During the past two years I’ve been reading and exploring the chemistry of the body. My interest was sparked by various TED talks and the book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” as I could understand how dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin greatly impacted my life and how my interest in yoga, running and dancing all had the same thing in common. How I by using various BDSM techniques could infuse the same effects in others. I summarized my thoughts around this in the text Pain and Kinbaku; or how I stopped worrying about the hurt started to love the high but then I decided to move on in my exploration.
I’ve always seen the body, mind and spirit as part of an holistic system. So while the neurotransmitters was a great model to explain the body part, I felt it was lacking clarity in the mind and spiritual parts. I wanted to learn more about the emotional sides of BDSM, so I turned to three different books explaining three different models. “Masochism: A Jungian View” by Lyn Cowan, “Playing by Heart: The Vision and Practice of Belonging” by O. Fred Donaldson, and “Ut ur Kalahari: Drömmen om det goda livet” (in English something like; “Leaving Kalahari: Visions of the Good Life”) by Lasse Berg.
This text is my attempt to put these three models together and create something through which I can view a tiny little part of a starlit night sky. Please note that this is not in any way aimed to be a scientific proof of anything, and that I might have misunderstood parts of Lyn’s, Fred’s and Lasse’s ideas. Bringing them together is a way for me to structure my thoughts and hopefully get some reflections.
Starlit night skies
To begin with I need to describe how I view on the world, life and existence in general; I see it as a starlit night sky that is too vast and complex to understand. We create models to describe certain aspects of it, like a single constellation of stars. This helps us to zoom in and look at the details and how they relate to each other, but as a consequence we lose the periphery view. Different models are good for looking at different aspects of the world, life, and existence. Some models actually describe the same thing but from various perspectives using different vocabularies. So to me; vata-pitta-kapha from eastern ayurveda, stress theory from western medicine, and the archetypes from Jungian psychology are different models describing the same thing. Arguing which model is right or wrong is to me pretty boring, because I want to learn from all of them.
Going back to where I left off in “Pain and Kinbaku; or how I stopped worrying about the hurt started to love the high” – what are the emotional reasons one would like to be tied up? I think one answer is humiliation.
Humiliation or emotional masochism
Not long ago the word humiliation really struck me as something negative, but that was before I actually understood the meaning and history of the word. The source of the word humiliation is humble.
: not proud : not thinking of yourself as better than other people
: given or said in a way that shows you do not think you are better than other people
: showing that you do not think of yourself as better than other people
Humiliation is the abasement of pride, which creates mortification or leads to a state of being humbled. As we humans are designed by evolution to be social and collaborating animals living peacefully together in small groups, being humble is really something beautiful and probably connected to all sorts of reward systems. Rewards that are bodily reactions like dopamine & co but also social rewards that gives us a higher social status. Or maybe more important – more mindbogglingly good sex, and hence more offspring which is good with an Darwinistic perspective on life.
So we want to be humble, and therefore we want to feel humiliation. I see humiliation as emotional masochism, because just as physical masochism has a physical reward, emotional masochism has an emotional reward. Submission in a BDSM context is a result of humiliation and being humble towards a dominant persona. But why the polarization and power dynamics of a dominant and a submissive role? Why are we so attracted to them?
Glorification of the ego
Society today is a very ego centred model which promotes a egocentric behaviour. We have structured ourselves in hierarchies to reward the behaviours that are deemed “good for the group”. A better education leads to a more valued job with more power, initially over yourself, eventually over the people around you, and ultimately over society as a whole. We use consumerism to signal our place in the socially hierarchy, by having the hipster single speed bike, the ultra nerdy super collectors edition of Battlestar Galactica, the gated community villa, the Mr-Grey-approved deer skin flogger or the hand-made Japanese kinbaku jute rope.
Organizing ourselves in hierarchies and promoting egocentric behaviours is not anything new from an modern BDSM perspective. It began 10.000 years ago when we evolved from gatherers to farmers. We became home-steady and started to craft items with more value than we could carry, at least compared to when we had to move across the savannah gathering food while carrying all our belongings with us. This accumulated wealth and surplus, and we created hierarchies to divide it. But from an evolutionary perspective (homosapians are roughly 200.000 years old) hierarchies are definitely a modern thing and the shape that they have today (last 100 years) is something extreme.
The ego has never been stronger than today. We have even defined psychological disorders, many of them related to the lack of a healthy ego that can fit into our hierarchies. We turn to self help books, professional coaches, and recreational drugs, like alcohol, weed and sugar. And we turn to cookie dough marshmallow ice cream and ten consecutive episodes of true blood to hide away when our ego can’t perform according to the hierarchies we consciously or not participate in.
Destruction of the ego
As a reaction to the glorification of the ego, we are just as fascinated by the destruction of the ego. Maybe because it takes us back to our roots of being humble beings without having to focus on what the ego wants, what benefits the ego the most or what others will think of it. Understanding and relating to the multitude of hierarchies we participate in can be a time consuming and energy draining task. So in order to survive we seek activities to balance it out.
“Before modern psychology considered masochism a disease Christianity considered it the cure.” -Lyn Cowan
Religion has always been humanity’s primary tool for ego destruction. All the way from the main theme of Christianity with Jesus dying on the cross for our sins and parable of the good Samaritan, to ideas of karma and ahimsa in Buddhism and Hinduism. In yogic traditions we often talk about putting our heart over our head, both physically speaking in upside down asanas, but also as a concept when relating to others. Destruction of the ego is almost always the central theme of any religious sect.
The power of sexuality
While modern religion has come a long way in the destruction of the ego, it completely ignores one of our most fundamental and transformative needs – the power of our sexuality. Looking at sexual rites in nature, many of them focuses around surrender either by force or by free will. The early spiritual practices often used sex has a way to reach the gods, or something bigger than themselves. Examples are Taoism and Tantra with their roots around 400 AD. in China and India, Cult of Dionysius around 200 BC. in ancient Greece and other more modern European forms of “sex magik” in Wicca, Paganism and many more. It is widely debated how and if these practices really existed, or if they are only a new-agey reason to have a lot of sex, but they do symbolize a clear distinction from modern religions where sex is merely a mean of reproduction. I believe that this is due to the duality of modern religion, that serves both as mean to dictate a normative moral view on life and while also serving as place of surrender for the ego.
Why does our sexuality carry such a transformative power? Well, our sexuality is the reason we exist. It is why we are born. It represents our progression into adulthood. It represents our success in society by whom we are able to attract. It is the most common way to leave something behind when we die. In Tantra sexual energy is the same as life energy. Studies show how sexually successful people also are more successful in their professional life, so surrendering our ego in the sexual act has great transformative power.
The mind is a clever thing. Once it has learned about the transformative powers of our sexuality, it will lead us there again. So the next time we take the first step on the same path, the mind will remind us of what reward is waiting for us at the end. Sharing a movement of intense eye gazing or the intimate presence of touch actually makes us aroused because it reminds us. Each time we walk the same path, the mind will refine it, make it more detailed and more colourful. This is often experienced in recurring sexual fantasies by how the defining details gets stronger and stronger. The mind simply knows what it wants and it is the same classical conditioning as demonstrated by Pavlov’s dog experiment.
“Success teaches us how to succeed…” -Napolean Hill
But in order for the surrender to happen there must be something or someone to surrender to. In Taoism and Tantra it is well known that sexual polarity enables surrender.
“For real passion to occur, there needs to be a ravisher and a ravishee. Sexual attraction is based on sexual polarity. / Sexual polarity is not required for love but it is necessary for sexual attraction in a relationship.” -David Deida
In Taoism and Tantra the sexual polarity is always represented by the male (as the ravisher) and female (as the ravishee), and it is said that the male can surrender his own ego only via the surrender of the female ego. This model carries obvious and unnecessary limitations. The BDSM model has a more queer approach, stating that any gender can be the dominant (as the ravisher) and the submissive (as the ravishee).
But why shame?
During my exploration of BDSM I’ve tried to understand what makes people tick. First when learning to tie in a kinbaku fashion I had a period of tying as many different people as possible to see how I could interact with them. Later as an educator, I tried to structure my workshops in order to let people experience different ways of approaching BDSM and to create a safe space to question their present ideas on who they are and how they should behave. In my personal play I’ve always been attracted to people that draws me deeper into a certain aspect of the model that I’ll offer, because they open up different aspects of myself where I can growth as a person.
Looking at the people I’ve encountered, I’ve seen three types of polarity expressions (sometimes they are sexual and sometimes not): physical masochism, emotional masochism, and worship. Physical masochism seems to be the norm in the BDSM community and it is basically based on physical pain, like whipping, flogging, cutting, pinching, biting, and beating. This releases vast amounts of endorphins and sends the receiver of to mystical subspace. Whom is on the other side of the whip seems less important and the surrender sometimes is to the body of the receiver rather than the supplier of pain. To me this experience resembles long distance running or all night raving, as it is primarily a physical response to physical stimulation.
Emotional masochism and worship work on the mind instead of the body. Emotional masochism is the enjoyment of being treated “badly” and will be covered in more depth later, but it is radically different from worship where the surrender comes from serving the other part in the polarity and take enjoyment in their happiness. This is the traditional 24/7 and TPE relationships. I want to mention that both worship and emotional masochism exist here because the following text is based on emotional masochism only and the shame part of it to be exact.
“One of the most startling standard seems to be that just about any physical action can be accept under the umbrella of “heavy play” even as art – provided the mind is never touch. Altered states of consciousness are revered, but intentional alteration abhorred. Blood and bruises no longer mean abuse in the context of these lives, but any touching of the mind or identity is often greeted with horror.” -Flagg
Working with emotional masochism and shame can be very controversial as it touches the sore spot in each and everyone’s personality. However we all do it unconsciously all the time. Words like slut, daddy, dirty and so on is just this. They are using shame to destroy our ego. It provides a mean for egoless surrender to another person. The rest of this text will aim to explain why.
Shame vs. guilt
First and foremost, let us the define the word shame. The dictionary defines shame as “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonourable, improper, ridiculous, etc, done by oneself or another.“ Shame works through our social conditioning and is provoked by violating that conditioning, but most important is that shame comes from ourselves. It is something that we truly believe is dishonourable, improper or ridiculous. It is not being aware that someone else thinks that we are dishonourable, improper or ridiculous. That is the difference between shame and guilt; shame comes from ourselves, guilt in laid upon us by someone else. Hence shame allows the destruction of our own ego using the knowledge about ourselves. However if we are continuously being found guilty we will eventually make it a part of our own shame.
The leadership mentor and speaker Christopher Avery has a good model that explains why shame is such a crucial part of our society and its relationship to our ego. He talks about six steps in how we respond to problems and it goes; (1) denial (2) lay blame (3) justification (4) shame (5) obligation (6) responsibility. The first three steps are actually in protection of the ego and negative if we strive for being humble. The last three are for the destruction of the ego and taking responsibility. The last three steps are usually also very constructive when responding to a problem. Shame can be a restful place; you have admitted that you broke the social or moral values that you agree to, but you do not yet feel the obligation or have taken the responsibility to do something about it.
Feeling guilty on the other hand is not a restful place and much more likely to bring out martyrdom instead of masochism. The obvious example is a prisoner found guilty although he sees himself as innocent. Martyrdom is a protection of the ego and doesn’t serve the goal. Martyrdom is very similar to fight-or-flight-mode of an adrenalin rush, and can be a very empowering feeling as it can help us to achieve amazing feats. However, it just simply does not lead to the surrender of the ego.
You are unimportant
I will not go into the moral aspects of using shame to alter (to use an unbiased word) someone’s ego. For some people it will gloriously helping them to surrender, for some it might be the destruction they always unknowingly craved for, and yet for others it might be a very traumatizing experience. It is all a different side of the same coin. However, if you decide to do this, then the first thing you must understand is: you and your fantasies are unimportant. Everyone’s social conditioning is different, so just because you find it very hot and shameful calling someone a worm doesn’t mean that it is shameful to them. In worse case, using your own fantasies instead of theirs will push them into martyrdom. Instead you must forget about your ideas about shame and study your victim.
A simple and efficient way is to function as a mirror of someone’s behaviour and phrase observations in a such way that it is clearly not your own opinion.
“Now you are drooling” instead of “Your drooling is disgusting”
As shame exists to enforce our social conditioning, it gets even stronger when put into a social context. For example, drooling on your pillow before falling asleep compared to drooling on the subway full of people when thinking about delicious food.
“Everyone can see that you are drooling”
People who are emotional masochists are very likely to have sexualized the feeling of shame, as described previously in the power of sexuality. This in itself is breaking even more social norms, therefore potentially being even more shameful.
“Everyone can see that you are drooling and how honey it makes you”
Finally, since it is probably more shameful being horny from drooling then the actually drooling, one can simply cut down the sentence to.
“Everyone can see how horny you get by this”
Then you don’t even have to know what social norm gave rise to the shame in the first place, which makes the whole thing much easier. Obviously this only works if there is shame related to the sexuality. For example some people in my sexpositivist community will go “Yes! Isn’t that great!” while bouncing up and down. In that case it is better to stick with the drooling part.
Crouching ego, hidden shame
Most of us are not aware of what we are ashamed of. This is because our ego is doing its best to protect ourselves and therefore itself. Emotional and intellectual walls are built to avoid the things that make us ashamed, vulnerable and enable us to surrender. Intellectual walls make us physically avoid or intellectually dismiss things that might challenge our ego. This is usually consciously created by decisions – “this is me and this is what I like”. Emotional walls are usually unconsciously created by experiences. The response of these walls are either to fight, flight or freeze. The fight response protects the ego by physical or verbal action commonly in an aggressive manner directed towards the experienced threat. The flight response protects the ego by avoiding the threat, either directly when it occurs or pre-emptively based on our previous experiences. The freeze response protects the ego by intellectually and emotionally shutting down in a apathetic manner. All these walls will stop us from experiencing shame.
Therefore to experience shame we must lower our walls, and this wish must come from within ourselves. If someone tries to force shame onto us it will likely turn onto guilt and martyrdom. It often takes solitude and time for reflection for the words, actions and situations to penetrate our walls. That is why waiting and gently mirroring the shame is a better way than aggressively trying to push in as many words as possible. Time gives the hiding shame time to come out. Emotional and physical stress will help to lower the walls. This has been proven in countless studies of interrogation techniques. The stress itself won’t trigger shame but fatigue that follows will make us more receptive. Coming from the world of Japanese rope bondage, challenging and painful suspensions, and strict limitation of even the smallest of bodily movements are commonly used to create fatigue before introducing shame.
The fact that shame mainly exists in a social context can be used to empathize the impact of shame. Shame starts inside ourselves when being aware of that we are breaking our own social norms. In everyday life the shame is often kept inside ourselves to defend our ego, and not loose face in front of others. When the shame remains as only our own, we can only be humble towards ourselves. The religions early understood this, why their rituals often contain admitting our sins towards something greater than ourselves, like a priest or a god.
“Bless me father for I have sinned”
Drug addiction rehabilitation does the same.
“My name is Andy, I’m a alcoholic and I have destroyed my life”
The BDSM community use the same technique by having the submissive admitting to their shameful acts and facts about themselves.
“I’m a drooling dog and it makes me horny”
Verbalizing or confessing our breakage of the social norms aka. “our shameful acts” has a much stronger impact on our ego, and it amplifies the feeling of humbleness and enables us to deeper surrender. The surrender can be to a god, a dominant, or a method to fight addiction. Since neither being fully egocentric nor egoless is good, it is important to decide how much shame is enough as a healthy life has a balance between ego and non-ego. We can choose the extent of the audience to influence our amount of shame.
Personal shame is only experienced by ourselves. It often involves hiding from others and therefore makes us more detached from society around us. It will build our intellectual and emotional walls stronger, feed the ego and hinder us from being humble.
Private shame is shared with one or a few people close to us. It can be a god, a dominant or a closed rehabilitations circle. It enables us to safely lower our walls and experience humbleness because we are admitting our breakage of our social norms. It creates a strong bond towards those selected people that knows our darkest secrets.
Semi-Public shame might be shared with many others but normally isn’t. It can be achieved by recording a shameful act, or by performing the shameful act in front of other people, and the knowledge that this recording or story might become public will amplify the shame.
Public shame is shared with many others and therefore has the strongest impact.
Origin of shame
The origin of shame is the ideas about ourselves and the society around us that we have conditioned into a part of ourselves. I’m not aware of any deeper studies or mappings of our psyches that give a complete picture. Instead here is some of the recurring themes that I’ve encountered on my journey, and since our egos are complicated we are likely to adapted different themes in different aspects our our lives. The stronger our ego has adapted a certain theme, the less possibility is left in our lives for surrender and egolessness, and the easier it is to spot this theme – both in ourselves and in others.
We mirror our themes in our appearance, behaviour and interactions. Appearance is how we visually show society who we are; sometimes appearance is subtle like a perfectly ironed shirt signalling our competence, other times clearly outspoken by mimicking looks of a super model signalling popularity, or wearing the logo of a political party singling opposition. Behaviour goes deeper in our definition of the self because it validates to the society who we are. So even if we wear the perfectly ironed shirt but are constantly uninformed and out-of-date about facts in our area of expertise, then our appearance is simply not believable. Behaviour and appearance are passively observed by society around us and can therefore be missed. In contrast, interactions with other people are active and is bound to make an impact on society look upon us.
Our ego strongly identifies with the specific appearance, behaviour and interaction of a certain theme and some of the most central kinks in BDSM is just all about doing this. Below is a list of the themes I’ve encountered:
Popularity as a recurring theme is found when we define our place in society by being liked. The expression is often connected to gender, where women aim to be beautiful, graceful and loving; and men aim to be cool, strong and dependable. Related kinks in BDSM are salirophilia (deriving erotic pleasure from soiling or dishevelling the object of one’s desire, usually an attractive person), feminization (switching the gender role of a male submissive via cross-dressing to being fully dressed in very feminine attire, including make-up, hair dress and nail polish) and probably many more.
Competence as a recurring theme is found when we define our place in society by providing a valuable competence. It comes in form of completing challenging tasks, being trustworthy and always doing our best. Related kinks in BDSM are objectification (the act of treating a person merely as an instrument of sexual pleasure, making them a “sex object.” Objectification more broadly means treating a person as a commodity or an object, without regard to their personality or dignity), being question of not doing our best, or failing in many variations.
Leadership as a recurring theme is found when we define our place in society by being in charge and shaping the existing hierarchies in society. The expression is often connected to providing guidance, security and structure to others. Relating kinks in BDSM are domination involving a submissive with a high standing in society, and the loss of control by for example bondage or following orders.
Opposition as a recurring theme is found when we define our place in society by fighting for or against existing hierarchies. The expression is often connected to feminist opposition against male power hierarchies and the religious opposition against free sexuality. Relating kinks in BDSM are activities involving a male dominant and feminist submissive, or activities where our sexuality disputes our religious believes. For example, by prioritizing lust before worship.
So simply lowering the ego “masks” of popularity, opposition, leadership and competence, even just for a glimps of a second, can provide release and rest in surrender. It becomes an opportunity to for once not having to fight for our place in society. Shame is one way to achieve this, one way towards egolessness and humbleness. It is a very rough way as it fucks with our view of ourselves, with our ego.
Just a game
“But it’s just a game. No one wants to experience shame for real.”
This is something I hear so often in the BDSM community and of course it just a game. It is an activity that one engages in for amusement (out of free will) and it is played according to rules (it can stop at any time) but that doesn’t make the experience less real and maybe more importantly it doesn’t make the attraction to the game less real. The reason why we are attracted to a game of shame is because it acts as a mirror of who we are outside the game. On the surface it is easy to believe that the game doesn’t impact anything outside the game, but every experience we have will shape our believes, personality and ultimately our destiny. I believe that the just-a-game mentality is something we use to make it more accessible and less scary, but this mentality is also dangerous because it invalidates the sometimes troublesome feelings we experience after the game when the realization about ourselves becomes clearer. Instead it is better to be conscious about that shame really is our ego’s constructed ideas about ourselves, and use the play to better understand ourselves and bring that knowledge into our life outside the game. O. Fred Donaldson expresses this much more beautiful than I ever could in his book Playing by Heart: The Vision and Practice of Belonging.
“Okay, you say. Such play may be appropriate for gods, mystics and scientists but what about for you and me? In everyday life to play in this way requires either great fearlessness or great foolishness, or perhaps both. A great fool, says Wes Nisker, is one who lives outside blinding routine, remaining open to life’s inherent surprises. We must somehow trust that there will be something to hold us if we let go of the sociocultural norms within which we are enmeshed. Constantly confronted as we are with the uncertainty and mystery of life, we may know that total security is illusory. But illusion or not, we think and act as if our culture is a security blanket. To conceive of coming out from under it requires fearlessness. What motivates some people to forego security and explore outside the cultural limits? We must believe that faith, that life is more than we are told, that it goes beyond the ordinary cultural means to give. The power of play lives in its timeless pattern of sharing. It does not seek to obliterate or transform differences. It allows for interaction because it operates on a deeper level where there are no differences that make a differences. Let’s try a metaphor. Imagine a human being as an artichoke. The artichoke’s tough, spiny leaves are the innumerable shields we put up to defend that which is must tender and sought after – the heart. We can tear tan artichoke’s leaves off to get at its heart, just as we can attack a person; but there is a much easier and more effective way. If we steam the artichoke, it surrenders its leaves, exposing and sharing its heart with us. In the same way, play does not attack a person’s defences. Play creates an environment in which we drop our shields and share our tender human heart, which is what we all want in the first place. But if our shields are ripped off from the outside, we try to build even stronger ones. In play we interact heart to heart, without any of our cultural separations.”
Ultimately all of us are conditioned since thousands of years to be humble people, but also to like other humble people. We want to help people who are experiencing shame because we know that someone feeling genuine shame has realized their wrongdoing and can therefore be supported back into society. This is why we recognize the need of turning off the TV when someone in a sitcom makes too much a fool out of themselves. We feel “no no no don’t do that…” and our empathy screams for us to save them. So it is quite safe to play with shame as it will trigger the empathy of people around us. The deeper we go into surrender through shame, the more empathic our dominant part will respond, unless they are a psychopath (and one shouldn’t really practice BDSM with psychopaths). This creates a beautiful dance between the dominant invoking the shame and submissive surrendering to it. A dance where the ego is abandoned for humbleness. This is also why aftercare for me always include soya milk and rice cookies with tahini and honey.
I’m still unsure if I’m able to summarize what I’ve learned. Sometimes I feel that it is based on too many generalizations, but maybe it still gives an in depth insight in what it means to be human. I still believe that we in an way live in a more egocentric society than what is good for us. We create strategies (like popularity, opposition, leadership and competence) to carve our place in the social hierarchies. We all carry a need to surrender our ego and abandon these strategies. Historically religion has served as a path, and maybe now shame empowered by sexuality will provide another path. Always avoid the guilt and trust in empathy.
Who am I?
When writing this text, when analysing the people I meet, when reading the books, the same question keep popping up in my mind – who am I in all of this as a dominant? Am I only the hand that skilfully wields the whip of pain, the tongue that whispers the exact right words of shame and the righteous idol of worship? Are the Taoist and Tantric ideas right about that I can only reach the destruction of my ego through the masochism in others. The egocentric rewards of sadism are obvious – the power of another being – but isn’t there something more?
“Before modern psychology considered sadism a disease …” yes? then what?
Welcome to shame – a road to humiliation. May it serve you well.