Year To Live Project: Blindfolds & The Maserati Part 2 – Balance Points

Welcome back to the rolling hills of the picturesque Ojai Valley. Eighteen men have gathered for a weekend workshop on understanding the masculine through movement. Our instructor, Steve James, spent the morning having us play with physical movement patterns while instilling visceral lessons on the power of deep relaxation and staying present in the face of pain. Next, my new Australian heartthrob, Maserati Mark, and the lot of us headed outside to see what was in store for us.

That’s when the blindfolds came out, and we were ushered into the yard of our teacher, Michaela Boehm. The blindfolds were here to teach us about trust, communication, and relationship. Outside we went to join the chickens, pigs, and horses that adorn Michaela’s scenic property.

Balance Is Equal Parts Give & Take

Our first assignment was to find a partner and use each other to create “balance.” Standing in front of each other, blindfolded and at arm’s length, Maserati Mark and I fumbled to join our right hands together in a handshake grip. Then, with both feet planted on the ground, each man leaned back until the tension of the lean met in our clasped hands. If one of us leaned too far back, our partner would be pulled off center. If we didn’t give enough tension in return, our partner would fall back. Our lack of sight accentuated our need to breathe, relax, and feel what the other was doing. I fell all over the place, and things were just getting started.

From there, the assignment became more complex. We had to raise one foot off the ground while keeping the same arm tension between us. Simultaneously providing a balance point for a partner while also using them as a balance point was comedy in motion. We each raised one foot off the ground and balancing became nearly impossible. Then we had to stick a leg out to the side. Then the leg went behind us. Then we used it to make circles in the air. Comedy ensued more often than balance was established.

The real challenge came a few minutes later, when instead of linking hands to provide support, we had to each lean forward and touch our foreheads together. Balancing blindfolded by only making forehead contact proved nearly impossible as we each again raised a foot, moved it to the side, stuck it behind us, made circles, and then tried all the same with the opposite leg. I can only imagine what the neighbors must have thought watching eighteen blindfolded men try to stand on one leg connected via the face to another man. Maybe this was all a disguised exercise in humility, or a future YouTube hit.

What we learned was that a relationship, any relationship, creates its own balance point. That balance point is separate from the individual balance points of the participants in that relationship. There’s you, me, and we. The we is its own animal.

Sometimes you pull me off center, and sometimes I pull me off center. Sometimes I pull you off center, sometimes you pull you off center. Sometimes you disappear, and I’m left to find a brand new balance point (yea, I got that one already). Sometimes I do the same, though. The relationship is its own entity that we both can influence but that needs its own ground.

The only way to let the relationship balance point exist was to give up control. To hold my own balance point, to breathe and let be what would be. I could not save my partner from falling once he passed his tipping point, nor could I hold on to him too tightly or his own balance would fail. It was all give and take, take and give. It was never exactly 50/50, nor was any one position held for long. Change was constant. There’s much to be learned from standing on one leg blindfolded with another man.

Control Is An Illusion

Moving back into the studio space, I was given a new partner, one who was not blindfold as I was. The next assignment had a single rule – follow only your partner’s instructions to navigate the room and find an orange that had been placed somewhere on the floor. Being blind we had no way to find the orange other than to listen directly to our partner, and he could not touch us, only give verbal commands. Our partners were in complete control. As a moderate-to-severe control freak, I immediately hated this exercise.

We all lined up at one end of the room and when given the go-ahead had to listen to our partners guide us to our respective oranges.

We started the exercise and guess what? I was a complete mess. Yep, I felt abandoned. Completely left out in a landscape where I was nothing but vulnerable. Why was I such a mess? Why had I gone from 175 pounds of rough and tumble (I hadn’t shaved in like three days) to feeling like a blind baby mole searching for a teet in this cold, unforgiving world. Here’s why.

Before the start command was given, to both my right and left, I had heard other partners talking to their blindfolded teammates. They were passing on preemptive instructions, assurances that all would be well, that they’d step in if there was danger of bumping into someone or hitting a wall. I got none of those things. I tried to dismiss my feelings of abandonment and fear as “irrational” i.e. “things women and children feel,” but they were more than real. On a deep level, that’s exactly how I had felt – abandoned before we had even begun. Great. Just fucking great.

Although it was just an exercise, I immediately understood the translation into a relationship. When we had to repeat the orange retrieval a few minutes later, we first let our partners know how they could support us better, and I explained my fear. Hearing my partner say, “Ok, I know you can’t see a thing, but don’t worry, I got you. I won’t let anything happen to you and I’ll be here the entire time,” took away all of my anxiety and let me explore the room without trepidation. I went from terrified and lonely to amused and adventurous with one sentence uttered by my partner. One sentence. One that could be boiled down to three words, “I got you.”

To physically “feel” what it was like to not have that initial support was an eye-opener for me. To feel the anger around the fear that arose from that lack of support was also muy interesante. To feel all of that, despite my head knowing I was in a completely controlled environment with vigilant teachers and other friendly participants, opened my mind up to how vulnerable everyone in a relationship will feel at times. Everyone.

At the start of this exercise, my partner was no more than twelve inches behind me. But he couldn’t have felt any further away once I questioned his commitment to my safety, even though for him it was there all along. It felt like shit, viscerally, to not feel he was there for me. There was even a frigid temperature to it. Like he had been replaced by a sheet of ice on my back.

Message received. In a successful relationship our partners need to know there is abundant support available for them. They know this by both our words and our actions. Both are equally necessary. As a partner, it’s also vital that we ask for the support we need if we don’t feel its presence. My partner didn’t know what I was feeling until I told him, and when I did, he said the words that let me know what had been there all along but that I had not felt.

Learning To Be Direct & Speak Your Mind

The tables were then turned and not only did I have to guide my partner, but the game got leveled up. Instead of finding a lone orange in our enclosed room, I had to guide my partner out the door of the studio, to a couch where he would have to put his shoes on, down a flight of steps, to the end of a driveway, back and around through the yard of the property, back to the couch to de-shoe, and then back inside.

The instructions were the same. I could not physically touch him unless he was in imminent harm. He would not move without my say-so and would only do so in the manner I dictated. I was wholly responsible for his direction, safety and wellbeing. As a moderate-to-severe control freak I loved being on this side of the coin.

Out the door he went, to the couch, and down the stairs, to the end of the driveway, back around the yard, and safely inside. I had masterfully guided him through the exercise with skill, aplomb, and articulation. I give instruction for a living, so this was like  a work of art. I could as good as taste the victory bowl of McConnells ice cream waiting at home.

When it was time to hear feedback on my performance it was framed on a one-to-ten scale of how safe my partner had felt with me guiding him. I was given a six.

Well spank me cross-eyed. I was thinking I earned somewhere between 9.75 and 9.99, but a fucking six?

Here’s what he said:

“I appreciate you saying you would be there for me throughout the whole thing before we started. That was great. But when someone was walking right at me you just said, ‘Hold up there’s someone coming at you.’ You didn’t tell me to raise my arms to protect my face, you didn’t say you were stepping between us, you didn’t say anything other than telling me I was in danger. I’m blind! I can’t see anything and you know someone is walking right at me. Just because you know I’m safe doesn’t mean I know. You have to close a loop like that if you’re going to open it. ‘Hey you’re in danger, but…’ Then tell me what you’re doing about it or what I can do about it. Don’t leave me flapping in the wind.

Also, you wrote me a Stephen King novel. Don’t say, ‘Move your left foot approximately four inches to the one o’clock position. Just tell me to ‘step left.’ By the time I hear ‘four inches and one o’clock’ I’m halfway through the motion already and get the qualifiers when it’s too late. If you want me to do something, be concise about it. You get a six.”

Oh man. Now my feelings were hurt. I winced. I didn’t cry, but lesser men probably would have. Good thing I hadn’t shaved and was wearing a tight t-shirt.

Another huge lesson learned via the blindfold. What I can see clearly my partner may not be able to see at all. Just because I know something to be true, she may not until I show her with conviction. Just because I know she’s safe, she won’t feel it unless I come right out and not only say it, but demonstrate it. And I must do so with consistency. I definitely could have used a blindfolding prior to standing at the alter….blind to what I didn’t know I didn’t know.

The second point was equally powerful. Save the benevolently verbose linguistic acrobatics for writing. If I want something, come out and say it – directly. If I need something, verbalize it clearly and succinctly, and don’t package it behind the pseudo protective veil of extra language. It starts with ownership and then leads to expression. Own it, ask for it, say it. Got it.

You Can Learn Much While Blindfolded

The blindfolds added 50 shades of presence to the day, layers of presence whose absence was felt immediately as we took them off and had the distraction of site returned to us. Their true power though was literally, rendering us blind. Blind to all that our partners could see but we could not and visa versa – a true microcosm of being in relationship. It taught us that relatedness has as much to do with communication as it does trust and knowing what someone cannot see is as important, if not more important than what they can.

Fortunately Steve and Michaela weren’t done with the blindfolds. Now it was time to find Maserati Mark and hit the dance floor.

Check in next week as the story continues…

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