I discovered Nadia on instagram and immediately started following her based on her impressive contortion skills, authenticity, and intriguing reflections. To my delight, Nadia agreed to answer some questions for this blog. Please enjoy reading her perspectives on contortion and martial arts!
Sara: How did you get into martial arts and contortion? Which came first? Did one lead to the other?
Nadia: When I was a child I was always doing contortion without even knowing what it was. Contortion was definitely first since I was doing splits in diapers. But my mom started teaching me various martial arts techniques at the age of two. I took my first official taekwondo class at age 7, but I made it to yellow belt and had to stop. I didn’t start training contortion seriously until I was twelve. But I wouldn’t recommend self-training. Many things can go wrong.
Sara: Do you find that martial arts supports you in your contortion practice or vice versa?
Nadia: Yes, they do complement each other very well. Martial arts has provided me with great balance and core strength. Which are very essential to contortionists for different skills like the needle. And the core has to be engaged in every pose. Contortion has provided me the flexibility needed to throw a high kick and kick my opponent in the head.
Sara: What do you love about martial arts? Contortion?
Nadia: The thing that I love about contortion is the hard work that goes into it. I have done a lot
of things and contortion is the only one that has kept me engaged. No matter how good you get there is always that next level. Martial arts gives you discipline and it’s also good to take classes because you never know when you might need to defend yourself.
Sara: What is the number one challenge for you in martial arts/contortion?
Nadia: My number one challenge for martial arts is not holding back. I hate hurting people so I always hold my kicks and punches. Even though you are supposed hit hard. For contortion conditioning for handstands is the hardest part. Also breathing and holding the pose.
Sara: What are your goals/dreams/visions?
Nadia: My dream is to be happy, but I also want to become a professional contortionist. And maybe a stunt double too. I really want to be able to do one arm handstands one day and own a contortion school.
Sara: What have you observed about the culture of/modern stereotypes and interpretations of martial arts and/or contortion?
Nadia: For contortion, once you get to that next level of flexibility everyone thinks you aren’t human. And of course there is also this idiotic idea that you have to be born flexible to be able to do contortion. That is not the case at all. I’m not sure if there are any for martial arts.
Sara: What did it feel emotionally like when you started to achieve really deep poses in contortion?
Nadia: For me contortion always feels normal, no matter how deep I get. But I’m always elated when I nail a new move.
Sara: What is it like to be a woman participating in the discipline of martial arts?
Nadia: To be a woman in martial arts is just like living life as a woman in general. Male peers will think that you are weak and underestimate you. If you show exceptional talent as a martial artist with a male instructor your talents will be wasted due to your gender. Male students will always be upheld and applauded more than female students, even if you have superior ability. Also, in the martial arts community they fetishize female martial artists. I don’t see the allure, but they are obsessed with feet and being kicked. Just like any other sport or activity the female practitioner will be fetishized.
Sara: Anything else you'd like to add?
Nadia: Thank you very much, Sara for letting me share my experiences on your platform. Happy stretching!
Follow Nadia on Instagram: contortedmartialartist
Can flexibility training provide a counterbalance for our culture and offer a pathway for developing body awareness? Would there be a benefit to adjusting our perspectives on flexibility?
Are we an inflexible culture? Students and professionals sit for 6-8 hours a day. The former are often punished for fidgeting. Why on earth would a youthful creature not perfectly comply with being still for eight hours a day?
Considering our sit-at-a-desk-for-forty-hours-a-week culture, training flexibility can be a really helpful way to counteract stiffness from daily life and prevent injury. Training flexibility is a rewarding way to develop body awareness and strength, and offers a wide variety of benefits, including enhanced oxygen flow to muscles and improved circulation. (Interestingly, because training flexibility can awaken us to our body's needs, we would become less likely to tolerate such work conditions as we proceed in practice.) Flexibility training can help us correct some of our lifestyle imbalances.
I became powerfully drawn to contortion right about the time I started doing full-time work sitting at a desk. Once or twice a week I would power home on my bike after work, lay out the yoga mat, and bend as deeply as I could. The relief was immense. All the pent up energy found a place to go.
Watching the progress was exhilarating. I astonished myself with what I could achieve, and my mind began to open along with spaciousness in my body. And excitingly, I began to open to my body in unprecedented ways. Even though I had been an athlete my whole life and had been practicing yoga for years, contortion significantly deepened my body awareness. Because it brings on very powerful sensations, I could start to feel expressions in parts of my body I was usually dead to. Studying this wordless language became a deeply personal journey within the four walls of my room. There was an emotional side to it--the freeing of locked up energy. I backbended through love and heartbreak. The practice was always there to help me refocus my mind and feel centered again.
About the same time that I was getting into contortion, I was developing my personal meditation practice. The combination was powerful. Rather swiftly, I went from being one of the headiest people I knew to actually being...present in my body. And it felt so good--so meaningful. And suddenly, I had a reliable pathway into clarity and calm. When I curve my spine deeply, the clutter blocking my way to my soul clears out. I feel present and spacious. The release is gratifying.
Of course I love sharing my deepest poses on social media. I fell in love with the crazy deep arcs of beautiful backs, serene countenances, and artfully poised legs I saw in my feed. I longed to express my spine the way contortionists did. I felt a little conflicted about sharing; as a yoga teacher I insisted that the depth of the pose is NOT equivalent to the depth of practice. I didn't want to get anyone on the path for the wrong reasons. But I couldn't resist sharing, as mindfully as I could. I was so inspired. I struggle still with depicting flexibility and contortion without triggering everyone's automatic reactions: "this is impressive;" "this is sexy;" "this is dangerous." I hope to convey a bit of the intimate side of it, the subtlety within the extreme.
I've attracted much applause...and some concern. Contortion freaks people out--you will pinch a nerve, or pull a muscle...right? Or maybe break your neck? We are so very afraid of our spines, I have learned. Those things can happen (well I don't know about breaking your neck), but they didn't. I don't always train perfectly, and sometimes I have to take breaks (true in every sport I've ever practiced). But mostly, contortion makes me feel good, and as I became more flexible, I also became stronger; flexibility is NOT patiently laying in a position until you become like taffy. With the exception of a few passive stretches, you need to HOLD yourself in the position with your own strength! This is why I do not support assisted passive stretching as a primary way to train flexibility, ESPECIALLY in children. When you train active flexibility, you have a self-corrective, holistic practice: as you become more mobile, you also become more stable. Your joints don't become too loose--they are packed snug with muscle.
I started to think more critically about the alarm I generated with my extreme flexibility training. Why are we not alarmed when someone sits for forty hours a week at school and work? Why do we blindly accept that? Contortion MIGHT lead to injury (as with American Football, running, basketball, or other culturally accepted activities). Sitting for forty hours a week WILL lead to injury, and it will also put you at higher risk of depression and other health troubles. The body wants to move, and our muscles want to breathe. Stretching delivers more oxygen into your muscles--that's partly why it feels so so good. Stretching is like deep breathing. Plus, the quality of awareness is critically important. Because risk does rise at your end range, you have to be so so careful. So present. When I train contortion, I am fully with every sensation, and I have learned how to adjust and respond to the sensations that unfold at my flexibility boundaries. I have to keep my ego at bay, understanding that the deepest I can go is not always the deepest I should go.
When we sit for hours, we stop listening to the body. If we listened, we would have to get up too much for most employers' liking. But the body-aware must settle down. Sitting for forty hours a week is justified in our culture because we-must-work (imagine that in a robot voice) and because generally it is difficult for us to recognize the danger of slow-onset injury and disease. We are also biased toward mental development, systematically and institutionally neglecting care for the body for the sake of doing-work (robot voice) and cultivating brain skills. We accept sitting and rationalize the unease it brings us, just as we accept driving and rationalize the trauma and death it brings us. Contortion, of course, is on the fringe. People who do it often highlight its eccentricity, which is fine, but that comes with a lot of false perceptions.
To me, contortion is almost exclusively a personal, private practice. To me, contortion is an intimate ecology of self-study, challenging boundaries of mind and body, discernment, and discipline. Even though it's extreme, it's oh-so-subtle. What I feel in my body from one practice to the next is so slight, yet sometimes so profound. Fundamentally, and to me most excitingly, the practice is an exploration--which means it offers the thrill of new discovery.
Also, I find that deep flexibility can be mysterious, and therefore intriguing. Someone once told me that deep stretching simulates the feeling of somebody touching you--that the brain interprets those sensations in the same way. Sometimes I wonder if this is why I so often associate deep stretching with love. Somehow I feel there is emotional processing during deep stretching. Is something happening on another level? Sometimes I feel like a light or bright energy is patterning through my body, showing me where and how to move next, showing me when my back and my hands begin to communicate noticeably for the first time ever. What is that? Why is it sometimes there and other times not? I also love the feeling of new contact between parts of my body. I get a lot out of feeling my toes against the back of my head, or my elbow on my foot, and I adore the feeling of taking my feet into my hands when I am in cheststand. Is it the novelty? Is it like when we were first encountering the world? I'm enchanted with the questions offered by my practice of flexibility.
Our personal lives and our culture as a whole need corrective practices, rituals, and works of art and literature to help us out of the narrow patterns we slide into. As we carry into the 21st century with a continuing bias toward mental development, we need pathways into body awareness. We need practices to help us draw our shoulders back, strengthen our hamstrings, and lengthen our hip flexors. We need to prioritize proprioception and interoception. We need expansion at the throat and the heart center, and we need to move our joints in all the ways they can move. Flexibility training could be a promising counterbalance, not only because it will work, but because it is attractive enough to generate interest and is tangibly rewarding enough to motivate disciplined practice.
As a woman training contortion, I represent the extreme end of the spectrum. You don't need to go there. But what would happen if you asked your body what mobility it would like? Would you like to be able to comfortably touch your toes? Stop slouching? Reduce back pain? Flexibility training can support you in counterbalancing the habits of movement that, left unchecked, lock you into an ever-shrinking range.
Challenging cultural perceptions of flexibility
Just as we need high-quality, careful, discerning awareness when we practice flexibility in order to train safely, we need to apply a high-quality awareness to our perceptions of and attitudes toward flexibility. Flexibility is a total temptress--it is SUPER easy to just say "I want to be able to do the splits" and in maintaining that narrow mindset, the practitioner bars herself from the true depth and offerings of the process and gets cozy with her ego. To touch into the essence of the practice, I encourage a soft, curious mental approach to training flexibility. I would discourage using it as a way to show off, or pushing too hard to get to some depth before your body is ready. Flexibility training truly tests our self-awareness and restraint. Let's highlight and make honorable these aspects of flexibility, rather than splashing in the shallow waters of vanity and dominance. This isn't about showing off, although sharing learned skills and the joys of the practice is a potentially connective and beautiful thing. We don't need to exclude sexual appeal or sheer impressive athleticism from our cultural perceptions--but wouldn't it be so much more interesting if we placed those legitimate aspects of flexibility in the broader context of the practice, including inner-personal exploration and self-care?
To support an intimate, meaningful practice, I encourage anyone training flexibility to bring meditation into the picture. It doesn't need to be a perfect integration of meditating while stretching, but having a consistent meditation practice greatly supports the practice. Not only does meditation support us in applying quality awareness to the present moment, but it also actually accelerates flexibility training, because as the nervous system learns to relax, our muscles begin to let go, and we gently ease out of our rigid holding patterns.
And finally, can we reconsider the 40-hour sitting-standing workweek? Can we be more creative than that, and systematically implement stretch/movement breaks into our schools and workplaces?
Let us please, please have the wisdom to hold body awareness in the same esteem we hold intellectual acuity--after all, isn't it intelligent to know what's going on within our bodies, and to be able to take action that supports our best health and happiness?
Do you want to get in touch with yourself while encouraging a cultural shift through your own personal process? Get started training flexibility safely and mindfully.
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A series about connection vs attachment.
Part 1: Is this connection or Attachment?
Part 2: Albatross Love & Human Jealousy
Part 3: Morality & Attachment
This blog post explores how attachments can complicate moral stances, and offers perspectives that might help us become aware of our own contradictions and confusions.
There is a difference between being connected with values and moral perspectives versus being attached to them. This is tricky.
Morality for security reasons
As humans we are liable to identify and cling to ideas and structures that help us make sense of the world and save us from critical thinking and making difficult decisions, for example, taking religious scripture literally and accepting dogma. It's just easier for the mind to have a "go-to" reasoning model than to assess each experience as it comes.
Morality for social reasons
We also may identify ourselves with particular moral stances taken by our parents, heroes, and role models. "I stand for this." These relationships with moral stances are based on the desire to feel secure, to protect a familiar sense of self, and to align with identified alphas. It is different to genuinely form intellectual and emotional connection with the values, contradictions, subjectivity, sacrifices, and grey areas that form the heart of morality.
Morality for emotional reasons
Emotions show us how we feel about the world. Unfortunately emotionality has its own grey areas and pitfalls. Sometimes it guides us well. Often it misleads us horrifically.
For example, some people may have very powerful emotional responses to moral issues--lets say, for example, abortion. Having a strong emotional response to a moral issue does not automatically tell us what is right and what is wrong. Rage, tears, and other drama can be very compelling, and may give you an urge to take a side or engage action, but emotional intensity does not necessarily lead us to ethical clarity. Often you will find that where emotionality is on public display, logic and consistency are absent from the person's moral framework. For example, a person who does not support abortion because "all life is sacred" may support the death penalty, physician-assisted suicide, war, or other events in which a life is ended. This begs the question why has the person subscribed to this value but not that similar value? Is their emotional relationship with life and death or their own inner emotional loops? What is the difference? Are prestige or social implications entering the reasons for taking this stance?
Emotional memory can block presence and critical thinking
Furthermore, if a person has a strong emotional experience that becomes stored away as trauma in the body, the moral question can trigger anxiety and panic. Though this person may feel genuinely connected with a moral stance based on real life experience and memories of suffering, this way of reasoning can mislead. Difficult feelings can make us reactive to similar but different new experiences as we quickly try to avoid repeating that negative experience. This is hugely relevant for racism and hostility between "groups" of people. We base broad opinions off of specific experiences and end up becoming narrow-minded about what might be a rather complex, nuanced matter. As mentioned in the beginning of this piece, we like to make life easier - its easier to follow rules than to critically assess every scenario. Easier, but not more accurate, not more intelligent. Following preconceived notions is relying on previous patterns formed by past experiences - it stops us from being present. Simply asking questions about the nature of the situation at hand can stimulate the needed pattern shift that helps us out of our emotional loops, enabling us to see more clearly what is here now.
A sense of moral goodness can become an obstacle to action
"Slave morality" was coined by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps known best for his explorations of Nihilism. He described slave morality as a mindset sometimes held by an oppressed group that undermines their potential for creativity and power. In slave morality, an oppressed group (and that might very well be you and me, who are likely not capable of influencing political action) spends their energy celebrating their own moral goodness while resenting their master and dreaming of a future world (such as heaven) in which they are rewarded for their moral rightness while their masters are punished. The emotional expenditure of feeling self-righteous and resentful, Nietzshe argues, is really the killer of the possibility for change. Because active resentment and self-celebration absorbs the slaves and provides them with an identity, rather than take action to destroy the master-slave relationship, they inadvertently reinforce it. They adopt an "I am oppressed" mentality and create a tolerable world within their limited freedoms, frequently telling themselves that they are righteous and one day justice will be served. So the slave on the one hand is poised with the necessary insight and inspiration to form important human social values and change the world, recognizing the injustice of oppression and inequality, but if the slave contents him/herself with the satisfaction of being morally good and dreaming of a better future, they will never actualize their values and overthrow their masters. None of this is to say that oppressed groups of people are weak, unintelligent, uncreative, or anything like that. Nietzsche's warning is that we are liable to play the role of the identity we have become familiar with rather than changing anything. Pattern stuck.
So we have to be careful about identifying with the parts of ourselves that fall into the weak, oppressed, marginalized zones, whether that's being female, poor, black, queer, etc. If we adopt this "disempowered" identity and resent those who do not treat us fairly, we may feel emotionally satisfied in victimhood (and we may fuel that self-satisfaction with regular arguments and minor uprisings) while not actually making a difference. Even if we create goodwill among our own marginalized group, which is commendable, we have not altered the power structure until we interrupt the powerful/weak dichotomy. And if we do find the inspiration to meaningfully alter the power structure, we want to be clever--we don't want to recreate the same structure with the only difference being that now we are the ones on top. We want to come up with something that does not rely on subjugation but is not devoid of power either. We need to do more than overthrow and displace our "masters." We need to create structures in which power flows dynamically and changes periodically, not favoring one group or another. I for one do not know what that looks like, but it makes me think of ecosystems. I think if we keep slave morality in mind we may be better at avoiding it and come up with some interesting ideas.
Emotionality is essential in moral reasoning
Concerns acknowledged, emotionality is important for our moral reasoning. You may find cases in which a strong logical case is made for an ethical stance, but empathy is absent, and the purveyor of that stance may be dangerous. Attempting to take a "purely logical" view of the world often leads us out of connection with that which we seek to understand. "Science" cannot be divorced from the world of emotion, and if science purposes to understand the world as is, emotion in fact needs to be front and center. This is explored in a compelling way in Carl Safina's book "Beyond Words." We may conduct clinical experiments on animals to be able to assert facts about them, but that is only one kind of knowledge. Furthermore, there's danger in alienating emotionality and empathy from scientific pursuits; historically we have justified animal abuse with their "scientifically confirmed" lack of consciousness and intelligence (we've done this to humans too). But doesn't that reveal our own lack of awareness? Aren't we actually evolutionarily equipped to recognize emotionality in other living beings? And is that not something to explore and embrace, regardless of the messiness of subjectivity?
Emotionality must be part of morality; we only know how we feel about anything through our emotional responses. Lying awake at night with an ache about what is happening in the world is an important experience. Our sense of empathy is critical to morality. So that which sincerely troubles us is worth exploring. But we have to know ourselves well enough to understand the nature of our emotional responses, understanding how the body's stored memories may be holding us back from new perspective, and that we might even get addicted to the rush of feeling defensive about a cause. Claiming victimhood can also give us a sense of power; to be "wronged" and to blame makes us feel higher, safer. It is a false feeling.
Emotional intelligence, which can be practiced by anyone, shows us that even it we get a serotonin dose when we act as victims, that doesn't mean that acting as victims is in our best interest. We have to be aware of our physiological and emotional responses to our life contexts, and be critical at the same time that we are open.
When a moral stance is encouraged as a means to fulfill an agenda, we can call that manipulation. Emotion and logic may be used to influence others to support a cause that benefits a chosen entity. In this case, "morality" is weaponized. Its attractiveness and supposed nobility are instrumentalized to influence action that suits somebody's agenda. Attachments are definitely involved. Over and over again I observe people fighting over an issue, and find that the issue itself has been stripped of its substance and become nothing more than fuel for an ego-battle. Over and over again we have witnessed the weaponization of morality by world leaders. And we have seen the horrors that unfold from there.
Inquiring into morality
We can inquire into our own values by inviting emotional, physical, and intellectual sensibilities into our assessments of right and wrong, and by being open to reassessing again and again. Emotional intelligence, body awareness, and logical inquires can help us understand what is at hand. However, no matter how disciplined we are with these inquiries, there is no certainty that they will guide us to moral rightness. How could they, if moral rightness simply isn't absolute?
The deeper we dive into morality, the clearer it becomes that morality is anything but clear. Morality will never be finalized in a neat set of laws, because there are unanswerable questions that riddle every moral problem. The desire for moral goodness is simply part of our ongoing human challenge to be self-aware, discerning, and intentional participants in the shaping of our world.
We can at best seek to identify incomplete or insincere moral stances by acknowledging the gaps and contradictions that fall between our choices. The sentiment "Maybe I am wrong" could prevent a great deal of suffering. Morality brings a tension to life that offers us a good reason to be engaged with our own actions. Perhaps it is not the answers, but the questions themselves that can most effectively lead us to do the right thing.
But are we so lost in the grey areas of morality? Maybe I am wrong. One of the most profound quotes I have ever come across was by a Matriarch of a remote island community in Micronesia. I was supporting a conservation project and had the opportunity to learn and share some local perspectives from the island. Translated from Palauan, Ungilreng Takawo said,
"We all know what is good and what is not. We choose to believe otherwise because of greed and ignorance."
Photo: Tim Evanson
Part 2 in the Connection vs Attachment series.
This post honestly explores natural feelings of insecurity and jealousy, and walks through the thickets of attachments into the clearing of connection.
Ever bristled when you see your partner talking with an attractive stranger? Become tense at the the thought of their one-on-one time with their long-time friend of the opposite sex? Everyone gets like this at least to some extent. It's okay, it's natural, and it's a really good entry point for inner inquiry.
I admit it. Sometimes I find the idea in my head that I want to be *super* special to someone. That we could share a closeness and a tunnel vision-unbreakable-time and reality-bending love for each other, a connection intricate and strong, like the love of Albatross, the world's only truly monogamous animal (they choose their mate based on who can perfectly mimic their intricate courting dance). I find myself wishing that for someone, I were the one and only woman they could possibly have feelings for.
Cue the question: "Is this connection or attachment?" Do I really want that in real life? Is it possible that its appeal fades once outside the pristine realm of my imagination? And could it be that I concocted this idea because I actually deeply fear the grief of betrayal, or the potential shame and anguish of feeling I'm no longer loved? Is it a reach for a sense of power? Could it be that actually I just want to protect myself from being hurt? And could it be that idealistic notions about love hold us back from enjoying the beauty and authenticity of the imperfect, nuanced love that happens between intrinsically flawed and not exactly monogamous-by-nature humans?
Everyone is vulnerable to the fantasies, anxieties, and attachments that come with loving someone. The fear of being hurt can and often does hold us back from something deeper and can even end relationships. But really, no expression of love, whether small or vast, is comparable to another in the first place. Love is not relative. It is unique and it upholds itself. Love is not compromised by other expressions of love. The question that sometimes arises about whose love is more special than whose is constructed by our insecurities and is an unsound foundation for any relationship.
I'd always say after a breakup, "But nobody is like them. I can never love like that again." It was true, and it was also eventually followed by me falling in love with someone else. See, I couldn't love quite like that again--because that person was unique and our relationship was unique. The precious moments could never be repeated. And the next love would have its particular qualities and its precious exchanges. Does new love invalidate the love I felt before? Not at all. Does past love dilute my present love? Not at all. It's sort of like how my love for one singer's voice does not take away from my love for another singer's voice. How could it?
Only when our insecurities and attachments get involved does a past relationship damage a present love. For example, if a person dangles a past "love" in front of their present partner as a proclamation of desirability and a way to trigger jealousy. When this happens the person trying to make their partner see their desirability and worth is not truly drawing from past love to enhance their power--they are simply winding the chains of their present attachments around themself and dragging their partner in. If you find yourself in any way trying to make your partner feel inferior, or as though they have competition, stop for a second. Will this serve your relationship? This tendency is common. Humans get weird around love and self-protection, because we are so scared of getting hurt or let down. When we reach for our weapons and chains, we wind up burdened with attachments rather than lightened and deepened by connections. Then, even if we are in a relationship, we feel alone.
Attachments make a mess of things. Connection, handled with care and sincerity, need not stir up trouble, though it often does when it is met with attachments. Something to remind ourselves is that love is not the exception. Love is the rule. Some people take it *very* personally when someone is attracted to them, and think "I am the special one." You are not, haha. That person could have a loving, successful relationship with many different people. When we open to others sincerely, share experiences together, and become intimate, of course love arise, in one form or another. We can't expect to be the "one and only" or to have some kind of magical "albatross love" because we're human. It is the deciding to be with one person despite other existing or potential meaningful connections that makes a relationship significant. Human commitment requires sacrifices, and we have to decide for ourselves if those sacrifices are worthwhile.
Every connection is unique, and like love, upholds itself through its specific qualities. We get insecure when we discover that our partner is getting something from someone that they aren't getting from us, whether that's emotional resonance, intellectual stimulation, play, growth, etc. But aren't these beautiful things? Don't you wish for your partner to be happy and well? One person cannot and should not offer everything to their partner. One connection does not undermine other connections.
Connection is not a limited resource. Time? Energy? Yes--those are limited resources that we offer first to the ones we have found ourselves in love with or committed to. These are worth disputing. But connection itself is not threatened by other connections. If another person makes our partner feel whole, inspired, or cared for, our partner is going to be in better shape to offer us what we need too. A foundation of trust and communication helps us make way for connection.
Even if your partner connects beautifully and sincerely with someone else and decides to leave you--it either means something wasn't working in your relationship, or something simply clicked better between them. If it's sincere love, it's best to let your partner leave you and let that happen, even if it devastates you. If they are chasing after attachments, you're better off letting that person run off anyway--they will probably just do this again and again, making a mess of things by mistaking attachment for connection.
Every partnership requires its own ongoing discussion of terms and boundaries. We're all nuanced, imperfect, conflicted, and multi-dimensional. But if we are really open, honest, and trusting with our partners, understandings over matters like friends of the opposite sex and exes only bring us so much closer together--plus, its not just fulfilling and connective to give and receive respect and trust, it's also sexy. And don't we all want that? ;)
Most of all, though many of us have forgotten: we all want to feel genuinely loved, and love can take a wide wide variety of forms. It doesn't need to be forced to be a certain way--can't we just accept it as it comes?
Photo: Wandering Albatross by Ed Dunens
A series about connection vs attachment.
Part 1: Is this connection or Attachment?
Part 2: Love & Jealousy: Connection or Attachment?
Part 3: Morality: Connection or Attachment?
Part 4: Possessiveness of Connection
Part 5: Fear of Connection
Part 6: What to do With Your Attachments
Author's note: I didn't write this because I think you don't know the difference between connection and attachment. I wrote this because even though we all have a sense of this, it can be difficult to grasp, make sense of, or put into words. I've taken the time to outline this topic because that kind of thing is fun and interesting to me, and I hope that this post can serve as a reference point for any one of us to turn to (I know I will), to be reminded, to support clear thinking, and to bring some structure to the mind when it becomes wound up in itself.
You know that state you get into within your mind that feels very push-and-pull? Or like spinning wheels cycling anxiously with no sign of a solution emerging?
One of the worthwhile questions I ask when I find myself caught in an inner struggle about something or someone is, "Is this connection or attachment?"
This question is clarifying because it helps us make an important distinction. In literal, physical terms, "connection" and "attachment" may be interchangeable. But in personal, emotional contexts, they are definitely distinguishable. Discerning them is an art, requiring inner listening and experience, but once we begin to make that inquiry, it's not so difficult--and we get better at it with practice.
Connection feels mutual and meaningful (even if it isn't entirely positive), and feels like an authentic exchange. On the other hand, attachment comes with feelings of resistance, fear, self-interest, and insecurity, and it tends to feel more tense and isolating. Connection happens when we relate to something or someone as they are in the moment. Attachment happens when we relate to something or someone with an idea of how we want it or them to be. Connection brings us closer, regardless of physical distance; attachment drives us apart, regardless of proximity.
You can feel a connection with a place that you have experienced a meaningful moment in. You can connect with a person over shared fears, or dreams, or humor. You can feel connected with yourself--attuned to what's taking place physically, intellectually, creatively, and emotionally. You can feel connected with songs that resonate with you, foods that remind you of loved ones, and you can connect with living beings wildly different from you, recognizing your shared ephemeral time on this planet. The possibilities for connection are diverse and probably limitless.
True connection is not threatened by other connections. For example, if you have a connection with someone, it is not diminished if many other people have a connection with them too. It is not relative. It is unique and it upholds itself. Like love.
Attachment feels narrow and tense. It comes with an anxiety about wanting things to be a certain way. Attachment triggers our neuroses, makes us feel a need to self-protect, and shuts down optimistic and trusting outlooks. It often has to do with the urge to protect our image of ourselves. And it often drives us to grasp for power, to control, and diverts us from forming a truly healthy, inspiring relationship. It is relative--it begs for comparison and hierarchy. Like jealousy.
So when I'm getting worked up about something, the question "is this connection or attachment?" usually immediately softens me, as I realize, "ah--attachment." The beauty of attachment is that it begins to dissolve when we recognize it for what it is. We realize that the cause of our suffering is not the subject we are concerned about, but rather our relationship to it. This is liberative--it means that I don't necessarily have to change my external reality or others' minds. I just have to adjust my perspective. And maybe that isn't exactly EASY, but its entirely possible. Our perspectives and relationships are always subject to change.
Connection is flexible and spacious. It allows for time and distance to grow between subjects without altering the fundamental elements that draw them together. Connection is patient; we can be apart from something, someplace, or someone for a long time, return to them very changed, and still touch into something familiar, something shared.
We can bring this concept to a great variety of contexts. When a commercial comes on selling a product to improve your body--is the seller playing into your attachments to make money off you? Or is this a sincere gesture to support your connection with yourself? When your partner asks you not to spend time with a friend of the opposite sex, is that an expression of their connection with you? Or their attachment? When you seek companionship with someone out of a craving for validation, does that affect your connection with them? I'm not suggesting an answer one way or another to any of these. Good followup questions to clarify these, are, simply: are you present? and is this interaction oriented toward mutual good and understanding?
Of course, when the question involves another person, connection is very much a two-way street. Even if you are sincere, trusting, and well-intentioned, you may make little impression on the other person. The potential bridge between you needs to be constructed from both ends.
The point is not necessarily to let go of all attachments--and don't worry if it's SUPER HARD or impossible to face up to some of them. You're human, I'm guessing. Don't be hard on yourself or take it to mean you are a bad person. But identifying our attachments can spare us a good deal of struggle and wasted energy, and free us to refocus on genuine connection. Connection with others is easier when we establish and cultivate it with ourselves. So perhaps next time you find yourself upset about something, or feel caught up in cycles of the mind, maybe ask this question, and see what happens next.
Photo: Oliver Dunkley
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Pattern Shift explores, among other things, how meditation can support emotional intelligence and connection, and also seeks to support cultural change. This article touches on what it takes to have meaningful, connective conversation between men and women. Communication involves both emotional intelligence and connection, and is linked to cultural and personal perceptions. The content posed below of course does not pertain exclusively to women; this is simply the perspective I can speak authentically from. Please comment if you have a different perspective to share.
I was sitting on the patio of a local Santa Cruz brewery with a close girlfriend, drinking lemonade of all things. I had just met her (male) friend. They were both enjoying IPA's, like normal people do at a brewery. Anyway, those details are just to set the scene; what I really want to share is that this happened:
*Male friend gets up to order another beer*
Me: "Did you notice how he constantly cut you off?"
Me: "You never even got a chance to tell your story. Meanwhile he told three."
It's surprisingly easy to end up in an unequal conversation and feel like everything is relatively normal. But when you start paying attention, things become obvious. When you are talking with someone who respects you and is aware of the way their words and presence affect you, there can grow a sense of trust, comfort, and openness. When we feel comfortable and trusting, the mind can be more dynamic, more open, and more creative. Talking to these people is one of my favorite ever things to do, because we inevitably encounter new perspectives, unexpected connections, and hilariousness. Afterward, I feel connected to that person, inspired, and fulfilled.
Unfortunately women endure plenty of condescension, interruption, explanation of how things work, ideas about what is good for us and what we should do and think, and how we should feel. Plus, bonus inappropriate comments and advances! And it's all too normal. Ironically, men who declare themselves to be good at talking to people often are not, while those who don't make comments about or think much of their conversational skills are quite good. You don't need to read a book or take a course to be a good conversationalist. It's just about sincerity and taking an interest in what others have to say.
When I'm listening to men, the most obvious sign that they are connecting with me as an equal is that their sentences sometimes end in question marks. Another indicator is if I am listening proportionately to talking. Interruptions are another clue as to what's going on. They are normal in conversations; they can be a nervous habit or can even be fun and connective, but when experienced repeatedly they are wearisome and reveal the lack of connection taking place. Talking to a woman as a man requires skill and awareness. Many people who think they have this skill do not. Many who think they do not, actually do, simply because their ego is uninvolved.
Honestly, I didn't notice how lopsided many of my conversations were until I was 25. Meditation was beginning to help me to be more aware of what was happening in conversations--in the past I had been rather overstimulated by most conversations, and the anxiety made it difficult to see what was taking place from a broader perspective. I was too easily carried away by others' words and couldn't notice subtleties. New awareness, nurtured by meditation, raised new insights. (Get started with meditation today.)
Part of the trouble is actually rooted in the beautiful fact that that many women are natural listeners. We tend to be curious about others' experiences and perspectives and thus leave space for the people around us to express themselves. The problem with conversations in which the woman is predominantly a receiver is that they include the implicit message "you do not have insight to offer on this topic." This is not always done consciously. People are almost always unaware of the biases they embody. Because the bias is not explicit, it actually works more effectively. It can't be easily noticed and defended against. It just works its way in to our subconscious. You don't think, "hey in most of my conversations with men I only talk 30% of the time!" You just absorb that fact into your schema of the world and your place in it. So the subtle bias generates an underlying, difficult to recognize or address sexism that both parties take part in, and the woman is liable to internalize an idea about herself that is less than equal to the person who is talking to her. Needless to say, the man's subconscious assumption that the woman doesn't have something to offer is incorrect. Anyone can contribute something to any topic, even one they know nothing about--they can relate it to something they are familiar with, and that connection might actually end up being very helpful to the other person because it provides something different from their own stale thought process.
It's important to note that there is always a second (or perhaps first) "conversation" between two people that takes place in between the lines. It begins with either an assertion of power or an extension of respect. The difference becomes very easy to identify when you start to contextualize your everyday conversations like this.
So here's my 30-second guide to talking to women, order irrelevant:
From one woman's perspective:
Photo credit: blazouf