Five years ago, I left my ordinary career life. The exit was well planned and well-executed, like most things I do. Since that day, I have to decide for myself what my goal is – what I am curious to experience. And there are two things, stillness and awe. Stillness is easy for me to understand. It is reprogramming myself to want less, live lighter and move slower. And it’s mostly practiced, every day, little by little.
Awe is more complicated—awe as in both awful and awesome. At first, I thought about it as a thin line or a sweet-spot between awful and awesome. Now I realize that it is both at once. Where pain becomes pleasure and pleasure becomes pain, and I want and don’t want something at the same time. Where I no longer know how-to or can choose. It’s where I have to surrender or, metaphorically, die.
On a neurological level, awe equals a lot of arousal in a much broader sense than sexual. I like to think about the nerve system as three zones; rest, arousal and trauma. The size of these zones and how different activities divide in between them is highly personal. For some people, parachuting is the rest, for others it’s arousal and for some a trauma.
The parasympathetic nerve system governs the rest zone, and the keywords are safety, having, and knowing. And the sympathetic nerve system rules the arousal zone, where the keywords are bravery, desire, and wanting. Feeling “alive” is oscillating in between these two zones – sometimes feeling safe with what one has, and other times feeling brave and desiring what one doesn’t have.
One of my favorite authors Esther Perel asks; is it possible to desire what you already have?
To learn more about the nervous system, read my thoughts on Peter Levine’s book In an Unspoken Voice (or read the book, it’s worth it) and my text on pain and rope bondage.
Awe is different from feeling alive. Awe exists when oscillating between the arousal and trauma zone. But to feel it, we must not disassociate or fall into the fight, flight or freeze responses—the most obvious way to avoid it is, of course, never to come close to the trauma zone. But then we can’t search for awe. It is a catch 22. Another way is to learn more about our internal landscape and the layout of our zones – here are some very generalized examples.
I believe that most people live with a big with rest and trauma zone; they spent most of their time accumulating safety and are scared of many things. In between, they have a small arousal zone when they, for example, have sex with their partner, participate in a competitive sport, or goes out drinking with their buddies.
Other people are more of adrenaline junkies, so they have normalized an arousal zone with very high stimuli, and people from the outside judge them as risk-takers. They are scared of a few things and bored with many things. Traumatized people are the opposite living in a world where most experiences are in the trauma zone.
And then we have the hypersensitive, have a considerable arousal zone and will interpret many things desirable, exciting, and being brave. In a way, this is a pretty safe approach to life, because of the low insensitive activities that others would consider boring, usually are both safe and exciting for them.
In the end, these are over-simplified pictures, and people tend to act differently in different contexts, and they tend to change over time. And that is an essential message that it is possible to change the layout using multiple therapeutic methods. Consciously growing my arousal zone in both directions has been crucial, because, after 10-15 years of BDSM practices, it is no longer possible to look for more and more stimuli all the time.
So how can we keep searching for awe without getting locked down in a traumatic response?
I believe in some essential qualities, to both nurture in ourselves, and to look for around us. The first one is the possibility of expression and the range available to us. Awe, in its essence, is overwhelming—massive flooding of arousal at once. If the arousal is channeled into expression, like a screaming, crying, laughing, then the wave will pass through us, and wash us in awe. Otherwise, if we lock-down and avoid feeling it, we increase the risk for long term traumatic scars. Therefore learning to feel and express feelings is important, but also to look for awe in an environment that allows a wide arrange of emotions. For example, a space that only allows for a particular expression, like happiness or sadness, will force one to lock-down if the needed form of expression is different.
When holding a workshop, session, or play party, one of my fundamental rules is that all forms of emotional expression are welcome – and even encouraged just for this reason.
I am unsure about following the expression with action – if that is needed or not. The difference is that action has a purpose; therefore, it can also fail. It is, in a way trying to manipulate the circumstance and moves away from experiencing to into doing. In a very overwhelming situation, it might be impossible, and therefore trying and failing highlights the helplessness. But if successful, then it will be very empowering. So an action in its nature is always a gamble.
The second quality is slowness because it gives time to feel and express. It might sound counter-intuitive, but in this case, it’s not. It is a skill that we practice, and it allows us to throttle the intake of stimuli. For example, in these pandemic times, one can slow down by not consuming the overwhelming stimuli of social media. So by slowing down, we can find awe in everything, or so “they say” – the truly enlightened ones.
So zooming back out, life is balancing in-between rest and arousal, and awesome and awful. With awareness, we can (try to) understand how it works, and decide how we want to engage with life – while looking for the freedom to be expressive and slow.