Last year I promised to write a post about practising discernment. This is a subject that I frequently find myself delving into with clients – particularly when they are embarking on new chapters in their erotic lives. A vital part of personal erotic empowerment is the ability to sense – to discern – which of the Spectrum of Possibilities available in any given erotic scenario feel good to us, and to trust and value ourselves enough to base our choices on that discernment. Our ability to practice discernment is inextricably linked with our ability to be in self-consent – self-consent being a necessary base camp for any journey towards erotic self-actualisation.
So what does the practice of discernment look like? What are the mental, emotional, and physical steps that make up an act of discernment?
It all comes through learning to pause for a moment, learning not to just impulsively do the same thing again and again. The result is that we… begin to know ourselves thoroughly and to respect ourselves. – Pema Chödrön
We are living at a very reactionary time. Quick thinking, quick reflexes, and above all, the ability to work and to produce quickly, are valued very highly by our culture. Inevitably, this shapes our intimate lives as well; we value spontaneity, being swept off our feet, quick fixes for ecstatic highs. When we’re first embarking on new erotic adventures, whether it’s taking a risk with a long-term partner, starting a new relationship, or taking our first steps in a new lifestyle, it’s tempting to dive on in and try it all. And if our partners, or the community we’re stepping into (whether that’s a kink scene or a Tantra festival), are implicitly or explicitly encouraging us to do just that, it can make it even harder to reach for discernment rather than acquiescence.
Whether you’re taking an erotic risk in a new situation, or an existing relationship where there are habits, expectations, and/or power dynamics already in play, diving in without even taking a breath is unlikely to lead to the best possible experience for those involved – and it is entirely possible that whatever does unfurl will be less than consensual for all parties. I’m not talking here about the simplistic understanding of consent sometimes indulged by pop-culture, where consent is equated to no one having said no. I’m talking about the kind of explicit, enthusiastic, ongoing consent that allows our bodies to relax, exhale, and let in pleasure.
Pausing before we embark on any step on our erotic journey gives us a chance to take stock of what is on offer, get more information if we need it, and then do the following…
Pause for long enough to take some deep breaths. In erotically charged situations, sometimes this can seem like a radical choice, but it is a vital part of staying in contact with yourself, and in consent. In moments when our aim is to find and practice our self-consent, breath calms our nervous system. It can gently disengage us from external stimuli and expectations, and reconnect us with the self. It can help us navigate through any feelings of social or emotional pressure, and back to our own felt truth.
Breath invites you into yourself. As you breathe, you make more space in yourself for you to inhabit; you make space for your awareness to drop into your body. Once there, you can practice…
For many people, the concept of listening to yourself can seem fairly nebulous. After all, where should you locate yourself in order to listen? What if you are caught up in such a maelstrom of thoughts and/or emotions that you don’t know where to begin? And what if listening isn’t how you primarily process information – what if you’re more visual or kinaesthetic?
I like to use the map of head, heart, and belly when it comes to what I term Listening In. I teach this to my clients as a way into re-establishing the lines of communication with themselves, and I also use it myself when faced with big decisions or dilemmas. Here’s how it works:
First, put your attention on your conscious mind, which for many of us feels like it’s located in the head. You can use your breath to focus your awareness, imagining that you’re breathing in and out of that part of yourself. Taking deep breaths, open your awareness to your mental self, getting curious the way you would if engaged in a conversation you were really interested in. As you might in a conversation, don’t try to predict what you’re going to “hear”; be receptive, be prepared to be surprised.
For some of you, giving yourself your attention in this way will yield the kind of results you would usually associate with listening – words, phrases, sounds will come to the surface. For others it will be images, feelings, impressions. Trust that the information that arises will have something to offer you – and whatever it is, make it welcome. Extend a kind curiosity to it, a sense of “tell me more”. I find it really useful, and perhaps you will too, to take notes during this practice.
When listening to your mind feels complete, deepen your breath, and let it guide your attention down into your heart – for many of you, this will be located in your chest – and repeat the process. If it helps you focus, you can put a hand on the area of your body you are listening to. Whatever you find in your heart, whether comfortable or uncomfortable, invite it into your awareness, make it welcome, treat it kindly, and breathe with it. Make notes of what you find if it helps.
Then repeat the process for your belly, dropping down into that centre of your instincts, intuition, and big Yeses and Nos, and listening openly to what it is holding onto for you today.
A direct, palpable, body-level attraction – feeling physically pulled towards something – is the first indication that you’re on your way to an enthusiastic yes. – Barbara Carrellas
Alongside or as an alternative to the head, heart, belly map above, you can also feel into the options available when it comes to erotic risk-taking. Doing so will help you get a sense of whether each of them is what Barbara Carrellas calls an energy-gain or energy-drain. You can do this either by imagining each scenario play out, or by observing the activities you’re thinking of embarking on if that is available to you, and noticing how your body feels when you “look at” each option. Do you feel a rush, a pull, an impulse to move towards a particular activity? If so, you could be on your way to experiencing something that’s a Hell Yes for you. But if you find you feel contracted, resistant, or resentful, it’s likely the activity in question isn’t something you’re ready for yet – either because the circumstances don’t support the right balance of safety and risk for you, or because this connection or this experience isn’t something you want to engage in.
The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge. – Audre Lorde
Ultimately, our ability to act on our sense of self-consent – our ability to enact discernment – comes down to the amount of permission we’re willing to extend to ourselves. Permission to act on the truths we find within. And when it comes to our erotic journeys, with so many of us raised in body and sex-negative environments where we are denied our agency and our right to choose, permission is so often the greatest gift we can give ourselves. We’ve all had that experience, where something didn’t go how we would have liked, and afterwards we reflected back and realised we’d “had a feeling” that taking that particular route might lead us down a road we were less keen to travel. To practice the kind of embodied discernment described above is to learn how to turn following that “feeling” into a practice for life. As Audre Lorde says in Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power, “the considered phrase, “it feels right to me”… is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding”.