Year To Live Project: Intimacy School
Before taking my first grappling class, I “knew” how to fight. I was a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, after all. Then Mike Latch wiped the floor with me for an hour in Erik Paulson’s Shootfighting class at the Inosanto Academy. I went home to spend the rest of the day in bed alternating between light seizures and panic attacks trying to figure out what had just happened to me.
Now I know.
Before my first CrossFit workout, I “knew” how to train. I had been lifting weights for years and was fighting MMA, after all. Twenty minutes into the workout, I was puking on a tree outside of a home for seniors in Santa Monica while they watched in horror from their wheelchairs.
Now I know.
Before my marriage, I “knew” what intimacy was. I was into intimate shit like holding hands, saying “I love you,” and vigorous and athletic adult time, after all. Then my wife told me she was leaving in part because our union had no “real intimacy.”
Now I know that I don’t know.
Meet Michael Russer. Michael hasn’t come within a country mile of having an erection in years. He lost his prostate to cancer and with it his own outdated understanding of intimacy. He now teaches men and women the intricacies of both physical and emotional intimacy.
I had an erection when I woke up this morning (January 18th – high five!), I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say it was impressive. What I didn’t wake up with was Michael’s acumen in the arena of intimacy. So I sought him out and asked him to teach me.
Everyone Needs A Coach
Michael and I actually met years ago in a coffee shop in Santa Barbara. He was curious about a chocolate bar I was selling with erectile dysfunction herbs in it. Years later while I was lying in the dirt of Nicaragua contemplating my own existence and recent marital explosion, I found an article Michael had written for The Goodmen Project on the nature of intimacy. I wrote to him. I explained my situation and what I hoped to learn from him, and he agreed to sit down and talk with me.
My desire was not to learn Michael’s form of esoteric sexual chicanery, although the idea of “unlocking the limitless female sexual energy,” as he describes it, did grab my attention. No, it wasn’t the physical I was after. I’m after intimacy.
Intimacy was not a subject taught in philosophy classes at Boston College, my alma mater. It never came up during my years of fighting. I don’t recall a class on it in all four years of acupuncture school. They never covered it when I got my L1 from CrossFit, nor at any of the numerous fitness seminars I attended afterward. I’m highly educated in a lot of realms, yet woefully under schooled in this arena.
Michael started in immediately on his area of expertise. “Ok, take all your clothes off,” he told me. “There should be nothing between us during this session.”
He then laughed himself silly at the saucer-plate size my eyes had opened to and told me he was kidding. Real funny. “Intimacy has nothing to do with what you’re wearing or not wearing, my friend,” he said. “Intimacy is a deep, abiding connection between two people – emotionally, spiritually, and lastly, physically.”
I followed up by mirroring back to him, “I understand it, Michael. It’s like when you’re choking the shit out of someone in jiu jitsu right? There’s a bond there.”
The next five minutes were spent with Michael lovingly shaking his head and reframing my approach to intimacy. I was told that my desire to “master intimacy,” to earn a “black belt in intimacy,” and become “intimate as fuck” were perhaps not the best approaches.
Maybe this whole intimacy thing was going to be more challenging than I had expected.
“Instead of mastery, be about ‘practice,’” Michael said. “Just like your meditation work, there is no goal. There is no end point. It’s a daily practice of becoming comfortable with uncertainty, becoming friends with it in fact. Certainty, especially with regards to partnership, is akin to seeing only the tip of an iceberg and insisting there is nothing beneath it. When, in fact, the vast majority of who your partner is, what he or she will share with you, and how deeply you can connect with each other all stems from your willingness to be uncertain. Certainty leads to labeling, and labeling blinds you to what’s under the metaphoric waters.”
Great. How can I be uncertain when I’ve dedicated so much of my life to being right? I’m a male Boehm. We haven’t been wrong for decades. It’s a matter of family pride. Intimacy may be the death of me.
Michael then went on to show me an image of a stool. The seat of the stool was labeled, “emotional intimacy,” and each leg had the respective words written on them: vulnerability, authenticity, and openheartedness. Each one a leg holding the seat of the stool arise.
My stomach got tight reading each leg. Where were physical strength, athletic prowess, skill with power tools, six-pack abs, and bank account girth? You know, the REAL pillars of masculine strength. The stuff that really turns women on. Enough of this bunny rabbit fluff and Nicholas Sparks horse pucky.
Still, I was there to learn and I know change doesn’t happen without change, so I kept quiet and listened intently. I was paying him, not the other way around, so I opened my mind.
Numb Nothing – Feel Everything
“Vulnerability is the willingness to feel absolutely everything,” Michael said. “To feel the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and everything in between.”
A year of sobriety had already taught me that numbing the painful parts of life also numbed the joyous parts, so this wasn’t a big leap. I’d spent equal time in the last year exploding with joy and crawling onto the bathroom floor to mourn the loss of a certain someone, so I got it. You can’t have the highs without the lows, and feeling them both means feeling alive. Feeling alive was the greatest gift I’d been given in 2015 and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
That being said, vulnerability is going to be a tough one for me. The more vulnerable you are, the closer someone gets to you. The closer they get to you, the more time you have to spend grieving on the bathroom floor when they leave. The Law of Impermanence says they’re all going to leave, sometimes without any real notice.
“Authenticity, Traver, is showing up and being real. It’s communicating exactly how you feel with no agenda or fear of the response. It’s also being able to share your needs and desires without any judgment about whether they are right or wrong,” Michael went on to explain.
The word “authenticity” was written across every one of the 250 journal pages I had written in Nicaragua after my life had dissolved earlier in 2015. Every page. Be who you are. Be comfortable with who you are. Never agree to be anything other than exactly who you are. This one I had down. I might not have had it this time last year, nor the years before, but I can choke the shit out of authenticity.
The last leg of the stool was “open heartedness.” This was described as the willingness to give and receive love unconditionally. This does not mean the absence of healthy boundaries. It means exactly what it says, being equally open to sharing love with your partner and the world as well as receiving it from both. It means believing when your partner says, “I love you.” It means putting your heart above your ego, feeling first, thinking second, if at all.
Being more a do-er than a be-er, I had to ask, “How do you do this? When I teach people how to lift weights, I show them what to do and have them practice. They can’t just think thoughts about getting stronger and expect results.”
His response was clear: “Breathe through your stomach all day. When you are around someone, feel them. Feel your love for them. And then, here’s some more homework for you. I want you to go up to a stranger, take a deep breath, look them right in the eye, and hand them one of these glass hearts and say, ‘I just want you to know you have a beautiful heart.’ Do all of that without expectation.”
What. The. Actual. Fuck.
“You want me to walk up to complete strangers and hand them a glass heart?” I replied in complete shock and horror. “I’m going to either get sued or shot, man. I’m a thirty nine year-old bald guy with jacked up ears, that in itself is super creepy. People don’t want me touching them.”
“Try it,” he said. “I try to do it every day as a practice. It opens my heart, it makes me tear up, and the reaction I get lets me know I’ve connected deeply with someone.”
Note: I agreed to try it for a few days and we’ll see what happens. If this blog turns into a Go Fund Me for either funeral or legal fees, you all read it here first.
Creating Presence & Space
Michael explained we would delve into the physical aspects of intimacy in our next session but left me with the following understanding:
Emotional intimacy is the foundation upon which being truly present, and therefore physically intimate, is possible. Without emotional intimacy, then the physical is perilously propped up by a house of cards. My presence would therefor create an invitation for my partner’s own presence – bolstering the foundation.
Emotional intimacy creates the presence and the presence provides a container of space. The stronger the container and deeper it is, the more colorful, textural, and flavorful, the relational magic we can create within that space – be that romantic or otherwise. Intimacy takes both parties, both people have to be willing to stand on the three legs of the stool for the magic to happen. For success, one personal can’t claim themselves intimate and demand it from the other…noted.
Without emotional intimacy though, the physical does not exist, regardless of my deadlift numbers, movement prowess, and sense of touch. Without any prowess for that matter.
Graduating beyond a white belt in intimacy feels a lot like learning to play the guitar. Underwater. While blindfolded. Perhaps not something accomplished all in one day.
Practice, presence, vulnerability, and authenticity are themes repeatedly appearing on my Year to Live journey. Are they the key to healing the wounds of our lives? Are they the keys to true happiness? Can intimacy be taught? And if it can, why isn’t it given the importance of it in our lives and given the current statistics on divorce and relational happiness?
Comment below with your own thoughts on the power of the above mentioned themes.