Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Facing Your Fears & Personal Growth: The Lifestyle as a Life-Altering Experience

Recently a friend of mine who is into yoga and life-coaching told me about a seminar called The Max at Esalen, a personal development institute in Big Sur, California that has been attracting people who want to explore deeper spiritual possibilities since the 1960s. In The Max, participants explore the sources of their emotional limitations. With strong guidance and exercises that use raw emotion, role-playing, and dress-up assignments, people move through and hopefully address lifelong fears. The objective is to emerge into greater authenticity and enhanced “presence.” 

One example of a fear that a participant chose to face in The Max was a woman who was just coming out of a series of bad relationships with men. She no longer felt comfortable with men or her sexuality. She was was extremely shy, avoided them and wore very modest clothing. In The Max, the facilitators had her dress like a prostitute and engage in sexually suggestive conversation and behavior with men (but not actual sex). Another example was a man who always wanted to be a photographer. However, he became an architect, instead, because he was afraid he would never earn enough money and would be destitute as an artist. At The Max, he had to live as a homeless man and panhandle for two weeks.

I (Claire) always laugh at the idea of rich people paying to do things that poor people do for free. Take yoga for instance, with the cliche of the well-to-do Lululemon-clad housewife who seeks an oasis of tranquility and inner connection, in between pumpkin spice lattes and the kids’ carpool. Meanwhile, yoga was developed in India, much of it practiced by humble people in less than ideal conditions, where the challenge was holding a pose and remaining mindful, while being eaten alive by mosquitoes and ants, not to mention the necessity of retreating to the yoga shala (really just a makeshift barn) super early in the morning to avoid the distracting heat and noise. Meanwhile, wealthy Westerners lap up books like “Eat, Pray, Love,” where the author, or Julia Roberts, if you watched the movie, pays a lot of money to journey to poor countries (not counting Italy) to seek Enlightenment.

Depending on your desired length of stay and accommodations, The Max, will run you between $650.00 – $3,835.00 with the low end accommodations being sharing a room with a bunch of other people, where you sleep in a sleeping bag that you provide. Poor people have long known this option as youth hostels or YMCA lodging, also providing free entertainment and interaction with people they might not otherwise choose to encounter. Not to mention that when you’re poor, “The Max” is not some fear you pay a guru to help you face and “overcome” - it’s known as Life.

This made me wonder if the LS was not some sort of unwitting and mostly free (unless you count the cost of club fees, party contributions, costumes or slut wear) way to achieve “The Max.” The LS is a unique subculture, sort of like “Fight Club,” where otherwise ordinary people take a pause from their everyday life and covertly meet each other and interact, in what mainstream society would consider to be an extreme way. Claire and I often hear LS people describe the side benefit their LS participation brings to their lives as a feeling of power and having “an edge.” LS women hear their friends or co-workers talking about having one too many cocktails and getting a little crazy on girls’ nights out or LS men listen to their male colleagues talking about the thrill of going to strip clubs. Vanilla people talk about their wild days in their twenties or their fantasies, wondering if there really is a secret portal to another world, like “Eyes Wide Shut,” and what the secret password is to get there. LS people hold their tongue and think: “If they only knew.” As anybody who is already in the LS knows, the secret password is the Internet. Yet, most people never go beyond some covert surfing and occasional fantasy pillow talk to spice up their sex lives. For most of them, the reason they do not go further is that they are afraid -- afraid of what their partners would say, afraid that the people in the LS world will be freaks, afraid that participating in this world will make them a freak, afraid this will mess up their marriage, or that word of their adventures will get out and complicate their vanilla social life or career.

For many people, the LS is The Max. It is a secret world we retreat to that allows us to face our insecurities and expand our boundaries, and the benefits of what we do and learn in the LS often transfer to the vanilla world. Here are some examples:

Some people may be pathologically shy, or insecure about their bodies. In the LS, they have to confront this fear. They have to approach and interact with people they don’t know and deal with their bodies and other people’s, on a relatively informal basis. Who did not grow up hearing the cliche, when intimidated by other people or situations to “Just imagine everybody naked”? This literally happens in the LS. Not only are they naked, you are too. Talk about vulnerability. Since their teen years, women are taught that everything about them is wrong -- they are too tall, too short, their face isn't pretty enough, too voluptuous, too skinny, the list goes on, convinced that ten pounds will make the difference in men finding them sexually attractive. In reality, they may not be giving men credit for being attracted to more than just their body or a diversity of body types; or, on the other hand; in the words of Amy Schumer: they may be “underestimating the extent to which most men are just looking for a wet hole.” We are also made to feel insecure for being sexual beings. We are called sluts if we have a healthy sexual appetite and enjoy expressing our sexuality in unconventional and non-monogamous ways. In traditional hook-ups, the man proposes and the woman disposes. Many vanilla women are insecure about coming on to a man and being open about their sexual attraction to him, for fear of being rejected. The LS gives them a theater to work on those issues.

Meanwhile middle-aged male insecurity tends to be more focused on hair loss, six pack or Dad bod, penis size and functionality, especially compared with the porn paradigm of endless erections and giant dicks. Through socialization, men are more comfortable approaching women and risking rejection; however, many men struggle with how they will feel watching their spouse or partner have sex with another man. They are insecure that another man will satisfy their partner in a way they cannot and that their partner will secretly prefer the other person. Many women struggle with that last issue as well.

Curious about what benefits or insights people felt they had gained from the LS, Claire and I surveyed the Community with the following question: “What has the LS taught you about yourself, other people, and society as a whole?”

Here are some of the answers:

“Personally, the LS has given me a lot of self-confidence that has spilled over into my vanilla life. As somebody who married young and is naturally shy, I was never sure if men were attracted to me. I was also terrified of, and generally incapable of, openly flirting with men, due to the fear of rejection. I also never got to explore my attraction to women because I grew up in the 80’s, when ‘lesbian’ had a very negative connotation and female bisexuality wasn’t openly accepted. Now, I am at a stage where it’s about enjoying men and women’s presence and sexuality, regardless of whether or not it leads to sex.”  

“I wish the LS had more traditional flirting sometimes. I have no interest in bending over while some male passerby make comments about how good my ass looks. I am turned on by more subtle flirtation...eyes locking across the room, verbal back and forth, and the tension that builds with desire that is known, but not yet spoken.”

“For me it has shown that it is normal to desire other women, besides my wife. In my previous marriage and before getting into the LS, I felt some guilt as to why I was not happy to be just with my then spouse. In terms of other people, it shows that some people in the LS are just as cliquey at different LS events as they are in the vanilla world. Feelings get hurt and you wonder why some of your so-called friends don't invite you to different events. You are then trying to navigate your or your spouse’s feelings of inadequacy. Regarding society as a whole, I think the concept of only having one partner is flawed, as our true primal instincts tell us it’s okay to have more than one sexual partner.”

“The LS has given me a better understanding of what I want and don’t want. It has taught me to develop better boundaries and not be such a people pleaser. I am not really comfortable with the dynamic where both parties are supposed to be ‘ready’ to go based on mutual physical attraction, without time allowed for a connection to build. For the LS to work for me, there has to be something beyond the physical, and I’ve found that sometimes the hook-up aspect is so rushed that there is no opportunity to explore this.”

“This has helped me in my vanilla life and professional life. I love interacting with successful and self-confident men. I love to tease and flirt with them, and let them wonder what’s behind my wicked smile and provocative innuendo. I know most of them secretly dream of doing what my husband and I do. They drown their libido in adventure sports, travel or work. It’s all about their new vacation house or their new boat or the hot new company they are invested in. But...sex is the great leveler. I smile and laugh when they get all flirtatious or start bragging about how successful they are. Meanwhile, I am thinking: ‘That’s all well and good, Honey. But what I really wish is that you would stop talking right now, because I’d really like to see you with your clothes off. And all I really care about is: Can you get hard? Can you stay hard? Can you use that mouth of yours for things other than talking about yourself?  Can you give me what I want? And can you do that with your sweet wife and all these onlookers standing by? Can you shut everything out and focus on me, and let me focus on you?’”

“Like turning a light on in a dimly-lit room, the LS has illuminated all the dark/muted spots in our personalities and relationship. It's also highlighted the interplay between these differences. Fortunately, these have been minor differences, and allow us to connect more intimately as we navigate them. That's also why couples with serious problems will degrade in the LS. As my wife is a shy introvert and I'm an extrovert, it never mattered much - we have each other. However, in the LS, when meeting a new couple, she comes off as cold and disinterested, and I could potentially come off a little ambitious - a very counter-productive quality in the LS. Thus, it's harder to attract a couple (especially 4-way), and frustration ensues. Meanwhile, in couples where the wife is an outgoing extrovert and the husband is an introvert, the wife can be completely free and open, as the husband serves as a cool sentry - both very appealing qualities. Couples where both are extroverts are usually a lot of fun, but I've seen these husbands be off-putting to women. Thus, my take-away is that I really need to be extra chill...and my wife needs to be less shy. And now that I'm deferring to her lead, I have to be extremely patient. In other words, we're growing individually with new social skills.”

“Being in the LS has increased my self-confidence. I feel more capable than ever at engaging in conversations with strangers, since that’s such a big part of the scene, meeting new people. I’ve also come to appreciate people for different reasons, whether they’re a potential sexual partner or just a new friend. It’s easy to get into black and white thinking-- this group v. that group. I am better able to find the commonalities with people who, on the face of it, I wouldn’t have anything in common with and would likely not seek out in another social environment.”

“That I'm not a freak or sick because of my sexual desires. That people CAN like you for ALL of you, not just the socially acceptable parts. That it's okay to be honest about your desires and not feel like a slut. We are raised with a social mindset of what is "normal" and how people should act and live their lives. Not all of us want to be monogamous and live the stereotypical happily ever after. There are many ways to be happy. It's a shame we have to hide the side of ourselves we express in the LS. I worry that my Ex will find out and use it against me in court to take my kids away. The vanilla friends of mine who know about my participation in the LS are curious, but afraid to step out of the norm. They tell me how brave I am. My worry is that because I’m a unicorn and because of my LS proclivity, I will grow old alone. And that needs to stop being a bad thing in my mind. I may never find a man who is LS friendly. But I'll never settle for vanilla again. To do so would be shutting down a huge part of me; one that I've just embraced and am acting on. I am afraid vanilla men will think I'm a slut. Eventually I would like to be in a relationship with a man, but am afraid that may not happen due to me being in the LS. So I'll grow old with the amazing friends I've made in this environment, and be happy with me.”

“It has taught me about how to appreciate all body types and that all people are beautiful. That anyone can be sexy with only a smile and confidence. I realized that everyone has insecurities and it does not matter who you are. I realized that people in LS like to hook up after midnight (wish was earlier as I am more horny earlier, plus tired after partying for hours). Realized the community is very caring, friendly, and supportive. Positive attitudes and happiness are a huge common variable in the LS community. People in LS party harder than high schoolers and college kids. The LS has made vacations and date nights more exciting. While being LS, I realized I am not a sexual pervert and others are more sexually charged than I. Realized there are a lot of bi women. Communication and solid relationship is key. Monogamy is not easy or natural. Vanilla people can be judgmental or envious when they find out our LS secret. Realized that there are lots of cliques in our LS community and have more friendships with like minded people, even if we never sexually hooked up with. Lastly, rejection hurts but I’ve learned that it's not always personal. Chemistry, connection, and great conversation is key for me to hook-up. I learned that if I don't want to swallow, someone one else will gladly do so with a smile. I call it outsourcing at its finest!”

“I don’t get off on being an object for men. Some women seem to get off on this, but I don’t. I think a lot of this objectification comes from porn, where sex and desire take place in a vacuum, devoid of personality, society, psychology, and economics. Basically any penis wants any vagina; any orifice wants any appendage. As for myself, looking and feeling sexy are are part of who I am, as a whole person; not just as a body or body part, divorced from my greater identity. I wonder if the LS is a mirror of the greater culture or whether it’s entirely different from the mainstream culture? I think it’s a little bit of both.”

“I wish the LS were less ‘transactional’ - tit for tat trading, no pun intended. It’s a negotiation but it’s almost always awkward. Ironically BDSM stresses the negotiation process and doesn’t pretend to be organic. It has even more defined rules, including no drugs or alcohol. I suppose this is because those substances alter consciousness and lead to people overstepping boundaries or allowing others to overstep our boundaries. At LS cocktails, meet and greet, clubs or parties, you stand there with cocktail in hand, not always knowing what to say to the other couple. Sometimes I feel like you go from small talk with perfect strangers, to hooking up too quickly. What’s the rush? Are people really that horny all the time?”

And finally, an amalgam of the shorter testimonials

“Variety is the spice of life and as we get older all we have is our health, friendships, relationships, and our experiences with others...That we are not all perverts, just normal open minded people....Constant amazement. I like fellow reprobates...The Lifestyle has taught me that people are attracted to confidence and honesty. Through the Lifestyle I have found the most amazing, genuine and authentic individuals who love themselves and others and are open minded, not just about sex but about so many things! I feel people in the lifestyle are so accustomed to breaking barriers that it continues in other areas of life and makes them pretty badass individuals to be friends with. We are having the time of our life...It has taught us that LS people are accepting and care about each other. Society is becoming more accepting of people in the Lifestyle...The world is a cold and evil place, where people are backstabbers and villainous...Relationships are what you make them. Literally. You can make a designer relationship...I am more outgoing than I ever knew...The LS has given me more empathy for people, more opportunities to interact with people who are very different from me, and more self-confidence...That there are a LOT of different versions of the LS. That my wife and I started with good communication and it STILL got better. And that there are a lot of people that should not be in it.”

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