Immediately when I use the word intimacy you might think of sex. But looking at the definition of intimacy — closeness, togetherness, affinity, rapport, attachment, familiarity, friendliness, friendship, amity, affection, warmth, confidence — you can see sex is not included. Why? Because you can have sex without intimacy. But truly, in my experience, the best sex is when there is a deep closeness with a partner.
We all long to connect, to belong, to give and to receive love whether we are in a relationship or not. But to do this we must begin to cultivate intimacy. Like Chinese medicine and the balance of yin and yang, our lives will be best served if we seek both global and personal intimacy. This means tuning in and taking action in our world (yang), while making sure to spend time with people in person where we can see, touch, feel, and receive energy (yin). This all stems from being intimate with ourselves — loving ourselves just the way we are.
Many of the activities I enjoy are in part because of the connection with others. My annual retreat to Maui is not just because of the wonderful spiritual speakers and teachers, but because of the people: my Satsang, a group of like-minded people getting together for a spiritual practice. In Hinduism, Satsang means a sacred gathering for truth where there might be spiritual discourse, chanting, dancing and meditation. In my Buddhist community this is called a Sangha.
By doing more inquiry, I found that one could purchase a “sangha in a box”, a starter kit of sorts that comes with a DVD practice, chants, songs and a picture of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist. In Buddhism the idea of practicing in a community is essential because our practice is not just about ourselves but for the benefit of everyone; in that tradition, the self and the other are all part of the one.
At first, I did not understand why it was beneficial to meditate with a group of people, especially because it is such an internal process. Later, I realized that there is power and energy in the collective; it is the intimacy of being able to share in an experience together. I believe it is the same in many religions where people gather to have an intimate relationship with God.
Maribai Bush, one of my teachers, has us do a practice that is called “ just like me.” In this practice, we are facing a partner with our eyes shut and she is reading from a list of human experiences. For example she would say, “This person has at some point been sad, disappointed, angry or hurt, just like me.” When I did it with my partner on retreat, I felt intimacy and compassion even though my eyes were shut because, in that very moment, I sensed and felt that we were not different, my partner and I.
And even with different spiritual and religious beliefs, because of the internet we can now feel connected to our brothers and sisters around the globe. When I see videos of atrocities in different parts of the world, it isn’t hard for my heart to bleed for these people for, after all, we are all part of the human condition. The videos feel so real and intimate; an up close and personal snapshot of a person’s life.
Truly, this empathic experience is part of my global intimacy, but it lacks the personal intimacy I also need. I long for touch and an oxytocin boost. Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone that is made in the hypothalamus and is stored and released by the posterior pituitary gland in the brain. When released, it produces a feeling of love and satisfaction. It is the primary hormone released during an orgasm and one can get it from a 20-second hug.
Knowing we, as humans, crave intimacy and are chemically wired for pleasure, what gets in our way? Part of the difficulty in creating intimacy in this day and age is the endless to-do list, the stress that seems to affect most everyone, and not having enough time. Worry about having enough money, worry about children, worry about trying to conceive, worry about health, worry about work, and worry about worry all occupies space in a person’s life that makes the mind restless and the body agitated.
And another impediment to true intimacy is the reliance on social media. Take any trip to a restaurant or coffee shop and you find people only involved in their cell phones. One Valentine’s evening when at a restaurant, I saw a couple across from each other each buried in their cell phones. Sometimes just the mere act of looking into each other’s eyes is the most intimate one can get.
But to have a connection with another, we must first love ourselves. This is the deepest intimacy. Not when we have what we want, not when we lose five pounds, not when we become a wife, husband, father or mother, not when we wear makeup, not when we dress up, not when we make a billion dollars — right now.
This year, I am committed to having more intimacy. How am I going to do this? These are my steps:
• Make dates with people I care about for coffee, tea or dinner — This is the time I will make eye contact and listen from the deepest place in my heart to their stories, their lives and their emotions. I will practice the “ just like me” exercise where I don’t try to fIx them but will open my heart and listen.
• Take time off the to-do list and engage in intimate exercises with my beloved — This might mean heading off into nature, cuddling, taking a bath, massaging each other, or just do a simple naked full-body hug. And if this isn’t enough, I will have each of us make a list of something we want to try out. It could mean a new sexual toy or it could mean a trip to the hot springs.
• Playing more games with friends — Yes, the good old fashioned board games. They make so many cool ones now!
• My favorite suggestion that one of my patients has is the “surprise date night” — In this date, one partner plans a surprise night for the other. The rules are that the partner gets to find out what the other person likes to do beforehand and then chooses to surprise them with an outing.
• Be intimate with myself — Practicing Metta: mindfulness. May I be healthy, may I be happy, may I live with ease…and then being able to offer that to others, to my family and to the world. Taking time to take care of my body, mind and spirit.
• Getting a pet — When my bird passed away there was an emptiness in my household. According to Heartmath, unconditional love from animals can slow down our heart rhythms in a very beneficial way.
• Investigate how to give more to my community, volunteer my time to help others, and take a stand toward a social condition I am passionate about — When our family fed the homeless, I remember how my problems became small and my heart became big.
• Practice Soul-gazing — I will look in the mirror to see the beauty and glow in my eyes. I won’t judge. I will notice the inner critic. I will see the beauty that is me beyond my physical body. Now, with enough practice, I will lovingly gaze at another person. I will see the beauty that is theirs. I will see their beauty beyond their physical body and circumstances.
How will you create more intimacy for yourself, your community and your family?