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My Personal Route to No More Bullshit – The Path of Love


4 Minute Read

I should have known that something like this would happen. I know that my life operates in seven-year cycles and it was true that I had been wondering what was going to happen on the next stage of my journey as I hit 49. I just hadn’t seen this one coming.

I got fired from the job that I loved. I was bereft. So much of my identity had been wrapped up in this role that I had enjoyed. I threw myself into other activities and rebalanced my working life to take advantage of new opportunities, but I was rattled inside and my body was acting up. Problems with my teeth and gums erupted, a sure sign that all was not well in my inner world.

In the midst of this an old friend from Australia came to stay with me. ‘You need to do The Path of Love,’ she said. ‘What is it? I asked not unreasonably. ‘You don’t need to know…I’ll sign you up.’ – came the response.

Six weeks later, I found myself outside a country house retreat centre in Somerset and somewhat nervously registering for the course and handing over the course fee. I didn’t know (didn’t want to know) much about the process, but of course that part of me that resists change and totally prefers the comfort of the known was tugging at me and imploring me to drive back home to London.

As I stepped into the seven-day residential retreat, I felt a familiar mix of terror and excitement. Even though I do this work for a living – I am a psychotherapist – the prospect of stepping out from behind that convenient mask and showing up with all my fears, feelings and failings was daunting.

I was right to be daunted because what transpired as the process unfolded – was that I had somehow been guided to what must be the most challenging, terrifyingly beautiful and transformative pieces of group work in the world today. There was nowhere to hide. My customary bullshit wasn’t any use to me.

My fear is that if I show people who I really am and what truly happens inside me then I will be judged, rejected and even scorned. But what actually happened was the more I and the members of my group revealed the truth about ourselves to each other (and especially the dark bits) the more trust developed between us. The more that trust developed, the more able I felt to go deeper. To be able to stand in the truth of who I am and to be received with no judgment and with love and compassion was extraordinary.

Then there was my body. Like a lot of men, I have a somewhat distant relationship with the seven eighths of me that resides below my neck. Like a lot of men, I was brought up and educated to believe that my brain would be the organ of my salvation – the doorway to life satisfaction, wealth and learning. I was mistaken.

Over the seven days of the Path of Love, I learned that my body has wisdom of its own and of course had been my constant companion for the last 49 years. A lifetime of repressing emotions – a survival strategy learned at boarding school at eight years old – meant that a lot had been stored in my body. Powerful meditations involving intuitive movement and inspiring music allowed me to start releasing some of these feelings – I cried, I ranted, I prayed, I rejoiced.

Finally, I reached an ineffable place of such deep stillness and calm that I honestly felt ready to die. I remember thinking about my wife and children and how they would miss me, and I them…but the pain associated with that thought was so slight that it felt like I had been given a glimpse of a liminal space between life and death. It was a profound gift that has stayed with me to this day.

I was so impressed with the work and the people who delivered it that I applied to join their team and was accepted and trained. Over the last five years, I have facilitated and then led the Path of Love process. It challenges, excites and delights me, and I find it a privilege to accompany other people through their journeys of transformation…each person different…each path unique. There is still no room to hide, as the course leaders and everyone who works with us are constantly working on ourselves and showing up in truth and authenticity. How can we ask others to do this if we are not prepared to do it ourselves?

What I have discovered, and what I take away each time I lead this process, is that human beings are wired for connection and cooperation. We need each other. We need to share our inner fears, wounds and darkness with each other, and it brings us closer together. It creates bonds of trust, compassion and love. We need these things. Separation makes us sick, and sickness is all around us.

The first Path of Love to be run in London is March 1 – 8th 2018. More info www.pathretreats.com
Simon Matthews is a psychotherapist and Path of Love Leader.

AofA Interview: Samantha & Paul Evans – Founders of JoDivine, Online Sex Toy Shop


10 Minute Read

Samantha & Paul Evans are the owners of JoDivine, a sex toy shop that only sells skin safe products,  because they know they promote better sexual health and pleasure.

Samantha is a former nurse with a particular passion for helping their customers enhance their sexual pleasure through the use of sex toys and lubricant.

Q. What was it that led to you starting Jo Divine?

Sam: The idea actually came about after noticing Passion Parties springing up in the U.S. These were events where women came together to learn about products of a sexual nature, such as sex toys, dildos, etc. We thought the idea might work with couples but, after focus testing it with our friends, nobody was interested! At the same time, I’d come across a natural lubricant called yes that had completely transformed my sex life with Paul as I’d had some sexual health problems after using some of the brand names lubes that contained all sorts of ingredients such as glycerine that hadn’t agreed with me at all. I became evangelical about the yes lube (and still am)!

Paul was looking to change from working in computing and, between the two of us, we decided to set up a toy shop, initially just selling one product, the Lelo Gigi, which was one of the first toys to use a skin safe silicone. It’s a new, velvety material that is soft to the touch and slightly pliable. For a long time, sex toys were either made of jelly, rubber or latex which can all be washed but are all porous so absorb bacteria and degrade. Both Paul and I were both adamant we wanted to educate people not just about sex toys and lubes but about making sure that the products they bought were not going to harm them in any way. We’re still the only one in the market that will only sell skin safe sex toys and natural lubricants.

Q. What’s your most popular item?

Sam: The Picobong Zizo, a great first-time vibrator, battery operated and great for helping women with gynae issues too along yes organic lubricants. I say it’s great for first-time users because it’s a normal penis shaped product, skin safe and reasonably priced. Our customers tend to be 40+, many much older and often with no experience of using a sex toy. For some of them, they’ve come to us because their partner has died and they want to pleasure themselves. As a former nurse, I’m used to talking to people about intimate topics and I find many of our customers open up to us about their sex lives. I’ve come to understand that there are a vast number of women who, for instance, have never had or know about clitoral orgasms and so I feel it’s partly my job, in selling them their first toy, to discuss the kind of pleasure they’re seeking as everyone is so different in this regard.

Q. Do you think there’s a stigma about bringing toys into the bedroom?

Sam: For some, there will always be a stigma but attitudes are changing, sex toys are in mainstream media and people recognise that sex toys can enhance their relationship. Sex and the City certainly helped in educating people in their 40s and 50s but, sadly, everyone seems to associate sex toys solely with the Rampant Rabbit when, in fact, there are thousands of toys on the market!

Paul: You will always have men for whom the idea of a penis shaped toy can be seen as threatening but most don’t have a problem with their partner using a bullet (a small vibrator) shaped toy or something like the Lelo Lily (a pebble-shaped vibrator) to stimulate their clitoris while they are having penetrative sex.

Q. I remember a time when the idea of men using sex toys and suchlike was considered deviant. Do you think that’s still the case? If not, what has changed?

Paul: Male sex toys will always be harder to sell as men have a right hand. There is still an expectation that men are always ready for sex which often isn’t the case. We have found that women will buy a product for themselves then buy one for their male partner when they receive our catalogue – his and her sex toys.

Our most popular male sex toy is the Hot Octopuss Pulse III. This is a bendable sleeve that features deep vibrations that give men a different kind of sensation than using their hand or being inside their partner. It feels more like a massage than in being stroked or using a sleeve-shaped sex toy like the Fleshlight, for instance. And it’s very effective for men who may suffer from Erectile Dysfunction too.

Q. What do you recommend for customers who have not purchased a toy before?

Sam: Don’t assume bigger is better, choose skin safe products and always buy good quality lubricant to use with the product. Give us a ring to discuss what you’re looking for as we’re always happy to speak to our customers.

Before spending your money familiarise yourself with the products available to understand what type of toy you want. What do you want it for, external or internal stimulation or both, for couples play, solo play?

Q. You run the shop with your husband. How has that impacted on your relationship?

Sam: We work together every day from our home so sometimes work invades our personal life, you don’t get a break but it’s fun, we get on, we talk all the time and because we have the same/similar ideas for the business we don’t have to explain to each other what we mean or want.

Paul: We do disagree at times but having been married for 20 yrs what couple doesn’t?? Having access to lots of sex toys and discovering yes organic lubes our sex life has improved too! Sex has always been a very important component in our marriage so we actually enjoy bringing our work home with us!

Q. How can couples introduce the idea of using toys in their relationship?

Sam: Talk to each other, discuss what they would like to try, don’t just surprise your partner, we have had a few returns because it is an unwanted gift! If you struggle to orgasm through penetrative sex suggest a small bullet/clitoral vibrator, easy to slip between you and use during intercourse. Check out websites together to discover what you would like to try together. If you do want to surprise your partner, choose something small and unintimidating.

Q. There are so many sex toy shops on the net now. How do you remain relevant to your customers?

Paul: We believe we are unique in being the only sex toy company still in business after 10 years who only sell skin safe products. This is something we are passionate about but has held back our progress at times as far too often people only look at product price and do not consider the impact a bad product could have on their health.

We also offer a huge amount of online sexual health and pleasure articles in our magazine and spend time advising and educating our customers and healthcare professionals on the phone and via email too.

Being independent we offer personal customer service and can advise about the majority of our products because we’ve tried them. We’d rather have satisfied customers who will return to buy another product rather than end up with someone who has a product they cannot use.

Sam: Using my nursing background we also work with many healthcare professionals in the NHS and private practice who recommend our products and articles to their patients to help them overcome sexual issues and enjoy a better sex life. We even created a health brochure with our local hospital which is now given out across the UK by many healthcare professionals.

Q. How can using toys help older people improve their sexual health?

Sam: Having many older customers we know that using a vibrator can keep things working. Use it or lose it! Vaginal dryness, tightness and decreased sexual sensation are part of the ageing process and menopause yet using a simple sex toy and pH balanced sexual lubricant can really help.

Many women buy their first vibrator from us. Some buy them to help gynae issues or when their partner has died or their relationship has broken up. We have many customers in new relationships who haven’t had sex for years and want to resume it with a new partner so buy a slim vibrator to get back in the sack.

Paul: Vibrating cock rings are ideal for men who struggle to maintain an erection or to help them last longer by restricting the blood flow out of the penis. The Bathmate can help treat erectile dysfunction, but being an exerciser it can also help prevent it in the first place.

The Hot Octopuss Pulse III is an amazing male vibrator that can be sued with a flaccid or erect penis using pulse plate technology.

Q. How important do you think sex is in a relationship?

Sam: For many sex is important and when it changes or is affected by illness, disease, or the ageing process relationships can break down. It makes you feel good, releasing endorphins that improve your mood, boost your immunity, helps you to sleep, makes you look younger.

It is a choice and there is no normal sex, it can be hard when sex drives are mismatched which is when sex toys can really help.

Q. Since the advent of 50 Shades and similar books, do you find more older people are requesting products that reflect BDSM scenarios?

Paul: It isn’t a huge part of our business but we have been pleasantly surprised at the response when we recently added some new bondage products to our brochure.

Q. I know quite a few people who don’t feel that toys have a place in their relationship. Why do you think that is?

Sam: Shame, embarrassment, upbringing and the view that they will replace a partner or be better than them. They still have the image of seedy sex shops in Soho but sex toys have moved on from horrible jelly products, although they still remain in places, to beautifully designed quiet products made from high-quality materials and many of which don’t even look like a sex toy.

Q. What specific toys would you recommend for men & women 50+.

Sam: There is no specific toy, however using a vibrating cock ring can help men maintain an erection and offer clitoral stimulation, the Satisfyer is great for women with decreased sexual sensation. It uses suction and vibration rather than direct stimulation. And the Bathmate, although not a sex toy promotes erectile function. For women struggling to orgasm through penetrative sex, a simple bullet is ideal too and inexpensive.

Q. What’s your favourite toy?

Sam: Can I have several as no one toy satisfies all my needs! Satisfyer Pro 2, Mimi Soft, Mio, Doxy, Bathmate, Pulse.

The one thing we use every time during sex is yes lubricant.

Q. What has been your family’s reaction to running a sex toy shop? How has it impacted on your children’s lives?

Sam: The children are all teenagers and our daughter is now 18. They go with the flow, they’ve told a few friends, some who thought we were spies as our daughter said she couldn’t talk about what we did, other friends have said “we’re cool!”. She’s even written an article for her new website called “My Parents Sell Sex Toys”.

Paul: We don’t really talk about our work when we meet new people unless they are in the industry or healthcare professionals. When we do talk about it the majority of people are fine and interested in what we do especially about how we came to create Jo Divine and the health work with the NHS, although we have had a few people who didn’t believe that we owned a sex toy company!

You can find all the sex toys listed and more at Jo Divine.

Spiky Heels


1 Minute Read

I snuck back home
Like a cat
Through back alleys
Shiny with rain
Crept back to my boys
Noiseless, past bins

Spotted the odd cat
Slinking off round corners.
My shadow switching on security lights
Yellow, wet patches stretching ahead, then
Gone, they switch off, fade to gloom.
Unheard, unknown, untroubled,
Home.

And the high heels?
The click click click
Sharp reminder that a lone female
Is out at night, alone
Wending whither to wherever
Feeling vulnerable in the back alleys
Of a neighbourhood called home
Now
Dark and deserted.

So
No high heels.
I like my anonymity
Doing my thing, being who I am
Undetected
Without the dead giveaway
The difficult to wear, anyway
The penalty points
Those spiky heels.

The disadvantage of the enforced swivel
The forwards tip
The concentrated balance
The focus
The tell-tale
Click,click,click.

Forget running
Forget competing
Forget being comfortable
Forget feeling chilled
Laid back
In control.

Fucked, basically.
In spiky heels.

Moving into our Strengths – Work-wise


6 Minute Read

Last week I had dinner with my friend. We’d grown up together in the 1970s and 80s. We’d shared so much that I thought we knew each other really well. What she told me that night at dinner shocked me. She said she wished she’d never become a nurse. She said what she really wanted to do was drama. In my mind, she had always wanted to be a nurse and I remember her mum, having conversations about it. She wasn’t sure why her mum wanted that for her, but she did and Jane took on that aspiration as her own. She’s 52 now and has spent her entire career doing something that she didn’t really want to do.

I’ve heard variations on Jane’s story many times in the last decade during conversations about how we can inadvertently try to make us ourselves into something we’re not.

Have you ever been in a job that you feel is totally wrong for you, or maybe even less dramatically, do you just don’t really feel energised by the work you do?

Well, here’s the thing, we know from neurobiology that we are who we are by the time we’re in our mid-teens. After that we don’t change all that much. If we’re a person who loves to connect, we can’t help but stay that way. If we’re not a competitive person but are in a sales job, then no amount of coaching or training can make us into a competitive person. Yet, for the most part, this simple insight into human beings is lacking in schools, colleges, careers’ services and organisations in which we work. For some older people, it means that not only have they been disenchanted in their working lives, but also they face ‘retirement’ or at least a post-paid work phase with little idea of how to find meaning and satisfaction in life.

A strength is something that someone is naturally good at, loves doing and is energised by. Our values and our motivations are also our strengths. For example, great nurses are motivated by the values of making a difference and doing the right thing.

Our strengths are innate. They are developed by the time we reach our mid-teens. By then we are who we are and don’t change very much. We can learn new skills or acquire new knowledge but what we are like as a person fundamentally doesn’t change that much.

Many have little idea of who they really are, what they are naturally good at, what energises and motivates them and what really matters to them. In my parlance, they don’t know their strengths.

Without this fundamental understanding of ourselves, it’s always going to be hit and miss as to whether we find fulfillment. Or, like Jane, we might end up spending a good deal of time doing something that we’re okay at but just don’t love.

This work matters a lot to me because had I known about strengths when I was young I would have refused promotion into a job that I wasn’t cut out for and, in doing so, I would have saved myself a lot of frustration and unhappiness.

When I was in my 20s I was doing a fabulous job that I loved. I was a round peg in a round hole and I couldn’t wait to get to work every morning.

I was doing so well that I was promoted. The new job couldn’t have been a worse fit for me. I found it draining and I was just ‘ok’ at it, I definitely wasn’t great at it. Whereas my previous job had been so energising for me.

My confidence dropped and neither my boss nor I could really understand how it was that I was so vibrant and successful in my previous role but not in my new one. I had ticked all the boxes in the interview but it didn’t occur to any of us to ask whether it was actually a good fit for me.

Needless to say, I didn’t last long in that job. But it played in my mind – how could an organisation with such apparently sophisticated selection approaches have got it so wrong.

Now, almost thirty years later, thousands of people are still struggling being in a job to which they’re not suited and organisations are still inadvertently getting it wrong.

Had I known about the importance of strengths and discovered my own strengths years ago, I would have saved myself a lot of angst and made some better decisions.

It is very sad that the self-insight which is crucial to our happiness and wellbeing is as elusive in the under 20s as it is in the over 50s.

What I am talking about here – is knowing our strengths so that we can make choices that are right for us.

Think of your strengths as something that you can’t not do. They are the things that feel like a natural part of who you are. Have a think about what that means for you. What sort of things do you naturally do? So you almost always…talk to people in lifts, queues or on trains?

Have a list of things to do, even on weekends?

Strive to come first? See the problems that need solving?

If you said a big ‘yes, that’s me’ to any of these things, this an indication that this is one of your strengths or several of your strengths.

Using our strengths energises us. If you said a definite ‘no’ to any of these things, chances are it’s because it’s not a natural strength. These are the things you would probably avoid doing and if you did them, they would drain you.

Think of your strengths as the real you. The things that are naturally you, that you can’t not be or do, that you’re naturally drawn to.

Whatever your age I would heartily recommend investing some time discovering your strengths. It’s a simple exercise and the time spent is a fantastic investment as the self-insight serves as a guide as to what to spend your time doing (and just as importantly, not doing).

Doing what you love, having a purpose and enjoying the small things in life will help you to spend the rest of your days in ways you find meaningful and fulfilling.

Sally Bibb is the author of The Strengths Book: Discover How to Be Fulfilled in Your Work and Life. It was published last month and is a practical book that contains a series of exercises to discover your own strengths as well as advice about how to apply them in all aspects of your life.

The Healing Power of Being Able to Say Yes or No


6 Minute Read

When I was offered the chance to go Jan Day’s ‘Living Tantra’ one-day workshop in October, I snapped it up. The last time I’d been to one of Jan’s workshops was back in 2008, when we were filming it for a side project to the One Giant Leap movie documentaries. I’d had a great time, but as creative consultant on the project, I couldn’t fully immerse myself in the weekend. This time, I would be on my own and free to explore.

I arrived feeling relaxed and with no particular goal in mind, other than to enjoy myself and be open to whatever came up. As we waited outside the large sunlit room at the Study Centre in West London, I eyed my fellow participants with interest. It always fascinates me to see who’s attending any workshop I go to: is there a ‘type’, or even an archetypal workshop attendee? Broadly speaking, not really. There were people from all walks of life and ethnicity, ranging from their mid 20s to their late 60s. I suppose you could say that a unifying factor was that everyone seemed to be a bit nervous.

Now I don’t know if you agree, but I think one of the hardest things we encounter in life – apart from our relationship with ourselves – seems to be our relationship with other people. Yet the absolute fundamentals of relationship, especially intimate relationships – not just being able to say clearly and freely yes or no, but also being able to hear and receive a yes or a no – are skills that aren’t taught to us at school, or at any level afterwards. I say this because it seems most of us are so wounded that the devastating experience of hearing a no is something we avoid at any cost. It plugs us into our deepest fears of rejection, of not getting our needs met, of not getting what we want. It’s primal. I believe our society desperately needs the basic tools to be able to handle this and start healing these wounds.

In Jan’s workshop we explored these fundamentals, first through movement and then, in the afternoon, through touch. The first exercise was deceptively simple. After a warm-up, we formed two lines, women facing men, and the person directly opposite became our partner. We took it in turns to be a mover or a receiver. The receiver held their hands either open in a welcoming yes, or palms facing up and forward in a clear no. The mover then moved towards or away from the receiver, depending on what was going on for them. Throughout, we were instructed to remain conscious and focused on our feelings, what was going on inside us, and not to bother (if possible) about what was going on for the partner.

I could see on my female partners’ faces how intense this was for them. But I was thinking – hey, this is easy; I’ve got no problem with saying yes or no. It wasn’t until my third partner who did not move towards me once during the entire exercise that I started to feel my own wound opening up. It wasn’t easy to keep my arms open in a yes, when all the time I felt I was getting a no, or at best a circumspect maybe from my partner; but in doing so, it allowed me to feel my heart wound opening up inside me. The wound of rejection, of feeling unwanted, of not getting my needs met. I kept breathing and allowed the feelings to flow through me, without judging them. Afterwards we sat down and shared our experiences. My exercise partner said she could see me struggling with her not moving towards me, and how hard it was for her not to simply acquiesce in order to make me feel better. I felt so grateful to her for this, and to be reminded that everything starts with the pure power of an authentic yes or no.

I was so excited by this that I called my partner during the lunch break to ask her, in reference to a recent discussion we’d had, whether she could appreciate that when I said no, it was not a rejection. She said that she could.

In the afternoon, accompanied by the muted sounds of tube trains from beyond the large windows, we explored the yes and the no through touch. In groups of four we took it in turns to be the person in the middle who could control how, and where, we were touched by the others. This took the experience to an even deeper level; it was about being able to express truthfully not just a no – don’t touch me there, stop, pause, leave me alone – but perhaps even more profoundly, the yes: yes, I like that, yes, do it more, yes please. In the two minute warm up, I felt a bit uncomfortable being touched by these complete strangers and I could feel my body tensing up, but allowing myself the simple permission of being able to say stop, slow down, just one person, or no was a huge relief (afterwards, my partners in this process shared that it was a great relief for them too). The second time, which lasted about ten minutes, I relaxed into the process until I began to luxuriate in it. To be able to say truly – yes, I love this, all of you, please, do it more! – was liberating. I walked out of Jan’s workshop feeling like a million dollars.

It is only when we can trust someone implicitly that our relationships can truly flourish. And the foundation of this is authenticity. This means having the courage to say no, even when we feel we should be saying yes. It also means having the courage to receive a no, to really hear it. Because, as Jan explained, an authentic no is the greatest gift we can give the other; it brings clarity, truth and therefore healing. It is only from this point of complete honesty that we can build successful relationships. And this corresponds on every level – from our sexuality to our day-to-day communication.

In my life, it has taken me a long time to be able to say no, when my all my conditioning has been telling me to say yes. It’s often one of the hardest things to do. We are programmed to please the other, to seek reassurance and love from the other. We are so terrified of losing the approval of the other that we will often, if not always, say yes when we mean no. And this confusion fans out across society, meaning that abuse can flourish when the individual feels incapable of expressing their truth. All the recent revelations about the abuse that so many women have experienced (and men too,of course) highlighted by the #MeToo campaign are founded on this terrible fear: the fear of saying no, of hearing no and the terrible lack of clarity around the no. Boys and girls, men and women, all need to learn to hear and experience the no with confidence, with empathy and with understanding. If we can truly embrace this simple yet fundamental concept, we can finally blossom as a society. We can be confident in our relationships on every level, knowing that not only are we asking for what we actually want, but also expressing clearly what we don’t want. What could be simpler than that?

Tales of the Heart, literally


4 Minute Read

I am 74. I have always considered myself to be fit and healthy, even though I have been living with the consequences of a serious rock climbing injury for the last 20 years. I have followed a healthy diet and lifestyle: largely vegetarian, low alcohol consumption, not overweight, no drugs for the last 40 years, and high level of physical activity.

So, one day in July this year, I was shocked when swimming in the sea near my house in N Wales – to discover I could hardly catch my breath. And then the following day when I started to go up the stairs at home, I found myself struggling to get to the top without stopping. At that point, I chose to tell myself that age has finally caught up with me, whatever that was supposed to mean. Any crap rationalisation rather than consider myself to be less than a perfect specimen of humanity!

The next morning, when I struggled to get out of bed because I was so breathless, I took my pulse and fear shot through me as I registered how fast it was beating. Then, after an emergency visit to my GP, I am being whisked off to my local district hospital in an ambulance with flashing lights, feeling somewhat detached from it all.

When told I have heart failure with the left side of my heart working at less than 25% of its expected capacity, I refuse to take it in and incongruously argue that I am healthy. Part of my reluctance at this point is because two days later I am due to fly to Corfu to take part in a week-long group process: Tantra Mantra with my beloved. At this point, I desperately hold onto the belief that I am still going to make it.

All in all, after a week in hospital I am discharged feeling weak, with two pieces of metal scaffolding (stents) in one of my coronary arteries, which had become completely blocked up with fatty deposits. My heart lifted, and I felt like cheering towards the end of the stenting procedure when the artery reappeared on the monitor screen as it finally became filled again with blood, signalling that the operation, during which time I had been fully awake, had been a success. It took all of ninety minutes – the blockage had been a long one and it required clearing a little bit at a time to avoid any mishap. And my breathing was easier.

For the first four weeks, I had to take things very easily, and was not allowed to drive. Since then I have been making a steady recovery back to normal day to day life: looking after the large house and smallholding where I live, taking my dog for walks, even logging a large fallen oak tree using a chainsaw. This morning I went for a rather cold, even in full wetsuit gear, but enjoyable swim in the sea. It was the end of October.

Although I feel a lot better, I am taking a lot of medication to control cholesterol, thin my blood and slow down the heart and more. This is to prevent more blockages and clotting around the stents as well protecting my heart muscle while it heals. I am even following a more strict, self-imposed diet: cutting out almost all dairy, less sugar and taking specific heart associated supplements.

Until I get the results of the MRI scan, scheduled to happen end November, I am still being treated for heart failure. I am hoping then for confirmation of the improvement I feel. Of course, as Ischaemic Heart Disease is the number one killer in the Western world, it is not surprising that I have some definite anxiety around the outcome.

Whatever the outcome I have been prompted to take stock of my life: accepting my ultimate mortality and not knowing when that will be. And there have been positive developments: in my close relationships. My beloved tells me I am sweeter now than before all this happened, and my daughter says she likes spending time with me and appreciates me. She and I have a chequered relationship which has been very tense at times gone by. It is a great relief that it is so much better now.

On self-reflection, I have realised I can be kinder to myself and that means being kinder to other people around me. I live at a slower pace and rest most afternoons. I expect less of myself and of others. What’s the point of driving myself to an early grave while there is still so much to live for. I don’t know about being sweeter, but I do know I can choose to be harmonious in the way I interact with those close to me rather than being over-reactive. And this makes for a happier life in many ways. And with so much experience of living it is time to choose the easy option!

I now look forward to sharing simple pleasures with my beloved, leading to a deeper, soft connection, without needing the excitement that is so often associated with friction. I think it amounts to being in the heart rather than the head. I have been on this journey for the last four years since finding a new lover. Together we have been through several positive, life-changing experiences. This is just the latest.

What the Hell is Binaural Dating?


5 Minute Read

Binaural dating. #bethedate was the offer that came to my inbox. ‘Oh yes!’ I thought, ‘that sounds fun,…. an audio experience that looks at dating from the inside out. With a waiter that Waits and a Chef to guide you. What’s the worst that could happen?’

Well, the worst that could happen couldn’t possibly be worse than my own risible attempts. I tried a dating site once, wasn’t prepared to pay for a ‘proper’ dating site as I wasn’t terribly serious about finding a life partner. So I wasted a lot of people’s time chatting when all they wanted was sex. I thought I wanted sex too. I thought defining myself as ‘sapio-sexual’ would both narrow the field and ensure that I dated people (men actually) who were more interested in finding out what was in my head than in my pants. After a number of dates where exploratory snogging led directly to people (men actually) diving straight into my pants, I gave up on the dating game.

So, the promise of a date, based on a performance, which would not land up with me gratuitously sticking my tongue down someone’s throat (apparently I need little encouragement), or them prematurely diving into my pants (apparently they need little encouragement) sounded rather fun.

Who could resist an invitation that reads – ‘Part interactive performance, part dating agency, Binaural Dinner Date invites genuine applications from individuals looking for love, or existing couples who simply want a very different dating experience.’

Friday was date night! In the absence of actually having someone to date, I booked a ‘singles’ ticket. My friend Henni who plays violin with me at poetry performances booked too. Off I trotted to Gerry’s in Stratford, dressed almost for an actual date, but without the plunging neckline or the three layers of face paint, I navigated a packed overground, got lost in the Westville Centre and arrived hot, bothered and a little late just in time to be one of the last to be seated at a table. This was going well, almost as well as any actual date I had been on. I was joined by a very attractive and very female date. I think we both managed our disappointment rather well. To be honest, at least she wasn’t 5ft 7ins when she’d said she was 6ft 2ins or 52 when she’d said she was 45. This was already the most honest date I’d ever been on and we hadn’t even exchanged a word!

The Binaural Dating experience was a bit like those dating programmes where people who are hopeless at flirting are given instructions through headphones. Except we both had headphones on! We were both being given instructions! Even knowing this, I felt relieved to be divested of the responsibility of using my own tired dating script. The Chef was a lot funnier, more cruel and deliberate than I could ever be. Seven mins in, we had broken the ice. Seventeen mins in, we had asked each other some pretty deep and interesting questions. Thirty mins in, we were playing competitive games. Forty five mins in, we were co-operating. Each new item on the menu brought us closer together. I was asking and being asked questions, I would never have the courage, playfulness or imagination to ask on a first date. The waiter, as promised, was waiting. There was eye-contact, there was intimacy, and there was reassurance and connection. There has been a lot been written about intimate, participative and immersive theatres as antidote to the consumerist nature of capitalist cultural production. Modern dating apps tend to exacerbate problems of expendability and magnify the performative nature of romance, without critical awareness. At some point, I wondered vaguely if I could hire the Chef to accompany me on all dates to feed me some alternative narrative lines. This was a theatre which used dating as both metaphor and means. I had an esoteric teacher who used to claim that intimacy was about allowing people in: ‘In-too-me-see’. I’d rather go on a million dates like this; dates which are subversive enough to make me challenge my motives and the superficiality of my preferences and yet still provide me with a deeply intimate experience. After an hour of sitting across from and interacting with my date, I found that I had truly laughed, revealed, played and explored with a complete stranger.

Our clothes were still on, my tongue had not transgressed. Her hands had not travelled (this would not have been different if it had been a man!). I felt warm and squishy and more fully human and alive. I bought into the idea that love can heal our brokenness. Both Henni and I left wishing we had bought someone whom we fancied on this date. I hope fervently that Binaural Dating will be set up as an agency for reluctant daters or those wanting a a playful challenge to their tired dating scripts. I’m keen to go again.

It’s still on until the 2nd Dec. Book now. Go!

Binaural Dinner Date is on from the 30th Nov to the 3rd December. Tickets are selling fast! http://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on/all-shows/binaural-dinner-date#schedules

ZU-UK is run by creative directors Jaade Persis and Jorge Ramos. They run a collaborative theatre making MA in conjunction with the University of East London and also run frequent professional development courses for artists interested in performance, technology and collaboration.

Debra Watson is a participative theatre practitioner, media facilitator and poet. Visit her at: www.debrawatsoncreative.com

A Brief Return to Craigslist


1 Minute Read

I have a love/hate relationship with Craigslist, the American noticeboard with sections devoted to job, property, services and dating. I love, well, its randomness, the way it always manages to turn up someone somewhere who can quash a bug on my website or make my PowerPoint presentations shine. I hate how finding those people often means having to wade through the dozens of imposters, con artists and fantasists who use the site. Still I am loyal; at least from time to time.

Recently I did use it for something mutually beneficial. While searching for an interior designer who wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg, I discovered one who refused to charge me on the understanding she could showcase the work as a way of achieving her British Institute of Interior Design qualification.

And then there’s the sex stuff – mutually beneficial but for different reasons altogether.

Eight years ago, before Tinder arrived on the scene and stole some of Craigslist’s thunder, Craigslist was an easy way to find local travel guides with special ‘perks’. I was in my mid-forties at the time, visiting Rome. I encountered one very nice young man who travelled all the way from Naples to Rome to meet me and show me around the city. He arrived, took me for a walk around the Coliseum and then, in my 5-star hotel room, he performed his final generoso—making me squirt all over the 400-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets. Craigslist had its purpose back then, it made business trips more fun.

Given my happy history with Craigslist, on the first day of spring, when the sun was shining brightly, the daffodils were in bloom and even complete strangers smiled at me while shopping on Kilburn High Road, I decided to throw the dice and post a personal on Craigslist. I was horny and was hoping to find, if not a partner, at the very least a shag.

Having just attended a workshop at the UK Dating Fair the weekend previously, entitled “Who Am I Compatible With?” a class that encouraged us to seek partners with shared values (apparently, it’s a myth that opposites attract), I was inspired to make my desire clear from the start:

Dominant, tall, slim man (45+) sought by confident, attractive woman.

 I listed the attributes I was seeking: someone older, wiser, perhaps semi-retired, a lover of good food and wine and travel. I mentioned that I generally identified as submissive but leaned towards being a take-charge person in my day-to-day life. I specified no toy boys or married men, knowing from past experience, on Craigslist at least, that many men tended to skip the ad’s text and go straight to the image. I’d posted “no one under 40” and within five minutes received dozens of messages from Millennials telling me I was the perfect vehicle for their MILF fantasy.

In my ad, I requested that the man have all his own teeth and was able to write in full sentences, and I made a point of noting that I preferred men who looked after their bodies. “Most importantly,” I added, “you do not take yourself too seriously, are naturally curious about the world and interested in what others have to say.”

I pressed submit and, as has been my experience in the past on this site, within a few minutes the replies came flooding in.

There were the usual rejectees: men who couldn’t spell or who used text speak, recent college grads my own sons’ ages, and guys who provided a cock shot, a phone number, and nothing else. However, there were also half a dozen that stood out. They included a 45-year-old firefighter who claimed to be in ‘good shape.’ I was suspicious, given my CL experience with men and knowing that “good shape” was a subjective term. Another was a 39-year-old banker based in Canary Wharf with a penchant for poker and a ‘mature city professional,’ who apparently thought that information alone was enough to entice me. And there was a man named Bryan, a 47-year-old Canadian based in London, who sent me lots of pictures of his erect penis. It was of a pleasing size and shape, although I’ve always preferred a man who keeps it in his pants until after a face-to-face meeting, after which making a penile appearance is the logical next step.

After skimming through another ten or twenty messages, one arrived that contained the four magic words guaranteed to make me wet. Semi-Retired. Investment. Banker. That is – a man with money and time on his hands. I’m not a gold digger but I’ve funded most of my relationships and no longer have an interest in doing so.

The banker’s name was John and he had a double-barrelled surname which indicated Eastern European origins. A quick Google search revealed a slightly dodgy past. He’d had some kind of run-in with the FCA over an investment scheme that hadn’t gone well, and been suspended by his employer, one of the larger banks. But then, is that really unusual in that business? Over the years, I’d read numerous stories in the broadsheets about bankers cooking the books or setting up dubious trust funds or Ponzi schemes. At least John hadn’t gone to prison. He seemed interesting, at least, and probably had a story to tell. I got in touch.

John told me he spent most of his time managing a block of studio apartments he owned in West London and one he had just purchased in Leipzig, his hometown. He had a nice voice, sounded friendly and relatively interesting.

We met on a Sunday afternoon, at a Hilton Hotel bar, at John’s suggestion.

I got there early and took a seat at the back of the room, away from the handful of other customers scattered around the cavernous space. Dissonant jazz music was playing through the speakers. The décor looked like it had been lifted from a Bond movie —dark brown wallpaper, long mirrors, large high-backed 60s-style chairs. The bar was twenty feet long and its stools were deserted. I ordered a glass of Malbec, handed my card to the waitress, and hoped I wouldn’t be drinking alone. Having been stood up on dates with Craigslist prospects before, I’ve learned that one man’s “I’ll be there” is another’s “Sure, unless a better opportunity arises.”

John arrived 10 minutes later, in a mix of brown tweed jacket, purple flowery shirt, a pair of jeans and a grey flat cap—country gentlemen, by way of Bayswater. His skin was almost transparent and so white it made him appear otherworldly. Slim and about six feet tall, he took off his hat to reveal a shiny, bald pate. He had small blue eyes and slightly lopsided lips that I felt drawn to because their asymmetry was surprisingly fetching.

I was in no position to judge him, as I was wearing jeans, tan suede cowboy boots and a multicoloured trilby, which covered my long hair, recently tinted fuchsia, my nod to difference.

I stood up to kiss him on both cheeks. “You made it,” I said, the surprise barely hidden in my voice.

“Well, of course,” he replied, sincerely.

John called the waitress over and asked her whether she had any non-alcoholic cocktails. Red Flag number #1. It was late afternoon and I knew John had taken public transport. A drink or two usually takes the edge off first meetings. It looked like I’d be drinking alone. By the time, his non-alcoholic mojito appeared, I had almost finished with my wine and ordered another, not caring whether that might bother a non-drinker.

We discovered a shared interest in property, as I’d recently renovated my home. He told me about his property portfolio and a renovation project he had been working on in a remote Eastern European city, now almost complete. After an hour we were still talking about it. He took out his phone and we went through the slide show of images on it: the newly tiled bathroom, the dining table shipped from Italy, the balcony and roof terrace. Like so many other men I’d met online, the focus of the conversation was him. What he was doing, his own achievements, what he enjoyed. And I put up with it because I was ambivalent. And horny. And he was sufficiently intriguing.

“Maybe you can help me christen the bed,” he said, confidently. I laughed nervously, despite myself and despite my experience with Craigslist men. I hadn’t even had a sip of my second drink and he was already steering the conversation towards sex. “And you can give me some decorating advice too,” he added.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to fuck him or be his interior designer. Still, he ticked many of the qualities I was looking for in a potential partner. He was a semi-retired. As a former investment banker, he was solvent. We shared many interests. While he wasn’t traditionally good looking, he could hold a conversation, although laughter was in short supply. He confessed to voting for Nigel Farage and I wondered if I could overlook that. I wasn’t sure I could. That would be hard to explain to my friends, who were rooting for Jeremy Corbyn at the time. I was horny, so I tried to remain open-minded. We had met on Craigslist, after all, not Guardian Soulmates or one of the staid sites targeting those seeking long-term relationships.

We ended up taking the Jubilee Line together. As we entered London Bridge station, John turned around on the escalator, pulled me towards him and pressed his lips against mine. His tongue probed my mouth. I was a little merry with the drink so I let him for a few seconds. Then I pulled away.

“Come back with me,” he said. I told him I had to work the next day and get up early, which was half true. By this point, I just wanted him to go.

We got into the carriage, while I counted the stops until he got off at Baker Street. I didn’t want to go home with him. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to see him again. I was desperate for him to say something funny, to break the awkward silences, the uncomfortable conversations about sex and the misplaced intimacy.

When I got home, I went to my computer and saw another 40 emails in my inbox, all of them responses to my original Craigslist post. I deleted them all. And then I pulled up the ad and pressed delete. Craigslist had once been a reliable site for connecting with men, back when I thought of men as items on a takeaway menu: to be selected, delivered, nibbled on, then tossed aside. Craigslist still worked that way: it brought me a wide selection of prospects and then face-to-face with John, a man who found me attractive and wanted a shag. Just hours earlier, I’d thought I’d wanted the same, and when given the opportunity, I’d opted out.

Special thanks to Mark Rathmell for creating the illustrations.

Beyond Religion


1 Minute Read

‘Those tender words we said to one another are stored in the secret heart of heaven. One day, like the rain, they will fall and spread, and their mystery will grow green over the world.’Rumi

The mystery that lies within the hidden heart of the human being, and is also the secret heart of heaven, takes us right to the core of creation and the dark wholeness that births what indigenous cultures call the ten thousand things.

‘In the whole of the universe there are only two, the lover and the Beloved.’ And for some, for the mystics of the world, the divine is not father nor mother, but the sweetest, most ecstatic lover that seizes our heart in the most passionate affair of our life.

When the heart is on fire a blaze is created that burns away everything in its path so all that is left is Love. This evisceration, this burning, is the necessary but cruel cleansing that returns us to our self.

‘I burnt and I burnt and I burnt’, says Rumi: ‘I lost my world, my fame, my mind. The Sun appeared and all the shadows ran. I ran after them but vanished as I ran. Light ran after me and hunted me down.’

Al-Hallaj, who was executed for revealing the divine secrets put it this way: ‘When Truth has taken hold of a heart, She empties if of all but Herself. When God attaches himself to a man, He kills in him all else but Himself.’

There is just so much that has to burn in us, so much that has to die, but the destruction of the false self – that scaffold we erected to stave off the wounds of childhood and other incarnations – is consoled.

And it is consoled by the arising of the divine light within, from a small spark to a steady and fierce longing that somehow makes all the pain worthwhile. Just as the pain of childbirth subsides in the memory of the mother as joy takes over, so too are we soothed by sheer wonderment and joy.

But the ego does not go easily. What has to die are all the psychological patterns and attachments that keep us wedded to the world.

Irina Tweedie, who spent several years with her Sufi master in India, said the pain was so bad she thought she was going to die…and the rewards do not come from the world but from the divine. As Rumi says, he lost his world, his fame, his mind.

Everything is given but everything has to be given up. But as Andrew Harvey says, when you no longer want the world, when it no longer matters, it is returned to you on a silver salver. That is the cosmic joke, or one of them.

An emperor had a slave whom he loved immensely and he wanted to know if the slave really loved him. So, into a room heaped with vast treasures, he summoned all the slaves saying they were free to take what they wished. They were over joyed and ran here and there taking what they most wanted. But the slave whom the emperor loved just stood in the corner of the room. When the room was empty, the slave walked quietly over to the emperor and stood by him, his eyes full of love. The emperor said to him, ‘What do you want?’ And the slave said, ‘I want you, just you.’ And the Emperor said to the slave, ‘Because all you want is me, all I possess is yours.’

As Harvey says, in his marvellous book The Way of Passion, it is trust, absolute trust that is the key. And for the Sufi, life itself is the greatest teacher and everything and everyone that crosses our path has the exact lessons we need to learn.

It is what I call having an eye for initiation. The Sufi teacher counsels us to look for the hint in the heart and the wayfarer lives not by the rules and regulations of society nor the covert co-dependent agreements of our culture, but learns to listen only to the still, small voice within.

To hear, and learn to obey that voice, so much rubbish has to be removed. So much that we thought important heads for the shredder! And it is seen that none of it was important after all.

What is revealed is that each of us is unique, that each hair on our head really is known, and that we, as this particular manifestation, will never pass this way again. We are important, vital even, and are here to play our part, large or small, it doesn’t matter.

But this way is not for the sensible, rational man or woman; this way is not for those intent on safety; it is only for those willing to give themselves to an affair of the heart, responding to the call of the moment.

A Persian poem offers this warning: ‘Do not come near to the Lane of Love! It is not a thoroughfare! You cannot sleep, you cannot eat; you don’t enjoy the world anymore.’

As Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee points out, a human love affair can pierce the heart, how much more potent an affair with the divine lover who lives inside your own self.

From Him, from Her, there is no escape, no hiding place. But as Rumi says, if we don’t make this journey within in truth we have done nothing with our life:

‘Desperation, let me always know how to welcome you, and put in your hands the torch to burn down the house.’

When I first started this piece, I wrote a piece called Exile and Longing, which grew out of my own experience of exile from family and society, and the choice to live by my own light come what may.

Often, those of us with mystical awareness, have to live outside the consciousness of the culture which we were raised in, beyond its limitations and judgments, patterns and demands.

As a boy, I was baffled as to why I did not want what others wanted, why achievements, even success, were not important to me, did not satisfy me. What I held to was a small light burning softly inside me, which I finally began to nurture.

Irina Tweedie wrote of her small life, living alone in North London, looking down from her hilltop at the comings and goings of those engaging in the world, and knew that although she had given up everything the world sees as important, she had gained the one thing that matters.

‘Those who belong to the Beloved, carry His curse, which is the memory of His embrace. Nothing in the world will fulfil them,’ writes Vaughan-Lee.

So it is, and if your heart is longing and burning, if you are calling God secretly in the night, if only Love will do, at some point you will be answered. Spiritual processes always begin within before manifesting without.  You don’t find a teacher, the teacher finds you.

‘Light upon light, Allah calls to Him whom He wills.’

When the divine spark is lit within and the Beloved turns towards you the journey of lover and beloved begins. One light calls to the other, the other calls in return. Finally, the ‘I’ that stands in the way is no more and the two merge in an ecstatic union.

If you are seeking, seek Us with joy for we live in the kingdom of joy. Do not give your heart to anything else, but to the love of those who are clear joy. Do not stray into the neighbourhood of despair; for there are hopes: they are real, they exist. Do not go in the direction of darkness – I tell you, suns exist.

Rumi said this because he knew. His meeting with the ferocious wandering Dervish Shams completely remade him. He went from erudite, spiritual scholar to Love’ supreme poet, today the world’s most popular poet. The price he paid was a terrible grief.

The ecstatic union that he enjoyed with Shams came after Shams struck a deal with God, the price of which was his life. The old sage, despised and feared by many, knew that he must pass on what he knew to someone worthy of it and capable of transmitting it to many.

He found Rumi in Konya and their great spiritual love affair began, a union so intense that it roused jealousy and anger among Rumi’s family. Shams disappeared once sending Rumi into paroxysms of grief and longing.

He was found and returned and they were reunited in joy, but Shams disappeared for a second time, finally murdered, probably by Rumi’s younger son.

It was this final pain that Rumi transformed, as he united on the inner planes with his beloved master, spending the last 30 years of his life working to bring the divine light into the world.

There are many different Sufi groups with differing practises, but the work on the path is similar: meditation, chanting the names of God, working with dreams, facing the shadow – all those qualities we have buried and not loved , facing the contra-sexual aspects within, what Jung called the anima and animus, and working with archetypal energies.

And what is right for one aspirant is not right for another. Each of us is unique, yet the practises of the path keep us on track in single-pointed focus on our heart’s devotion.

This is polishing the mirror and when the heart is free of blemishes, the divine sun can be reflected in it. Here the mind is drowned in the heart and as we return to the unmanifest world from when we came we sacrifice ourselves on the altar of love.

Finally, the heart is made as soft and as warm as wool, and the alchemy that was started within you way back when is over……for now.

Last words.

A lover does not figure the odds. He figures he came clean from God as a gift without reason, so he gives without cause or calculation or limit. A conventionally religious person behaves a certain way to achieve salvation. A lover gambles everything, the self, the circle around the zero! He or she cuts and throws it all away.

This is beyond any religion.

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