Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Loneliness

It's not easy to admit to feeling lonely: It's something that seems to affect many of us, though we suffer in silence, suspecting we may be seen as pathetic or pitiful should the truth be known. All the while, technologies which were apparently developed to maintain connections between us and those we care for seem only to create distance between us.

When I happen to catch the news, or log in to social media, there's a lot about politics, religion and other things which highlight how we differ. Some publicly state that those who subscribe to certain beliefs lack intelligence. That feels strange to me: I've always held that, once we start to believe we're superior to another, we prove beyond doubt that we are not.

Everywhere I look, I see evidence for Henri Tajfel's Social Identity Theory. As much as we define ourselves by what we are, we passionately affirm that there are things we are not, whether that voice is held internally or we share our thoughts with the outer world. At our worst, we demonise, and recoil from, those who differ from us in ways we are unwilling or unable to accept.







There's a clear focus on the things which separate us, rather than the things which connect us. The result, unsurprisingly, is a feeling of separation, rather than connection. We learn that loneliness can be felt just as much in the company of those who don't understand or respect us as it can when we're alone - perhaps even more so.

The rare opportunities I find to spend time with friends are beyond value, but also feel increasingly like an act of rebellion against current social norms. I've seen nothing to suggest that people no longer wish to connect with each other, but it seems that so many of our interactions are now through the glass wall of technology. We experience those who mean something to us as words or pictures on a screen, or a voice transmitted electronically.

Maybe I see things differently. Maybe that's because I'm an INFJ, an empath, a highly sensitive person or any other label which marks me out as different and serves to separate me from those I care about. Maybe that's why I feel so lonely.

Monday, 28 January 2019

Leaving the scene?

When I first started learning to dance Salsa, I heard something with which I disagreed, and continue to disagree. An instructor stated that every mistake during a dance was the responsibility of the lead. In the time since, I've heard this many times - sometimes the word "man" has been substituted for "lead".

At the club where I first learned Salsa, I disagreed with the instructor about this. I said that dancing with some of the ladies was akin to wrestling a bull. She responded that, if the ladies were feeling tense, it was my responsibility to put them at ease. I was astonished that she couldn't see the ridiculousness of what she had suggested. It seemed that she genuinely believed that a male dancer was responsible for the feelings of the women with whom he danced, which was unbelievable in itself, but even more so when you consider that people arrive at dance classes with whatever feelings they've felt during the course of their day.

In the interests of fairness, I have to say that some of the male instructors, pandering to the lady dancers with whom they were hoping to dance later, didn't help matters. Along with repeating the line about men being responsible for any mistakes, I heard other things:

"Okay, ladies. Move round to the next man. We tried moving the men around in the past, but it didn't go well. You know what men are like."

"Women just tend to pick this stuff up more quickly than men. I don't know why. They just do."

"I happen to know that the ladies were all perfect, but ladies, how were the men?"

"Men! Watch where you're putting your hands with this move! Women don't need to be told, but for some reason, you guys are in the habit of grabbing things you shouldn't." 

"Yes, ladies, you know the men's moves. You may know them better than the man you're with, but let him make his mistakes. You don't want to injure his fragile male ego, do you?"

There were many other examples, from both male and female instructors. If I were to list them all, this would be a VERY long post. One female instructor, in particular, seemed to use her classes as a vehicle for airing her grievances with the opposite sex. After taking part in one of her classes at an event, I vowed to never do so again. I stuck faithfully to that vow.

After a while, it started to get to me. Reflecting on the fact that I paid just as much as a woman to be there, I started to feel a whole lot of resentment towards those who were saying these things.

At the same time, the behaviour of a few women had started to irritate. One woman, even when I only knew the basic steps, would lead herself through complicated movements, doing her own thing. Another criticised me constantly throughout one dance, even though I was a beginner, and twice abandoned me during dances because line outs were happening which "looked like fun" - more fun than dancing with me, clearly. Well, maybe that's my "fragile male ego" talking.

A number of times, my behind was touched or slapped during or after a dance. One woman sat on my lap, without checking how I'd feel about this, when I was resting between dances. During closer dances, like Kizomba or Bachata, some of the ladies chose to "grind" against me. At the start, I kept a respectful distance during these dances - I have to admit that I was more than a little uneasy with the close proximity myself. Unfortunately, the hold or "frame" of these dances affords little protection to male dancers, and a few of the ladies chose to close the distance themselves.

On one occasion that I've tried hard to forget, a woman brushed my genitals with the palm of her hand as she was starting to go into a turn. The number of times women have been verbally inappropriate during a dance is also higher than the instructors would seem to realise.

At first, I accepted the idea that women, for some reason, generally learn to dance more quickly than men. Then, however, I started to hear that a number of the women had taken ballet or some other dance lessons in the past, whereas learning to dance was relatively new to most of the men. One of the instructors then acknowledged that learning to lead was more difficult. What I also realised, after a while, was that leads are confined to the moves they know, whereas followers learn from dancing with more experienced leads.

There was something else going on, though, and it took a while before I realised the negative impact it was having on the scene. In a rush to learn ever more complicated and "fancy" turn patterns, a number of the ladies were moving to more advanced classes before they had really learned the basic footwork and other skills which were needed to perform the more advanced movements correctly.

When I started going to the weekend events, I realised how damaging this rush to learn the more complicated moves was. I'd wake up the following morning with pain in my back and shoulders. I, too, had gone along with the idea that I was responsible for correcting the errors of my dance partner, and I was paying dearly for it. I held the idea that I shouldn't be a forceful lead, but aching muscles told me that I'd had to be exactly that with some of the ladies.

They hadn't learned the fundamentals, and I was the one, along with my fellow male dancers, who was paying for their lack of patience. It struck me that, really, both partners were equal in the dance - a lead simply "suggested" a move, and then the follower interpreted that, however she wished to interpret it. Some of the ladies were anticipating what leads were going to do - wrongly.

No one had ever asked how I felt about being hugged. When it became clear that I wasn't entirely comfortable with it, there was no sense that the ladies were going to back off. Instead, they found it comical that I was uncomfortable. The message I was receiving was that, as a man, my physical boundaries weren't important and were to be ignored.

Initially, the hugs were to thank me for dances, but at some point became a standard greeting. When my sister died, and I clearly wasn't okay, the hugs increased in frequency and, after a brief acknowledgement of my loss, a few of the ladies chose to tell me at length about their own experience of losing someone they loved. Again, there was the feeling that, as a man, my feelings were of lesser importance.

Before I started learning Salsa, I'd spent some time learning to dance Modern Jive. There, one of the women had assumed that I was there looking for something I wasn't actually looking for. When she discovered that I was engaged, she became angry, and shouted loudly that I should have told her. On learning that my sister was at that time terminally ill, she assumed that my feelings would be easy to manipulate, and on one occasion firmly stated her desire for physical intimacy. When I didn't respond in the way she had wanted, threats and lies became her weapons of choice.

"Correcting" my movements during classes, so that I would forget what had actually been taught, was another method used in shallow attempts to remove me from the dance scene. I've since seen her employ this with other men at events - in one class, "instructing" virtually every man she came across. When she appeared at my regular Salsa class, after apparently deciding it would now become her regular dance class, she immediately accused me of hurting her during one movement. It was a killer move on her part - I already knew enough about the relative place of male and female dancers in that club to know that, had she continued to say I was hurting her during classes, it would not have gone well for me.

To be honest, I wasn't sad about going to learn at another class. As it happened, the quality of instruction was orders of magnitude better. Also, people I'd thought of as friends had been all too eager to welcome a bully into their midst, and were indifferent to my plight. Later, I was to learn that a bunch of lies had been told behind my back, and those I'd thought of as friends had played a part in perpetuating those lies.

Even in the new class, some of the old problems soon reared their head. During a class, one of the ladies deliberately forced her arm into a position from where I had no hope of performing the move being taught. When the inevitable happened, she turned to the man with whom she'd just danced and asked him to show me how to do it "correctly". Embarrassed, I abandoned the class and watched from the bar area. I moved down from the intermediate class to the improver level class, in the misguided belief that I'd be confident enough in those moves, and the ladies not confident enough, for me to be able to avoid a similar situation again. I was wrong.

There had been gaps in what I'd learned previously, which were being filled in the improver class. Unfortunately, I soon came into contact with another lady who led herself through the movement, wrongly, and was able to do so because of my refusal to be overly forceful as a lead.

"He's doing it wrong!"

The instructor looked around, as did other dancers in the class. She asked me to go through the movement again. There was nothing I could do. I knew that, with everyone watching, my thankfully temporary partner in the class would lead herself wrongly through the sequence again. I took the instruction without complaint, and simply nodded. I didn't attend for a few weeks after that.

There are plenty of arguments that one dance scene is better than another, or more friendly. I have the Kizomba scene for comparison. At a Kizomba event, one lady danced no more than two steps with me, after reluctantly accepting the dance. After those two steps, she said "Nope" and released her hold. Before she walked away, she fired a shot:

"I feel sorry for you, because I can dance."

At another Kizomba event, the lady with whom I was dancing cast my left hand aside and gripped me in a bear hug, informing me that this was also an acceptable hold in Kizomba. Internally, I disagreed, because it was a clear boundary violation. She compounded the error by then switching to a lead hold and leading me. I hadn't learned how to follow, but didn't disgrace myself. After the dance, however, I left early. The night was being run by a friend, and I felt sorry to be leaving early, but didn't feel comfortable enough to remain.

All of this had an effect. I would drive to classes or dance events, and would often drive away again. Things were going on in my life away from the dance floor and, unusually for someone so introverted, this was a time when I would have appreciated some company. What turned me away was previous experience of how these nights could go.

I recently turned up at a dance, chose to give the class a miss, and was careful about who I chose to dance with. I'd been absent from the scene for a few months, and wanted a positive experience. What I'd come to realise in my time away, confirmed by how things turned out on my return, was that I now had issues with physical contact.

There are likely a whole load of omissions in my narrative. What matters is that the experience has brought me to this point. I love to dance, but there's the feeling that my involvement in the scene is unsustainable. I made the mistake of accepting friend requests on social media from some of the lady dancers, and a number of the posts I see are surprisingly open about a poor attitude towards men. I'm not even sure they realise how offensive some of the things they post or share might be to males in their friend lists - it's likely that they don't even consider it.

Something I saw recently angered me:

"Too few men understand either boundaries or that “showing off” is not a great attribute especially when it is miss placed and they are not as skilled as they think they are and I don’t think all teachers point this out"

I've directly quoted the post, so grammatical errors within it are not mine.

As usual, the behaviour of men was highlighted. The message was from a female dancer, who seemed blissfully unaware that women are also guilty of the behaviours she describes. To me, it feels like yet another attack aimed squarely at male dancers. There's also the possibility that, when her criticism is seemingly aimed at the majority of men, she is yet another lady dancer who projects her own incompetence onto the leads who agree to dance with her.

How many men will fight their corner, and answer her? None, I fear. We'll continue to silently bear the weight of it all, until we leave the scene, silently.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Breaking the mould

A friend recently suggested that our sense of who we are is entirely dependent on what other people tell us we are. I was about to respond with some of what I've learned over the past four years as a counselling student, but then remembered something important.

As this was mentioned on social media, there was a lack of context. Taking a step back, questioning why I was eager to comment, and who that comment would have benefited, I decided to simply say that my answer would have been a long one (it would have - person-centred theory has a lot to say about who we are and from where our sense of self comes).

Recently, I've been looking at Buddhism or, more specifically, the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. It was during some extra training connected with my work that I finally made the decision to look into this although, strangely, it had appeared on the periphery of my consciousness in various ways in the preceding weeks.

Some of the principles of Tibetan Buddhism have helped me to better deal with some challenges to my emotional health. The important thing here, however, is that looking into this system of belief was my choice. Given that I was raised in a family which was traditionally Roman Catholic, it also felt like an act of rebellion.

The things we choose to do teach us valuable lessons about ourselves, if only we have the wisdom to understand.

Last week, I attended a martial arts class that I've been attending for a number of weeks now. During that class, we had to perform a drill in pairs, in which one person would hold pads and shoot a left jab towards their training partner. In response to this jab, the other person would slip to the outside while countering with a left to the midsection, followed by a series of further punches.

I spent six years learning Wing Chun. I still practise the forms, though not as regularly as I once did. The point is, when I was expected to slip the jab and counter, I was trying so hard not to respond with Wing Chun that I froze and was hit a few times.

When I had finally managed to switch off my previously trained responses to the point where I could slip the jab, my training partner changed the jab to a chop to the side of the head. I complained about this, and the instructor replied that it was better for me to be hit in that situation than out on the street, where they wouldn't be so kind. "Out on the street", they wouldn't have had the luxury of knowing what I was going to do, so the argument wasn't valid. More importantly, my training partner had deviated from what we were supposed to do. I hadn't, but maybe I should have.

Had I responded with Wing Chun or something from elsewhere in my history of learning combat arts, this wouldn't have happened. The last time I did this, however, it led to a situation in which the instructor seemed to feel that he had something to prove. If I'm honest, the irritation I felt regarding my training partner's behaviour and the instructor's response said something of my own vulnerability to the machinations of the ego.

You may be wondering what lesson is to be drawn from all of this. Well, one requirement of the last counselling course on which I was a student was that each of us had the experience of being the client of a counsellor. During those sessions, the counsellor said something I didn't initially understand:

"You've learned to hide your power, because it makes others feel uncomfortable."

My training partner hadn't hidden his power. My experience of the instructor in the class, so far, has been that he's not the type to hide his power either. Both of them have been practising Jeet Kune Do for a long time. Where is my power in that environment? It's a Jeet Kune Do class and, though I have some previous knowledge of Jeet Kune Do, I don't have their experience of practising the principles and movements.

In trying to fit in with what they were doing, and actively suppressing my previous training, I was putting myself at a disadvantage - I was hiding my power. How often do we do this? In an attempt to be liked, accepted, or to gain approval, we take on the rules of our social environment to the point where we hide our individuality. We learn to wear various masks or personas, according to the situation. When we do this, are we valuing or respecting ourselves?

I forgot something important. Returning to martial arts, for me, wasn't about learning to fight. How easily I was dragged into valuing my experience on the terms of others! In that situation, all I had to do was avoid harm. Everything else was, as my recent exposure to Buddhism would suggest, a manifestation of the ego.

The condition of rigidly sticking to what has been taught is, I now see, unnecessary. It is imperative that we listen, observe and learn, but also that we respect and value our own experience. We are the sum of our experience, and so much more. Why, then, should we hide our power?

Friday, 19 October 2018

Resistance is useless

It's a strange irony. We may know the things which restore us - the things which make us strong - and yet we resist them. Usually, this is explained to us as a lack of motivation, and various "experts" line up to advise us on how to conquer this lack of motivation. Occasionally, however, this proves to be entirely the wrong approach, because a lack of motivation is not always at the root of this.

Each of us have our own beliefs, values and attitudes. To some extent (probably more than most of us would like to admit), these define who we are as a person, and anything that contradicts our beliefs, values or attitudes threatens, to a greater or lesser degree, our sense of who we are.

I went to my first big dance event in January, and felt at the time that it would be the last big dance event I would attend. The pass for the weekend had been won as a prize in a raffle, and I wanted to fully connect with the experience and enjoy it, but things didn't quite work out that way. The prize had actually been two passes for the weekend, and a number of ladies had thought that they might be the recipient of the second pass. For some, not getting that second pass caused some resentment.

Before the weekend even started, I'd decided to take part in some stretching classes which were an optional way to start each day. As a dancer of advancing years, I reasoned that it would probably be a good idea to get out of bed early in the morning to take part in these stretching classes.

It's my habit to turn up early for everything. The instructor found this a surprise, because her experience had been that dancers generally turned up for the last ten minutes of her classes at these events. Her experience was repeated on this occasion too, meaning that there were fifty minutes in which I essentially had a private lesson in how to stretch.

The instructor talked as we both held various poses, about how the weekend had been for her so far, and asked how I was finding the weekend. I felt something I hadn't felt for a long time - I felt at peace. The same was repeated the following morning and, when she asked if I would like to take part in a yoga class in the afternoon, I skipped a dance class so that it would be possible to be there.

Let's look again at our sense of who we are, and how that is often challenged by our experience. Just a few years ago, I wasn't a dancer. That wasn't something I saw as a part of my identity. That first dance class - modern jive, as it happens - wasn't something I would have chosen to do, although ultimately I did choose to go along. I'd been asked to accompany someone who felt uneasy about going alone and, against my expectations, found that I enjoyed partner dancing.

Salsa also felt like something I wouldn't do. The salsa scene had the reputation of being exclusionary and elitist. I'd like to be able to tell you that it's neither of those things, but I can't honestly do that. Let's say that there are people who are very accepting, and there are those who wish to exclude anyone who doesn't fit their idea of what a salsa dancer should be. Nevertheless, being a salsa dancer is now one component of my identity, however much certain individuals wish that wasn't the case. Apparently, I'm quite good, which further irritates those who think I shouldn't be there.

It's said that grief affects our relationships with others, but also our relationship with ourselves. That's another change to my sense of self over the past few years. Going for my first experience of counselling, as required by my course of study, added to this.

Going back to the things that restore us, the things that make us strong, all of the above has been a learning experience. As previously stated, we can have this tendency to reject the things which restore us and make us strong. We can tell ourselves that they are not an authentic part of our identity.

Attending martial arts classes again, as I've started to do recently, is an acknowledgement of the restorative effects of this activity for me. Taking a break from that was effectively denying a part of myself.

Most recently, a connection with Buddhism became the latest challenge to my sense of self. Yoga, salsa, Buddhism - these all say something about who I am, but they are saying something about a part of me I find it difficult to accept. That difficulty comes from the judgement of others - those values, beliefs and attitudes we unconsciously take on board and allow to shape our expression of our identity. Each in their own way, however, is a source of strength or, in the case of the challenging scene that surrounds salsa dancing as an activity, an opportunity to prove to myself that I'm capable of great inner strength.

I suppose the message in all of this is that our strength comes, ultimately, from being authentic, from shutting out all those voices which tell us that certain aspects of our identity are unacceptable.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Jeet Kune Do

I promised that I'd persevere until January, but let's say that my training in Jeet Kune Do isn't going well so far. A large part of that is due to a lack of fitness, and not having attended a martial arts class of any description for two years. Some of the hour is given to physical conditioning, as it should be, and the truth is that my physical condition is quite poor at the time of writing. I'll admit it - I'm struggling.

There's a more damaging component to my lack of motivation, however, and this may well see me looking elsewhere when January comes around. I wanted to train martial arts again for reasons other than learning how to fight, but this seems to be the focus of the instructor, and that's where it all falls down. See, I've been a martial artist for many years and, for reasons I can't go into from a legal perspective, I know how to adapt this stuff to a live combat situation. Unfortunately, Jeet Kune Do doesn't feel like it's how I want to fight. Put another way, as learning to fight is no longer my focus, it doesn't feel like how I want to move.

I've recently been using my experience as a martial artist, and a further knowledge of the principles of movement gained through dancing, to learn the basics of Muay Boran. I've no doubt that what I'm doing isn't absolutely correct, because I don't have the benefit of a qualified instructor. More likely, a lot of what I already know is getting in there, modifying the forms. The point is, it feels like an authentic expression of where I am as a martial artist; Jeet Kune Do does not feel that way.

There's the opportunity to switch to Muay Thai, which would be more in line with Muay Boran, but I promised to stick with Jeet Kune Do until January. I keep my promises. I'm also constantly examining my reasons for wanting to train martial arts again.

A video, in which I danced with a friend, came up in my memories on social media. Apparently, I posted it a year ago. This isn't as off-topic as it seems. As good a memory as it is, it also draws attention to how much I've changed in the year since. The change since I last set foot in a martial arts class is even more marked.

At an event in January, I took part in my first yoga class and, although my involvement with yoga is still limited, it feels like something I need to do. During training linked to my work, I heard some things about Tibetan Buddhism, and it was something that had been on my radar many times during the preceding week, so I decided to read about it. Some personal issues in the preceding years had changed how I saw the world around me, and also how I saw myself.

It's possible for me to do both. One of the students of the Jeet Kune Do class is also a Muay Thai practitioner. The feeling that Jeet Kune Do isn't an authentic expression of who I am remains, however. It's more likely that Muay Thai and Filipino martial arts would be the combination that I would go for - another possibility. Right now, I'm also deciding whether that will mark the point where dancing is no longer a part of my life. In January, there will be a lot of decisions to make.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Thought for the day: a sensitive soul

I'm still thinking about Thursday. It had been a tough day, and that's coming from someone who's had an awful lot of tough days. I decided to go out to eat that evening. Maybe that wasn't the best decision. Maybe it was poor self-care. As things turned out, eating alone would have been preferable.

I was the only customer for a while, so the restaurant owner decided to talk to me. In no time, she was talking about losing her grandmother over the weekend, and how she felt about it. Whatever it is that people see in me, which leads to them opening up, I wished for one moment where I could switch it off. I don't lack empathy. Seriously, I have empathy by the truckload, but sometimes it feels like a blade that anyone could plunge between my ribs, any time they wish. There are times when I'm carrying a heavy burden myself and sometimes, when people talk to me, it only leads to me feeling more lonely.

There are people who are just more sensitive than others. A part of that is being aware of things that often escape the attention of most people, and probably less aware of other stuff. Part of it is innate, and part of it is an adaptation to the environment in which we find ourselves in early life. You can spend a lifetime either pretending that things don't affect you, or developing defences against the machinations of those around you, but the truth is that you feel everything deeply, and it can overwhelm you. There are times when you need to shut down, isolate yourself or, if you're lucky enough to have one, spend time with that friend who somehow restores you by just being there. The loneliness is crushing, but is preferable to certain types of company.

You are prone to bouts of depression, and this saps your energy, meaning you have little to spare for dealing with other people, and then the self-enforced isolation bites, making you feel more depressed. No one seems to understand and, depending on the culture in which you live, your sensitivity will be seen as a gift or a curse. If you're male, then there are few places where any of this is accepted.

The funny thing is, you're strong. There's no way you could cope with all of this if you weren't, even though it can feel at times like you're not coping with it. There are ways to deal better with it, but others are more qualified to talk about that than I am. What I do know, however, is that learning to accept this part of who you are is powerful. You're a sensitive soul, and you're as deserving of love and compassion as anyone else. First, though, give it to yourself.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Alone time

I feel like I've pushed it too far. Every so often, I need to spend time alone, and I don't think I've been doing enough of that. I never learn the lesson, though. By now, I should know that, when I don't know how best to deal with the people around me, it's a sign that I just don't want to deal with them.

We're talking about a fundamental part of my nature, rather than any personal issue with individuals, although any existing issues will be warped and magnified by how I'm currently feeling. The feeling I had when I first started learning to dance, from being in such a crowded room, was a message from within.

I need time alone. Sometimes I forget that.