I’m going to take an interlude from all the fetish talk for a moment to bring up another area of great interest to me, as I believe that the subject matter is not only directly related to sexuality, but to how we understand and synthesize the rest of our life experiences as well. Earlier, I’ve written about bias in the field of sexology here and here (warning: fetish talk). Understanding the mechanics of how biases are developed and reinforced is a very crucial topic for sexologists (and any scientists, really), and dovetails nicely into other important concepts such as “aliveness” and “flow.” If this feels confusing, don’t worry, I’ll explain all.

When we take a look at the genesis of any belief system, we have to take into account two key factors: influence and reinforcement. I’ll examine both of these in turn.  First, no belief system can take hold if an initial seed is not planted, which requires influence. In other words, we believe the things we do because at one point or another, we were influenced by someone or something that had enough influence to change or mold our beliefs. As kids we were influenced by our parents, by teachers, by mentors, by peer leaders. As adults our views may be less moldable, but we still have people around us with varying levels of influence. Said differently, we will pay attention to what we learn from those who have influence over us and dismiss or discard what we hear from those that hold no influence. Yeah, influence is important.

But the seeds of belief that are implanted by influence cannot sprout without continued reinforcement. This reinforcement is often done by our own selves through a psychological process called confirmation bias.  Like influence, confirmation bias involves a selective process whereby we pay attention to certain things and completely ignore others. Through the process of confirmation bias, it is almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy in that we look for evidence that confirms our beliefs (or the seed of the belief) and ignore, compartmentalize or rationalize away any evidence that disconfirms those beliefs. So, let’s say someone in a leadership position disseminates his/her belief system to us, that alone is not sufficient to instill belief. We must be able to find ready confirmation in our environment to reinforce that belief or the seed doesn’t grow and nothing comes of it. If the president of the US or the CEO of your company or whoever addressed you and told you that our society is infiltrated by green aliens, you may look around and find absolutely no confirming evidence, and just dismiss the claim. However, if the local grocer had told you that, you would probably not even be motivated enough to even take a look around. Influence and reinforcement, that’s what belief systems are all about.

And this now brings us to the subject of “aliveness.” I’m taking this term from the skeptic/martial arts trainer Matt Thornton who applies methods of aliveness both to his martial arts gym and to scientific inquiry. He takes the example of traditional taekwondo vs Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). Taekwondo mainly focuses on kata (or forms) in which the student learns some choreographed movements that are supposedly effective in real altercations. How do we know that these forms are effective? Just believe the teacher. The teacher said (influence) and all the students seem to believe (reinforcement) so I guess it must be true, right? These are how faulty belief systems develop. Please note, I’m not trying to criticize taekwondo right now, I’m criticizing the methods of learning to fight, specifically choreographed katas.

BJJ on the other hand, requires active combat (“rolling”) on a regular basis as a means of skill development. The teacher will show a technique or two and then the students spar using real resistance instead of choreographed forms. In this way, they can gauge what does and doesn’t work and accurately assess their skill level. The fighting is alive; in other words it is based on real experience, rather than rote repetition or theory. Aliveness is not theory, it is life experience. While belief is authority-based, aliveness is experiential.

What does this have to do with sexuality? Everything. As a society, we have so many self-limiting negative beliefs about sexuality that exist for no other reason than cultural influence. Sex-negative learning is authority-based. How do we know sex is bad? Well, our parents may have told us, and if we got no sex ed in school, we learned implicitly that sex must be bad, and then we hear sex phobic messaging in the media, and perhaps if we go to a religious institution, we hear the priest or rabbi speak with caution. And how do they all know that sex is bad/dangerous/dirty/fill in the blank? Well, they heard it from their own parents and their teachers and their religious leaders. In this way, belief systems are tautologies– they are circular and self-reinforcing. They have no discernible origin or credible evidence, and indeed they exist solely based on authority.

If we can actually step outside of our (pre-determined) beliefs, we allow for the space necessary to form conclusions based on life experience, rather than rigid dogma. In other words, we can come to knowledge through the process of our own inherent “aliveness” (the act of living) rather than following “dead patterns” (formulas and theories that only work when the situation is ideal but fall apart under most conditions). These are martial arts terms that I’m using, but I find them to be most applicable in other areas of life that involve the consolidation of new learning, including critical thinking, new skill development, and identity formation– all aspects of healthy sexuality.

And this takes us to the concept of “flow.” What is flow? And what does this have to do with aliveness? Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as the “mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of activity.” In other words, flow is when an individual is fully engaged in the process of aliveness. The hallmark of flow is “a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture…” This is the state where all of the negative thoughts and emotions fall away and we are left feeling internal congruence between our thoughts, feelings, and intentions and with a deep sense of connection between our intentions, our actions, and the world around us. The way I look at it, flow is a heightened state of elevated consciousness which allows us to feel a connection to something greater than ourselves. Isn’t this what we think about when talk about amazing sex, intimacy, tantra and the like? These are all terms interchangeably used to suggest that sex (and other aspects of relationships) can be experienced in flow states.

Now, let’s ask ourselves: is it possible to achieve flow states in our sexuality without also experiencing aliveness? In other words, if we are caught up in old sexual taboos, sex-phobic mythologies, and other sex-negative dogmas, do we ever allow ourselves the opportunity to actually experience our subjective truths for ourselves? And if so, do we then deprive ourselves of the opportunity to have the kind of connective experience that can only come from open hearts and open minds?

Just some food for thought…