Face Tattoos & Forgiveness

Hey Soulmate,

So I went to prison this past weekend. I was volunteering with the Freedom to Choose Project in Madera, CA at the Central California Women’s Facility. There is a Cannes award-winning, short documentary about it here! When we first entered the three phases of security to get into the prison it reminded me of a school campus but a school surrounded by a fourteen foot fence covered in barbed wire, rows of concrete buildings, and a yard patrolled by huge, white guys with guns. A few of the guards were on man-sized tricycles with thick tires. Guns and tricycles. It was surreal.

I felt like a freshman on The Senior Varsity Service team. Most of the volunteers had been coming to this prison for over 10 years and they all seemed to have a faith and openness and unconditional love for these inmates that I didn’t. I’ve been trying on this faith thing and it is still somewhat sporadic depending on my mood and the whether or not it is working for my ego. My job was to take the inmate’s IDs at the entrance of the gymnasium where we were holding the workshop. I said “Good Morning” over 150 times and as each face met mine I could feel something happening. It was both anti-climactic and profound. First, these women look exactly like everyone else on the outside, save the few who looked like they had been cast in the opening credits of Orange is the New Black (a series on Netflix). They were every race, surprisingly old and devastatingly young, hard and soft, feminine and masculine. As we took our seats I found myself surrounded by a few older, Latina women with scars and missing teeth and young, timid eyes. They had been to the workshop before and when I told them it was my first time they smiled and welcomed me.

We all sat and listened to the workshop facilitators at the front talk about our fight or flight response, how the animal part of our brain works, and how to breathe, slow things down, and choose a response. They quoted the legendary holocaust survivor and psychologist, Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

We broke into groups of three and took turns getting vulnerable, listening without judgement, and observing. I went in thinking I was there to teach inmates a few skills I have learned lately to manage emotions, heal, and forgive. But of course I had my ego handed to me over and over by the wisdom of these women, leaving me deeply humbled.

When it was my turn in the client chair I told them about the times I unconsciously abandoned myself and others and dressed it up as work and busyness. I told them how I recently discovered my primary motivation for everything I did was a seemingly young desire to be “good”. They listened intently and no matter how hard I looked for judgment of my champagne problems I couldn’t find it. I heard about their lives, their abuse, their actual abandonment by their parents, their botched suicides, their kids in prison, their parents in prison, and their siblings on Death Row. They knew Shakespearean level betrayal. The stuff I only watch movies about. The stuff I get furious about when I look at the injustice of the world and especially how many people of color, from poor neighborhoods go to prison, get out, go back to prison and often for life. I felt ashamed and watched my mind judge the beauty of my life as wrong. I wanted to know what they did so I could stop caring so unconditionally for them. If I knew their “badness” then maybe I would feel better about myself, the system, and the world.

I went home that night and had a dream that remained intact long after I awoke. It wasn’t abstract or blurry. It was absolutely clear. In my dream a man with a scarred face showed up and handed me a toddler. She was wiggling about and on the verge of crying and I awkwardly held her at arm’s length. “She is yours,” he said to me. I was confused. Only a man could ever experience a moment of confusion around ownership of a child. She looked exactly like me. He was patient and it was clear he had been beaten beyond recognition. The little one climbed into my arms and put her arms around my neck. I felt awkward, a hesitant new mother. The man told me, “whenever she needed you, you always just said ‘Hand me the computer.'” It is beyond awkward to recollect a thought about a thought about an experience in a dream but that is exactly what is happening. I awoke confused and half baked, an awareness just before dawn.

The second day in the prison was life changing. Soulmate, I can’t wait to take you there! My heart was wide open. I shared my dream with a much too young looking woman with thick eyeliner, three teardrop tattoos, and anxious, tapping feet. With her as my witness I recognized the parts I had abandoned along the way; the playful, young, innocent, soft, girly and emotional parts. All the parts that made vulnerable. All the parts that made me human. I realized I had banished them at various points throughout my life in an effort to project the image of what I considered successful and good. As I’m wiping snot and tears and getting myself together she leans forward and asks, “Can I give you some feedback?” “Yes! Please.” “Well, I see you being so hard on yourself to be good and stuff and this little baby seems like she is a part of you. Are you willing to just hold this little baby?” I blinked. It was like a moment in a myth when the Siren sings some wisdom and the matrix is revealed. “Yes,” I responded. “I can try. Thank you.”

A white woman with tattoos covering most of her face and neck stood up to share in front of the room. She burst into tears as she told us how her mother was locked up most of her life,  and how she also went to prison when her daughter was three-years-old, and how recently her daughter was in prison, sentenced to life. Three generations. She took responsibility for the choices she made but it was, without a doubt clear, that she really was doing the best she knew how. If no one teaches you how to respond to pain and then life assaults you with immeasurable amounts of it what the hell would you do? In that moment I loved them all, regardless of what they did. We were one. Not in a hokey, new age, conceptual kind of way, but in a grounded, real, all trying to cope in the prison of our mind, kind of way.

Soulmate, selfishly I hope you aren’t in prison and I hope you have been taught, or are learning, tools to cope with whatever pain you’ve been given. I also hope someone is showing you unconditional love. I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. Unconditional loving means exactly that. Loving what is, without condition. Loving self and loving other, regardless of any behavior, as exactly the same thing. No separation.

And then a second later another, very human, thought comes into my mind and creates separation. (Thought: whoever is showing you unconditional love better be your mother. 😉

Love, Bristol

Face Tattoos & Forgiveness

This Isn’t About You

Hey Soulmate,

I feel soooo much better. Thanks for letting me have my little ragey, righteous rants last week (not that you had much choice). Immediately after I pressed “upload” my adrenaline started pumping and my rigid, aching, pseudo-confidence transformed into self-loathing. “Really? You need to have your little tantrum on the intgoslingernet? You are such a navel gazing, white privileged, whiny princess. No one cares! No one wants to hear your rage or your righteousness. Shut the fuck up!” I watched my inner General (we go way back) attack my Righteous Terrorist and observed how that created a perfect cycle of mind violence. I observed how some friends grimaced and tiptoed around me, a few men offered to “help/fix”, and mostly I received righteousness right back. Righteousness beget righteousness. Inside my own mind or out in the world, righteousness turns people into screaming, blindfolded babies headbutting each other. I recognized the point where I had to choose between being right and being free.

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Art by Susan Mrosek

But there was one friend who just checked in, without an agenda, and lovingly asked what I needed. She smiled at my Terrorist and my General and thanked me for being so honest. She acknowledged my emotional state as valid and loved me anyway. I surrendered immediately. I felt the pain under all of it. The pain of rejection and confusion around how to relate to men and the masculine parts of myself. We both laughed at how funny and entertaining our egos can get, master storytellers that they are. She didn’t try to positive psychologize me back into the light nor buy into the story I was telling. She just allowed all of me. She showed me how do it for myself. Soulmate, this is it! Sorry to get all new agey on you but the more I learn about freedom the more I know it has something to do with the radical acceptance of all the parts of ourselves, especially the nasty parts we have tried to abandon. Underneath any mask is a fleshy, vulnerable kid playing tough in floppy sleeved fatigues. What a relief it is to become more whole.

I had a moment the other day when I was genuinely grateful I hadn’t met you yet. I have had this thought before but this time it was visceral. I felt a rush of heat and tendrils of electricity move through my body as tears began streaming down my face. In that moment, I knew that there was no such thing as being alone. It was almost a laughable concept. Loneliness, that pain in the ass itch that lay beneath almost every thought and feeling I have had in the past has always been guiding me here, to moments like these when I can experience the truth. I am ALL of it and soulmates are everywhere. I mean, swipe right if you see me, but I know this isn’t really about you.

I have splisten-to-your-heart-or-mindent the last six years on a pilgrimage from my head into my heart. The distance often feels further than it appears. My 20s were spent in deep worship of the mind. Emotions were for lazy, selfish people who just didn’t know. I knew. I knew the world was broken and it was my job to fix it. I knew that hard work was the essence of being “good” and the only path to freedom. I was on fire and the world showered me with validation. It was beautiful for awhile. “Purpose” is it’s own drug. But there came a time when the marriage I made between my worth and my work started eating me alive. The energy and ambition that fueled me started to disappear and what was left was a chronic feeling of disconnection and loneliness. It suuuuucked. But it also forced me to slow down and investigate my operating system. What are the underlying assumptions I carry about why I am here (like on Earth)?  What code of beliefs am I running and what can I do about it? How can I be truly free?

Anywho, enough about me. What are you into?

This Isn’t About You

10 Easy Steps To Take Before You Screw The Secretary

Hey Soulmate,

Thanks for listening last week. I’ve been working on the rage stuff. Right under the rage I discovered RIGHTEOUSNESS (it likes to be in all caps). She is an ego aspect that is actually a little funny if you don’t let her scare you. Imagine a dark, icy, character that believes she is on an important mission to save the world from unconscious men. R4_V10D3_80813_CO3_PULLS_01rl_0045.tifShe is a bit of a terrorist or fundamentalist, like a crusading Christian with a god complex. She KNOWS she is right. And I thought rage was ugly. Oy. Righteousness is the worst and completely counter-productive. I can feel it burning me from the inside, putting pressure on my throat, and filtering all my thoughts and feelings to prove her right. She acts as a psychological shield to keep me from getting hurt. Underneath, I am completely vulnerable. But we can’t skip ahead! I know the righteousness won’t last and the more I try to “get rid” of something the more it tends to hang around. So in my intention of loving and accepting all the parts of myself, my righteous ice queen makes me want to write blogs like this…

Ten Easy Steps To Take Before You Screw The Secretary*

Listen, I get it. Monogamy shmogamy. There are biological instincts within the male mammal that demand the spreading of your seed, you know, the only titan seed in the Darwinian chain that will survive this impending environmental apocalypse. No need to be ashamed of wanting to screw the secretary, it is totally natural. The space between wanting and doing is larger than you might think! But just in case you are married, in a relationship, or a midlife crisis and have a functioning prefrontal cortex, I wanted to share some easy steps for how to avoid becoming a pathetic, masculine cliché:

  1. Talk To Your Wife/Girlfriend

Be brave and tell your wife you are feeling attracted to someone else. Tell her the details of your fantasies and how it makes you feel before, during, and after. Sit in the raw, honest truth and see if it doesn’t bring you closer (after some tears and possible screaming). See if her jealousy and your vulnerability can transmute your desire for another into something else. Try it.

  1. Experiment Sexually With Your Wife

Are there things you haven’t asked for in bed? Ask for them. Get vulnerable and open yourself up to the possibility that your wife is capable of things you haven’t imagined. Go into the unknown together. Get crazy and kinky and surprise yourself. You can hire intimacy coaches and sex therapists and take classes in Tantra together!

  1. See a Therapist

It is officially ok for men to know themselves deeply and hire a professional therapist. One hour a week or even a month could go a long way in understanding the motivation behind your behavior or the “spiritual” connection you feel to your hot 22-year-old secretary. Finding a good therapist is like dating! Meet one after another until you find someone who helps you see yourself anew. A good therapist will give you tools to heal any inter-generational patterns of cheating that Daddy or Grandaddy may have passed down or any pesky, ancient religious dogma that has you tortured. They will help you better understand what you are really looking for and how to heal from any judgments or sexual shame you carry with you.

  1. Talk to a Life Coach

Life Coaches are like junior therapists that will push you around a little. If you are more into sports analogies go for a life coach. If they have any depth they should be able to coach you into integrity with your wife/life.

  1. Try Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is a very intense and sacred psychedelic plant out of the Amazon that is like doing many years of therapy in 1-2 nights. It is different for everyone and is likely to be a little like dying. It may lead to radical self-awareness and life changes that may, or may not, include your wife and secretary.

  1. Experiment Sexually With A Third

Sometimes the desire to spread that seed is just too great. Ask your wife or girlfriend for permission to bring the secretary (or someone from Tinder) into your bedroom. Can she watch? Can she participate somehow? Get creative! You can also discuss the possibility of an open relationship. Once you work through the initial social conditioning junk, what would freedom in relationship look like for the both of you?

  1. Write Your Obituary

Many have proposed the idea that men seeking younger women is a response to aging, loss of vitality, and fear of death. So do that. Feel your fear of death. There are great somatic therapy styles called Hakomi and The Grinberg Method where you can learn how to consciously move through fear instead of being unknowingly directed by it. (You can also do this work with a therapist and life coach)

  1. Join A Men’s Group

There is a growing movement of men supporting men in gaining an emotional education and greater self-awareness. Check out the Mankind Project or start your own!

  1. End The Relationship

If you have tried all of the above and it hasn’t opened you up to a new understanding of yourself and your relationship, or your partner is unwilling to play ball at all, then perhaps it is time to assess the overall health of your relationship. Or if you still must screw the secretary, be brave and end your relationship first.

  1. Screw The Secretary

It is always a choice.

*Obviously, women cheat too. Just replace secretary with boss and wife with husband when necessary. Also, check out the book Conscious Loving. (Just ignore the new agey cover.)

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10 Easy Steps To Take Before You Screw The Secretary

Permission to Rage

Hey Soulmate,

I realize why I haven’t met you yet. I’m nervous to write this but I have faith you are willing to listen. Every now and then, I feel emotions I can’t explain. I sometimes feel like a radio tower tuning into different frequencies. Whether it is a primal wave moving through me or a reaction to a mediocre date, I recently discovered a sizable and strangely non-specific reservoir of pain and judgment against men. Actually, it is more than judgment. It is rage.

The moment after I felt the rage, I felt guilt. My Father and Ex are both remarkable, loving men and the few men after them never hurt me in any direct way. But here it is anyway and in my dogged pursuit of freedom via total transparency and authenticity I’m letting it come up and sharing it with you. In my guilt, I heard a voice in my head say, “men are just little boys doing the best they can to be a ‘man’ in a time when no one knows what that means.” Who am I to kick you? That isn’t very feminine. And you are just a little puppy underneath all that pretending and no good person kicks a puppy.

Let’s say hypothetically that you, or all men, in fact, were born the physically weaker sex. And in the beginning, beginning your primary function was to have babies and try desperately to keep them alive from the brutal elements of Earth. Your survival relied on the opposite sex to protect you from other invading men who would try to kill you or your children and take your stuff. Then a book is written by men, that literally all men read (you can’t read), that tells you that you are actually just an extension of the opposite sex and your value is equal to what they say it is and especially in the eyes of this new idea being tossed around of a monotheistic “God”. The written word, across all religious texts translated by men, dictates specific rules about what you can wear, whom you can wed, how you can worship, and what your purpose is (which is to serve the other sex). There is a sense of progress because religious shame and brutal punishment stems a bit of the raping and stealing but still, your primary function is to be a virgin and find a man who will bring you protection, wealth, and perceived power. This leads to a few thousand years of brutality where men are fighting wars everywhere in the name of family, God, and country. You begin to play more of a role here in the higher ranks, very Lady Macbeth, in pursuit of power. But the power is never truly yours. It is always your mate’s, and if you get too proud your head will likely be severed from your neck. There was also a period where you were burned alive, like a lot, because the opposite sex claimed to actually be God. And then came the age of reason (Woo-hoo!), a time when some reasonable men thought you had your own inherent value and others made very “intelligent” arguments for why you were still the weaker sex only here to serve them. But education was on the rise and ideas were viral and you soon had had enough with the current state of affairs. You rallied together, even while getting beaten, and stood up for what you knew was right. You demanded to be heard, to be seen as equal and so you were. The End. Just kidding. It was just the beginning.

Just as it wasn’t our fault we were oppressed for thousands of years during a reign of patriarchy, it also wasn’t your fault that you played the role of oppressor. It just IS.

So now what? Have we evolved past our primal instincts enough to become aware of and consciously choose what drives our behavior? What is emotional responsibility and how can we take it? What does “manhood” even mean now? We are babies in the evolution of gender equality and we are acting like it. Between #gamergate and #shirtgate, the Internet served as an aggressive platform for punishment. A few women used it to express their long overdue exasperation at insidious sexism, other women chose to tear those women apart, and teenage boys threatened to rape them all.

Source: @TreyRatcliff
Source: Embrace by The Pier Group Photo from @TreyRatcliff

Soulmate, I guess what I am asking is, can we talk about it? I think keeping my mouth shut only dishonors us both. If you say yes it scares the shit out of me. I can’t imagine anything more vulnerable. Can I express this rage without you hardening your heart? That is the opposite of what I want. In truth, I think underneath this rage is all the infinite patience and loving acceptance we both long for. Is it cool (and safe) for me to express it? I don’t think it would last long and, and in actuality, it really has nothing to do with you (specifically). It is just an emotion, neutral until aimed and fired. If it meant freedom for both of us, could you just listen or maybe even hold this pillow while I’m whacking it with my fists? I’ll hold the pillow for you. I want to hold for the healthy expression of your rage too. Perhaps manhood (and womanhood) is the brave and healthy expression of every emotion, even one as frightening as rage. Come on! Let’s take turns freaking out on a bouncy castle.

– Bristol Baughan

Permission to Rage

Body Slammed By Grief

Hey Soulmate,

Two years ago today, my father David died peacefully in his living room in Washington. I wish you could have met him. I have no doubt you would have loved him. He had pink rosy cheeks, loved to dissect movies, read all the ancient mystics, and oozed loving. Get this, I was sleeping on a couch next to his bed on one of his last few nights and he shot straight up and said, “What era is it? And what are we working on?” I smiled what felt like a past-lives knowing smile and said, “we are working on you going to sleep.” “I can do that,” he said simply and lay back down.

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His death was beautiful and horrible. There was some mini-scientist who took over my consciousness with her little lab coat and strategic, emotional distance. I observed every detail with utter fascination, keeping written notes of the things he would say and mental notes of the steps his body was taking to shut down. The body knows how to die. He was lying on his back in the hospital bed that hospice provided nestled between his craftsman lamp and a small Christmas tree. He hadn’t spoken in days. His eyes would open wide every now and then and stare straight up. He looked amazed. Amazed and like he was trying to make sense of it. Exactly 24 hours before his body took its’ last breath, he made a long exhale and the entire color of his body changed. It was a remarkable shift. Some part of me was sure his soul had just left his body. I kept looking up hoping I would see some evidence or feel something undeniable. I reached for his hand and touched his forehead. His skin was clammy, scaly, and colder. His color had changed drastically from a warm taupe to a stark pale, off-white, yellow with shades of blue and purple. It felt like an undeniable fact that my Dad was no longer in this dying body. His body exhaled for the last time around 4:30am the next morning. A young body of 64 that had been sacked by colon Cancer. (Sidenote: Soulmate, It isn’t telling that we use war terminology to describe a cell that replicates neutrally. The war seems so obviously in our head.)

After writing all this I have this awkward, uncomfortable feeling that I should try to make you feel better. Like, this is depressing to read so I should apologize or make a joke. I want to sex up my grief for you. Ha. But because you are you, you will get it. I won’t need to apologize when the little grief waves come through. You and I both know it isn’t contagious or terminal and if people wish to avoid me while I am in it I get it, no one signs up for pain. (Unless you are a masochist, which is super confusing for me.)

The stages of grief everyone talks about weren’t linear for me. I am new to “feeling my feelings” so it has really been an experiment. Once my mini-scientist retired it was time for the little girl part of me, the POW still in shock, to come out of hiding. For the first few months, the anger, denial, and despair happened simultaneously. ‘Cry your tears’, was my most favorite saying. It gave me permission to feel. Grief behaved like a shroud that hung around my mind and chest consistently. Time became moments outside the bed and inside the bed. It was like my whole life went down an octave. In the first year I remember forgetting he was dead and then remembering and then forgetting again. As though in sync with some emotional moon, the tide of grief would rise from time to time and the judgement of ego would rise to stop it.  “Alright, that is enough. Enough feeling. Come on back to work. Snap out of it.” Crazy how counter-productive the ego can be. My grief tended to build up and then get pressurized by the judgement and suddenly I am drunkenly making out in an attempt to feel “connected” or I am sick, body slammed to the ground by my grief. “Sit the fuck down,” it demanded. I am learning to listen. It is amazing anything gets done when people are dying all the time.

The second year was a bit more graceful. The waves of grief had gotten smaller, less frequent, and the shroud was lifting. Today, in my Grinberg Method Therapy session, the therapist asked me to fully allow my grief without getting lost in my mind about it. Ha. She had me push my fist into her hands as hard as I could. The feeling was familiar. It was aggressive, short tempered, annoyed and powerful. “This pushing”, she said, “is what you have been doing to your pain, or sadness, or grief. Think of these emotions as energy given to you by your Father. You have a choice. You can choose to move with it, harness it, or fight against it.” It was in that moment that I realized the unconscious story playing in the background of my mind. My grief must be as BIG as my love to truly honor my father. And the idea of letting it move through or letting it go, somehow meant I was letting him go or being a bad daughter. “If you push against your pain for too long you begin to get neurotic”, she said. I had gotten neurotic. When I finally stopped pushing against her and let my body fully relax, I felt a wave of relief sweep through. My hands and my feet tingled and tears rolled effortlessly out of my eyes. Today, I’m done fighting and that feels good.

– Bristol Baughan

Body Slammed By Grief