Our ancestors often believed that fire lived inside of wood, and the secret of creating fire released this indwelling sacred force. What’s less obvious is that the heat of our relationships keep us bonded to our partners, provides comfort, warmth and security, and just enough risk to keep life interesting. Fire is created by rubbing two sticks together. Our romantic relationships are created by two people rubbing against one another and creating spark–releasing some of that indwelling fire. How can we as men maintain the spark that keeps a relationship interesting, romantic and fiery?
Let’s first dispense with the word “romance” as inadequate to the task at hand and focus rather on “intimacy”. Romance blossoms naturally from a sense for and expression of intimacy. The word “intimate” derives from the latin “intimus”, meaning innermost. When we apply this word to lover relationships we have the sense that lovers share what is intrinsic and deepest about themselves. Because it’s deep, it’s often hidden, and because it is both of these things exposing this part of ourselves entails risk–we must be vulnerable. What are the qualities of intimacy, what does it look like?
It’s of the essence of intimacy that it’s private. Intimacy may be invited to settle upon our relationship when we feel and express respect, honor, gratitude, appreciation, recognition or support to our lover. When we’re intimate with our lover we’re without selfishness, sincere, and in our deepest expressions, trusting and vulnerable. There’s a word that sums up these qualities nicely–reverence. Reverence may seem like a strong word, but it comes in different strengths, and any real act of honoring your lover, whether it is remembering your marriage vows, listening with an open heart, or doing the dishes so that your lover doesn’t have to, is reverence. Reverence is not simply expressed with solemnity either–joy and celebration belong in the very highest expressions of reverence. Intimacy then, is cultivated with an ongoing practice of revering and connecting with our lover. Intimacy is practiced with evocation–summoning a spirit of your relationship. It’s the creation of your “with you and only you” bond.
For some, though it came easily at first, the mysteries of intimacy are elusive. You may feel that you simply don’t know how to be intimate, you may assume that the lover spark will always burn without attention, or that, worst of all, it’s not important to a long term relationship. This is for you. Like active listening, conscious and active intimacy is a skill that can be developed. There are ways to build and tend a fire. What does the art of conscious intimacy consist of? What does it look like?
Experience beauty together.
Usually we’re drawn to our lover as someone that is beautiful to us, physically, emotionally or intellectually–ideally all three. Beauty attracts us because it takes us outside of ourselves, beauty expands us, beauty -moves- us, whether it’s a person, a sunset, a rainbow, a painting, the ocean, a sunset, or a piece of music. Beauty points to underlying value, and a good working definition of beauty might be “that which deeply moves us”. If we’re deeply moved to tears or anger it’s because a beautiful value has been violated–tragedy points to it. If we’re moved to laughter it’s because we are reminded, unconsciously, of the absurdity of the human condition…which is beautiful. Invoke this shared sense of beauty with your lover, whether it’s watching a touching movie together, delighting in the flight of bats at dusk, or reveling in your shared love of the tragically kitsch. The point is to have a rich sense of the word.
What does beauty have to do with intimacy? Experiencing beauty moves us according to our values, and being moved with your lover connects you over an emotional bridge. All of the arts offer opportunities, that’s what the arts are for after all. If you don’t know what your lover finds beautiful, ask. More importantly, remember.
You won’t like to play everything that your lover likes to play, but it’s important to find ways to play together. Lovers need space to play where the full gamut of emotions can be engaged. Lovers need a safe place to indulge, experience adventure, take risks, and experience excitement without the need for a practical outcome and without consequence. Competition may be an exciting part of play, winning should not be. Light hearted, spontaneous playfulness implies trust and familiarity. This could be as simple as a surprise or a pet name. Pet names can be quite intimate, as they are shared only between the two of you and can develop a secret life of their own.
Care needs to be taken in exploring play. The circumstances under which your lover allows themself to indulge in anything without concern says a lot about them and their boundaries. Boundaries often don’t match, and they need coordination and possibly accommodation. The payoff though, is great. The payoff in play is joy, and “joy is the simplest form of gratitude” (Karl Barth). Joy is a giddy kind of gratitude that looks outward, isn’t selfish, and keeps us happy. We aren’t grateful because we’re happy, we’re happy because we’re grateful. We’re grateful for a lover that knows us deeply and well enough to play with us. Feeling grateful decades into a relationship takes consciousness.
Play with fire. Explore the boundaries of what your lover will indulge in. Offer the tight
rope, be the safety net. High quality play will involve a high degree of trust, but provides excitement, risk and joy. The ability to control fire is an important skill. The point is to be a poi dancer, not an arsonist.
Remember the power of gifting. Gifts are an excellent way to say “I see you” and like beauty, have many and more important levels than the physical. Gifts can create and sustain shared meaning with your lover. For example, a gift that refers to a beautiful shared experience, or that pet name you gave her, is more than the object itself. Lovers may acquire symbols that express something shared. If you don’t already have any kind of symbols for your relationship take it upon yourself to discover one—name it and share it. All it takes is time and thought.
But even if you aren’t so inclined and the idea of gifting something meaningful seems hopelessly vague, the art of the small thing is good to remember. A gift is a token of gratitude, and often the greatest challenge is simply to find the time to do anything, but that anything can be small—a note or card tucked into your lovers purse, a trinket, flower or chocolate waiting for your lover on the seat of their car after work, their favorite coffee drink delivered to them, by you, during the day. These all say “I’m thinking of you”, and when repeated over time become more than just a coffee or a chocolate. They come to mean “I’m still thinking of you after all these years”. This is no small thing.
Honor the animal.
We are animals. Mainstream culture sees the body as flawed so that it can sell you something—it smells, or it’s too big or too small or too hairy, for which there are market remedies available. The deeper error is the objectification of the body which strips it entirely of meaning. It’s nothing more than a body. We’re flooded with images of sex everywhere in television, movies, advertisements and the internet, stripped of meaning, stripped of mystery. The idea that the body contains meaning, is a root for meaning, is a sensitivity that’s hard for many to understand. It’s difficult to maintain in our current culture. What’s important to remember is that a deep acceptance of your lover’s body is a significant gift to give to your lover and it deserves work.
What does it mean to say that the body contains and is a root for meaning? Perhaps it’s better to say that emotions are of the body. We feel emotions in our body. We say that we “have a gut feeling” or “feel it in my bones”, our “blood runs cold” or we love someone “with all our heart”. Another aspect of this is that not only is the body the seat of emotions, but emotions aren’t entirely rational. The irrational part of us must be acknowledged and honored. Our animal body is the source of energy and impulses, needs, instincts and appetites that in many ways must be accommodated and satisfied rather than zealously rationalized and controlled. Our mind is only one aspect of the body, so overgrown and so important to us as human beings that we mistake it for something apart from our fundamental existence as animals. When we disconnect from our bodies we disconnect from our feelings, and it’s difficult to create and sustain intimacy when disconnected in this way. Any practice that integrates mind and body, any work to dispel the illusion that they’re separate, simultaneously facilitates the sensitivity needed to create and sustain intimacy. It grounds you in the world, where we’re all animals.
Sex is sacred.
Nothing combines beauty, play, intimacy, giving and animal satisfaction as well as sex. What’s more beautiful than the human body? In the original, iconic book The Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort wrote that “orgasm is the most religious moment of our lives, of which all other mystical kicks are a mere translation”. The joy of sex is more than getting off. Joy entails elation and connection, it has nothing to do with selfish satisfaction. As skin is our most fundamental boundary with the world entering someone or being entered is intimate by definition–it deals with the innermost aspect of bodies. Vulnerability is implicit in the act. We offer our bodies to our lover, and the more we can remove our own selfish needs and serve the desire of our lover the better our own pleasure is eventually served. In fact, to the extent that your lovemaking is selfish it isn’t really making love at all. Sacrificing your selfishness in the bedroom is an exceptional offering to your lover, and facilitates greater openness, sharing, joy and ultimately, intimacy. It’s quintessentially an animal act–a beautiful animal act that can potentially engage all of the senses, heart, and mind. We touch the cycle of birth and death through sex. For creating and sustaining intimacy there are powerful reasons to invest sex with meaning, to consider it sacred.
It’s self evident that simply having sex will not automatically create connection. Only letting go of ourselves in the act, attention to and acceptance of our lover will invite an awareness of connection. Sex is an excellent opportunity to focus on your lover, to offer tangible, non-verbal communication. Talk about love and relationship, as meaningful and important as it is, is not tangible. Abstractions don’t by themselves give off heat, at best they’re descriptors and catalysts. Sex can communicate trust, intimacy, joy, belonging, comfort, security and more–without words. Or sometimes with words, depending on your preferences. Sex is concrete, physical and engages all of the senses. Connection is completely embodied and tangible, fully engaged, without the mind getting in the way. At bottom we all want to connect with one another, and this connection replenishes and renews us.
To regard something as sacred isn’t easy. In fact for many it can be quite difficult. But in order for real meaning to take root it must guide action. It takes conscious action to invest something with meaning. This isn’t necessarily an argument for monogamy, though it is an argument against a casual, selfish attitude. Sharing a lover can be deeply meaningful. More importantly it’s an argument for consciousness, for valuing sex and for knowing what you’re doing when you’re doing it.
Science now also confirms a physiological basis for valuing sex–orgasm releases oxytocin, the so called “love” hormone. Our bodies really are our temples. Our bodies, the seat of our emotions and of meaning, are a sacred playground. Making love, as the golden road to intimacy, is a sacrament.
Humans have developed rituals as a formal way to invest meaning, and to remember what’s important. Rituals build a shared sense of understanding and intimacy with a group or, as applied to a lover relationship, over time a sense of what is special, important and unique to the two of you and you only. A shared sense of intimacy is precisely where poetry and magic are found. Let’s assume that you’re convinced that creating and sustaining a shared sense of intimacy, of building and maintaining a romantic fire in your relationship is a good idea. You know the open secret–fire requires attention, a conscious practice of evocation, of summoning the opportunities for intimacy that involve:
Honoring the Animal
Rituals of connection are important–they’re explicit ways to remember. It should go without saying that anniversaries, holidays and other important dates need to be marked, preferably in an intimate, personal way. Because they’re often thought of as soft needs they aren’t considered a high priority, or because they came so easily in the beginning they are taken for granted. But keeping your lover rituals special 20 years into a relationship takes consciousness. Consciousness is rewarded with meaning, depth and intimacy.
Raising consciousness always requires energy, and energy levels are never equal. One of you in the relationship will have more energy for tending the fire. Let’s face it, many of us have relied upon women to tend to the relationship fire. Invest energy here. Understand that with time meanings change and rituals may need to be reinvented. We all know this, but few of us work at remaining conscious of this over the long haul. Nothing is more fundamental than change, but with attention it need not be disruptive. Exploring new intimacies is exactly what leads to new expression and spark.
“Sex and beauty are inseparable, like life and consciousness. And the intelligence which goes with sex and beauty, and arises out of sex and beauty, is intuition” ~ DH Lawrence.
The intelligence of intuition that Lawrence refers to includes the comprehension of our deep connection to our lover and how our lover connects us to life. We commonly refer to deep intuition as magic or poetry. The process of being consciously engaged in creating and maintaining a shared sense of intimacy, of paying attention to the fire in your relationship, is the religion of lovers. Bringing consciousness to connection is the real poetry, magic and fire of a lifelong relationship.
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