I’ve found this easy to say, but hard in the living… Living out loud is exhausting. It draws on an astounding range of the resources we bring to this life. On most days, it requires a constant push. And, on a precious few glorious days, there’s a pull that draws me effortlessly along. Work is typically required.
Use your outside voice
She encouraged softly
Be bold, expressive
Become intimate with desire
Walk the line
Who are you waiting for?
Every moment’s new
Now’s your chance
Don’t hold back
Do you have the energy to be poly? Is there enough of you to share more broadly? Everyone should routinely ask themselves similar questions, when beginning poly and/or when entering new relationships. I take a very simple (and probably common) approach to answering them by thinking about the different and limited levels of resources people have that are needed to manage the daily acts of living. When we engage in challenging and engaging activities, we often find our resources consistently drained in one area or another. These depleted states limit our capacity to regulate our emotions and effectively apply our intelligence, our compassion, and our skills when needed. Choosing a demanding life, a soulful life, or even a poly life requires building and maintaining the resources and energy needed, if you want to live it well.
I use the following personal resource/energy model:
Physical resources – what we normally call energy or stamina. It is both our ability to give brief bursts of high energy expenditure (during sex, for example) and our ability to sustain lower levels of exertion over a long period of time (stamina… to absorb a physical demanding work day and still have the energy to play with the kids). Our body is the basic platform from which much of everything else we do rests. I’ve had a fund of physical resources well above average for most of my life. And, have never particularly felt constrained on my ability to go hard and long most days. But, I’m old now. I can no longer take this energy source for granted. I have wondered for the better part of three years why I’m tired and unfocused and generally drained. It has taken too long to understand that I needed to reinvest in building a physical foundation, a body that can support the complexity and daily exertion needed to lead my chosen work and home life. Exercise is a given. And, I’ve added closer attention to my diet.
Importantly, recognizing my body as the foundation for delivering all my other capacities, I’ve thought more completely about energy management throughout the day. Energy peaks following meals. Ideally, smaller nutritious meals dispersed throughout the day (5 or 6 instead of three) will support the kind of physical challenges I experience daily. When stretches between eating are unavoidable, smarter snacking is in order. But, mostly, I’ve insisted on eating regardless of the external press. But, my biggest barrier is internal. I don’t get hungry. I don’t notice when my body needs more fuel. I don’t recognize the low-energy distractibility. I’m working on planning better and also noticing these states better. Attention to my diet has yielded tangible benefits in my ability to focus and bring the mental energy necessary for my work. This is just smarter and I have no idea what took me so long (well, I do, I guess. It wasn’t necessary for 39 years. And, it took me several years to separate out other issues from physical ones).
Mental resources – this is intelligence. But, it is also creativity. Our ability to link seemingly disparate patterns and our ability to create new patterns de novo that work in unexpected ways. It is also the ability to understand our gut feeling… to turn our insight into knowledge and action. We apply these capacities every day. Not just when solving problems at work. We also use these capacities to provide advice to our partners. And, when we engage in unstructured play with our partners, friends, or kids. I have actively cultivated this capacity for most of my adult life (not so much intentionally prior to that). It has been what I’ve based my identity on when I was foolish enough to stay in that trap. It is still the primary way that I engage the world around me. The primary way I first connect with people, if a connection is at all possible. I have approached this in a lopsided way over most of my life, focusing far too much energy on knowledge acquisition and problem solving, and far too little time on mental focus, imaginative play, and mental flexibility. The latter capacities are pathways to wonder and discovery; ways to incorporate new information without over fitting it to match existing knowledge or ways of thinking. Maintaining this openness becomes harder as we age (for example, learning a new language after age 16 or learning a musical instrument for the first time as an adult). It requires continued cultivation but it is possible to maintain and grow. The answer? Learn something new. Continue to learn complex new skills your entire life. The fact is, you can teach an old dog new tricks. And, learning new complex skills is essential to maintaining mental acuity and openness.
“Do not fear” isn’t quite right. It’s kind of like saying, do not breathe. “No fear” doesn’t work either. That’s just false bravado. It’s more like, “Do not fear the fear.”
How not to hold back? Realize that there’s nothing wrong with you, nothing wrong with fear or being fearful. Lean in, explore and pay attention. Spend time with it. Become intimate with fear.
Do what scares you. Risk everything. Leap.
Emotional resources – our capacities at so-called EQ have been all the rage in business circles over the last decade or so. There is a simplicity to how it is often approached that belies the hard work therein. Of all the areas of recent focus of mine in the last several years, I have focused on this with the most intention and intensity. Emotional resources include our ability to understand our own emotions as they are happening. I have been lost on this front for most of my adult life, nearly completely divorced from my feelings. Too afraid to feel. I faced this fear and learned how to sit with strong emotions. …to feel them …to accept them …to learn from them. I found that being stunted emotionally cut me off from the people I loved. I couldn’t connect deeply because I refused to feel deeply. I had to accept fear in order to find peace, accept sorrow to bathe in joy, accept anger in order to find equanimity. Some friends got whiplash as they witnessed this explosion of emotional richness. Most felt they really knew me for the first time. Connections deepened.
First, we must understand ourselves and this gives us the foundation to understand others. When we don’t know what we’re feeling or why, it is nearly impossible to get out of your own shorts in order to attune with others. Attunement is literally the ability to feel another’s emotional tone. Full emotional attunement is the essence of deep connection. Intimacy at its basic building block level. Neuroscientists have shown how deeply intertwined people are physically when attuned to each other. When I’m attuned to you, I feel you inside as if you were me. This depth of connection can literally ease your pain, reduce anxiety, and produce neurotransmitters associated with love and bonding.
The trick it seems to getting both the self-awareness and attunement with others is allowing the presence of both difficult and happy emotions. You can’t run when someone you love is experiencing pain. Sometimes we don’t physically run, but run by subtly discounting their emotions by insisting that everything is ok. By offering advice that often sounds like “just do X and stop being all emotional and stuff.” Stop. Feel with your friend or partner or family member. If they hurt, feel their hurt. If they’re full of joy, feel their joy. If they cry, let yourself weep if their pain moves you so. Guys aren’t taught to relate this way and don’t typically understand the power of this kind of presence. Our desire to avoid feeling bad blinds us. We can’t see what’s happening in the world around us. Which, in turn, allows us to act and speak in unwise, callous and cruel ways even while holding noble intentions. Weathering difficult feelings leads to understanding and wisdom.
I also talk about two resources that are not forms of energy. But, have great impact on the availability of our capacities:
Time – I have mentioned more than once here in my blog that I suck at planning. This is one of the largest challenges in my life. Time, I don’t have a lot of it. My job is, in two words, nearly impossible. Two kids, two girlfriends, two dogs, four cars… Busy personified. Yet, I need to find the time to do these things excellently and connect with my friends, family and loves deeply. I also need to find the time for rest. I need to plan the time for energy recovery. Sleep is the most concentrated period of recovery that we experience. Sleep rebuilds our bodies, consolidates our memories and learning, and allows neural plasticity to do its thing. It is easy to cut sleep short. Don’t. Now, I try really hard to get 7 – 8 hours of sleep each night. I still need to make progress here though.
I meditate. Meditation serves both as a form of restful recovery as well as a form of exertion. The exertion is most commonly of two forms: sitting with difficult emotions or physical sensations. This requires quite a bit of energy, calm energy. It is no easy feat. The second form is the pure concentration of complete presence. It is the only form of effortful energy exertion that I can think of that also simultaneously serves as a form of energy recovery. My guess is that both exertion and recovery are concentrated during meditation done correctly. And, these different states aren’t actually occurring at the same time, but alternate during a sufficiently long sitting. The daily practice is very important and I need to do it more consistently than I do today. My goal is to do both a morning and evening sit. But, I’ve found I’ve usually used up all my will by the evening and can’t muster the focus to sit. I’m working up to it. I also have committed myself to doing two silent multi-day retreats a year. I have come away from these retreats feeling deeply connected to myself and refreshed in a way that’s difficult to describe. I feel like a car does after a full performance engine rebuild: fresh, strong, fast.
Finally, managing my time to build in recovery throughout the day is a powerful way to ensure you have the capacity to be your best at all times. For example, during breaks in long meetings I will now often take a quick walk instead of burying my head in email. If a walk isn’t possible, I’ll close my eyes and do a brief meditation. When working at my desk, I’ll also plan breaks to take a walk or sit quietly. These small changes in my day combined with my diet changes (eating smaller meals, more frequently) has been a revelation in my energy management at work. I need to transfer this structure to my weekend home time and evenings.
Financial resources – I’m not going to say much here. But, needless to say, money can make a lot of things easier. Money can buy time. It can buy expertise. It can make a mistake less painful. Besides, dating poly can be expensive. And, I find having a long distance relationship is made possible by my ability to jump on a plane or send a ticket without hesitation. If finances are constrained, better planning and efficient use of available funds is required. Of course, we always adapt to the financial resources available to us. Doing it well is to focus on the core goals which can usually be accomplished in a wide variety of ways (some relatively expensive, some cheap or free).
I was researching the Corporate Athlete work by Jack Groppel and Bob Andelman that is becoming popular in business circles. It was exactly what I was looking for and really helped me refine my model (some of which, like energy recovery, are already included above). They added two perspectives that I really love:
Spiritual capacity – Groppel and Andelman don’t think of this as a need for religious beliefs. Instead, they focus on the role of values in regulating your energy. They emphasize the importance of being clear about your values. And, how staying connected with them daily can be a critical source of energy renewal. This is much of the power and promise of religious ritual, reconnecting us with core values. When we lose the underlying meaning of those rituals or our values aren’t aligned with the teachings of that church, the rituals are either impotent or energy sapping and stress inducing. For those of us who are non-religious, the need for clarity on values and connection with them doesn’t go away, even if the need goes unrecognized.
For those of you that follow my blog, you probably have read that I had a personal crisis about five years ago; an emotional breakdown; dis-integration. One way to describe that crisis is that I was extremely out of whack with my core values… I like to describe it as a dis-integration because it is the opposite of integrity. Falling apart instead of holding together. Regaining my integrity has been a long process of clarifying my core values and finding ways to live by them every day. Some have been surprisingly difficult – for example, the vow of non-harming sentient beings. Not killing even houseflies is seriously challenging. I don’t always succeed. Others have been surprisingly easy – for example, ethical non-monogamy and radical but compassionate honesty have been very natural. Clarity on my values provides a continuous spark. They provide purpose and meaning that propels me forward. And, when I’m tired and drained, being in full alignment with my values provides a deep satisfaction to my weary bones.
Energy and Will as a muscle – here’s an idea that is counter-intuitive. I first ran into it reading Roy Baumeister’s book Will Power. Baumeister and colleagues’ research has shown that will is more like a muscle than a character trait. Exercising will depletes energy and can result in being exhausted, weak-willed. This has important implications for structuring one’s day. It calls for putting activities that require will power early in the day and pacing yourself… think like a long distance runner. And, if you must sprint, take time to recover by engaging in actions that require little to no will power to execute. You can maximize your chances of success by placing willful activities in the morning and after lunch – peaks of energy in the day. You can also use routines better with this knowledge. Routines, once they are established, no longer require much will to execute. Find the handful of things that are important enough and effortful enough around which to establish routines. Then start with one at a time. Once a routine is established (often as long as 4-6 weeks), then you can try to establish the next one. Trying to establish too many at once will likely end in failure due to constant will depletion.
The most important insight from this and others work is that, like we exercise a muscle, will can be strengthened through use, planned depletion and recovery. The strong-willed are simply in better shape; they’ve had willful conditioning. Gropel and Andelman assert that the same is true for energy in all its forms (will power and physical energy being just two forms). And if we want to increase our presence or focus or mental clarity etc. we can accomplish this through regular exercise of these energies and recovery. They prefer interval training as the appropriate model: repeated bursts of high exertion with rest periods that follow. This brings home the power of meditation retreats, like a mental energy boot camp, to dramatically accelerate the development of presence, focus and mental clarity.
Are you in shape for poly or any mentally, emotionally and physically demanding life? Don’t accept your current level of fitness as unchangeable. If you want more energy, more clarity, more equanimity, and more mental and emotional capacity, then find the appropriate exercise equipment or gym, get a coach if necessary, create an exercise plan, create a plan to build mental or emotional capacity (e.g., meditation retreats), create routines and rituals, plan your day to optimize your available energy when most needed, remember to plan for sufficient recovery throughout the day and ensure you get enough sleep, and don’t forget how your diet impacts your mental and emotional capacity. Then, like Nike says, Just Do It!