoidance strategies emerges. The beautiful thing about our minds is how skilful and wily they are. They are heavily invested in running the show and don’t really like it when we become aware of their tricks and games. In a way, presence challenges the mind because it can’t be controlled: so as soon as we start bringing enough awareness to one set of patterns to erode it, there’s another set right behind it.

At this point you may be asking why we should bother if it’s just going to be one layer after another of patterns and avoidance strategies. That’s definitely a good question. At times the personal growth journey can seem frustrating and repetitive: layer after layer of work with no end in sight. If you recognise this feeling, don’t worry – you’re not alone! It takes commitment to deconstruct ourselves and discover how little control we have over our thoughts and behaviour.

But here’s the good news. Firstly, developing awareness is like any other practice: it gets easier the more you do it. The first time we train in preparation for that 5k fun run, it hurts like hell. But after a couple of weeks of persistence, what used to be agony is easy and we’re pushing ourselves to run further and faster.

The same is true for awareness. The first few steps are always the most painful and difficult and require patient perseverance. But as we start to see how we make our life flatter and less rich than it can be – and especially when we catch glimpses of how different it feels when we show up for ourselves a bit more – we’re encouraged to keep cultivating awareness and noticing where we’re living in presence and where we’re stuck in our patterns.

And this is the second bit of good news: although it’s more difficult and we risk being hurt in it, presence feels more alive and more whole than living in a patterned way. For those of us, like me, who hate the idea of not being free, it’s amazing to realise how unfree we really are when we are stuck in habits and patterns. By contrast, being present is about the most free we can ever be. It may not be easy but it’s fuller, richer, deeper and more alive than any other way to live.

Lastly, as I described this ‘narrow band’ to a Buddhist friend, he pointed out that it’s exactly the same as the ‘middle way’ described by Gautama Buddha. In Buddhism this is spoken about in terms of craving (things that bring pleasure) and aversion (things that causes pain) – the middle way is the space in between where we’re open to what truly is rather than chasing after the nice stuff and running away from what’s difficult. The narrow band.

However you picture it, the principle remains the same: in every moment there’s a narrow band of experience where you’re alive, free and in touch with life more fully and a bunch of places where that’s less true. By noticing that we’ve moved away from the narrow band we can guide ourselves back to presence – and maybe have a chuckle at ourselves along the way.

From Nowhere to Elsewhere: sex-positivity for burners

The odds are stacked against us when it comes to sexual liberation. Everywhere we look we are told that there’s something wrong with our sexuality: too much, too little, too weird, too kinky, too normal. This is our collective expression of shame – the feeling that we are not enough – and when it comes to sexuality we have plenty to work against. And as with most things we can’t quite feel in ourselves, we turn it outwards: making each other wrong and limiting what’s possible.

Then along come people like Ruby May and I, inspired by our teachers Dossie Easton, Barbara Carrellas, Fakir Musafar, Joseph Kramer and others, with a big sign saying “You can”: as long as it’s consensual you can do anything, be anything, feel anything you want. It’s all about permission – living in a world where we are so constrained, it’s vital that people feel they are allowed, that they are welcomed as they are.

This is why I was so attracted to the burningman culture, which seems to be all about saying YES to who we are and breaking free of individual and collective limitations and constraints. So after many years of flirting with the idea I finally got my shit together and made it to Nowhere (a European regional burn) in 2012.

Faerie at Nowhere 2012

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the desert but I was struck by the attitudes to sexuality I encountered there. Like everything at a burn, there was a broad spectrum, from the wonderfully switched-on and sex-positive Touch & Play (who I camped with) to young folks who only seemed capable of sexual contact when thoroughly bladdered – and quite a bit in between.

I recalled my friend Katie Sarra‘s distinction between shame-free and shameless sexuality. Those who are shame-free are considerate, mindful and conscious with their sexuality – aware of the power it contains and in control of how it’s used and directed. By contrast those who are shameless have to be bold and brash to push through their unconscious shame. This often expresses itself as ‘really going for it’ – usually with drugs and alcohol as a support. The extreme of shameless behaviour is something like Ibiza Uncovered, which is uncomfortable and a bit painful to watch.

Overall there seemed to be more shameless people at Nowhere than shame-free ones. It was a pretty hedonistic, let’s-get-mashed kind of event anyway – but it was striking how little ‘action’ happened during the day, when people were more sober. I noticed that my frank, direct approach – “I’m really enjoying hanging out with you, would you like to play?” – was met with surprise and limited success; whereas the more traditional approach – “let’s talk about anything but sex while shuffling up to each other” – seemed to do much better.

I’m useless at that so I ended up without many playmates during the festival. When I arrived at Schwelle7’s Xplore Festival a few weeks later, where my direct approach was met with considerably better results, I realised that the culture at Nowhere and I were not compatible. It saddened me a bit, since I had wanted to go to a burn for so long – and at the same time I recognised that there was potential for rapid change within this alternative culture.

So you can imagine how excited and happy I was when Ruby May told me about her project Elsewhere, combining what we’ve learnt as sex-positive teachers with the playful, dynamic, co-creative culture of the burners. It seemed to me that this was exactly what we needed to bridge the gap between these two compelling sub-cultures, so I jumped at the chance to co-facilitate the first two Elsewheres (London & Berlin) with her.

Since then Ruby has taken Elsewhere to Prague, Copenhagen and Vienna – and in a couple of weeks’ time we are back in London to do it again. It feels like an enormous gift to help people overcome shame around their sexuality and then create a space where they can be free to express themselves in all their shades and colours. With this beautiful double-whammy of permission in place, amazing things can happen – and we know from previous Elsewheres that they often do!

Would you like to discover what’s possible when you are given permission to express yourself without shame – sexually or otherwise? If so, we’d love you to join us for Elsewhere London. Be part of the co-creation and find out what can happen when you are allowed to be more of who you are.

| Find out more and apply to attend |

Why I love needles: guest post by Violet Rose

I am excited to publish this beautiful article about needleplay by my good friend Violet Rose, an old-school courtesan with thoroughly modern values.

Ahhhh, needleplay. I dream about playing with tiny sharp pieces of metal the way that other people dream they soar like birds or gallop like wild horses. So it’s sad that I so rarely see needleplay being practiced on the various BDSM scenes and when I do, I generally feel totally ambivalent about the practice. I have just once read a description of the kind of needleplay I want to discuss here (as related by Barbara Carellas) and I only know by actual experience less than a handful of other practitioners actually practising it this way.

Needleplay as a top
If there is something better than the feeling when my needle effortlessly enters the skin, that unrelentingly physical barrier between person and world, and makes of that barrier a tiny bridge between souls, I am yet to experience it. From the first second the edge of my first needle sliced the top layer of epidermis, I fell wholly in love with needling. Hard, dense layers of meat and flesh become as butter under a warm knife. I have never experienced any bodily resistance to a needle given from a totally concentrated practitioner to a totally present receiver. DK Leather said of needleplay “I am making another hole in you. And I am going to fuck you with my needle in that hole.” Probably anyone who has ever met DK will now need to go for a short personal interlude but the meaning should be clear even if you haven’t had that great pleasure. The intense intimacy formed from the gift of your flesh to my needles is incomparable: it is literally ecstacy. One of the quietest, gentlest kinds of ecstasy I know, which is perhaps at odds with how it must seem to people who have never experienced it.

Needleplay as a bottom
To further speak to people who haven’t experienced it, I should first say that receiving the needles doesn’t actually hurt. Ok, well, it doesn’t hurt the way an injection hurts, or having blood taken hurts, or even the commonly pleasurable tattoo pain. When the needle enters me, if done well and I am ready for it, it is a delicious orgasm, simultaneously small enough to be happening solely at the head of the needle, and large enough to envelope me in its totality. I often see blue light during good needling, and experience the wave of energy, head-rolling back warmth and joy of a good drug experience or an intense erotic peak. I have already mentioned the importance of intention but good needling will be as much or more about the intention than the action, and the intention may be more strongly or earlier felt than the needle itself.
-“I haven’t put the needle in yet. But I have /thought/ about it.”

This exchange happened between a first-time needle recipient and an experienced practitioner and demonstrates perfectly how strong the intention can be: perceptible before penetration. Which is a phrase that appeals to me because I enjoy consensually applying it to other kinds of penetration. After all, the mind is a great sex organ. The other reason for attention and intention is that of course, needplay, like many BDSM practices, is not without risk. Giving my trust to keep me safe during a needle scene is the warm comfort blanket of childhood, nestling in the warm hands of a knowledgeable and responsible top.

What pisses me off so much about needleplay is that it’s so often subsumed under the heading of ‘medical play’ both by providers and by the fetish scene in general. To me, there’s nothing in common between a carry-on style naughty nurse themed roleplay and a needleplay ritual. I am not at ALL dismissing medical play in general, nor roleplay: Kinky Alex, a foremost provider of roleplay services, is a good friend of mine and I have witnessed the transformative power of role-playing with her. At the top end of medical play provision, there are exclusive dommes with museum-quality collections of historical medical artefacts and Harley Street practice addresses. I am sure there are also plenty of very enjoyable naughty nurse interactions between providers and clients –but it still isn’t the same thing as needleplay as I mean it.

I also feel alienated from needleplay that is done just because it’s pretty. I actually feel this way about all BDSM done for the way it looks, just as I am not into having social interactions seemingly just to document them on Facebook. Needleplay often is very beautiful, as are bruises or any other kind of bodily interaction. For me, thinking about whether my positioning is perfect enough for a photo detracts from how I interact with my body. I also don’t believe the impact of an experience on the people involved can in any meaningful way be evaluated by external viewers, which is what the endless Fetlife photo parade seems to involve. A needle scene is NOT “better” the more needles you use and the more scary places they are inserted.

I hope I have given you some insights into why I adore needleplay. One of the great sadnesses of my working life is that I have been advised that needleplay is a legal grey area with my clients and so I err on the side of caution and rarely discuss my love of it and so share it less regularly than I would like. If you feel called to learn this beautiful practice and/or experience it for yourself, Faerie and I are teaching a workshop on needleplay (and fabulous fireplay the day following) in Berlin next week. Both of us offer solo coaching and rituals in this discipline and where possible can offer recommendations to other local providers should find yourself out of the reach of our tiny sharp implements.

Would you like to join us for classes and rituals in needles and fireplay? We are in Berlin next week and would be delighted for you to attend. Find out more >>


Showing Up

Being here fully feels amazing. When we’re truly present we feel more alive, we connect effortlessly with ourself and others and we stop worrying about anything that isn’t happening right now. It’s no surprise that so many teachers – whether they’re offering Tantra, conscious kink, breathwork or dance – put so much emphasis on being present.

At the same time, the invitation to be present can create a kind of pressure – the New Age equivalent of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Am I as present as her? Do I feel as much as him? Do I feel the Oneness? Ironically, if we’re asking these questions we’re not fully present, since comparison is one of the things that takes us out of the moment.

I find it useful to use a different phrase to remind myself what we are talking about here. The phrase is ‘showing up’. I first heard this phrase at 5 Rhythms and it immediately struck a chord with me. I knew instinctively what it meant: on the one hand, it’s a similar invitation to ‘Be Here Now’; on the other, it recognises the challenge contained within the invitation.

Showing up means taking off our armour and removing our masks. It means being more of who we are. It means being as strong as we are and as vulnerable as we are – often at the same time. It means being true to all of our impulses, including the ones that make us uncomfortable or might offend others. It means letting go of being ‘nice’ in favour of being real. It means speaking our truth and listening to others’ truths – even when they don’t align. It means welcoming feedback, including things we find challenging, and keeping our hearts open.

It that sounds like a big ask, that’s because it is! We’re asking ourselves to be real, to hide nothing, to emerge from behind our job, our status, our personae, our sexual allure, our playing big, our playing small and everything else that keeps us hidden. It’s an invitation to be naked at a soul level, to take everything off and just be.

Before we can show up for anyone else, we need to learn to show up for ourselves. This is often the biggest challenge, because our ego is the keeper of the masks and its job is to protect us from anything that could hurt us. So first we need to learn to unmask ourselves.

This looks different for different people. Some folks are really in their bodies and feel a lot. If this is true for you, then you might want to look at what’s going on in your mind. I notice that a lot of people whose bodies are open miss out on what’s happening in the rest of their being: the fears, anxieties, frustrations and other thoughts that are present in their minds? Open-body people often go back into their bodies when they feel these ‘difficulties’ – but this means that they’re not showing up fully for themselves. From this open-body place lots of pleasure is possible, but often with a lack of awareness and ethics.

Alternatively you might be someone who spends a lot of time in your head and finds it hard to feel or be in the body. For you, the challenge is to move your awareness down from your mind to your heart and your genitals, where a whole bunch of energy is moving without your full awareness. Often we go into our heads to avoid pain (physical and emotional); so the journey back into the body is a challenging one, especially at first. But until we’re able to feel what’s in our body, including the pain it holds, we’re not able to show up fully.

So this is the first step: get in touch with whichever parts of you usually get less attention. Listen to them and find out what they need and what they want. Bringing awareness to more of yourself is half the battle won: it’s much easier to show up when you’re in touch with what’s moving in you and can bring it into consciousness. By giving space to those neglected parts of yourself, you increase your capacity to feel, to understand – and ultimately, to be alive.

Often this process happens through something other than thinking. Over the years I’ve found 5 Rhythms to be a powerful way for me to show up for myself and get in touch with what I wasn’t aware of. The things I discover during this moving meditation are often on the fringes of my consciousness: giving them space and ‘dancing into them’ enables me to bring them more fully into awareness so I can see what they want and need.

There are many methods for welcoming more of yourself in. For many of us who enjoy BDSM, nothing brings things into the light quicker than a good whipping. For others, the silence and stillness of meditation or a walk in nature does the trick. Whatever it is for you, trust that.

At the same time, this is not about letting those parts of ourselves go or ‘feeling the love’ – that may be true at the deepest level, but most of the time it won’t help you at all. This is about giving space to what’s alive in us right now. I’m sure many of us would love to fit the picture of the Yogi or the Buddha we have in our heads: empty mind, open heart, free of attachment. But how real is that for you? So often I see spiritual people suppress what’s in them because they feel they ‘should’ be more equanimous and non-judgemental. But this is just a way of bullying and bullshitting yourself, a strategy for avoiding what’s real and true for you right now. Don’t waste your time! You need to feel it before you can transform it – and maybe it doesn’t even want to be transformed. Don’t let dogma dictate how you experience your truth.

Like any community, the esoteric scene puts pressure on people to conform to certain norms. We’re all supposed to Love Nature. We’re all supposed to belief that Everything Is One. We’re all supposed to know that We Are Just Love. But is this real for you or are you simply conforming? It saddens me when I see yet another mindless post on Facebook, someone telling everyone how wise they are by regurgitating what they’ve heard from others. When it’s congruent and real, we feel it, but most of the time it’s just a bit fake. (I’ve written more about self-help myths here.)

Most of us want to fit in and we reject parts of ourselves that don’t fit in with the norms. If you’re a merchant banker, you’ll probably deny the sensitive parts of you that rear up just before you close that big deal. You know a lot of people could get hurt by what you’re doing, but you don’t want your colleagues to think of you as different so you hide your feelings.

In the New Age world, the opposite is true: people suppress their anger, hatred, frustration, sense of isolation and other things that don’t fit into the wholesome happy picture they’re supposed to conform to. But this isn’t showing up, it’s pretending. Being Spiritual can easily become just another mask.

A key to showing up for yourself is permission. Give yourself permission to be who you are in this moment, however uncomfortable or difficult that is for you. It doesn’t mean you have to do anything about these feelings – but remember that there’s nothing authentic or spiritual about suppressing them. By giving ourselves permission to be who we are and to feel how we feel, we are more likely to find that place of presence that we’re all looking for.

In everything I offer my invitation is for you to show up fully and bring whatever is in you into the room. If you feel unconsolable sadness, bring it. If you feel fury and rage, bring it. If you feel totally numb, bring that. It’s part of you and it’s welcomed. You’re not going to become present by pretending it’s not there – that’s just spiritual bypass and it’s an egoic act. And who knows – perhaps you don’t even know where you’re supposed to be going! Just keep showing up, being real and trusting your authentic desires, and God/Goddess/the Universe/Life will show you where They want you to go next.

This weekend (Fri 20th – Sun 22nd June), Faerie leads Together London, a weekend about showing up and belonging. Find out more >>

Copyright © Dandelion by Pexeto